Good morning and welcome to the Auld Kirk, we also welcome those watching online and those listening to the Dial a Sermon Service.

Eighty years ago, this month, the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm broke the Luftwaffe's dominance in the air and what later became known as the Battle of Britain, entered its final stage.

Let's begin this morning by paying tribute to the "FEW", by listening to "God is our strength and refuge".

Let us pray.

Living and loving God,

once more we bring you our praise and worship. We acknowledge you as our God.

We recognise your greatness and power.

We marvel at your love and compassion.

We come before you with awe and wonder.

You are Lord of heaven and earth,

of space and time,

of this world and all of the universe,

of life and death.

Living and loving God, draw near to us

and help us to draw near to you.

Come to us through your Holy Spirit •

and help us to open our hearts to the risen Christ.

Speak to us through the worship we offer this day,

and through it all deepen our faith.

Loving God,

we praise you that there is so much

that speaks to us of your love and purpose -

so much in our lives,

in our daily experience,

in the world around us,

in the vastness of the universe,

in the fellowship we share with one another,

and in the relationship we enjoy with you,

through which you teach and guide and challenge us.

Forgive us that we do not sometimes hear your voice,

that often we do not want to hear.

Forgive us that sometimes we refuse to listen,

that often we are closed to anything but our own words.

Open our hearts

to all the ways you are at work.

Open our eyes

so that we may glimpse your purpose more fully.

Open our ears

so that we may hear your voice more clearly.

Open our minds

to receive your truth more completely.

Help us to see everything that points to your activity

in our lives,

in our fellowship, in your Church, and in the world.

And speak through us as we work and witness for you, that others may come to know you for themselves.

And hear now as we silently say our family prayer together.

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy Name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

The power and the glory.

For ever and ever.

Amen.

Reading Psalm 23

23 1-3 GOD, my shepherd!

I don't need a thing.

You have bedded me down in lush meadows,

you find me quiet pools to drink from.

True to your word,

you let me catch my breath

and send me in the right direction.

 Even when the way goes through

Death Valley,

I'm not afraid

when you walk at my side.

Your trusty shepherd's crook

makes me feel secure.

 You serve me a six-course dinner

right in front of my enemies.

You revive my drooping head;

my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me

every day of my life.

I'm back home in the house of GOD

for the rest of my life.

Reflection

As we seem to be entering a new phase of the covid pandemic, I thought it might be reassuring to look at one of the most popular and uplifting parts of the Bible, Psalm 23 and I want to look at it in the context of David's spiritual growth throughout his lifetime.

Psalm 23 could only have been written by someone who had had many different and varied experiences throughout his life- the boy David who sang for King Saul could not have written this song.

David had sat at the table of the Lord; he had had his head anointed with oil; he had known goodness and mercy to follow him and he was assured that he would indeed dwell in the house of the Lord.

That was why he was able to write about the future with such confidence and assurance. David wrote this psalm from personal experience.

Age which has known God throughout its life, has an assurance that youth can only dream of.

Some commentators say that David wrote this psalm during the time he was exiled by his son Absalom. Yet David isn't so blinded by that fact, that he could not see the green pasture and still water that God had and was still providing.

Despite his troubling circumstances, David still knew that God loved him.

Psalm 23 is really a biography of David's life and the events that took place within it. The psalm begins with David discovering that the Lord is his shepherd; David as a young man discovered that God was leading him.

And so, as he pens this psalm at the end of his life, he is able to look back and to see the guiding hand of the shepherd and he is able to look forward and see his destination. David is sure of the future, because of what has happened in his past.

V 1-3

Here David may have been looking back at how God used his time as a shepherd to teach him lessons that would be useful when he became a king.

e.g. It wasn't uncommon for shepherds to be attacked by bears or lions, just remember the story of the boy David. And many shepherds were killed; it wasn't a job for the faint hearted.

But such was the love of the shepherd for his sheep, that he was willing to die for them. While he was King, David showed the courage of the shepherd and often put his life on the line for his people.

He also learned to care for his people, just as the shepherd cared for his sheep.

The psalm continues, He makes me lie down in green pastures.

Here we discover one of the things that the shepherd knows his sheep need, rest and food. If we spend too much time in activity and do not eat to keep our strength up, then we will become weak and fair game for the predators of the flock.

The green pastures referred to in psalm 23 were like an oasis in the wilderness. Green grass and fresh water surrounded by desert. There were no fences around to keep the sheep together, only their wish to remain by the side of their master kept them safe.

Everything depends on the shepherd, he has to find the grass, the bubbling streams and the shelter needed by his sheep. He leads them through the rough wilderness into the oasis where they can rest and eat and drink safely.

Throughout his reign David tried to put those lessons into practice and for the most part he succeeded and as a result, he was well liked and well loved as a monarch.

He came to understand that when we accept that God is our shepherd, then we can be assured that the things we have talked about this morning will be ours.

We will have all our needs met.

We will find rest and fulfilment.

Our lives will be restored by God's grace.

In verse 4 we move into darker areas of David's life.

David wasn't thinking about his death when he wrote those words, although they can also be comforting at such times. He was thinking about the problems that he had faced during his lifetime; maybe his adultery, maybe the revolt by his son Absolom, maybe the time Saul did try to end his life.

Who knows, other than that he was talking about something that had occurred in the past or maybe something that was happening to him as he wrote this psalm. Whatever it was David was referring to, it wasn't the end of his life he was writing about.

John Bunyan the writer of Pilgrim's Progress, puts the valley of the shadow of death, not at the end of Pilgrim's journey, but in the middle. Pilgrim has to pass through this valley during his life and not just at the end of it. That means of course, that he must pass through and not remain in the valley, if he is to reach his goal.

This is an important lesson for us to learn, because if we do choose to follow God as the Good Shepherd, then we must accept that we can't pick and choose which paths we want to follow him in.

We are either with him all the way, through the green pastures and still waters and the valley of the shadow of death or we are on our own.

So, what is this valley?

The valley David describes is not one of the lush green valleys we normally associate with say, classical poetry. His valley was a deep, abrupt chasm, rent out of the hillside. The walls of the valley would be in constant darkness and the rocky sides would make good hiding places for thieves and robbers and any of the flock's predators.

Possibly David might even have had to travel through such a valley during his time as a shepherd. What is obvious, is that no-one would enter such a place by choice.

But as members of God's flock we are lead there by Him.

Why? Why should God lead us into such a place?

Surely, if the shepherd is a good shepherd, then he will avoid such paths. Surely no good shepherd would deliberately lead his sheep into a valley filled with danger? Surely a good shepherd would protect his sheep and take the safe paths?

How can we trust God as the Good Shepherd, if He is going to lead us into this dark valley?

I don't know the answer to that question, other than to say that if the shepherd feels that it is necessary to travel through the dark valley, then there can be no other path to travel.

The dark valleys that God leads us through will be different for every person here today and his reasons for using that route will be different. For some He will use it to break down our pride and self belief, by showing us that we can't make it through on our own. For others it might be a testing time, preparing us for some task that He has in mind for us. For others it will be a time of growing closer to God and getting to know him better.

The reason we must travel through the valley isn't important, because if the Good Shepherd feels that it is the only way to reach our destination, then that is the way we must travel and every single one of us will have to walk through that valley at some point in our lives.

Each of us is going to have to enter that place of darkness, fear and helplessness, but we can rest assured that God would not lead us through the valley of the shadow of death, unless there was no other way.

The important question isn't about the kind of a valley it is, the key question is, Will we travel through it alone or in the company of the shepherd?

And this is the point David is trying to emphasis. He wants us to realise that when the sheep are travelling through the valley, the shepherd is no longer out in front leading; he is right by the side of his sheep, comforting and encouraging them.

Whenever we have to walk through our dark valley and for some there might be more than one valley to pass through, we can rest assured that God is there with us. He isn't somewhere out in front, shouting out directions. He is by our side, pointing out the obstacles and lending a hand when we stumble.

That is why one of the names for God is Emmanuel, because it means, God with us.

One of the key words of this verse is the word walk, usually when we are frightened, we increase the speed we walk at. But here David stresses that we are to walk through the valley. In other words, take your time, don't rush or you might fall and hurt yourself. You will get through, but only if you trust the shepherd.

David acknowledges this fact, when he writes, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.

He is not saying that we will encounter no evil, because we know that we meet evil every day of our lives in some form or other.

Evil is a part of life and we must face it. What David meant was that we need not fear evil as long as we have the shepherd by our side. The shepherd gives us the confidence not to fear.

The phrase I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, is a statement of faith. No longer is David talking about God, he is talking to God, because he recognises that God is by his side and that God is protecting him.

So often we ask questions like, How can I keep going on? Is there no light at the end of the tunnel? Is my faith strong enough?

When really, we should be asking, How can I obey the shepherd? Is he with me now in my time of need? Do I know where to find him, to help me through?

The first thing we must do when we find ourselves in a dark valley, is not to ask how we arrived there, but simply to ask where the shepherd is and then move closer to him.

One of the marvellous things about the God we worship, is that despite the millions of voices that cry out to him every second of every day, our voice is heard loud and clear.

God knows the sound of my voice and my cry and he is always listening out for it.

David faced various attacks of evil in his life and the lesson he learned was that as long as you know where the shepherd is, you will find your way through the valley.

Finally, we reach the end of David's journey.

In verses 5-6 we discover the blessings that are on offer to those who follow the shepherd.

Thou annointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.

One of the commentaries that I read used the following scene to describe what these words mean. The picture is of a shepherd checking each of the sheep as it enters the fold at night. If a sheep had a bruised leg or had a scratch from a thorn, the shepherd treated the injury there and then and relieved the pain.

When a sheep passed him, unhurt but exhausted, he bathed its face in olive oil to refresh it, then he would dip his two handed cup into the water trough and allows the sheep to drink. He doesn't just half fill the cup, he fills it to overflowing and if the sheep needs more, he gets more water.

Each sheep is checked and cared for in turn, not one is allowed to pass without the shepherd making sure it is alright.

For me this is a description of God. He waits for each one of us to return to the fold, so that he can bind up our wounds and relieve our pain. He wants to anoint our heads in order that we might be refreshed and restored.

And like the cup, his blessing is overflowing. The cup that runneth over is a symbol of the abundance with which God wants to bless us. He is willing to give not only what we need, but more than we could ever hope for.

David wants us to understand that if we accept the invitation to become part of the Good Shepherd's flock, then we will be provided for in ways that we could not even begin dreaming of.

And David says this, not as a prophecy or prediction or out of faith, but because it has been his experience throughout his life.

He has known God as his shepherd; he has known the green pastures and still waters and he has known the valley of the shadow of death. But he has also known that God has prepared a table for him and that his cup runs over.

For David these words are not about faith, they are about reality. A reality that can be ours, if we are willing to trust God to lead us through the dark valleys and when our enemies are around us.

The last verse begins with the words, Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Having looked back over his life, David now turns to the future and what it holds for him.

Goodness and mercy stand for God's Grace. Goodness supplies our needs and mercy blots out our sins. This grace helps us begin our journey as members of the flock, it helps us keep doing what is right and it helps us to reach the end.

David is telling us that God's grace, God's love is so complete, that it leaves nothing to chance and it is a free gift to each one of us.

The psalm ends on a note of triumph and celebration.

I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

In other words, if we become members of God's flock and if we follow him, no matter where he leads and if we accept his invitation to sit at his table, then nothing will be able to separate us from God.

What greater reason could there be for keeping the faith and staying a member of the flock, than to know that your reward will be a permanent place in God's house and that your place is guaranteed by God himself.

I end by reminding you of what David learned during his life and what he wants this psalm to teach us.

God is our shepherd; He knows our needs; He leads us through life; He offers us more than we can ever need; He has promised to protect us from our enemies and He has promised us a place in his house for ever.

What more could we ask for!

Let us pray.

Father God, out of your bounty and through your generosity, you have blessed us daily. Accept today, this our gift to you; freely given as a token of our appreciation; bless it and use it that your kingdom might grow.

Loving God,

hear our prayers for all those in our world

who seek to further your will here on earth - those who work for peace,

who campaign for justice, who strive to relieve poverty, who fight for the hungry -

all those who struggle for the oppressed, the exploited# the under-privileged and all denied their proper rights.

Prosper their efforts and grant them inspiration so that they may challenge people everywhere to give of themselves in the service of others.

God of justice and mercy,

hear our prayer.

We pray for those who serve within the judicial system - barristers, lawyers, judges,

magistrates,. jurors, and court officials - all those whose responsibility it is

to see that justice is administered fairly, and to all. Give them wisdom, integrity, courage and dedication,

so that they may discharge their duties faithfully.

God of justice and mercy,

hear our prayer.

We pray for the police and all those involved in the prevention or detection of crime,

and we pray too for those who work in our prisons, whether as officers or governors.

Grant them your protection,

and help them in all they do to be firm but fair.

God of justice and mercy,

hear our prayer.

We pray for those who have strayed into a life of crime - prisoners on remand,

those serving their sentences,

and those who have been released.

Lead them to true repentance

and give them the will and the opportunity to start afresh.

God of justice and mercy,

hear our prayer.

Finally, we pray for those

who have experienced a miscarriage of justice - falsely accused,

wrongfully imprisoned, unfairly punished.

Help them to come to terms with their experience, and to receive proper recompense.

God of justice and mercy,

hear our prayer,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

We close with what might be a new version of Psalm 23.

And now may grace, mercy and peace; from God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, be with you and all those whom you love; now and for evermore. Amen.

Keep safe and God bless.