5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’d like to begin this morning by asking all of you to think back to a time in your life when you did something so bad, so sinful, so shameful that you weren’t sure God ever could or ever would forgive you for it. Maybe it was a dark season of sexual immorality that you entered into when you went off to college and it wasn’t unusual to find yourself waking up in a different bed each weekend. Perhaps it was a drinking binge you went on one weekend or that time you struck your wife or child in a fit of rage or the time you promised God you would be in church every Sunday if he would just grant you one personal favor. And though God kept his end of the deal, you didn’t.
If you’ve ever done something so bad that you really questioned whether God would forgive you (and I believe we all have!), I have somebody I want you to meet today. But first of all you need to go back in time with me to the half-lit alleyway behind the courtyard of the high priest’s palace in Jerusalem. You see that fellow over there in the shadows? That’s Peter. Peter the apostle. Peter the rock. Peter the passionate one who’s never at a loss for words. This is the same fellow that once walked on water. It’s the same guy who rightly proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In a few weeks he’ll be preaching to thousands on the day of Pentecost and someday he’ll be martyred for his faith…crucified upside down. But tonight is different. Tonight the one who said he’d never deny Jesus has just done so, not once, not twice, but three different times. And because of that, the rock has crumbled and the water-walker is weeping. And it won’t be long before Peter will be fishing again.
In John 21, a few weeks after Jesus had risen from the dead, Peter was with 6 of his fellow disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he said, “I’m going out to fish.” Have you ever wondered why Peter wanted to go fishing that day? I mean, he knew Jesus had risen from the dead. He had seen him with his own eyes on several occasions. Besides, didn’t Peter give up fishing a long time ago? Three years earlier, when Jesus called him to drop his nets and follow him so he could fish for men, Peter had done it, hadn’t he? So why all of a sudden does he want to fish now?
Well, maybe he and the other disciples were hungry. Perhaps the whole fishing idea was born out of growling stomachs. But I doubt that. You know what I think? I think maybe it was born out of a broken heart. You see, Peter could not deny his previous denials of Jesus. Not even the sight of the empty tomb on Easter morning could erase the sound of the crowing rooster a few nights before. And though Peter knew that Jesus had come back to life again, he must have wondered to himself, “After what I did, would he come back for a failure like me?”
Have you ever wondered the same, my friends? You see, Peter isn’t the only person to do the very thing he swore he’d never do. We’ve been guilty as well, haven’t we? “I promise I’ll never take another drink.” “I promise I’ll never gamble again.” “I promise I won’t look at pornography on the Internet anymore.” “I promise from here on out that I will put you first in my life, Sweetheart.” Think of some of the promises you’ve made. Your intentions were good. You were dead serious that you were going keep your promise. But in a moment of weakness, you caved in. And the rooster crowed and conviction set in and all of a sudden you were hiding out with Peter in the shadows. And it wasn’t long before you did what Peter did. You went fishing. Not literally. But you went back to your old way of life. Instead of doing what comes spiritually, you returned to doing what comes naturally. And you began to wonder whether Jesus could ever have a place for a fallen failure like you in his family.
Well, Jesus answers that question for you and me and all who have fallen far and fallen hard. And he does it on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where he offers the heartbroken Peter a gift. We heard it before in our Gospel reading. After a night of fruitless fishing, Jesus appears on the shore and calls out to the frustrated disciples. He tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, which they obediently do, even though they do not yet realize who this stranger is. And as soon as they do, those nets fill with so many fish that they can barely get them into the boat. Recognizing this as one of those déjà vu experiences, as something that has happened before, John blurts out to his fellow fishermen, “It is the Lord! That’s Jesus on the beach!” And boy, that’s all that Peter needed to hear. In an instant he was in that water paddling his weary body to shore.
And remember what he found when he got there? He found Jesus, yes, but a Jesus who had prepared breakfast for them. The fish were sizzling over an open fire. Freshly baked bread was waiting for them. And the ruler of heaven and defeater of hell invited Peter and his buddies to sit down and have a bite to eat. Imagine what that must have been like for Peter. The one whom Satan had sifted like wheat was now eating bread from the hand of his Savior. The one who had thrice denied knowing Jesus was now dining with Jesus. Right there on that shoreline where the devil and all of his demons could see, Jesus did what David talks about in our text for today when he says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
I’ve always loved this part of the 23rd Psalm, but even more so once I studied it a little more deeply for this sermon. For here David seems to be taking us to the high country where the sheep would often graze. But before they could dine on the greener pastures of these higher tablelands, the shepherd had a major responsibility. He needed to prepare the pasture. So he would search the area for poisonous plants. He would make sure there was ample water there. He would look for signs of predators, like wolves, coyotes, and bears.
But one of the creatures that was of special concern to the shepherd was the adder, a small brown snake that lives underground. Adders are known to pop out of their holes and nip the sheep on the nose. The bite often becomes infected and can even kill the sheep. So as a defense against this enemy, the shepherd would pour a circle of oil at the top of each adder’s hole. He would also apply the oil to the noses of the sheep. The oil on the snake’s hole lubricated it enough to prevent the snake from climbing out. And the smell of the oil on the sheep’s nose also acted as a deterrent to keep the serpent away. So in a very real sense, the shepherd had prepared a table, a feast of rich green grass for his sheep, in the presence of their enemies.
What if your Heavenly Shepherd did the same for you? What if Jesus did for you what he did for Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee? What if he, in the hour of your failure, invited you to a special meal that he had prepared for you? A meal of forgiveness, a meal of grace, a meal of fellowship.
Some of you know where I’m going with this, don’t you? For that’s precisely what Jesus has done for us. He has prepared a meal for us that consists of bread and wine. It’s a meal that is not really designed to satisfy our physical hunger, but oh, can it ever satisfy our spiritual hunger. For in this meal Jesus doesn’t just give us bread and wine. Rather, he says, “This is my body…This is my blood.” And he actually joins himself to these two earthly elements so that as we receive them, we receive him.
Some time ago I did something I had never done before. I’m sure some of my fellow Lutheran pastors would fault me for it, but I was absolutely convinced that I was doing what God wanted me to do. For a number of years I visited a lady by the name of Alice. Alice was not a member of our church. However, she was the sister-in-law of one of our members. In fact, that’s how I became acquainted with her. That sister-in-law asked me to visit her brother when he was going through a rough time in his life and that brother was married to Alice. Well, he eventually died and I just couldn’t cut Alice off so I continued to visit her. I treated her like I did any of our other shut-ins, but with one exception. I never gave Alice Communion because she was Catholic and typically Lutherans and Catholics don’t take Communion together. And she understood that. She had no problem with that. I even offered a number of times to contact the Catholic church in town so that someone could take her Communion, but she always said, “No, I just want you and your vicars to visit.”
Well, one day I went to see Alice and I had the strangest thing happen. As I was pulling in to the parking lot at the home for the elderly where she resided, I didn’t hear God speak to me audibly, but I had a very strong impression that I felt came from him that I needed to be prepared to offer Alice Communion that day. Well, I didn’t really think anymore of it and I was having one of my typical visits with her. She was a delightful person who had the gift of gab. She was never at a loss for words. But at one point all of a sudden she became uncharacteristically quiet and tears came to her eyes. I asked her what was wrong. And she said, “You know what I miss so much about being here, Pastor?” She said, “I never get to practice my faith. I’ve gone to church my whole life and I can’t do that anymore. And they don’t have any kind of worship services here.” Well, I had a pretty good idea of what she was talking about when she said she never got to practice her faith because she’d told me before how much the Lord’s Supper had always meant to her. So recalling the earlier impression I had when I pulled into that parking place, I said to her, “Alice, would you like me to give you Communion?” She looked up at me with these bright eyes and said, “Would you?” And I said, “I know I’ve never done it before because you’re Catholic and I’m Lutheran, but I think God would understand.” And you know what she said? She said, “Well, I think of myself as a Lutheran Catholic now anyway.” So there in the living room of that home for the aged, there in the midst of her enemies – her heartache, her loneliness, her health issues – her Heavenly Shepherd prepared a table for her and gave her the gift of himself. And when we were finished, she got the biggest smile on her face and simply said, “Thank you.” Not just to me, but especially to her Heavenly Shepherd as well.
So my friends, getting back to how we started this sermon. Remember that time in your life when you did something so bad, so shameful, you didn’t think God could ever forgive you? The message I want you to take home with you today is that he can and he will when you confess your sin to him and truly repent of it. No sin is so great that it can’t be completely covered and erased by the shed blood of Jesus. And that same Jesus has prepared a table for you in the presence of your enemies, a meal in which he gives you himself. So come regularly to his Holy Supper. Come excitedly. Come expectantly. Drink deeply of his love and grace. And feel the tender touch of the Master as Peter did, giving you a 2nd chance, a new beginning, and removing your burden of shame forever.