April 28th, 2010
Last night just before bedtime, I opened my in-box to find that a dear friend had e-mailed me a copy of his sermon from last Sunday. He couldn’t have known how much his words – and the images they brought to my heart — meant to me and how the timing couldn’t have been better. I am forever amazed at the different ways God comforts us — just when we need it the most.
As we approach Mother’s Day, my first since my mother’s passing, I think about the valleys I’ve traveled through this past year, the losses I’ve mourned, and I am comforted by the image of my Shepherd walking by my side. I was never alone. I am not alone now. What comfort there is in the knowledge of our Shepherd’s presence, no matter the rough and rugged terrain of the valley any of us may be traveling through.
My friend’s sermon contains thoughts that are new to me, though I’ve read this Psalm many times through the years. Because they’ve blessed me so, I asked his permission to share his words with you:
The 23rd Psalm is perhaps the best known, most loved, most quoted portion of Scripture — at least right behind John 3:16. It is so familiar that many people who seldom, if ever, read a Bible or go to church can still quote a portion of this Psalm.
There is a problem, though. I’m afraid we don’t really understand the true import of this beloved Scripture passage. Too often we associate the 23rd Psalm with death and dying, since it is so often requested at death-beds and funerals. But the Psalm is really for the living – those who are fully alive in the true sense of the word.
Roy Campanella, the baseball player, was in an bad accident years ago that left him a semi-invalid. In his autobiography he talks about the many nights he cried himself to sleep, about the pain that racked his body and his sinking into deep depression.
“All my life whenever I was in trouble, I had turned to God for help. I remembered my Bible and asked the nurse to the get the one from the drawer in the night table. I opened it to the 23rd Psalm: `Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.’
“From that moment on”, he wrote, “I was on my way back. I knew I was going to make it.”
It’s the ability of this Psalm to give comfort, strength, and assurance that I want to focus on this morning. You see, Psalm 23 not only gives comfort to the dying, it also gives courage, strength, and hope to those who are alive.
To really understand this Psalm we must realize that it is steeped in the language and customs of shepherding and sheep in Palestine back in Bible times. If we don’t know anything about the customs of shepherds and the unique relationship between the good shepherd and the sheep, then much of what this Psalm has to say simply passes us by.
So this morning we’re going to focus on just one small part of the Psalm – verse 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
Tradition tells us that the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a real place in Israel.
It is a valley, or a mountain pass, really, that got its name from shepherds because of its steep sides and sheer rock walls. It was, you see, an important valley because it enabled the shepherds to lead their sheep from one mountain pasture where the grazing had depleted the food supply to another with abundant, lush, green grass.
However it was a frightening place for skittish, defenseless, fearful sheep: for in the steep cliffs on both sides of the valley there were numerous caves and rocks and crevices that were perfect hiding places for animals of prey. Sounds would echo and amplify in the valley, making it a really terrifying place for sheep.
The Psalm begins,
“The Lord is my shepherd…. He makes me lie down in green pastures…. He leads me by still water…. He leads me in paths of righteousness.”
But then, suddenly, the sheep are in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Now, the images in this Psalm are clear. The shepherd is the Lord. Indeed, from our Gospel reading, we hear that Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. The shepherd is the Lord. And, of course, we are the sheep.
And what is the Valley of the Shadow of Death?
It is those terrifying, dark, lonely, frightening times in life — times of sickness, tragedy, emotional stress, tension, economic disaster, loneliness, when God may seem far away.
But we see here that it is the Good Shepherd who leads the sheep through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
And, we must remember that the shepherd has a purpose: The shepherd takes the sheep from pastures that are now eaten up and barren, where food is scarce and the land is parched, to new lush, green meadows. But to get there, the shepherd and the sheep have to pass through the valley.
The sheep don’t understand this. The sheep don’t comprehend the purposes of the shepherd. All that the sheep experience are the frightening, terrifying shadows and sounds echoing through the canyon walls.
But the shepherd knows. The shepherd has a reason, a purpose.
And the sheep have learned to trust the shepherd.
As Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Yes, the sheep have grown to trust the shepherd. The shepherd has proven trustworthy and so the sheep follow the shepherd even through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, “fearing no evil.”
And so it is the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us through troubled and difficult times of life. But he has a reason, a purpose – to lead us to greener pastures, to deeper faith. He calls us to trust in him, to put our faith in him, even when we cannot always see his plan or purpose.
But we can trust the Good Shepherd, because we know the shepherd is trustworthy.
As long as we live in this world of sin and suffering, we will experience the shadow of death. There will always be those times when we feel forsaken, abandoned, alone, rejected, those troubled times when we may wonder where God is.
Those times are our valley of the shadow of death when we may feel as if God is far away. But deep down inside we can know that God is very near. . . that He is leading us through the valley from one phase of life to another more abundant phase.
To be sure, it can be a terrifying experience for us. That’s why it is good to recall how the Good Shepherd is leading us to green pastures where he will restore our souls. To remember that he is preparing a table for us, a table that contains the bread of heaven and the wine of everlasting and abundant joy.
Listen to the voice of the shepherd when you are in the valley of the shadow of death. Listen and know that he is leading to a better place.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you, O Lord, are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.