This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Psalms 23:1-6
These are the most familiar words in the entire Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and staff they comfort me.” Timeless words.
Some of us may remember when Michael Landon, of “Little House on the Prairie” fame, was dying of cancer at a fairly young age. He had only days to live when he gave his last interview with a magazine reporter, but he was still full of hope and was optimistic that some miracle would save his life. And yet, reality was setting in. Deep down he knew that his life might soon be over. And he was filled with regret. He told the magazine reporter, "I wish that someone had told me years ago that I was going to die. I would have lived my life so differently."
In today’s world, death is the great unmentionable. To invite discussion of it, even in the church, is thought to be bad form. Unlike the old churchyards through which the congregation on the way to worship would literally walk through or along side of on the way to Sunday services, today we are likely to avoid contact with the tragic side of life. Very few of us venture into the presence of a dying person, unless we’re in the medical profession. Death is now called ‘passing away.’ We’ve changed the name ‘graveyard’ to ‘cemetery’ and given it these pleasant names like “Little Mountain” or “Forest Lawn” or “Evergreen.” There’s a sentimentalizing all things death. A deliberate attempt to avoid the messiness of life. Funerals are replaced with memorial services which are now ‘celebrations’—not realizing that this is simply an indicator of our unwillingness to face the music. Death is too morbid a subject, generally speaking.
But is it morbid? Is it morbid when we look squarely in the face of sin and suffering and death, and realize that one cannot make sense of life until one makes sense of death? Pretending we will never die, is still just that: PRETENDING.
Whatever the church does, as someone said, it should prepare its’ people to face death and to meet God. …Which is pretty hard, if it’s considered taboo. “You cannot live well,” as J.I. Packer once put it, “if you don’t know how to die well.”
There was a time when Christians were known as people who knew how to ‘die well,’ knew how to walk safely through that ‘valley of the shadow of death.’ Perhaps it was seen as an opportunity to really put their faith into practice. Perhaps seen even as an opportunity to witness. Those were the days when they were thrown into prison, or killed for defiantly claiming that ‘Jesus is Lord.’ When the governing authorities would walk up to an imprisoned young man, remind him of his three little children at home who were depending on him so much, who were the apple of his eye—they would remind him of his lovely wife who was so in love with him, and gently ask him again if he still wanted to claim that “Jesus is Lord…” Life or death. That is the question. To be or not to be, that is the question…
Or is that the wrong way of putting it? What if we are not of this world? What if every choice, every answer to every question, every moment needs to be lived in light of eternity and not simply the here and now?
Sometime ago one particular church had a situation in which a fairly young woman named Mary experienced a recurrence of cancer. Within a few months it had aggressively spread throughout her body, and despite treatment, she was critically ill. The people in the church gathered for a special prayer service. And although the church was not from a charismatic tradition, the prayers throughout the service became more and more enthusiastic. “Lord, you’ve said in your Word that if two or three are gathered in your name and are in agreement…” Lord, we have 287 here this evening in agreement, and we all want you to heal her!” Another person, “Jesus Christ, you are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We want you to show us that you are still the same Great Physician you were yesterday, many years ago!” “Lord, will you not have mercy on Mary’s husband and her children? They need her!” The prayers continued to get more fervent, more insistent upon healing. Finally the pastor’s wife’s turn came to pray. She herself had almost lost her life to cancer twice prior to this, but was miraculously healed. She prayed, “Heavenly Father, we would love it if you would heal Mary. But if it is not your will to heal her, teach HER TO DIE WELL. We know she is going to die anyway, and so if the time is now, teach her to die well. Give her a joy of the Lord. Give her a heritage of godly faith, with one foot firmly planted in heaven, so that her husband and children will be stamped by it, and will look to Christ. We don’t ask that she have an easy time, but ask that she be so full of grace, people will see Christ in her. In Jesus name, Amen.
Well, you could have cut the air with a knife. No longer were there 287 people in agreement in prayer. The pastor’s wife seemed to create a break in the chain. She was letting down her side. You’re not supposed to speak that language. It’s inappropriate. It’s about healing. It’s about seeking out a few more days and weeks and years of life out of the Lord. Many at that gathering were quite upset by such a prayer.
R.C. Sproul once recounted what turned out to be his father’s last words to him. His dad’s body had been ravaged by three strokes. Face distorted by paralysis making it difficult to do anything but slur his words out. Together one day on the couch, Father Sproul said to his 17 year old son, “Son, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” Hours later he suffered his fourth and final stroke. Years later, recounting those heroic last words, R.C. only feels shame as to what he said in response to his dad’s words of faith, words of his readiness and willingness to die. In protest, what turned out to be his last words to his dad were, “Don’t say that, Dad!” “Don’t say that Dad!”
These are the times we live in. We are hardly given permission to be honest about the D word. Partially because we’re often in denial about it. But as Christians, we’ve taken on this well intentioned, yet poorly informed notion that by mentioning it, by accepting it, by talking about it we are no longer walking by faith.
Reflect on this thought from one author: “Heaven is an odd element of the Christian faith. We profess it to be eternally important and then live as though it doesn’t exist. We are runners who fear the finish line. We carry on with our lives, fixated on the here and now, oblivious to the there and then. When you stop to think about it, this is a strange way to live. Dear friends, we ought to be developing a homesickness for heaven, for eternity. You cannot live faithfully in this life unless you are ready for the next.
That’s why David’s Psalm 23 is such a great psalm. It combines living faithfully in the here and now with anticipation of the life to come. The writer knows he is not in want of anything in the here and now because the Lord is his Shepherd, and yet he is ready for the next life because he knows that as he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, he doesn’t need to fear because the Shepherd is with him. Faithful in the now, because he’s preparing for the next.
David, the Psalmist, knew what it was like to be in the dark, in the valley of the shadow of death. We usually associate these words with the dark valley of mourning and grief and death itself, which of course it is. But I think David is using this language to describe the deep darkness he has experienced at many of the moments of his life, not just while huddled around the death bed. David has been marred, attacked, in danger, has himself struggled with aspects of his walk with the Lord, leading to deep valleys throughout his life. This is not some young naïve shepherd boy using his experience as a shepherd and his knowledge of sheep, as an object lesson. Psalm 23 is likely a mature, seasoned man looking back on his life.
In fact, David’s starting point is not sheep and shepherding, but God’s word in Scripture. He is, in fact, applying a very specific passage from what scripture he had at that time, to his own life and is essentially saying to us, “Let me tell you how I experienced its truth and power.”
You see, David was NOT the first person to say, “THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD.” Those words were spoken first by Jacob—yes Jacob, the sneaky conniver, who learned his lesson. When nearing the end of his life, Jacob is giving his fatherly blessing to Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, reminding them in Genesis 48:15 how the LORD WAS HIS SHEHPHERD THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE. Those were his words, “the Lord God has been my shepherd.”
Jacob was a man who had walked through dark valleys—morally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Brought up in a family where his father Isaac favoured his brother Esau, and where his mother Rebekah favoured him, he plotted and deceived his father Isaac, stealing the birthright meant for brother Esau, causing great damage to an already dysfunctional family. Sometime later in a cruel twist, his uncle Laban similarly deceived Jacob when he found out he had just married Leah rather than Rachel, the love of his life.
Jacob did not have an easy life. The sins of his parents, the sin of favouritism was the sin he practiced with his own children. There were a lot of mistakes and dark valleys that he went through, and although by no means was he wholly changed, nonetheless at the end of his life he was able to look back and rejoice that the Lord had been his Shepherd, pursuing him like a lost sheep, rescuing him, healing him, and providing for him.
So in Psalm 23, David is simply saying: “I too have shared the experiences of Jacob. I too have wandered in the darkness. And what he discovered I have discovered too. The Lord indeed is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.” In other words, when we are reading a passage like Psalm 23, what we are witnessing is David making scripture come alive for him, and he is doing it through this character called Jacob.
Today we need to read, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me—for you are with me.” That’s all David the psalmist needs to know. He can go through anything. He can walk through the valley of the shadow of death because the shepherd is with him. He is present. He is guiding him through the valley. He is not alone. The shepherd is in the shadows of the valley just as much as he is. God, in Jesus Christ, the one who called himself the GOOD SHEPHERD is not some distant, unmoved God who is hardly touched by our suffering. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Our God is Emmanuel, God with us, incarnate, the Good Shepherd. We will make it through the valley of the shadow of death, we do not need to fear moving ahead in life, because as the Psalmist says, “You are with me.”
Nicolas Wolterstorff , having lost a son tragically and unexpectedly, in the midst of his grief wrote a profound book, called Lament For A Son. In it he says, “…But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful. Demonic. If you think your task as a comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help….”
“Over there you are of no help?” Then he continues, “What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are WITH me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”
That’s exactly the kind of God and Good Shepherd we have. He comes close. He expresses his love. Some of the greatest comfort we can get is to realize that in every one of the tears we shed, God sheds ten thousand more. That’s what love does. And there is no being more loving than God. God is love and that is why he suffers. God, simply put, is SUFFERING LOVE.
It might be easy to scrap all this business about God as we travel through the valley of the shadow of death, if this Shepherd, if this Jesus, wasn’t a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” if he didn’t come to shed his own blood dripping down from the cross for us. But that’s not the kind of Shepherd and God we have. There is comfort in that thought. Not only is he for us; he expresses his love by suffering with us. Is that not what all the ripping and writhing at Golgatha, at minimum, was all about?
Today we are in a much better position than David. We not only have much more scripture to work with that can come alive for us (in moments like the passing away of a loved one); we have Christ himself, the GOOD Shepherd who died the sacrificial death of a lamb, to look to. What David glimpsed only in outline form, we see so much more clearly. We can see everything through the triumphs of Christ.
For the believer, although death remains an enemy, an outrage, a sign of judgment, a reminder of sin, and a real and present danger, it is, from another perspective, especially the perspective of scripture, along with eternity, the gateway THROUGH which we pass to this indescribably wonderful life of delight in all things God. We may journey through the valleys of life, even death itself, but when we reach higher ground because of what the Good Shepherd has done for us, it will be well worth it.
Prayer of Response
Dear Lord Jesus, forgive us for taking our comfort in you for granted. Forgive us for neglecting to cherish our faith and the wonderful salvation you have fully provided for us. We praise you for the gift of knowing that you are with us always. Holy Spirit, drive that comfort deep into our hearts and let it transform our lives. In Jesus name. Amen.
Order of Worship
Welcome and Announcements
Song: “You Are Worthy” PsH #232
*Call to Worship
*Prayer for God’s greeting, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
*Songs of Praise and Thanksgiving:
“Now Joyful Exultation” PsH #95: 1-3
“It Is Good To Sing Your Praises” PsH #191
CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE
Rule For Holy Living: Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:23-24
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Isaiah 6:5-7
Song: “God Himself Is With Us” PsH #244
PROCLAMATION OF THE WORD
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture: Psalm 23
*Song of Response: “Beams Of Heaven” PsH #577
Prayers of the Church
*Song: “O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee” PsH#573
*Prayer for God’s Blessing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
*Song: “I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord” PsH #169