Through the Valley

Through the Valley

Psalm 23

Preached FCCW March 26, 2017

Read the Bible enough and you start to learn some surprising things about God.
Like that God repeats Himself. A lot.
Especially, when it comes to certain subjects.
And nowhere does God repeat Himself more than when it comes to the topic of fear.
The most commonly repeated phrase in the whole Bible is one variation or another of the same message, “Do not be afraid!”
Most of the time, those words immediately precede God preparing someone for a future they never asked for.
From an old man named Samuel being instructed to defy the vengeance of King Saul by anointing a new King of God’s choosing to replace him;
to the angel telling a young, unmarried girl named Mary that she will be the mother of the Messiah,
God takes into account our fearful reactions to unexpected and disruptive changes in our lives.
Now, fear in itself is not a bad thing. God gave us fear for a reason, namely our self-preservation.
When confronted by some kind of danger fear alerts us to either seek safety or defend ourselves.
But, many of us live with fears that control our lives without our even recognizing it.
Those fears get in the way of our giving God the benefit of the doubt when the future seems uncertain and life feels out of control.
Because fear focuses on what we cannot do instead of what God can do.
Of all the many passages in the Bible that help us to avoid being controlled by our fears and encourages us to give God the benefit of the doubt, few do it better than the 23rd Psalm.
Located almost exactly in the middle of this Psalm –you might say, at its heart—are the words, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil.”
This Psalm is clear about the fact that there are dark valleys through which our life journeys will take us.
We are not promised lives that will be blissfully free of valleys where fear will cast dark shadows on our paths.
What it does promise is that we never have to be alone in those valleys.
It says, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.”
If it were up to us we would probably prefer to have God detour us around the dark valleys, instead of promising to walk at our side when we go through them.
I’m not sure we get the comfort God intends when we are told that some valleys are unavoidable, but don’t worry, I’ll be right there with you.
It’s as if we all have this vulnerable, doubtful child within us, like the one in this story.
Five-year old Johnny was playing in the kitchen as his mother made supper when she asked him to go into the pantry and get her a can of tomato soup.
When Johnny opened the pantry door and looked inside he saw that it was pitch black and kind of spooky looking in there.
“It’s dark in there and I’m scared to go in,” he said.
Trying to help him overcome his fear, his mother told him, “It’s OK—Jesus will be in there with you.”
Johnny stood at the threshold, staring into the darkness, obviously not sold on his mother’s logic.
Finally, he said: “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me that can of tomato soup?”
There’s a quote by Frederick Beuchner that draws together all the different images contained in  the Shepherd’s Psalm and restates them in just a few words.
“Here is the world. Great and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
What I like about this quote is that, like the Shepherd’s Psalm, it is so realistic about the reasons to be fearful and at the same time, so hopeful about trusting God instead of being governed by fear.
Fear and hope actually have a lot in common. Both are responses to the unknown.
Fear responds to the unknown out of uncertainty, usually with a fight or flight reaction.
Hope responds to an unknown future out of a trust in something other than our perceptions or past experiences to be our guide.
For Christians, that something is actually a someone – God.
And the picture of God portrayed in the 23rd Psalm is one that should inspire confidence in His trustworthiness.
The Shepherd’s psalm begins with the statement, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
That means, with God as our Shepherd we need not fear that we will lack anything we need.
A lot of our fears are about not having something we believe we can’t do without, whether we’re talking about material things, accomplishments, or love and affection.
The Shepherd’s Psalm pictures God providing us with green pasture and still waters, which if you are a sheep, pretty much covers everything you could ever need.
Nowhere does it say that our every wish will be granted.
But we are assured that trusting in God’s provision will bring us contentment and peace.
Where fear disquiets our souls, hope in God restores our souls.
Compare that to the message of our consumer culture which entices us to want insatiably so that record numbers of people live in the perpetual anxiety of financial insecurities.
The old saying, “Money can’t buy happiness” has been replaced by the advertising slogan “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s MasterCard.”
While the first half of the 23rd Psalm describes what it is like to hope in the Lord who is like a shepherd, the closing verses paint a picture of the extravagant love that God shows us.
“You anoint my head with oil” describes the way that hosts in the ancient near east would welcome special guests into their homes.
The words, “My cup overflows” tells us that, if anything, God’s generosity towards us always exceeds our expectations.
God gives in excess of what we could ever expect or deserve.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
To sit down to eat at a table full of enemies is not a natural thing to do.
Some of the most intimidating enemies we will ever face are our own worst fears.
God invites us to trust that we will be safe in the midst of the very things that frighten us the most.
To picture a scene where we feel safe and secure – even at peace – with that which we fear is a powerful image of what it means to fear no evil, for God is with us.
The Psalm ends with the assurance that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives.
All the days of our lives.
Not just the days spent in green fields and by still waters.
But even on days when we walk through dark valleys.
Not only when our cup is overflowing, but on the days when we feel we are empty and depleted.
Not only on days when we want for nothing, but even on days when we can’t make ends meet.
There is a reason that the Shepherd’s Psalm is often read at funerals, where we are confronted with our deepest fear – the fear of  death.
In the face of the thing over which we are the most powerless — our own mortality — it restores our souls with the assurance that death does not have the final word.
The final word always rests with God. And that word is resurrection.
As we look ahead to Easter we are reminded that the resurrection is the ultimate proclamation of life in the face of death; of hope, when we are in the grip of fear.
Our trust in God is not based on our wishful thinking that God will give us whatever we want, or spare us from every unpleasant circumstance.
Sometimes God disperses the darkness that frightens us, or re-routes us around the dark valleys before us.
But sometimes the only way forward is through the valley.
It is then that God leads us through the darkness and comforts the frightened child within us.
We tend to think of Lent as a time to do without something.
We talk about giving things up for Lent.
Things that interfere with our relationship to God.
But we can overlook the fact that it is seldom the things or experiences themselves that are the problem with our relationship with God.
Usually, the real problem is what lies beneath our attraction to those things or experiences.
As the prophet Samuel walked through his dark valley, God Whispered in Samuel’s ear, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
If we look deep enough into the recesses of heart, as God does, there’s a good chance that we will find some form of fear lying at the root of much in the world — and in us — that stands in opposition to God’s will.
Which is a compelling argument for why God has to remind us so often about not letting our fears control us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Being a Christian is less about carefully avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”
The Shepherd’s Psalm reminds us that courageously doing God’s will begins with confronting the fears that hold us back.
And then, trusting the Good Shepherd to lead us through the dark valleys, in the confidence that beyond what our eyes can see, green pastures, still waters, and God’s extravagant welcome await us.
Which is a message we can never hear too often.

 

© 2017 Raymond Medeiros