(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg
As we read through this Psalm together this morning, I invite you to notice the change of pronouns between verses 3 and 4. In the first 3 persons, this Psalm sounds like a sheep’s boast to someone else about how wonderful its shepherd it. Pronouns are in the 3rd person. But in verse 4, the tone suddenly becomes intimate, the 2nd person, I and you.
This journey is an intimate time between the shepherd and the sheep. Other flocks are headed elsewhere. The single shepherd leads his sheep with his daily attention on them as they follow.
But getting to these upper plains of grass is a challenge. You cannot simply lead a flock of sheep up the side of a mountain. The journey is too steep, the sheep from effort will become dehydrated in their thick winter coats and they will die. The only way up the mountain is through dark gullies or valleys where streams have cut crevices in the rock. There the ascent is not as steep. If you have ever wondered why roads follow the twists and turns of rivers through the mountains, its simply because the rivers have provided the easiest grade for ascent and descent through the mountains. To lead their sheep to higher ground, shepherd will follow the valleys where shadows are dark and fear is real, where streams can turn to torrents in minutes, where predators can lurk and one misstep can cause a sheep to tumble and be mortally injured. As we have noticed before, the valley of the shadow though it is a place of intimacy is also a place where sheep have to walk very carefully.
So the good Shepherd leads his sheep through the valley of the shadow, first because it is the only way to the upper plains of fresh grass, 2nd, because it is through these valleys that streams flow, where water to quench the thirst of his sheep can be found, and finally because it is in the protection of these valleys that some vegetation persists, enough to provide for the flock on the journey.
These gullies, these crevices cut by streams are the valley of the shadow of death or dark valleys that the Psalmist is talking about, these valleys that provide the gentlest ascent up the mountain.
Now some of us might be wondering what this has to do with us as Christians. We have often read this passage, we have reflected upon it in times of grief of trouble, but understanding it within the context of herding a flock of sheep - what does it have to do with us?
To answer that question, I invite you to reflect for just a few minutes on the healthy Christian desire that you have in your heart placed there by the Spirit of God. You feel it I trust, a desire to be more mature in Christ, a desire that your actions and reactions be more Christlike, a greater awareness of the presence of God in your life, a greater confidence that God’s care for you is intimate and flawlessly faithful. Every healthy child of God wants to grow up into Christ, into a faith that cannot be shaken, into an assurance that death cannot steal, into a joy that permeates all circumstances. There come times in our journey as Christians that the same old pasture fails to satisfy, we desire more of God the Father, more of Christ, more of the Spirit. As the Psalmist says “who have I in heaven but you and there is nothing on earth I desire besides you....” As the Psalmist says “better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere....” “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs for you....” We are longing for “higher ground” - in our tradition we don’t use the term “higher ground” very often, but like our tradition, it reflects the healthy Christian desire for greater maturity in Christ.
The question is - how do we get to that maturity, how do we get to that higher ground? Often we assume that the journey to higher ground is just a stiff swift climb, that we can simply go up the steep side of the mountain, that we can attain maturity, we can get from glory to GLORY by a few quick vertical jumps. But the truth of life is that the way to maturity is often through great difficulty, through times of risk and fear, through times of darkness where we feel alone, through times of loss and times of trouble, through what some might call soul shattering experiences.
What are these experiences? What have been these experiences in your life? For some it is financial ruin, for others it might be a friend who moved away, the loss of a loved one, relationship tensions, emotional difficulties.
Let me tell you about Sue (not her
real name) - a wonderful women we met some time ago very active in the
church of which she is a member. As a young person, she met the man of
her dreams. Things were going very well. They had two children
together, a boy and a girl and a dog, the million dollar dream family.
She was a Christian plodding along as so many Christians do, kind of
stagnant in her relationship with God. Then one night, her husband did
not come home, not for one night, but nights in a row. She painfully
discovered that he had found a new love. All she could do was cry out
with groans to God. And she discovered in her groaning that God was
with her. She vibrantly grew in her faith, in her involvement in
Christian community, in her now profound trust in God’s care
for her and her children.
Sam was a worry wart, always micro-managing the details of his life and his future, making sure everything especially his finances were secure. He stayed awake at night worrying about it all. Then one day, he was getting a routine check up for a possible job promotion - you know how employers like to have medicals, and in the check-up, they found a lump in his colon - it turned out he had colon cancer. When I visited him the first time after he was diagnosed, shock was written all over his face. All his well developed plans in one diagnosis came crashing down. But two days later, when I visited him, he was weeping with thankfulness, weeping for the peace that he felt in his soul that he no longer had to be in control of his life because God was in control of his life. Weeping for the peace he felt. It was the most profound growth in his walk with the Lord he had ever experienced, and not short term. We just visited with him on our holidays, he survived his colon cancer and has been clear of that cancer for 13 years. Now he has discovered he has advanced prostrate cancer for which they can do little but hormone treatments. But his trust in God watching over him is so strong that he rejoices in every day that he has with his wife, children and grand children. Death will not shake his faith. He discovered that, he matured in his faith in the valley of the shadow of Colon cancer.
Let me in closing give three concluding themes that are important to understand in the journey through the valley of the shadows.
First - all sheep go through valleys. Suffering is a universal human experience. Yes some people suffer more than others, but in truth, we all go through times of trial and suffering. We all experience loss and sickness and relationship difficulties. In North America, we naively assume that suffering should not happen to us. It will. I guarantee it. Because we have this simply wrong assumption that suffering should not happen to us, we are perplexed and shocked in our faith when suffering and grief happen to us. We ask Why, God would you do that to me? (And then we start blaming ourselves, or looking for some cause that suffering should be inflicted on me.) The truth is that suffering will happen is a given, the question is “Who is your shepherd as you journey through that suffering?”
You see, if you have no shepherd, or if the shepherd taking care of you is lazy, untrustworthy, cares only for himself, the second the fearful shadows of the valley occur, the shepherd will run and save his own skin. And without any shepherd, suffering only victimizes. But the wonder of being a child of the living God, having Jesus as our Good Shepherd is that in the journey, he will remain with us, watching over us, protecting us, making sure that in the end the journey will bring us to higher ground. That is the perspective of suffering in Scriptures. Peter tells us not to be surprised when suffering comes our way. James says: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
The promise of scripture is that even these trials will work toward our salvation. Because Jesus is with us - all will be redeemed to us for our good in his care. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. God will use the valley to lead us to higher ground, a greater love for God and his people, a greater knowledge of his grace and his sovereign care, a greater taste of his glory.
4 Even though I walk
That is God’s promise and God’s word to us today.
Second - the valley of the shadow is the place where the truth of who and what we are is laid bare.
You see, it is easy to be a Christian when everything in life is as it should be, it is easy to be a comfortable fair weather Christian. But in the valley, comforts are removed, protections are gone, nothing is sure. When we travel the valley, often it is only that little mustard seed of faith that seems to be left within us, all is torn away. But as God refines the gold and removes the dross, as God sifts away the chaff for the kernels of pure wheat, God brings us to higher ground, where we finally start understanding what motivates us, what drives us, where we mature in understanding ourselves and understanding our God.
Third - in the valley of the shadow - God is with us. One of the most common responses that I have heard from people I love as they are going through the valley is that God has disappeared, or God seems distant, in the darkness they cannot see him, in their trouble, they cannot feel him, in their roaring anguish they cannot hear him. Listen to this Psalm
4 Even though I walk
God is with you. Maybe unseen, unheard, unfelt, he is still with you. He proved this in the very worst valley of the shadow of history. You remember when that happened. They lifted him onto the tree. The earth trembled. Darkness fell over the whole world for three hours. Jesus cried out “My God why have you forsaken me?” To all those who were watching, it was at that very moment that God had certainly left them all. But had they looked closely with the eyes of faith - they would have seen God there with them, in the darkened valley - if they would have looked closely, they would have seen God with them, arms open for them, right near by them hanging on the cross for them, protecting them, saving them.
4 Even though I walk
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.