Though I Walk Through
Psalm 23:4

(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg


I was going to preach this sermon last Sunday, reflecting on the Tsunami that happened in Asia, and how we are spectator’s to suffering. But then at 9:20 I heard a rumble, an urgent call for prayer from a young man who once a member of our congregation. We prayed together. At 9:40 I saw the anguish on a mother’s face as the Ambulances left with a young member of our congregation. At 9:55 the elders in what I think was profound wisdom decided that when a tsunami hits, life can’t immediately go on as normal. Rather we need to attend to those who are awash in the wave. At 10:25 last Sunday we found out that that young person had died, we were overwhelmed in shock and grief.

The suffering of which we were spectators became the suffering with which we are familiar. The grief we saw multiplied 150,000 times on our TV screens became the sharp numbing blow that made our world stop spinning its harried pace of business and work and learning. Many of us have asked ourselves: “How can his be?”

I remember well the day after the tsunami, Anderson Cooper, (CNN 360) said that in Asia the day was filled with questions - - question from parents and children, “Where is my father, my mother, my child?” And then he added “How could God let this happen?” The second he asked that familiar question, I knew that this was much more Anderson’s question than it was the question for many people in South Asia. The question tends to be a Northern question, a question where the assumptions of life are that we deserve happiness, we assume that a normal life includes no suffering, no loss, no pain, no tragedy. But that assumption is characteristic of our countries were we have it so good, were we are the first world in terms of wealth and medical care.

In light of the grief that has overcome us, I thought it would be fitting to deal with the issue of suffering and grief from a scriptural perspective. To do that, lets turn to probably the most well know scripture passage which most of us know by heart - Psalm 23.

Psalm 23 (NIV)
A psalm of David.
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 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 your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.


There are three words in verse four that I want to focus on this morning because so much of the scriptural perspective of grief is wrapped up in those three words.

The first one is "though."
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

George Everett Ross, a pastor who himself was overwhelmed with difficulty and tragedy said this in one of his sermons:
“I have served in the ministry thirty years, almost thirty-one. I have come to understand that there are two kinds of faith. One says if and the other says though. One says: “If everything goes well, if my life is prosperous, if I’m happy, if no one I love dies, if I’m successful, then I will believe in God and say my prayers and go to the church and give what I can afford.” The other says though: though the cause of evil prosper, though I sweat in Gethsemane, though I must drink my cup at Calvary—nevertheless, precisely then, I will trust the Lord who made me. So Job cries: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him.” In another of the great psalms David sings: “Though the waters roar and swell, and though the mountains be cast into the midst of the sea. . . the Lord of hosts is with me, the God of Jacob is my strength.” (Source “Strong in all the Broken Places" by Leonard Sweet - quoted from sermon by George Everett Ross. p. 109)

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

Notice, it does not say “if” I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The word "though" carries with it the expectation that the valley will happen. The word "though" carries with it the assumption that the valley we call suffering and grief is a normal part of life. It certainly was for sheep in the middle east. In the process of getting from one grazing pasture, or as the Psalmist would call it, one “table” to another, they would often have to travel under the guidance of their shepherds through narrow ravines called wadies. These ravines would be fraught with danger including predators, including spots where the journey could be rough and the possibility of falling off a cliff were high. These wadies could include thieves out to steal sheep. It was a normal part of a lamb’s life to have to journey through these dangerous and sometimes painful places in the process of getting from grazing pasture to pasture. The valley was a part of life.

Suffering and grief is a part of life. There is no way around it. There is no way to avoid it. The journey of life includes it. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. There is no other way, no alternative, the journey of life includes along with joy and celebration, suffering, trials and grief. This is a biblical truth that we in the advantaged part of the world love to deny.

There are many reasons of course for that suffering. Theologians had sought to answer the question why throughout the enduring history of the church. Yet, in the middle of our grief, not one of those answers satisfies. Our questions are emotions seeking stability, faith in fear of losing its foothold, not reason seeking understanding. Suffering and grief are part of the groaning of this creation, it is part of life since the fall into sin, we await with the groaning creation the end of our pain, we look forward to glory, that is the way it is.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

Suffering is a normal part of life. I cannot stress this enough. Grief is and will be part of our life. Life includes problems. And sometimes problems remain unsolved for a long time. Sometimes we do not have our lives together. Life includes grief, suffering, groaning, or as the Heidelberg Catechism defines life, it is a veil of tears. Life is like that.

There are dangers in assuming that we have an inalienable right to happiness, to a life without problems and grief. If we get ourselves into a rut of assuming that grief and suffering should not be part of our lives, the next step is self pity, maybe a lot of self pity, as we look at others, their beauty, their health, their wealth, their relationships, their families and compare our suffering to their apparent lack. In the assumption that we should not suffer, we get ourselves caught in the sins of jealousy and envy which lie at the core of resentment and bitterness as we look at others. The scriptural perspective is that Life includes suffering and my life, your life is no exception, even Jesus life was no exception.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

The second very important word of our text is the word walk.  The word walk has to do with pacing ourselves. The valley of the shadow of death is not a place for running or stopping, it is a place of careful walking. For sheep who have to journey the steep walls of a wadie must make sure their steps had to be careful and planned. Running would be self destructive. Grief takes time, careful steps and a lot of effort. And different people walk at different paces, some are slower and more careful than others, some takes steps with hesitation, some takes steps boldly. But the truth is, this valley of the shadow of death is no place to rush, nor is it a place to ignore the difficult steps that have to be taken. It is a place of walking.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

But we must remember at the same time that it is a place of walking. The valley of shadows is not a place to camp out. Its not a place where we put up our tent for a while. Its not a place for us to stop and admire the beauty of our pain. The valley is not a resting place. The valley of the shadows is a place where scripture calls us to keep on walking because suffering is not only something we will go through, it is also something that we have to get through, it is the passageway to obedience and the race that takes perseverance to glory. It is the only passage way from one table to another.

I will never forget the day that my father died. On Christmas day, he struggled on the verge of death for 6 hours having suffered with Parkinson’s disease for 12 years. I remember my mother crying as slowly his body gave up its grip on life. But when he passed away, she asked us for a few moments to be alone with him. And when she had those few minutes, I saw an uncommon determination come over my mother, a determination to walk, a determination to cry and get through this change in her life, a determination that she was going to continue on, even though she was now alone. Yes, she did grieve but I was amazed at how she did not get stuck there. She continued on and did well, helping many others as they went through the same journey of losing loved ones in the retirement home in which she lived.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The third very important word in this short text is "through."

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

The journey of sheep through a wadie is a journey from pasture to pasture. The journey through the valley of the shadow of death is a journey that we must get through. It is a passageway to a better field. It is a life changing transition that brings us to a new place, sometimes even a better place, it certainly in the end will bring us to the best place.

George Everett Ross, a pastor who had a significant amount of suffering in his life tells the story of when he learned that suffering was a place of walking, a place of journeying through. He writes in one of his sermons:

“She was the most depressed person I had ever met up to that time. I had just graduated from seminary; and no sooner had I arrived at my first church than the rector decided that it was high time for him to take a snooze in Bermuda. As he left, in his breezy way, he gave me my preaching assignments and told me to visit this woman in her house. Perhaps only curates will appreciate the fond thoughts with which I waved this dreadful man off at the airport. So began for me a series of long afternoon visits with the woman who changed my life. My first visit was predictably disastrous. She was as angry as I was nervous. Other visits followed and we talked and we talked and we talked about the accident and the tragedy of it and the sadness of it all. Her life would never be the same. How could she believe in a good God in a bad world like this? “Why me, and why now, in the prime of my life?” And so on and on. I made a good decision. I decided not to try to cheer her up or to answer any questions about God. Instead, I simply let her talk and sometimes shout it out. Always when I left, we prayed, and more accurately, I prayed; she sulked. Then about six months later the great change began. The dirty dishes disappeared from the sink. The New York Times, which generally covered the carpet two inches thick, was stacked in the corner. I found her sitting like a queen, presiding over a Spode tea service which she had somehow managed to extricate from the attic where it had been since her mother had died. “What in the world happened to you?” I asked. “Oh nothing,” she answered. “I just decided last night that if I am going to live a one-legged life, I am going to live the best, darned one- legged life in Columbus, Ohio!” (Strong in the broken places - Leonard Sweet p. 24)

Like so many of the Saints who have gone before us, this women struggled, walked the journey through her suffering to a new pasture land, A new table set before us.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

The promise of scripture is that God, our good shepherd, will be with us as we walk. He will guard our steps, give us strength, enable us in the context of his community of cope, he will journey with us even through our unsolved problems, he will correct us when we need correcting, and in the end, we will come to that new pasture - he will prepare a table before us, even in the presence of our enemies. The only way to glory is through suffering. The only way to the table before us for Christ was through suffering. Today, we share in his journey because his journey is our journey, taking up our cross, sharing in his sufferings and following in faith knowing that as we walk, he will be with us.
 


(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.

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