Mid-Week Lent – 4 – Psalm 23:4a,b.


sermon-4-3-19

Psalm 23:4a
“Even though I walk through the valley of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me…”

Jesus_Christ_the_Good_Shepherd_Hand-Painted_Orthodox_Icon_1“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For the last three Wednesdays beginning with Ash Wednesday, we have been thinking about all that the Lord provides for His sheep to the end that they “shall not want.”

He brings them to green pastures and still waters that they may eat and drink until they are completely satisfied. He provides such protection and security for them that they are able to “lie down” in quietness and peace. Even if they should wander off and go astray, they are confident that He will come and find them and carry them home and “restore their soul,” leading them in “right paths” for “his own names sake.”

That’s the ground we have covered together in the ‘first part’ of this 23rd Psalm. But now in the ‘second part,’ we are introduced to a reality that seems a whole lot more realistic than the somewhat idealistic picture that has been painted so far.

Today, the Psalmist reminds us that when he says, “the Lord is my shepherd, I SHALL NOT WANT,” he, IN NO WAY, intends to imply that “I shall not have any pain or suffering or unpleasantness” in my life.

Rather, he presents a very ‘realistic’ picture that honestly confronts the deception that if only I believe in my Lord sincerely enough and follow Him closely enough I shall not experience any trials or troubles, pain or suffering.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”

Literally, the Hebrew speaks of the valley of ‘gloom,’ or the valley of ‘darkness.’ To translate this as “the valley of the shadow of death” may not literally what the original says, but it may accurately reflect the actual experience of being in one of the many ‘valleys’ that are present in middle-eastern deserts.

Having lived in West Virginia for a number of years, I’m familiar with the ‘deep valleys’ which are called ‘hallars.’ Especially in southern West Virginia, lots of small towns and villages are located in the narrow valleys that lie between two mountain ranges. And depending on how the ‘valley’ is situated at the bottom of the mountains, the amount of time when direct sunlight is actually visible can be pretty limited. There is a lot of ‘gloomy darkness’ in those ‘hallars.’

In the middle-east, there are plenty of these narrow valleys between high rock walls that are far too narrow for towns and villages. Narrow trails lead travelers from one end to the other. One of the great dangers of traveling through one of these valleys is that storms can arise without warning and dump torrential rains, quickly transforming these valleys into channels of rushing water that sweep away everything in its path, turning them into ‘valleys of death.’

In fact, just south of the road that connects Jerusalem and Jericho, there is a valley that is actually called, “the valley of death.” Very steep cliffs of jagged rock with steep paths that plunge down into the deep and narrow gorge, this ‘valley of death’ is about five miles long and its widest section is only 12 feet making it almost impossible for sheep to escape if they should encounter trouble.

It could very well be that the shepherd David led his sheep through this very valley and had it in mind as he wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”

Storms that bring sudden torrents of rushing water without notice are not the only danger that these valleys present the traveler. Travelers must go slowly and quietly through these dark and gloomy valleys in order to avoid being seen or heard by bandits who hide in the clefts. The fear of trouble or death is constantly in their minds.

But these valley ways are nonetheless used simply because they cannot be avoided. There is no bypass road, no way to ‘get around it.’ The only way to go is ‘through’ the valley of ‘gloom’ or ‘darkness.’

This is the way it is for the sheep of the Good Shepherd. As soon as the Lord calls us and makes us a sheep of His flock, we walk in danger all the way. And that is because we have an ‘adversary,’ who is the devil. Peter writes, “Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). The ‘devil’ is the Lord’s adversary. But since he cannot touch the Lord, he seeks to devour what is most near and dear to the Lord – His sheep.

It is sometimes tempting for those who are followers of the Lord to think that if only they listen to His voice and follow Him, life will always be ‘pleasant’ and there won’t be any ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’ or ‘trouble.’ Sometimes those who don’t understand the ways of the Lord will go so far as to suggest to us that ‘IF ONLY’ we were to ‘TRULY’ follow Jesus we wouldn’t have any problems or experience any suffering. And the fact that we have both can only mean one thing, we must not be faithful enough or obedient enough and we need to do more. We really are NOT sheep of the Lord’s flock that we think we are.

But this is not the way that our Lord leads His sheep. He leads His flock into valleys of ‘gloom’ and ‘darkness’ and ‘death,’ and not around them. Even as the sheep are assured and confess that they ‘shall not want,’ they must also be assured and confess that their shepherd leads them into times and places and situations in which they have great ‘lack’ and suffer great ‘want.’

How are the sheep to reconcile these two, seemingly opposite confessions of faith?

First, it is important that we understand and believe the revealed truth that whatever our Lord counts as precious and trustworthy He refines with fire – first and foremost is His Word. How can we be confident and lie down in the assurance that His Word can really protect and defend and deliver us from all evil unless it is tested and proven to be true?

God’s word says that He can and indeed has overcome every evil, even death and the devil. That’s an extravagant and lofty claim to make. How can we believe this that seems so unbelievable, even to the point that we willingly entrust all that we have, even our very life to this Word? It must be tested by fire to see if can really can do what it says.

This is why Christ, the Word of God made flesh, endured on the cross. He entered the ‘valley of death’ and on the 3rd day, emerged unscathed, just as His Word promised He would. This was not for His assurance and confidence in His Word, but for His sheep, that we might be confident in His Word.

It works the same way for us, as we heard Peter explain, “though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the TESTED GENUINENESS OF YOUR FAITH – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-8)

Our Lord leads His flock into the valley of ‘gloom’ and ‘darkness’ and even ‘death,’ to strengthen our faith and trust in His Word. Each and every time He leads us into some ‘trial’ or ‘trouble,’ or ‘suffering’ or ‘pain,’ and brings us through it, He strengthens our faith and trust in His Word and Promise. We come through the ‘valley’ and look back on all those doubts and worries and fears that we had and we laugh at them. We laugh at ourselves for being so foolish as to not trust in our good shepherd to bring us through the ‘valley.’

So, when we are in the shadowy valley, we must be careful to by guided, not by what we see or think or feel, but solely by what we hear. “My sheep hear my voice and they follow Me.” We do not base our confidence and hope on outward experiences – but on the ‘tested’ Word of our Lord which cannot fail. Because I hear His voice that calls me His own, “I will fear no evil.” For I know that He will deliver me from all evil.

When our Good Shepherd leads us into one of these ‘gloomy’ valleys, it is important to take note that the Psalmist does NOT say, “This is where the trail ends. The best thing you can do is just get used to it.” Some people who have had to endure a lot of pain and suffering and even loss become convinced that they’re trapped in the middle of the ‘valley of gloom and doom’ and will never escape. That this is where their Good Shepherd has led them and wants them to remain.

No, this may be a valley through which we must pass, but this is not where the journey ends. Our Lord leads His flock THROUGH IT, even as He led His flock through the Red Sea, not to be downed in the wall of water on the right and on the left, but to bring them through it onto dry ground.

We are never 'trapped' in the 'gloomy valley,' any more than we are ever trapped in 'death valley,' any more than our good Shepherd was trapped in that valley of death where the rock walls rose up all around Him and over Him and a stone was rolled over the entrance and the exit. For just as His tomb was only a 'valley' through which He passed, so also is our grave.

For the believer in Christ knows that our Lord not only leads us through the valley, but we travel 'in Him' who has 'already' brought us through IN HIMSELF. As we heard Paul say, “You have been raised with Christ… For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:1-3). Which gives a whole new depth of meaning to the Psalmists words, “for you are with me.”

Our Good Shepherd not only leads us through every ‘shadowy valley’ He leads us into, He hides us in Himself. And there is no safer place for sheep to be.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… Even though I walk through the valley of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me…”

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