Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 7, 2017
Psalm 23 Commentary
On this Fourth Sunday after Easter, all three years of the lectionary cycle have us reading Psalm 23. No wonder some parts of the worldwide church call this Good Shepherd Sunday. It is always good to revisit this beloved piece of pastoral poetry, but it does challenge the preacher and this writer, who wrote on this Psalm just 6 weeks ago (see the March 26 “Sermon Starter” on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website) and a little over a year ago (see the April 11, 2016 “Sermon Starter”).
What can we say on this Good Shepherd Sunday that hasn’t been said a thousand times? Probably nothing, but we can try to find an angle into the Psalm that will help people listen in a new way to these treasured old words. It strikes me that a good way to do that is to focus on the verse that is the deepest darkest part of the Psalm. All scholars point out that verse 4 is the linguistic and theological heart of the Psalm, because it assures us that the Good Shepherd is with us even in the worst times of our lives.
More recent translations have changed the famous “valley of the shadow of death” to “the darkest valley,” because the latter translation allegedly captures the Hebrew better. I can’t speak to that, but I will say that the darkest valley of life is the valley of the shadow of death. So rather than being technically accurate in my sermon, I’m going to be pastorally sensitive and stick with the old translation.
Here’s how I would preach this Psalm today. The Good Shepherd has just emerged from that valley by rising from the dead. Now that ever-living Shepherd is with us as we walk through our darkest valleys, especially the one darkened by the shadow of death. That is the greatest comfort in a Psalm full of comfort. What follows are some practical and textual suggestions from a sermon of mine on this text.
Long ago someone gave me a picture of 15 or 20 German Shepard dogs lined up as if on military inspection. They are all intently watching a little kitten walking past them. Below the picture are these words, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”
What picture does this text evoke in your mind? We are talking about a Psalm written over three thousand years ago. How can we picture it for our 21st Century listeners? In my church’s library there is a children’s book that does a wonderful job of translating this ancient agricultural Psalm into pictures that are relevant to black inner city children. For our text, it pictures a gloomy ghetto street lined with grubby apartment buildings, littered with broken down cars and torn garbage bags out of which crows are eating. As 4 little children walk to school down this street, they have to pass a drug dealer standing on a corner with his spike collared Doberman and a group of teenaged gangbanger with menace in their eyes slouching on a front stoop. It is a striking 21st Century picture of valley of the shadow of death.
When I read this text, I see a different picture, a picture from my trip to Israel several years ago. One day as we drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho, our bus turned off the modern expressway onto a dirt road that led into the desert. We drove for a while through desolate country. Suddenly the earth seemed to open before us, as a huge canyon plunged away from us. It was rugged and rocky and deep, so deep, hundreds of feet deep, that the bottom almost always lay in shadow. Running through it was a sliver of a stream and alongside the stream there was what seemed to be a little path. “What is that?” we asked our Palestinian guide. “That’s the Jericho Road, where the Good Samaritan rescued the man beaten by robbers.” It was a narrow, lonely, and dangerous place. According to our guide, that’s why the locals called it “the valley of the shadow of death.”
It is entirely possible that David had been to that deep canyon as he led his flocks in search of green pastures and quiet waters. Perhaps that place became for him the symbol of all those dark and dangerous places of life where we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
It’s important to read this verse carefully. It says “the shadow of death”—not necessarily death itself, but its shadow as it approaches like a thief in the night. Jean Cocteau paints this chilling picture. “Since the days of my birth, death began its walk. It is walking toward me, without hurrying.” David is talking about all those times in life when death’s shadow falls across our path—all those times of trouble and sorrow, of separation and loss, of threat and danger.
He says, “Even though I walk through” that valley….” “Even though.” He has just said that the Lord our Shepherd provides for all our needs—makes me lie down in green pastures, leads me beside quiet waters, restores my soul, guides my in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, so that I will not be in want. And that is wonderful. But don’t think for a minute that because the Lord is your shepherd, you won’t have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. “Even though I walk…, even though the Lord leads me, I will walk through that dark and lonely and dangerous place.”
This is a very important truth, a part of the terrible realism of the Bible. Being a child of God, part of his beloved flock does not guarantee a trouble free, pleasure filled life. That’s obvious. We all know it, unless we’ve drunk too deeply from the well of the Prosperity Gospel. Yet many of us still get angry with God when we walk through the valley in some way. We act as though this shouldn’t be happening to us, as though it is unusual and we’re being singled out and treated unfairly, when in fact it is the common lot of fallen people in a broken world. This beautiful passage is not a promise of deliverance from the valley, a promise that we will be spared such a walk entirely or that we will be miraculously plucked from its depths before it gets really bad. It is a promise that our Shepherd will be with us as we walk through that valley.
Because of that, “I will fear no evil.” So says David. Can you say that? I ask that, because of an experience I had a number of years ago when I decided to preach on Psalm 23. As I began to meditate of verse 4, I became aware that there was at least one evil that I feared deeply. Do you have such an evil that stalks you? Maybe it’s fear of cancer, of losing your children, of divorce, of not having enough money for a comfortable retirement, or of being abandoned? For me it was fear of Alzheimer’s Disease. My father died of it, and there’s more of it in his side of the family. I found myself thinking it more than I wanted to. I feared that evil; it made me walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The truth of this Psalm helped me greatly with that fear.
David says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me….” That is the epicenter of the Psalm. Indeed, it is the center of the covenant of grace that Yahweh made with his all children. “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” As you walk through history, through all the places of your life, even through that darkest valley, I will be with you.
There’s an old song that says, “You got to walk that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself; oh, nobody else can walk it for you; you got to walk it by yourself.” That is partly true. Nobody else can walk it for you; we all have to live our own lives and experience the valley of the shadow. But you don’t have to walk it by yourself. There’s One Other who walk it with you, one who said, “Behold, I am with you to the end of the age.”
Do you remember that old spiritual, “On the Jericho Road?” The refrain said, “On the Jericho Road, there’s room for just two.” Well, that is literally true of the narrow path that winds beside that stream flowing through the valley of the shadow of death in Israel. And it is finally true of the valley you will have to walk through—there’s room for just two, you and your Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Oh, of course, others can walk with us for a while, sometimes for a long while, and that’s a great comfort. I recently read a wonderful little novel entitled Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Set in the high plains of eastern Colorado, it is a story about lonely people: two little boys, Ike and Bobby, who have lost their mother to mental illness; their father, Tom Guthrie, a school teacher trying to raise his sons alone and maintain his integrity in a school that tries to force him to compromise; Victoria, a pregnant teenager whose mother kicks her out of the house; and the McPherson brothers, Raymond and Harold, two tough, taciturn old bachelor farmers who have lived alone all their lives.
All those lonely hurting people are walking through the valley, but they get by with a little help from their friends and family: Ike and Bobby with each other and their dad and a dying widow lady; Tom with a female teacher; and best of all, Victoria with the old bachelor farmers who take her into their farmhouse. It is a beautifully told story of the way we can comfort each other along the way. There’s only one thing wrong with it, and that is the total absence of God. God is not mentioned once. He plays absolutely no role in the lives of these people.
And that is tragic, because, as the old hymn puts it, there comes a time “when other helpers fail and comforts flee.” Then there’s room for just two on the Jericho Road through the valley. At the end of his life Moses puts it in a powerful way in Deuteronomy 31. Humanly speaking, Moses has been the guide for God’s people through that desolate wilderness of Sinai. They are about to cross the Jordan and battle enemies for the Promised Land. But their leader is about to die. As Moses hands the reins of leadership over, he says to Joshua and all Israel: “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
“You are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” That’s a very important ending, because it gives us a vivid picture of how God is with us, or who this God is. I remember that children’s book on Psalm 23. As those children walk through the valley of the shadow that is an inner city street teeming with crime and violence, they are with each other. But they are just little kids, so that isn’t much comfort. If their grandmother walks with them, or better yet their friendly neighborhood beat cop, there will be a considerable difference in their comfort level. That’s why David adds, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
He picks up on the two simple tools of a shepherd’s trade to convey what a wonderful thing it is to have Yahweh as your shepherd. The rod was a shorter piece of wood, a bit like a police officer’s nightstick, only bigger and rougher. It was an extension of the shepherd’s right arm, a symbol of power and authority. He might use it to throw at a coyote, or to beat a lion, or to guide a stubborn ewe, or to count the flock. It was an instrument of authority.
The staff was longer, a more slender piece of wood with a hook on the end. It was an instrument of support. The shepherd might lean on it himself or use it to rescue a drowning sheep from a raging river by hooking it around the neck with the crooked end. It was a symbol of concern and compassion.
When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t have to fear evil because our Good Shepherd is with us, using his rod and staff to comfort us. Help your listeners to see Jesus Christ striding along beside them, climbing rocks and wading streams, fighting a roaring lion or smashing a coiled serpent with his mighty rod, supporting them with his staff of compassion, reaching out to rescue them from danger with the crook of his loving concern. As Psalm 62 puts it, “One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.”
That’s the comfort he gives—not just an arm around the shoulder and a gentle, “there, there, it will be all right;” not a soft pillow or the deadening of our pain; but all the power and love of the Good Shepherd to whom we belong.
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