"Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death"

4 Lent.A.20
Psalm 23
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

What a blessing it is that we have the reassuring words of the Twenty-Third Psalm to offer us comfort and hope this morning. Because, let’s face it—it’s been a harrowing few weeks for us. The nightly news has taken on something of the quality of a train-wreck. Our lives are disrupted; and, as a consequence, are largely disordered. Some of us are faced with fears we wouldn’t have imagined a few weeks past: job worries, concern about an impending financial crises, the fear of dying and losing those we love. We’re feeling our way through a crisis of unprecedented proportions. We are on a journey none of us would have chosen to take, and are in need of someone to lead us from this place of fear and confusion to a higher plain of peace. We need to be reminded of the loving presence of our great Good Shepherd.
Given world events, it should come as no surprise to you that it is the mid-point of the psalm which catches my attention this morning. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me…”

Take a moment and imagine yourself in a wild and wonderful country possessed of the dramatic background of middle-eastern mountains, rivers, alpine meadows and high rangelands. David the author of Psalm 23, would have known this terrain first-hand. Not simply the delight of being in the high ranges during the summer months with his flock, he would have also been well versed in the experience of trekking up the mountains and bringing his flock back down through low lying valleys and ravines.

Now, about those valleys and ravines—these are what accompanies mountains. Really, you can’t have one without the other. Every mountain has a valley—and if you want to get up to the top to see the view and enjoy the refreshment the high rangelands have to offer—you’re going to have to walk through it.

So notice what the psalmist tells us: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me” Did you notice that? There’s a valley, to be certain—but the valley is not the destination. The verse doesn’t tell us that we die in the valley; nor does it say that the valley is where we stay. It tells us that the valley is something we walk through. It is a point along the journey. It is not the destination.
Let’s take a closer look at the valleys through which David would have led his flock. Danger would not have been unknown or unexpected. Perhaps, somewhere along his travels he would have encountered a variety of predators: Coyotes, bears, wolves or cougars. Not only this, he would have known that these valleys were subject to sudden storms and flash floods. There could be rockslides, mudslides or snow avalanches and a dozen other natural disasters that could destroy or injure his sheep. And yet, the shepherd knows that traveling through the valley is still the best way to get his flock from the high country back down to the safety of pastures nearer home.

You may be wondering: why go there to begin with? Why not opt out of the journey and stay safely at home? The answer, counterintuitively, is that it’s not in the best interest of the sheep for them to stay put. In the geography in which David lived, staying in one place wasn’t healthy for sheep. Pastures needed time to recover from overgrazing—and the high country would have been a welcome place for this to occur. And those valleys. Well, they also have a purpose. You see, it’s in the valleys, the low-lying areas, where the richest feed and best forage is found along the route. So, think of it this way—valleys are necessary and the only way for us to get up to the high places of refreshment and back to the comfort and safety of home is to walk through them.

In our Christian faith and tradition, Jesus is our Good Shepherd. Like David, there is no place where our Savior is leading us, where he, himself, has not been before. Even in a place shadowed with the possibility of death, Jesus has been there—and he promises that he will carry us through. For even death, from the perspective of our faith, is not an end to a journey, but a door that we walk through. Listen to the mood of the psalm itself. There is a grandeur here, a quietness and an assurance that can’t help but ease troubled spirits. The psalmist tells us that we are not to fear, for God is with us—with you and with me in every situation, in every dark trial, in every devastating disappointment, in every distressing dilemma. Jesus is here, and he is leading us through.

From what we know about COVID-19 pandemic, this is not a valley we are going to travel through quickly. My advice—take a moment and look around at where you are. The valley, generally, is the well-watered route. Though there be danger here, there is also refreshment along the way: rivers, springs and quiet pools.

Think back to other valleys you have traversed in your life: valleys of disappointment, grief and sorrow. For many people, oftentimes it’s the lowest points of life that produce the most spiritual growth. It’s in the valleys that we develop the life-enhancing disciplines of courage and fortitude; in these valleys is where we discover a source of strength and comfort found nowhere else but in God. If you remember those valleys of your life, perhaps you may recall that God led you though. And if that was the case then, it is also the case in this present time as well.

There is a reason why Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved in all of holy scripture. It reassures us that there is no place where we are at present where Christ has not been. It tells us there is peace and joy with God.
So, how do we cope with the present calamity that has come our way? With Christ as our Good Shepherd we learn that we can face this crises calmly—not cavalierly, not by pretending we don’t care or by playing fast and loose with our health and that of our neighbors; but with assurance, knowing that whatever happens, God is ever by our side.

Psalm 23 is the answer to the question: How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable and frightening world? It’s a promise that God is with us and will carry us through the valley of the shadow of death into a place of life and peace.

Psalm 23 it never gets old, it never becomes irrelevant or cliched. If you haven’t done so before now, take some time in the midst of our self-imposed exile, to commit it to memory. It is timeless. Wherever you are, let’s take a moment to recite it in unison.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul;
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Amen and Amen.

(A good portion of this sermon was based on Phillip Keller’s book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23)