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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent
I Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:1-14; John 9:1-41
Poetry really does strike deep into the soul, doesn’t it? It moves us, even when we don’t fully understand it, because of the beauty of its words, of its form. Beauty is irrepressible and irresistible. David, the king over Israel during her golden years as an ancient nation, wrote this poem of his own experience of God. It isn’t the only experience of God he had; there are also poems of lament, or of thanksgiving and joy, or of questioning. But this one is a poem of faith, and of hope. And this text is perhaps the most beautiful of all the bible’s poetry, and one we need to hear today.
The Lord leads us as a shepherd. Translating that into modern city life is hard; maybe the Lord is a nurse, restoring our health? Or a bus driver, taking us home? A therapist, healing our traumas? My metaphors fall short, but the shepherd was such a staple in ancient Israel, it’s hard to find an equivalent.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The shepherd provides what the Sheep need. Green pastures and safe waters are what sheep need, sustenance and safety. The role of the sheep is faith: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” There is confidence in this, the confidence of the knowledge that yes, while the world is dark, My Shepherd, My Lord, My God remembers me, and will always be with me through the darkness.
Kids: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This is kind of difficult to understand, isn’t it? We don’t know shepherds. We all live in the city, and aren’t used to people whose job is to just take care of animals. How can we understand this better? Sheep are simple animals, who have a tendency to wander. Shepherds were there to direct the sheep, keeping them from hurting themselves, and protect them from robbers and wild animals. Think of it like this: When you were a little kid playing on the playground, your parents protected you. You didn’t even know what was dangerous, so you might walk into the street or off a ledge. We’re all like that; we’re like little kids who don’t know what we’re doing, know so little that we’d be terribly hurt if it weren’t for our parents. We’re the sheep, the little kids, and God is the shepherd, the parent, the one who has promised that no matter what happens, He will eventually take us home and keep us safe forever, tells us we don’t need to be afraid of the dark, and will make us the most wonderful meal you can imagine, a dinner at the most comfortable table with everyone we love.
All, we have so much to fear. Sickness, poverty, death. Very real fears, and not one’s I intend to invalidate or diminish. But “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” I wish I could say this of myself. I wish we all could. The valley of the shadow of death. This reminds me so vividly of my grandparents cabin up north: tall mountains are either side, way outside the city. I would stay up watching a movie with my grandpa, and then walk from his cabin to my parents cabin, several hundred yards away. The darkness that permeated that walk was like being in an ocean devoid of light. The shadows were long and deep. And I could feel fear. You might be in a valley. It could be one of chronic illness. Of breaking cars and loss of money. Of heart attacks. Of failure. Of losing everything. The shadows might be deepening, growing, and they are terrifying. But you do not need to fear that evil, because God is with you.
The shepherd used a rod and staff for two purposes: one was to direct the sheep, to guide them as they tried to wander off. We want to wander off, to stray on our own way, because sometimes the way of God scares us. We want more control, but faith is about letting go of control and learning to trust. The other reason was to defend, to protect, because sheep are the most vulnerable of creatures. God directs us, and He defends us.
But, the wise person might ask, harm still comes to me. Hurt, and failure, and suffering. Is God’s rod and staff directing me? Is He protecting me? Or because it seems like God is silent as the shadows grow, does that mean that God has forgotten or abandoned me?
No. Brothers and sisters, no, God has not nor will God ever forget or abandon you. The valley of this life is one part of our experience, one part of our existence. Wolves and bears and lions will still tear at the sheep, and the world will still seek to hurt us. But those attacks are futile, and they are temporary. God is preserving us even through them, and bringing us to the other side. In fact, we can see an acute example of this in the gospel reading; a man born blind is healed by Jesus, and the wolves, the Pharisees, the legalists, said the man must have been a sinner and that is why he was blind. Therefore, Jesus must also be a sinner! But the man doesn’t buy it, and declares that Jesus must be from God because he, a man born blind, can now see. Jesus is the shepherd, there to heal the harm that sin wreaks on us. That man wasn’t born blind because he or his parents sinned; but he was healed because Jesus brought him into the flock, embraced him as a sheep. Let no one tell you that you suffer because you sinned, but do let them know that you have hope and joy because your shepherd lives, and watches out for you every moment.
At that other side of the valley, we find a table, a table where God will embrace us in true hospitality. We will sit at a table in the presence of our enemies, but they will be unable to do us any harm; he will anoint our heads with oil, a thing done to honor valued guests in the ancient world; our cups will overflow.
David was no stranger to trouble. When he says “your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,” he doesn’t mean suffering won’t occur. But what he does know is that God will always walk with him through the broken world, directing him, and one day bring him home, and in that Temple, in the presence of God, David and we all “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The valley is long, and the shadows are dark. But God is our Shepherd, the King of Love. And even as fear presses in around us like a smothering blanket, believe in His goodness and breathe in the fresh air of the valley. Replace fear with faith, and hope with urgent expectation that God will fulfill His promise to you, no matter what. Desire above all else to be in God’s presence, where goodness will overflow. Follow the Shepherd.
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