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May 3rd, 1998 (St. George s URC, Hartlepool)
Easter 4 (RCL - year C )
Readings: Acts 9:36-43   "Dorcas threads her last needle???"
                   Psalm 23  *    "The Lord's my shepherd..."
                   Revelation 7:9-17  "A great crowd of people in white robes..."
                   John 10:22-30  *   "My sheep listen to my voice..."

Through the Valley

How many of you have ever heard a sermon based on psalm 23? It's a psalm I have often avoided because it is so well-known, so familiar that I wonder if anything new can be said about it. Well, this week our readings seem to have a shepherd/sheep theme - through the reading from John's gospel where Jesus describes himself in terms of the Good Shepherd, and most famously in Psalm 23.

Also this week, I was called in to conduct a funeral for a family that in the normal course of life would have nothing much do do with the Bible or the church, yet when asked, they knew straight away that they wanted me to read the 23rd Psalm. I have found it to be true of various people from different walks of life and with various degrees of faith, that Psalm 23 is held as a very precious text. There must be something about this psalm that speaks to the human heart, and so I thought we could explore it together this morning.

I want you to walk with me through an art gallery today. We won't be looking at paintings on canvass, but at pictures of life. I am no expert art critic, but I recognize all of these pictures, and whatsmore, you will get to take some of the pictures home with you. They are priceless and they are all found in psalm 23.

The first picture : "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." I am satisfied, my needs are met. This is a good picture. Someone is in control; the shepherd knows what's going on. There is peace - perfect peace, perfect care and perfect rest. It's a beautiful, restful picture. He makes me lie down in green pastures. You're stretched out on the sun-lounger soaking up this mediterranean Hartlepool sunshine. By your side is a long, cool glass of cold lemonade. A distant sound of a lawn-mower, the buzzing of bees and some bird-song are the only things to disturb the peace. There's no need to get up quickly; the shepherd is alert and looking out for me. In the Middle-East the phrase used in this picture for "lie down" is that used or a camel lying down to rest. And when a camel lies down to rest you can count on it not getting up for a while. There's no hurry or worry in this picture. Rest your eyes on it; sink into its pastures; dream of the quiet waters the shepherd provides for his sheep. Feel the warm rays of sunshine, take in the scent of clean air and taste the crystal-clear water; experience the peacefulness. He restores my soul. All is well, I am at peace, my life is right.

The second picture: Notice with me verse four, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...", and lets just pause for a moment at this second picture. The sky turns dark, the clouds roll in, the air gets thicker, the heavens turn grey, and the earth opens up its mouth like the throat of a lion, ready to swallow you up. No more lying down in green pastures, no more resting beside quiet waters; your peaceful world is shaken, the birds don't sing anymore, and then your question is, "Where's the shepherd now ?" All of a sudden, life takes you down a cliff and the valley of the shadow of death lies threatening before you.

The original Hebrew calls it the valley of the shadow. It was a dark place where a shepherd and his flock could be ambushed by wild animals or by sheep-stealers. He had to lead his flock through it to get to new pasture, but it was a dark and threatening passage filled with danger and fear. The psalm is attributed to David. He walked through many shadowy valleys. When hunted by Saul and his army he was close to death on several occasions. And yet David can write, "I will fear no evil". This isn't just David a courageous person speaking. The reason for his confidence is not his own bravery, but five simple words - "For you are with me." God himself is with us ! The Lord is my shepherd, he is the one who walks with us through the valley." And we know more than David did, for we are reminded of the carpenter from Nazareth who entered the valley with the darkest of shadows - the shadow of a cross and walked right through so that he could make his promise. He didn't stay in the valley of shadows, he walked right through it triumphant.

And what was his promise? Does he say, "Look there's a tough time coming up, a valley of shadows. Go ahead, be brave, and I'll be waiting for you at the other side, good luck." ? No. Does he say, "Look there's a tough time coming up, a valley of shadows. It'll be alright, don't worry, keep smiling, I'll be thinking of you." No. He says, "Look, there's a tough time coming up, a valley of shadows. I am going to walk through it with you, we'll walk right through it together."

And there's some more. At the end of verse 4, "your rod and your staff, they comfort me." Every shepherd carried a rod or a staff. We would know it as a crook. It was used for all sorts of things. One function was to count the sheep. It is a counting rod - someone is counting the flock, and we know that even one sheep missing is reason enough for God to leave the flock and find the missing one. It was also used for discipline, to keep the sheep on the right road. If a sheep started to stray off, the staff would be thrown with great skill and accuracy and speed at the straying sheep. Maybe that's where David got his accuracy from when he slung his shot at Goliath. It was also used in the dark of night. The shepherd would tap it on the hard ground to reassure the sheep that he was still with them.

But more than that, the psalm says thy rod and thy staff to comfort me. Comfort originally meant to strengthen intensively. It's where the word "fort" comes from - a strengthened, fortified city. David can say "I fear no evil" because he finds strength and confidence in the Lord's presence. The Lord is my rock and my salvation, who shall I fear ?

The third picture: in verse five, the tone changes. The third picture David is painting differs from the first and the second. It is a picture of triumph. Triumph over the valley of shadows. "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." My enemies are still close by as God is preparing a special meal to celebrate my emergence from the valley. He annoints my head with oil, I am the honoured guest.

And our fourth picture: "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." This is a resolution, a promise based on the psalmists experience of life and the way God has always been present. Because I have seen God at work in this way, as my shepherd, I will stay in his flock, it is my home. A picture of someone coming home. We know what that picture looks like don't we. To have been away for some time, and to come home. What a fulfilling and satisfying picture for the end of the gallery. Walking with the shepherd, whether through the green pastures, beside the still waters, into, through or out of the valley of shadows, we are walking home with the shepherd. Amen.