Every year the fourth Sunday of the Easter season is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s easy to see why. Several of our readings today have images of sheep and shepherds.
The shepherd, or more accurately the good shepherd, is one of our most prevalent metaphors or images for both Jesus and God. And the most well known of those images is in our psalm for today, the 23rd psalm.
It sounds better in the King James Version, doesn’t it? If you know it, say it along with me:
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 forever.
These words are among the most powerful verses in the Bible. This psalm is certainly the most memorized, the most quoted, the most beloved of all scripture.
Even the most biblically challenged among us have likely at some time or place heard these familiar words.
The collection of prayers and songs that we call the Book of Psalms is unlike any other book in the Bible. With a few exceptions, the psalms are not the voice of God addressing humanity.
Instead, they are the voice of humanity, in all of its varied sorts and conditions, addressing God.
One commentator calls the psalms a series of shouts from humans to God – shouts of love and hate, shouts of suffering and rejoicing, shouts of hope and despair.
The psalms address life the way it really is, in all of its fullness. No matter what our circumstances may be – joyful or tragic – there is a reflection of them somewhere in the psalms.
But in the midst of these varied shouts of the human condition, the 23rd Psalm stands out. Why is that?
I think the reason this psalm is so beloved is because it presents a picture of faith and trust in God, and yet does not deny the darkness and fears that are present in each of our lives.
It begins with a statement of absolute trust. “The Lord is my shepherd.” God is the one who guides and cares for us all, who provides for our needs.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.” These words and the images they evoke are beautiful, soothing and refreshing. They make us want to linger in this idyllic setting.
But if the psalm stopped there, with its images of peaceful pastures and soothing water, I doubt that it would be the psalm that has comforted and sustained those in trouble and grief for centuries.
It is the next words that give this psalm its power. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me.”
This psalm candidly faces the fact that evil and death are inevitable parts of life. Notice that it does not proclaim that “if” we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but “though” we walk through that valley.
Each of us must walk through the valley. Ultimately it will be the valley of our physical death. But we will most likely encounter other fearful places along our lives’ journeys – the death of someone we love, the death of a relationship, a struggle with addiction or illness, financial struggles, fear of failure, loneliness, grief or despair.
No matter how prosperous or successful we may be, no matter how deep our faith and trust in God, there are times when each of us will find ourselves walking through valleys of sorrow, fear, and death.
Notice that we must walk, not run, through these valleys. There are no shortcuts or easy ways out.
This psalm has no glib assertions that God will prevent us from dangerous times and encounters. The psalmist’s faith does not use God as a magic charm to ward off darkness and evil.
But there is the promise that when we find ourselves walking through these places, that God is with us.
“I will be with you” has been God’s promise to God’s people since the beginning of creation.
Even after Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden into a land of uncertainty and danger, God promises to be with them.
When the people of Israel wander through the wilderness for 40 years, God provides for them and is with them.
In our Christian tradition the promise continues with the birth of God’s own son, who is called Emmanuel, which means “God is with you.” And when that son dies, his last promise to us is “I will be with you always, until the end of the ages.”
So when the psalmist declares “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; because you are with me,” he is not offering a blind hope that somehow things will work out.
The psalmist’s confidence is anchored not just in his own experiences, but in the faithfulness of God across the centuries. God has shown time and time again throughout history that even in darkness and death we are not alone. God is there, working to transform the darkness and give us new hope and life.
When we pray this psalm, we are invoking all the times through the ages that God has kept that promise.
That is why this psalm so often springs to our lips when we are in times of trouble, why we say it so often at funerals and with those who are dying.
A parishioner in another church told me of the day that her husband had a heart attack and was unconscious on the floor of their home. She immediately called the ambulance. And then she started praying the 23rd psalm.
“I didn’t think now I’m going to say this psalm,” she said. “It just came up from within me. It gave me strength and comfort while we waited for the ambulance to get there.”
Newspaper columnist Jacquelyn Mitchard once wrote a column with a story about this psalm.
“I once heard a preacher tell a story about a child who had to recite the 23rd psalm,” she writes. “’The Lord is my shepherd,’ the little girl began,. ‘He…’ She stopped, struggling to remember what came next.
“Well,” she finally said. “the Lord is my shepherd. That’s good enough for now.”
When we find ourselves walking through life’s valleys, confronting tragedy and evil, we may not remember every word of this powerful expression of faith.
But if we remember that the Lord is our shepherd, that God is with us, that will be good enough.