by Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
Fourth Sunday of Easter
This past week I stepped into a world I have not been in for many years. It is a world I have entered twice before. The first time I was there two months the second time three months. What is this world? It is the world of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Hospital just up the street from us here at Mount Olive. I was there after the birth of both of my sons, who were born extremely premature 17 and 15 years ago. The NICU really is a whole other world. It is a world where the fragility of life is visible and the reality of death is palpable. It is a roller coaster experience with great highs and great lows and everything in between, sometimes you can be up one minute and down the next. It is a place where you hear words you never wanted to hear about your baby, like: “you baby is very sick,” “we are cautiously optimistic,” “our backs are against the wall,” and “ we are running out of options.” The NICU is another world. It is a world where the line between life and death is not clear, it is more like a wide valley. It is like the psalmist describes in the 23rd Psalm, “the valley of the shadow of death,” a place of life but also a place in which death close by.
There are other places and experiences in our lives where the line between life and death is not clear, where we walk between the fragility of life and the reality of death. How many of us have walked through the valley of the shadow of death? It may have been at the pending death of a loved one, or time of depression, or an experience of waiting, or time of recovery, or an experience of uncertainty, or a time of unemployment, or living with chronic health issues. There are a host of experiences which are able to give us an experience of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and it may be different for each of us.
Only three weeks after Easter and Jesus’ glorious resurrection it may seem like a downer to talk about being in “the valley of the shadow of death,” however it still is a reality for us on this side of the cross. Jesus’ resurrection has provided us with a “now” and a “not yet” situation. Right “now” we experience the forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit present in us, but we have “not yet” experienced the time spoken of in our passage from Revelation 7, where we will worship God day and night, where we “will hunger and thirst no more;” where “the sun will not strike [us], nor any scorching heat,” where the Lamb will guide us “to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Revelation 7:15-17).
I think the 23rd psalm offers us some insight into this life of “now” and “not yet” in which we live as Christians, a life where even followers of Jesus experience times of walking in the valley of the shadow of death. The 23rd psalm is a down to earth psalm. It connects with us as some visceral level. It connects us literally to the earth and the creatures. It speaks of God as being right with us, even though it was written before Jesus came down to be with us.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness,
For his name’s sake.
For those of us who are city dwellers this may or may not be an image we can understand. A shepherd is very necessary because sheep are vulnerable animals and they need a lot of help. Some of us may not like to be called sheep because we are smart and strong and can take care of ourselves. But the psalmist is wiser and knows we need God’s tender care.
Shepherds in the Middle East live with the sheep and have a relationship with the sheep so that the sheep knows the shepherd and will follow and listen to the shepherd’s voice. Sheep cannot be herded like cattle, they can only be led and gently guided. Sheep cannot drink from flowing waters like a stream or a river, it scares them, so the shepherd will create a place of “still waters” for the sheep from a stream or river so that they get the water they need. The image is a caring and loving relationship of the shepherd for the sheep.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
For thou art with me;
Thy rod and staff,
They comfort me.
With this verse a shift takes place. A tranquil mood is shattered. “The psalmist refers to going through dangerous places and reports, surprisingly, that even then, ‘I fear no evil.’ The reason for this absence of fear follows immediately, as the psalmist switches from talking about the Lord, the Shepherd, to speaking to the Lord: ‘for you are with me’ (James Limburg, Psalms, Westminster Bible Companion, Louisville, KY: John Knox Press 2000, p. 73).
The psalmist recognizes the need for and relationship with the Shepherd and knows that in the valley of the toughest, ugliest, yuckiest stuff the Shepherd is there. Emmanuel, God is with us. Jesus is in the valley with us. Jesus gets down in the dirt with us.
It is interesting to note that in the Hebrew the phrase translated “for thou art with me” is found precisely in the middle of this psalm. There are twenty-six words leading up to it and twenty-six words after it. “The number twenty-six is itself of interest because the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in the word YHWH (Yahweh, the name for God) is 10 + 5 + 6 + 5 = 26” (Limburg, p. 74). The heart of this psalm is the phrase “for thou art with me.” In the valley, thou art with me. In the midst of evil, thou art with me. Nothing will scare the Shepherd away. Jesus is our Shepherd who remains present in the midst of the deepest, darkest times of our life.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil,
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
(Psalm 23: 5-6)
When a shepherd would lead sheep through mountains or hills the shepherd would look for a plateau for the sheep to graze, literally a “table” (like “mesa” which is Spanish for table). The shepherd would make “prepare the table” by pulling out the poisonous weeds, which the sheep would eat if left.
While the sheep were eating at the prepared table the Shepherd would keep an eye open for other predators. The wandering sheep were brought back to the table
What a strange God we have who sets a table in the presence of our enemies. How odd of God to set Jesus Christ to suffer and die, but yet raise him again to life. The only enemy which has been conquered for us is death, and even though it may not feel like much to us in the valley of suffering it is enough for now.
For it is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive at baptism that we are joined to Christ Jesus. It is through Jesus’ life that God walks with us. It is through Jesus’ death that he knows the isolation and loneliness we experience. It is through Jesus’ resurrection that God can now walk with us as the Holy Spirit.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, there will be times in your life when you will find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, in those times, Jesus the Great and Good Shepherd, will not leave you, but pick you up and carry you. You may not realize it until you are out of the valley that you were carried through it and it may not be until later that you realize your soul has been restored.