Passage: Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff — they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Even though we walk through the darkest valley – yes, this is definitely one of those moments in human history, one that immediately draws us to this passage. Fitting that it appears in the lectionary this Lent. Not since World War II, when many folks were caught up in a conflict to determine if evil would take control of the globe, has there been such a cloud of fear and uncertainty over humankind. Many of these fears are reasonable. We’re anxious about our own health, knowing now the seriousness of this disease. We worry about the health of our loved ones, especially those who are more vulnerable to infection, as well as those who work in places that are more at risk, like our health-care workers, grocery-store employees, etc. I’m anxious about my daughter Anna who is a nurse at a hospital which now has a patient infected with COVID-19. She’s alarmed, as the hospital has already started rationing their use of masks and gowns, protective equipment that prevents the spread of the disease to others. She’s concerned for herself and the children she treats. She is also afraid to spend time with us now, worried that she could bring the virus into our house. And for all these reasons, we fear for her physical and emotional health.
If we don’t know someone who has been sickened or whose health is directly threatened by the disease, we worry about the damage the pandemic is doing to the economy, whether we will have jobs when this is all over, whether our savings will hold up until the virus runs its course, whether our retirement investments will be all gone with the plummet of the stock market. And although the most reliable sources reassure us that it’s unwarranted, many still fret about the availability of food and supplies that we need to get by. Beyond these tangible concerns we experience, the terrible uncertainty of this time may create the most fear.
Fear is a terrible thing. It can dominate our lives, crippling our ability to use reason in solving the difficult challenges facing us. It can make us selfish, tribal, only concerned for ourselves and our own folks. I’m ashamed to acknowledge that while shopping the other day, I caught myself being pleased at figuring out that there were protective gloves in the paint aisle, thinking that I’d found supplies that others might have missed. Suddenly I remembered that others needed gloves as badly as I did.
And to these fears come the familiar words of the psalmist. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” What is in the heart of the writer as he expresses these comforting words? Is he telling us that those who believe in his God have nothing to fear? Is he indicating that life for the faithful is always about “green pastures” and “still waters”? Viewing the span of writings in the Book of Psalms as whole, one would argue, on the contrary, that the writers were quite realistic about the difficulties they faced, we face, in their/our lives. Among the psalms, today’s heartening words are a minority sentiment compared to the words of lament and disenchant-ment. Of the five main categories of psalms, laments (68 of them) far outnumber the next highest category, thanksgivings (34 of them).
What is in our own hearts as we avidly embrace these sentiments? Skeptics might offer that we are attempting to put on a brave face, struggling to be hopeful about our lives and our faith in the midst of the distressing times we’re experiencing. Could there have been moments amid my own struggles of faith when I claimed these words because I needed them to be true? In all honesty, I acknowledge the answer would likely be yes. However, there are other times when the words of this psalm simply emanate from our hearts as we reflect on the support and comfort that our life in Christ provides – at the most challenging of times and in moments of feeling most blessed. Not that it erases the difficulties in our lives we experience, but that it expresses what we have glimpsed, here and there, of a truth that transcends the concerns of this world, a reality that is safe, comforting, and full of blessing.
In a somewhat inverted order, the psalmist first proclaims how it will be when all is right, when God’s kingdom is finally realized. “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” It is life as it should be, life as it will be, some fine day. Whatever life beyond this world may be, I wouldn’t complain if it were much like this.
What the psalmist next expresses is that God’s presence is here, ever-present, even in the reality of these darker days, this Lenten time of ominous events and experiences, before His kingdom is realized. And with this hope of future fulfillment, and a trust engendered by our here and there, now and then moments of clear seeing of God’s presence in our past, we find the courage and conviction to walk confidently, even during the daunting moments of our present days. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Each Lenten season calls us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. However, the cross of Christ is not only a calling to a life of sacrifice. It is our comfort too. For our God is not just the powerful One who created the earth and set it in motion. He is also the One who came to earth wearing our flesh. Jesus took on the suffering of our flesh not only to show us he would suffer for us, to save us from all the brokenness of this world; but also that he would suffer with us, that he is one with all our trials and the dreads we will face until he comes again. That even as we walk through these perilous times, we have nothing to fear. That even if our table has fewer persons gathered around it these days, our cup of blessing remains full – until that final banquet when we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Prayer: God of those who suffer, despair, worry, grieve, we trust in your steadfast love, and hope for the joy we have experienced in your presence before. Remind us, even when our strength and resolve grow weak, and fear threatens to overtake us, that we are never alone in our struggle, that You came to suffer with us. Amen.
Today’s musical offering: Ladies in Lavender by Joshua Bell