By Paul Koch –
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…” Seldom does one go to the funeral of a brother or sister in Christ where these words are not spoken. And rightly so, for Psalm 23 is a powerful Word of God and it has sunk deep into the psyche of his people. The language of that Psalm, especially in the old King James translation is the go to passage from the Word of God for obituaries and those little cards at the mortuary. It may not be your favorite Psalm, but there is no denying that for most of you this is the Psalm that you’ve come in contact with more than any other. But sometimes when we hear a particular Word of God repeatedly in very similar circumstances, like when we are in mourning, we no longer really hear the Word itself. Rather it drives a particular emotion, and this is certainly the case with Psalm 23.
Beyond the sentimentality of hearing Psalm 23 read at a funeral, there is good reason that this Psalm has become so favored. I’ve been there. I’ve been in the room when a child of God has died. I see the faces of their closest family and friends. People are in shock. If it was a long and drawn out sickness they had imagined they were prepared for such a moment, but they really aren’t. And if it was a sudden and unexpected death, then they are completely destroyed in that moment. Minds race a hundred miles an hour and wonder what to do next. How do they make those phone calls to let others know? How do they move on when a huge part of their life is no longer there? In such moments they are completely lost, and that is no small thing. To be lost, to be unsure of where to turn or what to do, can either paralyze us or lead us to do great harm to ourselves or others. And so, we long for those incredible words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…”
But who? Who is with us in such moments? Well, David begins his famous Psalm by saying, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The Lord then is with us, the Lord himself is our Shepherd, our Good Shepherd. Now I think it is worth noting that he doesn’t speak of our Lord in his strength and power. He doesn’t sing, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” He doesn’t speak of God as the King of Creation or the Lord of Lords; all of which would be true and comforting, all of which are acceptable metaphors to describe our God. Rather, he speaks of our Lord as a shepherd. To call the Almighty God our Shepherd is to say that we are his sheep. To be his sheep means that he will provide us what we need. He will feed us well, protect and guide us along our way. He will do everything a good shepherd would be expected to do for his sheep.
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” Here we are reminded that this Psalm confesses something beyond the tears and grief associated with a funeral. Here David sings about a God that has provided all things for his children. It’s not just that we have a companion in our sorrow, it is that something more has been given to us. Our Shepherd has provided hope and life and salvation for all his sheep. This Psalm sings of the Gospel itself. Here we learn the joy and splendor of our Lord’s care and love for his wayward flock. David sings of the joy of Easter hope. Salvation for each of you has been secured and freely given in the flesh and blood of Christ alone. He suffered and died so that you might live. In Christ you will not be in want, in Christ you are given the very gifts of eternity, led to the green pastures and the still waters! And so, yes, we hear these words at funerals, but we ought to cling to them each and every day of our lives.
And yet something happens. Not only do we tend to reserve this powerful Psalm for funerals, but we forget what it was that our Good Shepherd has done for us. It happens easily enough. Perhaps even when this Psalm is fresh upon our lips, as we stand staring at a casket in the front of the church. There Satan in league with our world teams up to cause us to wonder about being in want. After all, in our tears and grief we definitely feel that we are in want. And so the world finds opportunity to say, “Look at what good all your prayers and faith has done for you; are you really any better off?” And Satan will whisper in your ears about how this grief is proof that you need to do something a little more, something to make sure you are never hurt this way again. And slowly but surely our eyes are turned from the cross of Christ to our own efforts. We are encouraged to look to our own prayer life, our own sacrifices, our own living. Sure, we may have a good shepherd, but there seems to be something left over for us to take care of.
The thing is, there are other shepherds out there ready and willing to provide the guidance, the accountability, the programs and direction to make sure that we are safe and sound. And these shepherds are in great supply. Such shepherds don’t call the sheep with the sweet voice of the Gospel but the drive the flock with the fear of the Law. To the lonely and the grieving around the casket they will demand that you get your act together, you give your life over to Jesus so that you may be ready when he calls you. They are the shepherds whose voices direct you to your own deeds for a measure of your faith. They will motivate through fear and control, always having you search within for what is necessary to make it to those green pastures.
And we try, don’t we? Oh we try and live the life of the faithful disciples, the faithful little lambs. But there is so much that leaves us in want, so much within us that is torn and broken, so much that we are afraid to even speak about in the light. The good that we want to do we don’t do, the evil that we really want to avoid we end up doing over and over again. And the voices of these Law wielding shepherds leave us in despair. They leave us exposed and dying. Satan smiles and the world laughs as we turn from our hope in Christ to the desolation in our own souls where we don’t find hope or life, but only death.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…”
Your true Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has never abandoned you or forsaken you. His word of hope and life restores your soul. His voice leads you in paths of eternal righteousness for his name’s sake. He who bore your sin and died in your place says to you today, “I forgive you all of your sins. You are my sheep, baptized into my name and wearing my holy garments. You are not in want!”
This Word of the Gospel, this word of hope and life for each and every one of you is the rod and the staff that brings comfort to the despairing. They are the means by which we travel through this valley of the shadow of death. Our Shepherd has fulfilled the Law. Our Shepherd has risen from the dead, never to die again. Our Shepherd has called you by name and given you the kingdom of God. Our Shepherd pours out his gifts with reckless abandon, overflowing your cup, and saturating the ground with his mercy.
Every times we gather together, every time we embrace our brothers and sisters and receive the gifts of Christ, we feel the green grass beneath our feet and drink deep from the still waters. We are not alone. We are not left to our own devices to secure our salvation, for we have a Shepherd and we are his sheep. And so, each and every day we can with great confidence boldly say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…”