Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Shadow of Death's Valley

God reveals himself in poetry. He created us in his image as emotionally complex and beautiful creatures.  Songs and poetry cause us to experience a range of emotion that we cannot fully understand otherwise.  I want you to know that you were created for intimacy with God, and he understands the joy and hurt, the pain and celebration of this life.  I want you to see the hope of intimately being honest before God with the difficult experiences of this life.  After all isn’t that what the gospel is about?  Jesus came to die for us so that we could be called sons of God.  Shouldn’t you, as a child, intimately and boldly declare our deepest pains struggles and doubt to the creator of the world, who experienced the pain sorrow and struggles you have experienced?

I want you to understand that Jesus Christ came to suffer and die.  We do not have an apathetic uncaring God.  We have a God who suffers.  He does not suffer because he is weak and puny.  He suffered because of his vast strength and majesty, so that his people could call him Father, Daddy.  We have a God who is intimately aware of our suffering.  The creator of the world was born in to His creation.  This broken and contradictory world came against him, even in the earliest moments of his earthly life.  This world try to destroy him. When we understand that Jesus Christ entered our sorrow we find a bedrock foundation in the ever shifting sands of this world.  There is sorrow found in the songs of the bible.  The laments and sorrow in the biblical songs help us truly experience deep Joy and profound security in the bed rock of the work Jesus did on the cross

A Psalm of David.

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.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will 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.

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 ESV)

The words of Psalm 23 are familiar words.  Often spoken at funerals.  Often quoted in movies.  Often used on plaques and monuments.  But have you ever stopped a listen to the words of Psalm 23?  Something wonderful happens in this passage and you will miss it if you do not slow down and listen. 

Did you notice who the psalmist was singing to?  I didn’t.  It took me 20 years of reading and reciting this song before I realized this is not a bunch of verses, loosely connected phrases. This psalm is a profound movement of someone who, though a believer in God, moves from knowing about God to intimately knowing God.

So I ask again did you notice who David is singing to in these passages.  In the first half of the Psalm he is not singing to God, he is singing to the audience.  He is speaking to them as a sheep would speak to an impartial observer.  “He makes me lie down.” “He leads me beside.” “He restores.”  Yes and amen wonderful comforting truths that warm and fill the soul.  This speaks to us in our seasons of plenty when God grants us a bountiful harvest of physical blessings. 

But did you notice the second half of the song? After the journey became hard, who does the psalmist sing his song to?  It wasn’t to you or me reading the song.  This song is sung directly to God himself.  “You are with me.” “Your rod and Your staff.” “You prepare a table.” “You anoint my head.” It is sung directly to God, by one who has the right to address God directly.  It is sung with familiar and intimate tones.  The song writers knows that what he says is true with confidence.  He is confident enough to call upon the king of all kings, the ruler of all things, the creator of the world, as a child calling upon a Father.  

What happens here that changes the person so much that they move from the blind obedience of sheep to the intimate fellowship of a son?  Something happens in this song that I believe is the movement and purpose of the whole bible.  The bible is a movement from obedience to intimacy.  Obedience is a wonderful and beautiful thing.  Intimacy is far better.  What happens in this passage that moves the person from being a placid sheep to an invested son?  Answer: The singer goes on a journey through the wilderness.  The singer goes through the valley of death’s shadow and comes out changed. 

I have said on many occasions and I will say it again, “this is a hard life marked by sin.  No person will come out of this life unscathed.  You will experience the wounds of this life.”  The singer of this song experiences the journey through the darkest valley. After this journey he changes how he sings. 

What happens to the psalmist?  He goes through a journey, through the valley of death’s shadow.  This valley can be a dark, foreboding and helpless place and yet until you go through the valley you will not truly understand the intimacy you can have with a Holy and Loving God. 

When I lived in the mountains of Colorado I got to experience the darkness of many valleys.  I remember driving through the back forty of fort Carson’s training areas.  The terrain is mountainous in places.  There were times where you would drive between two mountain cliffs, and even though the sun is high in the sky, a dark shadow was cast on the ground. 

When you drive through those areas you realize how vulnerable you are.  All an opposing force has to do is get to the ridge on either side, and shoot into the valley, and you would be dead.  This has always been the case.  This is the place where the hero is attacked in almost every Western.  It is in the valley that you are the most vulnerable.  For a shepherd herding sheep this is just as true.  All it takes is a pack of wolves, a mountain lion, a band of robbers to stalk you along the ridge and this valley becomes your tomb.  In the dangers of life we will go through the valleys that are heavily shaded by the gloomy mountains of death. 

And this is where the cry of the psalmist is the most important to us.  God’s rod and God’s staff comfort us.  This is where our relationship with God changes from a simple and obedient proclamation to a profound and deeply rooted trust and intimacy with God.  In this moment you have to depend on the shepherd’s presence to protect and guide you.  The sheep walking through the valley of the shadow of death fear nothing because they know that God is with them.  God’s rod and God’s staff bring comfort to the sheep. 

The rod and staff has a twofold protection for the sheep.  The rod and staff first protect the sheep by hitting them and keeping them from falling away and becoming lost or being hurt.  The rod keeps the sheep moving through the valley.  It lets the sheep know the shepherded is very close.  Secondly the rod and staff are used as weapons to keep predators away from the flock.  You may know the shepherd is there but until you have to rely on his rod and staff you will not understand the level of comfort they will bring to you. 

You must understand all of us will go through the wilderness of that dark valley.  For some the valley is darker.  Some will go through it more times than others, but we will all walk through that valley.  Your walk through the valley, with the shepherd, informs your worship.  Michael Card said concerning the wilderness, “you cannot have worship without wilderness.”  This is exactly what you see with this psalm. 

The psalmist, going through the wilderness of that dark valley, changes from a sheep to a worshiper.  He changes from one talking about God to one who can talk to God.  He changes from a sheep to a son.  You will have many wilderness experiences in your life.  My prayer is that you stay close to the shepherded. My prayer is that your worship would become an intimate worship because of it. 

We cannot get to the place of intimacy, from grazing idly in the pasture to living as child of the king in the palace, unless we go on the journey through the valley of the shadow of death.  The trial of and hardships of this life should press us from simple obedient sheep, to loving children of the King.  This happens in the valley.  This happens when we come close to the pain of death, and lean into the greatest shepherd, who is the king himself.  In the wilderness you will learn what it means to have an intimate relationship with the King.  To call him father. 

You cannot understand the Christmas miracle if you do not understand the journey through this valley.  We do not have an aloof and distant God.  We do not have a King who sits in the tallest towers of his palace watching for people to screw up.  We do not have a harsh and disciplinarian God.  We have a loving God who is not only the shepherd but became one of the sheep.  He walked through the valley of death. 

We often think of the pictures of baby Jesus cooing with all the cute farm animals in a manger.  But Jesus was not born for some Hallmark sentiment.  He came so to experience the force of the valley of Death.  Because Jesus came to die the valley of death became, for us, the valley of death’s shadow.  Death is merely a shadow for us because of what Jesus does on the cross for us.   We can go through the shadow of that valley because we know God took the pain of death for us.  

No comments:

Post a Comment