Psalm 23 (A presence in the valley)

A sermon by Revd Chris Williams 16 March 2014

Psalm 23 is actually next week’s lectionary reading but I have brought it forward because it seems it might be appropriate for where we are today.

Here we are in the middle of Lent and, instead of a passage calling us to penitence or greater faithfulness, we find a psalm of encouragement. Instead of being called to attend to our sinfulness (or should I say ‘the human propensity to screw things up’!), here we are offered comfort and courage.

And that may be what some of us need right now. There are a number of situations at present within our church family which may cause us sadness or pain. In addition there will be many situations in your own life or in the lives of those nearest and dearest which may be of concern to you. And that’s before we even switch on our TVs to hear of the latest suicide bombing, or killing, or the latest dictator abusing their power.

I guess the attraction of this psalm for those facing particularly difficult times, is that middle verse: 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.

Often at such times, others may come to us to try and lift our spirits and say’  ‘cheer up, your problems are not so bad’ or ‘ why not look on the bright side?’  Or, if they are really spiritual ‘all things work together for good to those who love God’. Out of a desire to care for you, they try to abolish the darkness.

The Good Shepherd, however, takes a different approach. The shepherd walks with you in the midst of your trials. The darkness is not changed, but rather you are changed when you receive the gift of his presence. I think that the reason many people struggle in their faith when that darkness sets in is that they are convinced that it is God’s job to remove the darkness: take away the bullying boss, the back pain, the lack of money, the worry about your family, the pain in your heart after the argument with your nearest and dearest, the death of your best friend, the images of suffering children in Syria, worry over the situation in Ukraine…

Often people cite their faith, or their prayers, or their good life, or a Bible passage as reasons why God should remove the darkness. When situations remain the same and the darkness is not mysteriously lifted – people often walk away from God, assuming he doesn’t care – rather than walking even closer to him: the person who actually cares the most.

For the sheep in this psalm, the dark valleys are something of a given – and they are for most of us – although it is blindingly obvious that some people – through accidents of birth are born into circumstances or families or countries where they face more and deeper valleys than others.

For me, the middle line of the middle verse is the key: For you are with me.

When we think of this shepherd we must get rid of any notion of the English shepherd with his sheepdog. These guys 3000 years ago lived with their sheep day and night. They knew their sheep, they cared for their sheep, they protected their sheep from danger or wild animals.

The sheep weren’t pushed from behind but followed the shepherd – trusting him to lead them to green pastures and still waters. It follows, therefore, that the shepherd leads the sheep into the dark valleys – in fact the preceding verse says: he leads me in right paths for his name’s sake – although I think we want to be very careful before we ascribe all our darkness to God’s leading.

The point is, that the shepherd doesn’t wave goodbye to the sheep at the beginning of the valley and say ‘goodbye! I hope you make it through– I’ll meet you the other end!’ No, he remains with them every step of the way and they are comforted by his presence.

The power of presence.

There is something in the power of presence which can seem even to change reality. If a child falls and cuts their knee, they may cry, but how often have we seen that child’s tears dry up after the loving kiss and embrace of a parent? The skin’s still torn, the pain’s still there but the presence of another makes all the difference.

And if it is a loving, caring presence…how much more the comfort.

Now I admit, recognising the presence of God is not always as easy as it sounds. I’m sure most of you are aware of the poem called ‘Footprints’ – where someone looks back over their life which is represented by two sets of footprints in the sand – one their own – the other God’s. They notice that when times got most difficult, there was only one set of prints in the sand. Accusing God of abandoning them when they were most in need, God replies: ‘it was then that I carried you’ to which I would want to respond ‘well it would be nice if you made your presence felt a little more or said hello sometime!’

It’s a poem I find myself wanting to despise because it all sounds so nice and perfect in a rather sickly-sweet way – especially when it is in a silver frame in Clinton cards shop! But there’s something of Ps 23 here isn’t there? It is conceivable that those sheep went through some valleys that were so dark that they couldn’t see the shepherd with their eyes – where they may have felt alone and abandoned.

I realise this may all be getting a little abstract – but when we are in dark places in our lives it is a genuine help to know that God is. That God is there – but more than that – God is here with me – now.

But there is something even deeper – a deep faith and trust that God is present despite what we may see – and there are countless examples of people who have been and are sustained through extremely dark places – sustained by a confidence that God is there. Because there are other ways to know of someone’s presence besides seeing them – those sheep may have heard him or may have smelt him. They may have assumed his presence based on their experience so far or they may simply have just known.

And sometimes – more often than we would like really – that absence may seem total and complete. That is the story of many great men and women of faith – and countless not-so-great people.

The psalm is ascribed to David and if he is, indeed, the author then he faced some rather extreme and nasty situations in his life – and yet he could still declare that even in the darkest of those – he was comforted by the presence of God – the good shepherd. I wonder how far we are able to say these words for ourselves?

Valley is the place of deep darkness – the place of our deepest darkness and fears. The place where we think no one can accompany us. But there is someone who cares and who, by his grace is prepared to stick right beside you – wherever it leads – ‘even in the darkest valley – you are with me’.

I’ve concentrated on what I consider to be the heart of this passage – or at least what I think we need to hear today. But I reckon there are a hundred sermons in this chapter: talk of green pastures and still waters and the restoration of our souls in those places. And the guidance of the shepherd, the setting of a feast with our needs taken care of and wine in abundance and the promise of goodness and mercy and a life forever in God’s presence.

And I know that can sound a bit like ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ but I think the good news of the Christian story is just that. We use the expression ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ – well we are promised light at the end of the tunnel. The shepherd knows that the way to the best fields and the best water is through this valley. For some, the valley may be long and dark, but at the end is this glorious image of a feast (and that’s an image that works for me!) – a feast without fear of enemies – a feast where your cup overflows, a feast where goodness and mercy catch up with you – a place, a state, where you can remain – in the protection of God – because it is God’s house.

The presence of God is the key. We are with the shepherd at the beginning of the psalm in the good places. He stays close during the dark places and he promised that the end is to be in his presence forever – in his house – forever.