April 17, 2016
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Lissa Wray Beal
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Ever have “one of those days?” Or (even worse) “one of those days” in “one of those weeks?” Where all that can go wrong does. And life suddenly feels as threatening as facebook memes make it out to be. Where the noise, noise, noise, noise makes you understand exactly how the Grinch felt? And a deserted island looks pretty appealing?
I had a day—a week—like that recently. Maybe you’ve had one, too. On the “final straw” day, I came home from a difficult meeting. No one else was yet home and the house was silent. Dropping books, purse, keys, I hauled by tired self up the stairs to my comfy office chair. It’s right beside my bookshelf. And sat. After a while, I pulled out my go-to Salve for a Rumpled Spirit. This book. Where the Wild Things Are.
I’m not exactly sure why this book makes safety for me. Why it soothes my troubled soul. It always has. Perhaps it is the delightful drawings. Perhaps it is that I identify with the young boy Max, who has a really bad day and ends up being sent to his room without supper. But mostly, I suspect it is that I love the idea of doing what Max does as that horribly awful day ends: he gets into a magical boat and sails off “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year. . . to where the wild things are.” These wild things “roar their terrible roars, and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes, and show their terrible claws.” I like the idea of that enchanted land where I (like Max) get to be king and tell all the wild things to “be still!” and they are.
But like Max in the land of the wild things, my escape at the end of a rough day isn’t lasting. Max in the end returns in his magical boat to his own room where (delightfully) he finds his supper waiting. The land of wild things—the place of escape—the place we order life according to our wants and dictates isn’t really real, is it?
So, where do you go when life is hard? What is your place of safety? Or is it a person? Or a food? What makes you feel – even if just for a moment—that everything is okay?
I wonder if our psalmist ever wanted to get away to rule over the wild things of life? Psalm 23 is perhaps one of the best-known and most-loved psalms of our age. It shows up in many places: at funerals often. Depicted in saccharine sweetness through Precious Moments figurines. Drawn idyllically in children’s books.
But the still waters and green pastures of Psalm 23 are anything but idyllic. To see this psalm simply as a sweet, pastoral depiction is probably (to put it bluntly) very bad reading.
For this psalm reminds us that faith is no pass from bad days.
Ever wonder why the psalmist is so thankful for those quiet pastures and calming waters? Could it be because life is anything but calm and quiet for this psalmist? Could it be that the psalmist knows fear, and noise noise noise noise? Upset and discord? Is that why we hear of the goodness of quiet, calming settings?
The psalmist certainly knows the reality of a rumpled spirit. Otherwise he would not rejoice in a restored soul. The psalmist has apparently wondered which direction to take in life, for he expresses gratitude at being led in right ways. The psalmist knows too well the Valley of the Shadow of Death—or as it is better translated, the “Valley of Deepest Darkness.” A place which indeed might describe the place of death. But it could equally describe grief, or depression, or divorce, or imprisonment, or relocation as a refugee. All of these –and many more that you could name and perhaps have or do experience in life—can be your “Valley of Deepest Darkness.” The psalmist has been there. And has not feared; indeed, he has been instructed in that horrible place, and been comforted.
The psalmist also knows what it is to be surrounded by enemies. Only from such an experience can the psalmist speak with wonder of being fed and cared for—an overflowing provision that no enemy was able to touch.
This is no idyllic psalm. It is a clear-eyed look at the truth that faith and suffering; faith and difficulty; faith and conflict can—and do—stand together. Faith is not for the fainthearted. . . and faith does not give you a magic “pass” on the difficulties of life.
That acknowledgement is where we begin to encounter the wonder of this psalm—the reason this psalm may be so dear to so many people. In the midst of the sometimes crushing weight of living: where the chips are down, and the enemies (whoever or whatever they are) are pressing close. . . the psalmist says “I shall not want.” NOT “I escaped to a better place.” NOT “My enemies disappeared.” NOT “I bought a better life.”
The psalmist says “I shall not want.” It speaks of provision in the midst of the difficulty. It speaks of restoration for a troubled spirit. It is direction when the way is unclear. It is a Presence in the darkest places; comfort when fear presses in. Sustenance in the face of enemies. It is goodness. . . it is mercy pursuing for the purpose of blessing as the enemies pursued for harm. It is safe harbour at the end.
The psalmist recognizes this “not wanting” because he has seen it in his peoples’ own history: he recognizes the language of faith, hearing again the same words used to describe Israel’s own experience. In Israel’s years in the desert they did not want. (Deut 2:7). Israel had itself been led out of Egypt into safe pastures (Exod 15:13). Israel had dined at a table filled with good things in a hostile wilderness (Ps 78:19). The psalmist testifies to an experience that is not new.
And it is an experience to which I have heard many of you testify. In sickness, I have heard you speak of a Presence. In fearful times, I have heard you speak of comfort. In moments of decision, I have heard you speak of direction into good paths. This is the language of faith; “I shall not want.”
The psalmist. . . we. . . I. . . do not need to go to “where the wild things are” and escape. Rather, in the very centre of the storm of our lives, we say “we do not want.” Not blindly denying the troubles we experience. Not refraining from asking God the tough questions. But finding in these tough places a safety beyond imagining, a strength stronger than our own.
And in that acknowledgement, we come to the very truth of this psalm. The truth of the psalmist’s experience of “not lacking anything;” the truth of our own testimony of peace in places of deepest darkness.
It is the psalmist’s very first words.
“The LORD is my Shepherd.”
The provision of all the psalmist needs right in the midst of his troubles is not removal to a different place. It is not a thing, or money, or a solution to the problem. It is not even the psalmist’s own determination to “buck up” and “get through.” Rather, it is the astounded testimony that in those times of trouble there is the experience of a Presence. A Shepherd. . . a King (for Kings were called Shepherds in the ancient world) walks with the psalmist. But not just any king; not just any shepherd. Rather, the sovereign God of the Universe, intimately present. Choosing the psalmist; walking with the psalmist in and through all the realities of life. “The LORD is my Shepherd,” the psalmist says. “I belong.” “I am chosen.” “I do not walk this hard path alone.”
Let me illustrate this for us in a different metaphor: imagine you are hiking. Maybe in the coastal mountains of B.C.—a place I’ve walked often. You start out at the trail head; the day is nice. You feel great: alive; looking forward to making this day a great memory. You wear light walking shoes; you’ve brought a baggie with a bit of trail mix in it. 30 minutes in, you realize you should have brought water. 60 minutes in, you’ve eaten the trail mix and are hungry. 90 minutes in, you realize the easy trail has toughened: it is filled with boulders and your light shoes are no good—even dangerous. 120 minutes in, you realize you’ve seriously miscalculated the trail. You might even be lost. You don’t know which way to go and you struggle to continue. You are afraid.
Suddenly, an older hiker comes up behind you and starts walking along with you. Conversation is quiet; you are not blurting out your predicament and your fear. But the older hiker looks at your inadequate shoes, notices you have not even a day pack, and observes your lack of water and food. He says, “Let’s walk together. I’ve done this trail before. It looks hard, but I know the way.”
At lunchtime he stops at a hidden stream. You feel refreshed. Out of his pack he pulls a Coleman stove, bacon, eggs, bread, butter. You feast and are strengthened. Once again he says, “Let’s go on together; follow me; this is a difficult part of the climb but you can make it.” And you follow him throughout the day, thankful for his guidance; grateful for an extended hand over the rough spots. You are still tired, but no longer fearful. He gives you an extra jacket when you get cold. Keeps pulling out a hidden flask of fresh water. Has an amazing number of pockets filled with food. And his conversation? Encourages, instructs, even makes you laugh.
By the time your hike ends, you feel you’ve known this old hiker a long time, and you realize you’ve told him an awful lot about yourself. You recall the ways he helped you over the rough patches—with a hand to steady you, or an anecdote of others who’ve made the same journey. You come to the trail’s end feeling you’ve tackled something incredible but that you couldn’t have done it on your own. You feel you’ve learned something about yourself, and a lot about this older hiker. And you feel you’ve. . . really lived that day.
The psalmist has been on that hike. We are too. And it is a hard hike from time to time. But on it, we “lack nothing” for the Shepherd of our souls—the King—God walks with us in power to provide what we need, while we walk the walk of life.
It is no surprise that this psalm is appointed for this 4th Sunday of Easter. It is what we call “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Our gospel reading follows up an encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees a few weeks earlier. In that earlier encounter Jesus had claimed that he was “the Good Shepherd” who lays down is life for the sheep. The Pharisees don’t understand and are uncomfortable with Jesus claiming that title—connected as it is in their own scriptures with the LORD, the Shepherd. Jesus’ words are claiming his identity as God.
So they ask him again, “Tell us who you are.” And Jesus tells them again what he’d said earlier: reminding them that he is the Good Shepherd. He talks of the intimacy he has with his sheep: they know his voice; he knows them. The sheep belong to the Good Shepherd. He reminds them that he protects his sheep, saying, “No one can snatch them out of my hand.” He reminds them that he gives eternal life to his sheep; to those who respond to him in faith—who hear his voice. A life that is experienced here and now in the reality of Christ’s presence with us, and God’s life in us. . . and a life that will be experienced forever, both in this life, and beyond death.
These are powerful words for in them, Jesus paints himself as the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23.
I’ve wondered why we have a “Good Shepherd Sunday” in the season of Easter. Perhaps sermons all throughout the Easter season should be about the Big Things—you know, like The Cross, The Resurrection, Justification, Sanctification, Adoption as God’s children.
Those Big Things are all important, of course. They are the foundation of our faith and it is very appropriate to reflect on them throughout the Easter season.
But in the midst of those Big Things, we live our ordinary lives. Lives that move from joy to sorrow in the blink of an eye. Lives that walk through Valleys of Deepest Darkness, and encounter terrifying enemies.
These are real things of Life. And maybe, the Biggest Thing of Easter is that in Christ, the Good Shepherd becomes our Shepherd. A companion who knows the way. Who says, “Follow me.” Who helps us over the hard bits, brings encouragement and refreshment, and leads us home in the end.
In Psalm 23, we hear the language of our faith. As we walk the journey of life, it is good because of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who is our Good Shepherd:
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.
Let us pray:
All shall be Amen and Alleluia.
We shall rest and we shall see,
We shall see and we shall know,
We shall know and we shall love,
We shall love and we shall praise.
Behold our end which is no end.