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May 22 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

May 20, 2012 – Psalm 23:4

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me
. Psalm 23:4a

INTRO: There are ways a person can begin a conversation that immediately tells us we’re in trouble

– “Step into my office,” “We need to talk,” “Driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, please”

Doesn’t it seem like the way verse 4 begins is a tip-off? “Even though”
– right away we can guess that we’re heading into a situation that’s less than perfect
– it’s like, “Even though life gets hard, I will put my faith in God”
• why can’t it be, “I put my faith in God and life gets easy”?

We read the first two words like a warning sign and brace ourselves
– we’re going to be confronted by something unpleasant, undesirable, stressful
– and we’re going to have to deal with the initial confusion it brings–i.e., if God is our Shepherd, guiding us, why would lead us into places like this?
– hopefully that question will be answered as we get into the verse

A few weeks ago, I pointed out what we visit six places in this psalm
– the question is, What did they represent in mind of poet and his readers?
– when we discover the way they experienced these places, we can compare that to our own similar experiences

Let’s make our way through this verse and see what we can learn
As Charles Spurgeon said, “Every word in it has a wealth of meaning”

The spiritual life is one of constant progress – “walk through”

Walk is one of the Bible’s favorite metaphors – it refers to the way we go through life with God
– the first mention of anyone walking, was God in the garden – the next was Enoch, who “walked with God”

John Cassian, interviewed monks living in the fourth century Egyptian desert – among them, Abbot Theodore
– he told Cassian and his friend that a monk’s goal is to always hold the mind in the same state
– when they asked how, he quoted Paul regarding a constant renewing of the mind — we have to keep bringing it back

“. . . the mind cannot possibly remain in one and the same state. Just as when a man by pulling hard, is trying to force a boat against the stream of a strong current he must either stem the rush of the torrent by the force of his arms . . . or letting his hands slacken be whirled headlong down stream. . . . When the desire of making progress ceases, there the danger of going back is present.”

Our spiritual journey takes us to many different places
– it’s as if every day is the start of a new leg of the journey
– Moses’ travelogue of their wilderness adventure — Numbers 33 lists all the places they camped

“Moses recorded their starting places according to their journeys by the command of the LORD, and these are their journeys according to their starting places . . . . They journeyed from . . .” (v. 2, 6 …)

– the journey is where they got to know God

“walk through” – Barb and I drove about 300 miles up to Modesto on Thursday  and back again on Friday
– passed through LA, grapevine, desert, and made various stops
• you experience a different world on the road
– some good, some not so good – tov and ra (Hebrew for good and bad — neither word is specifically moral)

In the day of prosperity, be happy,
But in the day of adversity consider–
God has made the one as well as the other
So that man will not discover anything that will be after him
(Ecc. 7:14)

It is a waste to ruin a good day with anxiety and unnecessary negativity
– but it is also a waste to spend days of adversity wallowing in self-pity
– we do approach the days differently — on the day of adversity we are to consider (it’s significance, our situation in life, etc.)

We do not settle down in these places – we walk through them, we experience them and then move on
– nor does God abandon us in these places
– we are crossing thresholds – always entering something new

We inevitably come to harsh places – “the valley of the shadow of death”

Two possible translations:
– valley of deep darkness or valley of the shadow of death
– it used to be, Christians thought of it exclusively in terms of comfort in death
• but there are a lot of ways to die in life
• the way of Christ is the way of the cross
– the challenge of the spiritual journey is to constantly be moving from death to life
– every time we die to something we are resurrected to something else

  • we die to resentment and rise to compassion
  • we die to greed and rise to generosity
  • we die to our self-centered, little lives and rise to a larger life in God

We all have a potential to live a deeper, richer life
– it calls to us, from the world around us and from within our own soul
• if we listen to it, we recapture our sense of wonder
– but those voices are constantly drowned out by way we routinely go about our business
– and we are accomplices with the noisy voices of the world
• we ignore our inner voice, we bury it, silence it

We have forgotten how we became who we are
– at some point in life we were up against situation we could not change
– we learned to cope – we assumed that coping was the best we could do, that it was all a person has to do, and that’s all we need to do now – cope as best we can
– but we can’t get to the best possible lies for ourselves by merely coping
• we’re adults now – we can make choices
• if something is wrong, we need to change it

That means venturing into the shadows
– it means dying to the past – not by ignoring it, but facing it

It was strange to see all (but one) my cousins at my aunt’s memorial service on Friday
– also, my only surviving aunt and uncle
– it caused me to realize how much time had passed since we were all together and to wonder how much more time will pass before we see each other again
– it gets you thinking about all kinds of things
• it’s the same sort of experience I have when sitting by the gravestones of my grandparents and uncle
death wakes us up to life
• we need to take the trek through this valley — we need to be awakened to life

How we can face whatever is hiding in the valley – “I fear no evil”

We’re not afraid of the shadows, but what’s hiding in the shadows
– darkness can be anything that is unknown
– it’s not what we know that scares us, but what we don’t know
Woody Allen, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

A big problem for us is that our imagination can put more dangers in shadow than what are actually there
– we suffer a million tortures that never happen

God cares about us – so he cares about our worries and fears
– but his goal is not to anesthetize us to adversity and trouble, but to form Christ in us
– if we will also make that our goal, we’ll benefit from everything, whether tov or ra

Robert Alter pointed out the imbalance in verse 4 between the big build up to fear and then the brevity of the short line with which it is dismissed, “I fear no harm” (only three Hebrew words)

God wants to work the fear out of us (1 Jn. 4:18)
– if not that, then at least to disable it so it doesn’t control us
– fear should not be a driving force in our decisions and actions

How we pass through the valley without fear – “for You are with me”

First, notice the shift to second person pronoun, “You”
– we have to have this kind of contact and closeness with God

Secondly, God repeatedly tries to drum this into us

Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not look anxiously about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
(Isa. 41:10)

“You are with me” – infants pick up the mood of their mothers — stress or calm

When my Aunt Virginia received the diagnosis from her very blunt doctor that her cancer was terminal, she simply said, “It is what it is. I trust the Lord.” Then again, sometime later when my cousin was standing by while the dressing over the diseased part of her body was being changed, she looked at him and said, “It is what it is. I trust the Lord.” In other words,  she was not going to allow anything to influence her outlook or attitude other than her trust in God. She was prepared to accept whatever he chose for her. Had you been at her memorial service, you would have seen for yourself that she passed from this life in victory.

CONC: Verse 4 expresses a beautiful thought, but does it work

Does it work when we learn that the bank has begun to foreclose on our dream home?
– does it work when we’re wracked by worry over our children?
– does it work when, in the grip of death, we realize we have come to our final hour?

This is where contemplative prayer enters
– in contemplative prayer we develop and intensify our awareness of places and spaces
• of the places God leads us into and what he wants to do there — in fact, we might want to give names to those valleys (e.g., Ps. 84:6; Ho. 2:14; Joel 3:14)
• then, we discover the spaces between a triggering event and our response — between the moment that the shadow falls over us and we are about to become afraid
• when we find that space–that threshold–we can pause and when we pause, we can choose

Does it work? Yes, it works:
– if we have some practice with it
-if we believe it is true
– if we remember that God is with us
– if by our travel experiences, we get have grown close enough to God to live in the awareness of his continual presence

We may not be there yet, but that’s where this journey is taking us

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