Week 3: Even though I walk through the valley . . . I fear no evil, for you are with me
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Psalm 23; Romans 8:31-39; John 10:27-30
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Why is this so hard to remember?
Paul says nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Absolutely nothing. Jesus himself claims that he holds all his sheep in his hands and nothing, absolutely nothing, can snatch them out.
We know our Isaiah, too. In chapter 43, God promises that no matter what happens to us, fire or flood, God knows us by name, loves us, and God will be with us always.
We know this. The Scriptures are full of this witness.
So why do we fall apart when bad things happen? Why do we try to come up with rationales for God’s involvement? Like telling someone who suffers that God has a plan and that explains it. Or panicking that God must be punishing us. Why can’t we remember what God keeps promising?
We know suffering and death are a reality of life. It’s just that somewhere we got the idea that a respectable God would prevent them.
For the last six or seven millennia since humanity started getting together in civilizations, suffering and death have been a pretty highly discussed topic. As humans wondered about why things happened, from storms to plagues, they imagined that gods of some kind were responsible.
We still play that game. Idiots claim that a hurricane’s devastation is God’s punishment on that city. Or tell someone that their disease must have a divine reason. But even without those blowhards, people of many faiths easily fall into the “God is responsible” talk when tragedy strikes. Or they go the other way, saying, “Why would God allow this?”
Human beings seem to want God-sized fixes and answers to pain and suffering. But that leads to a theology of reward and protection, where your safety depends on picking the right god, or doing the right religious actions. That’s pretty dangerous if you’re someone who makes mistakes. What if your house was destroyed in a tornado and your neighbor’s wasn’t? Is that your fault? Ask Job how well this theology works in real life.
The good news is, that’s not how the God we worship operates.
The God whom we name as Triune, the God who first spoke to the Hebrew people, is a God we have met through revelation.
We belong to a nearly 4,000-year line of believers in a God who reached out to humanity to have a relationship with us. A relationship that helps us understand God’s place in our suffering, among many other things.
I AM WHO I AM took pains to teach Israel not to expect to avoid evil, but to trust that God would be with them. We see this throughout the Hebrew Scripture. Even when God in anger threatens destruction we repeatedly see God pull back out of love.
Jesus reveals God’s deepest truth to us and throughout his teachings he repeatedly declares God’s love for all people. But he never promises an absence of pain or suffering or even death. Yet today he claims that none of his sheep, not one, can be snatched from him. Not even by death.
Paul’s magnificent hymn to God’s love in Romans 8 just deepens that. There’s nothing Paul can think of or name, from life to death, from past to future, nothing that can separate us from God’s love in Christ.
In all of these witnesses, there is honesty: bad things will happen to God’s people. And there is promise: God will always be with you.
David’s psalm beautifully sings the same song.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” David sang, “I fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” David, the shepherd, knows a shepherd can’t keep all the sheep from harm all the time. Storms come with lightning and floods, predators lurk in the shadows on the edges, sheep are harmed. Some will die.
But a good shepherd stays with the sheep. Calms them in the storms. Holds them when they fear. Risks his life. Uses the staff to guide, pull out of cracks, keep off predators. That staff is a comfort if you’re a frightened sheep.
The God David sings to in Psalm 23 is the same God whose face Jesus reveals to us, the same God who first called to Abraham in the wilderness.
And this God walks with you in all things, whatever valleys or scary woods you’re walking in as you live your journey of life. Nothing can snatch you out of God’s hand. Because God, in Christ Jesus, didn’t avoid suffering and death to reveal how loved you are, how loved the creation is. The true God entered suffering and death to hold on to you and to me, and broke through death into life. How will anyone ever tear you out of the hands of such a God?
Still: we wonder just how is God with us.
If you’re facing suffering or tragedy, or nearing death, just having someone say, “God is with you” might feel a little thin on sustenance.
But this is something we also sometimes forget: Jesus created the Church to be Christ in the world. We are God’s grace to each other. Don’t undervalue this. God’s hands are the hands of your neighbor who holds yours in your pain. God’s arms are the arms of your friend who hugs you in your grief. God’s ears are the ears of your loved one who listens to your sorrow.
God isn’t limited by people, either. Jesus proclaims the Triune God desires a deep relationship of love and care with you. “Abide in me,” Jesus said, be connected to me like a branch to a vine, and you’ll know life. This happens when prayer ceases to be about asking for things and becomes a life lived listening for God in every moment and every breath. The God you meet in worship, who feeds you with Word and Sacrament, this God longs to spend your days with you, live in your heart and mind. The more you are open to being in God’s presence at all times, the more you realize God is also with you in suffering and grief and death. To give you inner strength and hope and courage. To hold you at your deepest core, so you know you are not alone.
“Even though” . . . those are David’s words of life.
Even though I walk in death’s valley, I’m not afraid, David teaches you to sing today.
Because if Christ is risen from the dead, then Paul’s right, not even death can separate you from God’s love. And that means nothing can ultimately ever harm you.
That’s why David reminds you you don’t have to limit it to death. Whatever valley or thorny woods you find yourself in, just listen, and you will hear God’s measured steps at your side. You’ll hear God’s breath saying “I am here, and I love you.” You’ll know that you are safe, no matter what happens.
Even though bad things will happen, I will not fear. Not even death. Because you are with me, my God.
You can trust that forever.
In the name of Jesus. Amen