March 22, 2020
Good sermons are supposed to start out by identifying a problem or a fear we face, then show us how scripture helps us deal with that problem or fear.
This week, that’s a no-brainer.
COVID-19 is affecting all of us, and it has lots of people scared. And part of our fear is not about getting sick. Part of our fear is connected to being isolated from each other, in order to avoid getting sick or making someone we love sick.
When children are afraid, who’s the first person they turn to? Usually it’s the adult who takes care of them the most. When you are afraid, to whom do you turn?
Even people who don’t normally turn to God have been known to pray when they are afraid. But how do we pray? Usually, we ask God to make it go away.
We ask God to make whatever is creating fear in us to just disappear. “Fix it, God,” we say. “You’re omnipotent, you can do anything.” We actually start to sound a lot like Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness – “turn these stones into bread if you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 4:3) “Make this virus go away if you are who you say you are.”
But God doesn’t usually work that way.
Instead, God makes a promise to us, and it’s up to us to decide if we will believe that promise and trust God to keep it.
Earlier we heard the story from John 9, about Jesus healing the man born blind. I could have preached on that. I could have pointed out that COVID-19, like that man’s blindness, is nobody’s ‘fault’. This disease is not a judgment brought down on our heads because of our sin. God doesn’t work like that, either.
But God can be glorified in all circumstances: even those of a rapidly spreading sickness, and social distancing, and volatile markets, and job loss, and the fear that comes from all those things combined. God doesn’t make bad things happen, but God can turn them to good. And the 23rd Psalm is a perfect example of the way God does this, because the 23rd psalm is a psalm of trust.
If we were to go back one chapter, we’d get a much different picture from peaceful streams and soft grass. In Psalm 22, David is lamenting, crying out to God in fear and sorrow. David’s lament is the one we usually read on Good Friday, because Jesus quotes it from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1) And I think we’d be wrong to forget that this is the context for Psalm 23.
In fact, I have often thought that these two psalms and the one that follows it are the perfect psalms to read over the three days from Good Friday to Easter. Psalm 22 gives us Jesus’ words at his crucifixion, Psalm 23 fits with Holy Saturday, that day of rest while Jesus is still in the tomb, and Psalm 24 brings Easter resurrection with its call to:
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory (Psalm 24:7-10)
Doesn’t that sound like Christ’s resurrection to you?
So the 23rd psalm, as comforting as it is, is sandwiched between a lament and a song of praise. Which makes it the perfect psalm for us today. Every day, in fact, I think we probably find ourselves somewhere in between abject sorrow and outright rejoicing, don’t we? Somewhere between fear and assurance. Somewhere between doubt and faith. So let’s take a deeper look at the way this very familiar set of verses is designed to calm our fear, and remind us to trust.
I mentioned earlier that sermons are supposed to start out by identifying a problem we all face, but David wasn’t writing a sermon when he wrote this. He starts out with the solution, not the problem. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. And this kind of want isn’t so much desire as it is lack. Some translations say, The Lord is my shepherd; therefore I lack nothing. In other words, the problem is already solved. David doesn’t get around to identifying the problem until the end – he’s worried about his enemies. But to begin, he talks about the solution. God is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
Now there’s something you need to know about psalms of trust: they are prayers for dire circumstances, when the one praying them is in a crisis. That might make them sound like laments, or cries for help. But in a psalm of trust, the emphasis is on trusting God.
Another thing you need to know about these particular psalms is that they depend on metaphors. So when David starts out telling us the Lord is our shepherd and we lack nothing, we immediately think of ourselves as sheep.
The image of the shepherd’s rod and staff, green pastures and calm waters, are all designed to give us a feeling of security and safety. Isn’t that what we all crave when we are in the middle of a crisis? To know that, whatever is going on out there in the world, we are safe?
Rolf Jacobson writes, “The psalms of trust regularly include metaphorical descriptions of the crisis in which the psalmist is stuck. In Psalm 23, the crisis is described as “the darkest valley” and “a table … in the presence of my enemies.” Other psalms describe crises as “an army [en]camped against me,” or “the foundations are destroyed,” or “the waters have come up to my neck,” and so on (Psalms 27:3; 11:3; 69:1).
“Part of the power of Psalm 23 is the dynamic power of these metaphors for crisis — they can apply to many different situations.”
Right now, some of you are stuck – quite literally – in your homes to avoid getting sick from the Corona virus. You already have some underlying health issue that puts you at greater risk. Many people will catch this bug and have mild symptoms, maybe even mild enough that they don’t even recognize they are ill. But if you were to become infected with this particular virus, you could become very, very sick. You can’t afford to be exposed, and this is ‘the valley of darkness’ or the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ for you.
Let’s take a look at that literal valley for a moment.
This is the valley that runs between Jerusalem and Jericho. It was well traveled in Jesus’ day, but it was dangerous. It took more than a single day to walk the distance, and that meant finding overnight shelter somewhere along the route. You’d be vulnerable to thieves and robbers. And you’d be vulnerable to thirst, if you hadn’t brought adequate water with you. No wonder it is nicknamed the valley of the shadow of death.
But notice it’s just the shadow, not death itself that gives this valley its name. It’s the unknown, the hidden that causes alarm. And it’s also exactly at this point in the psalm that something amazing happens.
It’s right in the middle of this psalm that David switches gears. Here in verse four, while we are in the valley of darkness, David says, “I will not fear.” And why?
“Because you are with me.”
That’s it. That’s where things change. Because up to now, we’ve only been talking about God. It’s all, “The Lord this” and “the Lord that.” He makes me lie down, he leads me beside still waters and in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
But right here, in the middle of the darkest valley, I am not afraid because you are with me. Suddenly, we aren’t talking about God anymore, we are talking directly to God. And that makes all the difference.
Now, David can face what is making him afraid, because he knows not only that God is with him, but that he can tell God exactly what is on his heart, speaking directly to God as his friend and protector. Now we get some idea of the nature of the crisis – it’s an enemy that is threatening David’s life. Who wouldn’t be afraid, under the circumstances?
But when David addresses God directly – and this is where I love the good old King James Version of this psalm, the one I learned as a child – he uses the word ‘thou.’ Now I always thought ‘thou’ was formal language reserved for God alone, because the only place I ever saw it was in the Bible. Then I lived in Germany, and read Luther’s German translation.
Now, you New Ulm Germans will appreciate this. That’s when I discovered that ‘thou’ isn’t the formal version of ‘you’ – it’s the familiar, the intimate, the kind you use with your children or your sweetheart or your dearest friend. In German, the proper form of ‘you’ is Sie, but the familiar is ‘du.’ And that’s what David calls God here. When he says you are with me, the German Bible translates it as ‘du bist bei mir.’
This is how close David was to God, and how close God wants to be to you right now. You see, God is with you. A psalm of trust implies that there is a promise to be trusted. This is God’s promise to you: God is with you, and God will always be with you, through everything. He won’t necessarily make the bad stuff go away. You still have to face it. But God is with you.
That’s what the angel told Mary, remember? His name will be Emmanuel, God with us.
God spreads a table of blessing out for you in front of whatever makes you afraid right now, and God fills your cup to overflowing abundance. Mercy and kindness and goodness follow you – a more literal translation would be ‘pursue’ you – these blessings will chase you down!
And God invites you to live safely and securely in the house of the Lord all your days. Notice that David doesn’t say, “I will live in the house of the Lord after I die,” but I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
So friends, I don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last. I don’t know how long it will be before we can worship together in person again. I don’t know how soon the stock market will stabilize or how people who’ve already lost their jobs will manage to pay their bills and feed their families. But I do know this: You can trust this promise. God is with you.
 Rolf Jacobson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3185