SCRIPTURES – Psalm 23; Acts 20:17-35; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalm 23
I doubt that there is any Psalm, or perhaps even any verse of the Bible, that is better known or more loved than Psalm 23. Its words are so beautiful, and it is so comforting to think of the Lord as your shepherd. And yet, would you like me to be at your side and reading it to you? I bet not. After all, when do you hear it read? Usually, it’s when death is near; or, during a funeral; or, at the cemetery.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
These are comforting words, sure; but they are also troubling words, for they speak of things we’d rather not confront.
“I will fear no evil.” Let’s be honest: we do fear evil. The events of this past week provide ample evidence of that. I confess that I got very little work done on Friday. My daughter Catie’s apartment is only about two miles from the area where the authorities were focusing their search for the bombing suspect, who was heavily armed and possibly wearing a bomb laden vest. Sure, I knew that just down the street from where she lives is a police station. Still, I just couldn’t concentrate, and I couldn’t tear my eyes and ears away from the TV coverage. “I will fear no evil.” Maybe at one time that was easy to say. Things are different today!
Yes, they are. They are certainly different for my daughters and for little Nathan, baptized today, from when I grew up. Even as a little kid I would often be out playing and be gone for most of the day, and my mother had no fear of terrorist’s bombs, or of gang members shooting wildly at each other and innocent people being caught in the crossfire, or of a molester grabbing me. Today’s violence is very different.
But, that’s not all that is different. I saw another difference very clearly just over a week ago. I was meeting with the folks from STAR, painting crosses with them and teaching them about the forgiveness we have because Jesus died for us. As we were finishing, one young woman came up to me and said, “Father (she’s Catholic), I’d like to confess my sins. Will you forgive my sins?”
“Well, of course,” I said. “What sins do you have to confess?”
“I’ve been lying to my staff and calling them names,” she said. “I called them **#$*#” – the string of expletives she let loose was shocking. Now, I’ve heard those words many times. But, I never knew them or heard them when I was young. It saddened me to think that this young woman, who is probably like a girl of about 10 and is in many ways very innocent, like most of the folks from STAR, not only knew them but used them. In our day, when so much violence and filthy language and sexual sin and perversions of all kinds are put before our eyes and thrust into our ears through our TV’s and computers and radios (am I dating myself? Should I say I-pods, or something like that?), it’s almost impossible to preserve innocence for very long.
I will fear no evil? We should fear evil! We should fear the evil that is outside of us – the evil people and ideas and images that corrupt and injure and destroy – and we should fear the evil that is within, the sins of which we are guilty every day and for which we are accountable to the Lord. Psalm 5 declares: “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you… You hate all evildoers. You destroy the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.”
Fear what is evil! But even more, do something about it. You have in Jesus Christ not only a God who is the Good Shepherd; you have a Shepherd who is, as the apostle John sees Him in his vision of heaven in Rev. 7, “the Lamb in the midst of [God’s] throne.” He is the Lamb who was slain for our sins, whose blood covers them and washes them away and sets us free to be people of God. He is the Lamb who innocently endured violence at the hands of evil men and was killed by them, but who could not be overcome by them. For, He is God, one with the eternal Father. Eternal life is His, and so the monster of death that attacks Him to swallow Him up is itself swallowed up and destroyed forever by Him when He rises from the dead.
What should you do in this angry and violent and filth-laden day? If you are not moved more than ever to listen to the voice of your Shepherd and gratefully embrace the eternal life that is in His death and resurrection for you; if you are not moved to fill your children’s and grandchildren’s eyes and ears with Jesus Christ, His goodness and His mercy and His eternal life; then you are a fool whom no amount of either danger or encouragement can help. Wake up! You will fear evil, and you will die in your sins and face the wrath of a God who hates sins and those who commit them.
The young woman from STAR is no fool. She recognized the wrong of her sins and that she had offended God by them, and so she confessed them. She also believed that from me, an under-shepherd of Jesus, she would hear the voice of her Good Shepherd forgiving her sins; and that is indeed what she heard. She heard, and by faith received, the forgiveness of her sins.
Listen to the voice of Jesus, your Good Shepherd, and trust in His promise: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Rejoice in the still waters of your baptism, in which God put His mighty name upon you, declared you to be His and holds you in His hand. Come often to the table prepared for you in the presence of your enemies, where the goodness and mercy of Christ’s forgiveness runs over in the cup of His blood that He shed for you. Then, although you may still fear evil and may even be faced with it, the God who is greater than all evil will be with you. Even in the face of the evils of sin and violence and death you confidently can say, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” – through Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd. Amen.