Fourth Sunday in Lent
Updated: Mar 26
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
Last summer while on sabbatical, my family and I spent about five glorious days and nights in North Wales, in a town called Gwynned. One of our favorite things to do, mine at least, was to drive (or walk, if you were really brave) and see one beautiful valley and dale, set off against windswept and often treeless hills, after another. Wales, to us, was simply stunning, full of clear lakes and not too many tourists, which was a nice change from London and Bath, where we had recently been. I fell in love with the place. And, an interesting fact that I may have shared somewhere else is that in Wales there are some 3 million people (mostly in south Wales) and around 9 million sheep. And, as we drove around, we saw herds of not hundreds but of thousands of sheep. They were mostly unencumbered by fences of walls and skipped across the road from one paddock to another, sometimes as we were trying to get by. And they often had colors literally spray-painted with a letter or brand, if you will (a special, non-toxic paint), which we discovered was a modern, human marking of who they belonged to. They were marked to underscore who they belonged to.
We are in a time of extreme uncertainty and angst, a period of closed businesses, rising unemployment, children home from school ‘til God knows when, and most of us, too, either working from home or not working at all. There is the fear of illness and a true worry about what the future holds for all of us. Will our lives be changed forever? Will our society, the way we do business, etc. and etc., be vastly different than the one we knew just a few weeks ago? I am sure that I, nor anyone, knows, other than God alone, knows the answer to that question and, as usual, God isn’t sharing how the future will unfold. But, while God, the good shepherd, may not show us what the immediate future will be, He does point us in a way that we should go, while the world is sorting itself out. In the guise of Jesus of Nazareth, God tells us, in a resoundingly clear voice, that we are His; His sheep, the people of His flock. God makes very definitive promises to us besides: as part of being God’s own beloved children, the people of His pasture, as Psalm 95 says, we are His own now when the going may be a little tough (and when they become much tougher still); we are His when we are amongst even the people who mean us harm; and, yes, He is our shepherd and our light even when we are in the valleys of spiritual, relational, and actual death. The goodness and mercy of God, our continual guide and shepherd, follows us, travels alongside us, and preserves us. The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want, says the 23rd Psalm. The Lord is our shepherd: we, therefore, shall not want for God, not now or any of the days of our lives.
Psalm 23 is actually a wonderful Psalm for today’s stress, worry, fear, and uncertainty. The Psalms, in most instances, show us some point of faltering, so doubt of God’s goodness, if not of God’s providence. The Psalms are often filled with lament, a grudging understanding that God will save the day but He is taking His own sweet time. But Psalm 23 does not have time to wrestle with doubt in its short six verses. Psalm 23, often called the Good Shepherd Psalm, is filled only with an awareness of God’s enduring presence, love, and mercy. The Psalmist can only rejoice, marvel, and praise and acknowledge the God who is never far away, never away at all, only present and filled with promise.
1 The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
Verses 1-3 acknowledges that God provides for us, refreshes and revives us when our lives are struggles or our hope is failing. God pushes us along the avenues to promise and life.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; * you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Even when I am traveling through times of death, challenge, homelessness, joblessness, anger, confusion and fear, I will not fear (and if I do, I will acknowledge that is what it means to be human), because my God is not afraid to walk through the valley with me. God is with me, enduring strength and hope even when I am forced to deal, as we so often are, with the people that trouble us; even with those who are enemy. We have the eternal promise of God in Christ that we will be held by God’s unwavering love forever.
But, I want to say something about what holds us, truly, as we go through our times of fear, like we have now, in the presence of COVID-19 and all that it is doing to our way of life and our hopes for the future, even our desire for simple normalcy, if there is such a thing. The Psalmist says that goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life …. But the Hebrew, Chad Bird (theologian, writer and preacher) tells us, is not as gentle as all that. Goodness and mercy are translations of the Hebrew word radaph, which means “to chase after or pursue.” God does not follow us with his mercy, nay he pursues us, He chases us, He will not allow us to get away from His Almighty presence. He simply loves us too much, you see?
And that brings us back to the beginning. We belong to almighty God; He will have us. God does not tag along with us because He thinks we are interesting or cute or in need of His blessings, which we are, by the way. God sprints after us because He made us; we are the sheep of His pasture; we are His. He not only made us but brought us into His fold through the action of the good shepherd Himself, Jesus, the Son, the healer of the sick, yes, but the One who saved us from detachment. God sent Jesus after us and now, by the grace of God, we are part of the One flock of God in Christ.
The times are scary and changeable; unpredictable, scary, and strange. But the Lord is our Shepherd and we shall never want for God, he is with us and we will never get away. Praise be to God who walks with us by the tranquil waters, the paths of righteousness, the valley of the shadow, and even in the presence of those who hate us: God does this because we belong to Him. He has marked us as surely as the Welsh mark their sheep. We are sealed and marked as God in Christ’s own forever. Take heart and praise God.