This week I will be preaching from one of the most familiar passages in all of Scripture: Psalm 23. Of course, for most of us this Psalm is heard most often (for some, exclusively) in the context of funerals. This is an appropriate setting for this Psalm since it speaks of not being afraid in the valley of death's shadow because God is with us and comforts us. The imagery of the Psalm itself is comforting as it paints the picture of a place filled with life and tranquility, green pastures and quiet waters.
Despite the appropriateness of these words for times of tragedy, this passage should not be relegated to those circumstances alone. The steadfast trust and confident hope that the Psalmist exhibits in this passage is one that should characterize every aspect of the life lived with trust in God. The heart of this passage is not so much the Christian response to tragedy, as it is an appropriate metaphor for understanding who God is, even as we face the large and small calamities of life.
Our God is a shepherd, that is, one who defends us and cares for us in ways that we can not even understand. He is one that leads us to places of life and peace. God is continually turning us (that is the root meaning of the word translated "restore" in v.3), guiding us down his path to proper relationships for his glory. At times those paths may even lead us into death's shadow, as they did for Jesus, but even then there is nothing to fear because God is with us and his rod and staff are more powerful than the things that threaten us. It seems, in verse 5, that even the valley of death's shadow does not prevent God from presenting a banquet so overwhelming in its extravagance that the Psalmist's cup overflows. If God can do this, then certainly God's goodness and faithful loving-kindness will always follow the Psalmist. Even when we find ourselves in a valley filled with fear, we are also, in some sense, in the house of the Lord, since his presence continues with us at all times just as the shepherd remains with his sheep.
This is one of the most remarkable things about Jesus' cross. It demostrates just how far God is willing to go to be with us; even through the valley of the shadow of death. In Jesus, the Psalmist's words about God take on flesh. Jesus celebrates a meal that represents the liberation of Israel even as his looming death on the cross casts its shadow over that meal. Jesus, the anointed one, is able to eat a meal in anticipation of the kingdom banquet even in death's shadow because his confidence and trust in the Father run deeper than any fear or pain this life can offer.