Sermon; Easter 4C; Acts, Revelation, John, and primarily Psalm 23
Over the past few weeks I've been preaching on fear. In short, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus destroyed not only death, but it showed us how to live a live completely focused on the will of God without fear. It showed us how to live fearlessly in a world driven by fear.
The readings today – Acts, Revelation, John – are not specifically focused on fear; but they do, in a way, touch on the results of living fearlessly. In Acts, we are reminded that we are not to fear death because the power of Christ is greater than death. In Revelation we are reminded yet again that even though the world will kill those faithful to the Lord, death does not have the last word. In the age to come, life and love will have the last word and God will wipe away every tear. And in John, Jesus assures his followers that he is the great shepherd of the sheep and those whom he protects will never perish.
All this doesn't mean we will not face trials and tribulations. It doesn't mean we won't die a physical death. It goes deeper than that. It means we need to no longer worry or live in fear in this mortal life. We will not perish.
Christians were martyred, but did not perish. Churches have been bombed, but have not perished. Faithful people in all times and in all places have faced all kinds of trouble and tribulation, but the faith did not perish.
All of this is beautifully summed up and attested to in the 23rd Psalm.
The psalm opens up with a metaphor about who God is: The Lord is my shepherd. Obviously God is NOT a shepherd. But the metaphor invites us to see God with different eyes. A shepherd cares for his sheep. A shepherd protects his flock. A shepherd leads his flock. These are but some of what God does, and it allows us to draw closer to God with an image we can understand.
I shall not want . . . I shall not be in want . . . I shall not lack. The psalmist is looking back to Israel's time in the wilderness. Despite all their grumbling, all their misgivings, all their times of faithlessness, and all their fears, they lacked nothing. They had bread, meat, and water. They had protection. If we look at our lives, our times of wandering in wilderness, we can probably also see that we lacked nothing, or were not in want.
He revives my soul is a statement on the restoration of life. Abraham and Sarah, old and childless, finally begat Isaac. In a family line likely to die out, God restored life. The Israelites escaped slavery, moved to freedom, and life was restored. The widow's son, Lazarus, the little girl, and Tabitha/Dorcas in today's reading had life restored. The reviving of our soul is more than just a feeling of goodness, it is a restoration of life.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. I've thought about this line for a long time and wondered what it might pertain to. What, exactly, is the valley of the shadow of death?
In Isaiah 40, the prophet writes that every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low. Luke references this passage when he describes the mission of John the Baptist. In other words, it's a theme in a variety of places in scripture – these valleys and mountains.
Think back to fairy tales, time in the woods, or a child going to bed. When the sun goes down the shadows lengthen and bad things happen. It's when your mind becomes agitated and monsters come out. Metaphorically speaking, the light of God is being blocked, creating shadows and fear, causing us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
This line is challenging us to face our fears, to know that darkness cannot overcome the light, and to be not afraid. What do we fear? Are we willing to look for ways to let God's light shine? And, when we find ourselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death, walking through hell, can we be courageous, fear no evil, and remember to keep walking instead of stopping and being overcome by the darkness?
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me. Again, this could have a variety of meaning. For us today, though, we need to look back at John and Revelation. Revelation gives us a vision of the end of the age where angels, archangels, prophets, apostles, and martyrs are gathered around the throne of God. Jesus talks about giving his followers eternal life. These images are reinforced and represented in the psalm with a table that provides life.
Those who trouble me is a wide-open category. In our wider vision, this could be anyone who is actively opposed to the gospel, or who is apathetic to the gospel, or any other situation. But in all of this, we must remember that we draw strength from this community and these sacraments, especially the sacrament of Holy Communion. A table is spread in the midst of those who trouble me. It's here where we are gathered, and it is here at this table, where we are comforted and strengthened, pardoned and renewed.
Your goodness and mercy shall follow me; I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
This final verse is the result of all of the above. We are those who see God as the one who cares for and leads us. We recognize that, despite the problems we face – wanderings, doubts, struggles – we shall not want, we shall not lack. We have faith that through Christ our souls will be revived. We are learning to walk without fear through the valleys and shadows this world casts upon us. And we remember and draw strength from this table that feeds us.
This psalm and these readings are more than comforting words in times of trial and tribulation. They are a challenge to live fearlessly in the presence of God.
May we leave here in the hope and power of the resurrection, living fearlessly for the Lord, knowing that, no matter what the world says, we are beloved members of the community of God.