Last Sunday was the fourth Sunday of Easter, which also is known as Good Shepherd Sunday because the assigned scripture readings for that particular Sunday focus on Jesus as a good shepherd. I was away last weekend, teaching a class, and was not able to write about this particular image, so I am writing about it this week.
While there are images of shepherd scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments, it is probably the 23rd Psalm that most of us think about immediately when we think about a shepherd. It begins with the words: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." The rest of the psalm speaks about how the Lord, as our shepherd, knows us so well, loves us so much that the desire of the shepherd's heart is that we are cared for when we are in need, comforted when we are in sorrow, supported in the presence of our enemies and led through the valley of the shadows. This psalm is comforting and reassuring. Its words give us courage and strength.
What was the valley of the shadow for a shepherd and his sheep? The valleys were filled with ravines and gullies where sheep could fall and the shepherd could not see them. The sheep became frightened and panicked. They could not hear the sounds of the other sheep. A good shepherd would go to sheep, lead them out of those valleys and stay with them until they reached safety.
Jesus knew about the valleys of shadows and how they affected people's lives. Jesus healed many, many people and knew that many of them walked in the valley of the shadow of fear and disease. Jesus knew the valley of the shadow of those who were poor and didn't have enough to eat when He fed the 5,000. When He raised His friend Lazarus from the dead, He understood about the valley of the shadow of death.
During these times and so many other examples, Psalm 23 must have resided in Jesus' heart. He brought comfort and hope in those dark valleys. He brought healing and peace.
Jesus faced his own valley of the shadow of death. The night before the crucifixion, in the garden, Jesus endured anguish and apprehension. There was the knowledge that things would not turn out well. There were the sounds in this valley of soldiers coming. There was the earnestness of prayer. And through it all, in this valley of the shadow, Jesus was not alone.
"Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."
Psalm 23 does not tell us that "if" we find ourselves in the Valley of the Shadow, the Lord will be with us. Psalm 23 tells us that "when" we walk through the valley of the shadow we will not be alone. The reality is that we will have dark valleys.
All through His life, Jesus taught that in those valleys, we would not be alone. He also wanted us to be there for each other - our families and friends and even strangers. When those around us are experiencing valleys of the shadow, Jesus wants us to be there too so that we can remind others that they are not alone.
Again recently, the valleys of the shadows loomed before us in our country. The Boston Marathon became a valley of the shadow when bombs exploded, killing and hurting so many people. That same week, in Texas, a small town became engulfed in a valley of the shadow when a fertilizer plant exploded, killing and hurting many people.
People all around us and maybe even ourselves are walking through the valley of the shadows as they battle illness, financial struggles, drug and alcohol addiction, indecision, unemployment or deaths of children or parents or spouses or friends or loved ones. People all around us are walking through the valley of the shadows of doubt or confusion. None of us wants to be alone when facing these valleys.
The Lord is with us in those valleys, but let us be there for each other. Let us be there for those in Boston and Texas and all the places in God's world where pain, suffering or danger draw people into the valleys. Let us be in those valleys with prayer and compassion and grace. And let us not be afraid, let us fear no evil for our Lord, the Good Shepherd is with us.
Glory to God in the highest!