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Pursued in Dark Places

April 27, 2015

imagePsalm 23    John 10: 11-18

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

In one short and beautifully concise line the KJV summarised the most beloved song of all time. God supplies all my need.

But of course we live in a world which works like a factory for needs and wants. As soon as I watch TV or read the newspaper or go out in a crowd. I discover what new clothes I need, what technology I need, what skills I need to have a place in the world.

If the Lord is my shepherd… how can I live in this world of constantly accumulating needs. In my desperate need to have a place, to be someone, to be significant, or just to be ok… I find myself constantly lacking.

The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want… It’s as if the Psalmist provides us with a summary of the whole song at the beginning, but you only understand how the Psalmist reached that confidence at the end… or perhaps you only really understand such confidence when you appreciate Jesus the good Shepherd.

One thing I notice about this Psalm is that it changes when you go through the darkest valley – the valley of the shadow of death. Did anyone notice how the Psalm changes at that point?

It changes from talking about God… (the Lord is my Shepherd… my source of stillness… my provider… the one who restores my life to me) to talking to God. It’s one thing to talk about someone. It’s another thing altogether to talk to someone. In the darkest place… God is not simply out there leading, or even beside me, but God is ‘You’. The Psalmist turns towards God. For God has turned towards the Psalmist.

But Anne Sexton knows the valley of the shadow of death. Listen to her poem (I may have read it before, but it’s worth repeating): ‘The Sickness unto Death’

God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper,
as if the sun became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.

Someone brought me oranges in my despair
but I could not eat a one
for God was in that orange.
I could not touch what did not belong to me.
The priest came,
he said God was even in Hitler.
I did not believe him
for if God were in Hitler
then God would be in me.
I did not hear the bird sounds.
They had left.
I did not see the speechless clouds,
I saw only the little white dish of my faith
breaking in the crater.
I kept saying:
I’ve got to have something to hold on to.
People gave me Bibles, crucifixes,
a yellow daisy,
but I could not touch them,
I who was a house full of bowel movement,
I who was a defaced altar,
I who wanted to crawl toward God
could not move nor eat bread.

So I ate myself,
bite by bite,
and the tears washed me,
wave after cowardly wave,
swallowing canker after canker
and Jesus stood over me looking down
and He laughed to find me gone,
and put His mouth to mine
and gave me His air.

My kindred, my brother, I said
and gave the yellow daisy
to the crazy woman in the next bed.

Anne Sexton, ‘The Sickness Unto Death’, in The Complete Poems (1981), 441–42.

It’s a powerful poem about the shadow of death.

This week we have been walking in the shadow of death… the death of thousands of New Zealanders a hundred years ago. Yesterday we remembered them. Today is the anniversary of the genocide of between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians (the Christian minority in Turkey). A systematic massacre which occurred about the same time as the Anzacs were landing in Gallipoli.

The Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd, in John’s gospel, comes to us not just in the valley of the the shadow of our own death, but in the shadow of his own death.

I will ‘fear no evil’. The Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep… feared no evil… he looked evil in the face and replied with love, ‘Father forgive them’ …

Jesus stood over me, looking down.
And he laughed to find me gone,
and put his mouth to mine, and gave me his air.

With a laugh… beyond any anxiety over death, beyond any fear of the evil that death’s power over us creates… the Good Shepherd can breathe life into us.

Jesus says that the good shepherd came that we might have life ‘abundantly’… I shall not want… when all we can see are things we don’t have and want… its more a statement of hope than fact at the beginning.

But everything often changes in the darkest valley. Because that valley is not only the shadow of our own death… the place where we know our own vulnerability, our true need of God, it is also the shadow of the God’s death… the death of the Good Shepherd.

And when God’s death, and our death meet… the Good Shepherd not only gives his life for us, but gives his life to us.

Did you see that image of the Spirit of Jesus? He gave me his ‘air’ All I need is the air that he breathes.

And then the resurrection.

My kindred, my brother, I said
and gave the yellow daisy
to the crazy woman in the next bed.

not only did she touch the flower… the world that she couldn’t even touch before … but she gave it away. Death has been conquered.

I want to lead us through the last section of the Psalm to conclude.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… The unique contribution of Jesus to ethical thought… his big idea (but it’s so much more than an idea) is love for enemies. And we come out of the valley of the shadow of death and find ourselves sitting down at table with our enemies… giving daisies to crazy people. We give things away because rather than wanting… our cup overflows…

And then the Psalm concludes with these words.

Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.
And I shall return to the Lord my whole life long.

It’s not the KJV but according to scholars its more accurate. The verb translated ‘dwell’ (shuv) usually means something quite different… it usually means ‘turn’ or ‘return’.

It’s quite different… its an ongoing journey. God is after me. The Good Shepherd is after me. And because I have met the good shepherd in a dark place… where my own fears of death meet God’s own death on a cross…. because I have been given new life there… I will return again and again, my whole life long.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 27, 2015 11:05 am

    another enriching word Bruce. Thanks mate.

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