Very early in my life as a pastor, when I was still in Rochester, NY, Tony and Carol came to see me about getting married. Both were Italian, both Roman Catholic. Tony’s family were immigrants from Sicily, but Carol and Tony had come to a Lutheran Church because Carol had been married and divorced.

Tony was slightly built and had a sickish pallor to his skin. Carol seemed terribly protective of him. During our premarital counseling, I learned that Tony- just 21 years old- had colon cancer. It had spread and he was going to die.

For the next two years, I spent time off and on with Tony and Carol. He taught me how to swear in Sicilian dialect- and I watched him battle with his wife, his family, his cancer and himself. He talked and talked about a future he knew he didn’t have, his fear of dying, and once, he turned, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know when I am most afraid, Priest?” (that’s what he called me…)

“When?” I asked. “When the lights are out, I am alone with my thoughts in the dark…What if I die then? Who will be there for me?”

“Tony,” I said, in my best comforting voice, “God will take care…” He interrupted, tears in his eyes, impatience erupting from every part of him, “NO- I want to KNOW…”

We are continuing with our “God is/God isn’t” sermon series today. We’ve been looking at the way the Bible describes God- what God is like, and what God is not like; our focus this morning is “God isn’t afraid of the dark…” And our text is among the most famous passages in the Bible, the 23rd Psalm…

First, Tony was not and is not alone in his fear- both of dying alone and the fear of the dark…Studies show that the biggest fear people have of dying- people of all ages- is dying alone…

This speaks to just how community minded human beings are- we were made to be in community- from the complete dependence we have when we are born, all the way through to the end of our lives…

Then, our fear of the dark has been part of our existence for as long as there have been people! It has to go back to the time before we used fire- when nocturnal hunters were the biggest danger we faced: when what you couldn’t see could hurt or kill you…

And while fire had all sorts of benefits- cooking food, defense, warmth and the like, what it really did was to push the darkness back; there was safety by the fire… Still, though, that fear of the dark is deeply engrained in us…

“There are monsters under the bed,” children say, “keep the lights on…”

Friday night, our grandsons stayed with us, and as I was taking Alexander upstairs to bed, the two and a half-year-old said, “It’s dark…but that’s OK; everything is all right…” And I reassured him we were there with him.

And I don’t know about you, but on those rare occasions when I can’t sleep, the dark magnifies whatever problem I may be worried about, and makes it worse, at least in my mind…

It’s at times like those- or when I am with people are struggling in all kinds of ways- that our text comes to me. We have a whole Bible- with lots of comforting words, but Psalm 23 is one of those passages for which I am most grateful.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Most of the time, I hate to be compared with a sheep. Sheep are not the brightest animals on the planet. When they are attacked, they bunch together, making it easier for the predator to kill them… They wander off; they get lost… They need shepherds…

What David is acknowledging is his need for a shepherd in his own life. It’s a frank statement about who he is- who WE are… As we look at our own lives, and the hash we often make of them, it’s simply being honest… We cannot do this on our own. If we could, wouldn’t our world look a whole lot better?

And that the shepherd is God is too much to hope for! It’s one more promise that the Bible offers. A shepherd loves his flock, cares for them- each of them keeps them safe. What’s more, the shepherd stays with, and travels with the flock: the shepherd is there, meeting the needs of those cared for…

Of course, David says, “I shall not want,” or “I lack nothing…” Don’t misunderstand: It’s not about stuff or material possessions, it’s about God caring for you…What more do you need?

The next verses describe that wonderful care: food, a place to rest and fresh waters (this continues the wonderful shepherd metaphor: green pastures and still waters are ideal for the sheep…)

God restores your soul… how many times in my life have I been grateful for this: when you are burned out, exhausted, and you take the time for Sabbath- for deep rest, you find restoration…

Let me just say this: every one of us needs that Sabbath time; we were created for it… Even God takes Sabbath- after creating the world in Genesis 1, God took the seventh day to rest… God values Sabbath so much it got included in the Ten Commandments- right up there with not murdering, adultery or idolatry!

And the placement of the next verse is no accident: when your soul is restored- when you have taken Sabbath, you will be led in the right paths, for God’s glory!

The most dangerous times in my ministry- in my life- have been when I was exhausted- ignoring Sabbath and the need for rest. That’s when boundaries can be crossed. Probably the majority of clergy misconduct happens when the pastor is exhausted- that’s not an excuse, and it can happen in any field.

One of the more famous lawyers in town saw his marriage end because he was working all the time with a female colleague. And I mean all the time…

And here’s the invidious thing: we can justify this overworking- because I’m essential, because if I don’t do it, it won’t get done right. Because if I don’t do it, someone else might show themselves to be more valuable. And on and on… Take a walk. Go home; the work will still be there; you will never be done!

On the other hand, when you are rested, you are far more likely to make better choices in your family, in your business, in your community- choices that honor God, that honors relationships, and that honor you…

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil…” This has been translated elsewhere “the valley of deepest darkness,” and most famously, as “the valley of the shadow of death…”

The sense of the Hebrew is incredible, incredible darkness- filled with foreboding, filled with danger. Exactly the kind of darkness we were talking about earlier- the kind of darkness that we find terrifying on an existential, primordial basis.

And David claims to have no fear- his confidence is wholly in God- “for you are with me…”

In a lovely little meditation on this psalm, retired Old Testament Professor, James Limburg notes that the word translated “you,” here, or “thou” in the King James Version is exactly in the center of the psalm- the same number of words before and after…

He argues that it places God’s presence in the exact center of the Psalm- and for our lives… And isn’t that exactly the role of Jesus: God with us, Emanuel!

We see Jesus take the title “Good Shepherd” during his ministry- we, as followers of Jesus can read him into every sentence in this psalm: present with us each and every day, taking on your death and mine on the cross- experiencing the deepest darkness you and I will ever face, as we close our eyes for the last time, whether old or young, whether death is a terrible surprise or a welcome relief.

God is not afraid of the dark; in Christ God took on that darkness, and in his resurrection, we know that death is not the last word. That we shall pass through that darkness into the beauty of his everlasting life!

God’s rod and staff protect- which is to say that it is God in Christ who does the work- the fighting- against death and all it means. We don’t do it; God does. It is God who wins that victory.

Now: This does not mean that we simply live a life of quiet passiveness when it comes to evil. We are called to be Christ to our world; bear witness against the forces of evil, and speak and act against them. But it is a very helpful reminder that ultimately, it is God who will bring the victory…

Ignatius of Loyola, the Founder of the Jesuits (Pope Francis’ Order), and leader of the Counter-reformation, Luther’s nemesis, you could call him, once said it this way: We are to work, as though everything depends on us, and pray, as though everything depends on God…

And the result is a table that God prepares in the face of our enemies… That is, everything that was so frightening to us in the dark is put at bay, and we can feast in God’s presence and in the face of those fears, now overcome, with an overflowing cup- with goodness and mercy surrounding us with the presence of God…

And we walk in God’s presence- in “God’s House” forever…

That’s where I go now when life is keeping me awake at 2 in the morning. This psalm is always close to me, and I believe it should be close to you, as well- it’s a source of constant comfort and peace… It truly is worth memorizing, so that you can have it with you all the time.

The things I worry about in the dark- amplified by the dark- can’t be solved in the dark; they need the light of God’s word, and then the light of the next day… And when I remember- and sometimes force myself to pray this psalm, the next thing I know is my alarm going off, and the new day beginning.

And when the time comes for me to close my eyes for good, and wake in God’s likeness, I will be rejoicing in the fact that God isn’t afraid of the dark, and will be with me always…

That’s what I was trying to share with my friend Tony- that love, that promise, that in the midst of pain, sorrow, even death itself, he would never be alone.

He came to believe that, over time. And God’s love in Christ was embodied for him in his wife- his family- his friends, as we sat with him at home and hospital, as we cried with him and for him in his suffering… Do you see how God can use you and me- we can be the very hands of Jesus to our brothers and sisters!

He and I continued to speculate about “what happens,” and our fear of that unknown, but that became less and less important to him as he became weaker and weaker- as he turned more and more to the God who loved him- who always had and who always will.

Tony knows now “what happens.” I’m afraid I still don’t have the specifics; it is a mystery.

What I do know and believe and preach- what each of you, and I can take into the places we live, work and play, with lives of love and service to others in Jesus’ Name, is this:

Whatever the unknown future holds, my fears can be relieved. For in the words of Psalm 23, “though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me!”

And that is enough- sufficient is the word the Bible uses- for you and me to walk into God’s future! Will you bow your heads and pray with me please:

Loving God, there is so much in my world- in my life- in my future that is beyond my control and which is terrifying. If I am left on my own, I am lost in darkness and overwhelmed. Help me to trust your Good Shepherd. Help me to trust like David trusted you. Take away my fears and grant me your light and your peace- the peace that passes all understanding; the peace that keeps my heart in Christ Jesus. In his name, Amen.