Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you from Jesus Christ who loves us and frees us from our sin. Amen.
As a kid, I was afraid of just about everything: dogs, strangers, getting lost, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. So in retrospect watching America’s Most Wanted with my dad on Sunday evenings as a 3rd grader probably wasn’t the best choice. It was good father/son bonding time but didn’t lead to particularly restful sleep.
After a few weeks of watching the show, I was convinced that all of these wanted criminals would be after me next. I fully expected someone to break into the room at night and kill me. My mom assured me that things like that don’t really happen in small towns like Appleton, WI where I grew up. No, violent crime usually happened in places like New York, LA or down in big cities Florida. I found this to be comforting and was able to sleep again. That is until we took a family vacation to Florida for Spring Break that year.
A few days into our trip my mom was making my bed only to discover I had carefully stashed my trusty Swiss Army pocket knife under my pillow. I may have been excited to go to Disney World but I wasn’t about to travel to Florida, without protection.
It’s amazing how thoughts of this kind enter into your head most powerfully at night. During the day, a person can get wrapped up in other stuff, playing, working, whatever. But at night, when it’s dark, and when you’re alone, the fears and anxiety come creeping in. They threaten to overwhelm you.
You feel vulnerable and exposed. Whether you’re all grown up, or still in 3rd grade, the dark can be a very scary place to be.
We’re in the middle of a sermon series in which we are thinking together about how we speak about God, thinking together about who God is and who God isn’t. This week we want to make the claim that God isn’t afraid of the dark.
At first blush maybe this seems like a silly thing to say about God. Of course, God isn’t scared of the dark. But as we dig deeper, they are some incredibly important implications for our own lives that are born out of this idea.
Today’s reading is the 23rd Psalm, one of the more famous/familiar passages from the Old Testament, if not the entire bible. It’s one that gets read at funerals all the time. Psalm 23 is the part of the bible that people ask me to read with them in hospital rooms, around sick beds, in moments of crisis. Across generations, this psalm probably more than any other has provided a sense of comfort of people in moments of crisis when things have gotten dark. Why?
On one level, it’s because it’s familiar. Many people had their parents and grandparents recite it to them. My 5th grade Sunday School teacher Mrs. Reeck had all of her students memorize it. Many people return to the 23rd psalm because they know it, and as human beings we take comfort in the familiar.
On another level it’s beautiful. I mean as far as poetry goes, this is really very lovely stuff.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
The imagery is powerful. Listen, I know nothing about sheep or shepherds, but there is something profoundly calming and comforting about green pastures and still waters. Instantly I imagine the Scottish highlands or undulating green hills in Ireland. I want to be there. These are beautiful promises. But beauty is not enough. In the darkness, I need more than something beautiful.
In the Hebrew, the language in which this psalm was written, there are 26 words that begin the psalm and 26 words that end the psalm. In the middle are two words, two Hebrew words that get translated into four English words, “you are with me.” I don’t think it’s an accident that at the center of this psalm is assurance of God’s presence with us. No matter what has come before and no matter what comes after, we are given the promise of God’s presence. God is with you in the darkest valley. God is with you when your enemies, whoever or whatever they are, surround you. In and through all of life in this world, God is with you.
Now I don’t pretend to know what’s happened to each of you. I don’t know the difficulties you have faced, the dark roads some of you have no doubt traveled. I can’t imagine the moments of pain and frustration you have felt. What I do know is that often in the moments a person can feel incredibly alone, because I have felt that way too. In the really dark times, it can feel as though God has abandoned you. That I’ve experienced, that I’ve known.
Which is why I’ve always found the conclusion, the final verse of psalm 23 to be a little hard to swallow. Verse six reads,
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
There are just a lot of days that don’t seem all that good. If goodness and mercy are trailing me, then they’re doing so by quite a distance, you know what I mean? So this promise, that goodness and mercy will follow me, seems a little grandiose, a little pie in the sky.
But then this week, I’ve started to wonder, maybe goodness and mercy aren’t so much about me and my life but about the one who promises to be present in my life.
What if in saying goodness and mercy will follow him all the days of his life, the psalmist is talking about God, our God who is the embodiment of goodness and mercy. What if the psalmist is simply saying God is with me, always. God who is goodness and mercy is with us all the days of our lives.
I mean, isn’t that the promise of Jesus. Isn’t that what God’s Immanuel, god with us, is all about. After all, Jesus becomes one of us. Jesus goes to the dark places of human existence. Jesus experiences, he lives, our pain and our suffering, our fear and feelings of abandonment. The darkness become a part of God’s life, and then promises to never leave us.
God isn’t afraid of the dark. God isn’t afraid of our darkness. God is familiar with your pain and your suffering. God sees you as beloved and beautiful. God has promised to be at the center of your life, this day and forevermore. Amen.