Preached July 7, 2013
Text: Psalm 23:4, Revelation 7:9, 13-17
“Yea, though I walk through the valley…”
Valleys. There is something in us that doesn’t like valleys. Mountaintops feel more exciting, more exhilarating.
Many of you are familiar with the mountaintop cross at Jumonville – a huge white cross overlooking the valley city of Uniontown. (I’m told that, somewhere, there is a picture of [a parishioner] doing a headstand in the location of the cross, before it was built!)
I went to camp at Jumonville as a kid, and like many of you, I remember hiking the winding road up the backside of the mountain to reach the cross. Twenty years after my last year at summer camp, I was back to Jumonville for a retreat. I woke up early one morning and decided to walk up to the cross before breakfast. I started out walking alone along the winding road bed, going this way and that through the trees, back and forth up the hillside. From the base of the trail I could see the cross clearly, but was I walked it was mostly hidden from my view. The wonderfully crisp morning air began to feel downright cold as I wove my way through the woods, and the bright morning light was muted by the trees. I had to strain to see the path ahead in the dim light, and when something rustled the leaves on the ground nearby, and I jumped at the sound.
That familiar camp road suddenly felt longer and less inviting than I remembered it.
About a third of the way up, I saw a small side path leading to a wide open, grassy hillside, and I decided to follow it. It felt good to step out from the shade of the trees and into the morning sun. The green grassy field was a nice change from the dusty gravel road. I breathed deeply, and smiled.
At first. But it didn’t take long to realize I had made a mistake. The slope grew steeper as I walked, and the grass was still wet from the dew. My shoes were wet, and before long my socks too. Then I lost my footing on the slippery wet grass, fell forward, and the knees of my pants were wet too. I kept climbing, but the slope got so steep at the top that my chest was heaving with the exertion of the climb. By the time I reached the foot of the cross, I was well convinced that the dim, dusty road was the way to go after all!
“Yea, though I walk through the valley…”
In hot dessert climates, shepherds often lead their flocks up to the highlands for the warm summer months. It is cooler there in the high country, and melting snow leaves behind sparkling fresh mountain streams and rich green fields. After a winter grazing near the ranch headquarters, sheep and shepherd alike are ready for the refreshing trip up the hillside.
A good shepherd knows, though, that the best way up to the summit is through the crisscrossing ravines and valleys carved through the mountainside. The winding path of the ravine is not as steep as the hillside. Plus, traveling the valleys keeps the sheep out of the heat of the summer sun and near the riverbeds where water is readily available. When spring storms come through, the valley walls provide some shelter. Walking through the valleys is a good thing.
Walking through the valleys is also a dangerous task. Flash floods could wash the flock away. Predators can pounce from above. It is cold there at night, and dim even in daylight.
Sheep are never more reliant on their shepherd than they are during the days when the flock is on the move from low country to high country.
The shepherd cannot bring much on this journey up the mountain. He will camp out with just the basics during these summer months. But there are two things that never leave his hands during the drives through the valley: a rod, and a staff.
A shepherd’s rod and staff are both prized possessions, usually carved by hand to fit the shepherd’s hand and body build just right. The rod, with a rounded club-like head, protects. An experienced shepherd can knock a predator out with a direct blow from his rod, or throw it with precision to catch a predator from a distance. The rod is also used to part the thick wool of the sheep to look for parasites and skin irritations; it is used to divide the sick from the healthy. The rod protects, defends and divides – all to keep the sheep safe.
The staff, on the other hand, is used to guide and to gather. A shepherd uses a staff to lift a newborn lamb to its mother, to collect a frightened injured sheep so that it might be treated, or to draw the flock together into a tight group for warmth or protection. A shepherd also uses the staff, pressed up against a sheep’s side, to guide along a path or to reassure a sheep in a narrow passage. It is a sign of the shepherd’s presence and provision.
Like sheep traveling up to the high country, our paths sometimes lead through valleys. Our lives have valleys of failure – grief – disappointment – illness – depression.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
It is tempting to wish these times away – or to wonder why they happen at all. I don’t know why we have to walk them – but I do know that in the midst of them, we experience God’s presence like no other time in our lives. Like sheep, we are never more reliant on our shepherd than when we are while we walk in the valleys.
In A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Philip Keller compares the shepherd’s rod to the Word of God, and the staff to the Holy Spirit. It is the Word, Keller says, that protects us from spiritual attack – as Jesus relied on the word when he was tempted in the wilderness. It is the Word, too, that helps us to sort out what is good and helpful in our lives, and what is hurtful and destructive. It is the Word of God that we must rely on more deeply than ever when we walk through the valleys.
The staff, meanwhile, is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. In John 16:13, Jesus promised that the Spirit will “guide us into all truth.” It is the Spirit who reassures us that we are God’s children, the sheep of God’s pasture. The Spirit is our Counselor (John 14:26) and Comforter. It is the Spirit of God who reassures us of God’s presence with us, even in the darkest valleys.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
Our lives will lead through valleys – and sometimes, storms will sweep down through those valleys while we walk in them. The certainty of Psalm 23, the promise to which we can cling, is that we are not alone in the valleys; that in the midst of the storms, the Shepherd will protect and guide us. In that, we find comfort.
And in the end, we find that valleys are often the best way up, the paths that lead us to deeper faith and stronger love for God. The valley road may be the best one to walk, after all.