Through the Valley – Pastor Robert’s sermon for Sunday, April 8

Today I want us to focus on one of the most well known and loved passages of scripture in the entire Bible, Psalm 23, or as we have been known to call it, “The Lord is My Shepherd” Psalm.

Psalm 23 ranks right up there with the Lord’s Prayer as a passage of scripture which most people have heard at least one time or another.  When I grew up in church, I can remember having to memorize Psalm 23.

Maybe you heard of the story of the Sunday School teacher who decided to have her class memorize Psalm 23.  She gave the children a whole month to memorize this beautiful Psalm.

One of the boys in her class, Jimmy, was excited about the task, but he just couldn’t seem to remember the lines, no matter how hard he tried.

After a lot of practice, he could barely remember the first line.  On the day that the class was scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, Jimmy was so nervous.  When it was his turn, he stepped to the microphone and proudly said, “The Lord is my shepherd…and that’s all I need to know.”

Good for Jimmy!  Even though this Psalm is one of the shorter of the Psalms, 6 verses in all, sometimes all we need is to remember one little phrase or one verse and we might be surprised at how much that little bit can bring us comfort and hope in our lives.

The little phrase I’d like us to focus on from this Psalm today is the phrase, “Though I walk through the valley?” One of the reasons why I think that short phrase is worth focusing is because all of us have experienced those valley times in life.  What do I mean by “those valley times?”

Valley times are when we find ourselves going through the dark experiences of life.  I say, “dark experiences” because various bible translations are not in agreement on exactly how this phrase should read.

But if we follow the theme of Psalm 23, the Psalmist is saying that like sheep, there are times in life when our way forward does not always seem very certain or secure.  In the ancient Near East, shepherds knew very well that there would be times when they would need to guide their sheep through sharp and dangerous trails, not to mention through deep valleys and gorges where even the sun wouldn’t be able to reach during that stretch of the journey.

Valleys would also mean that the sheep would become more vulnerable to predators which could strike at the sheep from higher ground.

All of these images are what the Psalmist probably has in mind when he says, “Though I walk through the valley.”  Shadows, darkness, vulnerability, danger, fear – all of these are part of what it means to go through the valleys of life.

The important thing to remember is that as we go through these valleys, we are never alone.  God is with us.  The Lord is our shepherd.  Sometimes we forget that first line of the Psalm, don’t we?  Maybe we can become like Jimmy who was able to say, “The Lord is my shepherd, and that’s all I need to know.”

There are many valleys that people experience in their walk through life. The valleys of disappointment, depression, broken relationships, grief… just to name a few.

Let’s think about a valley that we all face from time to time and that is the valley of disappointment.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie is a Canadian hero.  An early fur trader and explorer, he accomplished a magnificent feat when he led an expedition across Canada from Fort Chippewyan on Lake Athabasca to the Pacific Ocean.

His incredible journey was accomplished in 1793, eleven years before Lewis and Clark began their famous expedition to the west.   Mackenzie’s earlier attempt in 1789, however, had been a major disappointment.

His explorers had set out in an effort to find a water route to the Pacific.  The valiant group followed a mighty river, now named the Mackenzie, with high hopes, paddling furiously amid great danger.  Unfortunately, it didn’t empty into the Pacific, but into the Arctic Ocean.

In his diary, Mackenzie called it the “River of Disappointment.”

I think all of us can probably think of times when we’ve felt like we’ve been down that river.  Maybe, it seems like we’re on that river now, where life feels like one big disappointment.

In his book, “Disappointment With God,” Phillip Yancey identifies three questions we usually ask when we come face to face with disappointment in life.  These are three questions which the people in the bible have asked as well.

Here they are:  Is God unfair?  Is God silent?  Is God hidden?  Yancey reminds us in his book that those are fair questions to ask.  In fact he says that in some ways, it’s easier to not believe in God because a true atheist would not even think about asking those questions when facing disappointment.  But people who do believe in God, do ask those questions.

And sometimes, when disappointment comes our way, we ask those questions about God or to God, we make it through the disappointment, but then later on down the road, we end up asking one or more of those same questions again.  Why do we do this?  Because inevitably, we will end up facing another disappointment.  I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the way life is.

For those of us who are parents, one of the most difficult things about parenting is in knowing that our children will have to face and deal with disappointment from time to time.  We don’t want our children to face the valley of disappointment because we know how it can feel.  Naturally, we want to shield them from having to deal with disappointment, and yet we know that one way or another, disappointment will come.

One of the things that I love about the church is in how we can learn from each other in how to handle disappointments in life.

When I was just getting started in pastoring a church, an older and wise pastor in our conference pulled me aside one day and said, “I like you.  God has given you gifts to be an effective pastor in our conference.  I just want you to know that there will come a day when you will face disappointment.  A long time member will leave your church and it’s going to hurt.  A ministry that you worked so hard to get off the ground will go by the wayside.  Sometimes things won’t go the way you were hoping.  But remember this,” he said like a father to a grown son, “You’ll get through those disappointments.  And you’ll be a better pastor and Christian for it.”

Rarely do I face a disappointment in my ministry, without thinking about this wise pastor’s words of advice to me twenty-nine years ago.  He basically was telling me that the disappointments will happen to the best of us and to know that God will get us through.

Thank God for Christian mentors and shepherds along the way.  And how important it is for those of us who have a little more experience to come alongside us and remind us with the words, “You can make it through this with God’s strength and help.”

My hope is that you can probably think of someone who has been that Christian source of strength for you during times of disappointment.

Every year, on this second Sunday of Easter, the church hears the story of a follower of Jesus who was going through probably thee most difficult disappointment of his entire life – the death of a dear teacher, guide, and friend, Jesus.

It had been a little over a week since Jesus had been crucified on a cross by the Romans.  Imagine Thomas, one of Jesus’ closest followers, one of the twelve disciples, feeling the tremendous disappointment of not only losing a friend and teacher, but also losing the faith that he had in God.

I can’t help but wonder if Thomas asked those same questions that I mentioned earlier.  Is God unfair?  Is God silent?  Is God hidden?

Maybe he was asking those questions, and that’s why we have given him the name, “Doubting Thomas.”

Our Gospel reading reminds us that his disappointment was so deep that even when the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus’ alive on the evening of Easter Day, he wouldn’t believe them.  Nobody gets crucified and returns to life with a new body.

But something amazing happens to Thomas one week later as he is gathered with the other disciples.  While the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them, John tells us, and I love this.  Jesus specifically goes to Thomas and invites him to not doubt but believe.

And just by hearing Jesus’ words to see and believe, Thomas’s disappointment gives way to faith, hope, and joy.  After living with unbearable disappointment for the past several days, Thomas shouts out one of the clearest expressions faith you will find anywhere in the entire Bible.

Looking at Jesus with his own eyes, he says, “My Lord and my God.”  This is the first time in all of John’s Gospel, that anyone has referred to Jesus as God.  And who shares these words?  The one who was walking through an incredibly painful and dark valley of disappointment.  Thomas.

Our Gospel reading reminds us that sometimes, it’s in the midst of our deepest disappointments that we end up with our deepest faith.

Phillip Yancey closes his book on “Disappointment with God” with this story.  One day, he visited his mother who lived several hundred miles away and during his visit with her, they ended up getting out the old family photos of Phillip as a little boy wearing cowboy and Indian costumes, the Peter Cottontail suit when he was in a play in the 1st grade, and the several piano recitals.

Among all of those childhood photos, he found one when he was an infant.  Unlike the other photos, this particular photo was crumbled and mangled.  So he asked his mother why the photo was in such bad shape, compared to the other ones.

When Phillip was only ten months old, his father contracted spinal lumbar polio and he ended up dying just three months later, just after Phillip’s first birthday.  At only 24 years of age, the condition had paralyzed him and his muscles had become so weak that he had to live inside a large steel cylinder that did his breathing for him.

He didn’t have many visitors because of the fear and the stigma this condition had during the 1950s, much like HIV/AIDS has today.

But the one visitor who came faithfully to see him was Phillip’s mother.  And she would always sit in a certain place so that he could see her in a mirror bolted to the side of the iron lung.

During those visits, he would ask for pictures of her and his two sons, and she would have to jam those pictures in between some metal knobs.  One of those pictures was this crumpled picture of Phillip as an infant.

When Phillip’s mother told him this story about his father and the mangled picture, he thought that it was amazing that his father, who had never really met his newborn son, could care about him as much as he did.

During the last months of his life, his father literally spent his waking hours staring at the pictures of his family and no doubt, saying prayers for each of them.  How could it be that his father, who never really knew him at all, had so much love for him?

It’s the same question we can also have about God.  How can the One who is bigger and greater than anything we can ever imagine, be the one who would become flesh in the person of Jesus and show how much he loves us by dying on a cross for our sins?  How can that be?

Whenever you walk through the valley of disappointment, know that you are never alone in that valley.  The one who defeated death and who rose again is walking with you.

“The Lord is my shepherd and that’s all I need to know.”

Jimmy was right.

Through the Valley

Small Group Questions

Psalm 23 & John 20:19-31

April 8, 2018

Our worship focus is on Psalm 23 which for many people is their favorite of the 150 psalms in the Bible. Pastor Robert began his sermon by telling the story of Jimmy, a little boy who was asked to recite Psalm 23 in front of the entire congregation. He nervously began by reciting, “The Lord is my shepherd and…” Since he couldn’t remember the rest of the lines from this Psalm he simply said, “The Lord is my shepherd and that’s all I need to know.” 

How is the Lord a “shepherd” for you?

The phrase, “through the valley” in this Psalm is an important one because it refers to those times in our lives when we are facing disappointment, fear, and questions about our faith. Christian author, Philip Yancey says that when we walk through valleys we often struggle with at least one of these three questions: 1) Is God unfair? 2) Is God silent? 3) Is God hidden?

Share a time when you walked “through the valley.” Did you wrestle with any of these questions? Remember, it’s OK to share this with your group because regardless of how strong our faith may be, it’s still perfectly normal to struggle with any or all of these questions.

In the sermon, Pastor Robert shared, “It’s often in the midst of our deepest disappointments that we end up with a deeper faith.” Doubting Thomas experienced this when he found it difficult to believe that Jesus had been resurrected. When he saw Jesus face to face and realized it was really him, he offered this statement of faith, “My Lord and my God!”

In what ways does the Lord help you walk “through the valleys” of struggle, doubt, and disappointment in your life? How has the church or more specifically your small group helped you through a difficult time?