Death Valley (Psalm 23)
- Order of Service: Divine Service 3
- Hymns: LSB #484, 709, 636, 625, 475, 729
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
Death Valley, California, is known as the hottest, driest place in North America. It is not a place where people want to live. With an average of less than two inches of precipitation yearly, life seems almost impossible in this furnace. Very accurately is it called Death Valley.
"The valley of the shadow of death" is David's description of the spiritual Death Valley that we walk through every day (v4). There seems to be nothing but death around us. We hear at the beginning of the graveside service (PCC p. 126):
- In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help? From You alone, O Lord, who by our sins are justly angered.
- Lord, You know the secrets of our hearts; shut not Your ears to our prayers, but spare us, O Lord.
- O worthy and eternal Judge, do not let the pains of death turn us away from You at our last hour.
Each of these verses is followed by the refrain:
- Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
We are surrounded by death everywhere we go. We cannot escape it. Last week's Boston Marathon bombings. Other acts of terrorism around the world. Death is all around us.
But as Christians, we can boldly proclaim, "I will fear no evil" (v4). Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again so that we have the assurance of everlasting life. We dwell in "the valley of the SHADOW of death" (v4) because Jesus has conquered death. All that is left is its shadow until the Last Day (1 Corinthians 15:26). We have God comforting us with His rod and staff.
God's comforting rod and staff are His Law and Gospel. By His rod of the Law, God guides us in the way we should live. "He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake" (v3). The paths of righteousness are the examples and the commands He has given us to govern our lives. Not just the Ten Commandments. Also the "new commandment" Jesus gave on Maundy Thursday: "Love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34).
This love for one another is what drives Paul to call the Ephesian elders together. "You yourselves know how I lived among you ... serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials ... I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable" (Acts 20:18-20). Paul walked fearlessly through the Death Valley in Ephesus for three years. Suffering many things from the plots of Jews and Gentiles alike. He continues, "But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received from the Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:24).
The ministry of the Good Shepherd who comforts and rescues His sheep with His staff of the Gospel. The Gospel brings itself to the forefront in this most popular of Psalms. Three ancient practices of the Church come to the forefront. Jesus as Shepherd "leads me beside still waters" in Baptism. "He restores my soul" (vv2-3). The cleansing flood of Baptism in the font is still. It does not rush. It does not rage as we see it. But it drowns our sins in our Lord Jesus' tomb. Daily we may go back to it as He leads us beside the still waters of our Baptism. Daily we may drown our sins in His blood.
Often linked with Baptism in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches is Chrismation. "You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows" (v5). Anointing with oil, symbolizing the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the baptized. The faith to believe in the forgiveness of all your sins. The faith to believe that this Death Valley we walk through is not the whole of existence. That the Holy Spirit has come upon us to bring us into the Good Shepherd's fold where "no one will snatch them out of [His] hand" (John 10:28).
The third practice, which we will celebrate today, is coming around the table prepared by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (v5). His body and blood in, with and under the bread and wine. Jesus the Good Shepherd has spilled His blood as the Lamb of God. He took away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In His blood, through our Baptism, we have had our robes washed white (Revelation 7:14). Our entrance into the Lamb's marriage feast (Revelation 19:7-10). The Shepherd tells us, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life" (John 10:27-28).
We walk in "the valley of the shadow of death" every day (v4). This spiritual Death Valley has no power over us. It has been overcome by our risen Lord Jesus Christ. All praise and glory to Him who is our Good Shepherd. The Shepherd who will call all His sheep home by name. Amen.
Lord Jesus, who alone is that one Good Shepherd, thanks be unto You for all Your spiritual and bodily benefits. Let the Word of Your salvation dwell among us richly, and suffer not that trusty staff, the word of Your promise, to be taken from us. And when the shadow of death spreads over us, conduct us safely to the fold of the perfected saints, the tabernacle not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Amen.