Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

Following the Direction of Jesus


The 23rd Psalm is probably the best known, most loved, most quoted portion of Scripture. We talked about it last week and I want to continue using this Psalm as we think about Jesus’ direction for our lives. This Psalm is so familiar that people who seldom if ever read a Bible or go to church can often still quote a portion of this Psalm. (Read Psalm 23) This Psalm is so often requested at death-beds and funerals, we too often associate the 23rd Psalm with death and dying. But the Psalm is really for the living. It speaks to us in our daily lives as we try to just get through our days and to be faithful to what Jesus wants us to do.
Roy Campanella, the baseball player, was in a bad car accident years ago that left him a semi invalid. In his autobiography he talks about the many nights he cried himself to sleep, about the pain that racked his body and his sinking into deep depression. He writes:
All my life whenever I was in trouble, I had turned to God for help. I remembered my Bible and asked the nurse to the get the one from the drawer in the night table. I opened it to the 23rd Psalm: `Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.'
"From that moment on", he wrote, "I was on my way back. I knew I was going to make it!"
There are hundreds and thousands of testimonies like this - of how people have found in this simple Psalm the comfort, strength, and the assurance that they are going to make it! I'm sure many of you can tell your own stories about what this psalm has meant to you. Psalm 23 not only gives comfort to the dying, it also gives courage, strength, and hope to those of us who are alive and often struggling.
One of the things we realize, though, is that the 23rd Psalm is steeped in the language and customs of shepherding and sheep in Palestine back in Bible times. If we don't know anything about the customs of shepherds and the unique relationship between the shepherd and the sheep, then much of what this Psalm has to say simply passes us by. The sheep put their total trust, their whole life in the direction of the shepherd.
As we continue through this season of Easter we are looking at all of those appearances of Jesus to his disciples as he tries to give them last minute instructions before he leaves them to go sit at the right hand of the Father. Jesus wants to make sure that these disciples understand who they are and what they are to do - and the appearance of Jesus we will talk about today is about Jesus reminding the disciples who they are - they are Followers of Jesus! About who we are - followers of Jesus.
We are still in this 40 day period between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Up til now the disciples have been locked in that upper room but apparently they have left Jerusalem and gone back to their home in Galilee and they have gone back to work - they were fishermen so they are fishing. Most fishermen on the Sea of Galilee fished during the night - this is when they caught the most fish. But on this particular night, they have been fishing all night and they have not caught anything. Morning comes and the disciples are pretty disgusted - as we can well imagine. You work all night long and find you have accomplished nothing - you are pretty disheartened So here they are in the boat, feeling down and probably fussing
when they hear a voice coming from the shore - “Hey! Throw your net on the other side! There are fish on the other side!” The disciples weren’t sure who was giving them this direction but they did it and they caught so many fish they could barely get the net back into the boat. As they were working to get these fish into the boat, Peter looks up at the fella on the beach who had given them this advice and he realized it was Jesus!
Following the direction of Jesus made all the difference as those fishermen tried to catch those fish…
So let’s go back for a minute to our 23rd Psalm, especially verse 4 which says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Did you know that the Shadow of Death was an actual place?It is a valley, or a mountain pass, that got its name from shepherds because of its steep sides and sheer rock walls. But is was a pass that enabled the shepherds to lead their sheep from one mountain pasture to another. However it was a terrifying place for skittish, defenseless, fearful sheep: for in the steep cliffs on both sides of the valley there were numerous caves and rocks and crevices that were perfect hiding place for animals of prey - and for people who meant harm to passing travelers. Sounds would echo and amplify in the valley, making it even more terrifying for the sheep.
The Psalm starts with this great picture of the shepherd - he is making me lie down in green pastures and then he leads be by still waters and now he has led the sheep into the Valley of the Shadow of death….
What is this saying to us. We know that we are the sheep and that Jesus is the shepherd - so for us what is this Valley of the Shadow of Death? It is those terrifying, dark, lonely, frightening times in life -- times of sickness, tragedy, emotional stress, tension, economic disaster, loneliness, when the Good Shepherd may seem far away. But we see here in the Psalm that it is the Good Shepherd who leads the sheep into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. That doesn’t make any sense. We have been good sheep. We have followed our Shepherd and now we find ourselves in this dark place…
But we must remember that the shepherd has a purpose: The shepherd takes the sheep from pastures that are now eaten up and barren, where food is scarce and the land is parched, to new lush, green meadows. But to get there, the shepherd and the sheep have to pass through the valley. The sheep don't understand this. The sheep cannot comprehend the purposes of the shepherd. All that the sheep experience are the frightening, terrifying surroundings But the shepherd knows the way. And the sheep have learned to trust the shepherd.
Following the direction of Jesus may mean that we find ourselves in this frightening, uncomfortable Valley of the Shadow of Death And that can be a terrifying experience for us. At that time is it is good to recall how the Good Shepherd is leading us to green pastures where he will restore our souls. To remember that he is preparing a table for me -
a table that contains the bread of heaven and the wine of everlasting and abundant joy..
That is where the disciples are as well. Following the direction of Jesus they certainly caught
a great number of fish….. but in the not so distant future following the direction of Jesus is going to turn their life into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Their life will be filled with danger and difficulty and hard decisions and eventually martyrdom.
But what gave the disciples the courage and the resolve to follow where Jesus leads them was remembering this Psalm; remembering how the Good Shepherd is leading us and we as his followers know that if we follow in the direction of Jesus; if we remember the love and care of the shepherd we will end in the house of the Lord forever.
Following the direction of the shepherd when you are in the valley of the shadow of death is a frightening experience, but imagine trying to walk through that valley alone….…
Listen and know that he is leading us to a better place.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for you, O Lord, are with me. Your rod and
your staff comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my
life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.