The 23rd Psalm is among the most recognizable parts of Scripture. It’s right up there with John 3:16. Even those who don’t have a history with the church are at least familiar with its phrasing, and one phrase in particular stands out as relevant today. The old King James Version translated it this way, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Now, I want to be clear about something. I was hesitant to key in on the phrase “the valley of the shadow of death” because it might sound like I’m saying, “Everything is terrible! This is the end! We are in the valley of the shadow of death!” And that is not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that the Psalm reminds us that even in our darkest moments, when our lives have been turned upside down and we find ourselves in the valley with no clear path forward, even there, God is with us. Even there, we should not fear because (as the Psalmist says) the Lord is our shepherd. He is the one who leads us. He is the one who is guiding us. He is the one who will see us through this valley.
But I do think it’s fair to ask the question: if the Lord is our shepherd, then why do we find ourselves in the valley? How did we get here? How did we get to this spot where I’m celebrating holy communion on a Sunday in an empty church and people whom I love and care about are at home hopefully watching this livestream through their phones, tablets, or computers? How did we get to this place where I am having to weigh my desire as a priest to offer communion to the body of Christ against my concern that doing so may make people unintentionally sick? If the Lord is my shepherd, how did I get here? Or to some it all up in one word: Why? Why are we in this situation?
My mom, who I suspect is listening (and now she’s going to feel badly if she’s not), tells me that when I was little that was one of my favorite questions: why? I was eager, desperate, to understand. Why are cans round? Why is something red and not blue? Why does something function this way instead of some other way? As she tells the story, I was driving her crazy until I eventually grew out of asking why all the time, but the truth is that I don’t think I ever actually grew out of mentality. I still feel that way today. I want, need, to understand. When something doesn’t make sense to me, I need it to make sense, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. We want the world to make sense. We want our lives to make sense. We want the decisions others make around us, especially the decisions of those in authority over us, to make sense.
In the first century, one of the ways that people tried to make sense of the world was by relating anything negative in one’s life, like blindness, to sin. And so Jesus’ disciples, when they come across a man who had been blind from birth and had been unable to find healing, whether through natural or supernatural means, ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). They want to know why. They’re trying to understand.
To us, their question may seem a little bizarre. That’s not the kind of question we generally ask today, although I’ll remind you that there are many preachers who want to attribute every disease and every natural disaster to some sin in a given culture. So maybe the question isn’t as far removed from our own time as it might seem. But still the disciples’ question had significant weight in first century Palestine. You’ll remember that in the Ten Commandments, and what we read on Sundays in Lent is a shortened form of the Ten Commandments, but in the full text back in Exodus 20 with the commandment against idolatry, the Lord says, “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exod 20:5).
This idea of God punishing the children for the sins of their fathers became proverbial in Israel. They had a phrase for it, and you can find it in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 18. This is the phrase: “The Fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The fathers are the ones who have eaten the sour grapes, they’ve been disobedient, but we’re the ones who feel the pain, our teeth are set on edge.
Ezekiel says that this proverb should no longer be used in Israel. “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek 18:4). Jeremiah speaks of a time, after Judah and Israel had been plucked up, broken down, overthrown, destroyed and harmed (this is the exile), when they would be built and planted and God would watch over them (Jer 31:28). This is the return from exile. The prophet continues, “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge” (Jer 31:29-30).
The disciple’s question isn’t just a general wondering but a theological problem they want their Rabbi to solve for them. In Deuteronomy God has said that he would punish the sins of the fathers onto their children, but the prophets had said this would not be the case when the people came back to the land, and yet here is this man, here in the Promised Land, who has been born blind. If the negative things that happen to us in this life are always the result of sin, then who sinned, this man or his parents? If the answer is “his parents” then it would seem that Jeremiah and Ezekiel were wrong and God is still visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, but if the answer is “this man” then you have to explain how he had sinned in the womb?
What’s at stake here is Jeremiah 31. The verses that I read a moment ago were Jeremiah 31:29-30. The very next verse says, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (31:31). Jeremiah 31 is the New Covenant chapter, and the immediately preceding verses are about this question of who pays the penalty for sin. Are we suffering because of our own sin or are we suffering because of the sins of our fathers?
And Jesus, in response to this question, undercuts the entire premise. He refuses to attribute this man’s blindness to sin at all. He says, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Now, for many, that’s not a better answer. For many, it sounds as if Jesus is saying, “This man has suffered blindness all these years so that God might reveal his glory through him now.” Some would say that if God made this person blind just for this moment, that’s unfair. The reality is that the Bible affirms the absolute sovereignty of God and the absolute goodness of God, and our little pea-brains sometimes have a difficult time holding those two ideas together, particularly in the context of all the pain and suffering that we see in the world. But if we’re going to hold fast to the Bible, we don’t have any other choice. We must hold to God’s sovereignty and to his goodness at the same time and trust that there are truths that are simply beyond our comprehension.
But there’s something else that we should say here. We often address this question from the philosophical/theological side, but let’s address it from, a more practical side. Instead of asking how we got here, let’s ask the question: “Where do we go from here?” or “What does God want us to do while we’re here?” When confronted with pain and suffering, when confronted with sickness and disease, when confronted with a struggling economy and unemployment and hunger and the (hopefully only momentary) undoing of life as we know it for many people, what does God want us to do? The answer is as simple as it is difficult. He wants us to do what Jesus did. He wants us to look at this situation in which we find ourselves as a nation and see it as an opportunity to manifest the glory of God.
Everywhere we see pain, everywhere we see suffering, and everywhere we see hurt what we should be seeing are opportunities for God to work powerfully through us. And right now, our whole country is hurting. Right now, our family, friends, and neighbors are trying to adjust on the fly to a new normal, and so are we, and we don’t know how long this new normal will last. But we do know that if our shepherd has led us to the valley, it’s so that we can be a light to those who are in the valley with us, so that we can help see them through as our Shepherd leads us through. This means that we must see the world differently. Samuel sees all of David’s older brothers and sees would-be kings. But God sees that young shepherd and tells Samuel to anoint him as King. God sees the world differently than we do, and we must readjust our vision to his.
Paul commands us to “be imitators of God” and to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2). I’m not asking you to be foolish or unwise. I want you to be very careful and to stay safe, but there are still ways that we can do good even in these trying times. Local foodbanks are going to need our financial support. People are going to feel lonely and forgotten, and they’re going to need phone calls and conversations. People are going to be without food and jobs, and I expect the requests for help at the church are going to skyrocket in the coming months, so thanks be to God that we’ve set up this limited food pantry and have some resources available to meet those needs. It’s our job now to shine God’s light into the darkness of people’s lives, to bring hope into situations that seem hopeless, and to look at all the pain and all the hurt and all that’s going wrong in the world and pray “thy Kingdom come.” The Lord is in control. He is our shepherd. He will lead us through. We will not be afraid. If our shepherd has led us to the valley, then he had led us here for a reason, and that is to make his glory known. May our shepherd keep us all safe, and may his glory shine through this church in this dark time in ways that we never could have imagined.