When Life Takes You Where You Don’t Want to Go

  • When Life Takes You Where You Don’t Want to Go
  • Psalm 23
  • Lyndol Loyd
  • July 8, 2018
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7-8-18 Sermon from LakeRidge UMC on Vimeo.

What keeps you up at night? Fear? Panic? Stress? Worry? Many people are suffering through sleepless nights as they toss and turn in their beds unable to shut their minds off long enough to sleep. They long for sleep, but sleep simply will not come.

 

For some it is…

  • the worry of not knowing how you are going to make ends meet.
  • fear about knowing whether or not you will have a job when you go in for work tomorrow.
  • stress from strained marital and family relationships.
  • the toll that secret addiction has on your quality of life.
  • health issues that came out of the blue and won’t seem to go away.

 

Somehow things seem worse at night when everyone else is asleep. The minutes tick by as the glow of the alarm clock illuminates the room. You are left alone with your thoughts. Where do you turn for help?

 

These are challenging times we live in. People are facing problems which feel much bigger than they are. Trite responses and ordinary solutions aren’t enough. Here at LakeRidge our conviction is that God’s Word, the Bible, has real help for real people struggling to meet the challenges of everyday life.

 

That’s why, for the next several weeks, we are going to be focusing our attention on a new message series about hope and help for people facing trying times. We begin with “When Life Takes You Where You Don’t Want to Go.”

 

When Joni and I knew that we were expecting each of our girls we decided upon a theme for each of their nurseries. My mom sewed bedding for the cribs and Joni made a wall hanging for each girl.

 

With Abigail, we had a Noah’s Ark theme for her nursery; the wall hanging was complete with Noah, a rainbow, and several sets of animals which read, “God keeps his promises.” We thought this was a great message to surround our baby daughter with when we put her in her crib at night. We hoped she would grow up as someone who understands and experiences God’s faithfulness.

 

With Madeline, the theme was “The Good Shepherd”, taken from the 23rd Psalm and the gospel accounts. The wall hanging featured a shepherd with sheep and said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep by name. I call for them and they come to me.” Once again, we hoped that this would help our second daughter grow up understanding the personal nature of a relationship with Jesus Christ and the guidance He gives us in life.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that in both cases my girls’ nurseries reflected the more idyllic notion of those stories. Nowhere in the Noah’s Ark room was there anything about all that was wiped out due to the flood.

 

In the Good Shepherd room it was a lot about fluffy, happy looking sheep, instead of stubborn lambs who wander away from the flock. Given the nature and setting of a baby’s room, I think this was all good and fine. Sanitized versions of these Biblical accounts work for a nursery, however they fail to do justice to the reality of either story.

 

To get behind the real story, I invite you to listen to the 23rd Psalm with a fresh set of ears; to take in anew all that is there when we refer to the Lord as being our Shepherd.

 

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,

 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness

        for his name’s sake.

 4 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.

 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
       You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
       all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

 

Read the 23rd Psalm again and you find that the Psalmist wasn’t comparing life to a bunch of fluffy, happy, little lambs scampering around on the hillside for an afternoon of fun.

 

Read it and you soon discover a certain realism that pastures aren’t always green, the waters aren’t always calm, and the path doesn’t always lead to nice places. Life sometimes takes us where we don’t want to go.

 

I know that there was a time in life when I thought that somehow, if my faith was deep enough, I would be spared the harsh realities of life. What amazingly naïve thinking that was on my part. It certainly doesn’t say that in Scripture. This was a human idea I had erected in my concept of God. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever done this.

 

It is easy to take in the idea of peaceful waters and green pastures found in the 23rd Psalm, but if you stop there it leaves you with a less than complete picture of life when the Lord is your Shepherd. The Psalmist goes on to remind us that sometimes life takes us to dark places.

 

Many of you are familiar with Steven Curtis Chapman. He is a wildly successful Christian musician, with over forty number one singles and over ten million albums sold.

 

He found his life radically and forever changed in May of  2008 when life took his family where no one ever wants to go. The Chapman’s adopted daughter, Maria, who had just turned five years old, was tragically killed when her seventeen year old brother accidentally backed over her in the family’s SUV.

 

Chapman and his family were devastated. As he stumbled through that darkest of valleys, Chapman said that he found himself re-reading every song he had written and wondering whether he could ever sing them again—or still believe the words he had written.

 

He said, “At first you don’t even know if you can breathe. You don’t know if you are going to survive the grief and the deep, deep, deep sadness. You just want to lay down and die.”

 

Some of you understand Chapman’s statement because you’ve walked a similar path. You’ve been there. Life was sailing along without a cloud in the sky when suddenly you were taken to a place you did not want to go, facing something that seemed overwhelming to you.

 

I love the 23rd Psalm because right there in the middle of all those smiling sheep and enemies envious of our feasting is verse 4. The entire Psalm hangs on the first two words of that verse: “Even though.”

 

Those two words are a wall cloud, warning me of impending gloom. Even though—here it comes—I walk through the valley of the shadow of death! Those two words make it absolutely clear that no one’s life will be free from pain and chaos—but at the same time, they point to our source of hope.

 

Listen again: “Even though…, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.”

 

In the Middle East, the pastures are often separated by steep banked and dangerous valleys. It was in those valleys that lions and wolves would lie in wait. It was in those places that thieves and bandits ambushed their victims.

 

No one wanted to go through those valleys, but that was the only way to get from one green pasture to another. That’s where the shepherd earned his living—by guiding the sheep through the valley of the shadow of death.

 

For too many of us, the picture or notion of Jesus as our Shepherd is one of Him standing in the green, grassy valley, but what might be more helpful to us is if we had a more realistic picture.

 

I want a picture of the shepherd as he really was—gentle with His sheep, to be sure, but hard as iron. The shepherd used his staff to gently guide the straying sheep back onto the path.

 

But when guiding the sheep through the darkest valley, the shepherd’s eyes were alert to danger; his body tense and taut. In his hands grasped rod and staff—lethal weapons when a seasoned shepherd carried them.

Want a more contemporary image of these gentle guardians? Picture Army Scouts on patrol, the point man’s eyes scan the shadows and crevices for movement, his ears straining to hear; every muscle and sinew ready to defend his unit.

 

Think this is an exaggeration? Remember the story of David, the shepherd king of Israel, who, as a young man, defended his right to battle Goliath?

 

“I have been taking care of my father’s sheep and goats,” he said. “When a lion or a bear comes to steal a lamb from the flock, I go after it with a club and rescue the lamb from its mouth. If the animal turns on me, I catch it by the jaw and club it to death. I have done this to both lions and bears…!” 1 Samuel 17:32-36.

 

Now that’s a shepherd who can guide his sheep through the darkest valley. The good news is that we have a Shepherd named Jesus to guide us out. Jesus walked the darkest valley; He knows all the pain, confusion, hurt and loneliness of life taking you where you don’t want to go because He’s been in that valley too and he knows the way through it.

 

The good news is that Jesus is with you and you can trust Him to guide you through it too. Hope comes through knowing that Jesus, the great Shepherd, is guiding me through the valley.

 

You are not alone. The Creator of the universe is with you and knows you by name; Christ cares about you and cares for you.

 

But it’s more than that; the Psalm says, “I fear no evil; for you are with me.” Dark valleys are frightening; and when we find ourselves stumbling through them the one thing we need more than anything else is courage to drive away that paralyzing fear that numbs our mind and stops us in our tracks.

 

  • Fear of losing someone we love can make us build emotional barriers in a vain attempt at protecting ourselves from the heartbreak we’re so afraid of.
  • Fear of failure can persuade us to set easy goals rather than striving for excellence and following God’s vision for our lives.
  • Fear of pain slows our living to a snail’s pace that lessens the likelihood of injury, but also lessens the likelihood of joy.
  • Fear of making mistakes can cause us to live in a cloud of indecision.
  • Fear of death can prevent us from ever tasting life.

 

The worst part of feeling our way through those shadowed valleys is fear, because fear has the power to stop us just one step short of the feast that the Shepherd is waiting to serve us.

 

Knowing that we have a Shepherd who has been there before, knowing that Jesus is with me, can give me courage to face life’s dark valleys without fear.

 

That kind of courage comes through a relationship of trust. In his book, On the Anvil, author and pastor, Max Lucado, compares it to the idea of a small child on a swing. When your mom or dad is pushing the swing they can pretty much do what they want – twist you, turn you, soar higher – it doesn’t matter because you know you can trust them.

 

But when a stranger pushes your swing it changes everything. You hold on for dear life because who knows what they will do.  Knowing who pushes your swing, that it is in the right hands, makes an incredible difference.

 

The 23rd Psalm is a poetic expression of a person walking in a relationship with God—it’s a portrait of friendship with the Shepherd, of being guided by our gentle, hard as iron, guardian through life.

 

Courage to face dark valleys comes as I grow closer to God—and closeness with God comes through a lifestyle of worship. After drinking from the calm waters, after being refreshed on green pastures, after stumbling through the dark valley and after the feast set before him, the Psalmist breathes a well-earned sigh and says, “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever…”

 

To dwell in God’s house is to dwell in the place of worship—it’s a reference to the Temple—to a church, to the place where we gather, as Christ’s flock, to renew and celebrate our friendship with God.

 

To say the Lord is my Shepherd is to say that I am walking with Jesus; that I’m not keeping God at a distance, not thinking of God occasionally, but walking with God day by day and allowing God to guide me through both the verdant pastures and the darkest valleys imaginable.

 

To say the Lord is my Shepherd is to declare with courage that I belong to Jesus and that I will trust Him to get me through it.

 

That’s just what got Steven Curtis Chapman through the dark valley of his daughter’s death. He really did revisit every song he had written.

 

As he stumbled through that valley he realized that Jesus, his Shepherd, was with him—and as he emerged from the darkness of death’s valley and back into the light he realized that he had to rewrite some of his songs because his very life’s story was being rewritten.

 

Somehow it all became more personal—and when I listen to one of his songs in particular it feels more authentic, more poignant than the original version.

 

He rewrote a song that describes his discovery that everything and everyone belongs to God—but the first version talks about things ‘out there’ that belong to God; people in London, children in Africa—all these belong to God he said—and of course he’s right. It’s a beautiful song.

 

But as he emerged from the valley of his daughter’s death he realized that he too—and everything he loves—belongs to God—which is just a way of saying that he realized more deeply than ever that God is his Shepherd.

The place Steven Curtis Chapman found the words to describe the rewriting of his life and the assurance that he too belongs to God is this very Psalm.

 

Sometimes life takes us where we don’t want to go, but we never have to make the journey on our own. Scripture tells us that we have a good Shepherd who knows us by name and seeks to guide us every step of the way.