4th Sunday in Lent / March 22, 2020 / Richard E. Holmer
1st Reading 1 Samuel 16:1, 6-13 / 2nd Reading Ephesians 5:8-14 / Gospel John 9:1-41
The Lord Is With Us
I want to shop for groceries without worrying about what I touch or who is standing next to me. I want kids to be able to go to school. I want to have dinner with friends at a nice restaurant. I want people to stop hoarding toilet paper. I want sports back: March Madness, the Masters, Baseball. I want to worship together in person and share in Holy Communion. I want things to be the way they were just a few weeks ago.
In these challenging days it is inevitable for us to think about how we WANT things to be different. When we are uncomfortable, uncertain, anxious or afraid – we WANT whatever might help to make us feel better.
When we are in such a frame of mind, the opening words of Psalm 23 may strike us as a bit jarring: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Really Lord? Seriously? Normal life has been upended, each day brings more changes and ominous news – and we’re not supposed to WANT anything?
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Actually, it is a fortuitous blessing that the 23rd Psalm has been appointed as a reading for this Sunday. In difficult times like these, this psalm speaks to what you and I truly need: which is to have our souls restored – revived and renewed. And this is what our Good Shepherd can do for us. It’s what our Lord is really good at. For starters, “I shall not want” is not a commandment – it’s not an order to toughen up and forget about what you want. Instead, “I shall not want” is a promise, a word of grace. In the original Hebrew, the opening verse reads more like this: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack no good thing.” Think of it as a reassuring reminder: having the Lord, I have what I need more than anything else.
The psalmist brings to mind what you and I need to recall and keep in mind: The Lord is with us. At the very heart of Psalm 23 are these words: “You are with me.” In the Hebrew text, there are 26 words that come before this phrase and 26 words that follow. It is literally the psalm’s central message. Come what may, even in the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. WHY? “For you are with me.” This is what matters most of all. This is the good news for you and for me.
Theologian Sam Wells describes that word “WITH” as the most important word in the bible. Here’s why: “It’s the word that sums up the Old and New Testaments. God created us because he wanted to be WITH. God called Israel because he wanted to be WITH. God came among us in Jesus because he wanted to be WITH. God comes in our midst in the power of the Holy Spirit because he wants to be WITH. God saves us because he wants to be WITH us forever. “You are with me.” Is at the center of the psalm, it’s at the center of God’s joy, it’s at the center of the bible, it’s at the center of our faith. It’s at the center of God.”
Friends, God with us is God’s promise fulfilled. One of the names ascribed to Jesus is Emmanuel – which means: God with us.
In our gospel story of the man born blind, we see how Jesus is with that man – even when all others forsake him: his neighbors, the religious leaders, even his own parents. And Jesus is with us now, today – with all of us. Christ keeps his promise: “I am with you always, to the end of time.” At the conclusion of today’s gospel reading, Jesus says to the blind man whose eyes he has opened, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” And the man answers, “Yes Lord, I believe.” He can see and trust that the Lord truly is with him.
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Jesus does not give us some shallow promise of an easy life. He doesn’t offer any kind of prosperity gospel, like: “follow me and your troubles are over” or “come with me and I’ll make you rich” or “nothing bad will happen to those who believe”. Christ provides a reality gospel: In this broken, sinful and uncertain world, Christ promises to be with us all the way. Jesus doesn’t promise us a detour around the valley of the shadow of death – or any of life’s hardships. Jesus assures us that he will walk with us through whatever comes. He knows the way. He has walked through that valley of shadows.
The promise we hear in Psalm 23 is the same promise that is lifted up in Psalm 46 – the Psalm that inspired Luther to write A Mighty Fortress is our God:
God is our refuge and strength
A very present help in trouble
The Lord of hosts is with us
The Lord does not guarantee a stress-free life, or that we will have no enemies. He promises to be with us and to spread a feast for us in the very presence of enemies and death, of evil and fear – even in a pandemic. God gives the blessing of peace in times of trouble and uncertainty.
On his deathbed, the final words of the great Methodist evangelist, John Wesley, were these: “The best of all is God is with us.” The promise which sustains us is that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.
God’s goodness and mercy are always close at hand: following us all the days of our life. Actually, the word “follow” is not quite strong enough. The Hebrew word is more like “PURSUE”. God’s goodness and mercy, God’s grace and peace pursue us wherever we are. In good times and bad: We are not forsaken. We are never alone. Trusting this promise, we are able to say: “The Lord is my shepherd, I have what I need above all else.”
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Friends, these days can trouble our hearts. You can feel isolated, alone, overwhelmed and underprepared. It’s true. We are living through a daunting period. I say to you: the good news is still very good. Dangers and troubles have not been eliminated. There will be difficult days to come – hard times to be endured. But we are not alone – we are accompanied by our Good Shepherd. Christ is with us in the storm. To trust this makes all the difference.
In conclusion, I call your attention to an interesting feature of Psalm 23. Have you ever noticed how the tone shifts halfway through at verse 4? The psalmist begins by speaking in the third person:
The Lord is my shepherd.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters
He revives my soul.
He speaks about the Lord. He objectively describes what the Shepherd does. But then in Verse 4 he shifts to speaking in the second person – the tone is much more personal and intimate:
You are with me.
You comfort me.
You spread a table before my
You anoint my head with oil
You anoint my head with oil
Your goodness and mercy follow me
In these last verses, the psalmist speaks TO the Lord, speaks WITH the Lord, speaks in the personal, confident language of faith – words full of trust and love.
You and I are privileged to speak to the Lord, to call on the Lord in this same language. God is not a far-off God. We trust God to be with us and for us. And if God is for us, who can be against us? I encourage you to take the promise of Christ’s presence with us to heart. Faith goes boldly forward into the unknown, trusting that God’s hand is leading us, and God’s love is supporting us.
Christ our shepherd is with us now – and we will dwell with him forever.
Thanks be to God.