God Beside Us
James C. Denison
Before January 15, Chesley Sullenberger III was anything but a household name.
A former Air Force fighter pilot, he is also the founder of Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., a consulting business. According to their website, their mission is “to utilize our expertise to apply the most effective methods to your organization to achieve the highest levels of safety, performance and reliability.”
When Mr. Sullenberger safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River, I’m guessing his business clientele rose significantly. After the pilot saved the lives of the other 154 passengers, he then walked the length of the aircraft twice to be sure no one was left before disembarking himself.
Audio tapes of his exchange with air traffic controllers were released this week. Listening to them, I was amazed by his calm under pressure. If I ever need “the highest levels of safety, performance and reliability,” I know who to call.
I’ve read that bird strikes cause $600 million in damage to U.S. aircraft every year. You never know when one will strike your engines. It is extremely rare for both engines to be killed by birds, and even more rare for such an event to occur out of range of the airport where an emergency landing is possible.
What seldom happens to airplanes happens every day to souls. There are birds attacking your engines at this very moment. Events and people are conspiring to bring your plane down. If you’re not stepping into the “valley of the shadow of death” today, you will be soon. When that day comes, what good is it to know God as your personal shepherd? What help is personal spiritual awakening then? What does this issue say to our culture in crisis today?
Expect the valley
The most famous verse of the most famous Psalm is this sentence: “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” (v. 4).
There is a place in Palestine called “the valley of deepest shadows.” It’s a jagged gorge running from Jerusalem towards the Dead Sea, so deep that the sun’s rays never penetrate to its floor. Here wolves and thieves can hide behind nearly every rock, thorn bushes grow up to grab and slash at the sheep, and deep crevasses menace on every side.
This is a perilous place, but there are times when the sheep must go through it. To get to the green grass, quiet water and right paths, sometimes the shepherd has no choice but to lead his sheep through this valley. There is simply no way to the other side.
That’s why David says, “When I walk through the valley.” Not if, but when. Paul told new converts, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Jesus warned us, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
While the text doesn’t describe the specific nature of David’s “trouble,” rabbinic tradition identifies the setting of the 23rd Psalm as David’s flight from Absalom.
As you may know, Absalom was one of David’s sons. His sister Tamar was raped by their half-brother Amnon, but David did not punish him. So Absalom took matters into his own hands, arranging a feast at which Amnon was killed in revenge. David then exiled Absalom from the royal court for five years.
Absalom’s anger at David smoldered until it fanned into the flames of open rebellion. He staged a coup against his father, seizing his throne and sending his soldiers to arrest David. The greatest king in Hebrew history was forced to flee his throne and palace, and run from his own son.
The royal group fled Jerusalem to the east, crossing through the Kidron Valley to the region of the Mount of Olives; the Garden of Gethsemane would be located in this area. While fleeing his own son, the Kidron became his “valley of the shadow of death” and the setting for the psalm. Such is rabbinic tradition for this famous hymn of trust.
Imagine that your son wants to steal your throne and even kill you, and that many of your trusted advisors and supporters have joined his rebellion. Now you are retreating in humiliation to an unknown future. Whatever fear you face today, David has a word for you.
Stay near the shepherd
God is willing to walk with us through our deepest valleys, no matter why we are in them. During such days as this the sheep want their shepherd “with” them. Not out in front of them leading, but beside them, protecting.
David makes the “LORD” his Shepherd. “LORD” translates YHWH, the One who was, is, and ever shall be, the ever-present God. Of this Shepherd the King can say, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” David the shepherd knew his subject.
The “rod” was a short club, three feet long, with a heavy weight at one end. The shepherd used it to kill snakes, beat back wolves, and flatten thorn bushes. He threw it over the heads of his sheep to kill a charging wolf. He also used it to drive a wayward sheep back into the fold.
And his “staff” was eight feet long with a crooked end. He used it to keep the sheep together, to guide them, and to pull them back from thorn bushes and rocky crevasses.
His presence with them in the valley, and his rod and staff, “comforted” them. The Hebrew means “to preserve a feeling of security, peace, and joy.” Even as they walk through the valley.
And note this little word, “through.” Not “into”—you go “into” a cave because there’s no way out the other side. “Through,” as you go through a tunnel because it’s open at the other end. They’ll not stay in this valley, so long as they stay with their shepherd. He will protect and comfort them, and lead them through to the other side.
But these sheep must choose to let him. They must choose to stay at his side, to stay under the protection of his rod and staff, to stay in his presence. The staff is only eight feet long. They must stay close to their shepherd. James 4:8 promises that if we draw close to God, he will draw close to us. But the choice is ours.
Here we meet the greatest spiritual issue facing our culture in crisis.
You and I have inherited a Western worldview which sees religion as a means to an end. Make sacrifices to the gods so they will bless your crops or give you children. Go to church for what we can get from it. Pray so we will be blessed; read the Bible so we will find guidance.
The great need of our day is for Spirit-led people who will stay close to the shepherd every day, men and women and young people who will begin the day by submitting it to God. Our Father is looking for people who will be servant leaders in their churches and communities, believers who will not serve God out of their own expertise and experience but people who will pray first, seek God fervently, and do only and always what he wants. Sheep who will stay near their shepherd.
How close are you to your Shepherd today? Did you submit this day to his leading? Do you bring your every problem to his providence? Are you trusting in his staff and rod, or in your ability and strength? How long since you asked God’s help with your work, or family, or problem? The valley of deepest shadows can bring us closer to God, but the choice is ours.
Learn from the valley
So we expect the valley and stay close to the Shepherd. When we do that, hard days can be holy days. The valleys of deepest shadows can be those times when we know God most personally and intimately, if we choose for them to be so.
Richard Foster, the great writer on spirituality, says, “God becomes a reality when he becomes a necessity.”
Mother Teresa said, “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you’ve got.”
The summer I spent as a college missionary in East Malaysia was the loneliest of my life. But I grew closer to God during those days than at any time I had ever known. When we’re “so far down we can’t look anywhere but up,” hard days can be holy days.
When we stay near the Shepherd, hard days can be healing days.
Just as water flows best through a ditch or channel or valley, so the blessing and usefulness of God flows best through the valleys carved in our lives by hard times.
Cancer patients make the best encouragers for other cancer patients. Those who have lost children are the best ministers to those who lose children. When my father died the one person whose words helped most was Linda Sharp, whose father and then pregnant older sister had died in the previous six months.
God never wastes a hurt. You may not see how people are watching you in the valley, but they are. And your faithful suffering can be your greatest witness.
And when we stay near the Shepherd, hard days are never the last days.
God gives us this promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
And remember Psalm 30:5: “His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” This is the promise of God.
God is about a Great Awakening, a national movement of spiritual renewal and revival. He redeems all he allows. He wants to use the financial and military crises of these days to call people to himself. But the process starts with his people. It starts with followers of Jesus who are willing to submit and surrender every day to his Spirit, who are willing to walk with their Shepherd, who follow wherever he leads and do whatever he asks. He’s looking for such sheep in these days, and now he has come to us.
The Lord has called Janet and me to follow him as his Shepherd. He has asked us to join him in a great spiritual movement, and has led us to do something we never imagined. Many of you have expressed your support for Janet and me in this new ministry direction. You have been so very gracious and encouraging as we seek to follow our Shepherd into the pastures and streams and paths that he has for us. We are trying to do what I have been teaching this morning, following the Shepherd wherever he leads.
This is not easy for us. I’ll say more about this next Sunday, but know that we love you and have loved serving God with you. Our sons have grown up here, and you have become our spiritual family in every way. We are grieving the change in our relationship which this call has necessitated.
But here’s our encouragement: We have a Shepherd who loves us, each of us, all of us. “Pastor” comes from pastorem, Latin for “shepherd.” But it’s not really true. There is only one Shepherd of Park Cities Baptist Church. He has been this great church’s Shepherd from 1939 to today, and he will be her Shepherd until the end of time. He will walk with every one of his sheep through every valley they face, every day they live.
Why do you need such a Shepherd today?