I. REALITY CHECK
The idyllic statements about green pastures and still waters may seem a bit unrealistic, given the realities of our lives. We like the Psalm but we wonder if the psalmist promises more than can be delivered. Is the real world like this? What about racism and oppression, persecution and pollution, war and murder, or the painful death of a loved one? When we take a look at the world in which we live, it’s easy to give in to fear or cynicism. But if we pay close attention we’ll discover a reality check in verse four.
Though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me . . .
This isn’t a Forrest Gump kind of moment. You know Forrest Gump; he’s that simple-minded man who goes through a random series of events, some of which are history-making, and despite constant tragedy and heartbreak, he never seems fazed by any of it. He fights in Vietnam, loses his best friend in battle, meets JFK, gets and loses the girl he loves, goes into the fishing business and loses everything in a storm. Despite all of this bad news, it doesn’t affect him, because, as he says: "Life is like a box of chocolates." – You just never know what you’ll get!
The Psalmist has a different take on life. Our writer understands that tragedy and darkness are part of life, and he doesn't promise that God will keep us from experiencing it, only that God will be with us as we walk through these times of darkness.
II. A MATTER OF TRUST
Trust is earned and learned in relationship to others. We must take the risk to know another person, if we’re going to trust them, especially if we’ve experienced someone breaking our trust. I will confess – there are people I trust and people I don't. But we can’t go through life not trusting anyone. That only leads to isolation.
The images of the sheep and the shepherd remind us that trust in God comes from a relationship with God, a relationship that’s built by spending time with God. In John 10 we read:
The sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.
Although it would be great if this could all happen instantaneously, but it doesn't. It takes time and effort. Cheryl and I have been married for almost twenty-five years, and we’re still building our relationship. The same, I think, is true with God. We have to regularly spend time in God's presence if we’re going to know God, and we must go through times of trouble with God if we’re to learn to trust God. It would be nice if God would deliver us from difficult situations before we ever get into them, but that’s not what God has promised to do. Instead, God is promising to walk with us through the difficult times. Oh, we may get scarred, but we won't be destroyed.
III. THE MEAL OF HOPE
My hope comes from my belief that the Good Shepherd has invited me to sit at the table with my enemies and know that "goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." Every conflict – whether it’s between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland, Palestinian and Israeli, Republican and Democrat, Sunni and Shia, Tibetan and Chinese, husband and wife – will continue as long as we refuse to sit down at Table with the Good Shepherd as our host.
As we walk with the shepherd and guardian of our souls, we’ll discover that God does comes through – in God’s time and in God’s way. So let us trust in God and not let fear overwhelm us.