New Lives for a New Year When You're Walkin' Down the Valley

Forecast: if you're passin' through the valley this morning, 'better have your boots and your sled! Behold the original four-letter word: snow! But there are other valleys. And deeper. You know all about them. Everybody's been there one time or another, from kids who can't find a friend to be with them, to seniors who've lost the love of their life; from parents who can't find a job, to hospital patients who've just heard a word that hollows out a hole in their heart. Hundreds of years before Jesus, somebody happened on a haunted valley. A lethal valley. A hard, maybe horrible valley. And the sight and the sound of it brought us these words:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy
staff, they comfort me.

Looky here! Even a fool knows enough to run through the valley. 'Least ways, don't take your time! When you get to it, just get through it, fast as you can. Run like the devil's behind you (after all, he just might be) and his helpers have your home phone and your email address! Fear in the heart makes the feet far faster. Anybody knows that. So what's up with this ancient ancestor who tells us he can walk, saunter, stroll, through the valley. There's some nerve, chutzpah, courage… faith! Now, right before his eyes, Jesus saw a fellow wrestling in his heart. A combat-immortal for the sake of his soul. 'You ever had one of these? A, "So what do I have to do?" struggle. Even for life-eternal. All rules followed. A good life lived. A social security you're pretty sure'll never go bankrupt, but you still know there's somethin' missin', way down in your soul. You ask Jesus point blank, "So what do I have to do?" and he tells you, "Give up everything you lean on; give it away… and lean on me, only me. 'See, I'm the Good Shepherd; I'm gonna be with you in the valley, and I'm bringin' my rod and my staff with me. And you can't hope for any better comfort than this. 'No need to run. 'No cause for fear. I love you… perfectly… and perfect love casts out all fear."

Whatever the valley, you and I can walk it, knowing the Lord is at our side. I wish I could tell you in the name of Jesus every valley has been lifted up and every rough place has already been made smooth. 'Sounds pretty, but it's not so. Not yet. For all our faith, you and I are not exempt from hard times. Jonathan is still deployed. Sadly, more will be. Joyce is still sick. Jim's still headed for the hospital in the mornin'. Parents with stricken kids still sit here askin' why. And if you've ever lost one, lost control of one, or lost all hope for the happiness of a child, you still wanna know, "How could this be?" Our instinct is to run. Scared. Angry. Hurt. Hurting. 'Not sure which to feel more: naked, exposed, revealed in our weakest moment; or isolated, alone, shut off. Who here, little kid to wrinkled-with-wrinkles, hasn't had some such valley? Well, if you've had one, or you're in one, or you can already see one coming', here's the thing: the Lord's going to be in that valley, has been, is, and he's there… for you!

When Abraham took up his journey, God went with him. When Israel wandered in the wilderness seeking the Promised Land, who was it that led them in the cloud and fire, who else but the Lord? When Elijah was afraid for his life, he may have been perched on the side of the hill, but it was, for sure, a valley-moment for his soul. Who was it that came to him in the still small voice? When Israel sat in exile by the waters of Babylon lamenting, "How can we sing the Lord's praises in a foreign land?" guess whom they found at their side. When that old blind fellow on the Jericho Road heard it was Jesus passing by, he knew the way out of the valley of the shadow was to walk with Jesus, so he cried out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me." Remember those two dejected disciples walking to Emmaus? Three days into the valley after the crucifixion, they learned how to walk in the company of the crucified Christ. "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" In our own valleys, every one of every kind, don't we have the word of Jesus, you and I? "See, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Accept this promise, know this truth, and you and I can slow down and walk, even in the valleys. There's no need to run, because nothing will overtake us we can't overcome.

Our Lord doesn't walk with us empty-handed, he comes with his rod at the ready. We don't often think of this as a comfort. But the shepherd who gave us the Psalm knew otherwise. And so did the Good Shepherd, Jesus. The rod is our protection. And the rod is a prod that says, "Come on, get up, get goin', don't just sit there, don't get bogged down, thickets and thorns are no place to bed down for the night!" Sometimes our only hope in the valley is the ready Redeemer with the rod in his hand!

The well-known rich young ruler who came to Jesus believed his wealth could protect him, literally, spiritually. Jesus said no. He was stuck in a thicket of his own choosing. He let the comings and goings of his life, his reliance upon the work of his own hands, the inheritance of a faith-tradition ensnare him. He was trapped into believing his own devices, decisions and defenses were enough. They were not. He still found himself unfulfilled, unprotected, unsaved. He required… Jesus. The Rod of God for the mercy of God. You and I are not very different. Not in what we feel and do. And not in what we really need. Jesus applied the rod. It stung. He went away "sorrowful, for his possessions were many." We never learn the rest of the story. But we hope he was freed to find his way out of the valley, and to get home to God in Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we need the rod too. God needs to poke and stoke us in the name of Jesus. If you're grieving, get up. Feel what you feel, yes. But don't get so stuck in the thorns as to believe giving up the pain is the same as giving up on your love for the one you lost. If you're angry, even with God, don't get bogged down. Here's one valley dark and dangerous for us all. God wants us to move on and get free of this. So he offers us the rod of prayer. Let your feelings out to him. Trust him with them, even the worst of them. And he'll guide and untangle you so you can get up and get on to greener pastures. Sometimes we just need protecting from things that would attack and gnaw on us. And the rod is used to protect us from such things. God says in our behalf, as he did by the lips of Jesus, "Don't tempt me, Satan." And evil departs, and the angels do come to minister to us.

Our Lord doesn't come empty-hearted; he comes with his staff in his hand. Here's the shepherd's crook. The arm of the Savior reaching out to bring us up from the cleft in the rock where we've fallen. Up from the ravine in which we've been wedged. Out from the midst of the wolves and the lions that would surely have gobbled us up, had not the Lord been by our side, crook in hand.

'Ever sink and fall into a dangerous place in your life? 'Ready to do things at work you know aren't right? 'Ready to wander into the arms of someone else where you know you don't belong? 'Ready to find comfort or faith in a bottle, or a lottery ticket, or assurance that your family wouldn't notice or mind if you're selfish, self-serving or distant? 'Ready to trust in yourself instead of God, in junk instead of Jesus, to give you the life-you-want… today? Ever believe the only eternity is not what God provides, but you can conjure up with your mere-mortal mind?

For just such perils to the soul, God made a staff for the hands of Jesus. Of his own free and saving will Jesus chose to take it up. He was even willing to be nailed to it so as not to let go, in our behalf. It is strong enough, and with a long enough reach to pull us up and pull us through any valley of our passing. There is no crook like the Savior's cross and no staff like the Savior's staff. It's the only thing I know that will not fail, if only we will let him slip it 'round us and lift us up. We cannot fall, unless we insist on going it alone, or running from it, or trying to wriggle free of its eternal embrace.

"Go and sell all you possess," Jesus says to the young soul before him. Because acts of charity are a commitment to goodness, justice, mercy and kindness. And these are God's will here on earth. But also because such an act of self-abandon nestles that fellow, and nestles us, secure in the crook-of-the-staff of the Shepherd Who Comes to Save. Whatever he says to you today, do it, so you too can rest in his care. Let his rod both prod and protect you. And know that he is always with you. And no matter the valley or shadow, you too will be able to walk, and not need to run.
Fear will not follow you. And death will not defeat you. And the Shepherd will lead you safely home.

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