Some sermons find their resting place in a filing cabinet while still wet from preaching sweat. Still others wander back into the "To do" file to wait patiently for better days. Not so this one. "Through the Valley" has wandered with me through summer camp, through the last semester of college, and through my first year of ministry.
It was during a summer camp that this sermon developed in my mind. While hiking through the beautiful scenery of the Rocky Mountains, the tune and picture of Psalm 23 accompanied me step by step. One phrase hit me in particular—"through the valley." I suddenly realized the theme of this psalm: no matter what our life's situation, we always walk through the valley—we don't stay in the valley of life. I immediately smelled a good sermon in the making. The following six steps show the process from idea to product.
From idea to product: six steps
Step 1 is pondering the passage, rocking it back and forth in your heart. Scripture meditation is the most important and most fruitful part of sermon preparation. It takes time, and there is no shortcut to it. After letting the text soak into heart and mind, it is time to study it carefully.
Step 2 is InLine, the translation of the text from Hebrew (or Greek), turning over every word, feeling out every nuance of the text itself. This is a tedious process, of course, but worth the effort. The reward: Every word becomes a gem, every phrase a treasure.
Step 3 is TextLine, in which I watch for the development of the thoughts, buildup of tension, and process of text motion. It is simply a strict technical outline of the text. This is the place for asking questions: How do the verses relate to one another? What are the transitions (or intentional leaps)? How is the tension built? Why did the writer express the thoughts that particular way?
Step 4 is ThemeLine—short in the product but long in the making. The ThemeLine expresses in one spicy sentence what the Scripture passage is saying. If someone missed my sermon and asked me what it was all about, this ThemeLine would be my answer. Better yet, if a listener was asked the same question, the response of that listener would more or less center on that ThemeLine.
Step 5 is OutLine, formed by taking in the ThemeLine, TextLine, plus my notes on illustrations, introduction, body, and conclusion. (To leave the full manuscript at home and preach from a mere outline is a big leap in my sermon delivery!) This OutLine is a logical workout. Many a thought that might be good but just doesn't fit into the flow of logic has to be left out and preserved for later use. I have found out that good research for one sermon means good results for two sermons.
Step 6 is OnLine—the full manuscript. To be honest, these steps are not strictly sequential. Throughout my sermon preparation I keep a sermon journal at hand in which I jot down word pictures, alliterations, and whole paragraphs that plead to be secured on paper. Thus almost half of my OnLine is already in writing and just needs some organization.
Since so much has been said about Psalm 23, I purposefully abstained from reading human commentary on it. What a joy to find a new road of thought in a much-traveled terrain!
So walk with me through this well-known psalm. Better yet—walk with the Shepherd!
This morning I invite you to walk with me through a picture gallery. I admit I am not an expert in art, but I promise that you will see pictures that are not of an exhibition, but of life. And I also promise that you will get to take some of those pictures home with you. They are priceless in eternity. The pictures I am talking about this morning are found in Psalm 23.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want"—what can be said about a text that has been preached a thou sand times? Children memorize it, high school seniors find it in their graduation cards, old saints die with its words on their lips. What is left of a text that has been passed around like a coin, traveled through so many minds, and passed over so many lips? I have heard this psalm in weddings as well as in funerals. And yet, while well known, text is inexhaustible.
Picture 1: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." I am satisfied; my needs are met! This is a good beginning! Someone is in control; the Shepherd knows what's going on. There is peace—perfect peace, perfect care, and perfect rest. A beautiful picture is painted here. You are get ting yourself a nice cool lemonade from the refrigerator; you are ready to sit back, relax, and enjoy the blue sky. No cloud in sight; no problem to fear. The great Shepherd makes me lie down in green pastures. This is not the brown grass of Texas in the summer; this is the first sprouts of the earth—fresh green! David paints a picture here where everything is under control. Even when I am busy He makes me lie down in green pastures. There is no fear of having to get up quickly; my Shepherd is alert for me! In the Middle East the phrase "to lie down" describes camels lying down to rest. And when a camel lies down to rest, you can count on it not getting up for a while! There is no hurry or worry in this picture. Rest your eyes on it; sink into its pastures; dream of the quiet waters the Shepherd provides for His sheep! Feel the warm rays of sun shine, take in the scent of clean air, and taste the crystal-clear water; experience the peacefulness interrupted only by the humming of the bees and the birds! I might have stumbled a little, even fallen, but the Shepherd puts me back on my feet. My soul is restored, and I can rejoice; "It is well with my soul!" No bad grades, no unemployment, no doctor's bill, no divorce pending—I just rest in the Lord. My life is right. I get perfect peace, perfect care, and perfect rest. Life isn't that bad after all!
Picture 2: Notice with me verse 4. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . . ."* Let's pause at this second picture. The sky turns dark, the clouds roll in, the air gets thicker, the heavens turn gray, and the earth opens up its mouth like the throat of a lion, ready to swallow you up. No more lying down in green pastures, no more resting beside quiet waters; your peaceful world is shaken, the birds don't sing anymore, and then your question is Where is the Shepherd?
All of a sudden life takes you down a cliff, and a valley of the shadow of death lies threatening before you. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" doesn't talk about a rained-out vacation or a lost football game. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" doesn't bring to mind a burned dinner or an hour in traffic. No, the green pastures turn into dry desert, the quiet waters into a rushing river, and the soul that was once restored is tossed and torn. It is not well with my soul anymore!
I remember my dad when I was 9 or 10 years old. He had a job a couple hundred miles away from home, so we saw him only every other week end. The company he worked for wasn't doing too well, but the management urged us to make the move anyway. Only a few weeks later my dad lost his job. Talk about a dark valley. Two boys needing shirts and shoes. New town, new school, no job. But my parents made it through.
Both of my grandmas went through two world wars. You would think that one was enough. After all, my grandma told me nobody thought they would make it through the first one anyway. Bombs hitting right next to your house, every night and day the sirens, hours in a cold and wet basement, bread mixed with sawdust. No McDonald's, no Pizza Hut, no popcorn and soda. But they made it through.
The valley of the shadow of death reminds me of Someone who went through the darkest of all valleys— for you and me. It reminds me of the Carpenter from Nazareth who left His nails and wood to minister for us, only to find those nails and wood again—in the form of a cross (read Mark 15:16-20). This does not sound like a palace to me. But this is Christianity at its best. One day on a Friday in Jerusalem the Good Shepherd silently but unmistakably proved to the sheep of the world that He would be the one going through the valley of sin. Alone, despised, rejected by humanity, stricken and smitten, afflicted, pierced and crushed, punished and wounded, beaten, bruised, bleeding, oppressed, cut off from the land of the living, and assigned a grave with the wicked (Isa. 53). With this thought "they led him out to crucify him" (Mark 15:20).
The darkest of all valleys. No, He didn't fear evil. But He took all evil on Himself. For us, for you and me.
For our peace, for our care, for our rest. A little further it reads: "At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, . . . 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" (Mark 15:33, 34). If we could have seen the invisible at that moment, we would have seen a gap between heaven and earth. He carried the sin of the world so we won't have to die with the sin of the world! He walked through the valley of death so we won't have to die in the valley of death! Down the Via Dolorosa He went, like a lamb went the Messiah, Christ the King! For us, for you and me. For our peace, for our care, and for our rest. This morning I have good news for you to proclaim: Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the carpenter, the Great Shepherd, did not stay in the valley of the shadow of death He walked right through it!
You know your own valleys. You know the shadows you have crossed—and some of you, I know, are crossing shadows right now. You know where you are right now. When life gets rough, when the rocks hit hard, when the wind blows cold through the valley and the air gets thick, remember there is a Shepherd who walks with you; you don't stay in the valley, you walk right through it!
And yet there is a gleam of light piercing through the darkness. How many times did David flee from Saul, how many times was he an inch away from death? But confidently, or shall we say stubbornly, he writes: "I will fear no evil." David's reason for his courage was not just that little push we give ourselves to make it through the day; no, David's reason was much bigger and better than that! It takes only five words to say it—"For you are with me." God Himself is with us! The Lord is my Shepherd! He is the one who walks with us through the valley!
"For you are with me" tells me something about God as my Shep herd. God doesn't tell David, "Well, David, I have another test for you, another valley for you to go through. Go ahead. Go through the tunnel, and I'll wait for you at the other end! And by the way, good luck on your trip! I'll be thinking of you." But that's not what God is saying here. And God doesn't even say, "It'll be all right. Don't worry, be happy." No, what God is saying here is "My child, I am going to walk with you! We can talk about the how and the why later; let Me just walk with you!" Let's not stay in the valley; let's walk right through it! With perfect peace, perfect care, perfect rest!
Let us keep walking with the Shep herd, on to the end of verse 4. "Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." One function of the shepherd's rod was to count the sheep. Leviticus 27:32 says: "The entire tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd's rod— will be holy to the Lord." The counting rod means that somebody is counting the flock, making sure nobody is missing! We know from the Bible that even one sheep missing is reason enough for God to leave the flock and find the missing one.
You may guess an other function of the rod, and that is discipline. The rod disciplined the sheep to stay on the right road. It was thrown with great skill and speed at the straying sheep. 1 At times we need more correction than comfort!
If you have a free minute sometime, study sheep! Do a little sheepology! You will find that sheep are fearful, that they lack self-confidence, and that they risk nothing and gain nothing. No rough play with Mary' s little lamb. The following statement might not be biologically correct, but sheep are chicken! Sheep need a shepherd who walks with them and instructs them, "This is the way, walk ye in it!" At least somebody is keeping them in line! The rod meant leadership and destiny.2
And third, that rod and staff, David says, provide comfort. The word com fort has gone through an interesting history. Did you know that not until the eighteenth century did comfort adopt the meaning of "ease, encouragement, and reassurance?" To com fort originally meant to strengthen intensively! That's where fort comes from—a strengthened, fortified city.
In addition to that, Webster lists "to make less severe or more bearable," and having the capacity of physical ease and well-being.3 In other words, in the Lord's presence and His ability I find my strength and confidence! The Lord is my rock and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Knowing and living in the presence of God makes me a strong person. More of Him and less of me: thus my strength is wrought in Him!
Picture 3. Notice with me in verse 5 how the tone and the pace of the text changes. The third picture David is painting differs from the first and the second. Out of the blue (or should I say, out of the dark) we find a table prepared, a meal ready for us to enjoy: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" (NIV). I would like to have seen the faces of these enemies! The threat of the dark valley is turned into triumph! Let me assure you this morning: if you walk in the presence of God, you don't have to fear the presence of enemies! God is with you! God is setting the table for you. Have a seat; enjoy dinner! Every valley has its end; every tunnel has its opening. The dead-end street of life opens up, and a chorus of angels welcomes you. "Let your cup overflow, let the joy of your heart be complete, let it flow, let it flow, let it over—overflow!"
He even anoints my head with oil, I am the honored guest: my cup overflows—what a treat after the dark valley! The oil protected the sheep against little flies that would lay their eggs onto the sheep's moist nose. The larvae of these eggs would hatch and travel up into the brain of the sheep— a most irritating and aggravating experience. Not so if an ointment is applied to the sheeps' noses during fly season. 4 Often it is the little things in our lives that upset the applecart. Let the Shepherd anoint your troubles this morning!
Picture 4. "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (verse 6). This last little sentence is not the conclusion of a theologian who pondered over God's care and guidance and then wrote a poetic thesis. No, it is a decision by a sheep that has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. It is the conclusion of a sheep that is now coming home. It is a free decision.
David wants to stay—do you? I wonder why so few young people decide not to stay in the house of the Lord. Maybe we haven't given them a chance to walk with the Shepherd! Let me appeal to those of you who are adults: watch out for the young little lambs along the roads and valleys of this church! Don't leave them behind; don't miss a chance to show them the Shepherd! And if these little lambs wear strange clothes and, dare I say, a ring through the ear and the hat the wrong way, and the hair too long or too short, may we not forget that they are lambs of the living God!
Psalm 23 closes its gallery with a picture of being at home. The soldier who has been to faraway countries understands the word "home"; the sailor of the mighty sea, the restless wanderer on the way to pilgrim's rest, know what home really means. Picture a ship in a storm, tossed in the valley of the waves—and then a haven of rest, the sea like a mirror, the sails rolled down: a sunset. You are home. Blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home. Perfect peace, perfect care, perfect rest. No matter how hard and how long the road is, we are on our way home!
Our tents here on earth are not pitched forever. We're just passing through. Keep walking. Whether you are walking into, through, or out of a valley, you are walking home. Don't stay in the valley, but walk right through it! The valleys change, the pictures change, but keep walking. Walk on with the Shepherd; walk home—and stay for eternity!
* All scriptures in this article are from the New International Version.
1. See W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks on Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), p. 93.
2. Gary Richmond, All God's Creatures (Dallas: Word, 1991), p. 140.
3. Webster's New Riverside University Dictionary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), p. 285.
4. Keller, p. 115.