God Is With You
April 17 2016
Saturday, April 16, 2011.
For most of you here today I don’t have to remind you what happened five years ago yesterday. It, of course, was the day the tornado ripped through Sanford, wreaked havoc, destroyed property, and killed two people. Most of you remember that date and that day. You remember what you were doing and where you were when the tornado hit or you heard about the tornado hitting. You may remember the terror you felt as the tornado passed by. Some of you were displaced from your home for months following the tornado as the damage to your home was repaired. Some of you have family members who worked at Lowe’s and were in the middle of the destruction to that building. All of you, I am sure, have stories that you can tell of how the tornado five years ago touched your life and even changed your life.
Sally and I were living in Florence, SC five years ago. We heard about the tornado in Sanford and were saddened by the destruction. I led the congregation I was serving in special prayers in Worship the following day and the Church took up a special offering to help with the relief efforts. Little did we know that the next year, on April 15 2012, we would be starting our lives here at Edgewood, and some of the first visits we would make would be to those of you whose lives were effected the most by the tornado on what was then the one year anniversary.
As you lived through the terror of the tornado and dealt with the aftermath, you may have wondered “why?” That’s a common question. I admit that “Why” is the first question on my mind many times when I experience or see others experience tragedies or catastrophic events. All of us may wonder why when we hear of or experience tragedy. There are no easy answers that can be used to address times of tragedy. When tragic and catastrophic events hit or we see tragedies affect others, we may search for answers but not be able to find them. You would probably love it if I would stand here today and give some answers to everyone’s questions about why evil and tragic events happen or where God is in the midst of the evil, catastrophic, and tragic events hat hit our lives and our world. Unfortunately, I have no definitive answers as to why these things happen, but I do have an answer to the question of where God is, and that answer is found in the words of our Old Testament lesson for today, Psalm 23.
Think about the question of where God is in tragic times and listen again to the words of Psalm 23. I’m going to read the Psalm this time from the Kings James Version instead of the NIV of your Pew Bible because Psalm 23 as the King James Version gives it is one of the most beloved passages of scripture and one of the most beloved passages in English literature, so listen to these words and you will see where God is, not only in times of tragedy, but all the time:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, 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.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever
I know that many of you watched the mini series “The Bible” on TV a few years ago just as Sally and I did. I was intrigued with how they depicted the boy David going into the field of battle against the giant Goliath and reciting the words:
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”
How often have you, like the TV mini series depicted David, been comforted and assured by the words of this Psalm?
Psalm 23 is truly one of the most moving and beloved of all the Psalms. It is filled with words that can make us feel strong when we are weak, words that remind us that God is our shepherd. When we read or hear Psalm 23 we probably can’t help but add our Christian perspective to it and think of Jesus’ words that He is “the good shepherd”, or the words Jesus speaks in our Gospel passage for today from John 10 where He promises that He guards His sheep to the extent that “no one can snatch them from my hands.”
You probably hear the words of Psalm 23 at funerals. I personally like to begin a funeral service by reading it. Many ministers read it to members of their congregations as they are dying. I like to do that myself. In the first Church I served one of the members was in her upper 90’s and in frail health. A few days before her death she was hospitalized, and as she lay in the hospital she was agitated and talking “out her head”, not making much sense at all. On one of Sally and my visits to her bedside I read Psalm 23. On hearing these beloved words she became calm, lay still, and repeated the Psalm with me from memory. The words of Psalm 23 gave her a sense of peace when she needed it the most, and a sense that, as she “walked though the valley of the shadow of death” God was with her and God was protecting her.
Psalm 23 can remind us that, whatever our circumstances might be, God is with us. The words can remind us that, as the Brief Statement of Faith our denomination adopted several years ago so beautifully states “In life and in death we belong to God.” It has been that way since Psalm 23 was written. The first time we have record of this Psalm being a part of the written Hebrew scripture was at a very low point in their history. When Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded their country, he knew that the Hebrew people would not be defeated easily so he abducted their leaders, military personnel, and craftsmen, stripped them of their property, and forced them to march some 500 miles to Babylon. Over 5,000 Hebrews were forcibly removed from their homes. After some 60 years King Cyrus of Persia, who had overthrown the Babylonian empire and now ruled that part of the world, let the Hebrews return to their country, but when they returned they found that the land their grandparents had called home was now a deserted land. A remnant of that 5,000 strong group that left the land God had promised their ancestors returned to re-build the crumbled walls of the great Temple where their grandparents had worshipped. In the midst of all the tragedy and despair they experienced, they used the words of Psalm 23 to give them hope and courage. With almost nothing to call their own and facing a very uncertain future they were able to proclaim:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
There in the barren wasteland they were able to proclaim:
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside still waters
You probably take comfort and inspiration from these same words the ancient Hebrews took comfort and inspiration from. Maybe you can think of times you have heard these words used on television or in movies to show faith and strength in desperate times. I vividly remember one of the episodes of “Little House On The Prairie” when Mary was diagnosed with blindness. After the doctor gave them the diagnosis, her parents went outside her room and began to recite, with tears flowing down their cheeks — The Lord is my shepherd – I shall not want
Indeed, what comfort it is to have this Psalm remind us of the One who is with us, the One who holds us in His hands and does not let anyone snatch us away, when we face the hard times of our lives or wonder “why” in times of tragedy. What a great thing it is to know that God is with us when we are in need or in desolate places in our lives, either figuratively or literally, or are in need of a place to rest, either mentally or physically, or need our souls restored, or need to be guided in good paths, or find ourselves in times of darkness or despair, or feel surrounded by enemies, or have many problems swarming around us and wish they would go away, or feel that we have only problems following us and wish that we could see some goodness and mercy when we glance behind us.
Friends, the sad truth of the human condition is that tragic things happen. Tornadoes occur. Hurricanes occur. Other natural disasters occur. People struggle with illness and die. Violence occurs all around us. No community is immune from the problems of hunger and homelessness. That’s just how life is. Try as we might we can’t create a world where there is no tragedy or problems. But, here is what we need to always remember. Regardless of how life is, we can know that God with us, and, as Jesus promises, nothing can snatch us away from Him.
When life attacks us in full force it’s great to have such a promise as Psalm 23. When we see or experience tragedies and catastrophes in the world and wonder where God is, we can know that God is with us at all times and is faithful to guide us when are in need. In every circumstance that life may throw at us, we can know that God is with us.
As we remember the horror and devastation of the tornado five years ago, and as we remember or live through other horrific events and tragedies that hit us and others, I can’t answer the question of why tragedies happen, but I can answer the question, and we can know the answer to the question, of where God is in the midst of the tragedies we face or we see others face. In times of tragedy, and in all times of our lives, God is with us, guiding us, and protecting us. God does not wave a magic wand to eliminate adversity, but what God offers is much greater than that. Whatever may happen to us, as the Hebrews after the Babylonian captivity realized and as the Engels family on “Little House” realized, and as countless others have realized, we can know that, whatever happens to us, God is with us.
Paul puts it so well in Romans 8:38-39 when he writes:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
No matter what, God is with us.
No matter what, God is with you. Amen.