July 22, 2023

Do We Trust Our Shepherd?

Well, for those of you who may not know me, my name is Logan Hall, and I have the honor of serving as your young adults pastor here on staff. You guys are too kind. We are wrapping up our series called “In the Valley,” this weekend. So, one of the things we try really hard to do around here, whenever we're in a series, is we like to talk about the big idea to get everyone on the same page, no matter if you've been here for a while or if this is your first time with us at Grace. So, the big idea for our series, “In the Valley,” is this: Sufferings and difficulties are part of the Christian life. So, what are we to do, as believers, when we find ourselves in the valley?

I'm so excited to go into the Word with y'all this weekend, but first, I want to talk about one of the scariest moments of my entire life. When I was in college, me, some friends, and our professors had the opportunity to go to Israel. It was an amazing trip, but while we were there, we decided to walk something called the Jesus Trail, which connects a lot of the points that we read Christ was at in Scripture. It was an awesome time, but our tour company gave us a brand-new tour guide for our trek on the Jesus Trail. Perceptive listeners have figured out where the problem might come in. But as we were walking along the Jesus Trail, we had these really cool painted rocks that somebody went by and painted to let you know you're still on track, you're on the Jesus Trail, and you're where you need to go. Eventually, we found ourselves at the Sea of Galilee. It was beautiful and it was incredible, but what you can't see on this picture is the left side. There was this huge fence that said, “Private property. Do not trespass.”

My suspicions started raising a little bit when our tour guide kind of weaseled his way into the fence and said, “Come on, guys. Let's go this way.”

So, we followed him because he was our tour guide, but then my suspicion started increasing even more because our good friends from earlier, the painted rocks, quit popping up. They weren't there anymore. So, I was freaking out a little bit, but he was our guide, so we were going to follow him. He took us closer and closer to the Sea of Galilee. Eventually, we were walking in these reeds that were like seven or eight feet high, so I was basically Indiana Jones going through all of these reeds. Then he leads us closer to the water, the ground becomes mud, the mud becomes water, and eventually the water comes up to our mid-thigh.

So, we're swimming in the Sea of Galilee at this point, I take a step, and then it happens. I see four or five little slithers that shoot out. I don't know about y'all, but me and snakes do not go well together. So, I did what any rational person would do in that moment. I panicked, and I asked our tour guide because I was close to him, like, “Hey, are you sure we're supposed to be here? Are we going where we need to be? Are these snakes dangerous? Is this my last day on earth? He calmed me down and said, “No, there's no need to worry. These snakes aren't even dangerous. Everything's fine.”

But I didn't buy it. So, I googled, after my swim in the Sea of Galilee, and it said that snake bites were at an all-time high, and they were some of the most poisonous snakes in the entire region. I say all of that to say that my tour guide was very bad at his job. He took us somewhere we didn't need to go. He led us where we didn't want to go. He led us into danger. What’s worse is that he lied about it when we needed him the most.

So, this weekend, in our time together, we're going to look at a different guide. Specifically, we're going to look in the book of Psalms, and we're going to ask the question, “Where is God in the valley of our lives? Where is God in the valley of our lives?”

I love the book of Psalms because it was Israel's worship book. These were the songs that Israel would sing to the Lord, and they cover all of human existence. They cover the highest highs of our lives, they cover the lowest lows of our lives, and everywhere in between. Because we all get that life is crazy. Some days you can be on the mountaintop where your family's good, your kids are behaved, your job is perfect, everything's going great, and then, boom, the valley. In the valley comes stress, dysfunction, fear, and not even really knowing how we're going to continue another day.

It’s easy to see God work in the mountaintops, right? We praise Him. We're like, “God, thank You for everything that you're doing. Thank You for my job. Thank You for my family. Thank You for everything.”

But if we're honest, when life kind of quits going our way and there are some setbacks, it's a little harder to trust in the Lord. Like, “Where is God when my life feels like it's falling apart? Where is God when I get fired from the job I thought was going to take me through my career? Where is God when someone I love so dearly passes away? Where is God in the valley of our lives?”

So, we're going to be in Psalm 23, this weekend, to answer this question. Maybe you've heard of this psalm, maybe you haven't, but I want to encourage us all to kind of lean in because we're going to see some incredible stuff. So, to give everyone a roadmap of where we're going, we're going to ask this question, and we're going to find two answers of where God is in the valley of our lives. Then we're going to have two take-homes for us in our time here. So, let's jump in. Let's go right into the text.

Psalm 23:1 says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Right off the bat, we're going to find our first answer of where God is in the valley, and that is this: God shepherds us in the valley. Do we see God as our shepherd? Do we see God like this? What does that mean? See, this analogy of the shepherd is going to carry us in our time together this weekend, so it's really important for us to catch what's going on here or we're going to miss what this text is really trying to say. See, the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep is so special because sheep need their shepherd. A lot of people are going to take shots at sheep and say that they're stupid animals, they're dumb animals, and they don't know what they're doing. While that may be true, I don't think that's the best descriptor for the sheep. I don't think it's that sheep are stupid or that sheep are dumb, but that sheep are hyper-dependent. They need help with everything. I'm from Kentucky. I know they need help with everything. They have so many predators. They don't have a single way to defend themselves outside of their shepherd. The shepherd, meanwhile, wasn't a badge that somebody would wear to become Mr. Popular. No, the shepherd meant work. It was the shepherd's job to lead the sheep, yes, but also to care so deeply for the sheep, to provide for the sheep, to carry the weak sheep in their arms, to defend the sheep in the event of attackers.

So, I mention all of this because it's vitally important to understand the significance of how intimately God is caring for us in this analogy. That God is our shepherd is a powerful statement, and it's so important for us to grasp. Look at these next couple of verses.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

The psalmist really wants to drive home how good our shepherd is, that our shepherd knows our needs, that the shepherd leads us well. Unlike my tour guide in Israel, He actually knows what He’s doing. He knows what's best for us. He knows where we need to go. But hold on a second. This series is called “In the Valley,” and we're talking about mountaintops, we're talking about green pastures, still waters, and soul refreshing. That sounds like mountaintop stuff, and it is, but I'm trying to show you how good our shepherd is for these next verses to really hit as hard as the Psalm was intended. So, let's jump into Psalm 23:4.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Now we get to the valley. The psalms are poetry, and the valley of the shadow of death is just the psalmist’s way of explaining rock bottom. When you have just lost someone close, when you have lost your job, when your family wants nothing to do with you, when you just don't know how you're going to keep going another day, that is the valley of the shadow of death. It’s easy to follow the shepherd when life is full of soul-refreshing green pastures, and still waters. But what about the valley? So, I want to ask us, this weekend, what is your valley? Maybe you're here this weekend and, like I've said, you've lost someone so dear to you. Maybe you're here this weekend and you’ve gotten wrongfully fired from a job. Maybe you're here this weekend and you just feel completely alone. Maybe you look around and it wasn't even a big moment that brought you from the mountaintop to the valley, but, little by little, through the course of the thrashings of life, you find yourself in the valley.

See, when we're in the valley, our thoughts race about God. Like, “Hey, wasn't He my shepherd? What are You doing, God? I thought I was supposed to have a good life. What are You doing? Did You just take a day off? Do You even see me right now?”

Notice something really interesting. This passage doesn't say, “If I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” but it says, “Even though.”

The valley is somewhat promised to us as believers. As Pastor Chris said last weekend, the valley is not a question of if, but it’s a question of when. The Christian life is not a life of hopping from mountaintops to mountaintops. But here's the good news: We don't serve a God who just stands up on the mountain so removed from us, so removed from our problems, who looks down at us and says, “Man, I hope you figure that out, and then we can come back to hanging out.”

That's not how God works. God steps up from the mountain and promises to walk with us in the present moment as we experience the worst moments of our lives. He promises us His presence. Why does that make it better? It's because we don't have to go through anything in life alone because no matter what you're facing, God is with you, and He can bring you His peace, His guidance, His direction. We just have to trust that He actually knows what He’s doing and that He’s working for us.

See, we love to be known. We love to be genuinely known, to have people who know us and understand us, and we have the God of the universe who not only claims to know us so intimately, to know our problems so desperately, but to be right there with us, leading us, present with us in the present moments of the lowest moments of our lives. But what does that look like? Let's finish Psalm 23:4 in its entirety.

It says, “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.”

The rod and the staff are what comfort us. So, let's go back to our shepherd, right? The shepherd had two tools, back in the day, to defend the sheep. The first was the rod. The rod was completely concerned with outside threats, with things and predators that would do the sheep harm. We find the Lord in our valleys as our defender, protecting us from the lies, from the attacks of the enemy. What's more is that not only does He protect us with the rod, but He also has the staff. I like to think of Little Bo Peep when I think of the staff, which is the longer thing with the curved top. But as the rod was concerned with outside threats, the staff was actually used for the sheep because sheep love to wander, they love to get in places they shouldn't. So, when the sheep would run away, wander, and get into danger, the shepherd would grab it with the staff and bring it back into line.

We find God, in our valleys, saving us from ourselves. See, like sheep, we get so distracted when we're in the valley. When we're in the valley, we think we know what's best, we think we know where to go to get the answers, but in the end, we become my tour guide from Israel. We lead ourselves astray. We lead ourselves where we don't want to go because we get dragged away by our own impulses, and by our own desires about what's best for our lives. But here's where the shepherd comes in. The shepherd sees things differently than we do. The shepherd understands things differently than we do. So, He pulls us back in with His staff, He pulls us back in to His will for our lives because He really knows what we need, He really knows what's best, and He really knows the direction that we're going.

Oftentimes, like sheep to a shepherd, we don't really fully understand what God's up to, we don't fully comprehend all that God's doing, and all that God is working, but we have to learn to trust in our shepherd. We have to learn to depend in our shepherd, that even in the worst moments of our lives, we can stand on the promises of Scripture, that He is, in fact, fighting for us. He is, in fact, defending us. We think that when we're in the valley, it's on us to claw our way out solo or else it's a sign of weakness, and God's like, “That’s not how this works. I'm not asking you to get through your valley by yourself because I promise to be with you.”

If I'm just going to be honest, the valley is not something that any of us are immune to, including myself. When I'm in the valley, I struggle with genuinely feeling alone. I know I have people around me, I know I have people who care for me, but I struggle that I'm kind of in this by myself, and that no one quite understands. I'm going to be honest. Maybe you guys are different, but when I'm in the valley, I don't really feel God's presence. I don't really feel God at work. I look at a passage like this, and I think, “God, that's all well and good that You claim to be a good shepherd, but do You actually see me? Do You actually see my problems? I feel like a good shepherd wouldn't lead me through this. Did You just take a day off, God? What are You doing?”

But it's in those moments that we all, myself included, need to remember that even when it feels like God is ignoring us on the other side of the universe, we have to trust that He is, in fact, right there with us in our lows, in our pain, and our suffering, comforting us, protecting us. See, a sheep has no idea all that the shepherd actually does for it. The sheep feels the shepherd pull it back into line, the sheep hears the shepherd tell it what to do, but it can't quite grasp the love that the shepherd, in fact, has for the sheep. It’s in the same way that even when life is at its lowest, and we may not see God at work, we know that our shepherd is with us in the valley.

So, we've seen that God shepherds us in the valley, but what else does God do? What is our other answer to this question of where is God in the valley? Let's keep going.

Psalm 23:5 says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

This passage is profound because if we were all back in that time, and I really wanted to show you how much I cared about you, how much I loved you, I'd actually throw you a party. I'd invite you over. When you got there, I'd anoint your head with oil, I'd provide for you, I'd give you whatever you wanted to drink, and it would be all about you. Here in this passage, it says that God's doing this for us. What does that mean? See, it means that God genuinely loves you. It means that God genuinely caress about you. More than that, it means that God genuinely wants to be with you, to actively be with you, and you are invited to join God at His table, to partake in His peace, His love, and His provision. It's waiting for you.

We notice something. As a shepherd provides for the needs of the sheep, as a host provides for those attending a party, God provides for us in the valley. Look at these words. They're important.

It says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Why does it say that “in the presence of my enemies” part? I feel like if I were going to write this psalm, I would pen it in a way that was like, “God, You prepare a table before me, in Your presence, far away from my enemies where I don't have to think about my problems, or deal with them. I just get to look at you.”

That's not what this text says. Why does God prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies? Because God wants us to know that He is with us even when we feel surrounded and overwhelmed by everything going on in life. This “enemies” word is another way of saying “the valley,” another way of saying “the low moments of our life,” and we find God setting up shop right with us, in that valley, to provide for us. See, this is a promise that we have from God, but how many of us love to focus on these valleys? The valley saps our energy. The valley intrudes our thoughts. It causes us to question the faithfulness and love of God because we wonder, “God, what are You up to? What are You doing?”

Think back to the valley that you're experiencing. The Lord says doesn't say we're never going to experience the valley, but what's more is that He promises us that He’s never ever going to walk away from us. Please hear my heart here. I don't want to minimize the things that we go through because, Grace, the things that we go through are brutal. Life is hard. I don't want anyone to hear me saying that the things that we're going through in life aren't worth considering or worth working through. That's not what I'm talking about at all, and I'm not trying to minimize the struggles that we go through.

I'm trying to maximize how good our God is even in the midst of our circumstances. He’s good even in the midst of our circumstances. He promises to be present with you. Not just present with you, but He promises to work to provide for us, to comfort us, to bring people alongside of us, to be intimately close with us. Where is God in the valley? He's right there, preparing a table to provide for you. At God's table is everything we need. God offers us His peace. This isn't a peace or bliss of just not caring about our problems anymore, but it's a peace of being intimately known and intimately cared for by the King of the universe. God offers us His love. This is a love that no matter what you have done, He loved you enough to send His Son to die for you. And God's table is His provision. I'm not talking about prosperity, and I'm not talking about that God gives you whatever you want because that’s not how it works, but God does promise to supply our needs, to bring people alongside of us, to not have to go through life alone, to be present with you. If you are in God, you have a seat at His table here, now, and for all eternity.

But here's the thing. We have to learn to sit down at His table. We're not very good at it. See, sheep love to scatter. They love to scatter when there's a problem, but we have to learn to sit. That’s hard because the enemies are scary. The valleys we go through in life are so big, so dark, and so scary, but God invites us to focus on Him, to not minimize the problems that we're going through, to not minimize what's going on in our lives, but to trust Him. Because when we think about the valley, we worry, we plan, we complain, we tell others about how bad our lives are, and God's over here, saying, “Hey, I'm right here with you,” but we don't look. But like Peter walking on water, when he lost his focus on his shepherd, the situations of life, when we do the same, start to overwhelm us because we took our eyes off of our shepherd. But God invites us to focus on Him, to become dependent upon Him, to be reminded of Him, to be in His Word, to be with other believers, to focus on the Lord because focusing on the Lord in the midst of difficulties breeds dependence upon Him.

It’s when we become dependent upon Him to be our source of peace in trials, it’s when we become dependent upon Him to be our source of identity no matter what's happening, it’s when we become dependent upon Him to lead us, care for us, and guide us that our valleys in life start to become a little bit smaller not because they're not real, not because they're not scary, but because our God becomes a whole lot bigger by comparison.

Back at my home church in Kentucky, there was this family, the English family, and the guy on the top left, his name is Ethan. I went to youth group with Ethan. On a day just like every other day, Ethan was driving on the same road that he drove on all the time, but he was hit head on by another vehicle. He passed away within minutes. The English family asked our home church if we could have his funeral. Of course, we did. They asked if we could have a time of worship at their son's funeral. They wanted to worship at their son's funeral. I had the honor of attending Ethan's funeral, and I stand here today to tell you that was the most powerful time of worship I have ever experienced in my life because there the English family was on the very front row, in the middle of their grief, in the middle of their pain, in the middle of their questions and doubts, in the middle of them probably being so angry with God, wondering where God was, but there they were on the front row, with tears streaming down their faces, holding their hands up high to the Lord, singing, “God, You’re so good.”

Why was Ethan no longer with us? I can't tell you. What I can tell you is that the valley of the shadow of death was as real, in that moment, as I have ever felt in my entire life. In the middle of everything going on, in the middle of the valley that the English family was in, they stood on the promises of Scripture, that God was leading them, that God was comforting them, that God was caring for them, bringing people alongside of them, giving them His peace, and so they sat there and worshiped. God is inviting us to join Him at His table, even in the midst the valley.

So, we've seen that God shepherds us in the valley, we've seen that God provides for us in the valley, but how do we get to that point where we can see God like that? What are we to do, as believers, when we find ourselves in the valley? So, I've got two take-homes for us this weekend, and these take-homes are in the form of questions for us to think about, questions to ponder. The first question: Is the Lord our shepherd? This whole passage is dependent upon Psalm 23:1 which says, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

I love this because it's so personal. It's like, “Yeah, God is our collective shepherd, but He’s especially my shepherd.”

He's especially your shepherd. But just like a shepherd won't lead somebody else's sheep, these promises we've spent tonight talking about are dependent upon Him being our shepherd. So, I have a question for us tonight. That question is this: Do we want to be led? Giving up control is hard. Giving up the way we want to do things, the way we want to go about our lives is hard, but God's way is infinitely better. We have Him become our shepherd through accepting the wonderful gift of salvation through the death and the resurrection of Jesus, but putting our faith in God to have Him lead us, I stand here to tell you that, yes, it's a hard decision, but it is the most beautiful decision you can ever make because the plans that God has for us, the way that God loves us, the care that He has for each and every one of us is so much better than we could ever imagine. The plans that He has for us are so much better than we could ever imagine. Is the Lord our shepherd?

Our second question: Do we trust our shepherd? The Lord is our shepherd, but we get the most beautiful expression of the shepherd in John 10 as Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd.”

This is the one worthy of our trust. Jesus is worthy of our trust. Why? Because He knows us. He knows the sheep, and He loves the sheep so much that He did the ultimate calling of the shepherd, to lay His life down for the sheep so that we could live. This is someone worthy of our trust. Jesus, like the shepherd with the rod, fought and saved us from sin and death, but like the shepherd with the staff, He saved us from where our efforts alone would've taken us because He reached down, pulled us out of our sin, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places if we believe in Him. This is someone worthy of our trust. But Jesus knows us so infinitely and intimately because He’s fully God, but He knows what it's like to be us because He’s fully man. This is someone worthy of our trust. Our Savior, because of His death, because of His resurrection, gives us assurance that we don't have to go through life alone, that we don't have to go through the valleys of our lives alone because through His death and resurrection, we get His Holy Spirit to be God with us in the midst of the valley. This is someone worthy of our trust. Our shepherd knows what it's like to be in the valley of the shadow of death because while Jesus was hanging from the cross, He quoted the psalm right before this one, Psalm 22, and He said, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

Jesus was forsaken in the valley so that we would never be. Jesus went through the valley of the shadow of death alone so He could be right there with us in the present moment when we experience the worst that life has to offer. This is someone worthy of our trust. Is the Lord our shepherd? Do we trust our shepherd? This is available to you. We often wonder where God is in the valley. When we're in the valley, we turn to all sorts of things to give us peace, security, and comfort. But in the end, they're just as effective as my guide in Israel. They get you lost. They don't get you where you need to be. But Jesus is standing here, wanting to lead you in the midst of trials, wanting to lead you in the midst of the valley of your life, and we have to ask, “Is the Lord our shepherd and do we trust Him?”

So, where is God in the valley? Where is God when we feel like we are at our lowest? He’s right there with us, shepherding us, caring for us, providing for us out of His great love that He has for us as our Savior and our Lord. So, we're going to sing a final song. After service, if you want someone to talk to about your valley, if you want to pray through your valley with somebody, or if you want to learn what it means to make Jesus your shepherd, our Care Team is going to be right over here on that side of the stage after service. Let's pause. Let's go to the Lord. Let's go to our great shepherd who promises to be present with us and to provide for us in the valleys.

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