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

(To fear death is to misunderstand life)


A sermon preached on Psalm 23 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on October 25, 2020.


To fear death is to misunderstand life.

I do not know how many of us, if any, will walk through the valley of the shadow of death this next week.  But I do know that death can come unexpectedly.  And I also know that the death rate is the same no matter where you go—one per person.  And one more thing—I know that if you are afraid of death, or worse, you never think of death, then you not ready to live, really live, this week.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me.”  To fear death is to misunderstand life.

The most unchallenged misunderstanding about your life, about my life, is that it is all about me and my happiness and my opinions which I unconsciously treat as facts.  Many seldom challenge this fundamental misunderstanding—do you?  If you do, then you recognize that this fundamental misunderstanding is also a twisted, tangled lie. A lie that puts blinders on your eyes and makes your world very small.  A lie that is always stirring up those relentless sins inside of us, narcissism and entitlement and self-preoccupation and consumerism, which act like Hungry, Hungry Hippos gobbling up our time, our energy, our money, our compassion.  So that in our cluttered middle class existence, we deal with our stress and boredom by eating one too many pieces of pizza, drinking one too many glasses of wine, spending one to many hours in front of flickering screens.  This becomes the substitute to really engaging with life and really engaging with God through his Word and Sacraments.  All because of this fundamental, lying misunderstanding about life–that life is all about me and my happiness and my opinions which I unconsciously treat as facts.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me.”  To fear death is to misunderstand life.

You see, one of great benefits to thinking of death regularly is that it has the power to wake up your soul just like a deep breath brisk mountain air has the power to wake up your body.  And this waking up needs to happen anew every single day.

David knew this, too, and so he wrote about it.  The odd thing about what David wrote here is that if anyone had reason to be afraid of death, it was David.  He had that epic fail—his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah the Hittite and the political cover-up.  And how do you suppose he was going to explain that to God when he died?

Or more to the point, how will you…about your own epic failures?  Especially the ones that are secret, like David tried to make his?  Those embarrassing secrets that you hope no one else ever finds out about; after all, what would your parents think if they found out, what would your kids think of you, what would your friends at church or at work think of you?

But that’s just it. God does know, and what do you suppose he thinks of you? So it is, when you die, you will have to answer to him for what you did.

And so, there you are.  Ten thousand people in line behind you, three ahead of you.  The man first in line is clearly an educated man; you hear him answer in a panicky voice of disbelief, “But I didn’t think you even existed, God!”  What a horrible moment of realization for him as he gets thrown into a place with things he has only seen in his nightmares.  Next is a middle class soccer mom, who says in voice of desperate terror, “But I did some good things, too, God!”  And God will say “Good things?  Good compared to what?  Compared to my Son?”  Because if you want God to give you a break because of your own good things, then your goodness has to be at the same level of Jesus’.  As that woman is dragged away and cast into hell, a place she will never escape from, the young guy right in front of you steps forward and says, “I went to church just about every Sunday, God.”  And God will thunder, “Then you knew that living with your girlfriend without being married was wrong.  It was like slapping me, the inventer of marriage, in the face every single day.”  The young man, who had been living with his girlfriend up until the day he was killed in a car accident on the way to work, smiles nervously, and says, “Yah, but you forgive me all my sin, right?”  God glares at him, “Yah, but you rejected my forgiveness by not repenting of your sin of living together.”  Because either you repent of all your sin or you get no forgiveness; it is all…or nothing. And the young man’s face turn deathly pale and he looks like he is going to be sick; but before that happens, he is cast into the sea of flames.

And now it’s your turn.  What do you say?  I can picture David in that position.  Only here’s another odd thing—he doesn’t seem very worried about standing before God at all.  When you read this beloved psalm, you get the sense that David is feeling calm, confident, at peace—this man of epic failure of sin!  Calm, confident, even in the face of death.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”  And the reason for his calmness is in the next five words.  “…for you are with me.”  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me.”

Because David knew this God who was with him.  He knew he hated sin and he was serious about us struggling against it.  But he also knew that this was the God who had the Israelites sacrifice lambs and doves and bulls every day to keep fresh in everyone’s mind that one day the ultimate Sacrifice would come.  His own Son, Jesus Christ.  Who would be sacrificed once-and-for-all on the altar of the cross to pay for all sin…even epic failures.  And David knew that this God was also the God who had given the Israelites so many laws it was practically impossible to keep them all straight much less be able to obey them all.  Which was the point.  And so God would send his own Son to be the ultimate Good Person who could not only keep all of God’s laws straight but would obey them all perfectly as well.  And he would do it for us, as if we had obeyed them perfectly.

And that’s why David is so calm.  He knows God, the God who would send his Son.  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me.”  But he also knew one more thing—he knew why God would want to hang around with an epic-failure sinner like himself.  And then he also wrote, “He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”  For his name’s sake–God’s name is not just his titles like God and Jesus but it is everything he reveals about himself in his Word.  And what he reveals most of all is that his greatest glory is that he gets to be our Savior.  And what a precious thing this is, especially when you lay dying—to know that what pleases God is not your work for him but your need for him.  What pleases him is not our efforts but our need–for his forgiveness, for his mercy, for his salvation.   And that is why he sent his Son. When you know THIS God through his Word/Sacraments, you can say with quiet confidence like David, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me.”…me, the person who totally needs him, his forgiveness, his salvation in Christ.

This kind of quiet confidence even in the face of death frees you to really live life.  And isn’t this one reason why God has turned our world upside down with a virus so light it can be carried on droplets?  What is this pandemic but God’s attempt to get everyone to think regularly about the great reality called death so that we may each day—this must be done daily—reject the lying assumption that my life is about me and my happiness and my opinions that I subconsciously treat as facts.

And instead, live, really live, with these words, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).  And you can tell those who are living for Christ—they are the ones for whom the Word and worship are top priority; they are the ones get to have life and have it to the full as Jesus said (John 10:10) because they know each day is a gift of God’s grace; they are the ones sometimes soar but who also sometimes crash and burn, sometimes epic-ly, but who struggle—and that is the key—struggle to do what is right and always return to hear the Word of Christ’s forgiveness, to hear Truth, the Truth that sets you free (John 8:31) from the Word, and to get back into the game.

They are the ones who know that because of Christ, they have no need to fear death.  And so are able to really live life.  Amen.