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I Am Completely Alone [Psalm 23:4]

Some of you already know this - but when I became the pastor here at Center Church, we were still in the process of selling our house and purchasing a new house. The market’s a little crazy, and so there was actually some time where my family was commuting about two hours to come to church. Now we have some amazing family in the area that let us come and stay with them the night before, and then we could be here for Sunday morning. But what it meant for us, just for a couple of weeks, was a LOT of driving back and forth across the state. Now my kids do pretty well in the car, but we did try to time it so that it was nap-time during the drive - so they would sleep most of the way. And the way the kids are arranged in our car - my two year old Asher is in the seat right behind the driver. And he’s rear facing, so he’s aimed backwards - and he can’t see anything, just one of his brothers who are in the back seat. He knows that mom and dad are in the front seat, he knows we are there, but he can’t see us. And sometimes he’ll fall asleep for most of the drive, and we’ll be about twenty minutes out and he will wake up. And in that moment, he’s a little disoriented - and he doesn’t know where he is, or why he is where he is. And so he just starts crying. Wailing. And so we have to do that weird arm contortion - do you know what I’m talking about? I’m usually driving when we’re all together, so it’s usually poor Sara’s arm and she has to like twist it back to reassure Asher, we’re still here. Mommy’s right here. And something about having mom’s hand is so incredibly reassuring. And her hand isn’t even doing anything! It’s not like she’s fighting off bad guys, or giving him food or even helping him be more comfortable. It’s just there. It’s the hand that’s important. It comforts him to know she’s there. But of course it’s very UNcomfortable for her to be all contorted in reaching into the back seat. And so he will hold her hand, and fall right back asleep - unless she tries to pull her hand out. So everytime that happens for us in a car ride, it’s like - “Okay, what’s the clock? What’s the ETA and how can we make it faster? Cause we’re trapped in this reassuring pose until we arrive.” For those who are joining us for the first time, you’ve caught us right in the middle of a series called “The Lies I Tell Myself” and we’ve been using Psalm 23 as a framework for the lies that we tell ourselves. Because if we believe a lie, it has the same effect on us as if it was true. But God’s word has been speaking truth into the cage we’ve built out of these lies. Breaking the bars and setting us free. Today we’re looking at verse 4, and we’re going to talk about the lie “I Am Completely Alone.” And this is a big one, because I know it’s cute when a toddler feels like they are alone on a car ride with mom and dad. But it’s not as cute in our lives. Let me ask you - when do you feel alone in life? Have you ever felt isolated? Maybe in your job or your family, even in your church? Have you ever thought - “I am the only one who struggles with this.” “I am the only one who is broken.” “Everyone else has it together but me.” In our culture, even if you are surrounded by people, they are so close to you physically that you could almost reach out and touch them - and yet inside you still feel so alone. And that isolation walls you off from the love of God that you need. The very thing you need to be comforted, the very thing you need to feel whole - the lie we tell ourselves pushes it away from you. But God’s truth has good news for us today, so let’s dive in.

If you want to open up your bible, or look it up on your phone. And actually, before we get into the text - let me just say a word on that. I would love for us to become a church where people bring their own bible. If you don’t have a bible, and you’d like one - come talk to me after service, I will put a bible in your hand before you leave today. Pastor Kyle over at the Story church says, “we are a B.Y.O.B. church, a bring your own bible church” and I love that - so if you’ve got a bible at home, something you can carry around - I want to encourage you. Bring your bible to church, and if you bring it, I promise we’ll use it. And so today we open up to Psalm 23, and we’re going to get into 1 Samuel chapter 17 a little bit later. Psalm 23 verse 4, [read v.4] Now again - I’ve said this a couple of times, this is a wonderful translation, the New Living Translation. But the poetry of the new king james version is just.. Fire, and I can’t get away from it. You’ve probably heard it - let’s throw that on the screen. “Yea, 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.” I even like the super old version, “for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” It’s just so chef’s kiss  - but what does it mean? “Even when I walk through the darkest valley” - well the first thing I want you to realize is that the word “through” is the most important word in that sentence. “Darkest valley” is easy - it’s this metaphor for the struggles we got through, the challenges we face in life. And I think there are two temptations when we face challenges in life. Number 1 - we try to avoid the valleys. We run away from struggle, anything that challenges us - we give up before we even try. We think comfort is the highest priority, and so we so we just avoid all confrontation. I don’t have to figure out how to get up if I never fall down. Just avoid. The other thing we do in the valley is we set up camp! We get stuck in the struggle. We lose hope and make the pain permanent. This is just how my life is now. The lie traps us, it freezes us so we can’t get out. But that’s not what the text says. It doesn’t say go around the valley, it doesn’t say set up shop in the valley. It says walk THROUGH the valley. If you are in a season of struggle, if you’re just like - in it, and you’re going through a hard time right now. The first thing you need to realize is that it is just a season. Pain was never meant to be permanent. Suffering always comes with a deadline. Even though it tries to convince you that this is life, it’s not forever. Walk THROUGH the valley. 

Actually, I learned this recently. There are actually places in the holy land, like where David would have walked with his sheep, that were known as Valleys of Deep Darkness. The “valley of the shadow of death” is in palestine, and shepherds would have known exactly what he was talking about. Over the years, winter streams cut long, deep crevices in the rock. And flash floods are known to thunder in without warning through the valleys, killing everything in their wake. Here, listen to this description - this comes from a modern shepherd who described the valley just south of the Jerusalem-Jericho road. I won’t read his whole thing, just a piece of it. He says, “It is a very narrow defile through a mountain range where the water often foams and roars, torn by jagged rocks…the path plunges downward…into a deep and narrow gorge of sheer precipices overhung by frowning sphinx-like battlements of rocks, which almost touch overhead. It’s side walls rise like stone walls of a great cathedral…The valley is about five miles long, yet it is not more than twelve feet at the widest section of the base…” And this is what David’s talking about. It probably looked different back in his time, but these valleys exist in the Holy Land, and travelling through them was terrifying, but a reality of shepherd life. People travelling through the valley of deepest darkness would travel silently because their voices would echo off the rock and let bandits know you were there. If you’ve ever heard the story of the good Samaritan, where that guy gets attacked by bandits - this is the kind of road he was walking on. 

But finish the sentence - even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. This isn’t about avoiding struggle, this isn’t about setting up camp and getting stuck in our suffering. This is for that moment when you are at your lowest. When you are walking in the valley of deepest darkness - God is with you. Let me see if I can explain it to you like this. My first church was up in the UP. I went to seminary in Chicago, we lived downtown and had this tiny little city car. Then we moved up to the UP, and a few months after we arrived - Sara was in a pretty significant car accident. There was this stoplight near our house, and in the mornings when the sun came up, it was right behind the stoplight and no one could see whether it was green or red - and there were tons of accidents at this intersection, and one morning Sara got T-boned by another car. Praise God for air-bags, she walked away from it, unscathed. But the car was totaled. Just destroyed. And I had this crazy mixture of emotions. Fear at almost losing the most important person in my life, relief that she was alive and not hurt, and then just financial terror. I’d just gotten out of grad school - I had NO money, and lots of student loans, and we were not in a place to buy a new car. And I’m at home, in the living room and I’ll never forget this. I tell this story all time. Have you ever had one of those moments when the bad piles up so much and you just don’t even know if you’re going to be able to keep standing up? It was after the accident, and we were dealing the financials, and realizing that the car was gone and we didn’t have the money to buy a new car. And I leaned on the doorframe, and I almost crumpled to my knees. I just didn’t know what we were going to do. And I got up off the floor, and I’m sitting at the kitchen table - I’ve got the bank statements, and all the paperwork spread out on the table. And I don’t know what we’re going to do. I was setting up shop in the suffering, I was in the valley and I decided that was my new home. This stress, this fear - this is where I live now. And Sara comes up to me, and she puts her hand on my shoulder and she said, “You know we’re going to be okay, right?” And I sort of exploded at her, I gestured at the paperwork and said, “no we’re not! How can you say that? How? How are we going to be okay?” And she said, “I don’t know” - and this is the part I’ll never forget, “but God has gotten us through everything so far. And he will get us through this too.” Through is the most important word when you’re dealing with valleys. And you know what? She was right! By the grace of God we made it through that valley, and honestly? Since then, we have been through valleys SO MUCH deeper than the struggles of buying a new car - and we take turns, reminding each other. God has gotten us through everything so far, and he’s not going to stop now. What’s your valley of deepest darkness? Where are you tempted to believe the lie? What moments have you right on the edge of giving up? Let my wife’s wisdom (which is actually God’s truth) break into your life. God has gotten you this far, and he’s not going to stop now. He hasn’t given up. So don’t you go giving up either. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. 

The verse keeps going, [read Psalm 23:4b]. The rod and the staff. Again we need to dive into the world of sheep and shepherds in order to understand them - but I know you’ve seen the pictures. Shepherds often had the big stick, and sometimes it had a little hook at the top. Sheep are notorious wanderers, and when they get away from the shepherds - they get into all kinds of trouble. And so the shepherd would use his staff to keep the sheep out of danger, and keep them close to him. The hook part was for guidance. They start wandering away from the group - you can hook ‘em and get them back on track. The rod part was for protection. To get an understanding of this, we need to dive into the story of David a little bit. David wrote Psalm 23 when he was king of Israel, but he started out as a shepherd. If you want to jump with me back to 1 Samuel, chapter 17. You might remember this as the story of David and Goliath. IF you’ve never heard of that - here’s the cliffnotes. Two armies, Israelites and Philistines. Goliath is this HUGE beefy Philistine soldier, and he challenges the Israelites - send one man to fight me. And all David’s brothers were in the army, but David was left home with the sheep. He was the runt of the family, too little to fight. But one day, David was bringing them food, and he hear’s Goliath’s challenge - and David gets ticked off, and he goes to the king and says, ‘I’ll fight him.” and that’s where we’re jumping in with verse 32. [read v.32-37]. Woah. Okay, first of all - you see the rod, yes? He called it a club, that’s a shepherd’s staff he’s using to fight lions and bears. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. You can see the connection, but before we get into that can we just talk for a second about David holding the lion by the mouth and beating it to death with a stick. THIS was the littlest brother who was too small to go off to war? What? I mean, straight up - that is the manliest thing I have ever heard of. If you met one human being in the modern world who was like, “I beat a lion with a stick” - I would assume he spends his afternoons arm-wrestling with Superman and Chuck Norris! Here’s what I want you to pull from this - I want you to let the power of the almighty God comfort you when you are in the valley. The two parts of Psalm 23 verse 4 are number 1) you are not alone and number 2) the one who is walking next to you? Remember who he is. Remember how strong your God is.

But David’s story does impress Saul, and he says, “okay, fine - I’ll let you fight Goliath.” Verse 37, [read v.37-39]. Alright now this is so important, I don’t want you to miss it. There are layers to belief. A lot of us will say stuff like, “I know God is with me.” We say it with our mouth, maybe we even believe it up in our heads - but heart is not convinced. You see this with Saul. David said, “God delivered me from the Lion. God will deliver me from Goliath.” And Saul says, “sure, totally - put on this armor.” He dresses him up in the armor, because he doesn’t actually believe that God is with David. But we do this in our lives, don’t we? You come to church on a Sunday, and the preacher gives you some reassurance - something cheesy like, “God is with you in the valleys” and you nod your head, and your lips say, “totally, I believe that.’ And maybe it even gets into your head. You know intellectually - God is with you. You’ve read his word, you trust what it says - you’ve seen God working in your life in the past - and yet… we’re still scared. How many times have you said the phrase, “Oh no, it’s no big deal” - when actually in your head you’re thinking - “actually, this is a VERY big deal.” Or you’ve said, “don’t even worry about it” - and then you go home and you go right ahead and worry about it anyways. There are layers of belief - what you say with your mouth might not always match what’s going on in your heart. And David is right there with you. King Saul didn’t really believe that God was with David. Go back to verse 37, read it again slow. [read it].

The good news that I have for you this morning is that God is with you in the valley. You are NOT alone. And yeah, I realize I said that’s a cheesy line. It IS a cheesy line. But it’s also true. What I want you to realize this morning is that you can exchange loneliness, the illusion of loneliness for the reality of God’s nearness. Now here’s what that means. I said the illusion of loneliness - but don’t get me wrong, the loneliness is real. We feel like we are alone. But I say “illusion” because it’s a lie. Let me show you something. Parents in the room, have you ever thought “I am totally messing this up. I’m doing a terrible job, and I’m the only one. All the other parents are doing it better than I am.” Like, show of hands - have you ever thought “I am the only one at my job who is stupid.” Everyone else is good and I’m the one who is faking it. I’m the only one who is stressed. I’m the only one who has no idea what they are doing. [pause. Raise hands, look around at other raised hands]. As a pastor, one of the unique gifts is that I get to hear a lot of your stories. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job - the privilege of being invited into people’s stories. I haven’t been here very long, so I don’t know a lot of your stories yet - but in ten years of ministry, I’ve gotten close to a lot of people. And I would never break confidentiality, but what I want you to know is that we’re all struggling in different ways. If you are feeling isolated - chances are there’s a person two rows over that’s feeling the exact same way. You are NOT alone. God is with you in the valley.

Alright, so let’s take all these things we’ve learned and put them into practice. My first challenge for you is that I want you to look at your life. Do a self check. Where are you? Are you in the valley right now? Are you setting up shop and trying to get comfortable with your suffering? Are you avoiding a valley that you need to walk through because it might be uncomfortable? Are you STUCK in a valley? We learned two things about God out the text today. 1.) That God is with us as we go through the valley and 2) that his rod and staff protect and guide us. So the first thing we need to do is sort of stop. Look around at the valleys in your life. Have you bought into the lie? Do you believe you are alone - because that is a lie! Take a moment to exchange the illusion of loneliness for the reality of God’s nearness. Before you go anywhere - pay attention to God’s presence, his protection and his guidance. 

The second thing, my second challenge for you this week - is once you have figured out where you are, and who is walking with you, my second challenge for you is to walk through the valley. Knowing that it is just a season, that it is not forever, you can face the challenges of your life with more confidence. Walk through the valley. Do you remember in Finding Nemo with the jellyfish? And they have to swim through the trench and not over it. And the Dory fish has this red flag - “I think we should swim through this, not over it” and the dad fish is like, “are you looking at this thing? It has death written all over it. We’re not going through there.” And he was wrong - they should have gone through the valley. Look, I can’t get up here and tell you - “if you follow God, no more valleys. Smooth sailing and sunny skies forever if you follow Jesus.” I can’t say it, because it’s not true. And the bible never says that. In fact the bible says the opposite. It says, “EVEN WHEN I walk through the darkest valley”  - that’s a guarantee that there will be valleys. I can’t promise there will be no valleys, but I can promise that when those valleys come you will not be alone.

By the way, that’s what baptism is. Baptism is a professing of your faith. You’re professing, you’re putting it out there in front of the church family. I know not everybody is comfortable getting up on the stage and being in front of other people. And I’m sort of excited to see what it looks like after church with BBQ and a more casual environment. But the core piece of baptism is that we are ready to say this thing that we believe in our heart, to say it in front of other people. And to have other people come around us and support us in our journey. Because we are not alone. Baptism is you claiming Jesus, recognizing that he walks with you in the valley. And it’s also your church family claiming you. Promising to support you as you grow closer to God. To remind you that you are loved, even when you forget. Do you know why I say “God loves you” so often? It’s because your heart is forgetful. And the world is trying to sell you a lie that you are alone. Like my little boy Asher on those long car rides. He needs mom’s hand to reassure him. We need that constant reminder that we are not alone, because the lie creeps in. It’s one of the greatest functions of the church, the brothers and sisters gathered in this place. To remind our forgetful hearts, that we are not alone. Let’s pray.


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