God does not ever leave God’s people comfortless.
Our Bible study group read through many a minor prophet during the spring, and we found that no matter how dire the situation, how judgmental the oracle, how angry the prophet, there was always a counterpoint: the promise of God’s faithfulness, God’s undying love for God’s people.
Jeremiah, a major prophet who majored in dismay, is no exception. Unflinching in his condemnation of faithless and uncaring leaders, Jeremiah is just as certain that God is a faithful and compassionate shepherd to God’s people, and will not abandon them to wickedness and its ways.[I]
Jesus, who was no one if not the Son of his Father, follows suit. When he saw the people lost and scattered, he had compassion upon them, and became their shepherd.
Notice the witness of the psalmist that this does not mean that we, God’s flock, will not encounter valleys full of shadows and the shades of death. As many have observed, to be human is to suffer.[ii] Jesus himself suffered doubt and despair in the Garden of Gethsemane, physical pain and the torture of dying on the cross, the bereavement of friends and family. Even here in the introduction to this passage, he is divided and depleted by so many demands that he doesn’t have time even to eat.
The Incarnation of Christ is the certainty that God has experienced and undergone all that drags us down into that valley. God is with us in its depths, with rod and staff, the faithful shepherd.
I am reminded of the parable that Jesus told about leaving ninety-nine perfectly content sheep to seek after the one who was lost, whether through straying willfully, or through injury, or through abandonment by its flock we are not told; regardless of cause, the good shepherd will not leave the lost lamb to suffer alone.
C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his book of tears,
“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”[iii]
I do not want to fall under that suspicion. I have some experience of grief, and of depression. I know that there are valleys so deep and so cold that it feels as though we have reached the bowels of the earth, have been buried alive. In those places, those powerful prisons of time, the idea of consolation seems laughable.
And yet Jesus has been there, even there, too, sealed in a stone-cold, unfeeling, unlabeled tomb. Even if we cannot see him, he is there. Even though we cannot hear his breathing in the darkness, resurrection is coming. Somewhere on the surface, green pastures still grow, and water still pools to cool our thirst.
I suppose that what I am saying is that if and when we find ourselves in those valleys, we are not as alone as we think. God promises through the prophet to send help: whether friends or pharmacists, physicians or therapists, or simply prayerful companions, “who will shepherd [us], and [we] shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
If we have the capacity to turn our faces to the sun, we will find our way back to the green, to the flock, to Jesus. If we have the strength, we can carry a weary lamb along with us, or even just keep company for a time. And if we are simply too exhausted, broken, sad, know that the good and faithful shepherd has already set out to find us. He is never too busy for us, never too far from us. They have not forgotten us. Trust in God’s faithfulness.
Christ spreads a table for us, in the full and clear sight of all that confounds us. The Holy Spirit anoints us with healing mercy. God’s goodness and loving-kindness are for us, and are for ever.
[I] See also Alicia Hager, “RCL – What is a good shepherd?” at https://revgalblogpals.org/2021/07/12/rcl-what-is-a-good-shepherd/
[ii] A Google search of this phrase will attribute it to Nietzsche, Frankl, and more; its absolute origin is unclear.
[iii] N.W. Clerk [C.S.Lewis], A Grief Observed (Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, 1963), p. 23