Lighting the Candle
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
One of my favorite things to do at Christmas is to turn off all the lights in the house and sit in front of our Christmas tree. I like to just linger there and remember and dream. It’s become a Christmas ritual for me, or it doesn’t feel like it is Christmas. I do admit to getting pretty sentimental sitting there in the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights. As I gaze dreamily at the tree, I remember Christmas trees from my childhood, as well as the years we didn’t have a tree. Then, as my eyes adjust to the darkness, I ponder the star shining on top of the tree. I am reminded that some of my best Christmases haven’t always felt like it at the time. Light is always seen more clearly against the darkness.
Today’s Scripture text reminds us that even in our darkest times God is always there. What the King James Version translated as “the valley of the shadow of death” is literally “the darkest valley”, or “valley of deep darkness”. It was in David’s darkest valley that he came to know God’s presence as never before.
As David writes about “the darkest valley” he writes about an actual place where he too has led his sheep. It is a real place on today’s map of Israel known as “Wadi el Qelt”. It is a steep gorge, running all the way from the Bethlehem area towards the Dead Sea, 1,300 feet below sea level. This is the traditional “darkest valley” of Bible times, walked by shepherds and sheep for millennia. It is the most direct route for shepherds to take their sheep from the green hills of Judea to the Jordan River Valley and back. It is a treacherous cut in the earth tucked between jagged barren cliffs that blot out any light from the sun. The darkest valley is a favorite haunt of wolves, hyenas, and serpents ready to pounce, as well as robbers ready to plunder the sheep. It is the place of perpetual darkness and danger, where the sheep are the most vulnerable.
Yet David says that when he comes to life’s darkest valley he is unafraid, because he knows that he too has a Shepherd who will fight for him and protect him. It is here in David’s psalm that he makes a significant change of pronoun. Here David switches from writing in the third person to the second person. David began the psalm in the third person, talking about the Shepherd who leads him and cares for him. But when David comes to the darkest valley, he switches to the second person. He suddenly stops talking about his Shepherd, and starts talking to Him: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me”.
So it has been in my own life, and the life of so many people that I know; it is in the dark valleys that God’s presence becomes more real to us. It is in the dark valleys that we no longer just talk about God, but start talking to Him.
Stephen Haboush, in his book “My Shepherd Life in Galilee” writes knowingly about the shepherd and his sheep. Haboush says of the dark valley: “My sheep would sense the danger, and gather closely to my side. My continual calling and the sense of my presence gave them confidence and allayed their fear.”
We enjoy the mountaintops, but it is the dark valleys that we come face to face with the Shepherd. This Christmas may not bring us everything we wanted. It may not be all that we had hoped or planned. But then we are reminded that Christ came, not to give us Christmas trees, bright lights, and parties, but He came to be Immanuel, God-with-us.
MOMENT OF SILENCE AND REFLECTION
Our God Immanuel. We talk a lot about you at Christmas time, but we don’t want to just talk about you, we want to talk to you. We long to know that you are with us whether it is a bright happy Christmas or a dark one. Help us to slow down a bit and take time to talk everything over with you. Amen.