Today’s reading from the twenty-third psalm is one of the most comforting passages in all of Scripture. The writer of the psalm expresses an amazing and life-giving trust in the goodness of God.
They lack nothing because God is their shepherd. In green pastures and by still waters, in the valley of the shadow of death and even in the presence of enemies, they have everything they need because they have God with them, the great Shepherd who will never leave or forsake them.
“I will fear no evil,” the psalmist says, “for you are with me.” And the same is true for you and me who entrust ourselves to Jesus the Good Shepherd, who will never leave or forsake us.
We are now in the fourth week of Lent, a holy season of self-examination and repentance, and during this season, we are to practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, self-denial, and scripture reading. The idea is that as we engage these practices listed in the invitation to a Holy Lent, they can help us identify how we turn from God in our lives. Prayer helps us to focus on God. Fasting helps us to see that God is our ultimate source of sustenance. Self-denial recalibrates us to see ourselves in proper relation to God and others. Scripture reading helps anchor us in the truth of who God is.
Engaging these practices helps us examine our lives in relation to the truth of who God is, and once we see the places that need change, we can turn to God for healing and restoration. Prayer, fasting, self-denial, and scripture reading are all practices that help us examine our lives so that we might return to God in deeper ways.
Now each of these disciplines is approached on an individual basis. Each of us chooses how we might engage them. We might read a Lenten devotional. Schedule more prayer time in our days. Or we might practice self-denial by avoiding chocolate or social media. This is typically what happens during Lent, but not this year, this year we are in totally new territory.
In the past week, I’ve come across a post on Facebook multiple times, and every time I’ve seen it, I’ve had to laugh. The post goes like this: “I honestly hadn’t planned on giving up this much for Lent.”
We are in a pandemic, and in this evolving reality, we have had to give up things that we wouldn’t have dared to think of when we began Lent on Ash Wednesday. Instead of the typical Lenten disciplines, we have been given new ones like social distancing and self-quarantine. Life has changed and will continue to change. We are entering an unprecedented time; we’re entering an apocalypse.
Now when I say the word apocalypse, I don’t mean the end of the world or some scary end times scenario. We have apocalyptic literature in the Bible, but the heart of those writings is hope—that no matter what is going on in the world, God is still in charge. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.
Apocalypse means to reveal or uncover. We have entered a new type of Lent and a new type of life, an apocalypse that will reveal and uncover, a deep time of self-examination, and hopefully repentance as well.
I’ve heard this illustration that you and I are like tubes of toothpaste. When you squeeze the tube, what’s inside will come out.
Some people hoard resources without a single thought about how their actions will affect their neighbors. Some people think about how they can serve and help. Some act as if the world is ending, others minimize the situation and live in denial. Some realize how easily they could spread the virus, so they try to flatten the curve; others go on vacation or fail to grasp the role they play in the health of the larger community.
We are experiencing pressure, and who we are on the inside will be revealed and uncovered. And my question to you this morning is what are you going to do when you see what is revealed?
As we see the selfishness of those who hoard, it can also be an opportunity to identify in ourselves the same tendencies for selfishness and small thinking. As we see first responders and medical professionals selflessly work to address the pandemic, we might see in ourselves the same selflessness, or we may realize in a new way our own selfishness. Each revelation can serve as an opportunity for each of us to turn back to God, if we will let it.
None of us had planned on giving up this much for Lent. Our lives have changed and will continue to change in the foreseeable future. So much has been given up and the cost is great. And the truth is that we will need to give more.
We are in a new season of Lent with new disciplines of social distancing and self-quarantine. Things will be uncovered and revealed to us as the pressure of the present situation reveals who we are. And some of what will surface will be beautiful and life-giving. Other parts of us will reveal the places where we need healing from the effects of sin. And all of it can lead us back to our great and good shepherd, if we will let it.
This whole season of Lent and whatever unfolds beyond it, can help us examine who we are so that we always find ourselves turning back to Jesus our Good Shepherd. He is with us in green pastures, beside still waters, in the valley of the shadow of death and in the presence of enemies, and even in a world that feels like it’s being turned upside down.
We lack nothing because there is no place where we can go where he will not be there with us.
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.