Holy Week in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Are the times we live in good or bad, hopeful or discouraging? Signs of things getting better are often dashed by signs of things getting worse, making it hard to tell what to expect. In the immortal words of Roseanne Roseannadanna, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” In the midst of Holy Week, several correspondents have wondered where God is when it can seem that, if there is a God, ‘he’s’ allowed political, economic and social chaos to prevail.

It’s not a new worry, the psalmist wondered if God had fallen asleep and didn’t know what troubles hounded ‘his’ people (Ps.44). The ancient Israelites were perplexed about the matter, and alternated between trusting in themselves and foreign gods when things were going well, and wondering where the Lord God was when trouble got out of hand. God, speaking through the prophets from Isaiah through Zechariah, said the time would come when God ‘himself’ would save God’s people because it was obvious the people and their leaders were unwilling to follow God’s directions. In the prophets’ minds that meant saving from war, famine, social unrest, subjugation by foreign powers, and going into exile. In other words, they wanted the same things we want from God. Nearly three thousand years stand between the ancient Israelites and us, and every one of those years demanded the same thing from God as they plodded through times far worse than our own.

God had something else in mind. In Jesus, God fulfilled the promises made through the prophets that ‘he’ ‘himself’ would be the saving shepherd of ‘his’ people. Consider the 23rd psalm about going through the valley of the shadow of death and discovering a table of life restoring food and drink in the middle of it. The valley was still dark and dangerous, the journey still had a long way to go. Real enemies were present. But God had set a table in the midst of it where the traveler found rest, refreshment, anointment with oils of blessing. Assured of God’s protection and nourished with holy food and drink, the journey through the still dark and dangerous valley could be completed, ending in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

Holy Week was the valley of the shadow of death through which Jesus led his disciples. He set a table in the midst of it, a feast at which he declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, the sealing of the new covenant God had promised through the voice of Jeremiah many centuries before (Jer. 31). It was the holy food and drink of new and unending life. But the cross at the end of the valley did’t look like new life. It looked like death because it was death. It looked like failure. Jesus met the end we all meet – death and burial. It didn’t end in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound. Was it the end of the story?

We know the valley didn’t end there. We know that in death life is not ended but changed. The disciples didn’t know that. They had no way of knowing it. It would take more than an empty tomb to convince them, and they got more. God Almighty came to them, ate with them, touched and was touched by them. Jesus, whom they had known as a carpenter turned rabbi with amazing powers, was fully revealed as God incarnate. The kingdom long promised existed in his presence, and his presence was with them always.

Their own journeys through many valleys of shadows of death lay ahead. Jesus would always be with them. There would always be a table of holy food and drink to strengthen and sustain them. When all the valleys of their days had been traversed, signs of the kingdom of God were left behind giving light in dark places; holy food and drink was left to nourish those who followed. The journey’s end was always in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

We are their descendants with our own valleys to traverse. Jesus will always be with us. It’s the already but not yet living into the fullness of God’s kingdom. Holy food and drink will always be there for us. What we do and say will establish light in dark places that cannot be extinguished. It will help guide others. The last valley will always end in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

Are things getting better or worse? The usual signs point in both directions. We are to be guided by an unusual sign. We are to plant a bit of the kingdom wherever we are. In its presence things will always be better, and unlike the usual signs, it will always point the way to fullness of new and unending life in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

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