I want to begin today’s message by expressing my gratitude to this church for including in the covenant between the pastor and the congregation a provision for the pastor to take one week a year for personal study or retreat. Having a week to spend on a topic is greatly beneficial to me and hopeful to the church.
The week before last, I took that week and spent my time beginning a study on inner peace with God. I selected the topic of inner peace because increasingly I am encountering people, Christians and non-Christians, who are in turmoil from stressful situations found at home, with politics, from ill health, from grief, or from difficult relationships at work, within the family, or even in the church.
I wanted to begin work on broadening my understanding of Christian concepts, authors, and Biblical studies that might help others redirect the suffering that anxiousness brings toward acquiring some peace of mind and restoration of joy. I hope over the next few weeks to share my some of my initial understandings of inner peace.
One of my readings during the week came from a Quaker theologian and philosopher, Elton Trueblood. In one of his books, Trueblood made a passing reference to a feature he noted in the Psalm 23. Trueblood did not expound upon the feature to any great length, but his observation intrigued me and caused me to think more deeply about having that sense of peace within us that in these “stress filled” times can seem so elusive. I want to share Trueblood’s observation and the implications I believe can begin to set the foundation for our conversations on inner peace.
Trueblood’s observation came from Psalm 23. I am certain that most of us have heard the words of Psalm 23 and, I suspect, some of you could recite the words of the psalm from memory. Let’s hear the words of the Psalm together. This version is from the King James translation of the Bible.
A Psalm of David
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Beautiful words that have been spoken on occasions grand and small, public and private, in joy and in sadness. The feature that Trueblood noted was that at about the midpoint of the psalm, the writer changed his focus from speaking about God to speaking withGod. The writer began the psalm speaking about God using the word “He,” and then changed to speaking with God using the word, “Thou.”
In our modern language Trueblood noted that the writer speaks about God with the word, “He” in verses 1 through 3 and then “You,” beginning in the second half of verse 4 through the end. Trueblood ends his observation at that point and leaves it to others to make meaning of it.
So, what then can we come to understand about Trueblood’s observation and its relationship to peace in our life? I believe it is this. We are comfortable talking about God when things in our life are going well. When life is good, we are able and comfortable saying, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.”
It is in times of gracious living that we talk about God and his ample provision for our lives. We acknowledge in gracious living that because of God we are not in want, we are nourished, we do not thirst, and we can follow his commands with confidence. This is what we find in verses one through three. When things are good and settled in our life, we have inner peace simply because things are good and settled. Our relationship with God and our reliance on God is less personal.
Then, amid the gracious living, something happens in our lives. It may be a death, a serious illness, a conflict in the family, at work, or in the political body. Something dark, undesired, or unsettling occurs in our life and it does not go away. We begin walking through the valley of shadows and our good and settled life seems to be a memory.
We are beginning to discover that our sense of inner peace was built on the pleasantry of our circumstances. Though in the past, others shared the gracious living with us, in the valley of dark thoughts and shadows we feel very much alone. The valley of conflict, illness, and grief is a lonely place, and we realize that we cannot be circumvented that valley. We cannot go around the valley, or over it, or under it. The only path available to us in the valley is through it.
I believe it is in this valley that many people lose their sense of inner peace. The valley is a lonely and difficult place to be. It is an anxious place where the nights are long and uncertain. In the valley of shadows, God can seem so far away or may not be felt at all. When we are in the valley, our thoughts are both disjointed and repetitive. Over and again, we wonder, “If only I had done this or that, then the outcome would be different. I would not be here in this valley.” “Why is this happening to me?” Then, we begin to ask, “God, are you there?”
Some of you are in that valley even now. Peace seems elusive. Rest is difficult. Confidence is occasional and fleeting. How then do we acquire peace even amid the valley?
The psalmist gives us some much-needed insight. Instead of talking about God, the psalmist realized that he must begin talking with God. The psalmist got personal with God and sought the attributes of God that were most urgently needed. “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” (Psalm 23:4). The psalmist realized that fear and anxiousness were consuming his thought and he needed relief. In talking to God and acknowledging the presence of God, the psalmist began to place trust and reliance in God for his specific and most urgent needs.
The person going through the valley sought to speak directly and personally with God. In speaking to God, the fear, the anxiousness, and worry about the dangers and uncertainties hidden among the shadows in that valley began to ebb. Why? Because the sojourner came to realize that God was present even if God could not always be felt. The fear ebbed because she or he knew that God was equipped and would use his shepherd’s rod, an offensive weapon, to defend him against those dangers. The staff that led them to the green pastures and quiet waters remained present as a promise that God’s provision of the past and the assurance that provision would not be taken away taken away.
Now we do not know much about shepherds and sheep. So, how else may we see visual passage? Perhaps on this day of Father’s Day we might see this passage this way. Think of the setting of a child who find themselves outside in the dark and a long way from home. The child begins to make her way, but everything looks different. There are unfamiliar noises among the shadows. She wonders, “Am I on the right path?” “How much longer before I am home?” The child is afraid and begins running. First in one direction and then another. Suddenly, a figure appears ahead of her. It takes her a moment to realize that it is her father. She begins talking to him excitedly, explaining all her fears and anxious thoughts about the darkness and that she does not know which is the right path home. Her father says, “Take hold my hand and walk with me. You do not need to know the way because I do.” All she needs to do is hold onto her father’s hand. The fears of dangers, imagined or real, begin to recede from her mind. She is comforted and the turmoil in her body is replaced by peace. This is the scene the psalmist wants us to understand.
Whether a sojourning psalmist, a child, or an adult in trouble, each comes to realize that faith, true faith, is born in the times of testing and is displayed by holding onto the hand of God and talking to him.
Many people forgo this peace. They are frozen in place by their memories of the green valleys and quiet waters. Or they are frantically attacking every noise and every shadow to chase away the darkness and dangers therein. Whether frozen in time or frantic with activity, both soon become exhausted spiritually, emotionally, and physically. There is no peace.
So, we might think, do our troubles end just because we start walking with God and talking with God? The answer is “No, they do not.” What we do have though is inner peace amid the troubles of life.
Look at what the psalmist discovered in traveling through the valley of the shadows with God and talking with God. The psalmist wrote, “5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over” (Psalm 23:5). The psalmist made it clear that he still had enemies in life. Those enemies may be people, or illness, or painful memories from the past but the psalmist still had trouble. But the good news is that the one whose hand we hold onto in the valley chooses to bless the psalmist with inner peace and to make his enemies know that he was blessed.
The psalmist described the peace he had in God as the equivalent of having a massive banquet held in our honor with all our enemies having to stand and watch us enjoy that banquet knowing they can have no part of it.
The psalmist then described that feeling of peace as though having had his fill from that banquet, God called the psalmist to stand in front of everyone, especially his enemies, and watch God pour oil on the psalmist’s head as a sign, a symbol, that he was God’s child and that it would be a life of woe to anyone who would touch even one hair on psalmist’s head.
Finally, after the banquet and the adoption ceremony before his enemies, the psalmist described peace as God continually filling to overflowing our cup. God was giving grace in his life and for all time and in such quantity that he cannot drink it all in. God was giving the psalmist extravagant grace.
Because of this close and personal relationship with God brought about by talking with God, the psalmist had inner peace even though he walked through the valley of shadows and even though his enemies surrounded him. We too can have such inner peace.
We can have that peace by beginning to talk with God and by realizing that the grace in the cup from which we can never exhaust comes in the form of the person of Jesus Christ. It was Jesus who took the cup and gave thanks and said to his disciples, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27b-28). God, through Jesus, makes our cup run over with grace. Through Christ we have forgiveness and peace.
The Apostle Paul saw it this way, “15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:15-19).
What then might we say as we conclude today? The key take away is that God wants you and me to be at peace. There are no exceptions. Peace is God’s crowning desire. We can certainly experience God’s peace in the times of tranquility in our life and we talk about God. But our greatest sense of peace comes not in talking about God. Instead, our peace comes when we talk with God.
To make it easier for us to talk to Him, God sent himself to earth in human form as Jesus Christ. God became real. Jesus was someone people could see, hear, eat with, and even smell. We can read what Jesus said and we can speak with him but we should not wait to do so until our moments of distress. We should begin talking with God through Jesus now, regardless of our sense or lack of inner peace.
How do we know Jesus will hear us? Jesus came as the light of the world not to shine in the places that were already well lit but to shine light into the darkness of the world and say to those who lived in fear, “27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
I want to encourage you to begin this day the habit of talking with God daily, even multiple times per day. Tell him what is bothering you and ask him to do just one thing, give you peace. Over and again, pray for the exchange of turmoil for peace.
I believe if you do this, very soon, you will have a sense that God is holding your hand like a good father, and he will lead you through the valleys of life that dark. Peace is within reach, not for lack of problems, but because of the presence of God. Just reach out and talk to him and do not let go of his hand. Amen.