The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Thou hast anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
For all of us gathered here today, the kindness and goodness of Mrs. Smith is the source of both our present grief, for we shall now be deprived of the benefit of her life. The goodness and kindness of Mrs. Smith is the source of the warm memories which we have sought to recall and refresh in her eulogy a few moments ago. All of us can both rejoice and grieve, due to the goodness of this wife, mother, and friend.
The Christian can do even more than this. Those who have personally trusted in Jesus Christ can also give thanks for the failures and the faults of those who have touched their lives, and have passed on. While we do no focus on one's failures at the time of their death, we must all admit that there are failures. The Christian can be thankful for the failures of those whose lives have touched their own because of the assurance that "God causes all things to work together for good, to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). Because of this, Joseph could not only forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery, he could recognize the good hand of God in this cruel act, providing him with the opportunity to return good for evil, and to spare the lives of his own family, even though they had not spared his (see Genesis 37-45; 50:20).
It is my privilege to share with you in the grief and the joy of fondly recalling the good things which God brought into our lives through Mrs. Smith. But as a preacher of the gospel, it is also my obligation to remind you that our eternal destiny is not determined by the ratio of our good deeds to our faults and failures, which the Bible more frankly calls sin.
At the beginning of the service, a very familiar passage was read--Psalm 23. This psalm is a favorite, especially when one brought fact to face with the grim reality of death. It describes, in poetic terms, the peace and confidence which David has, in the face of adversity and opposition from his enemies, and even death. There is another passage, not nearly as familiar, which informs us that David's sense of peace and security is not natural, but supernatural. Consider these words, from the pen of the unknown author of the New Testament Book of Hebrews:
Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives (Hebrews 2:14-15).
This passage puts Psalm 23 into perspective. It tells us that death normally produces fear, and not faith. It tells us that the fear of death hinders and haunts men all of their lives. It tells us that David's faith, as expressed in Psalm 23 is not natural, but supernatural.
As we come to honor the life and memory of Mary Smith, we come also to face the reality of death. We come, knowing that we, too, shall experience death. If we are honest with ourselves, some must admit that facing death today is a fearful experience, just as Hebrews informs us. Others can truly identify with David, and the peace and security which he knew and cherished. In his epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul described these two contrasting responses to death in these words:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Paul expects Christians to view death differently than the rest. Christians, he tells us, will grieve, but they will grieve in hope. The rest have no hope. What is that hope? What is it that makes the difference?
My privilege on this occasion, is to share with you how you can grieve with hope. My joy and delight is to share with you how you can exchange the fear of death for the faith of David. In the next few moments, I want to offer to you the hope which David experienced, and which he expressed in Psalm 23. The source of this hope is to be found in the texts of both passages which you have heard today. Let me make a few comments about the hope which God offers to all those who face death, a hope which exchanges fear for faith.
David did not fear. He did not fear what his enemies would do to him. He did not fear death. His fear was replaced by faith. The basis of David's faith is expressed in Psalm 23.
The text which I have just read from the Book of Hebrews expands on David's words in Psalm 23, explaining how David's faith in God can free him from the fear of death. The writer to the Hebrews gives us two vitally important truths, which explain the faith of David in Psalm 23.
(1) The Shepherd became a sheep
In Psalm 23, David describes himself as a sheep, and the Lord as his Shepherd. In the Old Testament, the sins of Israel were temporarily atoned for by the sacrifice of a lamb. Isaiah the prophet spoke of the coming Savior as a Lamb, who would suffer for the sins of men:
He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth (Isaiah 53:7).
John the Baptist was a prophet, the prophet whose privilege it was to introduce Jesus of Nazareth as God's Messiah. When John saw Jesus, he cried out,
"Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).
David could rejoice because the Lord, his Shepherd, was with Him. We can now see that the Good Shepherd became a sheep (like David).
(2) The Lamb of God died for us, and triumphed over death by His resurrection
Not only did Jesus Christ come as the Lamb of God, to die for those who would be His sheep. Jesus rose from the dead, triumphant over death. And thus, those who trust in Him need no longer fear death. Death was defeated by the Lamb who was slain, and who rose again.
Let me illustrate from the life of Abraham, how the fear of death imprisons us as slaves, and how faith in Jesus Christ frees us. Abraham is perhaps one of the most well-known Old Testament patriarchs. The Jews boasted that they were his descendants. But Abraham, like all men, feared death, and this fear enslaved him.
God had called Abraham from his homeland and brought him to the land of Israel, which He promised to give to him and his descendants. God promised to bless Abraham through his offspring. But Abraham and Sarah were unable to bear children. They were old, and over a period of time child-bearing became a human impossibility.
When a famine came to the land of Canaan, Abraham took Sarah, his wife, to Egypt. Knowing that his wife was beautiful, and fearing that the Egyptians would kill him, in order to marry his wife, Abraham instructed Sarah to lie, and to represent herself as his sister, not his wife. This made her eligible for marriage, and it seemed to put the promise of God at risk, because the promised "seed" was to come through the union of Abraham and Sarah. Now, there was the danger that Sarah would become the wife of an Egyptian, and bear him children.
God protected Sarah, and spoke to Pharaoh, who was about to make her his wife. When Pharaoh rebuked Abraham, and asked why he would deceive him about his wife, Abraham admitted that he feared death. One might hope that this painful experience in Egypt would have cured Abraham from his deception, but it did not. On at least one more occasion, Abraham and Sarah lied again. God once again spared them.
God solved the problem of Abraham's lying by dealing with his fear of death. He gave Abraham and Sarah as son, when they were "as good as dead" so far as child-bearing was concerned. Their son, Isaac, was born to them in their old age. He was truly a miracle child. After a number of years, God put Abraham's faith to its greatest test. He instructed him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to put him to death. It was only a test, but Abraham did not know it. From the New Testament, we know why Abraham was willing to obey God, and to put his son to death. He had come to trust in God as the One who was able to raise the dead. God had given them a son, when they were as good as dead. Now, if he must put this son to death, God would raise him. This was Abraham's faith, and thus it overcome his fear of death.
This is the faith of which David is writing, in Psalm 23. This is the good news of the gospel, of which the writer to the Hebrews is speaking. Man's fear of death is well-rounded. Death is the penalty for sin, and we are all sinners, worthy of death. But the Good Shepherd became a sheep, so to speak. He took on human flesh and lived among men. The Lord Jesus Christ then died for our sins, and suffered the penalty, our penalty, of death. God raised Him from the dead. All those who trust in Him lose their fear of death and find the faith, peace, and hope of which David writes.
Exchanging the fear of death for faith in Jesus Christ is a personal decision. David does not speak of the Lord as "our Shepherd," but as "my Shepherd." Have you come to grips with the reality of death as God's penalty for sin? Have you personally received Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God and as your Good Shepherd? If so, you will no longer be enslaved by the fear of death. The words of David in Psalm 23 no longer are his expression of faith, but yours as well.
It is with this faith that we can grieve today, but we will grieve with hope, if the Lord is our Shepherd, because He became the Lamb of God in our place. May this hope be yours in this hour of grief.