‘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.’ (Psalm 23:4 KJV)
Dear Christian friends,
‘The valley of the shadow of death’ is a useful way of understanding what’s going on in our world this week.
Our week began on Sunday morning as we delighted in the good news of Christ’s resurrection. By Sunday evening, however, a dark shadow came over us as we heard about the deadly bombings in Sri Lanka, which particularly targeted Christians celebrating Easter, just as we had done a few hours earlier. The cloud grew darker as the number of bombs, deaths, and injuries grew. This does not feel far away from us, our colleagues, our friends and our families. The cloud is particularly worrisome so soon after the terrible massacre in Christchurch just a few weeks ago.
In Sri Lanka, a society toughened by decades of civil war, life will continue in the midst of tragedy. Australians and New Zealanders will soon divert their attention to Anzac Day. Coming so soon after Easter, there is tension between our faith in the unending joy of Christ and the ongoing experience of terror and war. How can we reconcile these conflicting realities?
There’s no easy answer. Humans are complex. We live in continual contradiction. It’s not as though we are on some straight, broad highway to heaven. For a century or two, during the age of science, we imagined that we were on a continuous, self-propelled trajectory of onward and upward progress. We would solve our problems and everything would inevitably get better. But now, in the 21st century, things feel different, as we are drawn back to more primitive, brutal realities which centuries of advancement in science and civilisation have not solved at the source.
The source, of course, is who we are – our human nature – and the nature of the world itself. Things are not as God intended them to be. That which he created and called ‘good’ is corrupted, and humans are the source of that corruption. We have made ourselves ‘gods’, placing ourselves at the centre of the universe. The spiral of violence, reprisal and zealotry reveals our corrupted inner nature. As long as we live in this valley it’s a miracle how much peace and joy we actually do experience. That’s significant for Lutherans, as we believe that, no matter what our differences, we must strive to live together peaceably. Writing about the 10 commandments, Luther said, ‘we shall have our hands full to keep these commandments, practicing gentleness, patience, love toward enemies, chastity, kindness, etc.’ (Luther’s Large Catechism, Conclusion to the Ten Commandments) When our hands are full doing God’s good works, then we have no time or thought for evil.
Another way of describing our paradox is the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. We live in two realities. The resurrection is real. God has cured our terminal disease, and raised us from death. Our new life is eternal. But we still live in time, in this world and things here aren’t complete. So for now we still suffer, and the world suffers with us. What’s more, God also suffers, as we heard, once again, during Holy Week. In recent decades Western Christians have mimicked the world’s individualism by strongly emphasising personal salvation – ‘me and Jesus’ – but God’s truth is much bigger than that. Faith is for the world. As St John confesses, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16 NRSV)
On Thursday we will remember those who gave their lives in sacrifice for their countries in war. Anzac Day is a largely military event, but it does not glorify war. It’s a simple fact that we enjoy substantial freedoms because of the sacrifices made by service personnel and conscripts when our countries were at risk. Our freedom rests on what they have done for us, and that fact alone should fill us with humility and gratitude. Yet we want to show that gratitude without glorifying war itself, the motives that stimulate such aggression, or the weaponry which can kill so many. This is an important yet delicate distinction for Christians, who believe that Christ loves the world and died, not only for us, but also for our enemies. In fact, he died especially for those who have no love for him, or for us, for that matter.
And to those men and women who have served or still serve in the Defence Forces, thank you. Very few of us in civilian life know the sacrifices you make, and how much those sacrifices cost you and your families. You pay a big price, sometimes including your mental and physical health, yet you lay down your life for us, and we are grateful. So we honour you this Anzac Day, and we pledge to support you in prayer and through living diligently and honourably as citizens of the society you protect. I pray we can be worthy of you.
God bless each of us this week as we pass through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. We will remain confident because our week began with the resurrection. As the days pass we may be afraid sometimes, just as Jesus’ own disciples were afraid (see Mark 16:8), but our future is secure through the sacrifice of God’s only Son. Because of him the valley of the shadow of death will not rob us of our safety or our life.
Pastor John Henderson
Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand
Adelaide, 24 April 2019