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In case some of you don’t know me I’ll start by introducing myself. My name is Matt and I attend church here at Blythwood. I also work for Light Patrol, which is a ministry of Toronto Youth for Christ that works with youth experiencing homelessness in Toronto. We go out onto the streets a couple of nights a week, bringing resources but also looking to connect with youth and show them that we care and that they aren’t alone. We also work with youth one on one, but no matter what we do we are always looking to build meaningful relationships with youth because we believe that this is the best context for helping support youth move towards personal wholeness, whether that looks like getting off the street, dealing with a drug habit, going back to school or reconnecting with family.
Blythwood graciously supports me in my work, and David asked me to share a bit about what I do. But then he also asked me to preach, and so thought I could roll it all into one since I wanted to base my sermon on what I have learned about God through my work at Light Patrol. And in case you are a little worried, I also went to seminary with David, so at least he knows I’m not going to teach any heresy, although it is perhaps telling that he isn’t here today and so has a level of plausible deniability if things go wrong.
But like I said, today I want to talk about something I have learned about God in the course of my work with Light Patrol. And when I talk about learning things about God I don’t mean it in the sense of learning about a subject at school, a dispassionate gathering of facts about an object or person I don’t know. I mean it in the way I still learn things about my wife Amanda, or the way I am learning things about my sons Jonah and Oliver. I am talking about learning in the context of a relationship, a growth in knowledge about the one you loved and by whom you are loved.
I also want to be clear that I don’t think I have some special understanding about God because of the work that I do. Following Jesus, no matter the context always involves growing in knowledge about God, or at least it should. But I can only speak out of my own experience, and I have to say that this job has often challenged me to reconsider much of what I thought I knew about God, a challenge that has usually occurred in the midst of really difficult or confusing situations. I’ve learned things that have surprised me, and things that I probably should have known but didn’t. In my work, I have faced, over and over again, the limits of my own knowledge, and made me aware in a very acute way of how much mystery there is when we talk about knowing God and his ways.
But I would say that one area where I have learned the most is in regards to God’s love. I think it’s fitting that God’s love is today’s focus because really, that’s what Pastor David has been speaking about this whole sermon series on 1 John, the contours and content of God’s love, and how that’s worked out in our lives. Last week he spoke about how God’s love was made manifest to us, that it went far beyond an idea or platitude but instead was and is exhibited in very concrete ways. And so today I want to talk about just one concrete way that this love has been worked out through history, and in my own work at Light Patrol, in the relentless pursuit of God’s goodness and steadfast love for all of humanity, which we see in the psalm we just read, Psalm 23.
I would think that for many in the congregation the metaphor of God as a shepherd might be a little foreign. It is certainly foreign to me, having never shepherded, and maybe that is why I find it surprising that there is such tenderness in this psalm. In fact, my limited experience with sheep would lead me to expect the opposite. A friend of ours owns a farm and for a couple years, her and her husband raised sheep. On one visit we actually went out into the fields and fed the sheep, and I can’t say that it was a particularly beautiful or tender event. In fact, I seem to remember that one of us made the mistake of standing between the sheep and their food, and were almost trampled. We had to watch where we walked so we didn’t end up stepping in...well, you know what. It wasn’t a very pastoral scene, and I wouldn’t say it led to a lot of tender feelings towards the sheep.
But when I read this psalm that’s what sticks out to me, the tenderness and care that the Lord, the good shepherd, shows David. This shepherd isn’t interested in just keeping his sheep alive; rather, he is totally invested in ensuring that his flock thrives. I researched shepherding in the ancient middle east and learned that shepherds would grow quite attached to their flocks, particularly if the shepherd owned the flock or was related to the owner. I suppose this should be expected since shepherds spent all day and all night with their animals and shared in many of the same hardships: scarce food, extreme weather, danger from predators. And this is the picture of God this psalm paints for us, the compassionate and caring shepherd, totally invested in the flourishing of his flock. There is an affectionate attachment here; there is love.
We can see this throughout the whole of Psalm 23, but I want to focus on 2 specific examples of this affectionate and loving care that we find in the psalm: God’s presence in the valley of the shadow of death (v. 4), and his pursuit of David (v. 6).
Psalm 23:4 - “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
We often understand this valley of the shadow of death to mean difficult times. When we lose our job or face an illness or some other type of challenge we say that we are in the valley, and draw comfort from this psalm, which reminds us that no matter what we go through that God has promised to be with us.
These kinds of experiences certainly are a type of darkness, in that they can shake our certainty, either in our plans or in God’s goodness, and often cause confusion and a feeling of isolation, much as darkness does. And we are completely right to remind ourselves of God’s promises, who has declared that nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:38, 39) and that he is with us until the very end (Matthew 28:20). However, I don’t think that these are the kinds of experiences that this phrase “valley of the shadow of death” is referring to. In the Bible, when this phrase “shadow of death” (also “deepest shadow”, “deep darkness”) occurs it is often describing a place of alienation or separation from God. For example, in Psalm 107:10 and 11 some of those who rebelled against God is described as sitting in the shadow of death (or “utter darkness.”). In Jeremiah 13:16 God will bring the shadow of death, the deepest darkness, upon Israel because they failed to give him glory. So too in Isaiah 9, where those who were humbled by God as a result of their rebellion are described as living in the land of the shadow of death, a land of deep darkness. In the Old Testament, only those whose relationship with God was disordered, bent out of its intended shape, live in the valley of the shadow of death.
Which is why Psalm 23 is so startling. David is declaring that even in the midst of those times, those experiences of alienation and separation from God, even in those moments he is sure of this shepherd God’s presence. It’s a statement of faith and an act of worship, to insist that the faithfulness of God is greater than his own unfaithfulness. All glory belongs to the one who will not abandon his flock even when they have done their best to abandon him. But how can this be true? What does this even look like?
I think the answer is found in verse 6, where David, with faith and trust, declares that God’s goodness and mercy, his hesed, his steadfast and faithful love, will follow him. Unfortunately, the word that is usually translated as “follow” in our Bibles doesn’t actually do justice to the Hebrew word. A much better translation of that word would be “pursue,” or even “hunt.” Surely your goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life. Surely your goodness and steadfast love will hunt me all the days of my life. What’s even more amazing is that this word is usually used to describe the actions of pillaging armies bent on destruction, or of covenant curses that will fall on Israel as a result of her unfaithfulness, as we see in Deuteronomy 28:45, where God warns Israel that.
“All these curses will come on you. They will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed because you did not obey the Lord your God and observe the commands and decrees he gave you.”
Sometimes the word is used when the two, pillaging armies and covenant curse, are combined, like in Isaiah 30:16 where as a result of their unfaithfulness Israel will be pursued, hunted, by a foreign nation intent on her destruction.
But in Psalm 23 David asserts the opposite. It is God’s faithful love and goodness, not violence or curse, that will hunt him down relentlessly. David was not unaware of his sin; this is the man who wrote Psalm 51, possibly the most honest reflection on one’s sin found in all of Scripture. And yet David is convinced that instead of the punishment and alienation his sins deserve, it will be God’s goodness and faithful love that hunts him down instead.
In this declaration of faith, David was simply giving voice to his own experience of God. If we had time to look closely at David’s life we would see that God’s goodness and faithful love did, indeed, pursue David, even when other things, like Saul’s murderous anger, was also in pursuit. And yet, in the end, it is God’s goodness and love that triumphs.
But he is also giving voice to one of the most dominant themes in all of Scripture. One way to see the Biblical story is as a story of God’s relentless pursuit of his creation. It’s woven into the story of Adam and Eve, who sin and in their shame hide from God, and yet God pursues them, finds them and, seeing their shame, covers their nakedness. We see it in the prophets, like, in Ezekiel 34 where God declares that he will search for and pursue Israel, who have been scattered as a result of the sinfulness of their leaders. We see it in Hosea, where the prophet is commanded to pursue his wife, in spite of her infidelity, as a living enactment of God’s pursuit of and faithfulness to Israel, in spite of her unfaithfulness to him. Look at what God says of his heart for Israel, even after she has been unfaithful to him:
“Therefore I am not going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
And speak tenderly to her.” Hosea 2:14
It’s the goodness and steadfast love of God pursuing the world, even in the midst of its sinful rejection of him.
Of course, all of Scripture points to Christ, and this pursuit finds its ultimate fulfillment in the life and death of God’s own Son, Jesus, the one who came to seek and to save what is lost, as it says in Luke 19:10. Look at how often Scripture describes Jesus’ ministry in terms of light shining in darkness. In John’s famous prologue, he describes Jesus as the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome. Zechariah, in Luke 1:78, 79, declares that the coming of Christ is like the rising of the sun, shining on those living in the shadow of death. Jesus, in Matthew 4:16, applies the words of Isaiah 9 to himself and calls himself the light that is now dawning on those living in the land of the shadow of death. Jesus Christ, the goodness and steadfast love of God made flesh and pursuing us into the valley of the shadow of death.
It’s a pursuit that is brought to completion on the cross. The cross, that place where the sin and rebellion of all of creation throughout all of time are brought to bear on the sinless Son of God. The place where we would expect to find only condemnation and judgment and curse and yet find the goodness and steadfast love of God. Surely goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our lives, even into the very valley of the shadow of death, that place where we have chosen death and curse and found God to be even there, becoming obedient to death in order that we might have life and blessing. God, pursuing us into that place of alienation and separation from him so that there, even there, he might be found. As Pastor David quoted last week the words of 1 John 4:10, “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Not that we loved God, but that he loved us and in that love pursued us with his goodness and steadfast love.
It’s a great mystery, one that I feel entirely inadequate to describe. But I know that I have experienced it in my own life, and I’ve seen it in others lives as well. I want to tell you a story about a young woman that Light Patrol worked with, because her story, even though it doesn’t end the way any of us at Light Patrol would have hoped, is to me a clear picture God’s relentless pursuit of us so that we might experience his goodness and steadfast love.
I’ll call this young woman Paula, although that’s not her real name. I met her soon after I started working at Light Patrol, and I actually don’t remember too much about her, to be honest, other than her appearance: torn rock shirts, short shorts, fishnet stockings. I didn’t speak with her much; I didn’t usually interact too much with the young women, since most of them have had awful experiences with men, and I wanted the RV to feel as safe for them as possible. She didn't come on the RV often, and the times she did come on she was pretty quiet and kept to herself, mostly.
But she did connect with one of our female outreach workers, and over the next couple of years that outreach worker did her best to reach out to Paula. Paula was living under the Gardiner, and this outreach worker would often go searching for her under there, hoping to find her and, if she did, trying to get Paula to come for coffee or a meal, trying to get her into a safer, or at least a warmer (or cooler, depending on the season) space, even if for just one hour. Paula was very tough; she was young but had probably been on the streets for a while, and so had learned to not be too trusting, and to not rely on anyone. Yet she was also incredibly vulnerable, a young female living on the streets, struggling with substance use, vulnerable to anyone who might want to take advantage of her. It broke my co-worker’s heart. She had a soft spot for her, and more than with anyone else we worked with, this co-worker went out of her way to reach out to her. But Paula wasn’t interested. Every invitation, whether it was to help her find housing, or simply to get a cup of coffee, was met with rejection.
Fast forward to last year. Another one of my co-workers visited the Gardiner, the encampment where many of the youth we work with live, and was told by some youth living there that Paula had been taken to the hospital. She visited her there, and for the first time Paula let down her guard. Paula told my coworker that she had been diagnosed with a very serious illness, connected with her drug use, that if not treated correctly would eventually kill her. While saddened by this news, my co-worker promised to support her in whatever way she needed.
Over the next few months, she would visit Paula in the hospital each week. She would bring her her favorite treat (an iced cap and Boston cream donut), and visit with her. They would talk, do art, and sometimes she would just sit with her in silence. Sometimes it seemed Paula only tolerated her company because she was bored or lonely, but others times Paula was genuinely excited to see her. On Valentine’s Day, and again at Easter, she gave Paula a card telling her how much God loved her. She was showing Paula, with her words and actions, that she was worth loving and being cared for.
The last time she met with Paula it was in the newly opened hospice for homeless individuals. The illness had progressed to the point where the only treatment Paula could receive was palliative. And yet, even in the midst of this sad news, there were glimmers of grace. The hospice was new and very clean and was probably the safest, cleanest, and calmest place Paula had lived in since my co-worker had met her. Paula mentioned how weird it was to be living inside, especially in a place where people genuinely cared about her and checked to see that she was OK. Somehow during that visit, they discussed a children’s book written by Max Lucado called You Are Special. I won’t get into the whole plot of the book, but the main message of it is God’s love for people, even after they have messed up, how he looks past the exterior to the heart and how special each person is to God. My co-worker planned to read it to her the next time they met.
Unfortunately, that time never came. Paula passed away before they were able to meet again. Instead, Light Patrol hosted a memorial for Paula, where they read this kid’s book they never got to read to her. They handed out felt hearts, as a reminder to look past people’s exteriors and see each person as a precious and unique creation of God, dearly loved by him. People, friends of Paula’s, who we had never heard pray, prayed out loud. In the midst of grief, there was grace and beauty.
It was obviously a difficult time for the Light Patrol team. It was a difficult time for me. How was I to understand Paula’s life? Where was God? How could things end so tragically when we were trying too hard? And yet as I reflected God helped me see what I have been talking about today, all the ways that his goodness and steadfast love pursued Paula, even into the valley of the shadow of death. It was in the years that my co-worker went under the Gardiner, looking for her, even when her invitations were rejected over and over again. It was in the weekly visits to the hospital room with her favorite treats. It was writing her cards that told her how valuable she was. It was showing up even after Paula had been rude or mean. It was buying a kid’s book so that she might hear, again, that God’s love was greater than any sin. And it spilled over into the lives of those who knew her when, in the midst of our own grief, we held a memorial for this young woman, and used the opportunity to tell all her friends the same thing we told her: that they are valuable and that they are loved.
God pursued Paula; he hunted her with his goodness and steadfast love, and he blessed her with it to the extent that she allowed herself to be blessed. And he did it through Light Patrol, and I am sure others that we don’t know about. I don’t say this to brag about what we did, but to point out a simple truth, that God’s loving pursuit of his creation happens most often through those people who have said yes to God’s yes. We can see it all through salvation history: Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and culminates in Jesus, the Word made flesh who made his dwelling among us in order to us to bring us back to himself. And Jesus’ work is not complete, even though he now reigns with his Father in heaven. It continues through the church, his body, that group of individuals who have responded to his loving pursuit of them, empowered by his Spirit and reflecting the image and glory of God so that those “living in darkness (would) see a great light.”
And we here at Blythwood are just one local expression of God’s eternal longing and pursuit. We can see it in OOTC, the summer camp, the Wednesday drop in, our connection with Horizons. All of these, I think, are examples of God’s loving pursuit of his creation. They are concrete ways that God’s longing for the reconciliation of all of creation to himself puts on flesh, in the hands that make the dinners at OOTC, the smiles of the counsellors at the summer camp, the kind word at the Wednesday drop in. But it’s not just in the things we do for those who may not yet know Christ. It’s also in the things we do for each other, right here, the different parts of the body caring for each other. It’s in the way we pray for each other, visit one another, bless one another. Because God’s pursuit of us doesn’t stop when we say yes to him. The only thing that changes is that maybe we become a little easier to catch.
I want to finish by encouraging you. God, with his goodness and steadfast love, is hunting you, even now. May we always have eyes to see that this is so. May we trust that the light of Christ has forever broken the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death, and may that truth give us courage and hope. And may we never tire of being God’s body in this world, of pursuing others with his goodness and love, a goodness and love that we have experienced because we know that God longs to bless all whom we may encounter. Amen.