The Funeral of Melvin W. Keber, June 30, 2003
Psalm 23, Ezekiel 37
Our Old Testament reading this morning is one of the great prophecies of Ezekiel. Ezekiel, remember, was a prophet of the Lord among the people of Israel who had been taken into captivity into Babylon. They had been taken out of their land because of their disobedience to the Lord. Part of that responsibility fell to their leaders, their kings and priests, who had not led the people in the way of righteousness, in God’s way, and instead had turned to other gods and other countries to help them. They had placed their own needs ahead of the needs of those whom they were called to serve. They were not the “shepherds” they should have been to God’s people. And God was calling them to account. They would be punished, God said.
But then, the Lord spoke a word of comfort to the people. “I myself will search for my sheep… I will rescue them… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. Then you my people will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them . I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.”
Jesus was the fulfillment of this prophecy of the Lord. In Jesus, God himself IS the shepherd for the sheep. As Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.”
Both these passages are based upon an even earlier passage, a Psalm where David, the great inspired by God, wrote the words of Psalm 23.
There are many Psalms we know well. Psalm 119, for example, we know as the longest Psalm, but also because of its great statements concerning the word of God. The church father from the fourth century, Augustine, is said to have had a dream in which the 119th Psalm rose up as the tree of life in the midst of the Paradise of God. A nineteenth century writer commented that if that was the case, then Psalm 23 should be considered the fairest flower that grows around that tree.
Let us speak this word of God together, you may find it on the back of your worship folder.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
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.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
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.
Thus far, the Word of the Lord.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
My dear friends in Christ, especially Arlyn:
The 23rd Psalm, the psalm of David, down through the centuries has been the most cherished and most loved of all the psalms by the Christian people. And so it was with Mel. The imagery of the psalm is drawn from the early scenes of David’s life. He had been a shepherd, and he knew by experience the tender feeling which a true shepherd has for his sheep. He called God his shepherd, and in so doing he voices his confidence in God’s care and protection—in the midst of danger and death he is safe. No harm shall befall him. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” he says, “I will fear no evil. For Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”
The psalmist realized that he must descend into the valley of the shadow of death. He realized this because of the fact that we all must be aware of, that we all must descend into the valley of the shadow of death. There is no escape from it. It will come to all of us at last. For Scripture itself says, “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. ” It also says, “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment. The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span a is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” The Christian knows that Christ has redeemed him from eternal death, but he knows just as surely that there is no escape for him from the temporal death. He must die, in order that his body may rise again in a new body, transformed and glorified and fitted to be the eternal abode of the glorified soul.
And as we know that we must all descend into the valley of the shadow of death, and that we descend by different paths and at different times, yet all things are in God’s hands, and that the path and the time are determined by the Shepherd. He leads us. Our times are in His hands. He has numbered even the hairs of our heads. The time when He will lead us into the valley may be much nearer than we think, Who can tell what even a day may bring? Three Sundays ago Mel was talking to me about how often he was walking and what he was doing in physical therapy. Who among us imagined that we would assemble here so soon. And while today we are well. Tomorrow we may be the ones to lie here. Who knows how near his end may be? How many persons are today planning for long years in the future? But will they live to carry out their plans? God alone knows.
The end of our lives may come, and will come with solemn prospect for us all. It will mean the leaving of this life, the leaving of the things that we wish to do, the tasks that still remain undone; work that we would like to finish, things that we would like to do, and yet we must leave them undone and we must go.
And it means a going forth alone. Our friends and our relatives may not accompany us on our journey. We go through the valley of the shadow of death, and there we go to meet our eternal destiny. When death comes the period of probation is over. The time allotted to us for hearing and obeying the Gospel is passed. The time for eternal reward or retribution is at hand. We descend into the valley. In the valley is the transition of eternal joy and woe. With this our destiny is determined forever. We go to hear Christ say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world,” or hear Him say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Surely death is a solemn and momentous event. All the changes of this earthly life are insignificant by comparison with the change which we call death.
But let us look again at the psalm. We see that David does not say “the valley of death,” but he says “the valley of the shadow of death.” This is not the valley of dry bones, this not the picture of a people who have no hope and no land. For the believer there is no death. There is only the shadow of death. Since Jesus has died and risen again, death is robbed of its sting and the grave of its victory. What we call death is only the entrance upon a new and glorious life above. Trusting in Jesus, the believer is able to say “I WOULD NOT LIVE ALWAYS, NO, WELCOME THE TOMB SINCE JESUS HAS LAIN THERE, I DREAD NOT ITS GLOOM.” Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, deathhas become the portal to eternal bliss. It is only a sleep with a blessed awakening. It is a falling asleep amid the toil and turmoil of earth to awake amid the rest and peace of heaven. Death is only a shadow of what it would have been without Christ and what it is for those who are living without Christ in this world.
What a comfort this is to the dying Christian. It is not death that comes upon him but the shadow of death. It is only a change for the better, a laying aside of mortality to put on immortality. When the trumpet shall sound the dead shall be raised incorruptible, the soul shall be reunited with a glorified body, and transformed in body and soul the believer shall enter in and dwell with Christ forever.
What a comfort this is to all of us who grieve. We see our dear ones passing away, but we know that he is falling asleep in the Lord, and that this sleep is a blessed one. The waking shall be in eternal joy, for St. Paul tells us, “I WOULD NOT HAVE YOU BE IGNORANT BRETHREN, CONCERNING THEM WHICH ARE ASLEEP, THAT YE SORROW NOT, EVEN AS OTHER WHICH HAVE NO HOPE, FOR IF WE BELIEVE THAT JESUS CHRIST DIED AND ROSE AGAIN EVEN SO THEM ALSO WHICH SLEEP IN CHRIST WILL GOD BRING WITH HIM. NOW IS CHRIST RISEN FROM THE DEAD, AND BECOME THE FIRST FRUITS OF THEM THAT SLEEP. FOR AS IN ADAM ALL DIE, EVEN SO IN CHRIST SHALL ALL BE MADE ALIVE. BUT EVERY MAN IN HIS OWN ORDER — CHRIST, THE FIRST FRUITS, AFTERWARDS THEY THAT ARE CHRIST’S AT HIS COMING. As we’ve borne the image of the earthly, so shall we also bear the image of the heavenly.
This then is the confidence of the psalmist. So too we may with confidence contemplate our eventual and certain death. For he says, “THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL.” And why? Because, “THOUGH ART WITH ME. THY ROD AND THY STAFF THEY COMFORT ME.”
In the darkest and loneliest valley the sheep is safe because the shepherd is with it, guarding it from danger and protecting it from harm. Mel is safe in death, because God is with him and keeping him. Mel goes forth alone — yet not alone, for the Good Shepherd is with him to guard him with his rod and staff. The Good Shepherd, who is with his sheep, also certainly will not forsake us in the hour of our greatest need. He will uphold the believer, will guide us in safety to our heavenly home. As the end approaches, Our Good Shepherd says to you and me and each believer: “FEAR NOT, FOR I AM WITH THEE, BE NOT DISMAYED, FOR I AM THY GOD. I WILL STRENGTHEN THEE, YES I WILL HELP THEE, MORE THAN THAT, I WILL UPHOLD THEE WITH THE RIGHT HAND OF MY RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
God brought Ezekiel to the valley of death and asked him, “Son of man, can these bones live.” You and I are lead through the valley of the shadow of death, and we hear the tender voice of our Shepherd saying, “FOR I HAVE REDEEMED THEE; I HAVE CALLED THEE BY THY NAME; THOU ART MINE. WHEN THOU PASSETH THROUGH THE WATERS, I WILL BE WITH THEE; AND THROUGH THE RIVERS, THEY SHALL NOT OVERFLOW THEE, FOR I AM THE LORD, THY GOD, THE HOLY ONE OF ISRAEL, THY SAVIOR.,’
Yes, the Christian must descend into the valley, but it is not the valley of death and desolation that we so richly deserve on account of our sin. The Christian is lead by his Savior into the valley of the shadow of death, but he fears not, for he knows Christ is with him and keeps him in safety as “THY ROD AND THY STAFF, THEY COMFORT ME.” The Shepherd leads his sheep through the dark valley, but he does so only in order that he may bring his sheep to his heavenly fold to feed in green pastures and to rest beside the still waters. For the relation between the Shepherd and his sheep is a dear and tender abiding relation. Christ says, “MY SHEEP HEAR MY VOICE AND I KNOW THEM, AND THEY FOLLOW ME, AND I GIVE UNTO THEM ETERNAL LIFE, AND THEY SHALL NEVER PERISH, NEITHER SHALL ANY MAN PLUCK THEM OUT OF MY HAND.” Let the blessed truths of the our texts comfort you, my sorrowing friends, in this your hour of bereavement. You know that Clara was a believer, a sheep of Christ’s flock. You were witnesses of her faith and Christian patience. She has gone into the valley, but it is only the valley of the shadow of death, and she has gone, not alone, but accompanied and guarded by her Shepherd. The darkness of the valley was illuminated for her by faith. Its terrors were removed by the comforting presence of the Shepherd with his rod and staff. An you have the blessed consolation that after her days of suffering she is now at rest, a rest not merely of the body, but the rest of the people of God, the rest of those who have fallen asleep in Christ.
God’s ways are not our ways, neither are His thoughts our thoughts. We cannot understand the mystery of His dealings, nor explain why this heavy blow has fallen upon us. But this we know, that God is love and that in all his dealings with His children He is guided by love. All things, even the loss and grief you now experience, shall work for your good, just as it will work together for good to all that love God. We know that even as the Shepherd’s rod and staff comfort the believer as he descends into the valley, so they also comfort those of His flock who remain behind under the shadow of affliction and grief. The Good Shepherd would not leave you comfortless Arlyn, but will strengthen and uphold you. Cling firmly to Him as your Savior and trust in Him as your loving Shepherd, then He will be able to say, even amid your tears, “HE DOETH ALL THINGS WELL,” and though now your eyes are hidden and you cannot penetrate the mystery of His dealings with you, some day you shall know and understand that all has been done with love and wisdom. “FOR NOW WE SEE THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY, BUT THEN FACE TO FACE. NOW WE KNOW IN PART, BUT THEN WE SHALL KNOW, EVEN AS WE ALSO ARE KNOWN.” Amen.
And now may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the true faith which is Christ Jesus. Amen.