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James Merritt - The Last Walk

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    James Merritt - The Last Walk
TOPICS: Pitch Perfect, Death

If you're a dad, you'll really appreciate the story I'm about to share with you. The name is Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff. I'm sure you probably haven't heard of him but he is Professor Emeritus our Philosophical Theology at Yale University. That outta tell you all you need to know. He is a widely respected author, he's a philosopher, he's a teacher. His son tragically died at the age of 25 in a mountain climbing accident. So if you're a dad, you can kind of resonate with this. You can imagine how devastated he was and he later wrote about this experience in a book and he made this observation. "When we have overcome absence with phone calls, winglessness with airplanes, summer heat with air conditioning, when we've overcome all these and much more besides, then there will abide two things with which we must cope, the evil in our hearts and death".

Those are two things that all of us from all walks of life have to cope with. It doesn't matter whether you're a Caucasian, African-American, Asian, Hispanic. It doesn't matter whether you're rich or poor, doesn't matter if you have a PhD or you can't read a word. Those two things don't play any favorites, they come to all of us. They're universal. Nobody can deny that there's evil in the human heart and certainly nobody can deny that we're all going to die. Israel's greatest king, a man by the name of David, agreed with Dr. Wolterstorff 100%. We're in a series we're calling Pitch Perfect. We're in the book of Psalms, the 23rd Psalm. I invite you to turn to that where you're watching right now, we're in the fourth verse today and there's this one stanza that echoes the good professor right on key. He says exactly the same thing thousands of years ago.

Listen to what he wrote. "Even though I walk through the valley of shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me". David hits us with two heavy words, evil and death and too often as we know, those words do go together. We face evil every day and one day we're all going to face death and between those two words is that word, fear. Now I'll be honest with you. I find very few people who will admit they're afraid of death. As a matter of fact, most people will say, well, I'm not afraid to die, I'm not afraid of death and I believe most people are being honest. I can honestly say to you, I'm not afraid to die but I think if we were all honest, we would say, there is this fear of the unknown of death because let's face it, we only get to do it one time and we don't know what it's like until we do it and then we don't ever get to do it again.

The eminent philosopher, the great brilliant philosopher, Jerry Seinfeld. He said this, "According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking and number two is death. That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy". Now that may be true but whether or not you fear death, you do have to face it and here's the cold hard truth. When we face death, we're basically going to face it one of two ways, with hope or without hope. You'll face it hopeful or you'll face it hopeless. Either we believe in our hearts that this life is all there is or there's more to life than this life.

Now, I wanna be very candid. Particularly if you're not a believer, if you're a skeptic, you're not into this Christian business. Let me tell you why I believe everybody should at least stop and think and consider Christianity because I don't know of any faith, any religion, any philosophy, any worldview, any spiritual concept that gives more hope for death and more help for evil than Christianity because if this verse is true, if what David wrote is true, to rephrase Winston Churchill, death is not the end, it's not even the beginning of the end. It's just the end of the beginning. I like to walk, Teresa and I like to walk our neighborhood.

One of these days, we're all going to take what I call the last walk and here's the bad news. Humanly speaking, you have to take that walk by yourself. Nobody can take it with you. It's the walk with death. We don't know where, we don't know when, we don't know how but we're going to take that walk. So what I wanna do today, let's do what David did. Let's look ahead to what that walk could be like and where that walk could lead because here's the great news. If you know the God of life and death, the last walk you take will be the best walk you'll ever take. Here's what David says. He says, number one, we walk to the prospect of death. Every morning when you get up, you're walking closer and closer to death. Every morning when you get up, you're taking a step closer to death. So David says this, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil".

Now you may not know this but I've been to Israel many times and there's actually a valley in Israel that's called the valley of the shadow of death. It's a steep, dark, narrow canyon that's located about halfway between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. This canyon, this valley is so dark that the sun can only reach it when it's directly overhead. As a matter of fact, this verse actually literally says, though I walk through the valley of deep darkness. I imagine David had been through that valley many times and it's so fascinating to me that David compares death to walking through a valley of deep darkness and there's no doubt we're going to walk through that valley. It's kind of strange. We have a little Boston Terrier, her name is Porky. Porky's 10 years old. She's basically blind, she has a lot of joint trouble now and frankly, she's probably beginning that process of dying.

Now, here's the strange thing. That little dog does not know she's dying but I know she's dying and I know I'm dying. You know you're dying and the strange thing is human beings are the only creatures on earth that realize they're going to die and we are. As a matter of fact, that word though, even though I walk, should be better translated, when because death is not a question of whether, it is a question of when. Now keep this in mind. All we're talking about this entire series is a shepherd and a sheep and if you were a shepherd back in the day, you would really appreciate what David is saying here because there was a certain time of the year when shepherds would lead their sheep from the lowlands up to the highlands and the reason they would do that is because when it got hot, the snow on top of the mountain would begin to melt and it would give fresh water and fresh grass where the sheep could eat and drink.

So there would be that certain time of the year where the shepherd would know, all right, it's time to take the sheep from the lowlands to the highlands, down through the valley, up to the mountain because down where they'd been for all these months, the grass is now barren because of the summer sun, water has dried up. So they would take them up to the highlands where it was cooler, where it was more refreshing. So the shepherd would lovingly guide the sheep through the valley, up to the mountain top, where they could lie down aside green pastures and rest beside still waters. Now there's a reason why the shepherd always took the sheep through the valley because the valley was the only route to get to the mountain top. The valley was the only route to get to higher ground. Every mountain has its valleys.

If you've got mountains, you've automatically got valleys and most of the time, if not all the time, the best route and sometimes the only route to the top of the mountain is to go through the valley. That's why David said, I walk through the valley. Now notice he doesn't run through the valley, he doesn't run away from the valley, he can't go over it, can't go around it, can't go under it. He has to go through it but here's what's interesting. He's in no hurry. He said, I walk through the valley. Now a valley is not a dead end street. It is not a culdesac. You know what a valley is? Think about it this way. A valley is simply a tunnel that is open at both ends. That's what a valley is. It has an entrance, it has an exit. Now listen to this next statement. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world".

You say, what's that got to do with the valley? Well, once you enter into the tunnel of death, listen, here's the great news, you ready? Once you enter into the tunnel of death, if you know that shepherd, if He is your Lord, there's a light at the end of that tunnel and that light is Jesus. Now listen, David is not walking through the valley of death, he's walking through the valley of the shadow of death. You know what a shadow is, right? A shadow is an image without any substance. See in real sense, if you're a follower of Jesus, this is such great news. If you're a follower of Jesus, you will never face death. You'll only face the shadow of death. That's why David could say, "Even though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," because I'm not really facing death, I'm just facing the shadow of death.

There was a great Presbyterian preacher who lived many years ago. True story. He had three young children and his wife, their mother unexpectedly died, all of a sudden just died. Wasn't even sick but she died. He was driving his children to the funeral service, which he was going to preach and they came to a stop light. When they came to that stop light, they were all just so overwhelmed with grief. The kids were in the backseat, he's in the front seat. The kids are crying, he's crying and about that time, this huge tractor trailer pulls up right beside them and it cast a shadow over their car. With their dad being a preacher, being a pastor, realized this is a teachable moment. So he turned around to the back seat where the kids were and he said, "Kids, look at that truck, now look at the shadow". He said, "Which would you rather run over you, the truck or the shadow"?

Well, his youngest little boy was only five years old. His little boy said, "Daddy, I'd rather the shadow run over us because shadows can't hurt anybody," and then that dad said this, "Kids, I want you to remember something. Death is just like that truck but the only thing that will ever touch you is the shadow of that truck. Do you know why"? They said, "Why daddy"? He said, "Because the truck ran over Jesus and the only thing that was left after he ran over Jesus was the shadow of that truck". That's exactly what David was saying. David was saying, death is just a shadow of its former self because of a risen Lord that has conquered death once and for all but here's the truth. We walk to the prospect of death. So what happens when you get there? We don't know when, don't know where, don't know how, maybe today may be tomorrow but it's coming and all of a sudden, you find yourself in the tunnel, you find yourself in the valley. Then what?

Now watch this. David says, we not only walked to the prospect of death. He says, when we do, we walk in the presence of the Lord. We walk in the presence of the Lord. David is walking confidently to the prospect of death. No fear of any evil, whether it comes to life or death. How could he do that? How can he be so confident? How can he be so bold? How could he be so calm? Because of four words, here they are. "You are with me". Now, I want you to notice the shift in David's vocabulary in the beginning of this Psalm up to this point because up until now, if you read that psalm, go back to the first verse and read the first, three verses, you and I are the audience. He's talking to us and he's talking about God. God has been the topic so we read the verses this way. "The Lord is my shepherd," third person. "He makes me lie down," third person. "He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness".

It's all in the third person, it's always about God. So he's talking about the shepherd, he's talking to us. God is listening but in verse four, he changes. He moves from the third person to the second person. He's no longer talking about the shepherd, he's talking to the shepherd. He was talking to us and God was listening. Now he's talking to God and we're listening. He said, "You are with me". See, David knew that sheep never ever go through valleys alone. You know why? You know why sheep don't go through valleys alone? They'll never make it to the mountaintop. They'll never make it through the valley. You know why? They'll die, they're literally defenseless and the shepherd is always the security and the supply and the safety of the sheep. Remember, we're walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Let me go back to that word shadow for just a moment. Have you ever thought about this? I'm looking at my shadow right now. I'm looking on the floor, I see my shadow. You know what that tells me? I'm surrounded by light. You cannot have a shadow if you don't have light. Anytime there's a shadow, there's a light. Have you ever heard of people who are afraid of their own shadows? If you're one of those kinds of people, you're skiddish, you're nervous. You're afraid of everything. You're afraid of your own shadow. The next time you get scared of your own shadow, let me tell you what to do. All you have to do if you're afraid of your shadow is real simple. Turn your back on your shadow and just look to the light. Guess what happens? The moment you turn your back on the shadow and look to the light, you're now looking at the light before you and the shadow falls behind you.

By the way, let me tell you another great thing about a shadow. If you ever see your shadow, then you already automatically know something else has to be true. You're not walking in darkness, you're walking in light because you can't see your shadow if you're in complete darkness. So anytime I see my shadow, I know I'm walking in light. That's why it's always better for the sheep to be in the valley with the shepherd than to be on the mountain top without the shepherds. Those four words are always true. David said, "You are with me". Those words are always 100% true. No matter where I am, God is always with me. No matter what I'm doing, God is always with me. If nature runs its course, if things go like I think they're supposed to go and will go, one of these days, I'm gonna leave my wife.

One of these days, I'm gonna leave my boys. One of these days, I'm gonna leave my grandchildren but God will never leave me. God will always be with me. No matter where you are, no matter what you're doing. If you know the shepherd, He is always with you. He will never leave you. See, when you leave this earth, you don't leave God's presence. You take God's presence with you because wherever you go, He is the good shepherd. Now let me tell you something that's true about a shepherd. This next thing I'm about to say will be worth you listening today, you ready? A shepherd will never lead the sheep where He has not already been. He will never lead the sheep where He has not already been. I'm gonna tell you something that I have preached all of my life and I still don't understand it.

I'm gonna tell you something I have preached all of my life and I believe it with all of my being but I still get my mind around it. I'm gonna tell you something I've preached all of my life and I will never deny it and you can't make me deny, you could kill me before I would but I still sometimes really don't get it. You ready for this? This shepherd, this God himself went before we through the valley of the shadow of death, he did it. He went through the valley of the shadow of death. That same valley that one day we're going to go through, He's going to go through it but he came out on the other side. Matter of fact, he came physically from the dead and do you know why, you're ready for this? Because darkness can't hold light, light always conquers darkness. Jesus is the light of the world, who right now is staying in us, who's shinning before us, who is standing with us. That's why no believer ever dies alone.

I was reading the other day about a sad story, really about a young mother who got the coronavirus and she died. Her family could not visit her and they said she died alone. I was reading that on online the other day and I thought to myself, not if she knew Jesus. If you are a believer, if you know the shepherd, you never die alone. God is always with us. So yes, we walk to the prospect of death. Don't know when, where or how but one day, I mean, in the blink of an eye, you're in the tunnel, you're in the vision, you're in the valley but we walk in the presence of the Lord because I'm telling you, I believe more than even in this life, the moment you take your breath, your last breath, you're gonna experience the presence of the shepherd and presence of God like you've never felt it before but it gets even better.

As we walk to the prospect of death, as we walk in the presence of the Lord, here's why we don't have to fear any evil. Watch this. We walk with the protection of the shepherd. See, there are two bookings to our days which is why we should never fear life or death. Never fear anything in life or fear anything after life. Never fear what we're going through in life or even in death because not only do we have the presence of the Lord, we have the protection of the shepherd. Listen to what he says. He says, "Your rod and your staff, they comfort me". Now, a shepherd always carried two things. He never went anywhere without these two things, never. He always had a rod and he always had a staff. Now, a shepherd carried a rod because when a shepherd began to guide his flock, he would go into the bush.

Here's what he would do. He would cut down a young sapling and he would carve it and he would whittle it with great care and then he would take the enlarged base of that sampling, this base right here, where the trunk would join the root. He would shape it into this smooth, rounded head of hardwood. It'd be anywhere from one to three feet long, something about like this and it would be shaped to fit the shepherd's hand perfectly. He could just walk, it was very easy to walk with and he never ever let it go. It was always in his hand. That rod became an extension of the shepherd's right arm. It was a symbol of strength and a symbol of power.

Now, what was the purpose of the rod? It only had one purpose. The purpose of the rod was to guard the sheep, to make sure that no danger came to the sheep. Matter of fact, sometimes the shepherd would take that rod and he would go to the smooth part. He would drop pieces of metal into that knob and just think about it. With this weapon, he could kill bears, lions, wolves, snakes, any kind of wild animal at all and whenever the sheep would see that rod, there'd be this calmness, they'd be this piece because they knew that shepherd could protect them from any evil. They knew that as long as the shepherd was there and he had his rod, they would always be protected but then the shepherd had a staff.

Now where the rod was to guard the sheep, the staff was to guide the sheep. The rod was to protect the sheep, the staff was to direct the sheep. I mean, I know you know this. This is the universal symbol of a shepherd. This is the major tool of a shepherd. This is what identifies someone as a shepherd. Nobody in the world has these tools as a professional except for shepherd. Nobody caries a rod, nobody caries a staff 24/7 except a shepherd. Nobody does that, only a shepherd does that. Here's what happened. This shepherd would go to a very young sapling while it was green. He would cut that sapling down. It was green, it was kind of pliable, it was flexible and he would bend the top of that staff or he would soak it in water and he would bend the top of that staff to form a crook. Then he would take it out and let it dry and get hard and it would be just the right size, just perfect where he could reach the neck of that sheep.

If that sheep started to wander off and he can pull that sheet back into the flock or sometimes, he could just take the tip of that staff. If he saw a sheet wandering off, he could just take the side of that staff and just put it to the side of that sheep and just gently guide it back and keep that sheep in line and keep that sheep close to the flock. It was about this long, about four or five feet long and he was an expert at handling that staff and he needed it because when sheep were going up the side of a mountain, they'd be close to a dangerous path or they'd be on a dangerous path and a difficult path and they could easily fall off. Again, here goes the sheep. He'd take maybe the sheep and he'd guide that sheep back. Nope, you can't go that way.

Now if the sheep were stubborn and trust me, sheep are stubborn. If the sheep were stubborn, he could just hook the crook of this staff around the sheep's neck and literally just pull him back into line because sometimes the sheep would wander off. They just didn't know any better. It was the shepherd's job to make sure that they all stayed together. This was the tool that he would use to do that. Sometimes the sheep, he can't watch them all the time at every moment. Sometimes that sheep might slip. He might slip over steep ravine or he might get tangled in a thorn bush or he might stumble into a rocky creek bed and then that shepherd would just very gently, very expertly take this crook. He put it under the belly of that lamb or that sheep. He gently pulled that sheep up or sometimes maybe by the nape of the neck and he'd pull him back into the fold. He would make sure that that sheep was taken care of and that that sheep was protected.

Now, here's the point, here's what David was saying. If you walk with God through your life, if you follow Jesus as your shepherd, if you wanna be one of his sheep, he says, I'll walk with you through life and I'll walk with you in death and you don't have to fear anything on either side of the valley because I've got a rod that's gonna protect you and I've got a shepherd's crook that's going to direct you. One of my favorite verses in the book of Psalms is Psalm 116:15. Here's what it says. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His faithful servants". I want you to think about that. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His faithful servants". By the way, the word precious there, it doesn't mean so much valuable. That word literally means carefully attended to and watched over.

See, here's the beautiful picture. One of these days, I'm going to take that last walk and one of these days, you're going to take that last walk but when you do it will be in God's time, it will be in God's sight, it will be with God's presence and it will be in God's protection. I wanna close with this. This will be worth the whole price of admission. A thousand years after David wrote these words, another Bethlehem shepherd came along. He was called the good shepherd, He said this. He said, "My father's house has many rooms. If that were not so, would I have told you that I'm going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you," now listen to this. "I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am".

I want you to listen to what Jesus just said. You talk about a promise. He said, I'm leaving you right now. By the way, you'll still have a shepherd. He's the Holy spirit but I'm leaving you right now. I'm gonna prepare a place for you but he said, when it's time for you to leave this earth and come home, I'm going to come back and take you to be with me. If you don't think your death is a big deal to Jesus, if you don't think your death is precious in the eyes of God, think about it this way. Jesus doesn't delegate this task to anybody else. He says, when it's time for you to cross the valley, He said, I'll come get you. When it's time for you to enter into that tunnel, he says, when it's time for you to come home, I'm personally going to come and pick you up.

The Lord may send a missionary to preach to you, He may send a teacher to guide you, He may send a doctor to heal you, He may send a friend to encourage you but He doesn't send anybody to take you home. He doesn't send anybody to walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death. He says, you know what? I'm reserving that job for myself, I'm going to do it with you. So one day when we take that last walk to death, we're going to enter into this valley of deep darkness but the light of the world will be with us. His rod will guard us, his staff will guide us and oh, by the way, it's a really short walk. It's only two steps. One step, you leave this world and the next step you enter His world and because of Jesus, that last walk will be the best walk you've ever taken.

Would you just bow your heads where you are right now and let me just say a word to a special group of people. One of two things is true. You either know about the shepherd or you know about him and you know him. I just wonder who's listening to me today and God forbid, if today had been the day, if last night had been the night you had entered into the valley of the shadow of death, you would not have had a light to guide you. You would have walked through that valley by yourself and you would have come out and you would have walked out into an eternity without a shepherd, without the God who made you and the God that loved you.

Jesus Christ, the good shepherd died for his sheep. He gave His life, literally gave His life and came back from the grave. So the one thing we never have to fear any more ever is death. I'm gonna tell you the mark of a true Christian. A true Christian is not someone who says they're ready to die. A lot of people say they're ready to die and not a Christian. A true Christian is someone who knows they're ready to die for the right reason. You don't why I'm ready to die, You know why I don't fear death and I really don't? I don't know what it's like, I don't know what those two steps are like so I'm gonna take them one time, that I don't know but I'll tell you what I do know. I do know the moment that I take that first step, He will be with me, His rod and His staff, they'll comfort me and the next step I take will be into the presence of God like I've never experienced it before.

Some of you can't say that if you're honest. You may have been baptized, you may have joined the church, you may be religious but you don't know this shepherd. You've never trusted in this shepherd. I just wanna give you a chance to do it right now. Would you just right now if you would say, you know what, pastor, that's what I want. I don't know when I'm gonna walk through that door. Nobody does but I wanna ready to take that step and know that the hand of God will take me. The rod and the staff will protect me and guide me and He'll be with me all the way to the end. Then just tell Him this right now. Say:

Lord Jesus. Today I want you to be my shepherd forever. I'm a lost sheep, I'm defenseless, I'm helpless. I can't save myself but I believe you, the good shepherd died for my sins. I believe you came back from the grave, I believe you're alive right now so today I trust you as my savior. I surrender to you as my Lord. I repent of my sins. I've turned away from my sins and I ask you to come into my heart and I ask you to save me. Thank you for hearing my prayer. Thank you for saving me.

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