As we ride into the valley of death, a shepherd watches over our souls

Updated: Jan 30

In 1854, in response to the events that occurred in the Crimean War, Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote these now famous words:


Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

“Charge for the guns!” he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismay’d?

Not tho’ the soldier knew

Someone had blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.


“Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die: Into the valley of Death.”  This is a statement about the role of soldiers, as dedicated servants to a nation and its philosophies, believing in its leaders.


Soldiers are trained to respond to orders, not question them.  Thus, when a military leader speaks, his soldiers do as instructed.


That is a conditioned response, through drilling, voluntarily submitted to from an initial position of faith – a faith that says, “Surely, my leaders will not send me to die for a bad cause.  However, I am willing to die for my country.”


We call our children who join the military “heroes.”  We decorate our young service men and women in ribbons and medals, to honor their dedication and service.  Their loyalty and patriotism is valued.


Not long ago, we recognized Veteran’s Day.  Then we remembered D-Day.  We salute the dead, the wounded, the scarred, and those who served.


For the most part, veterans leave the military barely older than children.


We say that those who serve – those who continue to serve, those who retire from active duty, those who retire wounded, and those who died in the name of our country – gave their time for the protection of our nation’s ideals: liberty, freedom, and justice.


armed service recruiting

To regularly maintain a supply of volunteered children to potentially put in harm’s way, we prophesy a future filled with peace.   Despite all the anxieties and worries that the enemies to our nation pose, as threats to our liberty, freedom, and justice, we believe our military will protect us.


In a way, when our country calls, we answer.  We say, “Here I am.”  We stand up and salute.


Our faith in a system conditions us, just as Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote:


Ours is not to reason why,

Ours is but to do or die:

Into the valley of Death.


Many believe Tennyson wrote that last line as a direct reference to Psalm 23, verse 4, which states:


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. (KJV)


The aspect of a valley also plays into today’s Old Testament reading, although not so it is immediately seen.


God told Abraham, “Take your son and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”  Moriah is a name of a place, which stems from the Arabic word “Marwah,” meaning any “Mountain range.”


Where there are mountains, there are valleys.


If the valleys represent Death, the mountain top symbolizes Life – closer to Heaven.  Keep that in mind.


Also, consider the symbolic parallel to what our national leaders have commanded: “Take you children to the land of mountain ranges and offer them there.”  Such a place – the Marwah or Moriah – is now named Afghanistan.


Keep that in mind also, if you will.


The scenario of dedication we read today in the story of Abraham and Isaac has one major difference to our national dedication to patriotism:


God saved Isaac’s life.  A ram was provided for the sacrifice, instead of Isaac.


That has not been the case with America’s military involvement in Afghanistan.  Many children have been sacrificed in the name of the United States of America.


We are so often tested through a willingness to sacrifice.


Do you believe in God?  Prove it!  Give your life for God!


Do you have belief in Democracy?  Prove it!  Give your life for America!


military-caskets

Do you believe we must march our children into the valley of Death?  Prove it!  Bury our children with flags, as we salute!


The world loves a hero.


Today’s reading about Abraham volunteering Isaac to God is actually a repeated theme in the Old Testament.


When God calls, others also answer, “Here I am.”


You might recall how the young prophet Samuel heard the voice of God awaken him.  Thinking it was the judge Eli calling him.


Three times God called, “Samuel!”  Each time Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am.”


You might remember how Isaiah had a vision, where God asked, “Who shall I send?”  Isaiah answered, “Here I am.  Send me.”


If only we could hear the voice of God as clearly as the prophets heard that voice.


I once heard a dedicated Christian say, “What does the voice of God sound like?  I have never heard it.”


Perhaps he was listening for a voice that sounded like a politician?  I don’t know.


We tend to be more attentive to external authoritarian voices.


Patriotic Americans are willing to volunteer their services when they are still children.  Adults who served as children tend to like the glory that continues to wrap around them, when they do as Abraham and offer up their children.


It has the feel of some ‘rite of passage.’


We answer the call when we are young; but later we leave the volunteering up to the children.


Samuel was still a child when he answered the call.


Isaiah was still a young prophet when he volunteered to be sent by God.


We know David was anointed while still a boy shepherd and he went to battle against Goliath still a child.


That reminds me of another short story.


Do you remember the Aesop fable about the boy who cried wolf?


Here is a twist on what you have heard before.


Let’s say we are in the land of Moriah – where there are mountains and valleys.  The village is in the valley, by the stream.  The villagers send their sheep to graze along the mountain side.  They need a volunteer to watch over the flock.


A child is chosen.


shepherd

The villagers need sheep for clothing and food, so they are valuable property.  Because there is the danger of wolves preying on the sheep, they must be watched and cared for.  But, a child is not much of a resistance against wolves.


So, we arm the shepherd boy with a horn and order him to yell in a loud voice, “WOLF!!!,” should the flock be threatened.


Now in the story, as we know, the boy called “Wolf!” twice, when there was no real danger of wolves.  Each time the villagers came running, as was the plan.


But, when the shepherd boy cried “WOLF!!!” for real, no one went to save the flock.


The sheep were lost, but that has no bearing on the moral of the story.


Rather than seeing how valuable property was lost … rather than focus on a failure of the villagers to respond to a call, as planned … rather than realize the villagers sent a boy to do the job of men too busy to do … protect their sheep …


We simply call the boy a liar.


No one trusts a liar.


Well think about what I am about to say, at least for the rest of the day today.


Imagine the flock of sheep as our souls.  That is valuable property we possess.


Now, imagine our souls peacefully grazing under the watchful eye of Jesus: Our Lord and our Shepherd.


Let your mind’s eye see the village in the valley below as the world and all its sin.  Each day that we leave our souls to graze halfway up the mountain, we march into the valley of Death.


We fear no evil because Jesus has a rod and a staff to comfort us; but we still need to run when there is a call of danger.


Do we ever imagine Christ calling out, “Satan is coming!”?


Does our guilt from sin ever have us running up a hill to save our souls, only to find out our souls are still safe?


Thank God, it was only a test.


A test, just as we read today, “God tested Abraham.”


test-pattern

Do we find moral conscience by calling Jesus a liar, if our souls are safe for now?


Do we see God as a prankster, when He had Abraham build an altar and place his only son, Isaac, on top of it … only to have God then say, “I was only testing your faith?


Do we stop responding to an alarm because there is an unannounced fire drill in the building where we work, or where our children go to school?


The answer is, “Of course not.”


Whenever we hear the voice of Jesus call our name, we say, “Here I am!”


If we are going to enter the valley of Death each day, where there are canons to the left and right, we must know who we serve.


Paul wrote to the Romans telling them we are all slaves, in one sense or another, with everything depending on if we are slaves to sin, or if we are slaves to righteousness.


Serving sin means death.  We have entered the valley of Death, so it is very easy to stop listening to the danger call.


What, another call to arms?  It was a test the last time, so there might not be any real danger now.  Well then, I will stop serving Christ, listening for his voice to call.  I will stay here and serve sin.


That is when the wolf eats your soul.


Serving righteousness means obedience.  If your soul is grazing halfway up the mountain, under Jesus’ watchful eye, then why not make a point of leaving the valley and visiting him … without needing him to call “WOLF!!!”


Pull up a log and sit with him.  If he calls your name, say, “Here I am.”


Jesus told us, “Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  God sent Christ to be our shepherd.  To choose Jesus to watch over our souls is to welcome God into our lives.


Jesus then told us, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”


When there is a test call, it is not a lie, but a prophecy.


The wolf will come eat your sheep if you get so lazy you stop believing because a prophecy has not yet come true.  It will, if you let it.  In the fable, the wolf did come … the wolf did eat the sheep … the wolf was always lurking about during those test calls … but because the villagers responded, the wolf stayed away.


To answer the call, saying, “Here I am,” is to keep the wolf at bay.


Jesus then said, “Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”  Rather than see the shepherd as some underling, see what he does as righteous.  Then, become a shepherd yourself.  If you do that, you will receive the same reward as did Jesus … you get to go to the top of the mountain … Heaven.


Finally, Jesus told us, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”


That says, “Teach your children to be emotional about their dedication to the Lord.  Raise them to become shepherds over the souls of others.”


Just as Eli realized Samuel was hearing the voice of God, he told the young prophet, “Go back to bed, and if God calls again, then answer Him.”  Teach your children to say, “Here I am” whenever they are tested to serve righteousness.


Souls are saved by responding to tests … unconditionally.


As we leave church today and head to our part of the village, here in the valley of Death, listen to your inner voice.


See if you can sense a child shepherd caring for his flock within you.


Amen

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