By Christopher Wells
Perhaps no psalm is better known than the 23rd, for good reason. Many children and new believers learn it as an introduction to the Lord of heaven and earth: God is our tender Father and protector, Jesus is our good shepherd (see John 10), and the Holy Spirit is our ever-present comfort in time of need. Once we know this it is hard to forget, and so mature believers rightly return to these words for the personal reassurance of God’s promises, as we place our trust in him: I shall not be in want; I shall fear no evil; your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
This being the case, it may be jarring to read Jesus’ rather different assurance to his disciples: “all will be thrown down” (Mt. 24:2). And he spends some time here (as in Luke) elaborating on the nature and extent of the trials to come, as signs of the long-awaited messianic age, about which Jesus had queried the Pharisees several days ago (22:41ff.). War, famine, and earthquake will mark the birth pangs, followed by necessary persecution and martyrdom of the faithful and a thinning of their ranks—truly, a time of great suffering, unlike any other. “This gospel” will, however, “be proclaimed throughout the world,” says Jesus, “as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come” (24:14).
Here is the good news, consonant with the psalm: that our end will be in Christ, albeit not without pain and difficulty. This world will end, before it is re-made as the kingdom. The words of God, however, will not pass away (Mt. 24:35), and in these we hide our hearts. “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Ex. 20:20).
Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awake hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen (Collect for the Presence of Christ in Evening Prayer II, BCP 1979, p. 124).