February 24, 2013
Psalm 27 (NRSV)
27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
27:2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh– my adversaries and foes– they shall stumble and fall.
27:3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
27:4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.
27:5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
27:6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
27:7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
27:8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.
27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
27:10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.
27:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
27:13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
27:14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
(Concord had special music today, featuring Jonathan and his daughter Corinna Lingle of Trinity UMC, and they were wonderful.)
The first verse of the 27th Psalm is one of the most beautiful in the Bible: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Of whom shall we be afraid? Of what shall we be afraid?
The web site livescience.com has a list of the top phobias, the top irrational fears. Counting down from 10 to 1, they were
10) The dentist
8) Flying on an airplane
7) Thunder and lightning
6) The dark
4) Public speaking or being in front of a crowd
3) Closed spaces
Now those were phobias, fears that we can’t necessarily explain or defend. But even our more rational fears aren’t necessarily rational. The things we’re afraid of aren’t necessarily the things that really put us in danger.
Snakes are not the leading cause of death, and I can tell you from personal experience that public speaking won’t kill you, either. Flying on an airplane, statistically speaking, is safer than riding in a car.
But that doesn’t stop us from being afraid of things.
Life is full of trouble – but our ideas of what constitutes trouble or danger or threat may depend on the situation.
I listen to the Daily Audio Bible podcast, based out of Spring Hill, which takes you through the entire Bible in a year’s time. Brian Hardin, the creator of that podcast, usually has some remarks after each day’s readings about one of the passages.
One day a couple of weeks ago, the Triumph cruise ship disaster was in the news. You probably saw about it – a cruise ship’s power system was disabled by a fire, and as the ship was towed slowly back to port, the electrically-powered bathrooms no longer worked, and the passengers were forced to make other arrangements. What was meant as a special treat – a pleasure cruise – became a very unpleasant experience.
But some of the news reports about the trip went a little overboard in describing the supposed horrors the passengers were going through, and Brian – who doesn’t usually talk about current events on the podcast – did so this time, and you could tell he felt strongly about it. Brian pointed out that this was, at worst, a minor inconvenience. In a few days, the passengers would be home, free to post their complaints on Facebook and talk about how next year’s vacation is going to be on dry land.
Meanwhile, around the world, there are people who never have any indoor plumbing – at all. Now, in a rural area, there are always people who remember using an outhouse as a child. I remember a couple of churches back when my father first got into the ministry that still had outhouses. But it’s one thing to have an outhouse in a rural setting, when the nearest other outhouse is a ways down the road. In a big city, when there’s no indoor plumbing, and when people are piled up next to one another, all of that raw sewage can put filth and disease into ground water.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 3.4 million people die each year as a result of water-related diseases – the leading cause of disease and death in the world. Most of those people are young children.
Brian Hardin, who, like me, has been on short-term mission trips, knows the difference between being inconvenienced for a few days while your cruise ship is being towed back into port and spending your entire life in a place where raw sewage runs through the streets. That is trouble.
The psalmist, from the sound of things, knew trouble. This psalm is ascribed to David, and it’s clear that David knew trouble. David, as a young man, was in fear of his life from King Saul, and he was in many battles as a military leader.
But David knew something else – he knew how to trust God in the midst of trouble.
“One thing I asked of the LORD,” writes David, “that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.”
Faced with trouble – real, life-threatening trouble – David doesn’t just ask for rescue. David asks to dwell in the house of the Lord.
When we focus on God, even in the face of trouble, things tend to fall into perspective.
Many of you may have read the book or seen the movie “The Hiding Place,” about Corrie ten Boom and her family. They lived in the Netherlands and hid Jews, helping them to escape from the Nazi holocaust. Eventually, the ten Booms themselves, even though they were Gentile Christians, were arrested, and Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to a concentration camp. Betsie ten Boom told her sister, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”
As awful as the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp could be, Betsie and Corrie realized that they should remain focused on God.
Another great hero of Christianity who also died in a German concentration camp was the great author and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read a wonderful biography a few months back, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” by Eric Metaxas. I strongly recommend it.
On the day of Bonhoeffer’s execution, the doctor at the concentration camp – who, at the time, had no idea who Bonhoeffer was – watched the great theologian as he prepared for his own execution. Many years later, he wrote this about what he observed: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.
“At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Just like David, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew to look on the face of God in a time of trouble.
“For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble,” wrote David; “he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.”
It’s strange that David uses two different images right next to each other. God hides him away from trouble in a tent; but then, in the same sentence, God places David high on a rock, a place of strategic safety from which he can look down on his enemies. Those sound almost contradictory, but they’re not. They’re both places of safety.
And yet, in the earthly sense, God didn’t protect Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his enemies. And while Corrie ten Boom survived the concentration camps, her sister Betsie – the source of that famous quote about the depth of God’s love – did not.
How can that be? How can God promise us safety and then allow bad things to happen?
Betsie ten Boom didn’t promise her sister that there would never be deep pits. She only said that however deep the pit, God’s love is deeper still. In some cases, God’s protection comes on the other side of the river.
But if we only claim God’s protection and stop there, we are missing the point. David writes that, “I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.” Our response to God’s protection must be one of joy and gratitude, and that naturally leads to us sharing God’s love with those around us. These aren’t just whispers of joy; they’re shouts of joy, for all the world to hear.
I love that phrase, “sacrifices with shouts of joy.” Now, I know that what it meant in David’s time were animal sacrifices – brought to the altar in worship. But I think the phrase has meaning for us today as well – whatever sacrifices we make, whatever situation we find ourselves in, we can respond with shouts of joy.
C.S. Lewis, in his book “Surprised by Joy,” makes a difference between joy and happiness and pleasure. Happiness and pleasure are earthly qualities, and they may be quite short-lived. We’ve all had moments of great happiness – the birth of a child, the first flush of romance, a particularly moving spiritual experience, maybe a vacation in that special place that means the world to you. But happiness is momentary. Eventually, the romance goes away, or at least subsides into a quiet friendship. Eventually, you have to come back from the vacation. Sooner or later, the screaming baby keeps you up all night and wears on your last nerve.
Joy, on the other hand, is a state of mind that we have to ask God for, and it’s one that can persist regardless of our outward circumstances. I doubt Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Corrie ten Boom would have described themselves as “happy” in the concentration camp, and yet in both cases God gave them the gift of joy in spite of their surroundings. Happiness comes from lying on the beach. Joy comes from God, and it comes whether you’re lying on the beach or lying in a hospital bed, wracked with pain.
Since that gift of joy comes from God, receiving it means being focused on God, looking into the face of God.
The first time I took an advanced lay speaking class, my teacher was a man named Don Ladd – Ruthan knows who I’m talking about – who was involved in lay speaking at the conference level for many years. He was a great inspiration to me, and every time I’ve seen him since he’s had a good word for me. He’s one of those people who can make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world just with a kind word or two.
Today, Don Ladd has cancer, and he puts updates on the CaringBridge web site, which is used by a lot of people going through illness as a way of communicating with their friends. Don is going through pain and struggle, but as I read his status updates, I’m amazed at how focused he is on God, and how he manages to find joy even in the middle of struggle. I could never be that strong on my own – it would take a lot of grace. Fortunately, when we’re suffering, a lot of grace is available.
David calls on God for that grace. “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!” he writes.
He doesn’t just ask for protection, he asks for illumination, for the grace to live a joy-filled life.
“Teach me your way, O LORD, he writes, “and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!”
With sacrifices and shouts of joy, we can face the good times and the bad knowing that God is with us. Whom shall we fear? Of whom shall we be afraid?
With God’s grace, the answer to that question is nothing, and no one.