Sunday after January 6, 2021: If You Claim the Name

First Sunday after Epiphany:
If You Claim the Name
10 January 2021

This sermon does not follow the lectionary. On January 6, 2021, a group of rioters instigated by Donald Trump invaded the Capitol building. Five people were killed. Others died afterward. Several officers who defended the Congress that day later committed suicide. The worst thing? The whole debacle had “Christianity” clearly stamped all over it.

By the way, here’s the video of my preaching the sermon to an empty sanctuary because of COVID-19. Yes, we canceled services because of a real pandemic.  As I said, we’ve had enough nonsense.

Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 22:23-31.

22:23    Again the word of the LORD came to me:   24 “Son of man, say to the land, ‘You are a land that has not been cleansed or rained on  in the day of wrath.’ 25 There is a conspiracy of her princes within her like a roaring lion tearing its prey; they devour people, take treasures and precious things and make many widows  within her. 26 Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common;  they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. 27 Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they  shed blood and  kill people to make unjust gain. 28 Her  prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations.   They say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says’—when the LORD has not spoken. 29 The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery;  they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat  the foreigner,  denying them justice.
Ezek. 22:30    “I  looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. 31 So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

Sermon text: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though  we once regarded Christ in this way,   we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone,  the new is here! 18 All this  is from  God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry  of reconciliation: 19 that  God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s  sins against them. And he has committed to us the message  of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though  God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled  to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Years ago, I read a story about Alexander the Great. After a battle, a young soldier was brought before the conqueror. Alexander took one look at the young man and, for some reason, instantly took a liking to him. He asked the frightened soldier, “What is your name?” “Alexander,” the soldier replied. This endeared the man to Alexander even more.

Alexander turned to the commander with the soldier and asked what had happened. The commander told him, “Cowardice. He ran from the battle.” Alexander glowered at the young soldier and shouted, “Young man, either change your behavior, or change your name!”

That story flashed back into my mind this week as we witnessed the seditious behavior of the criminals who stormed our Capitol building this week. America is a nation and an ideal, not a religion, but if we have sacred secular space, the Capitol is one of those spaces. That space was desecrated this week.

Even worse, as I later saw pictures of the event, I saw a woman holding a bright sign — so bright no one could miss it — that said, “Jesus saves.” With that one sign, the holy Church was tied indelibly to an attempt to block the orderly transition of power on which our very democracy rests.

We’ve seen a lot of nonsense in American Christianity over the years. But frankly, I’ve seen nothing like the nonsense I’ve witnessed over the past 4 years at any point in my life, and I managed to survive the apocalyptic nonsense of the 1970’s and late 1990’s.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard many people proclaim something along the lines of, “God sent us a Cyrus,” tying a current leader to Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia who allowed the Jews to return home to Judea in 539 B.C. These people apparently know little about history.

Cyrus, as were all other Persian kings of his dynasty, was called “Shah Han Shah,” the “King of Kings.” Cyrus didn’t save the Jews so they could worship God. Cyrus, ever the masterful politician, knew the best way to keep conquered peoples happy was to repatriate them to the homelands from which the Babylonians and Assyrians had exiled them. (It worked, too.)
Cyrus died in 529 B.C. Two hundred years later, Alexander the Great visited the tomb and Cyrus’ sarcophagus. Cyrus was dead then, and he’s dead now.
Christians, we need no “Cyrus.” We need not seek a “Cyrus” when we serve a Savior. Cyrus called himself the “King of Kings.” Christians, we live as children of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

As children of the Most High God, I think it’s time we came to grips with the nonsense.

The sermon text today comes from one of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Nonsense isn’t new to the Church, nor is it specific to American Christianity. In fact, the Corinthians excelled in nonsense. In his letter, St. Paul called the Corinthian Christians back to faithfulness to their Lord and to serve Him in a way that drew others to Jesus. In our times, fewer words are needed more than the words of St. Paul we read today.

The Corinthian Christians had fallen badly back into worldly ways. You can read the details in the letter of 1 Corinthians. Part of the worldly system into which the Corinthians had descended was the “worldly point of view” of Roman society. According to their society, class distinctions governed every facet of human interaction. As a result, wealthy Christians had begun worship before the slaves and poor could arrive so they could participate in the weekly dinner without the “riffraff.” Had the Corinthians thought about it, however, they would have realized that Jesus himself qualified as the “riffraff” of society. After all, Jesus was an unemployed, homeless Jew, not a sophisticated Greek and certainly not a patrician Roman. St. Paul told the Corinthians he, too, would have “once regarded Christ in this way,” but “we do so no longer.” Jesus had changed him! Now, when St. Paul saw another person, he saw that person not as slave or free, Jew or Greek; “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.” Every believer stood as equals before God; every believer stood not as the “old,” but as a “new creation.”

One of Christianity’s greatest achievements has been its ability to level societies. Every Christian, regardless of wealth, race, or social status, stands as equals before God. We all stood equally in our sin. Through Christ, God “reconciled us to himself… and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Because God reconciles us to Himself — we sinners, we transgressors — He no longer counts our sins against us. No one stands as innocent before God, but He chooses to see Jesus’ righteousness instead of our wickedness.

Because we stand in Jesus’ righteousness, God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” We have a duty to perform, and that duty demands that we speak reconciliation to our society. That duty demands that we live as reconciled people, reconciled to God and to others.

This leads us to an important point: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”

For centuries, nations have sent ambassadors to represent them to other nations. For most of human history, the ambassadors couldn’t pull a phone from their pockets and talk to their monarchs, so the monarchs had to send people they could trust would negotiate with the kingdom’s best interests at heart. The ambassadors might attempt to understand the other side’s point of view, but in the end, the ambassadors represented their sovereign governments. Any decision they made reflected on their governments.
Christians, we serve as ambassadors for Jesus. Every decision we make, every action we perform, every word we speak represents our King.

How have we represented our King lately?

When we seek political protection rather than believe that God can work through political persecution, we tell the world we don’t trust our King.
When we treat others with disrespect because they don’t look like us or don’t worship like us or don’t speak our language, we tell the world our King didn’t mean what He told Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).

When we divide congregations and denominations over political philosophies and demonize those who disagree with us, we tell the world Jesus didn’t mean it when He prayed that we may be one (John 17).

When we refuse to listen to the oppressed and invite them into our family of faith, we tell the world we serve a different god than the One who came to earth as a Middle Eastern Jew, was crucified for the sins of the world, and rose again to defeat sin and death for humanity.

So, what do we do?

First, we take seriously our responsibility as ambassadors for Christ. That responsibility means we say nothing, we do nothing that will bring shame and dishonor to our King. That responsibility means we must weigh our words and actions and use wisdom to speak and act rightly. Fortunately, God promises us wisdom. St. James wrote in his letter, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). Seek wisdom, and use wisdom to guide you in your life.

Secondly, as ambassadors for Christ, we must speak truth. We claim to serve the One who called Himself, “The way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Frankly, there’s a lot of garbage in our society nowadays being peddled as “the truth.” Christians, as those who follow the Truth, we don’t get to pick and choose our “truth.” From this point forward, every believer must seek to comprehend whether what we hear online, on the TV or radio, or from wherever is truth. Don’t merely parrot something because your favorite personality said it.

This is especially prevalent in social media. I hesitate to open Facebook some days because I know some well-meaning believer will have posted some unfounded rumor about someone (usually a politician they don’t like). As one of my favorite politicians once said, “Trust, but verify.” The Church is ill served when Christians spread falsehoods and malicious gossip online.

This brings me to what, I think, is one of the most important things we can do as ambassadors for Christ: Spread peace.

When Isaiah prophesied the coming of Jesus, he used the title “The Prince of Peace” to refer to Him. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:10). St. James wrote, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).

From this point forward, speak peace. Spread peace. If that rumor you saw on Facebook or cable news will demean someone, don’t repeat it; post something peaceful instead. If the rumor you heard on Main Street or at your favorite restaurant or at the grocery store will destroy someone’s reputation, keep it to yourself and speak words of peace instead. I’ve known people in my life — in my family — who aren’t happy if something’s not happening, and they’ve sometimes worked hard to start something to keep them happy. Don’t let that be said of you. Instead, let people see you as a peacemaker, as a child of God — as an ambassador of Christ — instead.

Christians, we’ve endured some difficult times over the past year or so. We’re not in the clear yet. Our nation faces a reckoning, and it has just begun. Unfortunately, American evangelicalism also faces a reckoning, and I fear it will take the complete humiliation or total destruction of many so-called leaders to accomplish the purifying of God’s people. Many will not endure it. Others will turn away in disgust unless they see godly people serving as peacemakers and ambassadors of the true Lord. Therefore, I issue this call to all Christians: If you claim the title “Christian,” make your behavior fit the title. If you claim the name of Jesus — the Prince of Peace and the Reconciler of humanity to God — live in His victory and bring peace to our nation in the dark times ahead.

As Long As I Live: Psalm 146

Delivered 11 November 2018.

“Praise the Lord!”

We often say this when things go well or when we hear good news. For most of us, it’s only a stock phrase that shows excitement.

For the Old Testament Hebrews, “Praise the Lord” went deeper.

Today’s sermon text reminds us that praise may begin as a saying, but it should become the standard by which we live. Praise should happen everywhere and at all times. Praise should happen in good times and in bad times. Praise reminds us of God’s grace and informs others of our trust in God. Psalm 146 teaches us that a living, vital relationship with God will result in praise.

We don’t know the circumstances in which the anonymous psalmist wrote Psalm 146, but we can find clues in the text. We know the psalmist believed in God. We also know he had, at some point, witnessed the failure of human leaders to protect those in their care. He believed strongly in God’s care as evidenced by His power revealed in the creation.

The psalmist declared, “I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.” The psalmist had committed his life to God, and his experiences as a believer in God had convinced him that God deserved his praise in all circumstances.

The psalmist had also realized the superiority of God’s security over that offered by human rulers. “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” Human leaders have promised protection and provision for centuries. Sometimes, human rulers offer protection because of their good nature, but they sometimes offer benefits out of self-preservation or selfishness. Regardless of the motive, the psalmist realized rulers’ promises often end at their deaths: “When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

God, on the other hand, can give eternal promises. “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God.” Why can God make promises that human rulers cannot? God revealed His power when He “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.” God’s power infinitely eclipses the power of human rulers, regardless of their wisdom or might.

Human rulers will also change their minds, often breaking promises when those promises start costing them more than they care to pay. God “keeps faith forever.” Believers can always rely on the promises of God, because He makes eternal promises.

God also cares for those forgotten or ignored by human societies. God “executes justice for the oppressed” when society exploits the helpless; He “gives food to the hungry” as part of His provision. God “sets the prisoners free” from their bonds, and He “opens the eyes of the blind.” He “lifts up those who are bowed down” from the burdens of life and from the sins that crush them. God lifts the humble who confess their need for Him. God “loves the righteous,” those who live rightly before Him and keep His commands. The righteous will care for the helpless and exploited and thus show God’s love for all people.

“The Lord watches over the sojourners.” God had specifically commanded the Hebrews to care for the sojourners: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Too many sojourners could find themselves before foreign judges they couldn’t understand, accused of laws they couldn’t have known. God’s command to the Hebrews reminded them that He cared for all people, not for the Hebrews alone.

God also “upholds the widow and the fatherless.” In the ancient world, widows and fatherless children lacked standing before courts of law. God often condemned societies for oppressing the widows and children. Widows often found themselves forced to sell their children into slavery to pay their husbands’ debt; they sometimes had to resort to prostitution to provide for themselves and their children. God commanded the Hebrews — and commands all societies — to care for those who can’t care for themselves.

We know that many people exploit the system for their own greed and lusts. The psalmist knew God would oppose and destroy the wicked: “The way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” The Hebrew word for “wicked” refers to those who intentionally, habitually break the commandments of God. While these people may repent and change, many of them refuse to do so because of their pride. The Hebrew word for “brings to ruin” implies a twisting of their way. The wicked may concoct devious plans, but God will twist their plans and destroy them.

The psalmist ended his song with a joyous proclamation of God’s eternal reign: “The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!”

What does this psalm say to us? Where do we start with the promises in this short psalm?

First, in all situations, we should praise the Lord! Unlike those who put their trust in political powers or in economic systems or in their own strength, we know we can trust our eternal God to rescue us and provide for us. Our God created heaven and earth, or in the words of the Nicene Creed, “Of all that is, seen and unseen.” Our God can make eternal promises because of His eternal nature. He deserves our praise throughout our lives.

We also see that God cares deeply for the defenseless and oppressed in our societies. I’ve noticed that God made no exceptions for nationality or religion; He commanded His people to care for all humans, without exception, without prejudice. The Church best demonstrates the grace we have received when we serve others graciously, accepting them and loving them as God has accepted and loved us.

We know of God’s love for us because of Jesus, His Son. Jesus told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus came to earth not as a secular ruler, but as a baby; not as a prince, but as a prophet; not as a man on a throne, but as the Messiah on the cross. Jesus lived as a sojourner in His life, never claiming a place as home during His ministry. Jesus cared for the children and for the widows.

Human princes put Jesus to death, but God raised Him from the dead. Now, everyone who believes in Jesus will receive eternal salvation. Jesus will one day rule eternally over all creation. St. Paul wrote that the day will come when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). At that time, all heaven shall sing: “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

In the meantime, we live by faith in God, trusting in His provision. The Church, the people of God, serves as the means by which God cares for the helpless. We have a mandate from God Himself to love others as He has loved us. We have a mandate to accept everyone who travels to our lands, to our sanctuaries, and to love them so much they cannot help but see the love of Christ.

As long as I live, I will praise God for Jesus, His Son. As long as I live, I will praise God for the blessings He has given me. As long as I live, I will trust God to provide and protect me. As long as I live, I will serve God through worship. As long as I live, I will serve God by serving others. As long as we live, let us praise the Lord!

The LORD Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23

Delivered 5 August 2018.

Note: the Hebrew word translated “LORD” in this psalm refers to the holy Name of God, often translated into English as “YAWHEH.” The Jews consider this name too holy to pronounce.

If you were to take a poll of favorite Scripture passages, you’d most likely find Psalm 23 at or near the top of the list. Most people in our area would recognize the opening lines of this psalm regardless of their church affiliation. It seems that, especially in the English-speaking world, the line “The Lord is my shepherd” will trigger some memory of a church service or a film where people have heard this psalm before.

While this psalm certainly appeals to any of us from a rural background, the sentiments of this psalm speak to even the most urban believer. Everyone needs guidance at times;  everyone needs periods of rest; everyone needs protection; and everyone will, inevitably, face death. As he pondered these needs in his life, the psalmist David realized that God Himself had provided these blessings to him.

David knew plenty about sheep. The Scripture passage today tells the story of Samuel’s anointing of David as king over Israel. As you read the passage, you’ll see that Jesse, David’s father, owned sheep. Most likely, all of Jesse’s sons had taken their turns as shepherd of his flocks. As the youngest, David had served his time as the shepherd before the visit that changed his life. David may have arrived late at the party as a shepherd boy, but in spite of his youth, he left that day as the anointed king of Israel.

David opened this psalm with a profound statement: “The LORD is my shepherd.” The shepherd provides guidance for sheep because they really, really need it. Those who know have told me that sheep rank as the most stupid animals humans have ever domesticated. Domestic sheep need someone to help them, to lead them, and protect them. The shepherd must know where to find food, water, and protection for the sheep.

If you’re looking for someone that knows about provision and protection, you’ll find no one who will know more than an omniscient God. As our shepherd, the LORD will lead us because He knows all about us and about the situations we will face in life.

David continued by saying, “I shall not want.” The Hebrew word here means “to lack.” The older English translations translated this phrase as “therefore can I lack nothing.” God had provided water and sustenance for the Hebrews for the duration of their 40-year wandering from Egypt to the land He had promised to their ancestors. God provided water when necessary, and He provided manna for the people to eat on a daily basis. 

The book of Deuteronomy includes numerous promises to Israel that God made when they obeyed the Law. In Deuteronomy 11, Moses reminded Israel of God’s promise: “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full” (Deuteronomy 11:13-15). When you read the Old Testament, you find numerous accounts of God’s provision for believers in times of distress.

God still provides for His people in our lives. I’m not saying you’ll always have everything you want, but God makes certain that His people lack for nothing they need as we live in obedience to God’s calling on our lives.

David then said, “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” According to shepherds, sheep will refuse to lie down until they feel safe, even when surrounded by plenty of food and water. Sheep must feel completely at ease before they will rest.

This certainly applies to humanity, and especially in America, where we enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. We seem to fear losing what we have or that we’ll lack for something in spite of our security. I’ve observed a lot of people who live in anxiety in spite of their financial security. Again, God will provide for His people in times of insecurity and will provide for us in times of distress.

When we learn to trust God, He will “restore” our souls. The Hebrew word we find here means “to return.” Believers often find ourselves lured into the values of those around us. We want to have everything others have and sometimes lose sight of the security we possess as the people of God. When this happens, we lose the peace that comes from recognizing God as our provider. When this happens, we must return to God to find restoration of our unsettled spirits. We will find peace in His care; we will find comfort in times of sorrow. We will realize that nothing can happen to us that God cannot use to prepare us for greater service to Him and those He places in our lives.

David continued by writing, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Again, God uses everything in our lives “for His name’s sake,” not for our own desires. When you read the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ words constantly reminded the Hebrews of the necessity of obedience to God’s law. We must follow God in “paths of righteousness” so that others will see the benefits of living according to God’s desires, not according to the base standards of society or our own fleshly desires.

I’ve long wondered about the difference in pronouns between the first 3 verses and the last 3 verses of this psalm. In the first 3 verses, David refers to God in the third person (“He”). In the last stanzas, David speaks directly to God using the first person (“I”). It seems that as David pondered the protection of God in the midst of the dangers he faced in life, he took more comfort in the fact that he could talk to God and not merely about God.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” When we think of it, we realize we live our entire lives in death’s shadow. At any moment, any one of us could die; none of us really know we’ll live to see the end of this day.

David knew this first-hand. As a soldier, David had fought the enemies of his people for most of his life. David had also seen people succumb to disease and old age. David knew death. Yet, in spite of his familiarity with death, David took comfort in experiencing God’s constant presence in his life. David would “fear no evil” because he knew that God never left him; in the most dangerous situations, or in the most mundane of events, God remained with David. 

David knew that God would protect him from evil. Shepherds in David’s time would carry a staff to fight off predators. The famous “shepherd’s crook” was developed to help shepherds corral sheep beyond their immediate reach, but also served to snatch sheep or predators and bring them within reach of the shepherd’s staff. David took comfort in the fact that God’s “rod and staff” provided protection from the worst of enemies.

When we read David’s next words, it helps to remember that he had lived among the Philistines, Israel’s worst enemies in his lifetime. King Saul had tenaciously chased David all over the Judean countryside before David and his followers had settled at Ziklag, a Philistine-controlled city from the tribe of Simeon. David had undoubtedly eaten with Achish of Gath, the Philistine king who protected David and assigned Ziklag to him.

David wrote, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” If someone went to a person’s house and found welcome there, the host would fill the guest’s cup and continue doing so until the host determined the guest should leave. You didn’t stay if the host didn’t refill your cup.

However, this also took on a more serious meaning. Middle Eastern cultures take hospitality extremely seriously, even extending the host’s personal protection to the guest. (See Genesis 19 and Judges 19 for extreme examples of what a host would do to protect his guest. As you read these examples, remember that these passages describe the realities of the culture, not the ideals which God expected from humanity.) If you were in trouble and ran to a friend’s house, and if your enemies chased you there, your friend could use the custom of the filled cup to show your enemies if he would fight for you. If your friend barely poured anything into your cup, you had to finish the cup and then find somewhere else to hide. If, however, your friend filled your cup and continued pouring until the cup overflowed, your enemies knew they had to fight him to get to you.

Think about this. God fills our cups to overflowing. Do you think that anyone can overpower an omnipotent God? In His time, Jesus, the Son of God, told the Jews in Jerusalem,  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” When we trust in God for our protection and for our care, we can rest in the hand of an omnipotent God who will preserve us until He takes us through the valley of the shadow of death into a glorious eternity.

David then wrote, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew phrase “goodness and mercy” reminded David’s readers of God’s goodness to Israel in providing them a land they didn’t deserve and protecting them from the enemies that surrounded them. The word for “mercy” is the familiar Hebrew word “hesed,” a word that implies an unconditional, covenantal love that God had promised to His people. God didn’t have to choose Israel as His people, but He did so out of grace. God then promised Abraham that He would preserve his descendants and use them to bless the world (Genesis 12:1-3).

When he thought of the blessings God had given him, and the blessings God had promised him, David could confidently conclude by writing, “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” David could think of nowhere he had rather stay than in the “house of the LORD.”

After all these centuries — remember that David lived roughly 3,000 years ago — this psalm still brings comfort to us today.

I believe that Christians can claim even more comfort than anyone else from this psalm. Jesus, David’s descendant through the Virgin Mary and the divine Son of God, has provided us with even more blessings that David could have known. With His death, Jesus demonstrated God’s commitment to deliver us from our enemies. With His resurrection, Jesus overcame the instinctive fear we have of death and demolished death’s hold on all who believe in His name. Through the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus after His ascension, God comforts us in places of green pastures and still waters; through the Holy Spirit, God leads us in paths of righteousness for the sake of His holy name.

God’s goodness and steadfast, covenantal love find their ultimate expression in Jesus, the One who referred to Himself as the “good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). Jesus promised that everyone who believed in Him, confessing Him as Lord, would enjoy an eternal life in His presence (Revelation 21). Today, we can call on the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20), knowing that He continues to protect His people and provide for us. We can call on the “Shepherd and Overseer of our souls” (1 Peter 2:25) and know He will guide us to an eternity in His presence, where we will dwell in His House, the House of the LORD, forever.

True Delight: Psalm 1

Delivered 17 February 2018.

If anyone asks me which book of the Bible they should read first, I respond, “Start with the Psalms.” The Psalms cover every possible human condition, from sorrow to celebration. The Psalms also tells us that regardless of what we face — fear, loss, success, elation, depression, even death itself — God cares about His people, loving us regardless of what life hurls at us and how we respond to it.

You have to admit that Psalm 1 make for a great beginning to one of the greatest books in history. If you want any hope of making it through this life, you’ll need wisdom, and Psalm 1 tells us the benefits of godly wisdom. Psalm 1 not only tells us of the delights of godly living; it points us to the One who can take through life — and death itself — into eternal delight in the presence of our loving God and Father.

The author began his psalm with a word we all want to hear. “Blessed.” Hebrew has 2 words for “blessed” or “blessing.” This word refers to happiness in life. If we want happiness in life, we must live as God expects.

The psalmist wrote, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” You’ll notice the psalmist covers 3 types of people, all of whom bring trouble to life.

First, we have the wicked. The term “wicked” refers to those willing to do anything to further themselves. They’ll oppress the poor, accuse the innocent, bribe the judges, even resort to murder if necessary to achieve their own desires. The term “walk” tells us this has become their lifestyle. The wicked have lived in selfishness and pride for so long they no longer feel any guilt in anything they do.

Then, you have the “sinners.” The word used here refers to people who know God’s expectations but somehow miss the mark. While everyone misses the mark at some point in life — after all, no one is perfect — these people do so habitually. They’re not willing to exert themselves to live as God requires.

Lastly, we have the “scoffers.” These people hear the words of God, but in their pride they mock the commandments and those who follow them. Unfortunately, no one can tell them anything because they’re certain they know more than anyone else. No one can convince them of their errors because they refuse to accept instruction.

The person who avoids these people will do well because “his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The law of the Lord will lead the godly away from the ones who refuse to listen to God. Those who “delight,” or take pleasure, in the law of the Lord will avoid many of the troubles faced by the folks listed in verse 1. Those who truly delight in the law of the Lord will keep that law in their minds “day and night.” They will face every situation with the law of the Lord in their minds; they will constantly desire to please God by keeping the law of life.

People who delight in God’s law become “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season.” We’ve all seen trees that grow in areas of reliable water sources. Even in the middle of the worst drought, a tree with a constant supply of water will live. “Its leaf does not wither,” the psalmist said. The person who delights in God’s law will “prosper” “in all that he does.”

The wicked, on the other hand, “are like chaff that the wind drives away.” The wicked disappear when life overwhelms them because they have nothing permanent to sustain them. The words of an eternal God bring them no comfort because those words convict them. Hard times may reveal the error of their ways to the wicked, but in their pride they will refuse to repent and live rightly.

“Therefore,” the psalmist wrote, “the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” When judgement comes, the wicked will have no one to stand for them; they will have no advocate to defend them.

On the other hand, “the LORD knows the way of the righteous,” those who have followed His law and whose rightly-lived lives have demonstrated God’s faithfulness, love, and goodness. “The way of the wicked will perish” in the end while the righteous will live eternally.

When I read this psalm — which I do regularly — I’m reminded of many lessons in life.

First, I’ve lived long enough to know what happens to people who choose the wrong friends. I’ve seen people who decided to hang out with the wicked, sinners, and scoffers, and trust me, it never ends well. As the old saying goes, “bad habits corrupt good manners.” I’m not saying we should separate ourselves from everyone. Rather, I’m saying we must choose good friends and spend our time investing in each others’ lives so that even the wicked, sinners, and scoffers will see the benefits of right living in us.

I’ve also seen the benefits of living by the law of the Lord. I’m not talking about the Mosaic Law, even though I believe everyone should seek to live by the 10 Commandments. I think everyone should know the 10 Commandments (especially those folks with the bumper stickers supporting them). I’m talking about the laws given to us by Jesus. When asked about the greatest commandments, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:38-39). Those 2 commandments summarize the Law. Those 2 commandments will free us to do whatever necessary to demonstrate the love of God for everyone He put in our paths. Believe me, God will put people in our paths. He’ll put righteous people in our paths, and He’ll put unrighteous people in our paths. We must live rightly before God in front of the unrighteous, and we must actively support the righteous and strengthen their faith through our common love.

There’s something else about living rightly and delighting in God’s law. Don’t ever think this passage’s promise of prospering means we’re exempt from trials in life. Even the most well-watered, most deeply-rooted trees suffer. Storms buffet them; fires threaten them; droughts weaken them. However, they stand strong because of their deep, well-watered roots.

Christian, we must deeply root ourselves in God’s word. We cannot delight in what we do not know. This gives me an opportunity to encourage you to join us in Sunday school for Bible study. This gives me an opportunity to encourage you to read Scripture daily. Start with the Psalms. Let me know when you finish the Psalms, and I’ll happily direct you to another book of Scripture.

Lastly, we cannot help but see the greatest example of one who delighted in the law of the Lord in Jesus, Our Lord. When confronted with evil, Jesus quoted Scripture. When confronted with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus quoted Scripture. When confronting the corruption in the Temple, Jesus quoted Scripture. When He showed mercy to the poor and needy, Jesus quoted Scripture. When He hung on the cross, dying for our sins, Jesus quoted Scripture. Jesus truly meditated on the law of the Lord so He could live its truths. 

Do you need more proof? Turn to Luke 24, where, when walking with the disciples to Emmaus after His resurrection, Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets… interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The law of the Lord takes us to Jesus Himself.

The law of the Lord convicts us of our sin and points us to the need for a Savior. The law of the Lord reveals our inability to live rightly before God and points us to the cross, where Jesus died to atone for our sins. The law of the Lord joyfully — delightfully — tells us that confessing Jesus as Lord and believing in His resurrection assures us of eternal life (Romans 10:9-10). The law of the Lord tells us that God adopts us into His family and gives us the right to address Him as “Father” (Romans 8:15). The law of the Lord tells us that, at our judgment, we will stand “justified” (Romans 5:1) before our Judge, who will declare us innocent. The law of the Lord tells is we will not stand alone in the judgment, but that Jesus even now serves as our advocate (1 John 2:1-2).

People of God, delight in this glorious law, the law that saves us and assures us of eternal life. People of God, delight in our Savior, who in love draws us to Himself and teaches us who to live rightly. People of God, delight in life as lived in this law, so that even the wicked will see the love of God in you and repent. People of God, delight in your Father’s love, now and eternally.

Forgiven: Psalm 32

Delivered 31 March 2019.

From the time of the first sin in the Garden of Eden, nothing has brought joy to our souls like knowing our sins are forgiven.

Today’s sermon text vividly describes the joy of forgiveness, but it also describes the only means of obtaining forgiveness. David’s psalm still speaks to us in our own spiritual relationship with the God whose laws we break but whose forgiveness we crave.

Some scholars think Psalm 32 may originally have accompanied Psalm 51 as the song David composed after receiving God’s forgiveness for his sin against Bathsheba. We find some of the same wording in this psalm as in Psalm 51, and the description of David’s condition matches the account of the situation in 2 Samuel 11-12.

David wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” In the Hebrew way of seeing things, those who obey God place themselves in a place where God can bless them in life. As in Psalm 51, David used all 3 Hebrew words for sin, accurately describing our own failures against God.

  • The word for “transgression” is a military term for open and intentional rebellion. David realized his sins constituted rebellion against God.
  • The word for “iniquity” means “to go astray.” David went astray from the Law of God.
  • The word for “sin” means “to miss a goal.” The writer of Judges used this word to describe the slingers of Benjamin in Judges 20:16 who could sling a stone at a hair and not “miss.” David clearly missed the mark in keeping God’s law.

Those who live without sin live “blessed” lives, but unfortunately, none of us manage to live a completely sinless life. Even worse, we often try, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and like David in his sin with Bathsheba, to hide our sins from God and from one another. We may succeed in hiding our sins from others, but God always knows our hearts. No sin goes unnoticed by God.

Trying to hide our sins from God will always result in damage, both spiritual and emotional. David wrote, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” The pain of guilt will always cost us dearly, especially spiritually. Our relationship with God always suffers when we attempt to hide sin from Him.

David eventually took as much as he could. In the incident with Bathsheba, Nathan confronted David with his sin. After his confrontation with Nathan, David confessed his sin. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” David needed forgiveness, but it would not come without confession. Once he confessed his sins, God forgave him.

David’s experience led him to encourage “everyone who is godly” to pray to God. David mentioned a real truth to our lives: we should pray when God “may be found.” Many people say, “I’ll pray when I feel like it” or “I’ll pray when it’s more convenient.” David reminded us that “in the rush or great waters” of life, a time for prayer may not come at all.

The godly ones find in God a “hiding place” in life. When we live in relationship with God, He will “preserve” us “from trouble,” surrounding us “with shouts of deliverance.” God has always served as a refuge for His people, “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

In a shift of speakers, David quoted God in verse 8. God will “instruct” us and “teach us” the way of life. God guides His people through Bible study, worship, and fellowship.

God encouraged David’s readers: “Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.” Those who fail to understand God’s ways will constantly find themselves in trouble in their lives, stumbling from trial to trial. As David wrote, “Many are the sorrows of the wicked.”

In contrast to the wicked, David wrote, “Steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD.” The love David mentioned refers to the covenantal, unconditional love God extends to everyone who lives in relationship with Him. Those in relationship with God can “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy” as we live in relationship with Him. The ones “upright in heart” recognize God’s desires for our lives, knowing His standards will always bring us into the place of blessing in our lives.

In David’s time, the Hebrews sought forgiveness of sins through sacrifices in the sanctuary. The righteous would always offer sacrifices for their sins, as well as for their blessings. Righteous Hebrews would offer a peace offering when God fulfilled their prayer requests.

Today, we  can seek forgiveness through grace. The crucifixion and death of Jesus, the Son of God, atoned for our sins, and His resurrection assures us of His loving forgiveness. In His time on earth, Jesus forgave sins like God. As C.S. Lewis wrote,

One part of [Jesus’] claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins…. what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws were broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 51)

At the end of His life, Jesus gave Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins when He died on Calvary. Jesus then rose from the dead to assure everyone who believes in Him can receive peace with God “through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Now, everyone who believes in Jesus “should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

As Christians, we still live in a sinful world, in a sinful society. Christians still suffer from the effects of sin, and we sometimes sin. As St. John wrote to give us comfort, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).

If you’ve sinned in your life, confess your sin to God and receive forgiveness for your sins. If you’ve sinned against someone else, seek their forgiveness so you can live in peace with others, especially if they’re believers. Acknowledge your sin; uncover your iniquity, and confess your transgressions to God. The greatest blessings in life come to those forgiven by God, living in relationship with Him through Jesus, our Lord.

Praise Him Always: Psalm 66

Delivered 13 October 2019.

What God has done, God will do.

I have two questions for you. Will you recognize what God has done in your life, and will you tell someone else how He has worked in your life?

Today’s sermon text exemplifies what scholars call a “Praise Psalm.” Unlike the laments in the book of Psalms, praise psalms recognize God’s work in our lives and command us to tell someone about it. The structure of this psalm reminds us of the “peace offering” described in Leviticus. In Moses’ Law, you couldn’t receive God’s blessings without praising Him for it formally in worship. Worshipers in the sanctuary could use Psalm 66 as an example of how to praise God in the sanctuary as they prepared to celebrate the communal meal that accompanied their praise.

Psalm 66 opens with a call to worship. “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!” The psalmist had experienced God’s work in His life and wanted to praise Him. However, the psalmist wanted the entire world to recognize God’s work in his life; he wanted “all the earth” to join him in praising God.

How should the earth praise God? “Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds!” I know the word “awesome” found its way into colloquial lingo in the 1980’s to describe anything good. In formal English, the word carries a far deeper and more profound meaning. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines awesome as “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.” The awesomeness of God’s power results in worship and fear: “So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you.” When the creation recognizes God’s work, it responds with worship: “All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name.”

The Hebrews never forgot God’s work in their history. I know I tend to make a big deal of history in my sermons, but I have a reason. History really does describe God’s work in His people; it really does describe “His story.” Show me a group with no grasp of history, and I’ll show you a group that buckles the moment they encounter trials and persecution in life.

The psalmist called on his listeners to “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.” Moses had commanded the Hebrews to teach God’s acts and laws to their children (Deuteronomy 6:7) so the people would never forget what God had done in the history of the nation. “He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There did we rejoice in him, who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations— let not the rebellious exalt themselves.” The Exodus proved God’s love for His nation. The Jews today still celebrate the Exodus every year at the festival of Passover.

God’s work involves more than giving us stuff; it sometimes involves trying us to strengthen us. We must praise God even in the trials, knowing His strength will bring us through everything we face in life. “Bless our God, O peoples; let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept our soul among the living and has not let our feet slip.” God tested the Hebrews “as silver is tried.” You can’t obtain pure metals without intense heat, but the purity of the metal increases its strength and value. The purer the metal, the higher the heat required to obtain it. In His mysterious way, God allows life to try us to prepare us for greater responsibility and blessings.

God also sometimes allows persecution of His people. The psalmist said, “You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs.” I know that, like me, you’ve heard the old saying, “God won’t lay more on us than we can bear.” I hate to tell you, but you won’t find that promise in Scripture. If God tried us only in relation to our own strength, we could make it through life without Him. As the psalmist recognized, “You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.” God brings us through crushing burdens so we learn to rely on Him and not on ourselves.

When — not if — God brings us through the trials, bringing us “to a place of abundance,” we must praise Him! The psalmist clearly refers to the peace offering in verses 13-15. “I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will perform my vows to you, that which my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fattened animals, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats.” The praise offering consisted of a communal meal in which the offerer brought enough material to sacrifice to feed himself, his family, and also the poor in the sanctuary. The worshiper praised God aloud as the animal cooked on the altar. Therefore, everyone in the sanctuary heard what the worshiper had suffered and how God had delivered him. This both gave proper praise to God and also strengthened the faith of everyone else in the sanctuary. Everyone there knew that if God had answered the petitions of the one giving the peace offering, He would work in his petitions, too.

In this case, the worshiper called out, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul. I cried to him with my mouth, and high praise was on my tongue.” The worshiper had experienced trials, and God had delivered him. In the process, the worshiper had experienced repentance for sins: “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.”

Since God had answered the prayers of the psalmist, he could rejoice: “Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!” The “steadfast love,” “hesed,” referred to an eternal, unconditional love that God demonstrates to everyone who worships Him and lives in covenant relationship with Him.

This psalm clearly teaches us that God deserves our praise; He deserves our worship, and He deserves our reverence as we go through life.

Do we give God what He deserves?

As I prayed about this sermon, it occurred to me that we have an excellent example of how people today sometimes treat God when He blesses us. Here in the South, most of us follow college football. As a pastor of a diverse congregation, I try to maintain a level of pastoral neutrality in my football loyalties, but my latent loyalties (ROLL TIDE!!!) sometimes reveal themselves.

I’ve noticed that many people who cheer for my team demonstrate tendencies I see in the Church in our praise of God. When times go well, and we’re winning national championships, everyone wants to cheer for our team. However, I remember the dark days not so many years ago when our team endured the unjust penalties of a corrupt and utterly inept organization with absolutely no legitimacy. (No, I’m not bitter; I’m convinced.) In those days, we forgot about those years when a coach led us to six national championships. We forgot about those years when national championships seemed a birthright of every fan. Instead, we complained loudly about how lousy our team played in the present.

The Hebrews never really forgot the Exodus, but over the 800 years afterward, they strayed from the covenant so badly God finally had to punish them for their iniquities and transgressions. The Hebrews forgot to teach their children what God had done for them; they forgot to praise God for His work in their lives. As a result, generations arose who didn’t know of God’s work or His love. The people who rejoiced at the Exodus lamented in the Exile as God drove them from the land.

Today, we have experienced an Exodus as well. God’s Son, Jesus, came to earth, lived among us, and died to redeem us from sin. Jesus then rose again from the dead to insure us of eternal life. Now, everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, believing God raised Him from the dead, receive salvation and the promise of eternal life (John 3:16; Romans 10:9-10).

Do we praise God for the resurrection of Jesus? Two thousand years have elapsed, but the resurrection of Jesus continues to redeem everyone who believes in Him. Do we praise God for what He has done in our lives? He still deserves our praise.

In this light, I call on all believers today to do two things.

First, this afternoon, I call on you to praise God for His deliverance from the trials in which you’ve found yourself in the past year. Even more, I encourage you to write out what God has done. Spend some time thinking about your life’s trials, and then meditate on how God has saved you from those trials. Write them.

Congratulations! What you’ve written constitutes a testimony. This week, find someone who needs to hear your testimony, and then tell them what God has done for you. I’ll exempt you from having to feed them (as you would do in the peace offering), but someone you know — or someone you’ll meet — needs to hear that God still works in the lives of His people.

God has not rejected our prayers, nor has He removed His steadfast love from us. As you go through this week, give Him glorious praise for the awesome deeds He has performed in your life.

Where Is God? Psalm 79

Delivered 22 September 2019.

How can an omnipresent God seem so far away?

Few Christians make it through life without experiencing a period where God seems distant. I’ve noticed that those traditions who rely heavily on emotional experiences for their salvation tend to ignore or outright deny the existence of these times. People in those traditions then endure crises of belief when their emotions don’t match the teachings of their denominations.

You can’t read the Scriptures without uncovering the reality of a distant God. Israel knew God in a relationship unlike all other nations, and they, too, faced periods where God seemed far away. Today’s sermon text comes from one of those periods.

God established His covenant with Israel through Moses in c. 1446 B.C. The covenant clearly explained both God’s expectations of Israel and the consequences of breaking the covenant. God then spent the next 8 centuries watching Israel shatter the covenant countless times. For 8 centuries, Israel would commit idolatry, oppress the poor, and act as badly as the nations around them; yet, when the Hebrews cried on God and repented, He forgave them.

Time ran out for Israel in 605 B.C. with the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar conquered the modern Middle East, including the small nation of Judah, Israel’s last sovereign nation. Since the Hebrews lived in the nation of Judah, the Babylonians and other Mesopotamians referred to them as “Jews.”

Nebuchadnezzar took thousands of Jews (including Daniel and his 3 friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) into captivity and stripped the Temple of most of its gold vessels. Judah rebelled in 597 B.C., leading to another visit by the Babylonians and more captives. Finally, in 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar had had enough of Judah’s disobedience. The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, killed thousands, and deported thousands more into captivity in modern Iraq.

Psalm 79 dates from the time following the destruction of Jerusalem. This psalm describes the agony of believers who feel as if God has abandoned them, but it also paints us a beautiful picture of God’s work in our lives in times of trial and distress.

Psalm 79 serves as an excellent example of what scholars call the “Lament Psalms.” Psalms of lament tell us that God’s people have experienced times of darkness and trial before. I find this immensely comforting, because it means my own times of darkness occur in the lives of others. God has brought others through these times, and He will bring me through them, too.

The Lament Psalms usually follow a set pattern, a pattern we can see in Psalm 79. First, the psalmist explains his complaint to God. Then, the psalmist laments his condition. The psalmist will petition God for help in his time of trouble. Lastly — and extremely importantly — the psalmist will praise God for His work to remedy the cause of the lament. We must never forget that God will always work to help His people, even if He does so in His time, not in ours.

Psalm 79 opens with a cry against the pagan nations that had destroyed Jerusalem. The psalmist cries to God that the “nations” had desecrated His “inheritance.” God had promised the land of Israel to Abraham and then to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. God had redeemed the Jews from slavery in Egypt and returned them to the land. Now, the land God had promised to the Jews lay in waste because of pagan armies.

Even worse, the Babylonians had “laid Jerusalem in ruins.” God had told the Jews, “I have chosen Jerusalem that my name may be there” (2 Chronicles 6:6); of all the mighty cities of the ancient world, God chose Jerusalem for the location of His holy temple. You can visit the Church of the Resurrection today and see a statue depicting the “navel” of the world, a reference to Jerusalem’s importance to the major religions of the world. In spite of its prominence before God, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, burning everything flammable and pulling down its walls.

As bad as the Babylonians treated the city’s structures, they mistreated its citizens even worse. The Babylonians left the bodies of the Jews unburied for the animals to eat; they literally took so many people into captivity that no one remained to bury the bodies.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the murder of thousands left the Jews humiliated: “We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us.” The Jews had broken their covenant with God, but they still expected God to protect His city and His Temple. Jerusalem had become like a talisman to the Jews; they never thought God would allow any nation to destroy the city, regardless of the depravity of their sins. The Jews had bragged of Jerusalem’s invincibility; now, all the other nations had witnessed Jerusalem’s humiliation as the Babylonians completely wrecked the city.

After his complaint, the psalmist moved to his lament. “How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire?” God had promised His people they would experience destruction and exile if they failed to keep the covenant, and for 800 years He had patiently endured their disobedience. However, disobedience brings consequences. God kept His word. The destruction of Jerusalem shocked the Jews so badly they felt as if God would remain “angry forever;” they feared God would never again bless His people.

The psalmist wanted God to punish the Babylonians for their excesses in their conquest of Judah. “Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name!” If God would deal with His people so severely, certainly He would punish the pagans as well! “For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.”

Now we come to the petition of the psalmist. “Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us.” The psalmist knew Israel had sinned; no one could see the wreckage of Jerusalem and ignore the reasons for God’s judgment. God had punished Israel for her sins. However, the psalmist hoped God would not continually remember the “iniquities” of His people. The Hebrew word for “remember” implies an action on the memory; the psalmist knew God had acted on His memories of the Jews’ sins. The word “iniquity” in Hebrew implies a perversion or twisting of the law; the Jews had twisted God’s words to justify their own desires and actions. Only God’s “compassion” would save His people from His righteous anger at their disobedience.

God may have destroyed His city and sent His people into captivity, but the Jews knew they could still call on Him for help. When God brought His people out of Egypt, the people repaid Him by worshiping a golden calf at Mount Sinai. When God threatened to destroy the nation, Moses reminded Him of the consequences: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people” (Exodus 32:12). The psalmist knew God would still help His people in this time of trial as well. “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake!” The people’s sins had brought this calamity on them, but God could still help His people. Any God who could restore Israel from the destruction they had endured would bring “glory” to His name. Any God who would save His people from this catastrophe would “deliver” His people physically from their captors and also “atone” for their sins, delivering them from spiritual destruction as well.

Following the Babylonian conquest, the pagans had taunted the Jews: “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” In the ancient world, people viewed any war between nations as a war between the nations’ gods. Since Judah had suffered complete destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, it appeared as if Babylon’s gods (especially Marduk , its patron deity) had defeated Israel’s God. The psalmist wanted God to avenge the defeat of His people by “preserving” the Jews “doomed to die” and by repaying “sevenfold into the lap of our neighbors the taunts with which they have taunted you, O Lord!” People today don’t like to think of God as an avenging God, but the ancient Jews had no problem calling on God to avenge the wrongs performed against them. The Jews knew they had sinned and deserved punishment, but the Babylonians had committed atrocities that exceeded the punishment of God. The ancient Jews expected God to render justice.

Lastly, we come to the praise in the psalm, a section I believe ranks as one of the most important sections in any lament. Too often, we forget to praise God in the midst of sorrow; we forget that He cares about us and will work to help us. “But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.” Even as their nation disappeared into captivity, the psalmist and the Jews expected God to preserve them; they would continue to praise Him “from generation to generation.” The ancient believers knew that suffering would not endure forever; God would always work to bring relief to His people.

I have an important lesson for you: People haven’t changed. We still sin against God, and we still suffer the consequences for our sin. We still find ourselves at times facing perceived alienation from God. We still find ourselves in the darkness, wondering whether God cares and whether He will deliver us.

Today, we live in tension between the “after” time and the “before” time. We live after God’s ultimate expression of salvation and deliverance, the crucifixion of Jesus and His glorious resurrection. We also live in the “before” time of the moment when Jesus will return to bring justice to the earth, the moment our faith shall become sight.

Today, we live in the time when God’s offer of salvation extends to everyone who believes in Jesus, confessing Him as Lord and believing in His resurrection. When we believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, leading us, encouraging us, and guiding us in our lives.

Still, we sometimes feel alone.

In these times, I have more important lessons.

First, God hasn’t forgotten you. The ancients believed their gods existed only in their particular geographical areas. The Jews quickly learned in exile that God lived in Babylon just as He had lived in Jerusalem. Regardless of where you live, wherever you find yourself, God remains with you.

Next — and I believe this lesson applies even more to us in America, where we focus so obsessively on our individual relationship with God — lament in the Scriptures occurs most often in the corporate context. Reread this psalm, and point out to me the first person pronouns. You won’t find any. Even the individual laments in Scripture have as their unspoken background the existence of the petitioner as a member of the people of God. As Claus Westermann reminds us,

“In every lament there are ‘the others’ and — expressed or implied — they always have something to do with the lament. For the one who utters the lament is never an isolated individual standing alone; the lamenter is always a member of a group. This fundamental structure is the common feature of all the laments in the Old Testament; it unites all their varied expressions” (Praise and Lament in the Psalms, pp. 169-170)

This brings us to the lesson:

You do not lament alone.

You do not lament alone.

You do not lament alone.

As my favorite science fiction author writes, “What I tell you 3 times is true.” We so often forget we can ask others for help; we can ask others to pray with us and for us. We can encourage one another when we know others lament. Ask for help! Ask for intercession! Never lament alone!

Yes, I know this goes against our instinctive reaction to bear stoically our burdens; it revolts against our pride to admit we need help. Christian, pride destroys; pride isolates, and sin always finds its easiest victims in isolation. Never let your pride keep you from admitting you need help in your lament.

Lastly, and most importantly, I stand here today and admit I have often forgotten to praise God in the midst of my laments, both for His work in my life before the time of lament and for my trust that He will work to bring me through the time of lament and into a time of joy. You don’t have to wait for God to deliver you to start praising Him. God has already delivered you from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus, His Son. God has already promised you eternal life with the corporate body of believers. Regardless of your emotions — regardless of whether you find yourself now in lament or in joy — praise God. Praise Him for what He has done; praise Him for what He is doing; and praise Him for what He will do. Praise Him because He loves you. Praise Him because of His love for you through Jesus, His Son. Praise Him for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Praise Him now for the eternity you will share.

“Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
“Praise Him, all creatures here below;
“Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
“Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

Thomas Ken, “Doxology,” 1674


C.S. Lewis, Reflections of the Psalms. Edison, NJ: Inspirational Press, 2004.

Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981.

Searched, Known, and Loved: Psalm 139

Delivered 8 September 2019.

Have you ever wondered what’s the point of it all?

David knew. If anyone knew anything about the point of life, David knew. You can’t go from a sheep’s pen to a throne room without realizing God has a plan for our lives.

Today’s sermon text not only confirms that life has a point, it affirms that God cares about us and helps us to the point. In one of the most beautiful psalms you’ll find in Scripture, David wrote of the care of God, the wonder of God, and the plan of God for us.

David opened by assuring us of God’s knowledge of every person who ever lived. “O LORD, you have searched me and known me!” In his life, David had come to realize that God had examined him; God knew everything about him. God knew everything that David did. God knew everything David ever thought. God knew every word David said, and He knew the words David intended to say before he said them. God knew every word David thought of saying but decided to withhold. God knew every action David had ever taken, and He knew the intent behind those actions.

God’s protection of David brought comfort at times, but it sometimes troubled him as well. “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” Imagine cupping your hand and putting it over something so it cannot escape, and you’ll see David’s imagery here. Nothing could reach David in God’s hand, but he also couldn’t escape God’s presence, either.

David’s realization of God’s knowledge and protection overwhelmed him: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” David came to understand that God knew every intimate detail of his life. God knew everything about David, even those things David didn’t know, even those things David wished He didn’t know. God knew both the good and bad in David, both the conscious and the subconscious.

If this kind of knowledge frightens you, David would understand. The thought of escape flew into David’s mind: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” How many of us have wished God didn’t know anything about us? How many have wished we could flee from God? How many of us have tried to flee from God?

David wanted to run from God, but God’s omnipresence kept him from escaping.

“If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. 

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”

Regardless of where David thought of running, he knew no one could run from God; nowhere in the universe — or outside it — exists outside of God’s awareness. In our worst moments, we want to flee from God, but in our best moments, we realize God’s protection keeps us from trouble, and His Spirit guides us through the trials we face in life.

God guides us because He creates us for a purpose. David’s vivid description of God’s forming him in the womb reminds us of Jeremiah’s calling to the prophetic ministry over 400 years later. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1: 5). St. Paul wrote nearly 650 years after Jeremiah that God “had set me apart before I was born” (Galatians 1:15).

Since God created David for a purpose, David could rest in God’s care; David could trust in God’s provision. David understood God constantly kept him in His mind. “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.” When David faced Goliath, God remembered him. When David ran through the desert to escape Saul, God went with him. When the Philistines killed Saul, God stayed with David and protected him as he ruled Israel.

David understood God had chosen him to rule Israel. God had chosen David to bring justice to his kingdom. David prayed God would “slay the wicked” so his people would live in righteousness. David hated those who hated God, even counting them among his “enemies.”

David knew God’s purpose for his life included faithfulness to His covenant and righteous living. Because he had trusted in God, David could ask God to “search” him and “know” his heart. David knew God’s ultimate purpose for him would lead him “in the way everlasting” because God loved him with an everlasting love.

This brings us to the question I asked at the beginning. Have you ever wondered what’s the point of it all? David’s psalm declares, in glorious fashion, God’s point to life for us.

David’s descendant, Jesus, fulfills this psalm in perfect fashion. Jesus told Nicodemus the reason for God’s care for us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

God planned Jesus’ life from His birth by the Virgin Mary, throughout His ministry in Galilee, to His crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection made possible God’s ultimate plan for creation: The redemption of humanity from sin and the defeat of death. Now, everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, receives salvation from sin and death; every believer receives the right to a relationship with God.

Because of Jesus, we know God still creates us for a purpose. You cannot achieve that purpose without God’s aid. You exist for a purpose only you can achieve. You have a part in God’s plan for the ministry of the Church. 

You may not comprehend God’s plan for your life, especially since no one receives a written-out copy of God’s plan at birth. We must live by faith, knowing that God’s wondrous thoughts for us assure He will accomplish His plan for us, protecting and guiding us through life.

Lastly, we know that plan will lead us in “the way everlasting.” That “way” begins with our spiritual birth as we confess Jesus as Lord of our lives, believing in His resurrection. God guides us in that way through Scripture, prayer, worship, and fellowship with other believers. God’s way challenges us at times when we wish we could escape God’s care, but it also comforts us when we remember God provides for all those who live by faith, believing in Jesus and living rightly before God.

David looked for an everlasting life. His descendant, Jesus, died and rose again to bring everlasting life. God has searched you, He knows you, and He loves you with an everlasting love. Live assured in God’s care for you, knowing He will bring you to an eternal life in a new heaven and new earth, resting in His eternal love.

Declaring the Glory of God: Psalm 19

Delivered 30 September 2018.

Sermon text: Psalm 19.

A few weeks ago, I arrived at the Lions Club park on a Wednesday night for the weekly Ultimate Frisbee game. I arrived first, meaning no one had turned on the lights to the field.

I stepped out of my car and looked up at the sky.

With no light pollution, the stars practically leapt out of the darkness. Constellations emerged from the chaotic patterns. After others arrived, one of the Horseshoe Farms fellows pointed out the Milky Way filling a swath of the sky.

Unquestionably, “the heavens declare the glory of God.”

During his life, David experienced the beauty I saw at the park on many occasions. The skies back then lacked all the light pollution we suffer today, so nights out in the Judean wilderness would have awed almost anyone. As someone who saw the handiwork of God all around him — as someone who saw beauty in words and music as well as in creation — David would have found his eyes drawn upward to admire creation, finding inspiration for today’s Scripture.

The psalm today neatly divides into 3 sections. The first section describes the perfection of God’s creation. The second section describes the perfection of God’s law. The last section describes the desire of David to keep God’s law and live in the place of blessing. After 3,000 years, Psalm 19 continues to call us to meditate on God’s creation and to request His help in living godly lives before Him.

David’s first inspiration for this psalm came from the grandeur of the heavens. David saw the “glory of God” in the beauty of the night sky. We sometimes forget that after God finished His creation, He declared it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Even though humanity’s sin of rebellion has marred us, God’s creation remains good, functioning as He created it.

No matter where he looked, David saw the work of God and heard the voice of God. The days spoke to him about God; the nights taught him about God. Using poetic language, David described the sun’s movement. Some people may think of sun deities when they read David’s description of the sun running “a course with joy,” but David never ascribes deity to the sun; he correctly views the sun as a vital part of God’s creation.

As David gazed upon the perfection of God’s creation, his thoughts turned to the perfection of God’s words. Every term David used points to the perfection of the word of God.

First, the word “law” in verse 7 refers to the “torah.” “Torah” refers to the teaching of the law. In later times, the word “Torah” would come to  refer to the books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These 5 books held the entirety of the Mosaic Law. Every king was expected to keep a copy of the “Law” (probably the book of Deuteronomy) with him at all times. The Torah laid out God’s expectations of Israel.

David next used the word “testimony.” This word always refers to the testimony of God. The Psalmist who authored Psalm 119 would use this word as a synonym of “torah” to refer to God’s law. The word translated “testimony” usually refers to a warning more than what we would call testimony. In other words, the “testimony,” or warning, of God, would help the “simple” become wise. The word for “simple” refers to those people who believe anything they hear.

David then wrote, “the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.” We’ll look more at the adjective here. The word translated “right” refers to a straight line. Those who follow the precepts of God will walk rightly on the straight path He requires of us.

David referred to the “commandment of the LORD.” Everyone thinks of the Ten Commandments when we hear the word “commandment.” David wrote that following the commandments will “enlighten the eyes,” showing us clearly the will of God.

Lastly, David wrote of the “rules of the LORD.” The word translated “rules,” like the word translated “precepts” above, both refer to the commandments of God. These nouns all point to the words of God that will guide humanity into righteous living with God. Everyone who approaches God rightly will come in the “fear of the LORD” until he receives forgiveness.

How precious are God’s words? David wrote, “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” Once he ascended to the throne, David became the wealthiest man in Israel. He would have given every ounce of gold to follow the law of God. David realized God’s word, God’s commandments, “warned” the servants of God and kept them on the right path.

This brings us to the last section, the section of request.

David prayed God would keep him from “hidden faults,” “presumptuous sins,” and “great transgression.” David wisely prayed for God to reveal those sins he would hide from others, a prayer God answered when Nathan confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba (cf. Psalm 51). “Presumptuous sins” refers to pride, the greatest of all sins. “Transgression” refers to a military rebellion, in other words, those sins we know better to commit but intentionally commit anyway.

David concluded this psalm with one of the greatest prayer requests any of us can make. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” David recognized the safety that came from relying on God, his Redeemer.

Today, on this side of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, we can view even deeper into the timeless words of David.

First, we know that God’s creation speaks today as it has for the existence of humanity, pointing people to the reality of God. St. Paul wrote, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20).

Creation may reveal God’s existence, but only the Word made Flesh (John 1:14), Jesus, can tell people how to come to God. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 

Israel quickly learned they could never keep the Torah; they could never keep the law of God. God had graciously given them a system of sacrifices by which they could have peace with Him, but the author of Hebrews wrote, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The Word of God, Jesus His Son, became the sacrifice on our behalf on the cross. Then, the Word rose from the dead, assuring our eternal life when we confess Him as Lord and believe in His resurrection (Romans 10:9-10).  St. Paul wrote that faith in Jesus “will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 4:25-5:1).

David called on God as his “redeemer.” St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).

Tonight, I encourage you to behold the glory of God in the heavens, but this morning, I encourage you to behold the glory of God in Jesus, His Son. Behold the beauty of God’s grace in Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Behold the love of God in Jesus’ resurrection. One day, Jesus will raise us into a new creation, where we will see the glory of God face to face. Until then, may we pray in perfect confidence to our Father in heaven: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”