Life and Death Stuff 2/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
September 24th, 2017
Fortunately the underlayment was not in bad shape and the termites were abated. Some of you said did we really have to do all that? We really had to do all that. Our trustees have been about this and, thankfully, we have trustees who say we’re going to do it right and we’re not going to get in a hurry. Things that you hurry to do seldom work out well and taking the time necessary really paid off.
It was discovered that the – once it all was taken up – termites came in from outside and walked along the cracks and got over in the steps over there, over, under the ramp and up the pole or the post and into the ceiling over there. And between the first two lights you can begin… you can see, if you get under it, you can look up and say, oh yes, termites. So, it was all taken care of. There was a lot of spraying, and I thought that would smell this place up, but it didn’t. And now it’s all underneath and sealed up.
And this is red oak. And it was going to sit for a week and a little more and then it’ll be stained, and we’ll begin wearing it out, soon thereafter. And that’s the purpose of everything in the church. Some people say shall we bring coffee in the church? Sure. Add your stain to the rest. So, it’s what carpet’s for, is catching coffee. And what is that a new stage for except scratching? That’s what we do. That’s how it is. So, when kids bounce balls in the church, great! And if it breaks the wallboard, we’ll fix it, because that’s what wallboard is for.
And, well, we’ve made it through this last week. And I want to tell you there are some scriptures that you should read all by themselves, although, not very many. Most scriptures are a lot like operating a sewing machine. You can oftentimes fix a small tear by using a single loop, but, not very many. Using a sewing machine you have to pay attention to what comes before and what comes after the next stitch. And every stitch is tied to the next stitch by a single thread. And so, today, I feel like I’m stringing a little.
Like Psalm 40, we can read it all by itself as a psalm of praise, but if we do that we’re missing out on so much of the breadth and the depth of this text. We have to read it in progression. It’s a psalm… the psalms are especially like this; like sewing. Psalm 23 is visible in this story, as is Psalm 69, as is the story of Jonah. And it’s reflected all in Mark 4 where Jesus is in the boat with the disciples and the storm comes. We’ll get to that in a minute.
But I’m talking, I guess, about purpose in life and I’m talking about meaning in life today, because, that’s what this text is about. And it seemed like a relevant text to talk about because there’s water involved in the text. And so let’s start with water. Tuvalu is disappearing. You do know that right? Tuvalu is going to go away and you’re saying, yay!, what’s Tuvalu? Tuvalu is a small chain of islands in the South Pacific and the tide is rising. With global warming and the melting of the icecaps water levels are coming up noticeably. And it’s going to be a few years, and only a few years, before Tuvalu disappears. There is a certain inevitability to what’s going to happen.
New Orleans resides behind a levy. And the elevation of New Orleans is from 20ft below sea level, for a good portion of it, and it rises all the way up to 2ft below sea level. New Orleans exists behind a very nice levy system. But there is a certain inevitability about what’s going to happen. The Florida Panhandle was not habitable until the Army Corps of Engineers drained and rerouted a whole bunch of swamp water in the late ’30s. And this happened because a few thousand people were killed in two hurricanes, one in 1926, and one in 1928. There is a certain inevitability about building and living in the Florida Panhandle.
This is precisely how the psalmist feels when he cried, save me oh God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire. There is no foothold for me to lift myself up. Flood waters sweep over me. There is a certain inevitability and I’m not meaning to say, wow, we’re great to live in Arizona, because, that’s probably not what’s going to get us in Arizona. But something’s going to get all of us. No one has survived forever. We all will die. It is inevitable and I think it would be better if we stopped pretending otherwise.
Where is it that you and I feel a sense of inevitability? Is it when you just went in for your physical and the doctor’s office calls and says we need you to come back in for more tests? Your blood… is it when you can’t seem to help a wayward child of yours? Can’t seem to get them on track. Nothing seems to work. Is it when your spouse left work at five o’clock but doesn’t come up until close to nine? And any time you ask, well, what happened, where were you, they become defensive. Or is it when your particular addiction gets its spiny fingers around your throat and you can’t seem to shake it?
Psalm 40 though, our text for today, is a psalm about rescue. It’s about I waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined to me, heard my cry, drew me up out of my desolate pit and my miry bog; set my feet on solid ground. Of course, we want to know, how does this happen? What is going on here? Because all of us know of times we need rescue. Psalm 40 tells us, it begins with waiting, but waiting is a terrible word. It’s a bad translated word, waiting, and then it adds patiently waiting and we think of sitting in our chair; this is my waiting psalm. I’m waiting on the Lord. And, yes, no that’s not what the text implies. The original Hebrew has to do with I waited intensely for God. There’s a physical involvement. I am into what is happening here. This is not patient waiting. This is a lifeline waiting. I am sinking and I need something.
We throw up a cry like a lifeline hoping God will grab it and lift us out of it. The text proclaims that hoping intensely is not disappointed. We’ll come back to that hoping intensely. Well, actually, we’ll go there right now. What happens when we hope intensely is we throw everything on the table. We sort it out and we start making choices for how we’re going to live now. We’re in the waiting room and we’re sorting. Have you ever been in the waiting room and you’re sorting out your life, going, I got to quit that? I got to stop. You’re changing how we think about things. That’s hoping intensely for Almighty God and God’s way does not disappoint.
Now, the alternative is when we’re sitting in the waiting room or we’re sitting bedside in the hospital room and we’re sorting and we begin to rely on ourselves. Pull yourself up. Buck up. Stiffen that chin. Tighten that upper lip. You can’t cry. Or we start talking to ourselves in the sense of I’m going down into the bog. I know I am never coming back up. There’s… despair has got me. All I can do is be bummed. And we are. We’re making choices.
But the text of Psalm 40 says when we intentionally wait for God, when we are intense in our hope for God’s way to change our way, not some solution coming from the bank, not some solution from a sale at Target, not some solution from an intellectual insight where we go, aha, I can solve this, but when we hope intensely in God’s way, somehow a way forward comes to us. This is the power of God’s kingdom. Let me tell you what I mean. And this is why it’s so important that we’re looping together texts, because this starts to make sense, if we see the bigger picture.
There’s nothing new happening in Psalm 40. This is Psalm 23 in repetition. Psalm 23 is on land and it’s about a sheep being lost. Can the sheep find itself? No it cannot. A sheep bleats and a sheep wanders and becomes more lost. And when fear finally gets a hold of the sheep, the sheep just stands there, and trembles. And God comes as a good shepherd and scoops up the sheep, rescues the sheep, and puts it on a new path.
Our text today, Psalm 40, is Psalm 23 repeat. Just add water. Can we paddle our way out of water when we’re lost? No we cannot. It’s the story of Jonah who didn’t like what God had asked him to do and so he said, get lost, and then he proceeded to try. He got on a boat and he tried to sail away. He tried to be self-interpreting, self-determining, self-reliant. He was engaged in a lot of self-talk. And he got on a boat and he tried to go in a new direction; a direction he defined. And when waves came and the boat looked like it was going to swamp he said to his shipmates, I am the cause of your suffering, throw me overboard. Self-destruction. Self-reliance, self-determination, self-talk, self-destruction.
God sends a fish to scoop him out of the water and then, in the belly of the fish, Jonah proceeds to self-define. He’s talking about himself. He’s talking about what he’s going to do and how he’s going to solve this. And how other people didn’t understand him and how God doesn’t even understand him. And then, for just one simple sentence, he gives into the idea that he needs to open himself to God and let God define him. And, suddenly, he’s barfed out of the fish. He finds himself standing on the beach covered in fish barf, that smell that will not let you go, but he’s on solid ground. He’s been rescued.
And, as our text today Psalm 40 proclaims, life begins anew. You didn’t think you were going to make it through that patch. You didn’t think you were going to survive. Here you are. We may be exhausted, we may be dripping wet, but what could have happened hasn’t happened yet. And we are, in that moment of realizing our survival, lifted up. That’s what our text tells us; our eyes are lifted up. Our being is lifted up. And, you know what; we’re only on verse three in Psalm 40. All of this is in the first three verses.
And now the text shifts a little bit. The author says, oh, but this is just the beginning of God’s working in your life. God expects some things from you now. You’ve been rescued. Great! God expects some things from you and there’s some things listed out in Psalm 40. The first one… and then let me tell you what all of these things are about. You got to quit what got you lost in the first place. You got to quit what got you lost in the first place. And then so there’s a list of things, so that God is changing, in the author of Psalm 40.
The first one is got to give up your idols. Where we may have trusted other gods or other forces in the world; now we trust God alone. And this is where we’ve got to empty our pockets on the table and say, well, I was counting on personal strength to get me through that. I’m a strong… yes. That’s idolatry. I was counting on my prayer life to get me through. Yes. That’s idolatry. I was counting on some shock therapy to help me cope with… yes. That’s idolatry.
God does not want idolatry and God doesn’t want us to run to the church and suddenly begin engaging in meaningless repetitive motions. Those don’t mean anything to God either. The text tells us that too. Burnt offerings and making offerings just to make offering; no. Stop that. God is looking to restore our souls. This is Psalm 23. God is looking to restore our souls and, evidently, part of the function of restoring our souls involves giving up our idols. Get rid of those distractions.
The second thing that the text tells us is that God wants a new obedience from us; an embrace of the ways of righteousness. This is Psalm 23:2. He leads me in the paths of righteousness. It means giving… living our life differently. Living intentionally. No longer flapping around like a fish out of water, no longer thinking, I got this. No you don’t. No longer seeking our purpose apart from God’s definition of us. It’s our chance to be our better selves. It’s practicing those ways that lead to inner peace and truth-telling. The importance of truth-telling is that we become unflappable, because, we don’t have to remember lies to defend. We can be calm and secure with who we are because we know whose we are.
Now, we’re 21st century Americans, so we imagine this new rescued life is a life of utter freedom and liberty without expectation. But the reason we expect that is because we haven’t read the Bible. The Old Testament is all about community. There is no off on your own. There are 640 commands in the Old Testament. Most of them are about justice, about right relationship with our neighbors, about living together in a community and thriving and caring for one another. About putting fairness before profit, of course, with our friends, but, especially with people we don’t like.
That’s the first two. Along with our rejection of idols and an embrace of a new obedience God expects us to be a voice for justice in our community; a willingness to speak up. And then the text takes a weird turn and in verse 11 begins a song of lament. We’re not prepared for this. This is out of order of the… understood logically the sequence is all wrong. A complaint or a lament should have come way back at the beginning before the rescue, so, what’s going on? Why do we have a lament now after the rescue?
Well, one of two things has happened. Either the speaker in our text today has not followed the shepherd. Oh, yes, he hoped intensely for the Lord, he threw up his lifeline, he was rescued, but, he wanted a quick fix. And he didn’t get rid of all of his old idols. He kept around some of the magazines and the remote was pretty handy to his hand. And the credit card was pretty important to his time, and the Xbox, and he kept all his old friends. And he started to embrace this idea of a new obedience, living life differently, but he found out that it was hard and he fell back into old patterns. And then thinking about the ways of God only three times a week if he was… and then one time a week on Sundays because he saw it on TV.
And he started to speak with good intention of God’s work in his life and a commitment to justice. But then his friends made fun of him for it, kind of rolled their eyes at him and clucked their tongues and looked at their watches like, are you done talking yet? And our speaker in Psalm 40 is back where he started. He didn’t give up what got him lost in the first place and he’s in rising water. And I kind of want to ask you to raise your hands if you know this, but I kind of don’t, because I think all of us know that path of successfully un-rescuing ourselves.
The other option, for why this song of celebration in Psalm 40 has now led to a lament, the speaker in our text today followed through. He reached up to God. He threw up his lifeline and he said; God, only your way can lead me out of where I am. And he followed through on the ways of righteousness. He rejected his old idols. He quit logging in to lose time. He let his subscriptions run out. He drove home by a different route. He found some new friends. And he sought to be obedient to God’s ways. He started getting up early to walk and to reflect and pray while he walked. He made some new… he joined a group and he became a voice in the community for God’s justice.
He got involved with a homeless shelter and one night he was down there serving and this question started to bug his soul, as he scooped beans and corn, working on why are people hungry in our nation of plenty? And he did some research. And he started making phone calls and he started writing letters and he started talking with his neighbors. And he started to be a bit active about his work of justice and what does the world do when it hears the voice of God? What does the world do to respond to justice?
Well, greed gets paranoid and old masters grow angry. Powers and principalities begin to shake with rage. And then they set traps and they undercut authority and they threaten and they fire and they begin smear campaigns. And this is a message we’ve heard many times before. Psalm 23 says you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Psalm 35 says it this way. They concealed their net for me because I follow you. Or Jesus said it this way. Blessed are you when people put you down or speak lies to discredit you because you’re faithfully speaking a word they don’t want. That’s what it leads to and you know this. It is inevitable.
Now, I think we come out of the Old Testament and Jesus comments on what we’ve been talking about this building of the kingdom, this coming of the kingdom and God’s ways leading us out and finding a new way for us to walk. And his comment about it is in Mark 4 verses 35 through 41. The disciples are in the boat. Jesus is sleeping in the stern of the boat. A storm comes and waves rise and it all happens very quickly and the waves are coming into the boat. And the disciples are scared and they wake Jesus and he rubs his eyes and he goes, oh, peace. Be still. And the wind ceased.
And, he said to his disciples, why are you afraid? Have you no faith? And we think on this text, all by itself, and we ponder and realize that the disciples survived the storm because Jesus calmed the waves. And we notice if we draw in our text from today, Psalm 40 that the speaker begins by celebrating rescue. And so naturally we interpret these texts to mean that Jesus can calm the storms of your life. Jesus can rescue you; supernatural power of Jesus. Jesus will rescue you from the storm of cancer or the loss of your job or a difficult child. Whatever storm is raging Jesus will rescue you.
Well, now we’ve got a big problem on our hands, if we’re going to tell the truth, because, a lot of people don’t survive the storms of life. In fact, all people will not survive the storms of life. Day after Christmas, 2005, a quarter of a million people were washed away by a tsunami wave. Cancer metastasizes. You can’t find a job to replace the income of the one you lost. Your child’s learning disability is not quickly overcome. Reporters seeking justice are threatened or poisoned or killed, or, simply disappear. The problem is that we have defined faith incorrectly. Our cultural church has led us to understand faith as our willingness to intellectually ascribe to supernatural intervention. Just believe the rescue of Jesus is all about supernatural intervention. Have more faith.
But that’s not what faith means. Not even close. The word is pistis [?] in Greek and pistis, faith, is believing in God’s way; God’s different way of being. Believing in God’s way so strongly that you’re willing to act on it; wanting God’s kingdom so deeply that you’re willing to act to bring it into existence even if it costs you everything. That’s faith. It’s a commitment to living a different kind of life, the one that Jesus describes, where we don’t seek revenge on our enemies. Where we settle with our neighbour before it gets to court. Where we tell the truth even if it costs us something. Where we sacrifice to be compassionate. Where we don’t discard people who are no longer convenient to us. Where we don’t pray in public to put on a show. Wanting God’s kingdom so deeply, this different way of walking that Jesus exemplifies for us, that we’re willing to live that. That’s faith.
In Mark, right before this story of Jesus calming the storm, Jesus has done a couple of things so far. The first thing he did was he called disciples. They left their old life behind and they were being made new as they followed him. And then they were sent out. They left behind their idols. They took on a new obedience. And now they’re being sent out to publicly proclaim the way of God to the world.
And the second thing that Jesus has done is he has been telling stories about God’s kingdom. And now in the boat he begins to act it out, sending disciples out with him, with the message of Psalm 40; you have hoped intensely for God. The way of God rescues you. You are being led in ways of righteousness. Reject your old idols. Embrace a new obedience and be a voice for justice. All of that is happening in the boat. In the boat we find God’s purpose. God’s purpose for us is in the power of the kingdom of God that Jesus represents that we’re sent to share with the world. And the answer is not in the supernatural power of Jesus. The answer is in rescued people living out God’s kingdom.
We have to be careful because none of these texts, not Psalm 40, not Mark 4, not Psalm 23, not the story of Jonah promise individual Christians that we will be delivered from the storms of life. What they promise is: kingdom people are part of a grand enterprise that will succeed. If you give your life to God, if you reject your idols, if you embrace a new obedience and you make yourself to be a voice for justice in the world, then, no matter what storm you encounter, you’re giving your life to a cause that will not fail. It’s larger than you. You may not survive, but, the witness of your life will. What you’ve given your life to will go on.
God’s bigger than the storm. God’s kingdom is bigger than your measly life or my measly life. And there’s a different kind of comfort in that, one that rings true, with real life and real hope. We are kingdom people; thanks be to God.