Psalm 23

Sunday March 22nd 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 23

A Psalm for 2020

Psalm 23 is entitled “A Psalm of David,” but it could very much be entitled “A Psalm Written for the Year 2020 and the Coronavirus Pandemic.” 

I don’t know about you, but it really seems as though we are walking through a “valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4, KJV) at this moment, as the cases of COVID-19 continue to rise throughout our nation and throughout our state. Many people are living in panic and fear, and if you’ve been watching the news, it just seems as though things keep going from bad to worse.

David’s Valleys

I don’t know exactly what David was going through when he composed the words of this psalm, but we do know that David faced quite a few challenges and difficulties throughout his lifetime that could very well have been described as valleys “of the shadow of death.” 

One such time was when David was probably a teenager, and he faced off against the giant Goliath in 1 Samuel. 17. In that instance, David acted with boldness and courage (and perhaps just a bit of youthful brashness). When David heard Goliath calling out for a warrior to come out and fight against him, David volunteered, even though he was merely a lad, with absolutely no military experience. David rushed out into the valley of Elah, in the shadow of the giant Goliath, with no armor, armed with nothing but a shepherd’s sling and a few small stones. In that instance, God did indeed deliver David from that valley of the shadow of death, not only preserving his life, but also allowing him to defeat Goliath, and in so doing heroically freeing his people from the threat of tyrannical rule.

In that very same passage, David referenced the fact that at various points in his time as a shepherd boy, he had been forced to fend off lions and bears who attacked his sheep as he watched over them in the field. David told King Saul, “whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it” (1 Sam 17:34). So David was no stranger to the valley of the shadow of death, and yet each and every time God had delivered him.

David faced countless other life-threatening situations in his life-time, as a warrior and as king. King Saul tried several times to take his life. Enemy armies attacked and threatened to overtake them, and towards the end of his life even his own son Absalom rebelled against him (2 Samuel chapter 15).

And so David was very much aware of what it was like for his life to be in danger, and so he could have written this psalm at any point during his life. Perhaps he wrote this as a young child or teenager, as he sat watching his father’s sheep. Or perhaps he wrote this towards the end of his life, as he reflected back over all the years and all of the dangers that God had brought him through.

But no matter what point in his life he wrote this psalm, David wrote it out of the realization that he was not in control of his own life, but that all throughout his life he had been under the constant care and protection of God. 

Shepherd

In imagining God as his shepherd, David was drawing from one of the most tender and intimate images from his own life experience. David knew firsthand the love and care and concern that shepherds had for their sheep. 

In Biblical times, shepherds would often work and sleep outdoors for days on end, allowing the flocks to graze on the steep green slopes, and spending the nights guarding the open sheepfolds, often lying across the opening to the sheepfold to make sure that no sheep got out, and no wild animals got in.

I like to imagine David as a young boy, spending what seemed like endless days in the pastures, accompanied by nothing but his own thoughts. Perhaps sometimes David wondered what exactly his purpose in life was. Why had God made him the youngest brother, and why did he have to stay and take care of these dumb sheep, when his older brothers were off fighting and doing grand heroic things? 

And yet, he had to admit that he loved his sheep. He probably had little pet nicknames for all of them, and he knew their unique likes and dislikes. He knew that the littlest lamb liked to be scratched behind her ears, and that the oldest ewe only liked to drink from water that was perfectly and completely still.

I imagine that sometimes David would pull out his harp and make up songs, to soothe his sheep when they became frightened by some strange noise or sound or some startling movement in the grass. 

And at night, as David would stare up at the stars in the sky, drifting off to sleep to the sound of bleating of the sheep as they settled down for the night, he realized that the care and concern he felt for his sheep was just a tiny inkling of how God felt about him. God loved him, just as he loved his sheep. God cared about him, and would do anything to protect him, just as he would  for his sheep. And God knew every intimate detail about his life, even more than he knew his sheep, and God was constantly looking out for his well-being. And so the next day, when David pulled out his harp and began to play for his sheep, he began to sing, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pastures to sleep…”

God is all that, and more

Now this morning if any of us were going to write a Psalm, very few of us would naturally gravitate towards the image of a Shepherd. I know I personally have never really spent much time around sheep.

But perhaps you’re a parent or grandparent who loves your children or grandchildren, and you would do absolutely anything in the world to protect them. The love, care, and concern that you have for your children or grandchildren is just a small taste of how God feels about you. So if you were writing this psalm, perhaps you would say that “The Lord is My Parent/Grandparent.”

Perhaps you’re a teacher who has devoted your life to training and equipping the students under your charge. You would do whatever you could to see them succeed. So perhaps you would say, “The Lord is My Teacher.”

Or maybe you’ve spent time in the military, or as a healthcare provider, or as a first responder. Perhaps you might say that “The Lord is my protector” or “The Lord is my healer.”

For me as a pastor who cares deeply for each and every one of you, it gives me so much hope and encouragement to realize that “God is My Pastor.” 

This morning, as you think about the people in your life that you care about the most, and as you think about how much you love them and would do anything for them, know that that is exactly how God feels about you. Hold on to that image, and remember that no matter what life brings your way, God is looking out for you, and even when we face the valley of the shadow of death, we do not have to be afraid, for God is with us.

“He Restores My Soul”

But David doesn’t just say that God is concerned about our physical needs and well-being. He also says that the Lord “restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2). 

The word “soul” here is “the breathing substance or being,” it’s our inner self, the seat of our appetites and emotions and passions, the activity of our minds and wills and character.

You see, David realized that God wasn’t just concerned with looking out for his physical safety, but that God was also concerned with the state of his inner soul. God is the creator and sustainer of our lives, and God can restore whatever it is in our life that is dead or dying.

In one of the most famous verses of scripture in the New Testament, John 3:16, the Bible tells us “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.”

Later on in John, Jesus told his disciples, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-17). In taking on the image of the Good Shepherd, Jesus was telling us that he is in fact the image of God, and that he indeed cares about us. And as our Shepherd, Jesus willingly laid down his life for us so that we can be raised to new life — eternal life with God.

Perhaps this morning you’re struggling to find hope, or meaning or purpose in your life. Or perhaps you’re scared for the safety and wellbeing of yourself or your loved ones, or perhaps you feel helpless in the midst of everything that is going on.

This morning I want you to know that Jesus is with us, even if and when we go through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus is our Good Shepherd, looking out for us, protecting us, and providing for us. But even more than that, he has promised to restore our souls, and give us eternal life with him, if we will only put our faith and trust in him. 

Will you trust him this morning? Will you let him be your shepherd, your guide, and will you look to him to refresh and restore your soul?

Psalm 95

Sunday March 15th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 95:1-7; Romans 5:1-11

Psalm 95

Today we continue our Lenten series of the Psalms by looking at Psalm 95. Our study of the Psalms has felt very appropriate not only to this season of Lent leading up towards Easter, but also to this time of change and uncertainty that we are living in due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The poetic imagery and deep heartfelt emotion of the Psalms provide expression to worries, fears, and feelings that might otherwise be difficult to put into words.

One of the things that I love about the Psalms is that the writers of the Psalms did not shy away from the painful realities of life. Although many of the Psalms depict God and the world in beautiful, soaring imagery, the Psalms also confront the deepest and harshest realities of life. While this is a wonderful quality of the Psalms, I admit that it can also be quite shocking when a Psalm seems to start out light, and airy, and beautiful, and then takes a startlingly harsh tone.

Psalm 95 is one such Psalm. Let me read the first half again for us, this time from the Message paraphrase of the Bible:

Come, let’s shout praises to God,

    raise the roof for the Rock who saved us!

Let’s march into his presence singing praises,

    lifting the rafters with our hymns!

And why? Because God is the best,

    High King over all the gods.

In one hand he holds deep caves and caverns,

    in the other hand grasps the high mountains.

He made Ocean—he owns it!

    His hands sculpted Earth! 

So come, let us worship: bow before him,

    on your knees before God, who made us!

Oh yes, he’s our God,

    and we’re the people he pastures, the flock he feeds.

Drop everything and listen, listen as he speaks: (Psalm 95, 1-7, The Message)

Isn’t that beautiful? Every one of those verses could be combined with a gorgeous photograph, and placed on a calendar and I would buy it. Just picture those majestic, soaring mountains, the jaw-dropping stalactites and stalagmites of the caves and caverns, all perfectly illuminated and captured by a photographer the likes of Ansel Adams or Galen Rowell. Imagine God creating the oceans and sculpting the earth. Picture God’s people all over the world, bowing down before the Lord, with God as our shepherd, looking out for us.

But then we get to verse 8 of Psalm 95, and the soaring, beautiful imagery seems to disappear:

    “Don’t turn a deaf ear as in the Bitter Uprising,

As on the day of the Wilderness Test,

    when your ancestors turned and put me to the test.

For forty years they watched me at work among them,

    as over and over they tried my patience.

And I was provoked—oh, was I provoked!

    ‘Can’t they keep their minds on God for five minutes?

    Do they simply refuse to walk down my road?’

Exasperated, I exploded,

    ‘They’ll never get where they’re headed,

    never be able to sit down and rest.’”

If you’re like me, you love the first half of the Psalm — with the beautiful mountains and oceans, but you’d probably prefer to skip over that whole last part — that whole part about how the people rebelled against God, and how God was “provoked” and “exasperated” at them. Psalm 95 ends with God saying “They’ll never get where they’re headed, never be able to sit down and rest.” Sort of reminds me of all the sketches that include Debbie Downer, the character on Saturday Night Live who would show up at social gatherings and interrupt the conversation with her negative pronouncements!

But even though God said, “They’ll never get where they’re headed,” we know that the Israelites eventually DID enter the Promised Land! Or, at least the next generation did. So what happened? What changed for God? 

Well, therein lies the beauty and the poetry of the Psalms. Because, although the Psalm ends with a rather harsh word from God, the end of Psalm 95 is not the end of the story for the Israelites. Rather, Psalm 95 is an invitation to place ourselves in the unfolding narrative of God’s people. Psalm 95 is an invitation to look back, to see how God dealt with the people of Israel, and to consider, in light of that, what God might want to say to us today.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I like to think of the end of Psalm 95 as a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. When I was growing up, I used to love those Choose Your Own Adventure books. You don’t read straight through a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Instead, you read a chapter, and at the end of the chapter, it asks you a couple questions. If you decide, for example, to keep running straight into the sand dunes, then you turn to page 17 and read from there. But if you decide to stop and hide in the shack, you turn to page 20 and read from there. 

Of course, the first time reading through a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you have no idea which one is the best option. You just have to go with your gut feelings. But when you read it through several times, choosing different options, you see how your various choices would play out. Choose Your Own Adventure books invite you more deeply into the story than regular books, since you help the main character make the decisions. You are, in essence, the author of the story.

And that’s really what Psalm 95 is. It’s an invitation to see how our various choices would play out, by seeing how God interacted with the Israelite people. Will we choose to rebel against God, as the people of Israel did so many times? Or will we obey God’s commands and follow God’s path, as the people of Israel did at other times?

The psalmist tells us to “Drop everything and listen, listen as he speaks: Don’t turn a deaf ear” (Psalm 95:7-8a The Message). Or, in another translation, “Today, if only you would hear his voice, “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness” (Psalm 95:7-8a NIV).

Meribah and Massah are references to the story of the Israelites people in the book of Exodus. God had just led the Isarelites out of slavery in Egypt, and had promised to take them through the wilderness, and to enter into the promised land. We see there that God wanted the Israelite people to enter the Promised Land. God wanted them to choose the “adventure” of faith, to follow God’s commands. 

But in Exodus chapter 17, the people arrived at a place that Moses later named Massah and Meribah, which means “to test” and “to quarrel.” It was there, when they were walking through the wilderness and had run out of water, that they began to quarrel with God, asking Moses why God had brought them out of slavery from Egypt, just to let them die in the wilderness. Why hadn’t God just let them stay in Egypt where they had enough water to drink? 

The problem was not just that they doubted that God could provide for their needs, but even more problematically they were doubting that God would provide for them. TIn other words, they were not just doubting God’s ability to give them what they needed, but fundamentally they were doubting God’s goodness.

In the end God did provide water for them – and God did it in a miraculous way. God instructed Moses to take his staff and strike a rock, and water gushed forth from it. It actually wasn’t at that point that God told them they weren’t allowed to enter the promised land, but in many ways that experience was indicative of the Israelite’s whole journey in the wilderness. They continued to doubt, continued to contend and quarrel with God all throughout their journey, and it had real repercussions for them. Their lack of faith meant that they were not able to enter into the promised land for 40 more years, which for some of them meant that that they didn’t get to enter into the promised land, but instead it was their children and grandchildren who got to go in.

Our Choices Matter

So often we’d like to think that our choices don’t matter, that in the end God will just sort of give all of us a passing grade. But the things that we do or don’t do have real impact — not just on ourselves, but on others as well. 

Now there’s no way that we’re ever going to be perfect, this side of Heaven. We’re going to make mistakes, and we’re going to doubt sometimes. But therein lies the choice. When we make mistakes, when we mess up and fail, we can either choose to curl up in a ball or blame, or we can come to God and humbly repent of our wrongdoing, and ask for God’s forgiveness. 

As the psalmist says, 

So come, let us worship: bow before him,

    on your knees before God, who made us!

Oh yes, he’s our God,

    and we’re the people he pastures, the flock he feeds.

Drop everything and listen, listen as he speaks (Psalm 96:6-8a).

Romans 5

The apostle Paul provides more insight one what happens when we choose to come before God in humility and repentance. In Romans 5, Paul says “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:6, 8-9 NRSV). 

Here we see that we can try to do it on our own — try to be good, and holy, and righteous apart from God, but the reality is that we’re going to fail. We can’t do it on our own strength. Or, we can choose to receive the love, and grace, and mercy and forgiveness that Christ offers us, and the reconciliation that God made possible for us through Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul goes on to say that “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10 NRSV). Or, again from the Message paraphrase, we now have “amazing friendship with God”! (Romans 5:10, The Message). 

And so, while Psalm 95 provides a wonderful reminder of God’s amazing ability to protect and provide for us, it also lays out the stark choice that is set before us. Will we harden our hearts, and refuse to trust in God’s goodness? Will we spend our lives contending against and rebelling against God? Or will we allow God to soften our hearts, will we turn to God in obedience and trust, and open ourselves up to receive the  grace, mercy, and forgiveness that is offered to us through Jesus Christ?

Let’s choose to trust in God! Let’s choose to bow down and worship, to be reconciled with God through Christ Jesus. Let’s look to Jesus as our Shepherd, and let’s place our faith, hope and trust in God’s goodness!

Psalm 121

Sunday March 8th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 121; John 3:1-17

A Psalm of Ascents

The superscription in most of our Bibles states that Psalm 121 is a “Song of Ascents” — most likely one of the songs that was sung by travelers as they made their way to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was built on a hill, no matter which direction you were travelling from, the journey entailed travelling upwards. 

To many of the pilgrims making their way to worship in Jerusalem, the upward nature of the journey no doubt felt symbolic, as the temple in Jerusalem was believed to be the place where God dwelt. Walking up the hill toward the city of Jerusalem must have made the pilgrims feel as though they were not just climbing to a higher elevation, but ascending to greater spiritual heights as well.

During that long and wearisome journey to the temple in Jerusalem, the pilgrims tried to keep their hopes and spirits alive by imagining what it would be like when they finally saw the beautiful city of Jerusalem far off in the distance, high upon the hills. 

They longed for their journey to be complete, to finally reach their destination not just because they were tired and their feet were sore, not just because the sun was blazing hot, and not just because the darkness of the night was terrifying to those who were unaccustomed to camping in the wilderness. 

They longed for their journey to be complete because they longed to be in the presence of God. They longed to worship in God’s holy temple, to offer praise and prayer and thanksgiving, and to offer sacrifices so that their sins could be atoned. They longed to feel the closeness and intimacy with God that they believed could only be experienced in God’s holy temple. 

As the pilgrims made their way through the deserts and the wildernesses, as they crossed rivers and streams, as they passed countless foreign cities and villages, always keeping a lookout for thieves and robbers and wild animals and anyone who might attempt to do them harm, they sang songs to encourage their hearts, to keep their spirits alive, and to encourage themselves to keep pressing on.

They sang psalms and hymns, some that had been passed down from generation to generation, perhaps even from the time when their ancestors had wandered in the wilderness and had longed for their journey to be complete in the promised land. 

When the travelers began to feel discouraged, and felt like they just couldn’t go on, someone in the back of the caravan lifted up their voice and began to sing:

I will lift up mine eyes to the hills

From whence cometh my help

My help cometh from the Lord

The Lord which made Heaven and Earth 

As they made their way along the rough mountain passes, steep cliffs on either side of the road, the other travelers joined in singing,

He said He would not suffer thy foot

Thy foot to be moved;

And as their bodies grew tired and weary, they sang:

The Lord which keepeth thee

He will not slumber nor sleep

When the sun beat down upon them, they sang:

For the Lord is thy keeper

The Lord is thy shade

Upon thy right hand

Upon thy right hand

And when the sun started to slip down below the horizon and they began to feel afraid of the dark, they sang:

Nor the sun shall not smite thee by day

Nor the moon by night

He shall preserve thy soul

Even forever more

And as they made their beds in the wilderness that night, they whispered to one another,

“The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore” (Psalm 121:7-8).

God is Our Keeper

For the pilgrims on their way to worship at the temple in Jerusalem, remembering how God had kept and protected their ancestors during their wanderings in the wilderness, preserved their people even in the midst of captivity, how God had delivered them out of slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon, and protected them even in the midst of famine and attacks by enemy armies, and recalling to mind how God had kept them even in the midst of dangers seen and unseen, gave them hope and encouragement that God could and would do the same for them as well.

Now some translations of this Psalm make it seem as though God has promised to always keep us from all evil and danger, as if no bad things will ever befall us, as if no manner of sickness, pain, or death will ever touch us.

But I think here the King James and other translations of the Scriptures are helpful, when they say that God will “preserve” our souls. That God will “preserve thy going out and thy coming in” (Psalm 121:8), that God is our “keeper” (Psalm 121:5) and that our “help cometh from the Lord” (Psalm 121:2). 

The words “preserve” and “keep” stem from the Hebrew word shamar – which means “to keep, guard, observe, give heed.” This is the same Hebrew word that is used in Genesis chapter 2, when God commands the first human beings to till and “keep” the garden. It’s the same word that is used in the ten commandments, when the Israelites were commanded to “keep” the Sabbath day holy (Ex. 31:14), and the same word that is used when God promised Jacob, the ancestor of the Israelite people, that God would be with him, and would “keep” him wherever he went (Gen. 28:15). 

Just as we as humans are to take care of the land, to till the soil, and to work for the good of the world, just as we are to pay careful attention that we keep God’s commandments, so too God is actively at work, preserving and protecting us, working for our good, and paying careful attention to watch over us.

This does not mean, of course, that we will never face dangers of any kind. Indeed, there are dangers all around us. Today we may not be as afraid of being struck down by the sun — we have sunscreen to guard against skin cancer, and electrolytes to guard against dehydration. Nor are we as afraid of the night. 

But today we have our own fears and insecurities and concerns. We’re afraid because of the coronavirus, we’re afraid of terrorist attacks, we’re afraid that the political candidate that we oppose might get elected or re-elected, we’re afraid that the stock market might crash, that we might lose our jobs, or that we might lose someone that we love.

Just as the pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem were reminded that God was not far off on some distant hill, but that God was right there with them, watching over them and protecting their steps, so too we can be comforted and encouraged by the fact that God is right here with us, watching over us, keeping us, preserving us, looking out for us. God never sleeps, God never slumbers. God is always alert, always working for our good, always paying careful attention to us.

God So Loved the World

Of course we may say, “yes, but wouldn’t it be nice to have some tangible reminder, some physical proof to show us that God is actively at work in our world today? Wouldn’t it be nice to know for sure that God is with us?”

 

Well, the Gospel of John also reminds us to lift our eyes up. But this time we are not told to lift up our eyes to the mountains, or event towards God’s holy temple — but instead to lift up our eyes to the cross — to see, as Jesus told Nicodemus, that “the Son of Man” was lifted up, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14b-15). 

Jesus wanted Nicodemus and we today to know that our help does indeed come from above — from Jesus himself, the only begotten Son of God, who came down from above. He descended to this earth, to live among us and to show us the way to the Father, to die on the cross for our sins, and then ascended again and is at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. But he has not left us by ourselves — He sent his Spirit to comfort us, and guide us. Christ’s Spirit lives inside us. He is indeed right here with us.

In one of the most famous verses of Scripture in the Bible, we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

Through Jesus, God made a way where there seemed to be no way — a way to eternal life. Even though we were dead in our trespasses and sins, God raised us to new life in Christ. Because of Jesus we do not have to fear danger, or evil, or whatever might come our way. Through Jesus we can experience eternal life, which begins here and now. Because of Jesus we can have that closeness and intimacy with God, wherever we are. And so we definitely do not have to worry and fear for whatever may come our way. Because of Jesus we have confidence that God is in fact with us, and one day we will go to be with Him.

Psalm 32

Sunday March 1st 2020 — First Sunday of Lent

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 32

Selah: Life in a Minor Key

Today we begin a new sermon series for the season of Lent entitled “Selah: Life in a Minor Key,” where for the next five weeks we will focus on the Psalms in our lectionary readings.

The book of Psalms was the “United Methodist Hymnal” of the Israelite people — it was their collection of poems and songs that were composed and compiled over the course of hundreds of 500 years, ranging from the time of King David through the end of the Babylonian exile.

Some of the songs were composed by the Temple musicians known as the Korahites. Others were written by King David himself, and still others were written by anonymous individuals – perhaps farmers and shepherds, construction workers, homemakers, soldiers, or servants.

The Psalms are a sort of music of the soul. Many of the songs express deep and heartfelt emotion. Some extol the glorious nature of God, others are cries of anguish or lament written during times of suffering. Some of the Psalms were like the African American spirituals that we have in our hymnal — written by an oppressed people who were longing to be set free but who had a deep faith and trust that one day God would deliver them.

Interspersed throughout the Psalms are certain musical notations whose meaning has unfortunately been lost to us. One such term is selah – which was most likely a technical musical term that may have indicated a break in the text or performance or perhaps a cue for the choir to repeat a litany. Or it may have been an instruction for a certain musical instrument — such as a drum or cymbal — to emphasize a word or phrase. 

For our purposes, let us hear the term selah as an invitation to pause and reflect on God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives, an invitation to recommit ourselves to following Jesus wholeheartedly during this Lenten season and beyond.

This morning we begin with Psalm 32, a psalm of David, in which King David describes the agony of unconfessed sin, and extols the virtues and blessings of having our sins forgiven. Ultimately, David leads us to rejoice in the Lord’s goodness and mercy towards us and to proclaim it to those around us.

Raise Your Hand if You’ve Been Difficult to Live With

The story is told of a massive prayer meeting that took place during the American Great Awakening of the mid 18th century. Over 800 men had gathered together to pray, with the famous revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards presiding over the meeting.

During the meeting, a woman sent a message asking the men to pray for her husband, who she said had become unloving, prideful, and difficult to live with.

Edwards read the note in private and then, thinking that perhaps the man described was present, decided to read the note to the 800 men and ask if the man who had been described would raise his hand so that the whole assembly could pray for him. Three hundred men raised their hands!

Unconfessed Sin

I’m not going to ask us to raise our hands this morning if we’ve ever been unloving, prideful, or difficult to live with! The reality is that many of us would probably fit at least one of those categories, and most if not all of us are probably walking around with some sort of guilt about something we’ve done or some way that we’ve treated someone in the past. 

Perhaps some of us can identify with King David, who said, “While I kept silence, my body 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. Selah” (Psalm 32:3-4).

Perhaps some of you can remember a time when we were so wracked with guilt that you couldn’t sleep until you admitted what you had done. Like King David, it felt like God’s hand was heavy upon you, leading, prodding and cajoling you to admit what you had done, like a parent leading their child back to the store to admit to the clerk that they stole a candy bar or a stick of gum. 

Of course, there are many times when we might feel tempted to push aside those feelings of guilt or remorse rather than admit the mistake that we’ve made. Rather than confess our errors, we make excuses or blame others. We rationalize away the bad things that we’ve done, comparing them to the much worse things that others have done. We work harder, to compensate for where we’ve gone astray, or we try to drown out the voice of the Holy Spirit by filling our lives with noise or activity, or indulging in excesses that numb our senses or consume our time or attention. 

If we continually ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit, eventually we might feel less guilt or remorse for what we’ve done. When this happens, we may think that the problem has been solved, since we no longer feel that prompting and nagging in the back of our minds. But an active conscience is not the problem — indeed our conscience is a warning light that indicates that a much deeper issue is going on.

Ignoring the Warning Lights

A number of years ago I had a car that continually had engine problems. It felt like the engine warning light was always coming on, and every time I took the car into the repair shop, the mechanic would spout off a whole list of things that needed to be fixed. Eventually I just started to ignore the engine light when it came on, because I knew I didn’t have the money to repair whatever issue the engine light was trying to alert me about anyway. I drove around with the engine light on for over a year, and eventually the engine light turned off — all by itself!

I thought that I was a genius, and had solved the problem by simply ignoring it — until I went in for my emissions test, and failed due to the fact that my engine light wasn’t working. It turns out that the engine light had been on for so long that it had burned out – so now not only did I have to fix whatever problem was wrong with the engine, but now I had to get a new engine light bulb as well! (Fortunately the light bulb was not very expensive. Unfortunately, the engine was). 

Just as ignoring the warning lights on our car usually leads to larger problems down the road, ignoring the promptings to confess our moral failings can lead us to more harm and damage than if we had simply admitted and corrected our mistakes in the first place. If we continually ignore the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can become cold, and callous. We develop hardened hearts, and eventually we may not even be able to recognize ourselves.

Let the Sun (Son) Shine In

But King David tells us in Psalm 32 that there is another way! In the form of a testimonial, King David tells us his story — that after all those sleepless nights, wracked with guilt and shame, after all those days, or weeks, or months, or perhaps even years that his body was wasting away from the knowledge of the pain and agony that he had caused, after groaning in silence, and feeling the strength of his body dry up like the heat of summer, he decided to acknowledge his sin before the Lord. He chose to no longer hide his iniquity. He confessed his transgressions to the LORD, and he says of God, “and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah” (Psalm 32:5).

You forgave the guilt of my sin! Selah. Pause, repeat and enunciate that last phrase! Sing it again, bang the drum: You forgave the guilt of my sin!

What a humbling, yet amazingly simple solution to David’s problem of sin! What a revolutionary way to deal with our guilty consciences — admit that we’ve done wrong! Get it all out in the open. Rather than withdrawing behind the curtains of remorse and shame, open the windows and let the light shine in. Stand openly before God and to confess our wrongdoing, and to allow God’s grace and mercy to bathe us in light.

When King David acknowledges his guilt and wrongdoing and experiences God’s forgiveness, then his mouth begins to flow forth with praise. He proclaims, 

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah (Psalm 32:6-7).

And he ends the Psalm with,

Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD. Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart (Psalm 32:10-11).

What a stark contrast from the man whose body had been wasting away, whose strength had “dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4). Acknowledging his sin, getting it all out there in the open, and asking for God’s forgiveness ended up being exponentially more freeing and life-giving and liberating than hiding his sin or squashing his guilty conscience, and David wanted everyone to know firsthand the grace and mercy and forgiveness that he had experienced.

Not Just for Individuals 

Now, lest we think that confession and repentance applies only to us as individuals, I want to suggest that openly admitting mistakes is also a best practice for organizations, churches, businesses and institutions. Missteps covered up by organizations are usually uncovered anyway, often causing the institution to fall apart. On the other hand, openly admitting the failings of the organization can often lead to new life and new possibilities.

When Howard Schultz resigned from Starbucks in 2000, the coffee chain was experiencing steady growth. Eight years later, when Starbucks was reeling from a bad economy and stiff competition, Schultz resumed his role as Starbucks’ chief executive. He faced a challenging mission: to lead a turnaround. In an interview about his return in Harvard Business Review, Schultz commented that before the company could move forward, they had to deal with the past by honestly admitting their mistakes. 

Shultz said,

The decisions we had to make were very difficult, but first there had to be a time when we stood up in front of the entire company as leaders and made almost a confession—that the leadership had failed the 180,000 Starbucks people and their families…We had to admit to ourselves and to the people of this company that we owned the mistakes that were made. Once we did, it was a powerful turning point. It’s like when you have a secret and get it out: The burden is off your shoulders.

Lenten Invitation

This is what this Lenten season is all about. It’s about a turning point, about getting the burden off our shoulders, about asking for God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace in our lives.  It’s about drawing back the curtains of our lives, and letting the light of Christ shine into our lives, to illuminate those hidden places in our lives where we may have allowed guilt or shame to take over or control us. It’s about allowing God to bring those things out into the open, so that we can receive God’s grace and forgiveness to cleanse us of our guilt, and God’s freedom to liberate us from our shame.

Like King David, like Howard Schultz and the Starbucks company, like those 300 men in that prayer meeting during the Great Awakening, let’s acknowledge our errors and mistakes. Let us not ignore the warning lights. Let us confess our sins, and let’s open ourselves up to God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. Then we can truly “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice…and shout for joy” (Psalm 32:11) Selah!

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday — February 26th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

Pics or It Didn’t Happen

We live in an age dominated by social media, when it seems that the majority of interactions that take place between human beings happens on-line or via a screen. 

And in this age of social media, we are so often obsessed with capturing, documenting and sharing even the most ordinary and mundane parts of our lives. The saying “Pics or it didn’t happen” could very well be the mantra of our social networking age. So often an experience is only thought to be real, believable, or authentic if it has been appropriately captured and shared on at least one social media platform. Two people are only thought to be in a real relationship when they have become “facebook official,” and one of the primary considerations of newly engaged couples is what their instagram wedding hashtag is going to be.

In this social media-saturated society, rituals and ceremonies, including even the most personal or religious ones, seem to have no value unless they can be appropriately documented and shared.

As one author stated:

Activities [take] on meaning not for their basic content but for the way they are turned into content, disseminated through the digital network, and responded to. In this context, your everyday experiences are only limited by your ability to share them and by your ability to package them appropriately-  a photograph with a beautiful filter and a witty caption, or a tweet containing an obscure movie reference that hints at hidden depths.

In this age, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood, genuine and heartfelt emotions from those actions motivated by a desire to enhance our on-line persona.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Now, all of this may seem like a purely modern phenomenon. Indeed, our ability to capture and share the most seemingly intimate moments of our lives has  dramatically increased due to modern advancements in digital technology. 

But our Scripture Lesson from the Gospel of Matthew this evening reveals that the religious elites of Jesus’s day also seemed concerned with cultivating their outward personas and presenting their best curated selves to the world. 

Jesus referred to these seemingly uber religious people as “hypocrites” — a word deriving from the Greek word for actors or stage players. These religious hypocrite actors seemed to be concerned mostly with putting on a show and demonstrating their outward religiosity.

In truth, they regularly engaged in religious behaviors that we today would consider admirable — such as giving money (or “alms”) to those who were in need. Praying on a regular basis, and even fasting, going without food for certain lengths of time — a practice that was designed to remind them of their need and utter dependence on God.

But rather looking into the faces of those who were in need and allowing their hearts to break for those who lived under the constant yoke of oppression, these religious actors sounded trumpets to announce to the world that they were giving their money to the poor — sort of the ancient equivalent to snapping a selfie with someone who is homeless, and posting it to instagram with the hashtag #doinggood! 

Rather than crying out to God in anguish and grief over the injustices of the world, these religious leaders prayed prayers in the public square that showed off their seemingly theological and intellectual superiority — the ancient equivalent to taking quotes out of context from famous civil rights heroes and retweeting them in an attempt to demonstrate just how “woke” we think we are. 

And, rather than forgoing the basic necessities of life that in such a way that would have put these religious leaders in a position to better understand and identify with the socially marginalized or economically oppressed, these religious actors of Jesus’s day gave up their most insignificant luxuries, but disfigured their faces and intentionally looked dismal in order to garner the admiration and respect of those around them.

#Nomorehashtags

Jesus told his followers to not be like those hypocrites. But it’s interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to stop giving to those in need — in fact he assumed that we would do so. He said, “whenever you give alms” (Matt. 6:3). He simply wants us not to feel the need to announce to the world that we are doing so. 

He didn’t tell us to stop praying. Again, he said, “whenever you pray” (Matt. 6:5). But when we pray, Jesus told us to enter our closets and shut the door. 

And he didn’t tell us to stop fasting. He assumed that we would continue to do so. But he encouraged us not to make a big show of fasting in order to impress others, but instead to try and make it not so obvious that we are fasting. After all, the point of all of these actions is to help us grow in our knowledge and intimacy with God — not to impress our friends or followers.

Jesus wanted his followers to not be so overly concerned and obsessed with what others thought of them, and instead to be more concerned with pleasing God, who sees what we do in secret and who promises to reward us for even those good deeds that go unnoticed, undocumented, and unshared. A God who is concerned more about our relationship status with Jesus than how many likes or heart emojis we receive from our friends and followers.

I believe that Jesus wanted to free his followers from what has been described in our day as the “paralysing self-consciousness” that fills so many users of social media, ”[that] sense that no social broadcast is good enough, no tweet or Facebook status update reflects the mix of cool, wit, and elan that will generate feedback and earn the user more social capital.

In fact, I believe that Jesus wants to free us from all forms of captivity, internal and external, from anything that might hold us back from truly being present in the moment, and from truly connecting with God and those around us. Jesus wants to lead us into a place where we can be honest with ourselves, and honest before God. Where we can acknowledge who we really are, and where we can be transformed into the people God wants us to become. 

Becoming these sorts of people will involve change, but not the sort of temporary or surface-level change that comes from beach-bod ready fad diets or extreme home makeovers. 

The Fasting God Desires

In calling for us to change, to repent and to turn in the opposite direction, Jesus stood in the tradition of the Israelite prophet Joel, who called the people to “rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). Jesus followed in the footsteps of the prophet Isaiah, who proclaimed God’s words to the Israelite people:

Is not this the fast that I choose:

    to loose the bonds of injustice,

   …

to let the oppressed go free,

    and to break every yoke?

…to share your bread with the hungry,

    and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

    and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Is. 58:5-6).

 

Isaiah said that when we engage in this type of fasting, 

then your light shall rise in the darkness

    and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually,

    and satisfy your needs in parched places,

    …

and you shall be like a watered garden,

    like a spring of water,

    whose waters never fail. (Is. 58:10-11)

Engaging in this sort of fasting will involve turning away from the fear and the shame that so often holds us captive. It will involve allowing God to heal and restore those areas where we’ve hurt others or been hurt by others. It will involve acknowledging where we’ve gone astray, and returning to the God who loves us, whose arms are open wide and outstretched to welcome us back again, no matter what we’ve done or how far we’ve strayed. 

When we open ourselves up to receive the love, and grace, and mercy, and forgiveness that Jesus offers, then we will pray, and fast, and help those who are in need — not because it will enhance our social or religious standing, or win us more friends, or followers, but because in doing so, we are drawn even more deeply and intimately into relationship with the God who loves us, the God who knows us even better than we know ourselves.

In a few short moments we will be invited to come forward, to receive the imposition of ashes pressed upon our foreheads. And as we do so, I want to invite us to meditate on these few short lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday:

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,

Our peace in His will