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Sunday, August 25, 2019

“…ACCORDING TO YOUR WORD”

A sermon based upon Psalm 119: 73-80, CSB
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
August 25th, 2019


Kathleen Norris, in her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, tells the ‘scariest story’ she knows about the Bible”
“One Saturday night in a local steakhouse, she and her husband were talking to an old-timer, a rough, self-made man in the classic American sense. His grandparents had been dirt-poor immigrants, homesteading in western South Dakota, living in a sod house, barely making a living off the land in the early years.   But the family had prospered, and he and his brothers had built up a large ranch of many thousands of acres. This man had gotten where he was by being single-minded when it came to money; making as much of it as possible, and spending as little as he could, except when it came to his wife and kids: they always drove new cars.

We knew “Arlo” as a rather reserved man, but that night he was in a talkative mood; he was facing chemotherapy for an advanced, probably terminal, cancer.  During their conversation, out of the blue, Arlo began talking about his grandfather, who had been a deeply religious man, or as Arlo put it, “a darn good Presbyterian.” His wedding present to Arlo and his bride had been a Bible, which he admitted he had admired mostly because it was an expensive gift, bound in white leather with their names and the date of their wedding set in gold lettering on the cover.

“I left it in its box and it ended up in our bedroom closet,” Arlo told them. “But,” he said, “for months afterward, every time we saw grandpa he would ask me how I liked that Bible. The wife had written and thank-you note, and we’d thanked him in person, but somehow he couldn’t let it lie, he’d always ask about it.”

Finally, Arlo grew curious as to why the old man kept after him. “Well,” he said, “the joke was on me. I finally took that Bible out of the closet and I found that granddad had placed a twenty-dollar bill at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, and at the beginning of every book of the of the whole Bible, over thirteen hundred dollars in all. And he knew I’d never find it.”   After laughing with Arlo, he began talking about the interest he could have made had he found the money sooner. “Thirteen hundred bucks was a lot of money in them days,” he said, shaking his head.

What was Arlo’s grandpa thinking when he stuck all that money into that Bible he gave as Arlo’s wedding gift?  Maybe it was one line from Psalm 119: “…I love your commandments more than gold, even more than pure gold.”  (Ps. 119:127 CEB)
Psalm 119 is a daunting Psalm to read in one setting.  It seems the biblical writers or editors knew this, because they broke it up in readable sections, divided up by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.   You can note this, especially in older Bible Versions.   

We certainly can’t consider all 176 verses, which is, as one bible scholar coined it, ‘a monument of devotion dedicated to God’s law.’  What we can do is underscore the primary reason the Psalmist was devoted to God’s law (or God’s word).   The law, statues, and commandments, which eventually became the first five books of the Bible, were the only ‘Bible’ or ‘word from God’ that he could to read, study, and learn.  By reading them, and devoting himself to them, he learned what Arlo’s grandpa was trying to teach Arlo: God’s word can be like ‘pure gold’. 

BLESSING:  “YOUR INSTRUCTION IS MY DELIGHT” (77)
When in our text, the Psalmist spoke of God’s ‘instruction’ or ‘law’ (KJV) being his ‘delight’, he points back to the opening verses of Psalm 119, opening with words similar to Psalm 1.  “Those who walk in the Lord’s way”, meaning in the ‘law of the Lord’ are ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ (119:1).

The reason God gave and still gives us his law and his word today, is the very same reason the truth was revealed to Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Remember? God said:  “Don’t eat, or you will die!”; which the Snake twisted to say,  “Did God really say that?”   All the way back to the so called ‘original sin’ which is found in all of us too, we find humans struggling to take God’s word seriously as a blessing, rather than as a curse.   When we move just further along in the book of Genesis, we encounter God calling Abraham to both ‘receive God’s blessing’ and to ‘be a blessing’ to the nations.  Here, again, God’s word was God’s call to ‘blessing’, not just so that Abraham would be bless, but so that the world could be ‘blessed’ too (Gen. 18:18).

Also, even a little further, in the time of Moses, at the time of the giving of God’s law, we discover much more than the ‘thou shalt nots’ of the 10 commandments, but God’s law also includes the command ‘to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor too.’  In the last book of Law, Deuteronomy, we understand that the law was given to Israel for ‘blessing’, rather than to be a curse.  It was God’s intention to give the law to redeem people from the ‘curse’, not to put a burden on people’s back or to invite a curse into their lives.

Then, finally, the key message of the entire New Testament, is not to ‘destroy’ the law, but to ‘fulfill’ the law.  The law is ‘fulfilled’ when Jesus explained what the God’s word and the law was originally about.   Jesus, then, came redeemed people not only from the curse of sin, but also from the curse of the misunderstanding the law.   Jesus came to ‘bless’ and give ‘freedom’ with God’s saving and redeeming love.  Jesus and Paul both agreed on this main point: that the true law that comes from the heart of God is to bless us, to save us and to restore us to living our best and fullest life.  

Isn’t this something we should must be clear about, especially today, when it comes to understanding the great purpose of God’s law and God’s word?  Everything the Bible and God’s word ever was, and still is about, everything the church was, and still is about, everything Jesus was, and is still about: is to bringing ‘blessing’, ‘delight’, and life into this world.  If you missed that, you’ve missed ‘the delight’ of God’s word.

Many years ago, in the 1700’s, Soren Kierkegaard, Danish pastor and philosopher, who still captivates modern minds, both philosophically and religiously, wrote seriously and poignantly about some of the things he saw wrong with the established church in his time: “The Bible is very easy to understand.  But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly…..  OUCH!

And wasn’t just people in the pew that Kierkegaard scolded, but he also went after professionals too, adding “…. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close….(From Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard).  OUCH, OUCH, again!  But more recently, Stanley Hauerwas, reminded that the ‘Dane’ also had something shocking and challenging to say about how the Bible is misused.  He even suggested that the church would be better off without the Bible, since people often use it to learn about God, rather than follow Jesus in how we live our lives  Ouch!  Ouch!  Triple Ouch!  

It hurts, and it stings, but shouldn’t we still hear Kierkegaard’s very valid point, even if he says it what he even called a the most ‘dreadful’ way?  He was saying that if we don’t find the ‘blessing’ of how God intended the Bible to be read, understood, and answered with our own lives, then what good is it anyway?  If we can’t find the ‘blessing’ or the ‘delight’, God intended, then we missed everything God was trying to do for us, when he gave his Word. 

So, let’s turn again to the blessing and the ‘delight’ of God’s truth.  The Bible was never intended to confuse us, divide us, or make us fight over differing interpretations and opinions; but the Bible was intended to be, as the text says, to be a ‘blessing’ because it is, as it says elsewhere in this Psalm, a ‘lamp’ and a ‘light unto our path’.  Of course, we sometimes differ in how we ‘interpret’ this ancient book, but if we will seek to discover even the ‘delight’ of having differences too, we can again find ‘gold’, ‘pure gold’ in these ancient words.

PROMISE: “BE FOR MY COMFORT…” (76)
Speaking of ‘differences’ brings us to the one reason, above all other reasons, that this Psalmist was ‘blessed’ by God’s word:  “Please let your faithful love comfort me, according to what you've said to your servant (Ps. 119:76 CEB).  It is the ‘comfort’ in God’s law that makes God’s law worth reading, and this ‘comfort’ is from God’s ‘faithful love’ that comes in how God speaks, individually to his ‘servant’.  

Isn’t this why any of us come to Scripture, and what we need most from Scripture?  We don’t turn to God’s word because it feels good, nor do we always turn to God’s word because we like it, or we begging to hear what it says, but we come to God’s word, and keep coming to God’s word, because behind everything that is being written, revealed or told, is a story about God’s faithful love.   

Several years ago, when I was living in the Western German, attending language school, I met a man who was a psychologist, specializing in something called “Logos therapy”.  Logos therapy simply means using ‘words’ to help people deal with emotional and mental stress, but this guy, hearing that I was going a missionary, wanted to tell me what he was doing that was unique.  He was prescribing, not just reassuring words, but nightly ‘Bible Readings’ to his patients, even to those who weren’t Christian.  By doing this, he said his patients were finding that their nerves were calmed, their anxieties were leaving, and that they were falling asleep and resting better.  (My sermons work the same way).   Even when they didn’t believe anything they read, he said the Bible was bringing them comfort and peace.

While this is certainly not normally what Bible reading means, what is very much the same is that God gives his word, not only to bless our lives, but also to bring us ‘comfort’ and ‘hope’; two very both powerful words being used in this text.  But the most important word here, is not just the word ‘comfort’, but the word ‘promise’.   As the New Living Translation puts the Psalmist prayer in verse 76: “Please let your unfailing love comfort me, just as you’ve promised…”

RIGHTEOUSNESS:  “LET MY HEART BE BLAMELESS”  (80)
The Psalmist, understood, however, that the way God’s blessing and promise are best known to us, is when we live in that blessing, and when we live toward God’s promise.  This is what he means when he prays, “Let my heart be blameless” or in another place, he says, “…they oppressed me with lies---but meanwhile, I will be contemplating your precepts!”   Isn’t that a very interesting way to face the problems and the problem people in your life?  “…Meanwhile, I will be contemplating your commandments!”   In other words, they can do what they please, but I will put my focus on what you, o God!  In other words: With what God has commanded me to do, I will live for him.

There are many places the in Psalm 119, that the Psalmist not only speaks of God’s blessing, or God’s comforting promise, but he keeps coming back over and over to how how God’s blessing, and how God’s comfort, challenges and changes how he lives his life.   The Psalmist rejoices in God’s law, not because he merely reads God’s law, but he also rejoices in how God’s words reads him, and calls him to think about the kind of person he should be and the way that he should live.

Isn’t this where it all comes down to, for us, as well?  The Bible is a very old book, and it looks at life from many different angles, and sometimes the Bible raises more questions than it gives us answers.  But what the Bible does, quite remarkably well, is that it doesn’t give us all the answers, but it challenges us to start asking the right kinds of questions, and more than this, it challenges do our part in being the answer.

When the newly formed church of Henry the VIII, was forcing all the clergy to move away from the mother Catholic Church, not on the count of beliefs, but because King Henry wanted to have the women he wanted, Thomas Crammer went along with King Henry.  He even signed a covenant saying that he denounced the Catholic Church.  But after watching two of his colleagues being burned at the stake because they refused to renounce the Church, Crammer recanted, and told the King he wanted those papers torn up, knowing that he would too would die in the ‘fire’.  When that moment came, it is said that Crammer went bravely, unafraid; that he even put his hand in the fire first, because he said, this is the hand that betrayed his faithfulness to the truth of God and the Church.

The Psalmist finds that the greatest blessing, and the greatest comfort comes in his life, by knowing that when he stays with the core truth of God’s love, both mediating upon it and living it, he ‘will not be put to shame’ and he remains ‘blameless’ before God and others.  Nothing gave this Psalmist greater peace, greater hope, and greater purpose in life, than to know that he stood ‘blameless’ and true to the God who by his faithful, unfailing love, remains true to him.  Now, that may not sound like much of a way to find blessing, comfort or faith to many people, either in his world or ours, but it was ‘pure gold’ to him.  

So, as we close today, thinking about the blessing of having God’s word; both his written Word, the Bible, and the living Word, the one who was God’s word in the flesh, but remains God’s word in Spirit, ask yourself what God’s word means, or should mean to you.  Do you take time to study it, understand it, and allow yourself to be challenged and changed by it; or have you already read everything you need to read, heard everything you want to hear, and done everything you are going to do.  Sadly, the living Word doesn’t have any effect on us, when we make it a ‘dead’ word of the ‘letter’, rather than the ‘living’ words of life.

In one of the most powerful moments in Jesus ministry, Jesus was speaking to those Bible experts, who knew the Bible better than most people.  Jesus said, however, that they were still missing something important.  Jesus observed how diligent they were in ‘searching the Scriptures’ to find ‘eternal life’, but what they were still missing was that ‘The Scriptures pointed to him!” And they ‘refused’ to come to him”! (John 5: 39-40).   


So, let’s read the Bible, but it won’t help us the way it was intended to help us and save us,  unless we find life in him.  Finding life is Jesus Christ, is the ‘gold’ and ‘the treasure’ that the Law, the Prophets, and all the Bible is about.  Amen.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

"TO GAIN A HEART OF WISDOM"

A sermon based upon Psalm 90, CEB
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
August 18th, 2019

As all of us who are either close to or in our so-called “Golden Years”, know they are not always so ‘golden’.   In other words, ‘Getting old is not for Sissies!’  Listen to how one person explained by finishing the sentence:  You know you’re growing old when:
Your mind makes contracts your body can’t fulfill;
You know all the answers, but nobody asks the questions;
You look forward to a dull evening;
You walk with your head held high trying to get used to your bifocals;
Your favorite part of the newspaper is “25 years ago today.”
You turn out the light for economic reasons rather than romantic ones.
You sit in a rocking chair and you can’t get it going;
Your knees buckle and your belt won’t.
You’re seventeen around the neck, 12 around the waist, and 108 around the golf course.”

A group of senior citizens were exchanging complaints and trying to count their blessings, even though they were getting old. 
One says: “My arm is so weak I can hardly hold this coffee cup.”
Another says: “My cataracts are so bad I can hardly see to pour the coffee.” 
Or another: “I can’t turn my neck anymore, the arthritis is so bad.” 
And another: “My blood pressure pills make me dizzy.”
“I guess that’s the price we pay for getting old.”  
“Well it’s not all bad;” We should be thankful we can still drive.”

Everyone grows old, and “growing old is not so bad when you consider the alternative.”   But the truth is, that next to dying, the realization that we are aging is the most profound shock of our lifetime. Leon Trotsky, the famous Marxist revolutionary wrote in his diary that the most unexpected thing that ever happened to him was to discover that he was getting old.  One day, he says, he just woke up in the morning and it was a big ‘surprise’!    

Some people never get over the shock of it.  In fact, the last time I preached a sermon on aging, back in 2003, one woman got angry.  She couldn’t believe that I would tell a joke about something as serious as this.  But I believe, that if you can’t find humor in getting old, you’re in even worst trouble.’

Speaking of humor, The late Comedian George Carlin said the only time we want to get old is when we’re kids.  “Kids are so excited about aging they count time in fractions.  How old are you? A kid answers, I’m 4four and a half!  We’re never 36 and a half, or 50 and a half.  Even in their teens, kids still don’t get it.  They’re not just 13 and a half, but they like to jump to the next number.  How  old are you?  Teenagers answer, I’m gonna be 16 in three years.  You might be 12 or 13, but you’re gonna be 16!  And then the greatest day of your life will be when you become 18, or is it 21?. Even the words sound like a ceremony....YOU BECOME 21.  YESSS! 

But then you turn 30.  Oooohh, what happened there?  Makes you sound like milk going bad.  He TURNED 30 and it’s time to throw him out.  There’s not much fun now. Now you’re just a sour dumpling.  You’ve aged.  You’re changed. You BECOME 21, you TURN 30, then you’re PUSHING 40.  Whoa! Time to put on brakes, Times slipping away. Before you know it, you’ve  REACHED 50 and dreams are gone.  But wait!  You MAKE it to 60.  You’ve  built up so much speed that you HIT 70. After that it’s s a day-by-day thing; you hit 70 and you’re glad to get to Wednesday. You get into your 80's and every day is a complete cycle: you Hit lunch; it Turns 4:30; you REACH bedtime.  And it doesn’t stop there.  If you make it to your 90's, you start counting backwards; I was JUST 92.  Then a strange thing happens.  If you make it over 100, you become a little kid again.  I’m 100 and a half!!”

Few of us will live to be as old as the French woman, named Jeanne Calment.  When she was 90 years old, she entered into a real estate agreement with a 47-year-old man who agreed to pay her $500 a month until her death so that he could guarantee ownership of her apartment, a common practice in France.  Little did he know that Jeanne Calment was destined to become the oldest living person. Each year on her birthday, she sent him a card that jokingly said, "Sorry I am still alive." She outlived the man who died in 1995 at the age of 77, having paid over $180,000 for an apartment in which he never live.

Jeanne Calment died at the age of 122, and medical scientists have tried to discover the secret of her longevity. She didn’t seem to fit any of the standard profiles. For example, for years she ate two pounds of chocolate a week, and she smoked moderately until she was 117. She always cooked with olive oil, took vigorous walks, and rode her bike through the streets of Arles until she was 100.  She seemed to have a great sense of humor. When she was 110, she said, ’I had to wait 110 years to become famous. I intend to enjoy it as long as possible."   

FACE IT:   FROM EVERLASTING TO EVERLASTING….
The Psalm we are considering today, Psalm 90, speaks of growing old—-aging.   Facing the fact that you’re aging every second, every minute of every day, can be a depressing thought. 

It’s important to understand, as we approach this Psalm, that it’s presented to us as a prayer.  It’s not simply a prayer about facing the facts, but it’s written to help us gain wisdom for living this very limited experience we call life.  The aim is not to depress us, but to help us; to help us learn to be ‘glad’ for the days we have.

One thing for sure, 100% of us will get older, and most of us will get to grow old.  Currently statistics tell us that over 90 % of both men and women will get reach age 60.   80% of men and 86% of women get to age 70.  But after 70, the famous ‘3 score and 10’, statistics drop more rapidly: Only 40% of men and 57% of women will get to age 80.   Reaching 90 is very difficult for most men (only 20%, 1 out of 5), but it’s also difficult for women too (33%, 1 out of 3).  The goal most people have of getting to age 100 is under 5 percent for everybody: only 5 percent of women, and only 2 percent of men.  100 is a nice goal, but don’t get your hopes up.

Speaking of this sobering reality reminds me of something Woody Allen once joked when he wished that his ‘next life’ would be lived backwards.  In polite company I can’t quote all he said, but it went something like: “You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old people's home feeling better every day. Then you get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day.

You work for 40 years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party for a short while,…, then you are ready for high school.  You then go to primary school, you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities; you become a baby until the day you are born.  Then you get to spend the last 9 months of your life floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service, with larger quarters every day and then Voila!...”

Sounds like a nice ending, but the Psalmist proposes a more realistic perspective.  However, right in the middle of this realistic thought, we find the grandest of all statements about God: “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God!” (v. 2, KJV). 
The thought of “God” is the Psalmist wrapped his head around the thought of aging.  We are not God.  We are not invincible.  We are not eternal.  We are not “from everlasting to everlasting. “ Unless God gives us his promise, as he says ‘We are wasting away because of God’s wrath.  We are paralyzed with fear on account of God’s rage!”.

What the Psalmist means, is that because of sin we are mortal, and we  ‘are dust’; as the song says, ‘We’re just dust in the wind’!   The eternal God ‘sweeps humans away like a dream, like grass…all dried up.’  ‘We finish up our years (not with a bang), but with a whimper’ (v.9).

It’s not a pretty picture to face what is happening to us, but face the reality of living with the awareness of being human means that we come to understand that our lives are brief, restricted, and limited.  When you ‘wake up’ to this ’surprise’ of aging you realize once again, and once and for all, that without the eternal God, we have no hope.



LEARN FROM IT: TEACH US TO NUMBER OUR DAYS….
The point of gaining this biblical perspective is not to whine or sulk, but to gain a heart of wisdom; to learn to make each and every day count.  This isn’t just sacred wisdom, it’s secular wisdom too.  Everyone has to learn to value and prioritize time, because we only have so much of it.

The difference for those who trust in God, as it is here in this Psalm, is that the psalmist is asking for the eternal God to help him gain wisdom from God’s eternal perspective.  He wants God to help him move what he knows in his head into his heart, so it will influence how he lives.  He wants the knowledge of life’s brevity moved from one of daily sadness to one of a lasting, enduring gladness?  Is there anything to be ‘glad’ about when we get old?

In the best selling book, Tuesdays with Morrie, a former student named Mitch Albom interviewed his very wise but terminally ill sociology professor from Brandies University, Morrie Schwartz.  Listen for the professor’s wisdom about aging:
MITCH: “Weren’t you ever afraid to grow old?" Mitch asked.
MORRIE: "Well, Mitch, I embrace aging.
MITCH: "Embrace it?"
MORRIE: "Oh, yes,"
MITCH: "But if aging were so valuable, why do people always say, ‘Oh, if I were young again?’ You never hear people say, ‘I wish I were 65’.
MORRIE: "Well, it’s very simple. As you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at 22, you’d always be as ignorant as you were at 22. Aging is not just decay, you know. It is growth. It is more than the negative that you’re going to die. It is also the positive that you understand that you’re going to die and that you live a better life because of it."  He smiled.  
"Mitch, Do you know what the wish to be young again reflects? 
Unsatisfied lives. Unfulfilled lives. Lives that have not found meaning. Because if you found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more. You can’t wait until 65.
Listen. You should know something.  All younger people should know something. If you’re always battling against getting older, you’re always going to be unhappy because it will happen anyhow.
And, Mitch, the fact is, you are going to die eventually.... It won’t matter much what you tell yourself."  

The great American novelist, Edith Wharton, once reflected this kind of wisdom about aging when she said, “One can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.” 

If I understand her correctly, Wharton was suggesting that, even as we get older, though we might not be able to do what we used to, but we still have some very important work to do.  Albeit, it’s a different kind of work.  Learning to ‘number our days’ may be the most challenging, but also most rewarding work we’ll ever do.

So, what might this mean to ‘gain a heart of wisdom’ as we ‘number our days?”    According to Wharton, it means we must FACE the CHANGES that come with age, and not be afraid of them. 

As we all know, the rapid pace of change can seem overwhelming. One person put it this way: “Some of us were born before television and penicillin, before polio shots and frozen foods, before Xerox, plastic, contact lenses, and Frisbees. Some of us were born before radar, credit cards, split atoms, laser beams, and ballpoint pens, before dishwashers, clothes dryers, electric blankets, air conditioners, and before anybody thought about going to the moon.

Some of us remember when "Made in Japan" meant junk and the term "making out" referred to how you did on your high school exams. Pizza, McDonalds, and instant coffee were unheard of.  Some of us were born before day care centers, group therapy, and nursing homes, and never heard of FM radios, CD players, artificial hearts, yogurt, and boys wearing earrings. For some of us, time-sharing meant togetherness, not a week in a condo, a chip meant a piece of wood, hardware was at a dry goods store, and software wasn't even a word.

Some of us hit the scene long before Wal-Mart when you went to the 5 & 10 (Dime) where you could actually buy something for a nickel and a dime. Ice cream cones, a ride on a streetcar, a phone call, a Pepsi Cola, and a stamp all cost a nickel. A Chevy Coupe was $600, but who could afford one?  What a pity too, because gasoline was only 10 cents a gallon.   In that day grass was mowed not smoked, coke was a cold drink, and pot was something you cooked in. Rock music was Grandma's lullaby and AIDS were helpers in the Principal's office.”

This statement about change, is almost outdated itself, in light of the current fast pace of learning through Computers, Cell Phones, Internet, and Social media.  But we also need to realize even constant, rapid-fire change in our world, never occurrs in a vacuum.  In every age that change comes, change still comes with age, for we also change.  As much as we try to hold on to what once was, our ideas still change, our perspectives still change, and so does what we value the most in life.  As the old song says, “Time has made a change in me.

Wharton says, our fear of change in life is best answered by STAYING CURIOUS about life.  When we stay curious, she says, we can live “past our disintegration”.  We can push against our natural decline that comes with age, with “an insatiable intellectual curiosity (when we) are interested in big things.

Is there any ‘bigger’ curiosity than to think about God, to ask questions to God, or wonder about God  (cp. How Long?, v. 13)?  Isn’t this what these ancient Psalms and the whole Bible are really about; not to give us easy answers, but to help us gain focus and wisdom by asking the right kinds of questions about how we should live in every age?  Isn’t this why we listen to sermons, read our Bibles, or go to Bible studies?  It’s not so much that anyone ever tells us the final answer, but we keep asking the right questions and we find a way to stay engaged in what matters most in life.

Asking the right kind of question vey much like the story about a group of preschoolers who were touring a retirement home, and a resident asked them if they had any questions.
“Yes," one little girl answered, "How old are you?"
"I’m 98," the woman answered proudly.
Clearly impressed, the child’s eyes grew big, and she asked, "Did you start at 1?"
The wide, alert senior answered:  “Well, my little friend, we all start at 1, but it’s what we do after that, that counts.”

APPRECIATE THE GIFT:  TEACH US TO BE GLAD
The question of ‘what counts’ or ‘what matters’ brings us to the final thing Wharton suggests, which brings us right back to how this Psalm concludes.  According to Wharton, we learn to age, not only by facing change, or continuing to be curious about big things, but she says, we stay connected to ‘big things’ in ‘small ways’.

We’ve all heard the saying ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’!  
Perhaps, you’ve also heard more recently the reply, “It’s all small stuff!”
Big?  Small?   What’s what?  Well, that depends, doesn’t it?  Someone asked a philosopher, many years ago, where he’d go and what he’d do if he knew the world would end tomorrow.  The philosopher answered,
“You could find me, hoeing in my garden.”  

What’s big stuff and what’s small stuff is always related to how we are dealing with it, doesn’t it?   Putting your clothes on is small stuff, until you’ve just had surgery.   Brushing your teeth is very simple, until you’ve had your teeth worked on, or it gets easier, or is that more complicated when you have no teeth!   Going to the bathroom… well, you get the picture, don’t you?

What Edith Wharton means by stay curious about ‘big things’ in ‘small ways’ has to be answered by each of us in some very personal and most practical ways.   Isn’t this what the psalmist means when he says in verse 14 “Lord, satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love...   Or in verse 16:  “Let your deeds be shown to your servants...    Then, as the Psalmist asks in the most practical terms of all, in verse 17, repeating it twice: “Establish the work of our hands!  Prosper the work of our hands!  
Here we have come upon the final prayer of this Psalmist, and the final perspective of wisdom for aging.  It’s not just: ‘let us learn to count the days’, but it’s rather, ‘Lord help us live so that our days really ‘count’ for something, for someone.  Most of all, help us find wisdom in how we live, because we let our days ‘count’ to you, O God.”:  By living for you and to you, YOU GOD, help our lives count and our days matter.  Learning  what matters always starts in the smallest way of way of simply getting up each morning and by opening our waking hearts to soak in the warming, calming, and promising rays of God’s faithful love.’  

A rabbi once visited a 96 year lady in the hospital, who was a member of his synagogue in a hospital.  “How are things?” The Rabbi, asked.
 “Terrific,”the 96 year old lady responded. “There’s no peer pressure.”   
She continued:  “Rabbi, do you know that Serenity Prayer that 12 step programs use which starts: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…? 
“We’ll I”ve learned the Senility prayer: “God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into someone I do like, and the eyesight to be able to tell the difference.”

Two Questions:  First, do you know that God makes the difference in how we see age? If you really know what time it is, you will be investing a lot of attention to your relationship with God, wouldn’t you?  If you have no time for God, then you really have gained no wisdom, no understanding, and all you’re doing is probably just foolishness.

Do you know those words of Emily Dickenson? When I was in high school, she was one of my favorite poets, and in one short poem she wrote:
I never saw a moor, I never saw the sea
Yet know I how the heather looks, And how a wave must be
I never talked with God, Nor visited in Heaven
Yet certain am I of the place As if a chart were given.
Are you that certain? Do you know what’s just around the corner for you?  If you realize what time it is, you’ll give your relationship with God your very best attention.

Now the second question:  Are you taking someone with you? I mean, if Heaven is just around the corner for you, are you taking someone with you? Wouldn’t even Heaven seem like Hell, if we had no assurance that someone we love would be there with us, or we will be with them?   That’s wisdom too, not just to ‘grow’ old, but to ‘know’ who matters most and to be sure all things are well between us and them, them and God.

So, are we growing old? Of course we are, and for age we can gain ‘a heart of wisdom’:  Wisdom, is finally: Every morning lean thine arms awhile upon the window sills of heaven And gaze upon the Lord.  Then, with a vision in thy heart ,turn strong to meet the day (Maxie Dunnam).  All I need to say to this is, AMEN.  

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Clean Heart?

A sermon based upon Psalm 51, CEB
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
August 11th, 2019

“Cathy” was a gag-a-day comic strip that ran in American newspapers for 36 years, from 1976 to 2010.   Listen in on a conversation Cathy had with her husband Walter about feeling guilty:
Walter: "But, Cathy, my sweet ... This is a new age! There is no 'right' or 'wrong'
anymore."
Cathy: "No right and no wrong?"
Walter: "No, Cathy. There’s no ethical standard anymore. Nothing’s morally good
 or bad."
Cathy: "No ethics? No morals?"
Walter: "There are no rules anymore, Cathy. You can’t worry about breaking
 rules because there aren’t any rules!"
Cathy: "No rules."
Walter: "No right. No wrong. No ethics. No morals. No rules."
Cathy: "This leaves me with only one question, Walter.
Where does all this guilt come from?"

Today’s Psalm is about sin, guilt, confession, and David’s cry for God’s forgiveness.   But who needs to hear old-fashioned, antiquated ideas like this?  A recent commercial for Outback Steakhouse expresses the sentiment: “No Rules, Just Right!”   Like Walter told Cathy, “No right.  No wrong.  No ethics.  No morals.  No rules.  Get rid of your guilt!   But as Cathy answered, “If that’s true, this where does ‘guilt’ come from?”

I'VE SINNED AGAINST YOU-- YOU ALONE (Ps. 51:4 CEB)
In Psalm 51 David felt guilty because he was guilty, but did he really need to?  David was King.  Why would a King have to worry about right or wrong, since he is the authority. How can a King break the rules when the King rules?  He doesn’t answer to anybody.  Right?

Maybe that’s what King David’s first thought to himself when he saw a young, beautiful woman named Bathsheba, bathing on the privacy of her rooftop.  All the men had been sent off to war.  Who would know?  She was alone.  He was her king.  David was used to doing as he pleased; so he did. 

After Bathsheba informed David that she was pregnant, David felt the need to do something.  But instead of taking responsibility, instead of admitting his human weakness; facing his wrongdoing, David decided to to stage a cover-up, sending Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to the front-line, where the loyal, patriotic husband would die in battle.

So now, the King who could do as he pleased became the King who had cover up what he did.  Why did David feel the need to do this?  Why did King David not want to admit that he had ‘sexual relations with that woman’.  Why did David have to make it even worse?
Maybe he was worried about his legacy. 
Maybe he was worried about what his other wives would think;
Maybe he was worried about what his friends would think. 
Maybe he was worried about what the people might think,
or what the Husband would think,
or whether other good soldiers would still go to war for a King who took their generals wife behind his back?   Whatever it was, by attempting to cover up one sin, David was now guilty of two. As Sir Walter Scott said: ‘What tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive.” 

But there’s something else to consider here.  After David committed this ‘royal rape’, which was clearly an abuse of royal power, what might have been done about it?  In ancient Israel, there was a somewhat complicated atonement process so sins could be forgiven.  Israel, was not like other ancient nations.  Israel didn’t have a normal process of crimes and punishments. Israel considered itself a ‘holy’ nation, believing that they were a unique, peculiar, special, God-called, set-apart, and ‘holy’ people.   A wrong committed by an Israelite was not only wrong, it was a ‘sin against God’ needing to be atoned for, making right the broken relationship with God. 

Again, since Israel, both Kings and people, were called to be holy, as God is holy, when a person in Israel committed a sin, they didn’t go to court, but they went to a priest.  Making full atonement for sin required some kind of ‘sin offering’, normally a living sacrifice.  This offering was not merely ‘payment’ or ‘fine’ for sin, but it was understood as a complete cleansing from sin and from guilt too.  This restoration process was necessary so the wrongdoer, who had sinned against God not just laws, could be restore into their rightful relationship to a holy God and continue to be the person called them to be.

In this system of sin, punishment or ‘atonement’, there were, according to ancient system, only two sins that could not be forgiven.   One was murder.  If you killed someone, you took away their life, that could not be restored.  The other unforgivable sin was rape.  If you raped someone, it was reasoned, you took away a person’s soul, and that soul could not be fully restored either.  Thus, in Israel’s understanding, the beloved King of this ‘holy’ people was guilty of not one, but two ‘unforgivable’ sins.

Still, David could have probably still gotten away with this.  He could have moved on with his life and taken a new wife, without much consequence.  David had been ‘voted’ in by popular opinion.  Since David was ‘a man after God’s own heart’, and most wanted to believe he could do no wrong, people probably would have sadly, looked the other way.  But, of course, after this David’s untarnished fame, would have become lackluster like everyone else.

Had it not been the prophet named Nathan, we may have never known what really happened.  One thing for sure; Psalm 51 would have never been written.  At least that’s what the heading of this Psalm says.  Psalm 51 is a song that was given to the ‘chief musician when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba (Ps. 51:1 KJV).  Had Nathan not blown the whistle, not confronted this ‘picture-perfect’, gifted, blessed, Hollywood-looking King, this whole fiasco could have been swept under the ‘proverbial’ rug.

But, in the biblical story, the LORD revealed David’s sin to the prophet (2 Sam. 12:1ff).  The Lord instructed the prophet Nathan to approach the King, undaunted, and fearlessly; but not without using care and caution.  So, as you know, instead of telling David the problem upfront, Nathan gave King David a problem to solve. 

In short, Nathan appeals to the ‘humane’ side of David’s nature, informing the King about something the prophet may have observed in David’s kingdom: A wealthy man needed to fix a nice meal for one of his traveling guests.   Even though, this wealthy man had plenty of money and plenty of lambs of his own, the rich man demanded to take one of the little lambs from his poor employees flock; a little lamb that was a beloved pet to the employee’s children.  Hearing of a rich man taking unfair advantage of his poor employee, King David was incensed: “Who is this man?” “Where is this man?” “He deserves to die!”  (2 Sam. 12:5).

“You are that man,” the prophet suggested.   

Such a daring confrontation could have endangered the life of this prophet.  Even in a religious state like Israel, prophets were only advisors to kings; they had no ‘real’ power.  The King was free to listen or ignore the prophet’s counsel.  Furthermore, if the king didn’t like the prophet; he could fire him, or worst, if the King felt the prophet to be undermining his authority, or his ‘right’ to be King, the King could have the prophet executed as a ‘false prophet’.  That was always the king’s prerogative.  Here, through this prophet, God was revealing his own prerogative, revealing what is true for everybody, even a King.

Considering such a daring confrontation, we should also dare to think about our own feelings and how we might all connect with this Psalm.  When David poured out his feelings of guilt, shame, and sin, both in confession, contrition, and repentance; and he did it not just privately, but also publicly, toward God, and before all the people; out of this great human drama comes a question that is still very relevant for us, or is it?
Are feelings of sin, guilt, and acts of contrition for forgiveness and restoration; such matters of the heart, issues we should concern ourselves with today?  Besides, who confesses sin, either privately or publicly, anymore?   Didn’t Walter tell Cathy when she felt guilty: “We live in new age, now!  Ethical standards and old rules don’t matter anymore!  There are no standards of right or wrong; nothing morally good or bad!”

What Walter was basically suggesting is that today, we all live like Kings.  We are people who are born with entitlements, rights, wealth, knowledge and privilege, which are far greater than those of ancient kings like David, emperor’s like Caesar, or rulers like James, Louis, or Charles.  Those kings never dreamed of the kinds of opportunities, freedoms, or responsibilities we have, or should I say, we should have.

HAVE MERCY ON ME, O GOD (Ps. 51:1 CEB)
Before we address whether or not old rules’ and ancient or modern ethical standards still matter, I want us to listen to another comic strip conversation, where this time, Cathy is talking with her Mother.  Most interesting about this, is that the main point comes from what Cathy’s mother doesn’t say:
Cathy: "Guess what? Roger is moving in with Judy."
Mother: "That’s nice."
Cathy: "Dianne and Tom just had a baby and they named it after Dianne’s old boyfriend."
Mother: "That’s nice."
Cathy: "Claudia’s going on a 5-day canoe trip with a guy she met last night!"
Mother: "That’s nice."
Cathy: "What’s the world coming to? I can’t shock my mother anymore."

Don’t we accept things we didn’t fifteen years ago?  Why did David really have this need to confess sin and beg God’s forgiveness?   But even if he did then, haven’t we freed ourselves from such demanding moral or religious chains, so that such negative and oppressive feelings have practically disappeared and gone out of style?  ‘Whatever became of sin? Why do fewer and fewer take sin, guilt and confession less seriously in our modern lives? 

Perhaps it’s partly because today sin is no longer taken personally, but is considered more like an ‘illness’, a ‘disease’ or a ‘symptom’ needing to be treated and cured rather than a wrong to be admitted or confessed (Freud)?  Perhaps its also because human behavior is now theorized to be more predetermined or wired within us (in our genes), not as much our own choosing, but a defect that can’t be stopped (B.F. Skinner)?  

Even today, when someone says ‘the devil made me do’, they don’t really mean the devil.  They are meaning rather, that they were born this way, their parents were bad, others influenced them, or their bad behavior is because of a sick society.  The great irony here is that rather than make us free to do what we want, we become slaves to our own bad, degrading, and dehumanizing choices.  Since what’s wrong in us is someone else’s fault or we say ‘we can’t help ourselves’, we have less to be ashamed of, less to be sorry for, less blame to take, and of course, much less that we should feel guilty about.  This might seem like a better way to proceed forward with life, until it finally dawns on us, that by not having any, or less moral responsibility, we have also denied ourselves of the human freedom it takes to make the moral choice to do what is right.

Interestingly, all this shirking of personal or public responsibility takes us right back where it all started. As the great psychiatrist Karl Menninger said: “To some extent, all of us repeat the experience of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden...”  Our own rebellion, which is our failure to seek God and answer to God’s goodness, shows up, not only in the wrong choices we make, but it also shows up in the right choices we don’t make. For example, I was talking to my postman just the other day, and he told me that after his divorce from his first wife, he now has a new FiancĂ©e.  After congratulating him, I asked when he was going to get married.  He answered that they hadn’t made any plans, and probably he wasn’t planning on getting married again at all.  “Getting married”, he said, is like ‘betting on losing half of everything you’ve worked for all your life.”  “It’s just not worth it,” He said.  Now, at least to him, no decision, no commitment, and no choice, seems to be the best.

When people live their ‘best life’ by their non-choices, their non-confessions, and their non-plans, what will finally be the value of anything?  Doesn’t this lead to a much lesser ‘you’? and a much lesser life?   No wonder the great reformer Martin Luther once said, ‘Sin boldly!’   Luther wasn’t recommending to try to sin, as he knew, like we all know, that sin will happen, naturally.  What Luther was recommending was a bold, risk taking, daring life, depending boldly and firmly upon God’s grace every step of the way.  Luther wrote: “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but LET YOUR TRUST IN CHRIST BE STRONGER, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” 

In thinking practically about Luther’s idea, along with the reality of a great King’s great sin, isn’t it better to have a car that takes you places, even if it sometimes has mechanical problems or has dents in it?  A car with no dents, no scratches, and no problems is a car that never goes anywhere but stays in the garage. What good is that? 

CREATE A CLEAN HEART…, O GOD;  (Ps. 51:10 CEB)
Not only because David felt his guilt, but also by acknowledging and confessing that he had sinned against God, David experienced God’s cleansing love and the fullness of God’s restoring, and soul-healing forgiveness.  This is the spiritual healing that makes life positive and possible for sinners like David, and sinners like us too.

Psalm 51 also shows us how and why God forgives.  When we, like David, fall short of God’s intentions, guilt comes to remind us of what is good and right, even when it feels very bad.  But these negative guilt feelings are only good for us, IF our guilt turns us toward God’s redeeming, forgiving love.  God’s love is always offered through honest confession of sin, bringing us reconciliation with God and others, so that we can move ahead in goodness and with gladness.  If guilt remains unconfessed or unforgiven, our spirits become negative and neurotic.  The great theologian Paul Tillich once explained that having the courage to affirm and ‘accept’ oneself, in spite of our sin and guilt is "rooted in the certainty that God forgives.”   This kind of unconditional “acceptance” is crucial to both the healing our guilt of sin and for growing love within our hearts.  

Clint McCann, in his work on the Psalms in The New Interpreter's Bible notes, "Any good history book is mainly just a long list of mistakes, complete with names and dates. It is very embarrassing." And this is especially true of the Bible. Israel's story is a long list of mistakes. King David's story is very embarrassing. So is the behavior of the disciples in the Gospels. So is the situation of the early church, as is painfully obvious in the letters of Paul. So is the history of the Christian church throughout the centuries. So are the denominational and congregational lives of the contemporary church. So are the details of our own life stories, if we are honest enough to admit it.

In short, McCann writes, "Psalm 51 is not just about Israel or David, it is also about us! It is about who we are and how we are as individuals, families, churches -- sin pervades our lives. It is very embarrassing."  T But it is the very ‘bad’ news about us that leads us to hear the ‘good news’ that comes from God’s forgiveness, revealed in the redeeming and soul healing love of God in Jesus Christ.

A broken spirit is my sacrifice.  God won't despise a heart that is broken and crushed?   David didn’t need to hide his sin, because David could accept his failure, as a failure by him in his life, but not the failure of his life.  This is the kind of saving and reconciling difference that a loving, forgiving, and redeeming God can make.  Amen.   (Ps. 51:1-19 CEB)