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God’s Loving Paths

Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of of Holmeswood BaptistChurch in Kansas City, M.O., on Mar. 1, 2009.

Psalm 25: 1-10

It’s the first Sunday of Lent and we’re just six weeks away from Easter. What do you intend to do with this time ahead of you? Some will move along unconsciously, unaware of the journey they’re taking through life ignoring the ways in which they travel through their days with God. “Asleep at the wheel,” we might say of them. Others are wide-eyed in wonder because there’s a sense in which they are alert and conscious of how God is leading them, wanting to lead them, and has led them in the past. For them, the days of Lent are an opportunity of knowing more intimately how God is at work in one’s life and in what new ways God wishes to be present on the journey.

 

Lent is 40-day season of soul-searching and repentance, a season for reflecting and taking stock. The observation of this 40-day season preceding Easter has been a part of the church from its earliest days when the faithful rededicated themselves to God and when converts to Christianity prepared themselves for baptism which occurred on Easter morning, the day of resurrection. By keeping this vigil of preparation, we are joining Jesus as he withdrew into the wilderness where he was tested and tempted for 40 days.

 

The ancient church that wrote, copied, collected, and propagated the writings of the original Christian Scriptures that formed our New Testament also observed Lent, believing it to be commanded by the Apostles themselves, certainly it was one of the “holy habits,” that marked their identity as a community. Thus it is a season owned by no Christian group and we join the whole Christian family in this observing Lent.[1]

 

Today and for the three weeks that follow, we’ll be immersed in the Psalms. The collection of the psalms remind us that we’re often guilty of reducing faith, flattening it and turning it into principles about how life should be governed but not lived as the great adventure that it is. We are often guilty of turning the poetry of God into prosaic principles of logic rather than as a song we sing. In doing so, we crush the beauty of faith by turning it into a system based on a logic we can wrap our minds around, perhaps as something we can admire only with the logical, left side of brains. What we miss through this kind of reductionism is the beauty that can only be appreciated by the artists and the poets. This book of our Bible containing the psalms resists all manner of objectifying truth into law instead giving us songs to sing and poems to relish. Poet Walt Whitman captured this sentiment:

 

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)

After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,

After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,

Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,

The true son of God shall come singing his songs[2]

 

The psalmist paints with poetic images and whole new worlds are set in motion. For the oppressed, those who are cast down, they now have the opportunity to see their downtrodden world as having meaning. For the one sensing the transcendent, the rooftop of the world is opened and one can see past the stars to glimpse the hand of the Creator who flung the stars into the heavens. In times like these, how would we survive without art and poetry and song to lift our eyes to the new world that is ours to perceive?

 

What’s intriguing about today’s psalm is that it’s actually an acrostic – you know, each line of the psalm is built upon the sequenced letters of the Hebrew alphabet – something a Jewish worshiper would recognize immediately and something we miss altogether. I suspect it was written this way as a memory crutch and a way the follower of God could keep up with the words. Perhaps they were said as a form of a meditative mantra to offer the comfort of the gentle alternating rhythms of pleading for help and singing the words of God’s assurance.

 

I must confess today we have a church family where every week they play a game tracking the sermon by listening for words that follow the alphabet. There have been many days when I hear at the end of worship, “I got all the way through the alphabet but got stuck on W or X.” And on occasion, I’ve heard, “We got all the way to Z – why didn’t you give us a Z word at the end?”

 

Perhaps by using the sequence of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, it provided a mnemonic crutch that helped worshipers in their devotions by giving them an easily recalled structure by which to remember each line even under times of great personal times of stress.

 

At the heart of this psalm is the poet’s desire to accept the teachings of the God of Israel as a sign of God’s presence through the tough times of life. So the psalmist prays for guidance and deliverance when God’s power is needed to save us. Tucked in between these cries for help and instruction are expressions of trust. If the poet’s life is anything like ours, he moves back and forth in the gentle rhythms between experience and reflection. He has his blessed, wonderful days when he can savor life and its goodness. But on other days, he’s pressed hard by the difficulties all of us face in life. He has those around him who oppose him at every turn so he pleads before God his deepest cry for help, “Do not let my enemies exult over me.”

 

The season of Lent is the journey taken when like Jesus in the wilderness, we find ourselves both alone and yet at the same time in the presence of the enemy. Enemies lurk both within and without. There are the enemies of our own making who taunt us from within. Perhaps our most dangerous enemies are those hidden in our hearts and minds. Even those enemies from without who oppose us – someone who we perceive is at war with us, a work colleague who is trying to force us out, someone at school is spreading untruths about us, or even the one with whom we are tangled in matters of the law – these are the enemies from without who can cause us to forget who we are as the beloved children of God. Anytime we have an inner enemy or someone from without who makes us less than we were created to be, we can fall prey to our worse selves by becoming vengeful, mean, fearful, depressed, anxious, hateful or turn to self-destructive or addictive behaviors.

 

The journey through these seasons of Lent can help us come to terms with the enemies that haunt us into becoming less than we were meant to be. In the prison created by the power of our enemies, we find ourselves captive. There we can learn something deeper than can be learned under sunnier skies. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about this:  “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirring of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes, not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through all human hearts. So, bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”[3]

 

So the psalmist reaches out to God for help and instruction. God’s covenant is the basis for asking for help – it is the assurance God hears and will respond. And for centuries the idea of the metaphor of the journey shapes how that help will come as God has promised to sustain and uphold his people. And the people respond to that steadfast love by keeping God’s laws and following God’s paths. Perhaps the metaphor is just the thing you need this day: The God who guided Abram to the Promised Land is the one who guides us. The God who watched over David the shepherd boy as he watched over his family’s flocks is the God who stands guard over us. The God who delivered the children of Israel out of their captivity of Egypt is the God who delivers us from our own bondage.

 

My pastoral friend, Gary Long, wrote of when he poignantly learned there are choices when we feel lost and tested. He was in Washington D.C. and had a chance to visit the Holocaust Museum, a place many of us have visited. He wrote of that place dedicated to remember the senseless loss of life during the darkness of World War II, describing how “you slowly wind from top to bottom through the exhibit, spiraling downward as if you were tumbling into the collective Jewish conscious, sinking deeper and deeper into the darkness and evil of the holocaust. The walls are covered with images and artifacts of the terrible reign of power, as well as evidence of suffering and death for the Jewish people. But on the very bottom floor you will find the powerful juxtaposition of evil and hope. Children’s artwork captured on ceramic tile forms a mosaic testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome even the darkest of evil and of suffering. Modern children have chosen to look at all the pain and suffering of the Holocaust and turn it into a beautiful work of art. It is not some unbridled optimism when I say this, but what we choose to do with evil and suffering matters.”

 

He warns, “You may be stuck with a situation, condition, or illness you cannot reverse, but what you choose to do in that situation can change the outcome of the story. You can choose to blame God, to blame others, to blame evil forces, to blame the government, to blame your parents, to blame yourself. You can choose to wallow in the mud of martyrdom, you can choose to allow your story of suffering to become your own little ad campaign for depression and constant wailing, you can choose to remain stuck and do nothing.”

 

“But,” he writes, “You can also choose to draw closer to God in your suffering. For when you do, you are able to experience the mystery of a God who suffers with us. You can choose to draw closer to family and friends in your suffering. For when you do, you are able to experience the strength of true community that shares pain. You can choose to be the person God made you to be, writing a story that includes a chapter of suffering, but not limited by suffering.” [4]

 

Carlyle Marney once said, “We Christians are a ‘pilgrim people’ or we are dead.” The path is never ours to take alone. Countering the presence of enemies within and without, we have friends on the pathway both within and without and alongside us.

 

Let’s pray …

Our souls, like our surroundings, need cleaning.

Shake us out, O God, so we can work and walk with energy.

Blow off the dust and polish us until we have the luster of Your New Creations.

Reach far into the corners of our lives to pull out things we’ve left too long

untouched.

Rub the windows of our souls until others can see you Your reflection in them.

Help us make hard decisions about what to keep and what to give away.

Let us know when enough is enough; when we have all we can say grace over and

when we have space to care for more.

Renew our lives that they may be ready to receive the fresh spirit of your grace.

Your grace, O God, is our greatest strength.

In the name of your greatest gift to us, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen[5]

 

[1] Kenneth W. Collins, “The Season of Lent,” www.kencollins.com/holy-04.htm

[2] Walt Whitman, “Passage to India,” 5:101-5 Leaves of Grass, New York: Mentor Books, The New American Library, 1954, 324

[3] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, quoted in Phillip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977, 51

[4] Gary Long, “Not a Sermon – Just a Thought,”

[5] Prayer by Steve Graham