Sermon for August 2nd, 2020

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Psalm 34:1-22

(Scripture Reading Incorporated Into Sermon)

Psummer of Psalms: Psalm 34

Psalm 34 is all about perspective. There are multiple ways to view any situation. To the optimist, the light at the end of the tunnel is a way out. To the pessimist, it's an oncoming train. And of course, to the train conductor, it's two idiots wandering aimlessly on the railroad tracks, about to meet their maker.

It's all about perspective. One night, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Sherlock woke Watson up and said: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you see.” Watson replied: “I see billions and billions of stars.” Holmes said: “and what do you deduce from that?” Watson replied: “Well, if there are billions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like earth out there. And if there are a few planets like earth out there, there might also be life out there.” And Holmes said: “No, Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”

It's all about your perspective.

The inscription to Psalm 34 tells us that it's a Psalm "Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away."

This refers to events in the book of 1 Samuel, when young King David (before he was King) found himself in the hands of his enemies, and barely escaped with his life, by pretending to be insane. After that, he went from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak, spared by one king but still hunted by another. He went from being the famous David, who killed Goliath, to a man on the run, hiding in a cave. And yet, in the midst of dire circumstances like that, Psalm 34 begins:

1 I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
3 O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.

Next time you find yourself in the midst of a catastrophe, remember *that* perspective as an option: I will bless the Lord, at ALL times, good OR bad, and his praise shall continually be in my mouth. If you're a fan of the UTEP Miner football team (or the Cleveland Browns, for that matter) you already know this sentiment: I'm going to stick with my team no matter what, in a winning season, in a losing season, because my allegiance is deeper, truer, than numbers or circumstances that change with every passing year.

I also love how the author of Psalm 34 invites his listeners to join him for the ride: "Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name TOGETHER."

To carry on the sports metaphor, would you rather root for your team alone, or with like minded friends and fans? I realize this is bad timing. If football even happens this fall, we'll all be rooting for our favorite teams alone. But you get the idea. Community is an important part of our identity, our passions, our worship.

The next four verses of Psalm 34 are a testimony, almost a back and forth between the Psalmist and his audience. Listen for the "I did" and therefore "you should" as we read verses 4-7:

4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
5 Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
7 The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.

Incidentally, that last verse, verse 7, is where we get the idea of the "guardian angel" who watches over us. But if you look closely at these four verses, what strikes me is that they answer the question, "Who is this Psalm for?" "Who needs the protection of a guardian angel? The answer is clear: Those who are afraid. Those who are ashamed. Those who shed tears, and those who are in trouble. Those are the ones God is especially interested in, the ones God sends his angels to deliver.

Fear is mentioned twice in these verses, and again later in the Psalm. I had an interesting conversation with a friend last week about that very concept, the "fear of the Lord." In the Hebrew language (the original language of Psalm 34, the word for "fear" of the Lord (in verse 7) is יָרֵא (ya-reh) a word that means fear, but also reverence, respect, awe, and wonder.

But the word also translated as "fear" in verse 4 (The Lord delivered me from all my fears) is a totally different word: מְגוּרָה (m'gurah) which literally means barn or storehouse, but the sense here is of worry or anxiety. The Lord delivered me from all the things I stay awake late at night thinking about, my barn and all that could happen to it.

These are two very different kinds of fear. The Psalmist is saying that when we cry out to him, he moves us from an unhealthy kind of fear (worry, anxiety, sleeplessness) to a healthy kind of fear (respect, reverence, and acceptance for the things in life we have no control over, and therefore place in God's capable hands).

If you can do that, if you can lay down your cares and worries at his feet, then you will experience what comes in the next three verses:

8 O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.
9 O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
    for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

Taste, in this sense, is a call to experience, to put God to the test, to change your perspective about all the things that trouble you, and find lasting happiness in a place where you didn't expect it.

Verse 10 speaks of "young lions" who suffer want and hunger. That's probably a metaphor for the proud, the strong, whose pride and strength will ultimately fail them. But those who humble themselves, who seek God above all else, will lack nothing they need. Remember, of course, there's a difference between the things we want and the things we truly need. God knows those the difference between those two things, even when we don't.

11 Come, O children, listen to me;
    I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 Which of you desires life,
    and covets many days to enjoy good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil,
    and your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Depart from evil, and do good;
    seek peace, and pursue it.

This is the heart of the Psalm and its teaching: The promise, the reward the Psalm offers is a full and fulfilling life: Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?

The path, or how to get to that point, is simply put, the "Fear of the Lord". Or, changing your perspective. Putting first things first. Putting reverence for God above all the things of this world. How do we do that? Verses 13 and 14 are the steps: Keep your tongue speaking deceit, depart from evil, do good, seek peace (not anger, not revenge, not your own benefit) but peace--What is good for you and me, and all of us--in all your actions, and all your interactions.

Simple, right? Yeah, I know that's a lot easier said than done. We are human, after all. But even when we fail in that goal, when we try but fall short, Psalm 34 tells us that:

15 The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their cry.

Righteous, in Hebrew, is צַדִיק (tsadik). It's not a finished accomplishment; it's a cause. It's an ongoing process. God honors our attempts to be better, even when we fail. Verse 16:

16 The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
    to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

That sounds harsh. But here again, the difference between the righteous person and the evildoer is one of intention. The evildoer is one who has stopped trying to do good, one who is willing seeking the harm of another person.

17 When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
    and rescues them from all their troubles.
18 The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
    and saves the crushed in spirit.

I love those two verses, because they remind us that even when we are trying to be good, to do good in the world, things still go wrong. We fail. Or others fail us, break our hearts. Sometimes the world crushes our spirit. Just because you do what's right doesn't mean that things will go your way. But it does mean that God hears your cry, that God stands with you, and walks alongside you even in the valley of the shadow of death. In fact, (verse 19):

19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
    but the Lord rescues them from them all.
20 He keeps all their bones;
    not one of them will be broken.

Note here that you are not promised a life free from afflictions or pain. The word "rescue" in Hebrew is נָצַל (natsal). It literally means to "strip bare" or to "plunder" which is ironic. But the sense is that God eventually takes away the things that afflict us. He doesn't prevent them. He doesn't take them away as soon as we'd like. But all things pass in time, even our suffering in this world. We will be bruised, but in God's hands, we will not be broken.

The last two verses of Psalm 34 drive home this point:

21 Evil brings death to the wicked,
    and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

In Buddhism and Hinduism, there is a concept called "Karma" -- most of us are familiar with it. It's the idea that your actions have consequences, that what goes around comes around. This wisdom is echoed throughout the psalms. If you spend your life in anger, in jealousy, in competition with others, in condemnation of others...that path leads to death. Living, breathing, walking, death. Or life that is not really life.

But if you let go of those things, if you humble yourself and your personal desires, your personal ambitions, your personal angst, to seek God instead, to seek goodness, and the good of those around you--not just the ones you love most, but the good of ALL around you--then you will always have refuge, a safe haven, in the arms of the Creator of the Universe.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Test and see if the Lord is good.

How? Change your perspective. Change your heart. Bless the Lord at all times, and let his praise be continually in your mouth.