Sermon for May 27th, 2018
A Psalm of David. 1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes—they shall stumble and fall. 3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. 4 One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. 5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. 6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord. 7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! 8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek. 9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation! 10 If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up. 11 Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. 12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. 13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 14 Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
Psummer of Psalms - Psalm 27
Most of us are familiar with the biblical image of David the Giantslayer, who challenged and triumphed over the giant Goliath. You may even remember David the Outlaw, who lived in a cave and led a band of rebels in exile. And of course, later in the story we remember David the King, who led his armies into battle against the enemies of Israel.
But I bet you didn't know that long before the Walking Dead or Night of the Living Dead, David was actually the first person to face the terrible onslaught of a Zombie Apocalypse? Psalm 27 is evidence of this, particularly verse 2, where we read of David's enemies, who seek to devour his flesh, and have a tendency to stumble and fall down.
You know, I've always believed that in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse, we as Presbyterians would be the first ones to die. We're a pretty brainy bunch, and zombies like brains. But in a whole different way. Probably our church handbell choir would be the first to succumb. Then they'd be a bunch of dead ringers.
As Zombies, we'd probably still eat the communion bread with our fingers...first the communion bread, and then the fingers. Wait, is that groaning I hear? Maybe the apocalypse has already started.
But Pastor Neal, you say...Zombies don't really exist, do they? Of corpse not. I mean, of course not. I just wanted to give you something to chew on, just something to flesh out a little bit.
Ok, no more. I'll be serious now. Dead serious.
Two years ago, I preached a very short sermon series on some of the most well-known, well-loved Psalms in the book of Psalms--Psalm 23 (the Lord is my Shepherd), Psalm 121 (I lift my eyes to the hills) and a few others. I received a lot of positive feedback from that series, and I personally learned a lot in preparation for those sermons, so I've always wanted to come back to Psalms.
That's what we're going to do this summer--and perhaps for the next several summers, as we slowly work our way through the entire book, one Psalm at a time. This makes sense for us to do in the summer, the season when we turn our attention to prayer, and the commitment each of us made when we joined this church to pray for each other and with each other.
The Psalms are the original prayer book for the church--both for the ancient Jewish people and for the earliest Christians. In fact, Jesus himself, in the New Testament, quotes the book of Psalms more than any other book of the Bible, most often in prayer.
John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian movement, wrote that the Psalms were the "anatomy of the soul" because more than any other book, the Psalms display the full range of human emotions, crying out to God in prayer.
I've said on several occasions that 2018 is a year of going "back to the basics" for us here at First Presbyterian Church, and exploring the Psalms is a great way to do that. In the 16th century, when Calvin and Knox wanted to reform the worship of the church and go back to the basics, they used the psalms to do that, eliminating all music, all musicians, and all instruments except for the a capella singing of Psalms by the congregation. While instruments and musicians eventually found their way back into worship, the practice of singing psalms exclusively continued for several centuries in Presbyterian churches in Europe and America.
The very first book of any kind published in America was the Bay Psalm Book, a collection of psalms for singing in colonial-era puritan worship services. And in 1882, when the First Presbyterian Church of El Paso began to hold its very first worship services, they did not sing any of the classic hymns we are most familiar with today--they sang the Psalms, and the Psalms alone.
So if we want to use the Psalms to help us go "back to the basics" of worship, or if you want to use the Psalms to help you develop a greater personal understanding of prayer, where do you begin? The last sermon series I did on the Psalms, I started with Psalm 1. That made sense, and it's not a bad place to start. But really, if you know what to look for, every Psalm has wisdom and beauty to offer, so any place is a good place to start. If you take your Bible and just open it right up to the very middle...chances are you'll land in a Psalm.
Or you could take the approach I took in choosing today's Psalm, Psalm 27. Why this Psalm? What's today? It's May the 27th, so we're reading the 27th Psalm. If you follow that approach for awhile, it will at least get you through the first 30 Psalms. If you want to spend an entire year focusing on just one Psalm, learning it and maybe even memorizing it...pick the Psalm that corresponds to your age.
If you want a family psalm to focus on for a year, add together everyone's age and use that one (this stops working once you have two people over the age of 75).
Psalm 27 has special meaning for me, not just because today is May 27th, but because May 27th (of every year) is my birthday. Most psalms have at least 12 verses, so if you let the day of your birth determine the psalm, and the month of your birth determine the verse, you might come up with a really special, really personal Bible verse to call your own: So for me, that's Psalm 27, verse 5: "For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock."
As any of my friends will tell you, that's a pretty good prayer...for a troublemaker.
Now I've given you enough ideas that several of you are flipping through the pages of the psalms trying to find your own birthday verses, and it may be hard to get your attention back again for the rest of the sermon--but if you're reading the psalms and making them your own, that's not entirely a bad thing.
Writer and novelist Anne Lamott has said that there are really only two prayers--everything else is just a variation on those two. They are: "Help me, help me, help me!" and "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
Psalm 27 has both. The first half of the psalm is the "help me, help me, help me" part, where the Psalmist (in this case it's attributed to David) is surrounded on all sides by enemies, adversaries, war, and trouble. He is not afraid of these things, because the Lord is his light, his salvation and his strength...but he still acknowledges that these are very really problems, and he can't deal with them on his own. He needs help.
So in verse 4, he makes his request: "One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple." That may sound like three things, but it's really just one, and the other two flow from it: He asks to live in the house of the Lord. If you do that, you will behold the beauty of the Lord. Inquire is an awkward translation in the NRSV of the Hebrew word בָּקַר (baqar) which can also mean to discern, reflect, or meditate--things which are a natural result of beholding the beauty of the Lord in his temple.
About this one request: Notice that he doesn't ask the Lord to "make my problems go away" or "solve them for me." If we're honest, that's the way most of us pray. But instead, the Psalmist just says, I want to be with you, God. I want to see you, to know you, to be near you...and I have confidence that if that happens, everything else will fall into place." What a great thing to pray.
If the first half of Psalm 27 is "Help me, help me, help me," then the second half is the "thank you, thank you, thank you." You can hear the change beginning in verse 6:
"Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord."
Notice that a very important part of thanking God for answered prayer is singing and making melodies...where? In his tent, which is a poetic way of saying in his dwelling place--in the temple, in the synogogue, or in the church!
In fact, the church, or the "house of the Lord" is the thread that connects the two halves of this Psalm. In the first half, the Psalmist is saying, "I want to be in the house of the Lord," and in the second half, now that he is there, a new problem, a new challenge arises: He prays, "I want to STAY in the house of the Lord." In verse 9, "do not turn your servant away in anger . . . do not cast me off, do not forsake me."
Sometimes we spend a lot of effort wishing for something, hoping and praying for something, and then when our prayers are granted, we breathe a sigh of relief and take for granted the very thing we prayed so long for. When you achieve something with God's help, when you build a relationship, when you arrive at the place you wanted to be...you still have to rely on God's help, you still have to keep praying, keep working, keep seeking God's face and God's will.
And so in verse 11, the Psalmist prays, "teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path." Faith is a journey, not a destination. We can be thankful that we are further down the road than when we started, but we're still on the road, still putting one foot in front of the other.
Listen again to the psalmist at the beginning of the journey, where he prays: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?"
These verses sound, on the surface, confident, but the emphasis and focus is on the fear. Light, salvation, and stronghold are the things you think about when you are focused on darkness, danger, and defeat.
Now listen again to the Psalmist when he is closer to the end of his journey. Now he has spent a lifetime beholding the beauty of the Lord in the sanctuary, meditating on God's teaching, singing and making melodies with God's people. Those old enemies and adversaries haven't gone anywhere; we see them again in verse 12. But listen to where the focus and emphasis is:
"I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 14 Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!"
The Hebrew word for "wait" in this Psalm is קָוָה (qavah). It's not a passive kind of waiting, where you sit twiddling your thumbs; it's an active, prepared, engaged kind of waiting. The word has its roots in an even older word that means to twist, stretch, and bind two cords together. To wait for the Lord, in Psalm 27, means to bind yourself to the Lord, to twist, stretch and wrap yourself up in the Lord.
Imagine you are hanging over the edge of a cliff and the only thing that's supporting you is one strong rope. You are pretty invested in that rope. You are going to wrap and twist yourself into that rope; you are going to bind yourself to that rope and hang on with everything you've got--actively! It's a 100% commmitment.
You may find yourself saying to the rope "help me, help me, help me" and also "thank you, thank you, thank you" because the rope is strong, and you know that it will hold as long as you need it to, right up until the time it pulls you up into the safety of dozens of waiting arms and into the company of those who have scaled the cliff ahead of you.
Be strong, let your heart take courage, wait for the Lord like that.
And try not to think about all the flesh-eating zombies at the bottom of the cliff.