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Sunday, November 23, 2008

The King Who Saves Us (Matthew 2, 21, 27; Revelation 17)

November 23, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Today is what is called “Christ the King Sunday.” As you may know, the Christian Church has organized the calendar year in such a way as to tell the biblical story year after year. Some individual churches use this church calendar more than others, but almost everyone observes Christmas and Easter and the seasons leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth and resurrection. Next Sunday we will begin Advent, and will begin looking forward to Christmas. But today, is really the end and culmination of the church calendar because we celebrate Christ as King. Next Sunday we start telling the story all over again.

I have chosen a number of scripture lessons today. The call to worship described the final scene of Christ as King, victorious over the powers of evil and death. But in another sense, the whole biblical story points towards that ending. And so I have chosen several texts which name Christ as King, to remind us that at every point in history, and at every point in our own lives, Jesus Christ IS King of kings and Lord of Lords. And that is Good News indeed!

Let’s look briefly at each of these texts.

Promised King (Matthew 2)

Matthew 2:1-6 is a familiar text, particularly as we enter into the Christmas season. Look at that with me. Matthew tells us that just after Jesus was born, magi (the “wise men”) from the east came to find him. The point I want to make here is that the birth of God’s Messiah as “King” was promised ahead of time. One approach to Jesus is to believe that he was an ordinary man (and baby) who God blessed in a special way and set apart. But that is not the biblical story. From the beginning of time God planned to send His Son into the world to make a way for us to be restored to relationship with God. From the earliest parts of scripture, in the stories and promises of God’s people, and even as far as these foreign wise men, God’s promise was known. This promise was implicit in the curse and promise in the Garden. The promise was there in the covenant with Abraham and explicitly so in the covenant with David. The Old Testament prophets looked forward to the King’s coming.

And so the wise me traveled and came to the ruler of Judea, Herod the King. They asked, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2) Of course, this led to trouble with Herod; but the point is that Jesus birth was no accident, nor was the arrival of this “King of the Jews.” He was the fulfillment of God’s promises from the beginning of time.

Sent King (Matthew 21)

From this account of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, let’s jump to Matthew 21 to the end of Jesus’ earthly life. This is the great Palm Sunday text, where the people welcome Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna!” When Jesus sends the disciples to find a donkey, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, “Behold your King is coming to you…” (v. 5). And indeed, the crowds went on to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem as a King and hero, shouting for him to save them. The people were waiting for a Savior-King, and thought Jesus might just be that one who would set them free from the oppression and rule of the Roman army.

We’ve talked about Palm Sunday before – how the expectations and dreams of a Savior-King were close, but missed the reality of who Jesus was. People were looking for a political Savior rather than a personal and spiritual Savior. Nonetheless, this does not take away from the “sentness” of Jesus as the Savior and King promised and sent from God.

The King who Suffered (Matthew 27)

Fast forward just five days in the life of Jesus and you reach the scene in Matthew 27. There, he is being tortured and crucified, but not before being mocked with purple robes and a crown of thorns as the “King of the Jews.” This description, which had been with him all his life, was affixed over his head on a sign on the cross.

A while back, we made much of Jesus, the Great High Priest, who suffered and was tempted in every way as we have been, but who did not sin. Likewise, Jesus our King, suffered and was taken captive and defeated before, as Ephesians 4 describes, he took captivity captive and released us all from our chains. If you have never seen or read the great depiction of this scene in C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is well worth doing!

Jesus as suffering King is another reminder of our God, who does not remain hidden and aloof in the far reaches of Heaven, but who has come all the way down to where we are to plunge into the depth of human experience and rescue us, employ us, and bring us home.

The Returning King (Revelation 17)

Finally, I want to point you to Revelation, to the verse that began our service. It is from Revelation 17:14, which reads, “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.” Not only is Jesus the promised and sent King who has suffered with us and for us; he is also the returning King, who will come to establish God’s reign forever. And look at that wording – “those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.” Those are all words we have used to describe what it is God saves us for. That’s part of the whole energy behind the lighthouse/searchlight vision – that God doesn’t just save us for Heaven, but saves us for His work here on earth. That’s what called and chosen and faithful describes – you and me engaged in the Lord’s work. That’s what it means to be with Him!

The King who Saves Us

Christ the King Sunday and these connected texts describing Jesus as King are a fitting last word for the Christian calendar year as well as for our month of wrestling with the struggles of this world. We’ve talked about trouble, discouragement, and doubt – both the steps we can take to draw near to God and the ways that God promises to draw near to us.

Hear this Good News – Jesus is God’s final Word! Our trouble, discouragement, and doubt – even our sin and death – have not and do not take God by surprise, though they certainly can take us by surprise. Sickness, job loss, family issues, nor anything else takes God by surprise, though those things can lay us low. The Good News is that from the beginning of time, promised from the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed and turned from God, God has purposed to send His Son into the world to face what we face and to emerge victorious over it all with all who believe in tow.

This is no magic wand for trouble and sorrow; but it is Good News. God is here; God is not surprised, nor reeling defensively from the things that knock our feet out from under us. Rather, God has acted with all the foresight, wisdom, and compassion of a Heavenly Father to send us real help in times of real trouble.

Jesus is Savior and King, and at the end of the day, as God’s called, chosen, and faithful ones, there is no better place we could be than with Him at His side. And there is no better place to put your trust, offer your prayers, and rest your hope, than in the King who saves us. Amen.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Doubt (John 20:24-29, 1 Peter 1:3-9)

November 16, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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This month we are looking at some of the challenges that face us as human beings – trouble, discouragement, and doubt. Today, in particular, I want to look with you at one of the characters and biblical texts most associated with doubt, and see what resources God offers us in the midst of that. That character and situation is Thomas trying to accept Jesus being raised from the dead, simply on the word of the other disciples.

Our doubts may range far and wide from intellectual to emotional to reacting to struggle and the “why?” questions; but I believe there is something important and universal in this story. It touches on needing and wanting answers and the intersections of faith and doubt and belief.

Is Jesus Risen?

This particular story began on Easter Sunday night. The story was that Jesus appeared to the disciples who were locked away in fear and hiding. He appeared just as the angel said and just as Mary told them when she ran from the empty tomb to find them. And Jesus came to them with the greeting of peace. He showed them his hands and side, then again spoke words of peace. He then told them he had work for them to do, and he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It was a powerful encounter, for everyone who was there.

But one disciple wasn’t there. Thomas was not with them when this happened, and he couldn’t believe that the others had seen Jesus. Who can blame him? The story was just too fantastic! And after headstrong Peter, isn’t Thomas the disciple many of us identify with most? He declared, “Unless I see the nail prints in his hands and put my finger in them, and unless I put my hand into the wound in his side, I will not believe.”

Did you hear that last part? I will not believe. That’s the issue here – not doubt, but unbelief. That is a critical distinction! To skip to the punch line, doubt is not the opposite of faith; unbelief is the opposite of faith. Let’s consider that in more detail.

We always call him “doubting Thomas” and zero in on the doubts, but this is so much more than doubts being resolved. In that last phrase, “I will not believe,” Thomas said so much more than, “I’ve got to see this for myself.” He declared his faith and trust dependent on physical proof that Jesus was alive. His word choice – and more importantly, his choice of attitude – defines what is at stake for us as we consider an encounter with and a faith-relationship with Jesus Christ as the one we follow and the one who has rescued us.

To help make this distinction more clearly, picture two trees. One is a tree of unbelief; one is a tree of faith. One says, “Unless God does thus and so, I will not believe.” The other says, “I want to see this for myself!” The first is conditional trust, conditional faith, and conditional love; the second is faith seeking understanding, perhaps struggling with doubts, certainly not having all the answers, but seeking understanding and relationship – wanting to know and understand more.

And each tree bears certain fruit. Let’s consider the first tree – the tree of unbelief.

Unbelief and its ‘Fruits’

Unbelief is the “default state” of human beings. Because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, we are fundamentally separated from God. We are fundamentally cut off from our Source and wandering from our Home. And “planted” in this soil of sin and separation, we are naturally far from God – we are unbelieving.

I don’t really know the state of Thomas’ soul in those days after Easter Sunday. We know he was a disciple – that he had chosen to follow Jesus. And then, we hear him speak twice in the biblical account before this scene. When Jesus and the disciples were headed to Bethany after Lazarus had died, Thomas said, “Let us go then, that we might die with him.” He was anticipating more conflict with the religious authorities like what they had just left behind in Jerusalem. The other occasion for Thomas to speak is recorded in John 14, when Jesus is talking about going away to the Father and preparing a home for them there. Thomas says, “What are you talking about? We don’t know where you are going!” It may be, then, that Thomas never really understood who Jesus was. He may have been following him as a great teacher or as a revolutionary.

And so, with regard to the great promise of a Messiah – a deliverer who would rescue God’s people – it seems that Thomas was still a tree planted in the soil of sin and separation from God. He may not have experienced the life-changing encounter with the Son of God, though he had followed him for three years.

And if there is doubt on this issue, consider Jesus’ words to Thomas in John 20:27. He tells Thomas to touch his wounds, and then speaks strongly to him, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing (or faithful).” Jesus recognized that his fundamental problem was not proof, but belief. Does it seem strange that someone could be a disciple of Jesus for three years and not have that crucial faith or belief in him as the promised Messiah and Son of God?

It is no stranger than attending church all of one’s life and not ever having experienced a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In fact, tragically, it happens all the time, particularly when churches and preachers focus on secondary issues and miss the most important message of God’s loving grace for us through his only Son, Jesus Christ.

So, I have two questions. First, how can we recognize if our own tree – that is, our own life – is rooted in something other than God’s salvation in Christ? Secondly, how can the tree of unbelief become the tree of faith – that is, if we do not know God in a saving way, how can we come to know Him in that way?

The way to recognize what kind of tree or what kind of life we have is to examine our ‘fruit.’ An unbelieving heart produces one set of characteristic ‘fruit’ just as a faithful heart produces characteristic ‘fruit.’

Consider Thomas, as described in our passage. The DOUBT that we often focus on when we read this passage is really just one fruit of his basic unbelief. How indeed, could he imagine Jesus to be alive if he never understood who Jesus was or what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of leaving them and preparing a place for them in Heaven. And Thomas’ doubt led him to make DEMANDS. “Unless… unless…” he said. Thomas was quite specific and detailed about what he required of a risen Jesus. And his unbelief also resulted in ISOLATION from the other disciples. Perhaps his unbelief was why he wasn’t with them when Jesus first came. Certainly, his response to their joyous shout of “We have seen the Lord!” would have put some kind of barrier between himself and them. Basically, to the combined testimony of 10 disciples and the women at the tomb, Thomas replied, “I don’t believe you!”

If the unbelieving heart is allowed to run unchecked, it will manifest in a person as doubt and demands, and often will result in or lead to self-imposed isolation from those who do trust in God.

Faith and its ‘Fruits’

A life (or tree) of faith is also known by its ‘fruit.’ Please note that faithful and believing people struggle with doubt as well, but our doubts should spur us towards seeking and understanding, saying, “I want to find out more.” But notice, too, that the fruit of a believing heart isn’t certainty or lack of doubt, but other qualities and characteristics. For example, Psalm 1 tells us that such a tree is planted or rooted in the Law of the Lord, or the Word of God – the Bible. The other passage we heard this morning from 1 Peter describes a number of ‘fruits’ of the faithful heart. You may want to turn to 1 Peter 7-9 to follow along.

The faithful heart LOVES God – even though we may not have seen God with our own eyes. Faith and trust grow, are nurtured, and are refined into something precious and strong because we love God through worship and praise. The faithful heart expresses itself through BELIEF in Jesus Christ. We trust in God’s promises and in Jesus as the one sent by God. And though we do not see Him now, faith results in active belief. The faithful heart is characterized by and produces inexpressible JOY because of the presence of God in the human life. We are literally, filled with the glory of God – with God’s Holy Spirit, which produces joy in us, even in the face of sorrow and suffering. And Peter tells us that the outcome of such a faith and faithful heart is the SALVATION of the soul.

Finally, and most importantly, the chief fruit of a faithful heart is WORSHIP. We see this back in the passage with Thomas and Jesus. Worship is the combination of the other fruit as well – it is love expressed, belief demonstrated, joy experienced, and salvation celebrated. And in the moment that Jesus appeared to Thomas, something happened. Though Jesus offered to meet his demands for proof, Thomas’ doubts and demands were dropped, and his isolation ended immediately. His ‘tree’ was transformed on the spot, because he did not respond by taking Jesus up on the offer to touch the wounds. He did not rush over to examine Jesus’ scars, hands, and side. He simply exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus confirmed that this happened by saying, “Because you have seen me, have you believed?” Thomas took one look at Jesus, perhaps simply recognizing him, and declared one of the most simple and complete sentences of worship in the New Testament. Jesus was “my Lord” – leader, ruler, king, master, the one Thomas would serve and follow, and it was personal and specific to him. And Jesus was “my God” – not just teacher/Rabbi, but GOD, personal and specific to him.

A Changed Tree (Life)

The faithful heart and the unbelieving heart face the same life conditions, the same struggles, the same questions, and even the same doubts. Both have parents die; both get cancer; both wonder why bad things happen to good people; both wonder why the evil sometimes prosper. Both the faithful heart and the unbelieving heart are born into the same world. But their roots, their support, their nourishment, and their hope are entirely different.

Faith is rooted in trust and love. If I love and trust someone (including God), I will take my doubt and seek understanding. If I do not believe in someone (including God), my doubts will turn into demands and will eventually cut me off and isolate me even more.

Faith is rooted in the Word and promises of God. If I don’t understand something, if I struggle, if I am discouraged, but am rooted in God’s Word, I will seek out God’s promise to me and trust in Him, even in times of shadow and darkness – ESPECIALLY in those times. If I am rooted in unbelief, I dangle helplessly, battered by all that life throws at me.

So maybe we can tell the difference. Maybe we can see areas in our own life – little plantings in our life that are unbelieving rather than faithful. Or maybe some have realized that more than an area of life needs to be transformed – the whole tree needs to change! We may have an idea now how to identify our ‘tree’ and its ‘fruit’ – our life and core commitment. But how can we change? How does one tree – one life – change from one to the other? What happened to Thomas and how can it happen to me – either in whole or in areas where I still cling to unbelief? What can I tell my friend or my parent or my child who struggles so with doubts or demands of God?

There are many ways to describe the transformation that is salvation. But I’ll stick with the tree analogy for today.

The process of salvation or ‘rescue’ is what Jesus made possible through his death on the cross. We either seek or are found by God – and God promises that if we earnestly seek Him, He will be found! And then, a realization of just who God is – HOLY – causes us to realize just how big is the gulf between us and God. This realization is CONVICTION – being ‘pierced through to the core’ by the realization that things are not right between me and God, and that will be the end of me. Often, along with conviction, CONFESSION means naming or presenting myself to God. From that condition of realizing and confessing that I am undone, REPENTANCE means desiring to change or be changed. God offers FORGIVENESS and CLEANSING from sin and disobedience through his Son, Jesus Christ. And then God CALLS us to follow and serve Him.

What does that mean for our discussion? It answers the question of “How do I change trees?” This is the change God desires, requires, and accomplishes for all who would be in right relationship with Him. The process of conviction, confession, and repentance is the process of having our ‘tree’ cut down. It means being leveled before God, realizing that apart from God’s help, we are undone. And God is the One who makes us new. Through Jesus Christ, God re-plants us and causes new growth in our lives.

That’s why Thomas was transformed on the spot. The life-changer himself, Jesus Christ, appeared to him and spoke the convicting words, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Jesus offered him the opportunity to remain in unbelief and come fulfill his demands to touch the wounds. But Thomas experienced transformation in a moment what Isaiah did: he was convicted and repentant, and he believed with faith. And so he declared, “My Lord and my God!”

Do you desire a “tree-change?” Do you desire to be faithful rather than unbelieving? Do you want your heart to be governed by love, belief, joy, salvation, and worship, rather than by doubt, demands, and isolation?

If you do, then join me in your heart as I pray this prayer:

Holy God, help me to see and understand who you are. Help me to see and understand exactly who I am. Help me to see and understand the great separation between us. God, save me, for I am lost without you! God, thank you for the way you have made through Jesus. Help me to trust him and follow him; Help me to believe him and serve him; and help me to grow in faith and love of you. Thank you for loving me; thank you for forgiving me; thank you for making me clean and right, my Lord and my God. Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Discouragement (Psalms 42-43)

November 9, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Traditionally, today would begin a several week focus on stewardship and giving. But between the focus in October on following Jesus through personal ministry and mission, and the piece in the newsletter on “Stewardship as Worship,” I am led to move on to other matters such as the doubt, discouragement, and questions many are facing with the economy, political change, job loss, and personal challenges. Bill Katibah began to address these questions last Sunday as he spoke on “Crying Out in the Storm.” Today, we’ll turn to God’s Word to consider the emotional sadness and spiritual dryness of deep discouragement.

Our text today is Psalm 42 and 43, which many scholars think are two halves of one Psalm. I will treat them as one and think when you look at them with me you’ll see why. This is no upbeat call to constant praise and celebration. This is a Psalm full of sorrow and struggle, yet it does look to God for help.

The perspective of the Psalm writer is that of one captured in battle and taken away from home and family. Along with the very tangible implications of that capture are also some serious spiritual implications. Why did God let this happen? Where is God now? Why does God seem so far away?

Many of you can relate to these questions. You may have lost something or someone and be asking some of these same questions of God. Or as you face the future and all its challenges and uncertainty, these questions also can arise. Why did you let this happen? What am I supposed to do now? Will I ever get through this? And where are you, God?

This is one of the most REAL Psalms I know of. It doesn’t hold back or cover up the real struggles of the one who wrote it. Because of that, I think it can be encouraging to us, not because it gives simplistic answers but because we can realize that we are not alone in our situation or feelings. And it is okay to express those feelings out loud and before God. Turn with me to Psalm 42 and let’s walk through this text together.

Things Have Changed (42:4)

Psalm 42 begins with a verse that may be familiar to you, “As the deer pants for the water… so my soul pants for you.” (v. 1) For some reason, I always pictured that deer standing at the water. It has been thirsty, but now it’s about to drink. But that’s not the image at all. The Psalmist (and the deer) are still far from water. That’s why the spiritual throat is parched. The Psalmist cries out, “When shall I come and appear before God?” (v. 2) God seems far away and there seems no soon-coming satisfaction for a parched soul.

The imagery just gets stronger from there:
My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” (v. 3)
Rather than God’s presence being food and drink for the soul, the Psalmist is overwhelmed by sorrow from within and questions from without. While we may think we see some of the reason for the sorrow in the situation of captivity, it is the next verse that really tells us what has happened:
These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. (v. 4)
It is only in reading verse 4 that we see how much things have changed. At one time the Psalmist was so close to God, joyful and full of the Spirit as he led in the worship procession. Now, captive and far from home, with captors teasing and taunting and with tears for food, God’s absence is all the more keenly felt.

Have you ever been where this Psalmist was? Have you ever felt like God was nowhere to be found and your tears were your only food and drink? Have you heard that question so clearly, whether from others or in the hidden privacy of your own thoughts, “Where is God now?”

Things have changed so much. Surely this sounds familiar to those who have lost loved ones, for whom life at the deep level and on the every day level is just so different now. These verses must sound familiar to those who once felt close to God, whether in youth group or in another stage of life, and for whom God now seems distant or doubtful. Those who have been through divorce or who are really struggling in marriage might know what this Psalmist is talking about. Things have changed and aren’t as they once were; and while that describes earthly things and relationships it almost always also impacts our experience of God.

At this point the Psalmist has a little talk with his soul. He says:
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence. (v. 5)
You may have experienced this as talking to yourself or simply as a knot deep within that defies words and untangling. In this case, the Psalmist surely hadn’t figured it all out. He wasn’t feeling suddenly better or more holy. In fact, if my experience is any indication, these words simply marked his realization that something was very wrong and perhaps only God could make it right. If you have lost someone or something, and it feels like your faith went along with it, listen carefully, for the writer of this Psalm knows what you feel like.

The Psalmist will have similar words with himself two more times, like the refrain of a song. Each time, the words take on more weight, as if the knot is untangling and his thoughts are developing. As if the memory of that procession to the house of the Lord takes hold, the Psalmist now consciously decides to remember more about God and what God has done in his life.

Remember What God Did (42:6)

The first memory of God in this Psalm was in terms of what was lost: “I remember leading in the Assembly… and now that’s gone.” But in verse 6, the Psalmist remembers in a different way:
O my God, my soul is in despair within me; therefore, I remember you from the land of the Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. (v. 6)
It is as if the Psalmist, disconnected from God, chooses to try to remember that previous time, when God seemed near. The Psalmist does not dismiss the despair, minimize it, or hide it from God, but out of it CHOOSES to remember what God did.

And listen to what comes next. It is very powerful and a bit mysterious.
Deep calls to deep at the sound of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have rolled over me. The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; and His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life. (vv. 7-8)
What is being described is God “talking” to us. Whether he can yet hear it, the Psalmist remembers God’s ways and the sometimes subtle way God has of communicating with us.

That remembrance opened him back up to conversation and relationship with God. He turns from choosing to remember to planning to talk God in earnest (note “I will”):
I will say to God my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” (vv. 9-10)
Again, the Psalmist has words with his soul. This time, the refrain takes on different meaning…
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God. (v. 11)
He has taken steps to hope in God: he has chosen to remember God’s previous works in His life. In doing so, he opens himself up to communication and relationship with God. This is valuable counsel for us when we have lost much, when things have changed. Of course we remember how things used to be; but consider God’s faithfulness and constancy previously in our life. God does not change; God is still faithful and compassionate. Invite God to reach out to you deep down – where sometimes God communicates without words. You may find yourself pouring out your sorrow and even anger to God, but that is also a new beginning to conversation and to relationship with God.

Prayer: Honest Conversation with God (43:1-4)

Look at Psalm 43 at what happens next. It begins as a prayer, concluding with the same refrain that was used twice in Psalm 42. It is as if that memory that led to remembering and an intent to converse with God has now taken root: the conversation begins as direct prayer.

I know from experience what it feels like to not be able to pray. I also know that when we once again are able to, whatever the content or attitude of our prayer, that communication is important in our experience of God. Listen to the Psalmist’s prayer. It is not pretty or nice or gentle. He holds nothing back, but that is exactly the point. If we don’t or can’t or won’t pray, we are holding everything back from God. When we pray, God scoops up our words, our concerns, and our lives.
Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation; O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man! For you are the God of my strength; why have you rejected me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? O send out your light and your truth, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling places. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and upon the lyre I shall praise you, O God, my God. (vv. 1-4)
It’s a prayer asking God to make things right. It’s also a prayer asking God to restore some of what was lost, even if it won’t be exactly the same. The Psalmist, who once led the worship procession to the house of God is praying that he might once again praise God in a place of worship. To ask again for something that was lost – a relationship, a peace, companionship, closeness with the Lord – that may seem unimaginable now. But that’s what the Psalmist does.

Here for a third time in sixteen verses we have this refrain:
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God. (v. 5)
Does it sound different this third time? I think so. At this point the Psalmist has acknowledged what was lost, remembered what God has done previously, and come to God in heartfelt prayer. Note that the soul is still disturbed, but note too the way the last sentence sounds. It sounds hopeful to me: “I shall again praise Him.” I believe it can and does happen that way; it has in my life and I’ve seen it in other peoples’ lives.

Hope: I Shall Again Praise Him (42:5,11; 43:5)

Finally, let me point out two phrases that mark the progression in this Psalm. I want to be realistic, too. This is not a five step march out of grief or loss. This is not a prescription for feeling better. This is more like the personal diary of one person who is in the process of God’s healing and help. We don’t see the ending, which is probably okay; that would be too neat and tidy, and life isn’t neat and tidy.

I want to point out two phrases: “tears for food” and “the help of my countenance.” I think “tears for food” is self-descriptive. If you’ve lived with that, you know what it means. It is a heart-breaking sorrow where it just seems like the storm will never lift. That’s where this story starts, but it ends with the other phrase, which is part of the refrain the second and third time.

In the first refrain in Psalm 42:5, it is “the help of God’s presence,” which is important. But in v. 11 and then at the end of Psalm 43, it is “the help of my countenance.” Literally, that phrase means “the lifter of my face.” The image is related to “tears for food.” The image as this Psalm progresses and the refrain is reached each time is that God comes (His presence) and re-establishes communication and relationship with the one who has lost so much. God bends down, tenderly, and raises the tear-stained face of His child, lifting their face to look once again into His.

If you have lost something dear or things are not as they once were, I invite you to soak up this Psalm this week, or for weeks to come. Share with this Psalmist as one in process of rediscovering God’s presence. And that presence is not a wave-the-magic-wand and fix it presence. It is not a buck-up-and-put-on-a-happy-face presence. God’s presence is a gentle, compassionate, loving presence that reaches down to tenderly raise your eyes to see Him in your life once again. I invite you to once again look into the face of the One who loves you so very much. Amen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Crying Out in the Storm (Isaiah 43:1-3; Matthew 14:22-33)

November 2, 2008
Sermon by: the Rev. Dr. William G. Katibah, Jr.
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Imagine yourself in the boat with the other disciples when this incident occurred. Jesus stayed behind to dismiss the crowd. He had just miraculously fed the 5000 with just 5 loaves and 2 fish. This act displayed Jesus’ unique power and authority and his deep compassion. The crowd began clamoring to make him king. But that wasn’t God’s plan! Jesus sent the disciples across the lake to the other side. He wanted to commune with his father to strengthen his resolve to be the suffering servant and face the cross. While he was praying, the disciples were heading to the other side. Suddenly, a storm developed. The wind whipped up the waves and rocked the boat. It was between 3-6am. These experienced, veteran fishermen became afraid. Where was Jesus when you needed him? Can you just feel their fear?

Jesus saw the storm battering the boat and went to help his disciples. The disciples seeing this figure coming toward them on the water were terrified. They began to freak out. Jesus shouted to them: “Don’t be afraid! Take courage, it is I!”

Peter wasn’t certain it was Jesus but this was no time to sit still! Not impetuous peter. “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you.” Jesus said: “Come.” Peter quickly got out of the boat and began walking toward Jesus. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew against him. He panicked and began to sink. “Lord, save me”! Jesus caught his arm and said, “Peter, why do you have such little faith? Didn’t you see my power at work in feeding the 5000? Didn’t it strengthen your faith and trust in me?”

One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground with outstretched arms calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you”! But all the boy could see was smoke and darkness. The boy cried out: “Daddy, I can’t see you.” His father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.” And the boy jumped to safety.

Each of us has moments when doubts and fears arise. Maybe it’s been triggered by some difficult experience - a bitter disappointment. A serious illness. A terrible tragedy. A strain in a family relationship. Losing a job with the economic downturn. Some anguish of the soul. None of us is immune from such times. And often they leave us helpless. The props get knocked out from under us and we’re afraid. We feel battered and tossed by the storms that hammer against us.

What do we do during those storms when we cry out for help; when our faith is shaken by doubts and fears? Do we tell ourselves it’s wrong or sinful to doubt? Do we repress it pushing it down into our subconscious mind where it can be detrimental to us emotionally or physically? Do we allow these storms to defeat us? Or is there a way for us to face the storms of life in a constructive, productive, healthy, and positive way?

There is! Our Bible passage tells us how. It’s by putting our faith and trust in Jesus!! There’s no way we can cope with the difficult storms that confront us in our daily lives without him! We weaken and crumble under the weight of such circumstances. But we don’t have to face them alone! We are not helpless! Christ has promised to be with us through that storm!

Jesus comes to us just like he came to Peter and the other disciples offering his help. No matter what storm we have to face. No matter what trial we have to endure. Jesus has promised to be there with us. We’re never alone when we live in a trust relationship with him as a child of God!

Even in the O.T. God told his people thru the prophet Isaiah: “when you go thru deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go thru rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk thru the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up - the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, your Savior, the Holy One of Israel” (43:2-4a). That’s our assurance as his children! Even when we’re not conscious of his presence, Jesus is there in every hill we have to climb and give us hope and confidence!

One day a robin flew into a home thru a partially open sliding glass door. It became frightened by its confinement and the family’s excitement. It fluttered its wings around the room, hitting the windows and screens in an effort to find freedom. Finally, completely exhausted, it perched itself on the back of a chair in total helplessness. At that point the father picked up the bird, petted its head gently, took it outside, and released it. Soon, the bird began to sing knowing it was safe. (Our Daily Bread 11-22-76).

When the storms of life threaten to defeat you, and your faith weakens; when you feel helpless under the weight of difficult circumstances and fears, remember God is with you and loves you as his child in Christ. Seek his help and you will find support and direction! He will provide peace, strength, and encouragement!

I won’t promise you that the storm will disappear right away or the pain will stop. I won’t promise that you will never have any more difficult or hard times. Jesus didn’t come to take away all our trials and burdens.

In fact, God may have a purpose he wants to fulfill thru our struggles or to strengthen us in our faith. The storm may continue but you won’t bear it alone. The hymn says: “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.”

Chuck Swindoll tells the story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who was in a Soviet Union prison labor camp. He said only once during his long imprisonment did he feel discouraged and consider suicide. He was outdoors on a prison detail feeling very downhearted. When the time came for a break, a stranger sat down beside him. He had never seen him before and as it turned out, never saw him again. The man bent over, took a stick and drew a cross on the ground. Solzhenitsyn stared at that cross for a long time. Later, the truth hit him. Because of what Christ had done for him on the cross, nothing the authorities did could bring him lasting harm. He was covered by the blood of Jesus. Still facing the horrible ordeal of imprisonment, he discovered new strength and courage to endure his ordeal, knowing he was in the arms of Jesus.

Are you crying out in the storm right now? Reach out for Jesus’ hand like Peter did and hear Jesus say, “Take courage, it is I! Do not be afraid. I’m here with you. Keep on trusting in me!” Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and the cross and you’ll be able to weather any storm that comes your way!