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Sunday, January 25, 2015

1 in 40: Waiting on God (Psalm 37, Acts 7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
January 25, 2015
Text: Psalm 37:1-7a; Acts 7:20-36

:: Sermon Audio (link)
scroll down for written draft

Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Song of Praise: "Everlasting God" (Brenton Brown)
The Word in Music: "They Shall Soar Like Eagles" (Susan Slade, flute) (Laura Manzo)
Hymn of Reflection: "Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul" (Anne Steele, Kevin Twit)

Dear refuge of my weary soul, on Thee, when sorrows rise
On Thee, when waves of trouble roll, my fainting hope relies
To Thee I tell each rising grief, for Thou alone canst heal
Thy Word can bring a sweet relief, for every pain I feel

But oh! When gloomy doubts prevail, I fear to call Thee mine
The springs of comfort seem to fail, and all my hopes decline
Yet gracious God, where shall I flee? Thou art my only trust
And still my soul would cleave to Thee though prostrate in the dust

Hast Thou not bid me seek Thy face, and shall I seek in vain?
And can the ear of sovereign grace, be deaf when I complain?
No still the ear of sovereign grace, attends the mourner's prayer
Oh may I ever find access, to breathe my sorrows there

Thy mercy seat is open still, here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will, and wait beneath Thy feet,
Thy mercy seat is open still, here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will, and wait beneath Thy feet
Song of Praise: "Doxology"
Song of Sending: "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" (VENI EMMANUEL)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf): 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

“I’m stuck…”
“Will it ever get any better?”
“I’ve prayed, but God hasn’t answered.”
“I had all these hopes and dreams…”

Have you ever said or felt any of those things? I have every one. I don’t like waiting and don’t like feeling helpless. And yet that Psalm (37) that we started the service with ends with what I think is such a challenge: “Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him.” (v. 7a) As if it’s not hard enough to wait, we don’t even get to wait impatiently… we are supposed to wait patiently. It’s even supposed to feel like rest?! What, God? What?!

I want to look with you at three accounts of waiting found in today’s text. These do not cover all situations of waiting, but they cover some significant ones. My hope is that you will find yourself or at least find some hope somewhere in there.

Moses – such a promising young man (Acts 7:20-36)

We’re going to start with Moses, whose story is told in brief overview in Acts 7. This telling is part of a longer re-telling of Old Testament history by Stephen, who was the first recorded Christian martyr, killed for being a follower of Jesus. Here he is on trial with the high priest and council of Jerusalem.

Moses was born at a God-appointed time (v. 17) for the deliverance of God’s people from Israel. And Moses has everything going right for him. He was “lovely in the sight of God” (v. 20), cared for as a newborn by his parents, then raised in the household of the daughter of Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. The story of how God spared his infant life is told in more detail in Exodus 2. Because of the unusual privilege of being raised in Pharaoh’s household, Moses was “educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds.” (v. 22) He had power, privilege, and everything going for him. And as he approached the age of 40, it “entered his mind to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel.” (v. 23)

If we pause at this point, it hardly seems like a story of waiting. This is a young man, seemingly chosen and blessed by God for a special purpose. He is primed to be a leader of leaders and have significant impact on his world. He is probably not the first 30-something to be on the verge of taking the world by storm. But then, things take a dramatic turn when he makes a bad decision.

While visiting the Israelites, he witnesses the unjust and oppressive treatment of the Israelites, who were slaves of the Egyptians. In this critical moment, he (rightly) stood against injustice and defended his Hebrew brother, but then (wrongly) acted in vengeance and killed the Egyptian. He thought he was acting as deliverer, but his Hebrew brothers did not see it (v. 25) and when he next intervened in a fight between two Hebrew men, it was clear they rejected him as leader because of what he had done.

At this, we read in v. 29, Moses fled to the land of Midian. And there, at the age of 40, the waiting began. This promising young man, who certainly had a sense of his earthly potential and power, and it seems also of his calling to deliver his people, was put into a holding pattern which had no obvious end to it. We don’t get a fair sense of the passing of time in the Acts 7 account because in the matter of two verses (vv. 29-30), Moses marries, has children, and is called before God again for the mission of deliverance.

But another entire lifetime has elapsed. In order to marry and have children, Moses surely must have not thought he would be heading back to Egypt any time soon. In fact, I’m quite sure he thought that life as he knew it (or envisioned it) was over. His future now was nothing so glorious as ruling Egypt or freeing enslaved Israel; it was raising a family and some sheep in the rural lands of Midian. And all seemingly because of one choice to take matters into his own hands.

And so after 40 more years had passed, and Moses was 80, the Lord spoke to him from a burning bush and called him into service as Deliverer. Who of us would have ever dreamed up that plan? If we were going to deliver an oppressed people from the greatest power and ruler in the world, wouldn’t we want a powerful and educated warrior? Yet God, in His infinite wisdom, used an old man who was past his physical prime, but who – perhaps – had matured in the meantime. And even more telling, perhaps God was best-pleased to show His strength through human weakness and humility rather than through human “strength.” To be sure, old Moses would become a picture of the Deliverer who was to come in humility and obedience.

Israel – oppressed people (Acts 7:34)

Though only a fraction of the words in Acts 7 are given to the enslaved Israelites, they are a second group who are waiting for God to act. Though a long-ago Pharaoh had been favorable towards the Israelites since ancestor Joseph brought his family to Egypt during the famine in Genesis 46 (also Acts 7:14-15), subsequent rulers of Egypt saw the Israelites as a threat as they became increasingly numerous. Those new Pharaoh’s enslaved and oppressed the Hebrew people. Though God was fulfilling the promise of multiplying the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, the people were still waiting for a land to call their own. In fact, by Moses’ time, they have been waiting for generations… for 400 years.

If you did not related to the waiting of Moses, a man with qualifications and dreams that have been sidelined because of a bad decision, you may relate to having to wait interminably… perhaps through no fault of your own, but because you simply were born into a situation of health or status or race or economics. And though God sounds like a great idea, you wait in hope or perhaps without hope for something in your life to change. Doesn’t God care? Won’t God help?

Both in Acts 7:34 and Exodus 3:7-9, we read that God did see and hear every bit of it: “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry… for I am aware of their sufferings.” And God has finally “come down to deliver them… and bring them up.”

And I can wrap my mind around Moses waiting because his vision of the future didn’t necessarily align with God’s plan. But if God’s plan was deliverance and rescue, why such a long wait? Why lifetimes upon lifetimes? 

Or to be more personal, why doesn’t God just fix everything in my life RIGHT THIS SECOND?

I have at least three possible answers to that… there are surely more:
  1. I don’t  know.  I really don’t; at best, I’m struggling with you to wrap my mind around things that are far bigger and complex than my own life and timeline and happiness.  I do recognize that, like Moses, what I want in the moment or even in the long run may not line up real well with what God wants for me.
  2. Secondly, I can theoretically recognize that if I took my demand to its logical conclusion… that there be no suffering, no unhappiness, and no waiting, that it would be another existence than the world God made. There would be no free will, no sin, no wavering from God’s will; part of the delay and the suffering and the disease and the death is a working out of the will God gave us to choose between Him and self. And I can recognize that even on my best days, I am no more loyal or pure than my first parents, Adam and Eve. I continually fall short and choose my way over God’s way.Thirdly, and perhaps more constructively, I see in Psalm 37 a glimpse of what it is God is working out in the lives of those who trust Him, even in the waiting. So let’s look at that…
  3. Psalm 37 begins with an admittance of one of our greatest frustrations: evil seems to prosper while we struggle in doing our best. But the Psalmist reminds us that evil is not eternal; in light of eternity and God’s goodness, evil and evildoers will “wither quickly like the grass.” (v. 2) Implicitly, that starting point admits to our frustration: we are waiting for something better and it feels like anything but “quickly withering.”
Godly Waiting (Psalm 37:1-7a)

The next few verses offer what I understand to be God’s response in the meantime. And it is neither the misplaced dreams of “what I will make for myself” or the hopelessness of “God has forgotten me.” Rather, the Psalm reminds us that there are other things God is looking for and doing in our lives, even when we are waiting; perhaps even if we are waiting for a lifetime.

“Trust in the Lord and do good” (v. 3a)

Trust and faith are not dependent upon the outcome – especially not MY outcome. They are rooted in the person and character of God. Said another way, if my faith depends on God delivering the outcome I demand, then that is not faith; it is consumerism just as surely as ordering something from Amazon. And if it doesn’t come the way we ordered or expect, we want our money back!

Trust is what you have in someone who cares for you, like a child for a parent. As a child I trusted my mother because I knew she loved me and would take care of me. All the more, trust in God is rooted in God’s compassion and care for us.

This verse also urges us to “do good” – something that is possible in every circumstance I can think of. Another way to understand “doing good” is obedience to God (who is the ultimate good). I don’t have to be successful or prosperous or be living my dream to do good or be obedient to God. Rather, both trust and obedience are possible in any and every circumstance.

“Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness” (v. 3b)

The rest of verse 3 reminds me of my favorite passage from Jeremiah, where God challenges His exiled people to build homes and live in them. This is a reminder that we should not be so fixated on the future that we miss the opportunities for faithfulness in the present. Rather, we are to dwell or live fully in each moment, cultivating faithfulness in each moment of life. Like trust and doing good, cultivating faithfulness is possible in any and every circumstance, even the most bleak and dismal.

“Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (v. 4)

The Psalmist goes one further: not only are we to trust, obey, live, and cultivate faithfulness in every moment, but we are to “delight in the Lord.” Hard to imagine, isn’t it… especially if your present is particularly challenging. But this isn’t a call to giddiness or fake smiles and pretend happiness; trust, obedience, living and cultivating faithfulness are real and solid expressions of life; when rooted in God they are as durable and substantial as anything this life can throw at us. So also it is with ‘delight’ or joy in God.

So, is this a recipe for getting what we want… the “desires of our heart?” That just takes us back to the consumer mentality. Rather, I think what this describes is the shaping and changing of our desires that comes when faith, obedience, daily life, and joy are at work in our circumstances. They forge our desires into the very shape of delight in God, and therein lies contentment and peace.

“Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He will do it. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light and your judgment as the noonday.” (vv. 5-6)

As in all good Hebrew poetry, we start to see a repetition of ideas. Again, we are challenged to “commit our way” and ‘trust’ God. And God will “do it.” What is it? It refers back and forward, giving us the God-shaped desires of our heart and also what follows in v. 6.

God not only will shape and change our desires, but the result in our lives will be a ‘righteousness’  and ‘judgment’ that shines brightly as witness to God’s presence and influence.

“Rest in the LORD and wait patiently for Him” (v. 7a)

The Psalm will go on to circle back through all of these themes, but the first part of v. 7 offers a good summary and stopping place. If all of this is true, that God is at work in the NOW of our life for the sake of shaping the very desires of our heart, then v. 7 becomes possible rather than the frustrating and even nonsensical statement that it can sometimes sound like.

If I am always and only living and working for a better day and a future outcome, I will likely never know peace, patience, or joy in the now. But what the Psalmist describes is God at work in the here and now and every-moment of life as I learn to trust, obey, live, and rejoice in Him. That produces a ‘rest’ that is not sitting still doing nothing, but is a soul at rest. That produces a ‘wait’ that is not impatient tedium, but attentive service (think ‘waiter’), looking to God for direction and fulfillment.

So, let me leave you with these questions to ponder:

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