Rescue Me - Week One: "Remember"
Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent, the season that leads us to Holy Week and to Easter Sunday. The word "Lent" is derived from the Latin word for "forty" and denotes the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Why forty? Forty, according to some Biblical scholars is a number that is connected to trial, testing, trouble or hardship.
In the Genesis account, God made it rain 40 days and 40 nights. Moses spent 40 years in the desert until he finally saw the burning bush. The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty hears. Goliath taunted the people of Israel for 40 days until David killed him. The list goes on and on.
Jesus was tempted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. There was also 40 days between Jesus resurrection and ascension. So it seems kind of natural considering all of this emphasis on the number 40 that there would be 40 days in a season where we are called to reflect on Jesus final weeks leading up to his death on the Cross.
The thing is, when we step into the Lenten journey, it's easy to feel a bit lost. It's one of the most difficult seasons of the year--a long wintry trudge that is sandwiched between the joys of Advent and the transforming moment of Easter.
And let's face it, following in the footsteps of Jesus as he journeys to the Cross isn't exactly the most thrilling of propositions for most of us.
What we need are guides to help us along the way, to inspire us to keep going and to give us direction when we feel lost and alone. That's the focus of the sermon series we're beginning today--a series entitled, "Rescue Me."
We'll be engaging with the lectionary Psalms that are part of our Lenten readings for each of the Sundays in Lent. The Psalms are more than just poetry. They are more than prayers. The Psalms provide us with a connection to our true selves.
We chose as our overriding image for this series the image of a message in a bottle--messages that wash up on to the shore, providing us with surprising and startling truths about who we are, and the new people we are called to become.
The oldest message in a bottle that washed up on to a beach was 108 years old. It had been adrift at sea all those years--dropped into the water off the coast of England and found off the coast of Germany.
I read stories this week about a couple who eventually became married because as a child one of them put a message in a bottle and the other found it. They became pen pals, friends and eventually husband and wife.
And of course, for those of you into those Nicholas Sparks novels and the movies made from those novels, there is the book/movie entitled message in a bottle starring Robin Wright and Kevin Costner. You'll cry if you watch it.
So why do people put messages in bottles and drop them into the ocean? What are they trying to accomplish.
Based on what I've read, it all comes down to connection. They want to know they aren't alone. That there is someone out there that will respond if they trust their message to the Universe. Besides, there's something romantic and mysterious about it, isn't there?
But at the heart of all of this is a basic human need--two of them, in fact.
What we want most of all, each and every one of us, is to know God and to know that we are known by God. We all want to know that we are not alone in the universe.
Our lectionary Psalm today is Psalm 25:1-10--it's our first message in a bottle. And the message that we'll be removing is simply this:
We remember who we really are, when we remember who God always is.
Let's read the Psalm responsively:
1 In you, Lord my God,
I put my trust.
2 I trust in you;
do not let me be put to shame,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.
3 No one who hopes in you
will ever be put to shame,
but shame will come on those
who are treacherous without cause.
4 Show me your ways, Lord,
teach me your paths.
5 Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long.
6 Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love,
for they are from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth
and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
for you, Lord, are good.
8 Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
9 He guides the humble in what is right
and teaches them his way.
10 All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful
toward those who keep the demands of his covenant.
First, let me explain a bit about the structure of this Psalm. Psalm 25 is what is known as an acrostic poem---1 of 8 such psalms in the psalter. An acrostic psalm essentially begins each line with a different letter of the alphabet. In the Hebrew tradition, this meant that you were using the whole of your language to convey your truth.
Interestingly, this psalm is bent on instruction. The word "learn" appears 3 times, the word "instruct" appears twice, and the words "make known" appears 3 times. In addition, the letters that begin the first line, middle line and ending line spell the Hebrew word alaf which means "to learn."
So there's something to that, obviously. But what is the author trying to teach?
In short, the focus of Psalm 25 is to teach the hearer how to avoid wavering during times of trouble. The singer confronts the realities of his circumstances, which are filled with the dread of enemies who are out to get him. This psalm is attributed to David, but it doesn't necessarily mean it was written by him. However, it does reflect the stories of how David was pursued by enemies, and how he kept faith during that trial.
The Psalm is filled with covenant language--calling on God to remember God's steadfast love and mercy... and not to remember the sins of the singer's youth. The idea of remembering is pivotal to learning in this psalm.
To that end, the author lifts up the notion that God is a God of salvation, but that salvation is something that is immediate. It's the notion of "rescue." A concrete, this-worldly kind of rescue. The belief that we can know God is for us, right here and right now. A belief we hold because we remember what God has done in the past.
The overriding question here is: Are we willing to learn in times of trouble? To remember who we are? To remember who God is? To not let the crisis of our moments overcome us?
I want to share something else with you about this Psalm--something that would be difficult for us to catch unless we were ancient Hebrew people singing it.
The author of this psalm does something masterful in the way he instructs. The language, the subtle references that he uses also recalls the time that Israel spent wandering in the wilderness--for 40 years. During that time they were instructed, they learned about remembering.
And throughout their journey they left reminders in the wilderness so they wouldn't forget.
The way you would create a tangible symbol for remembering in the ancient world was by erecting a stone or a pile of stones. The Bible calls these "Ebenezer's" or stones of hope.
Centuries after the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, in 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel the prophet has an Ebenezer stone erected on the site of a great military victory that the Israelites had over the Philistines, a rival tribe. The interesting thing is that Samuel had the stone set up on a site where the Israelites had twice lost to the Philistines.
Samuel was following a tradition that the ancient Hebrew people had begun in their years of wandering--they marked the moments when win or lose, God had been with them.
He was remembering what God had done to teach, to instruct and to lead God's people through even the most challenging of circumstances. He was remembering who God was. And he wanted to mark that remembrance.
Here's why this message is meaningful to us during our Lenten journey:
Conflicts will come. "Enemies" will come at you. There will be moments when you'll lose battles, perhaps more often than you win them.
There is the one trying to force you out at work.
The one at your school cheating to get ahead, or bullying you.
The one you are in a legal battle with.
The one who hates you because of who you are.
The one who does violence and fills us with terror...
The author of Psalm 25 doesn't spew hate at these enemies. He prays that they will be proven wrong, that they will see justice. He prays most of all that God will do what God has promised to do--be near. He wants to know God and to be known by God.
And what we will do in those times of crisis? What will we do when we feel lost and overwhelmed? When the enemies seem numerous and powerful?
We remember who we really are, because we remember who God always is. And God is always loving, full of never-ending kindness, mercy and grace.
You are not alone. God is with you.
Remember who you are and whose you are: God's own, chosen, loved before the foundations of the world were laid.
We remember who we really are, when we remember who God always is.