Rescue Me: Week Two - "Revere"
It's the Second Sunday of the season of Lent, and we are journeying together after Jesus as he travels to Holy Week and 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 we throw off into the ocean, hoping that they'll be found, that we'll know that we are not alone in the universe... that God is with us, for us and will rescue us from whatever it is that we need rescuing from.
And the messages we search for, the ones we hope will wash up on the shore, providing us with surprising and startling truths about who we are, and the new people we are called to become.
Today we're going to start with a couple of questions--messages in a bottle that nearly every one of us in here today has thrown into the ocean at some point in time or another. Here goes:
"What kind of God would ______________?" fill in the blank.
"What kind of God would let that tragedy happen in my life?"
"What kind of God would let my loved one die?"
"What kind of God would allow 9/11? Or all of those mass shootings?"
And then from those questions come more questions like:
"How am I supposed to feel about this God?"
"Am I supposed to feel Fear? Love? Dread? Indifference? How am I supposed to feel?"
We often come to these questions after moments in our lives when we are left feeling overwhelmed, defeated, in despair, abandoned.
And so we lob those messages into the ocean--praying desperately sometimes, crying out loud sometimes, or sometimes angrily throwing up our messages with accusations, venom, and rage.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever asked those questions? Felt like that?
Our second message in a bottle comes to us today from Psalm 22:23-31, a psalm that teaches us that we are created to revere God--that our response, our feeling about this God who defies our descriptions and expectations is to feel true and complete reverence.
And, more importantly, Psalm 22:23-31 teaches us this very important and powerful lesson: Reverence is the tension between our fear(ness) and God's tenderness.
More on that in a moment.
Psalm 22 is the psalm that begins with the words "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" We know these words because they are words that were spoken by Jesus on the Cross. God experiencing the pain of the loss of God.
This psalm is also read each year by Jews at the Feast of Purim--the feast that was initiated to commemorate the story of Esther. In that story the people of God faced the threat of extermination but were delivered by God through the bravery of Esther.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
Those who "fear the Lord..." This is a strange phrase that Christians like to use now and again. I remember when I was a kid having to memorize Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." But I always wondered exactly what kind of fear the verse was talking about.
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
There is a tension throughout this psalm between what a pastor I admire very much calls fear(ness) and tenderness. Fear(ness) is the feeling you have when you know that there's something much bigger going on around you, and you can't control it. It's more than just fear, but fear is a part of it.
And the psalm holds that fear(ness) in tension with the tenderness of God. The singer is going through some hard stuff in the first part of the psalm--even feeling abandoned by God. But then you see a verse like this one where God acts tenderly toward the singer.
In fact, the singer even says, "He has not hidden his face from him (meaning himself, the afflicted one), but has listened to his cry for help." For those of you who know the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai when he was receiving the Commandments, he asked to see God's glory, and God told Moses that he couldn't handle the glory--that all he could see would be a tiny bit of God's backside.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you[a] I will fulfill my vows.
At this point the singer introduces the main theme here---this tension that exists between our fear(ness) and God's tenderness is where reverence lives. And where there is reverence, there is praise.
In fact, the only proper response to an experience of true reverence is praise. Anne Lamott says that this is the third type of prayer that most of us pray. She simply calls this kind of prayer "Wow!!"
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
So this praise that started within the heart of the singer, and spilled out into the assembly of worshippers he's worshipping with now makes it's way to the poor, and those who "seek the Lord," in other words---those who may not even know who God is... yet.
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
Now the singer expands the praise saying that the outsiders, and everyone from everywhere and all the earth itself will give praise.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
And then he brings in the high and the mighty and something else--something strange. He says that all those who are physically, emotionally and spiritually lifeless will give praise.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
Those who have come before and those who haven't even been born yet will give praise.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
He has done it! What a way to end this, right? Some scholars see a connection between the end of this psalm and the last words of Jesus, which are "It is finished," or more accurately, "It has been accomplished."
That is kind of interesting, isn't it? Because the singer of this psalm has gone from abject despair--the loss of God in the first line of the psalm to praise, which culminates in a declaration that God has done something amazing.
As we said, the singer is living in the tension that exists between his awe, wonder and unbelievable fear(ness) of God and God's lovingkindess, mercy and tenderness. He goes back and forth between the two---and the resulting reverence causes him to praise God for all that God has done, and will do.
But in order for you and I to truly understand this, to be able to make this real and actionable in our own lives we need to understand a bit more about both fear(ness) and tenderness.
Fear(ness) is, simply put, the moment when you know that God is bigger than you are. It's when you know that there's someone directing things and that someone knows waaayy more than you will ever know about what is going on.
It's when you feel the presence of God and you know that presence is so awesome, so frightening, so incredible that you don't know what to do next.
I applied for my first job in ministry because of one of those moments.
Merideth and I were the youngest people in the small church we were attending in Tallahassee Florida. Shortly after we became members, someone nominated me to be on the Christian Education committee.
I went to the first meeting and learned that they were looking for a part-time youth director. They only had $8,000 to pay this person for the first year. After that, it would be up to God. There were six miserable kids in this youth group, who hated church and only went to the youth group meetings because they were made by their parents.
I remember thinking, "You'd have to be a complete moron to apply for that job."
It was at that moment that I felt an overwhelming sense of someone standing behind me with their hands on my shoulders. I could literally feel the hands squeezing them. I know. It sounds crazy. And then this voice seemed to speak in my head, "This is what you are supposed to do."
I was the last person on earth I would have hired to be a youth director. But when I went home, shaken and messed up, I told Merideth that I was going to apply. And apparently, they were out of options, because they hired me.
Five years later, I was heading off to seminary to be a pastor, sixteen years later I'm standing here in front of you.
Here's the thing when I felt those hands on my shoulders, I felt the fear(ness), and I've felt that feeling many times since.
You know this feeling, too. Even if you haven't had a weird hands-on-your-shoulder moment, you know this. All you have to do is study quantum physics, and you'll begin to see that there is so much going on below the surface of what we can see and understand--even with the most powerful tools at our disposal. The universe is full of mystery and incomprehension.
All of it points to something bigger going on. Someone bigger going on. And when we allow ourselves to let that feeling in... it shakes us. It's the fear(ness).
But then there's the other side of the equation---the tenderness of God. We begin to comprehend the tenderness of God when we realize that God is nearer than we thought. We tend to think of God as far away, high in God's holy temple. That God is distant, away in the outer reaches of space somewhere.
But there are moments when we know beyond all doubt that God is near, and that God is interested in our lives---our lives. We experience coincidence perhaps that is just a little too perfect to just be a coincidence. We experience something that makes us feel known and cared for.
I had such a moment at the moment when my mom was passing away. She had slipped into a coma and was failing fast. We were gathering the family around her because we felt like the end was near. My uncle and cousin arrived. My two oldest sons were at her bedside as well.
And as we sat there praying, and saying goodbye to her, I looked outside and saw a cardinal sitting on one of her birdfeeders. Cardinals were my mother's favorite bird. We hadn't seen one in weeks, but there he was. He stayed there for several minutes before finally flying away.
I knew in that moment that God was with us. That his compassion and love surrounded us. His grief was our grief.
You know this. It's when you knew there was compassion surrounding you. That unexplainable thing that happened that brought you to your knees in gratitude. There was a word given to you by a person who gave it to you in just the right moment. It was a song that played right when you needed to hear it. It was an overwhelming feeling that made you want to shout, "I AM LOVED!!"
And when you get this--the tension that exists between the fear(ness) and the tenderness--you can't hold back can you? This God that has reached out to you scares the living daylights out of you, but you know that this God also loves you. When you get this. You praise. And you praise big.
Years ago, I was serving as a chaplain in a hospital and was called to visit a young man who was known as a "frequent flyer" by the nurses. He had never been able to walk, paralyzed from the waist down. He had a bad heart, bad lungs, bad everything.
He landed in the progressive care unit that week because of an infection. He wanted to see the chaplain, so his nurses called me.
I have never seen someone who fulfilled my imagination about what a biblical leper would have looked like--like this guy did. He smelled. He had sores. I wanted to scream and run out of the room.
But then he began to talk to me. And he told me his story. Of a life spent in a wheelchair. Of sorrow and loss, and humiliation and suffering. He'd felt abandoned by God, alone and full of despair.
But then he encountered God in a dream that was so vivid that it changed his life. He was told in this dream that he had a purpose and that purpose was to be a blessing to others and to show them what reverence was like.
This dream filled him with the fear(ness). He knew that God had called him, but he also felt unequipped and worthless for the task.
But over and over again, God's love poured over him, he told him. He considered himself blessed despite his poor condition. He felt the presence of God everytime he would share his story and sing God's praises, even in the middle of the hospital when he could be facing death.
And then he asked to pray over me. He summoned the chaplain to pray over the chaplain. And that's when I felt it. The awe, the sorrow the joy all tumbling together. The fear(ness) and the tenderness---resulting in something holy, beautiful and true.
I wanted to take my shoes off, but felt frozen. I began to weep for joy and uttered my own praises to God like one of my Pentecostal brothers and sisters...
Because what I was feeling was reverence.
Reverance, beloved, is the tension between our fear(ness) and God's tenderness.
Both speak to a God who is near. A God who loves. A God who never leaves us or forsakes us. So sing your song of praise---join with all of Creation in reverent, crazy, wild abandon as we praise the One who loves us beyond all love, and is always by our side.