Wednesday, August 30, 2006

2 Peter 3:15-16

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

I value honesty in another person before anything else. I love it when a person comes to me and says plainly what’s going on in them. Sometimes, because I’m a pastor, people are less than honest around me, putting on a front, pretending to be something they’re not. So I learn to treasure those moments when people around me are being unguarded, because I know that means they will let me be my unguarded self too.

This verse of Scripture is precious precisely because it is unguarded. Peter says plainly and honestly what many of us think as we wade through Paul’s writing, and indeed all of Scripture: “Some of this is hard to understand!” Paul is important—after all, he is “our beloved brother”—but interpreting his words can be difficult work. As we wade through ethical issue after ethical issue in our lives, often Paul can be our most important—and most confounding—source of authority on the issues. And if you read Greek, it’s even worse. Paul’s sentences are quite complex—you begin to wonder if they will ever end.

Yet this Scripture is honest in other ways too. It is brutally honest, in fact. It suggests that while Scripture can be hard to understand, we dare not twist its meaning to suit ourselves. Peter says that doing this shows that we are “ignorant” and “unstable” and that to twist the meaning of Scripture to suit ourselves will result in our destruction. Peter brings out one of the classic difficulties about the Bible: compared to the hard work of interpreting the Bible responsibly, twisting it is very easy—but it will have disastrous results.

We are more tempted than ever to twist Scripture today. Why? Modern western culture emphasizes the rights of the individual to the extent that we have a hard time limiting our rights. Yet the call of the sixty-six difficult documents that we call the Bible is not to throw our hands up and believe whatever the rest of the world believes. No, our task is to live in the Scriptures, to saturate ourselves in them, to learn about them and to learn from them. Yes, it is hard work; but it leads to life, not to destruction.

Monday, August 28, 2006


The sermon appears to have posted incorrectly. Here it is (see post below for the text).

This is the last of my “Summer Requests” series. Throughout the summer, people have suggested topics for sermons to me and I believe I’ve gotten to each request. It’s been very interesting to hear the kinds of things that you are wrestling with as Christians. It’s encouraging to me that some of you have told me about books that are important to you, because it’s good to know people are still reading to grow in their faith. I’m also encouraged by the way some of you brought me Scriptures that were maybe a bit unclear to you. I’m encouraged by that not because I was able to set everything straight and neat and tidy, but I’m just encouraged by that because it’s good to hear that you are studying the Scriptures and wrestling with them. Scripture is not always neat and clean and tidy; Scripture is often messy and difficult work, but Scripture is worth changing your life for, giving your heart to. Finally, some of you brought me sermon topics that had come out of a discussion you had had with a group of friends or a loved one; and it’s great to hear that you are discussing spiritual things with each other. God gave us each other for a reason; we were born into the body of Christ together so that we could help each other, and I’m glad to hear that you’re discussing and learning and growing together. In all these things, it’s just good to hear that you are a spiritually curious people; because I’m a spiritually curious person myself and it’s good to know that I’m among like-minded folks. As you have asked me to look at Scripture or a topic or whatever, I’ve really had to grow and learn a lot myself–so thank you!

Anyway, now we take a closer look at Psalm 57. It would be helpful for my sake if you would have a copy of the Psalm in front of you, so I printed it on the back page of the bulletin if you’d prefer to read it there. I want to first look at the first three verses.

As we read these verses, we get an overwhelming sense of someone anticipating some kind of trouble. “Be merciful to me,” begs the Psalmist. “O God, be merciful to me.” In the future, the Psalmist seems to believe, there will be some kind of trouble that he will need God’s help with. He says, “in the shadow of your wings, I will take refuge until the destroying storms pass by.” Even while he fears the difficulty that is coming, at the same time, he is confident that God can help him with the problem that is coming. “He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame those who trample on me; God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.”

I think we have all known the mix of feelings that the Psalmist has. It is true that sometimes in our lives tragedy and difficulty strike us out of the blue and we don’t have any idea that it’s coming. But many times, we head into a period of suffering with our eyes wide open to what’s going to happen, fully aware that there is suffering ahead and knowing that there’s no way under it, no way over it, no way around it; to get past it, we’re going to have to go through it.

Not long after I came to Exton, I had to get a root canal. And part way through this root canal, the dentist stopped, telling me that I had an unusually curly root (I have no idea what that means). He told me that he was going to have to refer me to a specialist–a root canal specialist. So this was on Tuesday I think, and on Friday I had my appointment at the root canal specialist. Let me tell you that the Wednesday and Thursday of that week were filled with an incredible sense of dread. It just seemed like a root canal specialist could torture you in cruel and unusual ways. And so I had this sense of impending doom, this sense of inevitable pain coming.

You know, I’ve experienced this pain at other times too. And in ways deeper than a root canal, really. Each of us has to deal with the pain of knowing that pain is coming. Maybe it’s when you wake up on Monday morning and you know there is a long week ahead at a job that is not meaningful for you. Maybe it’s when you’ve done something stupid or hurtful to another person and the only way to heal your relationship is to speak to that person and ask forgiveness, and listen as they describe their pain. Maybe it’s when a loved one goes into hospice care and we have to come face to face with the likelihood that death is coming soon. Whatever it has been in your life, we all have times when we know that there is difficulty and pain ahead.

And in this moment, if we are wise, we are like the Psalmist, and we cry out to God. We cry out asking God to give us refuge in the shadow of his wings, while the destroying storms pass by. We need to be able to turn to God in that moment of deep aloneness and pain, to know that God is there and present with us through that difficulty which is coming. We cry out, asking God to send forth his steadfast love and faithfulness. We need God’s love and faithfulness, because they are permanent, they are steadfast in a decaying world; they are sure in faulty world. They alone can provide certain safety even as we are going through the storms of life, and so we cry out to God for his love and his faithfulness; we cry out to God for refuge.

The Psalmist continues. In the fourth verse, the Psalmist has fast-forwarded. Now, he’s not telling us about how terrible things will be. Instead, he has fast-forwarded to the moment of the actual suffering. And it sounds every bit as bad as he thought it would be. “I lie down among lions that greedily devour human prey; their teeth are spears and arrows; their tongues are sharp swords.”

When I finally did go to the root-canal specialist, it actually turned out to be not that bad. He was very competent and friendly. In fact, it was almost like he was too competent–he was able to do my root canal at the same time he was discussing the Phillies with his assistant. It made me a little bit nervous, but mostly I was just happy that he was able to do this for me, mostly pain-free. Sometimes, our pain is like that; we anticipate it and we dread it so much that when it actually comes to cutting time, it’s not half as bad as we thought. In fact, sometimes now when I’m worried about something, I tell myself, “Well, you know, most of the time, it’s not half as bad as I’m afraid it is, so I’m probably just worrying over nothing.”

Of course, that makes it doubly devastating when it is as bad as you were afraid of. It makes it doubly bad when the long week you were afraid of really is as bad as you were fearing. It makes it doubly devastating when your friend says they’re not going to forgive you. It makes it twice as painful when your friend or your loved one does die. Sometimes, it is as bad as we think it will be.

That was certainly the case for this Psalmist. His enemies that he was so afraid of were indeed bad people. They were dangerous. He compares them to lions who want to kill him and savagely rip his body limb from limb. He compares their mouths to spears and arrows and swords as his enemies speak ruthlessly about him, seeking to cause him pain with everything they say. Sometimes it is as bad as you were worried about, and that is the case for the Psalmist.

Now, up to this point in the Psalm, everything has been building up. It has been getting closer and closer and closer to the moment of truth, the moment of suffering. And now, when we turn to the fifth verse, we expect that this all will have come to a head. With all of the terror of anticipation of this horrible event in the first three verses; with all of the fear that his enemies are striking into him by devouring him like a lion, we would expect that this is the verse where the worst fears are realized.

And yet this is not what happens. Interrupting this text of terror is a word of worship. “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.” Not “The lions devoured me;” not, “My enemies triumphed over me;” but “be exalted, O God, above the heavens.”

You know, there’s something to be said for the approach of the Psalmist. Often, when things are at their bleakest in our lives, when we are surrounded by lions with teeth like spears and tongues like swords—often, in those moments, we are consumed with ourselves and our pain. Most of our thoughts are about ourselves and about how bleak a situation we find ourselves in.

I’m such a wimp about being sick. I really am. Those of you who tried to call me at the office last Tuesday got a voicemail message saying that I was at home and sick. Now, I don’t take very many sick days out of the office, but when I do, I’m a total wimp. I woke up about four in the morning with a terrible stomachache, and I moaned, and I whined, and just generally felt sorry for myself. I slept all morning and part of the afternoon and ended the day feeling much better, but while that pain was going on, my whole world was consumed by my own pain.

While I was kind of sitting there, meditating on my own sickness, I realized I was making it worse. I actually made myself more sick thinking about being sick. I mentally scanned over all the things I had eaten and started to imagine them mingled together in my stomach—the strawberry Lucky Charms swimming in the garlicky pesto; the unholy swirl of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and the salad with bacon drippings and vinegar—when I could only think about myself, I actually made myself more sick.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for those times in our lives when we are threatened. Maybe the tendency we have to focus inward actually causes us more pain. Maybe we’d be wise to follow the example of the Psalmist and to realize that during the most painful times, the difficult times, that is precisely the time when we should be removing the focus from ourselves and placing it squarely on God in a moment of worship.

Do you see? The Psalmist is right in the moment of truth, right in the moment he had dreaded for so long—and rather than focusing in on himself, he worships. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.

Now, continue on. “They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down; they dug a pit in my path.” Again, we get a picture of this terrifying ordeal. Now he is comparing it to the way people in those days would trap animals. They would dig a pit on a path where animals would walk, and put a net down in the pit. Then, the animal would fall into the pit, get tangled in the net, and then the hunter could kill the animal. So once again the Psalmist is talking about this awful suffering.

But I want you to notice a difference. In the first few verses, when the Psalmist is talking about this ordeal, he’s talking about it in the future tense. God will send from heaven, God will send forth his love and faithfulness. But now, he is talking in the past tense: they set a net for my steps. My soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my path. It appears that, whatever the terror was, it is now over and past. And now he is reporting on how it turned out. And he says, “They dug a pit in my path, but they have fallen into it themselves.”

Isn’t it great when things like this happen? It doesn’t happen every time we are suffering, but sometimes, God steps in, and the suffering is thwarted, and we are saved! And so the next four verses, the Psalmist continues on, now praising God. He says, “My heart is steadfast, O God. My heart is steadfast.” That heart that was nervous and insecure before now firmly trusts you, O God. “I will sing and make melody”… “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples. I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds.” Now, with the suffering in the past, the Psalmist is praising God for the way God stepped in and saved him from this trouble. The Psalm closes in a burst of joy with the same words that were used in the midst of trial: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.”

What to me is most interesting about this psalm is the way that both during his lowest moment and during his highest moment, the psalmist is worshiping. Both when he is surrounded by his enemies and things look bleak, and when his enemies have been defeated and he looks back on the event, the first words on his lips are, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.”

I wonder if you will let the Psalmist be a pattern for your life. We are created by God for worship; that literally is part of the reason we were created, some would say the main reason we were created. And because of this, our lives are designed to be constant acts of worship. When we are in the midst of overwhelming trials, we remember that God’s Spirit lives in us, and the God of the universe has not forgotten us, goes with us wherever we go. And knowing this, we can begin to get a bit of perspective on our own suffering, and recognize that yes, this suffering is painful, but it is not eternal. The only thing that is eternal is God’s goodness. So, even then, we can sing, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.” And when the trials have past, and we are at peace again, we can also sing with joy, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.”

I don’t know where you find yourself today; you may be feeling like the lions are around you, sharpening their teeth to devour you; or you may feel like all is well. You may be in the midst of trouble, and you may be on the other side of trouble. Either way, we can all sing together as our prayer, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.”

Sermon from Sunday, August 27

Hi all--here is the sermon from this past Sunday. It is based on Psalm 57. Find the Scripture text here: