November 2 2014, Twentieth After Trinity
Rest In Him!
Ecclesiastes 9:4-10, Psalm 11, Ephesians 5:15-21, St. Matthew 22:1-14
Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
Oh Lord, won't you buy me a color TV?
Dialing for Dollars is trying to find me.
I wait for delivery each day until three,
So Lord, won't you buy me a color TV?
Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?
I'm counting on you, Lord, please don't let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round,
Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?
I do not suppose Janis Joplin was altogether on the square in framing her fleshly desires in the form of a prayer. But others are.
It is not enough for God to buy the next round. He must prove His love for them by fulfilling their every petition. If they’re not getting what they want – which is by definition what God wants for them – they lack the requisite faith and must plead more frequently and more passionately.
This theology is so far removed from what the Scriptures teach that we may be tempted to ask regarding the millions who embrace it: Are they saints?
Yet as soon as we pose the question we venture out into quicksand . . . for it is equally flawed theology for us to presume to pass judgment on who is a saint and who is not.
We have entered the octave of All Saints, a time of celebrating those Christians who have gone before us and dwell with our Lord in glory today. All Saints Day appears to have begun as a means of honoring the church’s martyrs and then to have been expanded into a celebration of all the dearly departed.
What’s a saint? Simply one to whom sanctity – holiness – has been communicated. We can learn from the examples of the multitudes who have gone on to glory . . . from their abiding faith in Jesus Christ as Savior . . . but not from that alone.
Mother Teresa harbored doubts? So she did. Those departed saints faced the struggles we endure, and we must take great comfort from that fact. They came in all colors and callings, personalities and nationalities . . . lay, clergy, married, single, old, young, rich, poor . . .
As one source I checked puts it, “Our celebration is a veritable symphony of sanctity!”
Indeed. But diversity has its limits. Do saints – referring now to those still treading this mortal coil in the expectation of joining the dearly departed – come in all theologies? Once upon a time in the West, theology was what Rome said it was, period.
But since the Reformation theologies have reproduced like bunny rabbits and many of them contradict others of them on critical points. They cannot be equally valid and some must be downright heretical. Are those who embrace such theologies to be numbered among the saints?
I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in . . . but will I be?
In the years I spent as a volunteer in a ministry in a Texas prison I watched theologies slosh about in men’s heads like rum . . . and leave them equally dizzy.
Here come the Baptists to stage a service on Wednesday night and the Methodists on Friday night and the Pentecostals on Saturday night and then on Sunday morning the Bible Church prison chaplain or some outsider he has invited preaches.
Who could blame a poor, defenseless armed robber or murderer for adding heterodoxy to his rap sheet?
And razor wire cannot keep confusion captive. It infects the population at large. A few days ago, Ligonier Ministries, the outfit of the noted pastor and theologian R. C. Sproul, released a survey of 3,000 self-identified Christians. A sampling:
“Jesus is fully God and has a divine nature, and Jesus is fully man and has a human nature.” Agree or disagree? Only 60 percent agree.
“God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake.” Only 63 percent agree.
“God the Father is more divine than Jesus Christ.” Only 44 percent disagree.
“Even the smallest sin deserves damnation.” Only 18 percent of Christians and 51 percent of evangelical Protestants agree.
Sproul concludes: “There are two primary problems: we don’t understand who God is, and we don’t understand who we are. That’s why I’m constantly emphasizing the character of God and the holiness of God. The more we understand who God is, the more our sin will become apparent to us.”
Can people who don’t understand who God is be classified as saints? As Christians? On the other hand, if corrupted theology disqualifies people from the divine presence, is heaven populated by the Father, Son and Holy Ghost alone? Are saints, like unicorns, mythological figures?
I’m reminded of the noted theologian who said, “I know I’m wrong about a lot of things; I just don’t know which ones.”
This is an opportune moment, I think, to retreat into the Psalter. We will not find complete clarity there but we might locate some comfort.
“In the LORD I put my trust,” quoth the Psalmist. “How can you say to my soul, ‘Flee as a bird to your mountain’"?
The Psalmist, once again, is David. And David, once again, is sore afraid. King Saul is out to run him through. David has much experience of flight, for Saul has pursued him from town to town and rock to rock and hill to hill. Will he take flight like a bird once more and soar away to the mountain to cower in a hole?
Indeed not. Not this time.
This short psalm contains no prayer. It is instead a testimony, even a creed. It makes a proclamation about God, a statement of theology. But this is no ivory-tower stuff. This theology has withstood the test of crisis.
In a crisis, security is the first concern. So say David’s advisers. But no, says their leader. There is something superior to security.
2 For look! The wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow on the string, that they may shoot secretly at the upright in heart.
3 If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?
Before he begins the poem, David has made a decision. He will put his trust in the Lord, the true refuge. Those are nice, high-sounding words, his counselors respond, but, “Be practical, man!”
A dialogue develops in some sense like that between Job and his friends. In David’s mind, he could not be more practical. Location, location, location. In the town, in the hills, it matters not; what matters is that he is In the Lord.
Oh, but righteousness will avail of no protection now; not when the foundations are crumbling. The rules that support the society like beams are splintering. When an assassin is stalking you, what can you do but dive into a hole?
David will not budge. When he should grit his teeth and focus on the ground that is trembling beneath his feet, he does the strangest thing. He looks up.
I have fled to the mountain before . . . but this is the very time not to run away again. A true and living faith demands that I stay put to show that rules remain because the Lord remains. Saul’s contempt for God’s statutes cannot overcome the God who legislated them.
4 The LORD is in His holy temple, the LORD'S throne is in heaven . . .
God is there . . . not in this location as opposed to that one, but truly present. His temple speaks of His immanence, His throne of His transcendence. In His temple, man approaches Him, on His throne He presides over every creature and every crisis on earth.
If my Lord will remain resolute, can I run away? Put another way, if God is for me, who can be against me? My present circumstances look darker than midnight in a tempest, but for a man of faith, is what I see before me reality, or what I have learned about God?
When the prophet Habakkuk quotes this line he will append to it, “Let all the earth keep silence before Him.” Here, David’s ringing proclamation that the Lord is silences his advisers.
David knows something that eludes our contemporary devotees of the preaching of Janis Joplin, those who cannot quit pestering God for a reward: God is our reward. If a relationship with the almighty Creator of all that is does not satisfy you, you might have stumbled, like a character in a Mel Brooks spoof, onto the wrong set.
His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.
5 The LORD tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates.
6 Upon the wicked He will rain coals; fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup.
But when, O Lord, when?
The word for “test” is that used of assaying precious metals, which is done with fire. The Lord sends forth fire that refines the righteous, removing the dross from them. This fire serves as well for the extermination of evil; for the wicked it is the fire that rained down with brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Why is the Lord still? Not from lack of attention but from an abundance of it. He is not looking away but looking down . . . intently. He is considering both the righteous and the rebellious and allowing them to live out there reality.
Is it His reality, accessed by faith, or man’s reality, known by sight? Is this not the divide we encounter in our own day? The secularist says, prove to me your truth by evidence I can see. The believer says, God is above me and I receive His truth by faith.
Not: Because I believe, God is, but: Because God is, I believe. God’s being precedes all things, notably including my faith. If God is not, my faith is a bad joke; if God is, my faith does not conjure Him, it receives Him.
7 For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright.
The poem ends as it began, with the Lord, the Psalmist’s refuge, the remedy for his fear. “If the foundations are destroyed,” David’s friends asked, “what can the righteous do?”
Despite what our eyes may report, the foundations are not splintering. The foundations of society for God’s covenant people are His nature and His will, who He is and what He is building. We will find safety here, not in this town or on that hill.
Our Lord looks down in mercy on those who, like Him, love righteousness, for they are conforming themselves to His nature and His will. He tests us not to break us but to purify us. He loves us more than we love ourselves.
And so, the question hovers: Who are the saints? Lord knows. A better preacher might have a better answer . . . but this one stutters. Maybe belief in the Lord as my refuge and love of righteousness are enough.
Once I ventured afar and I was introduced to fear; fear, perhaps, as David knew it. Working in missions, I pitched up in Bishkek, the capital of the old Soviet Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.
I arrived 10 days after 9/11, and the mission leader who had invited me a month before, I now learned, had called a meeting for the night of my arrival.
No one knew what Islamic terrorists might do. All were sore afraid.
I sat on the floor of his living room in the midst of 30 or so others. Some had arrived that day from the south of Kyrgyzstan, where the Islamist threat was strongest. From the capital, they could more easily flee the country if need be.
Their leader, Andrew, counseled caution. Any who believed it best to leave could of course do so. He and his family would remain and monitor events. If it became necessary to bolt, the route was to the north, to Almaty, the commercial capital of the neighboring nation of Kazakhstan.
From there, they could escape by air through Moscow to the north or Istanbul to the west.
That night I lay in my bed and turned over in my head a scene from earlier in the day. I had left Almaty by hired car and arrived at the border with Kyrgyzstan. On the Kazakh side I got out of the car and presented my passport to a customs officer.
He wanted me to know something but I couldn’t quite make out what. He kept holding up his index figure and gesturing toward my visa. Eventually it dawned on me that he was emphasizing that I had a single-entry visa. I had used up my one entry into the country and would not be allowed another.
At the moment, I thought, so what? I had no plans to re-enter Kazakhstan. But now, trying to sleep, I recalled that scene and pondered: If I should need to take flight, the only way out was closed to me.
I tossed and I turned and I turned over snatches of psalms in my head. The Lord is my refuge, I thought, and at last I fell asleep. When I awoke, the sun was shining and the birds were singing. No imminent threat loomed.
I realized I’d sampled a small taste of the fear David knew and that theology crafted in crisis has a different smell and a different feel. Fear has a way of concentrating us, of stripping away the window dressing around our theology and forcing us to examine the product itself.
Fear pierces the soul and makes it cry out . . . but to what . . . to whom? Fear tests belief and refines it.
I realized I had settled upon a theology: The Lord is my refuge. So say all the saints. Amen.