November 23 2014, The Sunday Next Before Advent
Stand on Him!
Jeremiah 3:14-18, Psalm 39, Jeremiah 23:5-8, St. John 6:5-14
I grew up in Texas when it was a “yellow dog Democrat” state. Even when I started college the Democrats could still put a yellow dog on the ticket and he’d get elected.
It didn’t remain that way much longer, however. My father was of that generation of Texans who said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; it left me.”
Odd, isn’t it, how we can stay planted right where we are and find ourselves in a markedly different place?
I think the Psalmist would understand. He tells us today:
"Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with You, a sojourner, as all my fathers were.”
The stranger or sojourner was one who lived among a people not his own. In Israel, he was entitled to be treated well but he could not own land. The land was reserved for the covenant people of God.
But then again . . . it was and it wasn’t. Think back to our introit this morning, Leviticus 25:23: “The land shall not be sold permanently,” Yahweh tells Israel, “for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.”
David suffered no confusion about property rights but he struggled with an affliction of the spirit common to man . . . and more so in his time than in ours. It was hundreds of years later, following the Babylonian captivity, when Israel began to develop a theology of an afterlife.
Our poet is distraught because of the futility of life. The flame flickers and dies, and when it is extinguished it is no more.
But he talks himself round to the conclusion that the very brevity and uncertainty of this life provide more reason, not less, to trust in God . . . God, the eternal; God, the Creator. And his status as a sojourner is cause for hope, for God shows favor to such as these.
Israel herself was a stranger, escaping from Egypt and wandering through the wilderness those 40 years, and her God traveled with her, watched over her and provided for her and, yes, rebuked her, too. And He led her at last to the threshold of the Promised Land.
I hope I have a chance to have a good old chin wag with David some day because I’d like to ask whether, even though consoled by the assurance of God’s favor, he wrestled with the problem of staying put . . . whether, like those Texas Democrats of the last century, he tried to remain in place only to find the ground shifting under him.
Look at how our institutions have transformed themselves. Harvard University perches on the same campus today as in days of yore but, my, what a distance it has traveled. It was founded to prepare young Christian men to serve with distinction in the clergy, the professions, the government, business, the military.
And now? At her inauguration as president of Harvard, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust observed that the Latin word Veritas, which adorns Harvard’s coat of arms “was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion.”
But times have changed.
“We understand it quite differently now,” she said. In the 21st century there is only the aspiration to truth; truth is not a “possession,” and there are certainly no “unassailable verities.”
University educators today “must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt” leading to “the humility of always believing that there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.”
That was in 2007. We might applaud her humility but for the fact that, in context, she was only reheating the postmodern mantra that man cannot know those “absolutes of divine revelation” in which the founders of Harvard so naively placed their trust and their hope.
But we need not borrow the experiences of others. As Anglicans we live day by day in a world in tumult. Its capital, at least nominally, is in Canterbury. But its real strength – whether we speak in theological, pastoral or numerical terms – is located much closer to Lagos and Nairobi.
We’ll return to the subject after we take a closer look at Psalm 39.
Its high time, in this last of our series of sermons on the Psalms, that I call your attention to a little Hebrew word: selah. We find it sprinkled throughout the Psalter. I usually delete it from the psalm that appears in our bulletin because it serves only to distract us.
If you’ve ever puzzled over its meaning, you’re in good company. Old Testament scholars aren’t entirely sure of it, either. It seems to have served as a sort of stage direction, probably indicating an interlude in the psalm into which something was inserted.
Because psalms were generally sung in temple worship, it’s likely that a relevant passage of Scripture was read during the interlude. In Psalm 39, David has taken the tone his son Solomon will adopt when writing Ecclesiastes.
I want you to hear the psalm with the verses later priests and Levites likely inserted following the two selahs, at v. 5 and v. 11. Each follows a word that refers to a man’s like as a “vapor.” In Ecclesiastes, the same Hebrew word is translated “vanity.” The psalm begins:
I said, "I will guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, while the wicked are before me."
2 I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good; and my sorrow was stirred up.
3 My heart was hot within me; while I was musing, the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue:
4 "LORD, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am.
5 Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor. Selah
17 Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.
18 Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me.
19 And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity.
20 Therefore I turned my heart and despaired of all the labor in which I had toiled under the sun.
21 For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
22 For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun?
23 For all his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity.
24 Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.
25 For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I?
26 For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
6 Surely every man walks about like a shadow; surely they busy themselves in vain; he heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them.
7 "And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You.
8 Deliver me from all my transgressions; do not make me the reproach of the foolish.
9 I was mute, I did not open my mouth, because it was You who did it.
10 Remove Your plague from me; I am consumed by the blow of Your hand.
11 When with rebukes You correct man for iniquity, You make his beauty melt away like a moth; surely every man is vapor. Selah
10 He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity.
11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them; so what profit have the owners except to see them with their eyes?
12 The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep.
13 There is a severe evil which I have seen under the sun: riches kept for their owner to his hurt.
14 But those riches perish through misfortune; when he begets a son, there is nothing in his hand.
15 As he came from his mother's womb, naked shall he return, to go as he came; and he shall take nothing from his labor which he may carry away in his hand.
12 "Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with You, a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
13 Remove Your gaze from me, that I may regain strength, before I go away and am no more."
In an agrarian society, land is everything . . . or is it? If a man were to live forever, perhaps so, but our Psalmist knows better than that. Because life is fleeting, man’s meaning must be found in God . . . this God who created the land, scooped up a handful of it and formed it into man.
So man is vapor and his life if vanity . . . until he sees that land and wealth and security will pass away but God will abide. The Psalmist gazes down from the mountain upon the bustling world below and knows himself to be part of it . . . but only as a sojourner.
The New Testament writers, with their developed theology of the afterlife, seize upon this theme. In particular, Peter and the author of Hebrews use it to illustrate the Christian’s hope of eternity in God’s glory following the travails of existence in the here and now.
But the Psalmist is firmly planted in terra firma. He sees God’s eternality as man’s true security and his claim on sanity in this life. And this is where we should begin.
Because God has purpose, so do His creatures, today. This life is indeed brief and frail, but it is not lived in vain. David discerns that he need not find all the answers if he trusts that God has those answers. In that way, our position is the same as his.
Do you find yourself in a place where you don’t fit? Have you thanked God for it? For this is precisely where He positions His people. We join the heavenly chorus in the next life, singing in the same key as everyone around us.
In the present we enjoy the privilege of serving our Creator as salt and light. Our role is not to blend in but to stand out in a world desperate to know its Savior. If we look like, speak like, act like the secularists who surround us, how are we serving our Lord?
Over and over and over, God chastises His first covenant people through His prophets for taking on the coloring of the pagan cultures encompassing them rather than living up to the biblical standard as a witness to those peoples.
Strangers and sojourners are exactly what our Lord calls us to be. If we are comfortable in our surroundings, what use are we to Him?
Even when we stay put the ground can shift under us. On the other hand, when we have moved we can find ourselves in the same old place.
Now, as I try to remain abreast of developments in the Anglican world I find an interesting new tone in some of the commentary. A couple of months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared those of us in the Anglican Church in North America beyond the pale of the Anglican Communion.
We must of course lament further division in our Lord’s church but we need not dwell on decisions taken in faith and out of necessity. Some are celebrating the end of the pretense that everyone called an Anglican, orthodox and apostate, worship the same God.
A strong representation of primates from Africa and elsewhere in the developing world trekked to Atlanta just after Archbishop Justin Welby’s anathema to participate in the investiture of Foley Beach as archbishop of the ACNA.
They represent about three-fourths of the Anglican Church worldwide. They were making a political statement. They proclaimed for all the world to hear that the Archbishop of Canterbury does not determine who is and who is not an Anglican.
But they made a theological statement as well. Our identity as Anglicans does not depend on an alphabet soup of letters on the church sign or on receiving the blessing of some guy in a funny hat. Our loyalty has never been at bottom to a bureaucracy but to a way of worship.
As long as we practice prayer-book spirituality grounded in faithful exegesis of the Scriptures we can rest content in Jesus as our Judge.
Our allegiance has been not to an institution but to an idea. When the institution has so mangled the idea that it is no longer recognizable, loyalty demands that those who would preserve it move on to a new place that nurtures it.
I do not mean to sully the good name of historic Canterbury for in times past it launched the unadulterated gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to virtually every point of the compass. But if I must choose between Canterbury and the heavenly Jerusalem I will not hesitate.
For in that heavenly Jerusalem no denominations are found. In that heavenly Jerusalem Jesus, the true Temple, abides. In that heavenly Jerusalem there are no strangers or sojourners. Every citizen owns his place, and no one can dislodge him from it.
The door to the true Temple stands eternally open and no one will ever bar my entry.
And so let us live out our exile as witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ, for He is the ground of our being. He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and He will never be moved. Amen.