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South Fellowship Church

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Unity  Psalm 133

Every single person sitting in this room and every single person that walks the face of the globe has limitations. Some of those limitations are actual.  You can’t, regardless of hard you try and how much you train and how high your vertical leap, jump and touch the moon.  That’s an actual limitation.   The majority of the limitations that confine us aren’t actual limitations, they’re perceived limitations.  They’re thought processes, they’re lies that we believe.  There’s ways that we’ve trained ourself and things that we’ve done over and over again and they’ve built up a pattern that eventually led to a limitation.  What’s fascinating is that sociologists and scientists have been studying what happens in somebody’s life that they actually have the ability to overcome a limitation.  In all the study they’ve done, they’ve isolated one factor that allows people to overcome the limitations that they have in their life.  One factor that’s underneath all the stuff that’s going on in your life that would actually have the ability, the key to unlock, many of the limitations that currently hold you down.  In all the studies they’ve done, this one thing has shown all the more clearly the more they’ve studied it.  Henry Cloud wrote a great book that came out recently that really drove this point home.  His argument in that book and what scientists and sociologists are finding is the one factor that has the ability to help you overcome the limitations that you currently have in your life is……other people.  It’s that voice of a friend calling and saying, “You can make it!” It’s that encouraging phrase that somebody says — I believe in you!

It’s interesting that when we’re born we’re born with the need for connection.  Scientists have known this for a long time.  Babies are born with this innate and immediate desire to connect with their mother.  They connect with their mother for physical nutrients and food, but they’ve also studied babies in orphanages who have all the food that they need and yet, they enter into this condition they call “Failure to Thrive Syndrome.”  It turns out that you need far more than just food and bread to survive.  You need the touch of other people.  Babies who don’t get this (touch) don’t develop the way they should and not only is their emotional and spiritual growth stunted, but their physical growth is stunted too.  It turns out we’re integrated beings.  At the core of who we are, the core of our very humanity, not only the desire to connect with other people, but the need to connect with other people {is there}.  We never grow out of that Failure to Thrive Syndrome.  When we don’t have the connections we need, we cannot be who God has called us to be.  They’ve seen this in a number of different areas they’ve studied.  They studied a group of people who set out to reach some goals — whether it was weight-loss goals or educational goals or spiritual growth.  What the found was that the people who achieved the goals they set were the people who surrounded themselves with communities of people.  They did this double-blind study, recently, where they took elderly people who had experienced either a heart attack or a stroke and put some of them in a group with other people to talk about the experience, to process the experience and to walk together.  They isolated the other group.  They found that the people who were in community with other people had a far greater rate of not having another heart attack or stroke.  It turns out that the community of people that surrounded them actually started to change their physical makeup. Fascinating!  They’ve done studies that would say that people who are involved in a community—not a community of faith necessarily, but their lives are connected with other people—have stronger immune systems, can recover more quickly from illnesses that they obtain and get, and they are stronger in general because of the community they’re connected with.  Isn’t that fascinating?!

As we read through the Scriptures, Genesis 1 and 2, we have this poem of creation and God’s creative work.  In chapter one, the author says God creates and it’s good.  He says that six different times.  On time number six, He creates humanity and He says it’s VERY good.  If you fast forward to chapter 2, verse 18, God looks at Adam in the garden and says that it’s not good for Adam to be alone.  It’s not good for humanity to be alone.  We take that to mean people should get married….we read that at marriage ceremonies.  And indeed, Adam and Eve were husband and wife, but the verse is about so much more than marriage.  It’s about what it means to be human.  That it’s not good……think about what the poet in Genesis 2 is saying…..it’s not good for Adam to just be connected to God.  He needs other people in his life also.  It turns out that just connection to God is not enough for the way that He’s created us in our very core in our DNA.  What we do when we gather together, or being part of a community, has influence on our biology.  It has influence on our spirituality.  It changes everything about us because it’s God’s design for us.  {Will you look up at me for just a second.}  I’d argue this morning that there’s some things that are going on in your life, some limitations, that if you were to invite some other people in, that God would use them to catapult you into what He has for your life.  That’s my hope and that’s my prayer.  You can all think of a time when you felt like you were at the end of your rope or when you achieved something great, something that you didn’t think you were going to be able to do.  My guess is, on the other side of whatever that finish line was there was somebody there who was encouraging you.  There was somebody there who was waiting for you.  There was somebody there who believed in you who said, “You can do it!”  Connection to other people isn’t just something that’s beneficial, isn’t just something that’s good, it’s something that’s absolutely necessary on a fundamental level of what it means to be human.

So the psalmist writes about this in Psalm 133.  {If you have your Bible, turn there with me.}  It’s a Psalm of Ascent.  It’s a song that the nation of Israel would sing as they left their homes and journey towards Jerusalem. They did this three times a year to celebrate the pilgrim feasts; feasts that were celebrated in the city of Jerusalem.  This is a Psalm of David.  Eugene Peterson refers to the Psalms of Ascent as the dog-eared Hebrew songbook; songs that they would sing as they were walking along the way.  Imagine as the liturgist calls out the first phrase of this verse and everybody else joins in:  Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!  It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!  For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

If you look at the very first verse, this is David’s thesis, his argument in this song, his invitation.  He says: Behold, how good and pleasant….  {Good would mean it’s good for everybody, it’s good for the whole world.  Pleasant would mean it’s good in our soul.  So it’s good out there and it’s good in here.  When what?} ..when brothers and sisters (people) dwell in unity.  David would have had a little bit of something to say about dwelling in division.  David had a little bit of an estranged relationship with his father-in-law.  He was playing the harp and his father-in-law busts out a spear and throws it at him!  {You think you have a bad relationship with your in-laws!!}  His sons — one of his sons kills the other son.  He gives birth to Solomon and Solomon gets the empire and Solomon’s kids divide and eventually divide the entire empire.  So when David writes Psalm 133, he’s writing both out of an invitation to come and taste and see God’s goodness in community, but he’s also writing to say listen, when we dwell in disunity, when we dwell in division, it actually robs us of the very thing that we were created for.  You know this and I know this….it takes a ton of energy to operate in disunity, doesn’t it.  I know and you know…..you’ve gone to bed thinking about moments and people and times where there was division.  Yes?  We all have because it’s so central to what it means to be human.  Here’s how we’ll say it this morning:  Division has this unique ability to zap our energy, to drain our energy, but unity (walking together) actually increases our vitality!  It reminds us what it means to be human.  It fills us up.

Unity is our design.  It also runs contrary to our nature, which is why if you pick up any New Testament letter that’s included in our Scriptures, you will find the impetus placed on unity within the church.  From the beginning of time, people have been pushing against God’s design because of sin and we’ve been moving towards division rather than unity.  Paul will write to the church of Corinth:  I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corin. 1:10)  Have you thought about why he needed to write that?  It’s NOT because the church was moving along and things were going great.  It’s because, just like this church and just like every church that has ever existed on the face of the planet, our natural tendency goes against and contrary to our innate design of needing unity and community and it moves towards division.  So the New Testament is absolutely ruthless about calling people to more.  Within the community and within unity we find what it means to be human, we find vitality for our soul, but division has the opposite effect on us. Absolutely wipes us out!  It takes us down!

This psalm isn’t going to unpack for us how to live in unity with each other—although I’d like to add in a few things about that in the end—this psalm wants to paint such a compelling picture of unity that you and I would say, “We’ve gotta chase after that!  We have got to be a part of that!”  We cannot settle for division because unity is so good and so life giving and it’s so beautiful.  But it’s also so hard.  It’s demanding.  It demands that you allow yourself to be known, valued and loved and it demands that you know, value and love others.  It demands that you are eager to maintain the unity of the spirit. Isn’t it interesting that Paul would write that (in Eph. 4:3) that you need to maintain unity?  Why?  Because we are always on the brink of disunity.  That’s the natural thing.  So we’ve got to fight for this, we’ve got to want this.  What King David does is he paints this compelling picture, this hedonistic quest that we get invited on into unity.  Listen to the way Eugene Peterson writes about this: “There can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life, apart from an immersion in, and embrace of, community.  I am not myself by myself.” How contrary it runs to our Western individualistic society, yes?

So listen to this picture that David paints.  In Psalm 133:2, he’s going to have two pictures that sort of run two metaphors that unpack for us what it looks like and what it means to live as the people of God.  He says:  It

I read a story recently about this young rabbi who took over leadership in a synagogue.  There was this division in the synagogue.  There were some people who wanted to sit during prayer and then there were some people who wanted to stand up during prayer.  The people who wanted to sit during prayer were convinced that they had it right.  They were convinced that their tradition was the tradition that the synagogue had operated on from its inception.  The people that wanted to stand were convinced of the same thing (for their side).  This young rabbi couldn’t figure out what to do with this congregation, so he actually found the rabbi that was the founder of the synagogue and he went to visit him in a nursing home.  He said to him, “I need you to answer a question for me.  Did people sit down to pray at the very beginning at this gathering?”  He said, “No, they didn’t.”   He said, “Great, okay.  So, that’s the tradition….people stand up during prayer.”  He said, “No, that’s not their tradition.”  The young rabbi looked at him and said, “Listen, I need some help here.  I have people in this congregation and it is absolute chaos!!  Some people think we should sit and some people think we should stand and they are at each other’s throats!”  The old rabbi looked at him and says, “Yeah, that’s the tradition!” From the beginning they’ve been divided!

All brevity aside, it breaks my heart that the message that the church often gives doesn’t, in the way that Jesus asked us to, affirm that Jesus is Lord.  It actually sometimes does the opposite.  It sometimes pushes people further away, because there’s time where we just can’t seem to get along.  Erwin McManus said:  “I guarantee you that any community that can answer the question, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ with a ‘yes’ will have the ear of every significant organization in our society.”  Hey, we’ve seen it happen!  The early church unified—-Jews and Gentiles together, slaves and free together, people who had nothing else in common coming together around one name and when they did that they changed the entire world.  Because a unified community speaks an amplified message and it demanded to be heard.

I saw this video a while back and thought it painted this picture well.  {Video plays of birds flying in formation and Ryan speaks over it.} I was watching these birds fly and thought to myself, “If that was one bird, none of us would look at that with any sort of amazement whatsoever.  In fact, we’d probably be pretty bored.”  The reason it’s a compelling picture is because it’s a group of individual birds moving in unity together.  That’s why there’s a message attached to this. That’s why it’s a compelling picture.  That’s why we look at it and are drawn in a little bit.  That’s why it matters.  If it were one bird it wouldn’t matter in the least.  Did you know that when we are in community together, the energy and the power and the influence that we have is far greater than the sum of our energy and our influence as individuals?  That when we gather together one plus one equals more than two {1 + 1 < 2}.  It validates this message that Jesus IS King!  That’s what Jesus said.  I wonder, if unity is a message what are people hearing from us?  What are people hearing from you?  Zoom out a little bit more—what are people hearing from the church in general?  {Friends, look up at me for a second.}  They’re hearing something and a unified community speaks an amplified message.

Here’s how that passage speaking about Aaron continues (Exodus 30:30).  You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests.  This oil not only carried with it an aroma, but it prepared them, it made them holy and allowed them to enter into the temple and into the tabernacle to serve God.  The oil prepared them to be of service to the king.  In the same way, unity sets us apart for the Lord’s work.  Did you know the New Testament considers you a priest?  That we are kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood, a chosen people called out of darkness into light to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us (1 Peter 2:9).  You’re a priest!  When we gather together we have to remember the community of faith speaks words of hope and goodness into people’s lives that prepares them to live as ministers of the gospel.  It’s part of the function of living in community.  It’s part of what it means when David writes that unity is like the precious oil on the beard of Aaron.  A healthy community prepares us forkingdom service!

I want to talk about two things that go along with this.  One is our heart.  In Romans 12:10, we’re invited to be people who are competitive.  Did you know that?  It actually invites us to compete, to try to outdo one another in love.  What if we really took this disposition?  That we were going to do our best to bring to the table our very best to build up THIS body because we love and care for the people who are a part of it.  What if our disposition was I’m going to outdo the people in this church in love?  What if we decided beforehand…..I know, listen, I know.  People are going to get inconvenient.  They’re going to ask for things at times where it doesn’t exactly fit my schedule!  But I’m going to choose love instead of choosing logic a lot of times.  I’m going to choose to go out on a limb…..I’m going to choose to give, even when I’m at the bottom of the barrel…..I’m going to choose to create in my heart a space to love the community of faith that I’m a part of.  Do you feel that way about these people?  Are THESE your people if this is your church?  I love the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it: “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.  God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.”  Absolutely!  Are we willing to go there?

So we have a heart that says I want to serve, but we also, as followers of Jesus……did you know that you have been gifted?  That you have gifts to bring to this body.  Your gifts are unique and they’re needed and the way that you operate in those gifts are unique and needed.  I Corinthians 12:7 says that to each one has been given a spiritual gift.  If you are a follower of Christ, you have something that God has planted inside of you that THIS community of faith needs.  But you know what?  The beautiful thing about Christian community is that it does not mean uniformity.  It doesn’t mean that we all look the same, talk the same, do the same thing, think the same way, and operate the same way.  It means that we have the same King and He rules and that’s enough. But we all bring something different to the table and I want to affirm that that is an absolutely beautiful thing and it’s a good thing.  How boring would it be if we all looked the same, talked the same, believed the same, acted the same, did the same thing, had the same gifts?  It would be boring.  But, man, what a compelling picture it is when we use our gifts.  I think it looks a little bit like this…..{plays monotone piano player video}.   What a beautiful picture of the church—together, but not the same.  You have a gift that God wants to use to build up THIS body of believers to look more like Jesus.

I want to give you three things to encourage in using that gift.  First is to identify what it is.  Jean Lamont and our deacons are running, right now, a Connections class that’s helping people identify their gifts.  They’re going to run this again throughout the year, and I would encourage you to jump into that class and figure out how God has wired you.  Second, develop your gifts.  When God gives you a spiritual gift, it’s not at a place of maturity yet.  God gives you the gift and then you get to do the hard work of developing that gift to be a blessing to the most people it can possibly be a blessing to.  Listen to the way that Paul writes to Timothy, his protégé:  For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God. (2 Timothy 1:6-7)  He’s saying to him it’s in you, Timothy, it’s there, it’s present, but, Timothy, fan it into flame.  Work on it, Timothy.  Take those opportunities to speak and to lead and to administer.  And I would say to you the same thing:  Take the opportunities that God brings.  The third thing — you identify your gifts, you develop your gifts, and then you use them.  If you’re going, Paulson, I don’t know exactly what my gifts are and I don’t know where to use them, I would say back to you start where the need is.  Say listen, my heart is to outdo one another in love, where’s the need?  And see how God might start to refine and pull out and develop and fan into flame those gifts.  {Friends, look up at me a second.}  We are a kingdom of passionate priests; we are not intended to be passive observers!  This is not a show.  We are part of a body and your part matters!  We will never be who God has called us to be if you are not who God has called you to be, because we’re in this together.

David switches metaphors and he gives us one last picture of what life in community looks like.  First he said it’s like oil running down the beard of Aaron.  We said that a unified community speaks an amplified message.  And a healthy community prepares us for kingdom service.  And then David says this about unity:  It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!   If you’ve ever camped outside, in the mountains, without a tent covering you, you know that you wake up in the morning and that your entire body and sleeping bag is covered with dew, right?  Well, the same thing would happen on Mount Hermon, which is 9,000 feet tall in the Lebanon mountain range.  It’s the tallest mountain in that area.  David’s painting a picture that everybody would have seen and everybody would have experienced, especially along this road as they’re journeying towards Jerusalem.  Dew played a really unique part in the life of people who lived there.  This dew would fall every single morning.  It was ruthlessly consistent.  It would start to break up the hard ground of the desert.  That dew would prepare the desert floor to receive seeds that would eventually grow into fruition.  That dew didn’t miss anything, it didn’t miss anyone, it permeated everything and it gave life to all.

David said yeah, that’s what the community of faith, the unified community of faith looks like.  It looks like a nourishing community. That nourishing community leads to a flourishing soul.  That’s the kind of community I want to be a part of. You?  It’s identified by two things in the New Testament Scriptures.  The first is that this nourishing community is an encouraging community.  I was watching the Olympics over the last few weeks and there was this one race you may have seen.  It was a 5,000-meter women’s race.  During the heat, this runner from New Zealand tripped.  When she tripped, she tripped a U.S. runner also.  The U.S. runner immediately bent down to pick up the New Zealand runner. Here’s what she whispered in her ears: “This is the Olympic Games, you can’t give up!”  I love that picture.  I thought to myself, “What if church was more like that?”  What if we whispered in each other’s ears, “This is the life God’s called you to live, you can’t give up!”  What if we were community that spoke truth into each other’s lives……This is your marriage, you can’t give up! These are your kids, you can’t give up!  This is your faith, you can’t give up!  What if we were more like that?  The New Testament describes the church as a place where we gather together:  And let us consider {think about, plan} how to stir up one another to love and good works.  {Think about, when you gather together, how you can be a people who say there’s more to do, there’s another hill to take.  How do we love the people in our community better?}  …not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24-25)  What if THAT’S what church was like? An encouraging community.

And a LEARNING community.  Did you know you don’t just come to learn from the preacher?  You may not know this…you’re a teacher.  Your life speaks.  Your words speak.  When we gather together, the Scriptures command us:  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)   Do you know who that passage is talking about?  Not just me!  It’s talking about you!  It’s talking about all of us, that we would be the type of people in a soul-flourishing way that encourage one another and point each other to Jesus.

I want to land the plane with three tips (keys) to living in community and unity, with one another.  (1) Take responsibility.  Our natural tendency is towards division; our innate design is for unity.  So, to live as a unified people is not on one person, it’s not on any individual, it’s actually on all of us.  Listen to the way Paul writes this in the book of Romans (12:18) — If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.   We need to own that this is not one person’s, or a group of people’s, ideals or idea, this is on all of us!  Here’s what I want to encourage — three things to live where we embrace this responsibility where unity is on us.   1) Forgive. This just in—people are going to wrong you.  People are going to disappoint you.  People are going to let you down. What if you chose to forgive them before they did anything?  We are a forgiving community.  2) Stop gossip. Gossip is simply talking negatively about somebody behind their back.  It’s saying something to somebody else that you wouldn’t say to their face.  Here’s the thing—this isn’t an issue that’s unique to South Fellowship Church in any way, shape, or form.  It was unique only to every single church that existed in the writing of the New Testament scriptures.  Here’s how to stop it:  1) Stop it passively by saying, “I’m not going to participate.” It’s a decision each of us makes.  I’m not going to participate.  2) We stop it actively when we hear somebody starting to gossip, starting to spread rumors or slander or malicious talk about someone not there, and we call it what it is, which is sin.  We invite them to repent and to confess and to be forgiven.  Listen to how Paul writes it to the church at Ephesus:  Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph. 4:29)  We (1) decide to forgive, (2) we stop gossip, and (3) we give love.  I love the way Peter says it.  He says that love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) Have you ever stopped to wonder why Peter thought he needed to write that?  Because there were a multitude of sins needed covering!!  That’s why.  So what if we chose forgiveness, stopped gossiping and gave love?  Then we’d be taking responsibility saying, “Unity’s on me and I believe that unity is God’s design and we flourish in it.”

Secondly, we assume the best.  Think of how many things have gone absolutely off the rails of your life, relationally, because our initial response is to assume the worse.  To assume that that glance was actually filled with malice, when maybe the reality is that person just had a really, really hard day.  Maybe that email didn’t have the tone that you read into it.  Maybe……we could go on.  What if we decided we’re going to assume the best.  Here’s how you do that.  You, instead of believing something somebody said behind your back, talk to them face-to-face.  Second, ask great questions and listen.  Assume people are telling you the truth unless they give you a reason to doubt that.

Take responsibility.  Assume the best.  Finally, focus on commonality.  In the New Testament, the church, in its incipient form, was being birthed.  You had Jews and Greeks coming together.  You had people who would intersect at no other place in society for any good reason gathering in an ecclesia (a group of called-out ones) saying, “There is enough to keep us together in a world that wants to tear us apart.  We may speak different languages.  We may have a different ethic, we may come from different backgrounds, we may value different things, but at the heart of it all, we are gathering around one name, one Savior, one Lord and his name is Jesus! In the vast array of things that we have that are different, we have one thing in common and that one thing in common is enough to keep us together in a world that would love to tear us apart.”  That’s what they would say. Paul would write to the church at Galatia:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all ONE in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)   This was their anthem, this was their song.  We may not agree on everything, but we agree that Jesus Christ trumps all of our preferences, sits enthroned above it all and we gather around Him.  We intentionally started our time with Revelation 5:  The scene from the throne room where people from every tribe and every tongue and every nation are gathered around the throne of Jesus in worship.  The thing in the center of it all is enough to keep them together!

Even in heaven, you know it’s not just you and Jesus, right?  And if that’s true, we might want to learn how to get along, since we’re going to have to get along for a long time!  In all seriousness, friends, David says: For there the Lord has commanded the blessing…   On what? On unity.  On gathering together.  When we walk together, when we sacrifice for one another, when we outdo each other in love, when we refuse to gossip, when we choose forgiveness, when we focus on the commonality, when we do all that stuff….you and I know this….God puts his stamp of approval on that, His blessing on that.  It awakens something in our soul that goes oh, this is how I was designed to live!  This is really good!  You know and I know that division absolutely drains our energy, but community/unity feeds the vitality that we were created to have.  When we live by God’s design, friends, we experience God’s blessing.   Let’s pray.

So Father, the one who holds us all together, the Chief Cornerstone, God, would you help us to reimagine what it looks like to live together in unity.  God, maybe reawaken places in our soul that we’ve cut off, because that’s hard.  That’s hard to do.  In so many ways, while unity is our design, division is our decision so much of the time.  So would you reawaken something inside of our soul.  Lord, if there’s people that we need to forgive, would you prompt it in our hearts right now we pray.  If there’s people that we need to reach out to, would you stir that in us?  God, we want to be an encouraging community.  We want to be a place where people are prepared to minister your glory.  Father, would you remind us that the way that we walk together is a message for the world around us.  We want to honor you and we want to lift high your name.  We know that you love people, so we want to honor people too.  Lord, for every person in this room, would you help us?  We need your power, we need your Spirit.  Would you help us to take responsibility, assume the best and then, Lord, to focus on the thing that draws us all together, the name above all names, King Jesus.  It’s in his name that we pray. Amen.

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Unity  Psalm 1332020-08-20T13:16:52-06:00

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Waiting Psalm 130

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Waiting  Psalm 130

This summer when my family and I were on vacation, we went to Legoland in San Diego.  They had a new ride there, Ninjago ride that my son was really excited to go on.  It was a 4-D type of ride where you’re karate chopping things that are flying at you, and there’s mist and smells…..   It was pretty epic!  We chose our time wisely as to when we wanted to get into line, because the line was long.  It got shorter as the day went on and so around 6 o’clock, when most people with little kids had done the wise thing and left, we were still there.  We got into line.  There was about just five minutes of waiting out front and thought man, we have chosen wisely.  We got through that part of the line and then went into this other room.  There were ropes set up in the next room and there were about five lines back and forth through this room.  The music started to get a little bit louder—that’s when you know you’re in trouble—they want to distract you.  We got through that room and entered….ANOTHER room!  Music got a little bit louder and we’re waiting a little bit longer.  We got through THAT room and entered ANOTHER room!  Finally, we get to the front of the line.  Somebody with what they call a FastPass….which means they spent a ton of money to buy this little device that allows them to cut in front of regular paying customers like us.  They just flashed this FastPass and cut in front of us!  I thought, “What in the world is going on? I’ve spent 45 minutes in this line now, in these rows, with the music getting louder and louder and somebody cuts right in front of me!!”

I started to think that life just feels like that, doesn’t it?  Right when you think you’re getting to the “front of the line,” there’s another room.  Right when you think you’re at the end of the tunnel and you think you see the light, it turns out the light is off far more in the distance than you ever could have dreamed.  So many of us spend a lot of time in our lives waiting.  I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this before, but my guess is, every single day you spend time waiting.  Whether it’s in traffic on the way to or home from work; or in the grocery store…..anyone have an equation they work in their mind as to which checker is going to be the fastest so you spend the least amount of time waiting!  We hate that waiting period, don’t we?  We all experience it.  If you have kids, my guess is, like me, every single meal you eat involves waiting….not because you’re at a nice restaurant, but because you’re begging your kids to eat the food that’s in front of them!!  We spend so much of our lives waiting.

Here’s how I’ll define waiting for us today—waiting is that space between REALITY (where we’re at in actuality, in real life) and DESIRE (where we’d love to be).  The space between reality and desire.  The space between addiction and recovery…there’s waiting there.  The space between joblessness and employment…there’s waiting there.  The space between desperation and depression and joy…there’s waiting there, isn’t there?  The space between hurt and health…there’s waiting there.  In all of our lives we will, and probably ARE on some level and in some way, be waiting, aren’t we?  It’s not unique to any single one of us, it’s a condition of being human.  There’s a space between reality and desire, where we currently are and where we wish we would be. Or when we let ourself hope and let ourself dream and let ourself pray, where we envision life eventually heading.  Maybe it’s a relationship for you, so this {chair} would signify singleness and the desire is dating or marriage or whatever.  All of us have these things in our life, don’t we?   {Will you look up at me for a second?} The question is NOT whether or not you will wait in life.  The question is whether or not you will wait WELL. Whether or not you wait well will determine the fruit that’s birthed in your life in the space between reality and desire.

If you read through the Scriptures, there’s so many stories about waiting.  There’s whole books devoted to the people of God, the nation of Israel, waiting.  If you read Numbers 13, you see this invitation from God.  The people of Israel are invited to enter the Promise Land.  If you’ve been around the Scriptures a little bit, you probably recognize that story.  They go and survey the land and come back and report, “Listen, there’s giants in the land.  It’s flowing with milk and honey, yeah, you were right there, but there’s giants in the land and we could never go into that land.”  So God says, “Alright, that’s fine.  You’re going to wander around in the desert for forty years.”  The space between reality and desire was forty years.  In that waiting time, the nation of Israel started to reimagine what life was like back in Egypt.  They started to push back against Moses, who was their leader.  They started to develop this holy angst in the their soul, where they just weren’t okay with where they were at.  Have you ever felt those types of feelings in the waiting?  That ‘God, are you ever going to come through?’ type of feeling?  For them, it was are we going to eat manna for our entire lives?  Forty years living at the grain section of the food pyramid!!!  An entire book, an entire narrative—forty years devoted to waiting. But it’s in that waiting time that they also received the Law of God, they received the Ten Commandments and they started to recognize what it meant to become the people of God.  What it looked like to live free under His rule and His reign.  What it looked like to not only become the people of God in a civil way, but they built the Tabernacle during that waiting time and they became this worshiping community.  The waiting time for them wasn’t just time to kill, it was time for them to develop, it was time for them to grow, it was time for them to become the people that God was intending for them to become.

In many ways, Psalm 130 echoes that Israelite declaration that we will not just get through the waiting, but we will flourish in the waiting.  That the space between isn’t just a time to endure or a time to persevere through. Actually, it’s a time where God wants to sink some seeds deep within our soul that eventually will bear fruit for the glory of His name.  Turn to Psalm 130.  It’s a Psalm of Ascent.  It’s a psalm the nation of Israel would sing as they were heading up to Jerusalem for one of the three pilgrim feasts that they would go and celebrate on an annual basis.  Remember, Eugene Peterson said that these Psalms of Ascent are the dog-eared Hebrew songbook.  You could imagine that as you were walking on this hike—however long it took you depending on where you left from—when somebody called out Psalm 130, it was a psalm about waiting.  Inevitably, as you were walking along this path to Jerusalem, you would be able to relate to this psalm.  Listen to what the psalmist says:  Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!  O Lord, hear my voice!  Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!  If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?  But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.  O Israel, hope in the Lord!  For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.  And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.  

If you’re looking for the point or the thesis of this psalm, it’s found in verse 5.  The psalmist says:  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.  When the psalmist says ‘in his word I hope,’ don’t think first and foremost ‘in the Bible I hope.’  Think in the presence of God I hope.  In the speaking of God I hope, because on this pilgrim path to Jerusalem they most likely didn’t have a big scroll they could roll out.  They weren’t talking about the Bible as we know it, they were talking about the presence of God, the voice of God, the real impact of God’s presence in their life.  The psalmist says listen, there’s this space between where I’m at and where I’d love to be and God, in that space, I want to surrender my desires, I want to surrender my timelines.  God, I want just not my body and not my mind to wait in you and for you, but look, I want my SOUL to wait for you. Here’s what the psalmist knows.  He knows that all of us wait.  The question isn’t whether or not we’ll wait, the question is whether we will wait well.  Our response to God in the waiting….in the space between….in the mean time….determines whether we experience significant growth in our life or whether we enter into a season of spiritual decline.  {Our response to God in the waiting determines whether we experience significant growth or spiritual decline.} My guess is you’ve probably experienced both in your life, haven’t you?  Times when you’ve been waiting (maybe it was with your kids or a job) and you grew more bitter and anxious and worried and there was just some angst in you and the space between sort of just ate you alive.  You would say yeah, yeah, yeah, no, that’s possible, Ryan, for decline—spiritually, emotionally, our health, in every way, shape and form to happen.  Then, if I also did a straw poll and asked you to raise your hand…have you seen God move and have you seen God work in the mean time, in the waiting…my guess is so many of you would raise your hand and say oh yeah, that’s when God started to birth a new dream in me.  That’s when God started to meet me in the pain and in the questions.  That’s when I started to actually hear His voice like I never had before.  You see, the question in life is not primarily or only what happens TO us, the question is how do we RESPOND to what happens to us.  How do we respond to the space between where we are and where we would love to be.  Everyone waits, but not everyone waits well.

God does some of his best work in the waiting.  As you read through the Scriptures, the people of God are distinctly people who have to learn, who are forced to learn how to wait on God.  Abraham, the great patriarch of the faith, receives a promise from God that he’s going to be the father of many nations.  He receives that promise at the age of 75.  He becomes a father at the age of 100!  That’s a little bit of a wait.  David is anointed as the next king of Israel at the age of 15-16.  It’s not until the age of about 30 that he actually takes the crown. Roughly 15 years for David, in between the reality and the desire….the promise and the provision.  In that space between, God develops him, God grows him, God makes him into the type of man that they would want to have as king.  He has a work to do.  I don’t know what you’re walking through in life today.  I don’t know what type of waiting you’re involved in, what space lies between the reality and the desire.  I only know that God does not waste the waiting!  In fact, here’s the way that John Ortberg, the great pastor and author, puts it: “Waiting is not just something we have to do until we get what we want.  Waiting is part of the process of becoming what (or who) God wants us to be.”

The prophet Isaiah would say it like this: They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…(Isa. 40:31)  In the space between, there’s a strength that’s built.  There’s a fortitude that develops.  There’s a character that starts to take hold in our life and we would love to hit fast forward in between reality and zoom to desire, wouldn’t we? But Isaiah says no, that’s not the way it works.  As you’re waiting, one of the ways you wait well is by holding on and in that holding on God strengthens you and develops you and makes you into the type of people He is inviting you to become.  What are you waiting for?  What’s the space between in your life right now—-the desire and the reality.  Wouldn’t it be great if the Scriptures taught us how to be people who wait well?  I agree, it would.  And you’re in luck!  Psalm 130 is all about how to be people who not just wait, but who wait well.

I just want to point out four things in this passage for you this morning, in how to become people who wait well. Psalm 130:1-2 — Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!  O Lord, hear my voice!  Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!  Here’s what the psalmist is saying.  The space I inhabit right now is a space of pain, is a space of affliction and is a space of unmet desire.  So, God, since you’re my God, you’re going to hear about it.  He even goes so far as to say (or to write) would you be attentive to me.  Have you ever felt like, in the midst of walking through the space between, God was just silent?  That he was distant.  That he was uninterested.  The psalmist can relate to you.  He gets it and is so bold as to say back to the King of kings and the Lord of lords, “Let your ears be attentive!  Come on!”  Can you be that honest with God?  You and I will never navigate the space between well if we are not able to be honest with God about the deepest pains, the deepest desires and the deepest cries of our soul.  Here’s what we do:  first, we express ourselves honestly. He cries out!  When was the last time you did that?  {We (Kelly and I) have three young kids which means somebody in my house is ALWAYS crying out.  Sometimes it’s even the kids!}  Just that honest desire of going back to God—God, I long for this.  Here’s the hard part about honestly crying out:  It’s allowing ourselves to honestly feel the deeps of the emotion that are stirring in our soul.  When we are in the space between, where reality and desire do not come together and do not meet, isn’t it easier to just sort of ignore that, rationalize it, fantasize about what’s coming next, but really, in a way, try to push back reality?  What if we learned, first and foremost, with God how to be just unfiltered honest?  {Ryan intros a clip from the movie Liar, Liar with Jim Carey.  Jim Carey’s character is unable to tell a lie.}  What if we were that honest with God?  “Is that all?”  Actually no, God, it’s not.  There’s more going on.

Here’s why honesty is so important, especially when it comes to our interaction with God.  Here’s why it’s so powerful:  because it begins the dialogue that we would often times rather distance ourselves from.  Even when it’s negative, even when it hurts, even when it’s painful.  God says I love the dialogue.  Listen to Moses, one of the great leaders of the nation of Israel as he’s leading them through the desert, wandering.  Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant?  And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? {He’s like God, I don’t get it.  Why are you messing with me?  Why aren’t you showing up?}  I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me.  If you will treat me like this, kill me at once…  {How’s that for brutal honesty?!  If this is the way you want to deal with me, God, just take me down!} ..if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (Numbers 11:11, 14-15) That’s an honest prayer, is it not?  You’ll have a hard time making it through the Psalms without seeing the psalmist just go God, I’m a mess and I need you to show up.  We’ll never navigate the space between unless we’re honest with God, because honesty opens the dialogue, it deepens the intimacy.  Inviting somebody into your pain is one of the best ways to deepen intimacy with them.  So the psalmist says back to God, “God, I long to know you.  I long to hear your voice, so I’ve got to be honest with you.”  Not only that, but it’s the way, this honest declaration back to God, an invitation into our pain, that God meets us and provides for us.  Listen to Psalm 40:1-3 — I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.  He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.  He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.  I waited….I cried out honestly and he heard me.  If we’re going to navigate the space between, the first thing we’ve got to do is express honestly our heart, our soul, our thoughts, our feelings to God.

The psalmist continues in Psalm 130:3-4 — If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.  The psalmist is going to a place that you and I will often go when we’re in the space between.  We’ll start to think, “Alright, am I walking this road, am I waiting because it’s me?  God, are you upset with me?  God, are you angry with me?  God, I grew up in a household where one of the methods of getting what we wanted was giving people the cold shoulder.  God, is that the game you play?” The psalmist wants to cut that off at the pass and declare unequivocally, so clear, no, that is not the way that God plays games.  Oftentimes, we think God has turned his back on us because of some of the sin in our life, because of the things that we’re walking through, because of some of the decisions that we’ve made, so we’ll rationalize…..the space between is a space where I need to get my act together.  Or, in order to get God’s attention, I’ve got to perform and I’ve got to do something and I’ve got to some how stir up these good deeds in me in order for God to turn back towards me and be back in relationship with me.  Our thought is listen, I’m in this space because God, you’re giving me the cold shoulder.  Immediately as he starts to think that, he goes no, no, no, no, no, that’s not the way my God works.  In fact, He washes us in the truth of the gospel.  Listen to what he says:  If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?   {It’s a rhetorical question, because the answer is…no one!  It’s….God, you’ve been ridiculously good to us.}  But with you there is forgiveness…

In 1738, John Wesley, one of the great founders of the Methodist movement, was singing this Psalm in England. As he sang it, something in his heart just awakened to life and for the first time, he really understood the gospel.  Not that you fill the gap in the space between, but that God does.  So, whatever situation you’re waiting in, can I encourage you not only to express yourself honestly, but to acknowledge forgiveness consistently.  This is something we need to let wash over our lives on a daily basis.  The truth of the matter is that God is NOT silent or giving you the cold shoulder; the truth of the matter is NOT that he’s sort of just waiting for you to clean up your act so that you can be back in relationship with him; the truth of the matter IS that so much of the time in the waiting, God is pursuing us and we’re the ones with our backs turned towards him.  This sometimes looks like…alright, I’m going work my way out of this situation and God, I’m going to try my best to get back on good terms with you.  We run in contrary to the rhythms of the gospel when we think that it’s about what WE can do, instead of what Jesus has done.  The way God responds to us in those times is by coming and meeting us face-to-face.  That’s the gospel, friends!  Paul writing to his friend, Titus, says it like this:  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us {We didn’t close the gap between reality and desire.  He did!} in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:4-5)  Man!  Tim Keller says it like this:  “For indeed, grace is the key to it all. {In the harvest and in the desert…and everywhere in between.} It is not our lavish good deeds that procure salvation, but God’s lavish love and mercy.”  That’s what does it.  So, friends, if your view of God is that he’s angry with you, that he’s giving you the cold shoulder, that he’s waiting for you to clean up your act before you can be back in relationship with him, can I assure you that is probably some religion.  In fact, it’s most religions, but it is NOT Christianity!  Christianity is that God pursues you, even at your depths.  That is the ONLY way we can explain the life of Jesus.

So the psalmist says: But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.  As you first read that, my guess is, like me, you sort of take a step back and go, “Well, I didn’t think forgiveness should stimulate FEAR!” In that we see that if you do a word study of “fear” throughout the Scriptures, there’s a number of different ways that it’s used.  In this case, it’s not that we should be afraid of God, as if we cower in fear not wanting to be in relationship, the relationship that He has purchased for us.  No.  In this case, fear is in awe and reverential worship in light of the fact that we are forgiven by Him.  That’s what it is.  Are you under the false impression that God is mad at you?  That He’s angry?  That He’s playing games?  That He’s giving you the cold shoulder?  I can assure, the psalmist wants to edge that off at the pass.

Express yourself honestly.  Acknowledge forgiveness consistently.  Listen to where he goes (Psalm 130:5-6) — I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.  If you were to ask, Paulson, what’s the deal?  How are we suppose to actively wait?  What’s our part in that?  I know we cry out and I know we remember that we’re forgiven and that there’s no gap between us and God, but what are we suppose to do?  The psalmist paints this picture of watchmen.  Watchmen were people that would sit on the walls of a city.  They would look out and declare to the city, to the army, to the kings, that there’s another army coming and they’re going to attack us. They were people who helped the nation of Israel, or whoever’s walls they sat on, be prepared.  I would say this back to you, if you’re in the season of waiting, take the disposition of a watchman.  Here’s the trouble with being a watchman.  The watchman gets to sit and they get to look and they get to wait and they anticipate what comes, but they do not get to control what comes.  They get to say hey, there’s an army at the gates, but they don’t get to create the army and they don’t get to initiate the counterattack, but they’re typically not a part of it.  What the psalmist would say is that’s how waiting feels sometimes.

That’s the disposition that we’re invited to take.  That waiting + watching = hope.  So we watch.  We watch patiently for God to show up. I don’t know about you, but my tendency is far more control than watch.  My tendency, especially in the space between, is I’m going to go out and I’m going to make it happen.  The psalmist says it’s way more like sitting on a wall and watching and anticipating and being alert, instead of feeling like you’ve got to make it happen.  Waiting and hoping does not mean we do nothing.  It means that we go about whatever our daily assigned tasks are….our jobs, our homes, our vocations….confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions.  That’s what it means.  It means that we act with confident expectation that our God is on the move and that he is at work.  Here’s the way that the great pastor and author Eugene Peterson puts it:  “The Christian’s waiting and watching — this is, hoping — is based on the conviction that God is actively involved in his creation and vigorously at work in redemption.”  So if this is the space you’re in, the space between, this morning, can I encourage you to be alert.  God is on the move!!

Here’s how the psalmist ends:  O Israel, hope in the Lord!  For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.  {That word redemption, in the Hebrew, carries with it the picture of somebody walking through a slave market and purchasing back a slave and giving them their freedom.  He goes God is on the move, hope in the Lord, trust in his love.}  And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.   Here you get this picture:  Cry out to God.  Remember that you’re forgiven.  Take the disposition of a watchmen and wait with expectation and confidence.  And as you wait in the space between, for those who follow the way of God, those who know God, this space is definitively covered by his love.  If we lose sight of that, we lose sight of the hope that allows us to continue to push forward in the midst of the space between reality and desire.  So, friends, express yourself honestly to God.  Acknowledge your forgiveness consistently.  Watch with confident expectation.  And rest in His love confidently.  {Will you look up at me for just a second?}  When you’re in this space and it’s so hard to see God’s hand….and there’s sometimes some significant and prevalent darkness that covers the space that we inhabit, isn’t there?  The reality of a lost love, the reality of a lost loved one, the reality of an unmet expectation and the reality that it may never come to fruition in the way that you want. Sometimes it is so hard to see God’s hand, is it not?  The psalmist would say to us is simply this:  when you cannot see God’s hand, trust God’s heart!  He’s good—we’ve sung it this morning.  He loves you.  He’s for you. He’s purchased the way of redemption.  Jesus would invite His followers to live like this:  As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Abide in my love. (John 15:9)   Remain in my love.  If you were to look at the Greek, it’s literally ‘make your home in my love.’  Wrap yourself up in Him!  In the in-between, in the space between, in the waiting, wrap yourself up in the love of God, so that everything that comes into your life, friends, if you’re a follower of Jesus, needs to come through the lens of the cross.  It means that whatever God allows to come into my life, we have to see it through….well, first and foremost He died for me.  First and foremost, He gave his life for me.  First and foremost, He forgave me.  First and foremost, He entered humanity, put on skin and bone in order to purchase my life!  Whatever comes at me in the space between comes at me through the lens of the cross.  So I can abide in his love.  I can walk in his love.  I can be confident resting in the fact that He’s for me and He’s good.

I don’t know what it is what you’re walking through this morning, I don’t know the space between for you, but I know there probably is one.  So my question back to you is:  What are you waiting for? ______________________ Maybe you’re waiting for the reawakening of joy in your life.  Maybe you’re waiting for the reawakening of hope. Maybe it’s a relationship you initiated to try to bring about some redemption in and to bring back some restoration; you’re sort of just waiting to see how the other person responds to that.  Maybe it’s the space between school and graduation, work and retirement.  What are you waiting for?  All of us will wait.  The question isn’t whether or not we’ll wait, the question is whether or not we will wait well.  Because in seasons of waiting, you either will enter into a season of significant growth, where life flourishes, or spiritual decline and you start to have a hard time hearing God, seeing God, trusting God.  South Fellowship, I want more for you! Will you be the type of people who don’t just endure, but who wait on God well?!

We had the chance to go to the beach on vacation.  We went four times and on the third day, my son Ethan was getting pretty courageous—you might read ‘stupid.’    He started to go out farther and farther and farther (away from shore).  He eventually got to where the ocean had this flat area where the waves were breaking and then dropped off really deep in this one area.  He accidentally stepped off that ledge he couldn’t see.  I was playing with Avery close to shore.  Ethan starts treading water.  I looked out to him and I see his face and his eyes are as big as saucers!  He yelled to me, “Help, dad!!!”  I start walking out to try to help him and he’s panicking.  I dove in and swam out there and grabbed him and said, “I’ve got you, buddy! I’ve got you!”  He says to me, “Dad, I was so scared.”  I think that’s the way so many of us live in the in-between.  I’m so scared.  God, am I going to make it or am I going to drown here?  I want to tell you this morning, you have a heavenly Father who says, “I see you and I care and I’m coming for you!”  Let’s pray.

Jesus, this morning, we just collectively cry out.  There’s things going on in all of our lives and you know exactly what it is.  Would you meet us in this space?  Would you allow us to shed the pretense and just present ourselves honest before you?  It may mean that we cry out in worry, fear, disappointment.  It may mean that we just open our hearts and express back the joy that you’ve given us, spoken over our lives.  Would you help us to be people that are honest with you and with each other.  Jesus, in those moments where we’re walking through difficult situations in life and our initial thought is God must be mad at me, he must be punishing me, he must be distant, he must be giving me the cold shoulder for some reason, would you remind us of the extent that you went to to purchase us back?  That forgiveness is ours in you, thank you.  God, as we inevitably walk through these seasons, remind us that you’re active, that you’re moving.  Give us eyes to see.  Lord, when we can’t see your hand, would you allow us to trust your heart?  It’s in the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Waiting Psalm 1302020-08-20T13:18:09-06:00

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Perseverance Psalm 129


PSALMS OF ASCENT: Perseverance  Psalm 129

Well, we’re over a week in now, which means many of us are suffering from sleep deprivation.  Talking, of course, about the Olympics.  Anybody else?  Week plus in and you’ve stayed up way too late watching sports that in a week you won’t care about!  I noticed that I’m spoiled; I don’t even want to watch the qualifying races, I just want to watch the medal races.  I also want to know ahead of time if we win, because I don’t want to watch it if we didn’t win.  I’m spoiled!  There’s been one story though…..I love the way NBC weaves in these human interest stories throughout the competition.  One of those stories that stood out to me this year is the story of the Refugee Team that’s competing.  A team of essentially homeless Olympians from different parts of the globe, but parts of the globe where, because of the strife that’s going on in their own country, they’ve had to flee.  A number of them joined together as a team of refugees competing in the Olympics.  One of those refugees is Yursa Mardini.  She grew up as an Olympian swimmer from Damascus and part of Syria.  She was training in pools where there were three or four holes where bombs had blown into the roof of the building where she was training.  She had to flee from Syria.  She traveled through Lebanon to Turkey and then left Turkey and was trying to get to Greece when the boat she was in—-a little dinghy with 20 people in it, designed for six people—-had the engine fail about 30 minutes from shore.  This young, eighteen-year-old (Yursa Mardini) jumps in the water with three other people and ties ropes around her waist and legs and starts swimming.  For three-and-a-half hours she swims.  They eventually get the boat to shore and save all 20 lives.

Can you imagine standing around the Olympic Village and someone telling you, “Yeah, it was a really long road to get here.”  If you’re Yursa……tell me more about that!  Well, I trained with top-notch trainers and coaches….   She’s like well, I’ve been homeless and running from my own country.  I swam for three-and-a-half hours, how’d you train?  (Right?)  When she got to shore in Lesbos, she traveled to Macedonia, to Serbia, to Hungary, to Austria, then finally made it to Germany where she finally had some time to train for the Olympics. Can you imagine?  So we hear a story like hers and our hearts sort of go out to her…..

As human beings, we love stories of perseverance, don’t we?  We love stories like Yursa’s where she just didn’t give up.  Where everything in her would have said just call it, give up….at least give up on the Olympic dream. Your dream now should be having a country you can call “home” and having a normal life and a normal family. There’s something in the human spirit, isn’t there, where we just absolutely relate to and we love stories of perseverance.  Stories where people just simply refuse to give up and against all odds they keep going and they make it.  It’s this universally admired and needed characteristic, isn’t it?  It’s not just in athletics or in the Olympics.  It’s in every phase of life.  It’s needed.  In athletics it’s needed.   I love how Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all times, puts it:  “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost more than 300 games.  Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the winning shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again.  And that is what makes me great.”  Don’t you love that?  We think greatness comes because of success, but he would say no, no, no, no, no, my greatness was birthed in my failure, not in my successes.  It’s true in athletics.  It’s true in business.  Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, is quoted as saying: “I’m convinced that half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”  The ability to keep going when it seems like all hope is lost.  That ridiculous “I’m going to keep at this when it seems like nothing is going right.”  It’s true in athletics.  It’s true in business.  It’s true in life. Maya Angelou, the great author and poet, says it like this: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must never be defeated.  In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so that you know who who are, what you can rise from, and how you can still come out of it.”

If you were to do a word study of ‘perseverance’ in the New Testament and look at the Greek word that’s associated with it, it literally means “to remain under the weight of.”    To remain under the weight of something.  Let’s be honest this morning, none of us goes, “Oh, yeah, that sounds fun.”  If there was a perseverance course and active participation was necessary, we wouldn’t sign up, would we?  It’s why God brings it into our life uninvited.  He knows that we need it and He knows that we hate it.  We hate that we need it! But it’s something in us.  Perseverance is more than just making it through a difficult situation.  It’s more than just surviving.  I’ve had people come into my office or grab me after a service and say, “Hey, we’ve walked through this (health) issue…..  Or our company just absolutely failed….  Or the marriage ended in divorce….” And they say to me, “I couldn’t have made it without God!”  I’ll think to myself, “Well, sure you could have.” People make it without God every day!!!   Do you ever hear people say that and go, “Well, what were your other options?!”  Here’s what we often mean by that — I would not have made it without God in a way where my life was flourishing and beautiful and good.  Perseverance doesn’t just mean you make it through.  It means that you make it through with your humanity and your hope and your joy and the goodness within you intact.  You can make it through and become bitter and jaded.  We see this happen all the time.  People make it through really terrible situations, but what happens inside of their soul is that something dies.  What happens inside of their soul is something that makes you not want to be around them any more.  They made it through, but sometimes we wish they wouldn’t have!  

So what does it look like to be the type of people who walk with God in such a way that we can say that thing that I encountered didn’t destroy me, it actually shaped me.  It didn’t take me down, it actually built me up. What does THAT look like?  Psalm 129 is going to paint a picture of what that looks like.  We’re in a series this summer where we’re walking through a selected portion of the Psalms of Ascent, which are Psalms 120-134. This great section in the Psalms that Eugene Peterson affectionately refers to as the “Hebrew’s dog-eared song book.” They were songs that they sang on their way up to Jerusalem celebrating any of the three pilgrim feasts that they celebrated annually.  They would sing along the way.  It’s sort of like a backpacking trip turned into a musical.  This is one of the songs that they sang.  “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”—-let Israel now say—-“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.  The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows.”  The Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.  May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward!  Let them be like the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up, with which the reaper does not fill his hand nor the binder of sheaves his arms, nor do those who pass by say, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you!  We bless you in the name of the Lord!”  

In verse two, you get the thesis of this psalm.  You get, in a nutshell, what this psalm is all about.  Listen to what the psalmist writes:  Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth—-let Israel now say—-Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, YET  {If you have your own Bible, circle that word.} they have not prevailed against me.   What a great picture, what a great line, what a great truth!  This word ‘affliction’ in the Hebrew means “to squeeze or to cramp or to stress.”  It’s the picture of taking something (taking a life, in this case) and just pressing on it and boiling it down and…..   You’ve had this happen to you, haven’t you?  You’ve walked through a situation in your life where you’ve felt like “I don’t think I can take any more.”  When the Hebrew people talk about being afflicted, they’re talking about 400 years in slavery to the Egyptians.  They were PRESSED like the humanity was trying to be squeezed out of them.  They’re talking about 70 years of Babylonian captivity, ripped away from their homes, taken away from their culture and everything they held dear.  They’re talking about being pressed and squished.  For us—-we could fill in that afflicted blank in a lot of different ways, couldn’t we?   Man, through no fault of my own, I lost the job….  The relationship—it crumbled.  Or, I made some really bad decisions and now I’m in the place that I’m in and I’m feeling a little bit squished and pressed….  Anybody want to go yeah, that’s my life this morning?

Affliction always does something in us—-this pressing.  It always stirs something in us.  It either creates hostility…..and you’ve met people where this has been the case.  They walk through something difficult and you don’t want to be around them, because it did something in their soul.  It hardened them in such a way that they’re not who they used to be.  Affliction either births in you and I hostility or hope.  But never both.  One of the questions the psalmist wants us to wrestle with is — listen, we all walk through affliction, but do we walk through affliction with the ‘YET it hasn’t overcome me’, it hasn’t defined me, it hasn’t shaped me in a negative way.  In fact, the really difficult thing that I walked through bore in me something that I could never have gotten otherwise.  Listen to the way the Apostle Paul says it to the church at Rome:  Not only that, but we rejoice {This is one of those crazy passages in the Bible where you read it and go there’s no way, until you practice it and then you go yeah, that happens.} ….in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance (or perseverance), and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame. (Romans 5: 3-5)   There’s a way to walk through affliction where you end up coming out the other side making it but feeling absolutely dead inside.  And then there’s a way to walk through affliction where actually the thing you walk through starts to create a deeper level of humanity within your soul.  The author of these Scriptures would say that’s character, that’s hope.  That’s what the psalmist is talking about.  Perseverance through pain.  So not just making it through, but making it through with God.

Perseverance through pain has this ability to turn any circumstance that wants to crush us and squeeze us down to birth life in us, to birth hope in us.  Perseverance through pain turns affliction into expansion.  It births something new in our soul, something that wouldn’t have come otherwise.  Friends, the pain that you are walking through (or have walked through) is producing something within you.  It may sound like somebody saying to you, I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but I knew that my Good Shepherd was with me and I didn’t set up camp in that valley.  It might sound like, listen, the pain that I experienced in life did not define my existence.  It might sound like, I didn’t know what to do, but I kept going and I kept trusting and I kept walking with my God.  It might sound {Ryan sings} I’m a survivor, I’m gonna make it…..  Destiny’s Child.  Anyone?  No?  {Know your audience, Paulson.}  Perseverance is this sign of maturity in our faith, isn’t it? My kids are starting to develop perseverance at the age of seven, but I can tell you that they have very little of it.  They meet the slightest bit of pushback, the slightest bit of affliction—which is defined by my Legos won’t go together the way that I think they should and I’ve followed every direction and it’s not turning out right and so I’m done!  Perseverance is the sign of maturity, but I think we’re raising a generation of people who, at the first sign of pushback, just tap out.  

What does it look like to become people who walk this pathway of affliction, not just to make it through, but to flourish?  How do we become people of perseverance, where the pain that afflicts us does not overtake us in any way, shape or form?  Not just overtake us, but squelching out everything within us that it means to be human?  I’m glad you asked that.  Luckily for us, Psalm 129 invites us in to how we walk the pathway of perseverance.  I want to point out three things from this passage for you this morning, where we can go hey, we don’t just want to be people who make it; we want to be people who make it with vitality and make it with life. Listen to what the psalmist says (verse 1):   Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth {They’ve squeezed me, they’ve pressed.} ….let Israel now say—“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.  The plowers plowed upon my back; {This is a picture of them being in slavery and being beaten down and being whipped.}  …they made long their furrows.”  The Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.    He points back and says, “Let Israel NOW say…..”   Can imagine you walking along…..you’re on this journey, this pilgrimage, to Jerusalem to celebrate one of these feasts and somebody opens to Psalm 129 and says alright, guys, now we’re going to sing.  It’s almost this liturgical call and response where the worship leader will say alright, we’re going to dive back into the story of when we were a persecuted people.  We’re going to dive back into the story of slavery, we’re going to dive back into the story of exile, and we’re going to remind ourselves along the way that the storm was never the end of the story and that God was gracious and that God was good.  But he goes, hey, let Israel now say, let them raise their voice, let them declare what’s true, let them call out the depths of pain of the affliction that they walked through.  

It’s in this that we start to see one of the aspects of how we become people who persevere.  We do not become people who persevere by holding everything down inside, gritting our teeth and making it.  We become people who persevere by being people who share our story.  So Israel not only recounts it on a corporate level, they recount it on a personal level.  They give voice to the affliction.  In giving voice to the affliction, they often weaken the power of the pain.  When they speak it out, what’s inside of them and holding them captive starts to lose its power.  Perseverance doesn’t mean we bury our head in the sand and ignore all the pain and all the hardship and all the trials.  That’s not what it means.  Perseverance means that we walk with God in a way that’s deeply and sometimes painfully honest.  We share our story.  We embrace reality.  In a way, those who have no voice, those who have no ability to speak up and say this is wrong and this is what was done to me and this is what I’ve walked through….people who have no voice oftentimes have no hope.  So there is beautiful power in simply speaking out—-this is what I walked through, this is the pain I felt, and this is the way I thought I was going to be unable to make it.  That happens on a personal level for all of us.  You read through the story of the gospels—-one of the things I love about Jesus the Messiah is that He always had room for people’s stories, especially stories that were painful.  He had this unique ability to draw it out—–tell me more about how you, woman at the well, have had five husbands.  Come here at noon, in the heat of the day; ostracized from your community, tell me more about your story of affliction.  Not with a judgmental ‘well, you probably shouldn’t have married so many guys’, but with a meeting her in the pain and in the sorrow.

Friends, if we cannot appreciate and listen to the story of the oppressed and the afflicted, we create space for the afflicter and the oppressor.  If we don’t say to people, “It’s a safe place to tell your story,” we tell everybody you’ve got to keep the reality and the truth buried.  You know what happens when people bury the reality and the truth?  It kills them!  68% of sexual abuse victims say NOTHING!  Because they’ve been told it’s not a safe place to tell your story.  It’s why so many people walk around with so many deep pains.  It’s because they haven’t found somebody that will listen to them without a judgmental ear…..and validate their humanity.  Let Israel say —– it’s this declaration!  What’s buried underneath needs to come out, because if you keep it buried it continues to have power, but if you speak about it the chains start to fall off.  Not only personally, but also corporately.  We want to be the type of people who say listen, tell your story…..because your story may be the key that unlocks somebody else’s prison.  So we listen to people’s stories, not only personally but corporately. {Will you look up at me for just a second.}  We are entering into a season nationally, where, as the church, we need to get better at listening to the stories of the afflicted.  Without judging, without saying well, you should have or you could have or you didn’t…..  We need to get better at saying we want to hear what the corporate story is that you live within and we want to validate its reality within you.  So I’m going to throw that out to you—-how do we do that as a church?  How do we create space to tell the story, because the story helps us sustain and the story helps shape us and the story eventually gives us hope to not stop.  When they retell this story, they remind each other we can’t stop.  God’s with us!  God was with us in slavery for 400 years and sure, it felt painful.  And He was with for 70 years in exile and we didn’t think we were going to make it.  But our God was good and He provided.

Maybe it just starts by sharing your story in a journal.  Just getting it out of you.  Maybe it’s sharing your story with a skilled, good counselor—-which I could not recommend more, by the way.  It’s been a huge help to me in my journey.  Maybe it’s sharing your story with a friend.  Maybe it’s sharing your story at Celebrate Recovery….with a bunch of people who go, “Me, too!”  But how do we get what’s in us out?  That’s the first thing Israel does.  If they’re going to walk with God, they’ve got to be people who say, “Let Israel now say so.  They’ve afflicted me from my youth!”  When I say it, it not only validates it, but it helps me admit this is what happened. 

Verse 5:  May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward!  This is one of those psalms where you read it and go hmmm, I’m not sure I like it.  Or you read it and go, well, that doesn’t sound like the good Christian thing to do.  Which just shows us we haven’t read the Psalms all that much, because there’s a ton of, what they call, imprecatory Psalms.  Imprecatory means a calling out to God for justice, a calling out to God for vengeance, a calling out…hey, God, you see everything.  You know this was wrong, why don’t you do something about it.  Come on!  One of my favorite ones is Psalm 58:6-8 — O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!  Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.  Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.   Can you imagine having a coffee cup with THAT verse on it?!   Or a tattoo of Psalm 58 all the way down the arm?!  Wow!  Vicious!  It’s like settle down!  We’re suppose to love our enemies.  What do we do when we hate our enemies?  We’re suppose to forgive, but what happens when we have a hard time forgiving?  We’re suppose to fill-in-the-blank, but oftentimes our realities and our “oughts” are very different, are they not?

Walter Brueggemann, the great Old Testament scholar, points out—-and this is just beautiful and so intuitive: “When we read the imprecatory psalms as followers of Jesus, New Covenant Christians, we often don’t know what to do with them.”  Let’s just ignore that psalm and try to put it away, because it’s a little bit embarrassing. But the psalmist is simply pointing out what is real.  And you have three options when you find yourself in the psalmist’s situation.  You can act out on the vengeance that you feel in your heart and your soul.  You can go listen, not only, God, do I want you to break the teeth of those who oppose me, but I’M going to break the teeth of those who oppose me.  That’s an option.  Now this is the coping mechanism of the American church right now:  You can bury this down and go, “Well, it’s not really there.  I don’t feel that way.”  Even if we DO feel that way, we just ignore it, deny it, hope it goes away.  It won’t go away.  What it will do is come out in other ways. What we’ll find ourselves doing is exploding on people around us and people we love and people we feel safe with….they’ll get the brunt of what’s really inside of us.  So what’s the third option?  The third option is what the imprecatory psalms…..Psalm 129 included….we honestly share with God, “God, this is what’s in me and I trust you to do what’s right.”  You can act on it, you can bury it or you can dig it out and you can surrender it. Part of the pathway of perseverance means that you and I become people who surrender things readily to God and examine our own hearts and souls to honestly say, “This is in me.  God, I don’t like it, but I’m going to put it out on the table.  I’m going to be honest with it and I’m going to put it in front of you and trust that you are a God who will do with it as you see fit, but I can’t keep it in me.”

Isn’t it great to know that we don’t have to hide and play games with God and pretend like the ugly places of our soul are not there?  Listen:  Break their teeth, God!!  That’s what I’d like to see, but…..   But, but, but I’ll trust you.  It’s what David does in Psalm 73 in a beautiful, masterful way.  In Psalm 73:2-3, really the whole first half of this Psalm, he just expresses anger.  He says: {God}…my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.  For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw prosperity of the wicked.  He’s like God, I looked all around me and I’m doing my best to follow the way of Yahweh, to be a person of faith, and yet, I look all around me and it seems like the wicked prosper.  He expresses God, I’m just angry with you.  Then in the same Psalm, verses 21-22, he says:  When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.   So he goes from anger to awareness — Oh man, Lord, something got ahold of me. I don’t know exactly what it was and the situation he was walking through exactly.  You could read through his story and there’s a ton of them. But he expresses his anger, he comes to this awareness of wow, I really was going at it, wasn’t I, God?  Then at the end of the Psalm (verse 28):   But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.  I’ve surrendered it!   {Will you look up at me just a moment.}  Is there anything that you’re ignoring, instead of surrendering?  Is there anything you’re acting out on, instead of handing over?  One of the things the Psalms would invite us to do is to be honest with the deepest places of our souls and then go to God in conversation, to tell God, and then to trust God.  That’s what the Psalm does.  That’s the song that they sing.

Listen to the way it ends.  In verse 4, he says: God, you’ve cut the cords of the wicked ….. Let them be like the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up…   {In Israel at this time, when they would plant a field, they would often scatter seed, but there were times where the wind would take that seed and it would blow it up on the rooftops that were made of dirt and adobe.  Some of those seeds would take root on the rooftops, but they would never grow to fruition.  They wouldn’t grow to be a harvestable field in any way, shape or form.  So he’s referring to that.}  …with which the reaper does not fill his hand nor the binder of sheaves his arms, nor do those who pass by say, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you!”   So he goes hey, when the wicked, when the people who are evil and antagonistic against us, when they’re trying to harvest the crop that’s come from the seed that they’ve planted, they come up conspicuously empty.  That’s what happens.  And he says that nobody says to them, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you,” which was a greeting Israel would give to other Israelites during the harvest.  They would be harvesting and they would look at the harvest of the field and go man, God’s hand is all over you, it’s obvious.

Here’s what the psalmist wants to invite us into—-not only to share our story and to examine our hearts, but then to look out and to recognize that there’s an ultimate reality that is deeper than what I see on the surface and the circumstance.  The wicked doesn’t prosper.  Evil doesn’t win.  Hate does not overpower love.  Darkness does not drive out light.  Oftentimes when we’re walking through those situations in life that have squeezed us and that necessitate our perseverance, it can seem like the wicked are prospering.  And it can seem like evil’s going to win.  And it can seem like everything we hope for is vanishing with the wind.  The psalmist says that’s not the case.  Three realities I want to point out:  1) There’s no harvest for the wicked, ultimately.  He says listen, you try to gather up your fields….no, no, no, no, no, the fruit of their life is obvious and it’s empty. That’s his point and you could miss it in the midst of “well, it seems like they’re prospering.”  He goes just step back.  An example would be if you’ve ever watched one of those ISIS types of propaganda videos.  Nobody watches those and goes You know what?  I think they’re filled with a little bit of joy!  There’s a lot of love there!  You go through the fruit of the Spirit and you see it’s absent on every level.  On the opposite (view), the Scriptures would say: Now the works of the flesh are evident (Gal. 5:19).  It’s obvious.  That’s reality number one.

Reality #2:  God is faithful to his people.  Oftentimes we have such a short-sighted view, we can’t see it because we want God to come through RIGHT NOW and He doesn’t work on our timeline sometimes.  So they step back into a story where they were slaves for 400 years, but God came through.  They step back into a story where they were in exile for 70 years, but God came through.  We need to step back from our circumstances to see the faithful hand of God, that’s an ultimate reality, friends.

Third reality:  There is a joy set before you that cannot compete with the circumstances that stand against you. That’s true!  The joy that’s set before us has the ability to determine the hope that is in us.  So how do we become the type of people in any situation we walk through, even if it’s one where we feel like we’re being squished down.  Where we feel….my goal here is not just to survive, because I can survive without God and you can survive without God and you can make it through, people do every single day.  But what does it look like to be the type of people who say I’m not just going to survive, but, God, by your grace, I’m going to thrive, I’m going to flourish.  I’m going to allow the affliction that stands against to develop and expand the hope that’s within me!  Because THAT’S the invitation, that’s the call.

The Scriptures are clear that the method for our perseverance, for your perseverance and mine…..    So you go, alright, Paulson, share my story, examine my heart….I get it, I’m with you.  Acknowledge ultimate reality, I get it.  But how do I really DO it?  The Scriptures will say here’s how you do it:  You endure, or you persevere, by looking to Jesus.  He’s our focus, he’s our goal.  That’s how we do it, we chase after him.  We keep our eyes on him. (Heb. 12:1-2)  The Scriptures promise that there is a clear reward or promise for those who endure.  He says endure so that when you’ve done the will of God you will receive what is promised to you. (Heb. 10:35-36) So we focus on Jesus; we remember God, there is goodness waiting for me—-that’s my ultimate reality.  Notice how this passage of Scripture ends (Psalm 129:8b):  Let Israel say, I’ve been afflicted from my youth ….. Let us be the blessing of God.  You’ve seen this happen, where people walk through affliction and either become hostile or they become hopeful.  And the people that become hopeful become people that the world is attracted to, that you’re attracted, that we can’t get enough of.  Why?  Because the things that were in our corner, as far as pain and affliction and hurt, were transformed by God into blessing.  What happens as wepersevere is that is positions us to extend the blessing of God.  We all want to be people who receive blessing and who give blessing, but the reality is that the capacity for blessing is often formed in the furnace.

I read a phenomenal book this week called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a doctor who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for three years.  He writes from a psychological stand point wanting to find out why some people are able to continue to walk with hope and why some people are giving up on life.  He has this beautiful explanation, exposition, of how that happens and why that happens and how it happens for us, but he says in his writings: “What is to give light must endure burning.”  That’s the perspective, as followers of Jesus, we walk into.  Not God, I want to make it.  But, God, I want to make it with a light.  I want to make it with hope and I want to make it with something deeply human within me that I can give to the world around me.  Friends, if God brings you TO it, He promises to bring you THROUGH it.  Let’s pray!

Let’s pray.  As we get ready to wrap up and go, what are you walking through right now that you would say back to God….God, maybe you’re inviting me share my share or examine my heart or see a deeper reality that’s all around me.  Because I, like you, want to be a person of perseverance.  Father, our prayer all across this place and all these chairs and all these rows this morning would be would you create that within us.  All of us need it, none of us want to develop it.  Lord, by your grace and by your Spirit, would you help us walk that pathway of perseverance?  There’s a story within us to share, would you help us find safe people and safe places to share it? God, there’s things within our heart we need to search out, we need You to search out and draw up and things we need to surrender and trust you with, would you show us what those are?  Jesus, would you open our eyes to the deeper reality of the wicked not prospering, of joy that’s set before us, and a God that is faithful in every generation?  Lord, we’ll do our best to walk with you, for our joy and for your glory and for the good of your world.  It’s in your name that we pray.  Amen.

 

 

I was a college pastor for five years before the Lord led Kelly and I back to Colorado to pastor this church.  As a college pastor I would walk onto college campuses and had the chance every single week to engage college students with questions about faith.  I started to hear this resound that echoed off of university campuses all across southern California.  It was this resound:  I used to go to church.  I just didn’t get it.  I started to ask more questions and you know what was interesting?  It’s not Jesus that they didn’t like.  It’s not necessarily even YOU that they didn’t like.  Or me.  What they didn’t like was that church never felt like a safe place to struggle. What they didn’t like was that church never felt like a safe place to doubt.  What they didn’t like was that they felt like, in order to enter these doors in any sort of church, they had to have life figured out and they had to have it together.  In order to come (to church), they had to arrive at a place where they knew intuitively, if they were honest, that they would never get to.  They didn’t know that we all just play games!  Or do we?  They didn’t know that THIS is a safe place to struggle, a safe place to wrestle.  The question I want us to engage with this morning is: What happens when life falls apart?  What happens when we have questions that we don’t have answers to?  Do we push in or do we run away?

I have three kids: seven, five and three.  I have a boy, a girl and a boy.  My boys absolutely love to wrestle with me.  They love it!  My son Reid, who’s three years old, will come and jump on me unexpectedly.  Anybody else have that blessing on a daily basis?  I’m sitting there minding my own business and it’s like a cannonball and he lands on my lap!  He grabs my shoulders and says to me, “Daddy, I’m a jaguar!  Rowr!!”  For a few moments I pretend to be scared and then I go, “Well, I’m a lion!”  Then we’re rolling around and we’re wrestling on the floor.  I had a friend a number of years ago tell me, “I measure my parenting effectiveness by how much time I spend on the ground.”  I like that.   Our kids love that!  What is it about wrestling that our kids love?  They love the contact.  They love the clinging.  They love the physical interaction.  They love to feel you.  I think they also love to know that you’re stronger than them, even though they resist that.  They love to know that at a moment you could just flip them over, pin them, done, no conversation, no questions asked.  They love that! They desire that contact, that interaction.  

What if God was the same way?  What if God loved the wrestling? What if far more than answering questions, God loved authentic doubt?  What if faith looked far more like wrestling than it did certainty?  What if?  What if church once again became a safe place to say, “I don’t have it all figured out.”  “I don’t know all the answers.” “There’s some things that haunt my soul.”  “I can’t figure out why we’re following God and they passed away.”  “I can’t figure out why I lost the job.”  Why the relationship crumbled. Why the health report didn’t come back the way we wanted.  I can’t figure it out.   What if church became, once again, a safe place to wrestle?

If you have your Bible, turn to Genesis 32:22-32.  We going to look at a passage where Jacob is going to wrestle with God.  Over the past few weeks we’ve been walking through this narrative of the patriarch Jacob. Remember, Jacob is born as a second born in a first-born society.  He’s loved way more by his mother than he is by his father.  He prefers to cook in tents rather than hunt in the fields.  All three of those things were stacked up against him from birth.  From birth, he’s trying to prove himself.  He’s trying to say, “I’m okay and I’m deserving of any love that should come my way.”  Throughout the course of his life, he has some successes.  He goes and lives with his uncle for 20+ years.  His uncle is coercive and manipulative, but Jacob prospers even there.  God’s hand is on him.  Now, he’s being led back home, the place that he left over two decades ago.  On the way there he’s going to have to encounter his brother, who he ran from 20+ years ago.  It’s this picture of….you and I know this journey….to face the things on the deepest level that haunt our souls.  We can’t run from them forever.  Jacob is throwing things ahead.  He’s sending gifts to his brother to try to appease him and to be accepted by him.  It’s on THIS journey, before he meets his brother, that he has an encounter with God.

Here’s how the encounter looked.  The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.  And Jacob was left alone.  And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  And he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”  But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”  And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.  Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

What’s going on?  What a strange passage!!  Can we all admit that that’s a weird passage?!  We don’t have to pretend that the Bible always makes sense at face value!  What a strong passage!  Jacob is camping.  He’s on a solo camping trip, he’s all alone.  He’s got his tent pitched and he’s ready to go and somebody shows up out of nowhere and goes MMA on him.  They wrestle through the night.  At some point, this man/God just touches his hip and he’s out of joint in his hip for the rest of his life.  Couldn’t you have done that earlier?  If all he had to do was touch his hip, was this really ever any sort of wrestling match worth betting on?  What in the world is going on here?!  I think if you read the passage from the perspective of God, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  But if you read the passage from the perspective of Jacob, it starts to make more sense.  Jacob saying: Oh yeah, we were wrestling and it was……we were face-to-face and we were going at him and I almost had him. If you were to ask my kids if they could beat me in wrestling matches, both of my sons, three years old and seven years old…..and I’ll admit I’m not exactly a physical specimen, but I’m pretty sure I can take them…..most of the time they would agree with you.  They’d go hey, I think it’s 50/50.  We’re hearing this interaction (of Jacob) from the perspective of Jacob.  We read it through the lens of our enlightened minds and go, “Come on!  That would never happen.”  God just appears out of nowhere and wrestles with Jacob throughout the night?  Come on!  The Bible is so ancient, it’s so primitive, it’s so out of touch.  And yet….  We’ve all have those seasons in life where we’ve wrestled with God, haven’t we?  We’ve all had those questions that we can’t seem to get resolution for.  We’ve all had these mysteries that sorta sit on our shoulders and weigh us down where we go God, I don’t get why you did that or didn’t do that and God, I don’t understand why that’s happening.  All of us, whether you’re a follower of Jesus this morning or not, have had these questions where we’ve wrestled with God.

My experience has been that those questions revolve around two primary things: 1) God, who are you?  Because I believe you are all-powerful and I believe you are all good and the Scriptures really teach me that.  But if you’re all-powerful and you’re all good, then do you not care?  That’s one of the questions we have.  For well over a year after my mom passed away, I wrestled with this: God, who are you?  The second question is like it. God, who am I?  Who am I to you? Do you love me?  Do I have worth?  I think all of the questions that we wrestle with as human beings—-and those are human questions—-if we were to boil them down and tear away all the layers, what we’d get down to are two primary questions:  God, who are you? and, in light of that, God, who am I?  So here’s what I want to do this morning.  I just want to give you the freedom to say, “I don’t always understand what God is doing.”  I want to give you the freedom to say, “I have questions.  I have doubts.”  I know, I get it.  In modernity and a version of Christianity that’s been entrenched in modernity, we have equated faith with certainty, but I want to assure you the Scriptures never do.  They never do.  People who walk by faith, they wrestle with God.  They struggle with God.  You read through the book of Job, ok?  Job interacts with God.  He wrestles with God.  It’s only when his friends come and they have all the answers that Job gets off track.  His friends start trying to answer the questions that aren’t intended to be answered.  They want to say, “Job, here’s why it happened.  And here’s how it happened.  And here’s a resolution.”  And God goes no, no, no, no, no, just wrestle with me.  This stinks!  Draw near.  

David, the man after God’s own heart, will say to us in Psalm 73:3, why in the world do the wicked prosper? He’s like I don’t get it.  I’m trying to do everything right here, God, and the people that are against you, antagonistic towards you, are the ones you seem to be blessing.  What’s the deal?  You have John the Baptist, a friend and relative of Jesus the Messiah, sitting in a jail cell (Matthew 11:4-6) knowing that his days are coming to an end.  In fact, days later his head, literally, will be on a platter at Herod’s party.  He sends his disciples to go ask Jesus, “Hey, are you the one that we were waiting for?  Because this doesn’t look like it’s going to turn out good.”   What’s he doing?  He is wrestling!  He’s wrestling with God.  He’s not settling for easy answers.  You have the apostle Paul, once called Saul, who has this thorn in his flesh and he says:  Three times I pleaded….. (2 Corinthians 12:8).  It’s not this hey, three times I politely asked you, “Jesus, would you please take this away?” In the Greek it carries with it this emotive, deep longing of…..God, COME ON!! ACT! MOVE! DO!  I believe that you can.  Why aren’t you??

If you read through the Scriptures and look at people who follow Jesus, here’s what I think they would testify to you and to me — they would testify that the only faith worth having is an honest faith.  A faith that’s mixed with confidence and questions.  A faith that doesn’t always have it all figured out, but that says I’m unwilling to let go even when there’s questions.  I’m clinging to you.  I’m wrestling with you.  God, I am in this for the long haul.  Here’s the truth of the matter, friends—-Wrestling with God is essential towalking with God.  It’s not some sort of nice addendum to the Christian life.  It is central in who we are as followers of Christ.  That there’s things that are going to come up in our life where we’re not going to have the answers and we’re going to have to enter into seasons of struggling and seasons of wrestling and we are better for it.  I think a lot of the narrative that we’ve embraced as a church culture in the West is:  walking by faith means that you’re always certain, that you’re always confident, that you’re always sure and if you aren’t, then you’ve gotta get it figured out before you really consider yourself a follower of Jesus.  Dallas Willard, sort of tongue in cheek, said the way that we teach theology, typically, is you should believe this whether you believe it or not.   And that’s true, isn’t it?  We know we’re not suppose to doubt, but what happens when we do?  We know we’re “not suppose to question,” but what happens when we have questions?  You show me a strong friendship and I will show you two people who have the ability to wrestle with each other.  To disagree and to still say, “We’re in this together.” You show me a marriage where one person has just shut down and another person makes all the decisions, tells everybody what to think and what to do, and I will show you a straw man of a marriage.  It’s this question, it’s this interaction, it’s this wrestling where we really grow in relationship.

I want to show you the dynamics of how this happens in the life of Jacob.  Genesis 32:22.  Let’s look at this and sort of dissect it a little bit more to see what was going on in Jacob’s life and how did God use it.  This is after he sent all these gifts ahead of himself to try to earn the acceptance back from Esau.  The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.  And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”   Not only has day broken, but the narrator of Genesis is so poetic and it’s so beautiful…..there’s this breaking of day that’s happening, certainly, but there’s also the breaking of Jacob. Jacob’s being torn down.  Jacob’s being shown who he really is.  Over the course of this evening what’s been happening his entire life sort of comes to a focal point, to a fruition, and what we start to see is God is lowering him in order to eventually elevate him.  He’s breaking him in order to rebuild him.  It’s often in those unwelcome seasons of brokenness that we see the preceding unprecedented seasons of fruitfulness.  

Jacob’s left alone.  He is vulnerable, he’s open and what I have found over the course of my life, and maybe you would disagree, but what I’ve found is when I’m most broken I’m most open.  Anybody want to agree?  I will to cling to my own abilities until I have nothing left to cling to.  Any amens out there?  This is the human story. This is human nature.  When Jacob is left alone, here’s what he starts to do.  He starts to be open.  He starts to be vulnerable.  He starts to interact with God in a different way.  We see that his isolation leads him to a place of revelation.  Here’s the thing for you this morning.  You may be going through one of those seasons of loneliness.  You may be left alone.  The word I want to speak over you is when you’re alone you have two choices:  loneliness or solitude.  It all has to do with the attitude.  God, are we going to wrestle with you or are we going to focus on the fact that we’re all alone.  Loneliness or solitude?  Jacob chooses solitude.  He engages with God.

The second thing we see is that he’s out of joint.  Not only physically with his hip, but life just feels like it’s just been thrown upside down and spun around and thrown out there.  The attempts he’s making to win the approval of his brother are falling short.  He thinks he’s walking into a war that there’s no way he’s going to win.  He is out of joint.  God is bringing him low.  It’s the picture of a farmer tilling the soil in the springtime before he starts to plant the seeds.  The soil that’s gotten hard after a long winter.  He needs to dig deep down into in order to start to break it apart, so that the seeds will take root.  If God just throws the seeds on top of Jacob, his heart isn’t ready to receive them.  It’s this process that God leads him through where he eventually comes to the place where he’s able to receive.  I love the way that John Bunyan, the great Puritan author, puts it: “Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think.  It’s wounding work; without the wounding there is no saving.”  It’s that tilling process.  We don’t like it, but we need it.  The song that Aaron just sang so beautifully for us by Jason Gray, he says, “The wound is where the light gets in.”

All of us get to that point in life where God is tilling the proverbial soil of our soul and here’s what we all have to deal with:  are we going to be the type of people in those seasons who tap out or cling on?  I call my generation the “tap out” generation.  When it gets hard, we leave.  When it’s tough, we’re gone.  What I love about Jacob is he knows he’s not going to win this battle.  He’s already lost it!  He says, “I won’t let go.”  A few weeks ago, I meet with a friend in my office.  He’s been through the valley of the shadow of death.  He’s lost some things that were dear to him.  Sitting with him in my office, I said to him, “Hey, I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t know why this all happened and I don’t know why God allowed it.”  To say anything else would have been disingenuous.  I could have gone theological as far as the problem and pain and the reason of suffering, but it wasn’t what he needed.  My encouragement to him was you have two choices:  you can either push away or you can cling on.  That’s the place we all get to in the wrestling with God.  Are we going to be the type of people who cling on or are we going to be the type of people who push away?

Sometimes God invites us into seasons of mourning rather than seasons of knowing.   And that’s okay.  We don’t need to trivialize those things.  As Christians we sometimes do, don’t we?  Here’s one refrain that just drives me nuts — Well, everything happens for a reason.  It’s like the Christian trump card.  BOOM!  What are you going to say to that?!  Well, does it?  Does everything happen for a reason??  If that’s true, we’ve got to find reason for some pretty crazy things, don’t we?  Do you know what the Scriptures actually say?  You can’t find any verse that says “Everything happens for a reason.”  What the Scriptures actually say is that God weaves together good out of everything for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)  He’s able to take these things, that maybe without Him would be disjointed, and He weaves them together for your good. You know what that means?  Not everything was good until God got ahold of it. {That’s for free.}

Jacob is alone, he’s wrestling, he’s out of joint, he’s disoriented.  Verse 26:  Then he (the man/God) said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  And he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.”  Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  What’s Jacob’s deepest longing? When we gets ahold of God, what does he want more than anything else?  Blessing.  He wants a good word spoken over him.  He wants to hear the voice of God saying you’re okay, I’ve got you.   I’m good.  I’m in control.  I love you.  He wants to hear that his life matters.  You know what’s interesting?  Jacob’s already been blessed.  If you read back through the Jacob narrative, it starts with him stealing a blessing from his older brother.  Remember, he dresses up as Esau.  He walks into Isaac, his father.  Isaac lays hands on him and Isaac blesses him.  But Jacob knows that blessing was never intended for him.  For the decades that follow, those words, rather than being seeds of hope in his life and goodness, actually start to turn on him, because the words spoken over him he knew wasn’t actually for him.  When He’s wrestling with Jacob, what does God ask him?  What’s your name? You go back to Genesis 27…..Isaac, his father, asked him the exact same thing:  What’s your name?  At THAT point, he did not answer honestly.  He said, “My name is Esau.”  Because I think that’s what I have to do to get blessed.  I have to lie about who I really am.  I have to ignore the deep, painful places of my soul where I didn’t add up.  I’ve got to put on a mask.  I’ve got to put on a show.  In order to be blessed, I’ve got to lie about who I really am.  But when God gets ahold of Jacob, He says, “Jacob, what’s your name?  I need you to say it.  I need you to admit it.  I need you to step out of the shadows.  I need you to come clean, because if you’re going to be blessed, it’s only going to be as you actually are, not as you wish you were.  So, Jacob, what’s your name?”  I imagine Jacob’s mind immediately goes back to putting on all of the clothes that were Esau’s, covering himself in fur that looked like Esau’s freaky hair and lying about his name.  At this moment, Jacob says, “I am Jacob.” My prayer is that some of you will have an “I AM JACOB” moment with God today.  This is who I really am.  And in saying “I am Jacob,” what Jacob’s saying is I’ve been the swindler, I’ve been the cheater, I’ve been the liar; I’ve lived up to everything my name meant and everything my name said.  It’s in this moment—this moment of brokenness, this moment of solitude, this moment of openness to God—God says back to him, “Ok, Jacob. Here’s the thing….drum roll…..your name is no longer Jacob.  You’re wrestling with me, Jacob.  You’re interacting with me.  You’re not pushing me away, you’re drawing me in and you’re saying I won’t let go! Therefore, your name is no longer Jacob, swindler, cheater, liar, thief.  It’s no longer that.  Although you have to come to terms with the fact that that’s reality.  Now your name is Israel, which means you strive with God.” Isn’t it interesting that Jacob’s name goes from cheating people—which is horizontal—-to wrestling with God.

Here’s what we start to see—that you and I, we have to admit that so much of the time God doesn’t answer the questions we have.  We don’t have the “everything happens for a reason and here’s the reason” type of life with God, do we?  If you do, I’d love to meet and talk with you.  I’ve got some questions for you.  I don’t.  We have the type of interaction with God where we go to him with questions and longing…..hey, will you bless me?  Will you make this situation turn out well?  Will you redeem the pain?  I’m going into battle with Esau and all I want, God, is for you to tell me that I’m going to win this battle.  That’s not what he hears.  What God does, so much of the time, is he doesn’t answer the question that we ask, he answers the question underneath the question underneath the question.  He answers the thing that’s deepest within us—the longing that we have most that just occupies it.  If we were to resolve that question the other ones wouldn’t matter quite as much.  Here’s what God does.  He says:  genuine prosperity (or blessing) is only grounded in renewed identity. It’s Him saying this is who you really are.  It’s the only way we can live with and wrestle with the questions of life.  Why does this happen?  Why did that happen?  Why did that person get sick?  Why did that person die?  I don’t know all the answers to those questions, but I’m going to wrestle with God and I’m going to cling to God and I’m confident that what’s more important to God is not that I gain something, but that I become someone.  That He starts to change me from the inside out.  Did you know that you’re invited to have an Israel type of faith?  The type of faith where we wrestle with God, where we strive with God.  Why is that a great and beautiful thing?  Because it means you’re clinging to him.  It means you’re saying, “I will not let you go until I hear from you—who am I?”  And, friends, that’s the gospel.  The gospel answers the question: who are you?  So if you walked in here JACOB, my hope is that you walk out ISRAEL.  You walked in maybe cheating and manipulating people.  I want you to walk out wrestling with God.  This is the gospel, because here’s what he says over you—-I have adopted you! (That’s identity, yes?)  I have called you my own.  I chose you before the foundation of the world that you would be holy and blameless in Christ.  That you would be adopted as sons and daughters of the King.  He will not always answer every question, but He always gives his blessing.  His blessing is found in the reality that YOU..Hello!!..you’re name is child of the one true King!!  You’ve been saved!  You have been redeemed!  That’s your name!!

As Jacob starts to walk away, he walks away with this limp.  It’s the “gospel limp,” friends.  It’s the “I have wrestled with God”….I’ve come with my questions, I’ve come with my doubts, I’ve come with my fears and I still have a lot of those, but I know who I am!  I am loved by Him and I am chosen by Him and I am called in Him and He is the rock that I am building my life on!  Struggling with God always leads to a transformation from God. He goes, “God, I’ve seen you face-to-face.  We’ve been intimate together.”  But that only happens through the authenticity.  It only happens through the wrestling and the struggling.  We often look for answers, but God just wants our honesty.  I don’t get it, God, but I know you’re good and I trust you.  Isn’t it fascinating that when Jacob wrestles with God and he comes out the other side….if you were to look at him you’d go, “Oh, man! He got the worst end of that deal! The rest of his life he’s just dragging a foot!”  But I think if you were to talk to Israel, what he would say to you is….I know it looks like an injury, but I want to tell you it’s a reminder.  It’s a reminder that I’m no longer Jacob but I’m Israel.  It’s a reminder that I can have a relationship with God that’s honest and I can wrestle with him.  It’s a reminder that I’m no longer who I was, but I am who He says I am!   I don’t know about you…I want that limp!  I want the reminder God, this is who you say I am.

If you’re thinking, “Paulson, I’m still a little bit held up on the ‘is it all right to question God?’  Is it all right to doubt?  Well, I would submit to you it is.  Jesus did.  That’s the trump card!  He’s in the garden going to the cross and he cries out, “Father, if there’s another way, let’s do it that way!  Father, I don’t get it!”  Luke 22:44 says he’s sweating drops of blood!  He’s so agonized by what he knows awaits him.  He’s wrestling with God. Then he clings to his Father and then surrenders to him — Not my will, but yours be done.  It’s interesting that in the same way that Jacob was left alone, your King, your Messiah, was left alone.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Therefore, because he was left alone, the Scriptures say that you never have to be abandoned.  The Scriptures are really clear in Romans 8:38 that nothing can separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Just like Jacob, Jesus was out of joint on the cross.  His bones had dislocated, his muscles moving around.  He was out of joint Psalm 22:14 says, but because he was out of joint, you can be made whole.  The Scriptures are clear in saying that by faith you are made complete in him.  Because he gave up his name…..the Scriptures say that he emptied himself of all that it meant to be God (Philippians 2:7) and that he took on the very nature of a servant and submitted to God, even to death on a cross.  He gave up his name and because he gave up his name and his glory, YOU can be filled with all of the fullness of God.

It doesn’t mean that we always get all the answers.  But it means that we have the most important answer.  The answer to the most important question:  God, do you love me?  And in the midst of all the chaos in the world, of all the pain and all the questions, His cross and His resurrection declare over you—You are loved.  You are chosen.  You’re forgiven.  That’s your new name.  You are redeemed.  So, friends, because of the work of Jesus, we can wrestle honestly with God AND walk confidently in his world!  And I would pray that you do.  My prayer is that this would be a safe place to say, “I don’t get it.”   A safe place to say, “I’ve got questions.”  A safe place to say, “God, I don’t understand why you didn’t heal this way and this time and God, I don’t understand why that didn’t work out the way that I hoped it would.”  Where the cross would hold us in such a way that it would allow us to cling to God, even when life doesn’t make sense.  Let’s pray.

Before we go running out of here, I just want to invite you to take a deep breath.  What’s going on in your life that maybe you’ve ignored and pushed down?  I don’t know about you, but I’m really good at that.  What are the things that if you were just honest with God and didn’t say what you thought He wanted to hear but what was really in you, what would you say?  This just in—he knows anyway!  Jesus, we come to you today. And in all of the brokenness of this world—we don’t have all the answers to it, we don’t have it all figured out, but Lord, in the midst of all of that and whatever life brings our way, whatever storms we find ourselves in, our desire is to be the type of people that say I’m holding on; I’m clinging to you, Lord.  We believe that you’re clinging even harder to us.  Lord, would you help us to be honest with you, to engage you not as we wish life were, but on the terms that life really is.  Father, as we’re honest with you and honest with ourselves, may we hear you speak a better name over us.  Lord, would be hear the truth that we are children of the One True King—adopted, saved, redeemed, made holy—because of the work of Jesus.  May that draw us in in every season.  May we cling to you, rather than running away.  God, as we’re honest, would you do a work that only you can do.  It’s in your name that we pray.  And all God’s people said….Amen.

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Perseverance Psalm 1292019-02-18T00:42:38-07:00

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Building Psalm 127


PSALMS OF ASCENT: Building  Psalm 127

As I mentioned before, my seven-year-old son Ethan, absolutely loves Legos.  This last Christmas we got him this brand-new Ninjago Lego set.  A few hundred pieces.  He was so excited when he opened it up.  It took him a few days of his Christmas break, but he eventually put this whole thing together.  He did it pretty much by himself—not without tears.  He picked it up and came to show us.  He walked into the kitchen where Kelly and I were sitting.  He was holding this perfectly put-together Lego set.  I don’t know what happened, I can’t describe it any other way other than time just seemed to stop.  He said, “Look at my Best Lego Sets!” and at that moment, it slipped out of his hands.  Slow-motion (I kid you not), Kelly and I make eye contact with each other and we’re like, “Oh no!”  It went down on the wood floor and I’ve never seen a Lego set demolished like that one.  It would have been more put together if it had been run over by a truck!!  Kelly’s like, “We’ll help you put it back together.”  I’m like, “You’re on your own buddy!  Lesson learned!”

Ethan’s not alone, is he?  There’s times in life where we work really, really hard on things and then just a moment passes and it slips through our fingers.  It may have happened with you with a job, where you’ve put in the time, you’ve put in the effort and you got passed over for the promotion.  It may have happened to you in your financial situation.  I saw this play out yesterday.  I got the chance to marry Tek Sun, one of our interns from last year. They picked this place in Red Feather, Colorado, at this beautiful ranch.  It was absolutely gorgeous!!  This picture was taken at 4 p.m.  If only they had gotten married at 4 p.m.  They got married at 5 p.m.  At 4:30 there were some clouds that started to billow up.  At 4:45 it looked a bit ominous.  At 5 o’clock it started to drizzle, but I’m one of those guys….no, this is beautiful, we’re doing it here!  We prayed that the skies would part.  We should have been more specific…..the skies DID open up.  We were singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”  We didn’t sing the verse about rain…..during that it started to rain so hard!!  We tried to stick it out.  It didn’t happen!  So months and months and months of planning, where the bride has a picture in her mind of what it’s going to be like and the groom is smart enough to say, “Yeah, I want it like she wants it.”  Ends up (a muddy mess).  It may not have been for your wedding, but my guess is you’ve had moments in life, you’ve had times where you’ve put in the work……you made the right investments at the right time and then the market just turned on you.

I was living in California in 2008 and we had friends where the housing market just turned and they lost 50% of the value of their house in one day!  It must have felt like the bottom just fell out!  Nobody in this room is outside of that or above that feeling.  We live in a world where there are two things that have a tendency to happen to us quite often.  One of them is storms of life.  They are things you didn’t choose and they just happen because maybe you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time.  They just happen because we live in a fallen world.  Storms come.  Then there’s also sin, either in our life or in other people’s lives that create situations where we just feel that some of the things we work so hard for just vanish before our very eyes.  

We’ve been walking through a series in the Psalms, the Psalms of Ascent specifically.  Today we’re looking at a psalm from Solomon, who was extremely wise.  He asked God for wisdom and God granted him his request. What Solomon’s going to do today (he’s the author of this psalm) is teach us why we feel the way we do when things like that happen, when the storms come in.  Then he’s doing to teach us what we can do with that and how we can make the best of it.  Psalm 127:  Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.  It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.  I think if Solomon were to be here today and call us together, I think he would say to us, out of this psalm, that there is a thin line, when it comes to our work, between fruitful and futile.  You and I, as human beings, walk this thin line every single day.  Here he uses the word ‘vain.’  If you were to look up the Hebrew, it means “emptiness or nothingness.”  He goes there’s a way to work that ends up empty.  My guess is you’ve felt this at some point, on some level.

There’s two ways that I’ve seen this, at least in my own life, play out.  One is that the way that we work doesn’t last.  Like building a sand castle at the beach and the ways come in and sort of wipe it out.  It might be that financial portfolio.  It could have been a marriage for you that just…..you worked and you put in the effort and the other person didn’t and the wave just came in and knocked it over.  The way that we work just doesn’t last sometimes.  It’s vain, it’s vanity.  The other thing that happens is our work sometimes doesn’t deliver.  Have you ever got that promotion, got that raise…..thought okay, now I’m going to be able to get financially stable….   What happens when we get raises?  Somehow it just evaporates into thin air, doesn’t it?  Like we’re back to square one.  Or we got the new house, we got the new job, we got the new car…..we drove the car off the lot and the feeling was there for a few moments, for a few days, then after a week it was just a car.  The things that we work for sometimes and the way that we work just come up empty.  They don’t deliver on what we hope they will.   We live under this illusion, especially as we’ve gathered around the American Dream.  The American Dream essentially says that if we work hard enough and do enough then eventually we’ll make it, we will succeed.  I’m seeing that story play out a ton of times in the lives of people all around me and I tend to think that generally it works.  But it doesn’t work every time, does it?  We think the equation is:  If I put in enough work and I work hard enough then I will produce and then I will make it.  It’s always up and to the right, more work equals more production.  It’s simply not true.

If anyone could talk about the way that doesn’t work, it would be Solomon.  Solomon was a great builder.  If you read some of the Old Testament….  He spent THIRTEEN years having people build his house for him.  He didn’t just plant a garden in the back of his house, he planted forests!  He spent seven years…..he commissioned the building of the Temple of the Lord.  He was a builder and he tried his best to build a great life, too.  He operated under this principle:  If I work hard and if I do enough, if I have enough money, then I’ll be prosperous, I’ll be successful, I will be satisfied.  In the book of Ecclesiastes, in this moment of brutal honesty, listen to what he says:  Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind….   {You get a picture of I thought I was getting there, I thought I was going to capture it, I thought I was going to make it and right when I got there and I thought my work would have meaning and goodness and beauty, it just slipped through my fingers.}  …..and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.(Eccl. 2:11)   You’re like hey, Solomon, we’ve got meds for that type of mindset now.  We could help you out……he’s in a dark place.

Psalm 127 would say the same thing.  We’ll say it in a negative way because that’s the way Solomon says it in this psalm and much of Ecclesiastes:  We can work as hard as we want and do as much as we can and if God doesn’t show up and if God doesn’t invade it then it is simply emptiness.  Let’s close in prayer.  No, no, no, because there’s an opposite side of the coin, too, and that’s what this psalm would be about and that’s essentially what the book of Ecclesiastes is about. Solomon gets to the end of that book and to the end of this psalm and he goes listen, if we work just in our own might and if we work in our own strength and if we work for our own thing yeah, it’s empty and it’s meaningless.  BUT if we recognize that God is at work in the midst of our labor and that He is building something beautiful and something significant, He can infuse every moment of every day with his goodness and his purpose and his meaning.  Here’s how we’ll say it this morning:  An awareness of God’s activity creates capacity for abundant living.  So you fill in however you make a living here, whatever your work is…..an awareness of God’s activity creates an abundant computer programming, abundant teaching, abundant mothering, abundant….whatever you do.  If you have an awareness of God as you do it, there’s a capacity for beauty and meaning and goodness in the midst of it.  

I read a story of Yogi Berra, the great catcher for the New York Yankees.  The Yankees were in a tied game with another team.  The guy steps into the batter’s box and with the end of his bat he draws a cross in the batter’s box.  Yogi Berra, from his catcher’s position, reaches forward and brushes the cross away.  He looks at the batter and goes, “Let’s just let God watch this one.”  I think many of us feel that way about our work — God, you can observe and God, you can maybe give some input, but really I feel like I’m on my own here.  But, friends, there is no…{Will you look up at me just a second; I want you to get this.} ….there is no abundant life apart from the Author of Life.  Many of us, when it comes to our work, our vocation, our jobs (that’s what Solomon’s talking about here), we have this unsettled, uneasiness deep with our soul and I think it’s because we’ve said to God, you can watch and you can look on, but I’ve got it, thank you very much.  To quote the great fourth century theologian St. Augustine:  “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”  That’s Solomon’s conclusion about the way we work.   Faith in God creates the capacity for a life that flourishes, whether it’s in our home or in our vocation or in our neighborhood or in our churches. It’s this faith in God recognizing that as I work, God brings meaning and as I bring what God’s called me to bring, God does what only He can do.

I just want to dive a little bit deeper into what Solomon says in this passage (Psalm 127:1):  Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.  I think sometimes we may read this and say, “Well, that means I don’t have to work!  Praise the Lord!”  That’s not what he says at all.  He’s saying that as you work have an awareness that God works, too.  Did you know that all throughout the Scriptures you’re called to work.  Work is a condition of humanity before sin enters the world.  It’s not a condition of the Fall.  We don’t work because of sin.  In fact, there’s work pre-Fall if you go back and read the beautiful narrative in Genesis 1 and 2.  Adam and Eve are called to work before sin enters the world.  We work now during the Fall and there will be work for you to do in God’s Kingdom that you will live in eternally.  So if you don’t like to work, you might not like heaven!  Solomon is NOT saying you can just sit back and allow God to do it.  He’s saying that unless God shows up your work is futile, but you are called to work.

There’s two ways the Enemy twists this good gift of God that we call work.  One of them is through what the King James version says is sloth or, if you have a regular Bible, “laziness.”   Where we figure if we just get something handed to us then we don’t have to work for it.  Listen to the way Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher, puts it:  “In the ordinary affairs of life, my dear brethren, do not go and put your feet on the fender, and sit still, and say, “The Lord will provide,” because if you act so foolishly, very likely he will provide you with a place in the poor house.  If you go up and down the streets with no profession, with your hands in your empty pockets, and say that you are trusting in God, God will give you the wages that you earn, namely poverty; he will clothe you with rags if you clothe yourself with idleness.  If you will not serve him, you shall find the reward that comes to the man who wastes his Master’s talents by wrapping them in a napkin.”  Here’s how Paul would write it to the church at Thessalonica (2 Thess. 3:10) — For even when we were with you, we would give you this command:  If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.  

Solomon’s not saying, “Hey, sit back and take it easy.”  That’s one of the ways the Enemy twists this good gift of work.  The second way is by causing us to put too much weight on what we do.  We live in a society where if you ask somebody to tell you about themselves, often they will respond by telling you what they do.  It’s a way of sort of displaying ‘I find my identity and I find my worth in my work.’  It’s who I am.  The very core of my being is found in what I produce.  It’s no wonder that work related stress is such an epidemic in our day and our time.  We put all of this self-reliance on ‘I’ve gotta make it happen!’  There’s this famous pastor who has this church that is growing exponentially.  He had this goal that his church would reach 100,000 people.  Recently, he had this moral fall.  Listen to his own words as he reflects on that: “What we’ve seen the Lord do over the last 16 years has been a modern day miracle.  However, in my obsession to do everything possible to reach 100,000 people and beyond, it’s come at a personal cost to my own life and created a strain on my marriage.” You think hey, somebody’s working ‘for the Lord’ doing a good thing, but here’s what he lost sight of:  he lost sight of the way that we work ‘with God’ is in partnership, not in isolation.

Here’s the big idea I want you to get from this:  You and I are called by God to commit to effort—-we’ve got to put in the ‘work’—-but to trust God for the outcomes.  We give our best and we trust that God will bring the growth.  See, friends, productivity is found in partnership.  Unless God shows up, the builder builds in vain. Paul would say the same thing to the church in Corinth when people were debating over who they follow, would they follow Paul or would they follow Apollos, here’s what he says:  What then is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corin. 3:5-7)  HE’S the one who’s producing.  Oh sure, Paul and Apollos worked hard and Paul will tell you in his letters just how hard he works.  But he works hard with the recognition that God, we are in this together and I’m bringing my best to the table, but, God, I’m trusting that you are the one who will bring the growth.  You’re the one who brings the meaning.  I work, I labor, but you bring the meaning.  You create something beautiful out of the work of my hands. 

We were reminded of this, a few years back, when Kelly, the kids and I planted a garden.  We weren’t exactly ambitious; we have an 8 foot by 4 foot rectangle in our backyard.  We’re just trying to give the kids an experience.  We tilled the ground and planted the seeds.  Harvest time came and I use that term ‘harvest’ loosely.  {Ryan shows picture of carrot.  One side shows a normal sized carrot.  The other side shows teeny, immature, minuscule carrots!}  Doesn’t life sometimes feel that way?  Hey, God, we put in the work.  God, we watered.  God, we did our part and I was passed over for the promotion.  God, my portfolio didn’t perform the way that I wanted it to and God, the relationship just didn’t pan out, even though I put in all the work that I thought I needed to make it happen.  Have you ever stopped to think about how much of your life you’re actually out of control of?  We live under the illusion that if we put in the work it’s going to turn out good.  It only takes one phone call from the doctor to crush that into reality, doesn’t it?  You can eat all the kale and all the broccoli you want, but in the end, so much of our life, so much of your life, is in the hands of a sovereign creator.  We want to control it, don’t we?  We think if we work harder we’ll produce more and our goal in that is I want to control every single aspect of my life.  We hear a message like this and initially, it rubs against our humanity, but I want to say to you that this should be great news for you today.  Here’s why.  It’s the reality of the world that we all live in.  Solomon wants to pull back the curtains a little bit and go isn’t this true, isn’t this real?   That’s the world we live in.  We can, in good conscience, give our best, but we’ve got to trust God to bring the growth.  It’s true in parenting.  It’s true in marriage.  It’s true in your vocation and in your work.

Solomon says: Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.   First he talks about provision, now he talks about protection.  He goes hey, the best army in the world is not a fail-safe against getting attacked.  The best politicians in the world cannot make your nation or your country “ultimately safe.” Now, I’m all about having a good military.  I’m all about electing great politicians.  {Good luck with that this year.}  Friends, as followers of Jesus, our hope is not in our military, our hope is not in who we elect, our only hope is in the God who stands sovereign above it all.  That’s our hope.  So much of it is in his hands.  That’s what Solomon would remind us of.  Paul continues in that great passage in 1 Corinthians.  He draws out something that I think Solomon would say to us as well:  For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corin. 3:11)   So, friends, you give the effort, God controls the outcomes, but will you, as you do that, recognize and understand that thefruitfulness of your life is determined by the foundation of your life.  If we build on a faulty foundation, we’re never going to get the production from our life that we hope for, that we pray for, and that we long for.

I saw a news article about the Millennium Tower in San Francisco.  It was built in 2009.  Fifty-eight stories tall. Over the last few years, they noticed the windows are a little bit harder to open.  Some people’s doors stopped working.  People, like Joe Montana, who bought luxury condos in this high rise or bought luxury $10 million homes in this space, now are living in a building that has sunk 16 inches and is tilting 2 inches.  But if you lived on floor number 58, two inches makes a difference, does it not?  So oftentimes we do this work in our life, whether it’s in a vocation or in a relationship, and we put our all into it, but we’re building on the wrong foundation.  Unless the foundation of our lives is the one true God, our lives, eventually, will encounter a storm and they will start to tilt.

Jesus talks about this in Matthew 7 and his encouragement and his teaching is: the storms in life will come, it’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when.’  And what will be revealed in the storms of life is what foundation you have built on.  I want to give you two quick pieces of encouragement today.  One, build on the foundation of His wisdom.  I think a lot of times, we expect God’s blessing without our willingness to be obedient.  We want his blessing in our marriage, but we won’t live in a marriage according to the Scriptures. We want his hand of blessing on relationships, but we won’t do those in the way that He instructs us to do them. Finances — We want God to bless them, but we’ll often say, “God, I’m not going to operate my finances in the way that you want me to.”  I cannot expect God’s blessing if I’m not willing to be obedient to His wisdom.  It’s going to be building on sand. You can build a great structure, but eventually what you’re building on will be revealed.  It’s ONLY a foundation on Jesus that will be fruitful. 

Second thing.  Not only are we enlightened by His wisdom, that’s how we build on his foundation, but we are empowered by His Spirit.  Paul would say it like this after saying I work, I struggle with everything I’ve got to present the church blameless before God:  For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Col. 1:29)  Don’t you love that picture of Paul working his hands to the bone, empowered by the Spirit of God.  What does it look like to be empowered by God’s Spirit?  Here’s the way it works for me. One, it’s the recognition of the love of the Father that the Spirit pours out into my heart.  If I don’t have that, I am working on will power alone and that will only take me so far.  But, friends, when I hear God speak his goodness and his love over me, calling me his child, I could go forever.  Secondly, there’s a strength in being reminded of my salvation and the joy that’s found in that.  In fact, the Scriptures will explicitly state the joy of the Lord is our strength.   So, our hearts our stirred with the love of the Father, our soul is encouraged by the voice and the testimony of the Spirit, and our lives are permeated with the joy of the gospel that declares HE is our chief cornerstone.   He is the one that we build around and that we build on and He is the one that holds it all together.

So Solomon will write:  Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.   That can be sort of poetic and hard for us to really wrap our hearts and our minds around and to say, “Am I doing that, God?  Am I building in vain?  Is this life in vain?”  He wants to answer a question you may have in saying how do we tell? How do we know?  Here’s how you can know.  It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil….   That’s the litmus test for God, am I trusting that you’re doing your part and that I’m called to do mine?  Have I gotten the roles mixed up?   When I get the roles mixed up, I often start to get anxious.  I often start to feel like I’m in control of more than I’m actually in control of.  I start to feel like if it’s going to happen, I’ve got to make it happen and really, what I’ve forgotten is that God is present and active in every moment of every day.   The question we have to wrestle with is anxious toil, anxious working, anxious (for these people) farming.  Solomon would ask, “Has your anxious farming ever produced more of a crop?”  Has anyone ever thought, “I’m so glad I worried about whether or not those crops were going to grow, because the fact that I worried actually made them grow more.”  No.  No one’s ever said that.

Solomon is inviting us to trust that while we do our work, God does His.  I am nowhere more keenly aware of that reality than when I stand right in this place right here.  I work, I study, I pray, I prepare, but I am absolutely at the mercy of God moving in your life. It’s not me!  If something happens, it is Him.  So much of the time, I think it has to be me.  When I believe and you believe that God is at work, we can actually cease from our labor.  That’s built in to what it means to be human.  If you go back and read Genesis 1 and 2, Adam and Eve wake up in this paradise garden on Day 6 of God’s creative act.  On Day 7, God says let’s just stop and everybody pause and everybody rest.  I’ve often read that and thought, “What are Adam and Eve tired from?  They just woke up naked in a garden!!”    Built into the rhythm of what it means to be human is this recognition: A) That when we cease from our work, God continues His.  B) Adam and Eve are called to stop and look around and take in the beauty all around them and recognize we did absolutely nothing to create this.  God, you are work.  God, you moving.  The human anxious soul is healed when we step into that rhythm of work and rest and Sabbath, recognizing even when we stop, God works, and that God is the creative master of everything we see all around us.

Solomon will say eating the bread of anxious toil is one of the ways we recognize that we’re out of joint, we’re not trusting God to do his part.  We think we have to do His part and we have to do ours.  Because God is a good God and He gives his beloved sleep (Ps. 127:2).  He gives them rest.  He invites them to take his yoke upon them because He is gentle and humble in heart.  I love this word….He gives his beloved—those whom He calls His own—-He gives them rest.  When you and I recognize that embracing rest is a byproduct of receiving love, we position our souls to be made whole by a God who says I’m at work even when you stop.  That might be a word for some of you here today.  You might have come in under the bondage of religion that says you’ve got to keep doing it, you’ve got to do enough, you’ve got to work your way up to God.  What God would say to you this morning is allow my announcement over you to quiet the anxiety within you.  I love you and I’m good and even when you stop I keep working.  

He closes this psalm with what many would say is and teach as the main point.  I actually think it’s an illustration of what Solomon has already taught.  I think it’s a picture for us to see the way that when we trust that God is at work, it creates space for abundant life.  He uses this illustration that we see all around us: Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, {or a blessing from the Lord.  Remember, this is a Psalm of Ascent so they’re singing this as they’re hiking and as they’re walking.  If you’ve ever gone on a hike with a child, you need to be reminded that they’re a blessing from the Lord!  Because you wonder…..only with every step!} ..the fruit of the womb a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!  He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.  What Solomon is teaching us is yes, children, in this time, were a legacy.  They still are. They were a protection.  They were a workforce. If you had a lot of kids, you had a lot of people who could work in the field.  They were a picture of God’s blessing.  In fact, they were a picture of God’s goodness and His abundant blessing.  But, if you’ve ever observed kids, you know that you’re called to put in the effort (especially if you’re a parent), but you’ve got to trust God for the outcome.  As much as we would love to control how their lives go, much of it is in the hands of our Father, is it not?  Like arrows an archer would pull back…..in that day and time, an archer was not exactly a precise shooter.  They just sort of launched them.  Yeah, that’s sort of what raising kids is like.  When you’re interacting with kids, the foundation that you lay will often determine the fruit that their lives bear.  When you create a space, where they are loved and cared for, they’re able to rest without having to prove that they’re your kids.  They can simply crawl under the gracious covering that your love provides for them.

In a very real way, kids draw out the reality that some of the greatest blessings of our life are the work of God’s hands and God’s grace, not the work of our striving and our labor.  That’s the picture that Solomon is painting.  Eugene Peterson, sort of tongue and cheek, comically says:  “The entire miracle of procreation and reproduction requires our participation, but hardly in the form of what we would call work.”  Think about it.  If you have kids, they’re a great example.  If you don’t, my guess is you would be able to affirm with an avid ‘amen’ that yeah, some of the best things in my life did not come because I worked really hard and I earned them.  If we’re able to step back, some of the best things in our life are simply the gift of grace.  If you’re married, it might a spouse.  {Listen, I praise the Lord every day that he blinded Kelly long enough to allow me to swoop in there.}  I don’t know what it is for you, but I’d encourage you sometime this week to just pause and to pray and to say, “God, what are the greatest things I have in my life?”  My guess is the greatest things you have in your life are grace-given from the hand of God, not from the hard striving and toil of your hands.  That’s his point. Recognize that.  Rest in that.  Do your part, yeah, but invite God to do his.

Friends, if you can’t think of anything else, if you’re a follower of Jesus, I want to say as clearly I can to you today, that THAT salvation you have, of being in Christ, is not something that you earned.  It’s not something that you worked hard enough in order to get and it’s not something that you produced.  It flows from the gracious hand of your heavenly Father who, when Jesus walked to the cross, carried all of your sin.  He did the work you could never do, to invite you into the life that you could never earn.  Your salvation (the greatest thing in your life if you’re a follower of Jesus) is the byproduct of your Father’s grace and goodness NOT the product of the work of your hands, so that none of us could boast.

So for 2000 years, followers of Jesus have been gathering around a table to celebrate a meal and to remember that when He went to the cross and paid the penalty for your sin and mine, He said, “It is finished.”  It’s done! Your salvation is purchased, there’s nothing else to earn.  As a good Father, He calls you children and He invites you to crawl up under His protective covering to remember that He is good and to remember that He’s God, and to remember the lavish love that even allows us to be called children, and to look at fear in the face and say, “I no longer have to be controlled by you, because I am a child of the Most High God and even when it feels like my hands are tied, His are not.”  Even if it feels like my sand castles are getting swept away, He’s got a plan and He is good and I’m clinging to Him.  That’s what we remember when we come to this table.  His body and His blood purchasing us that calls us sons and daughters of the King.

{Ryan gives Communion instructions.}

Father, we come this morning, celebrating your work, what you’ve done on our behalf.  When we were unable to make a way on our own, You made one for us.  Would you help us to believe that, number one, and then would you help us every single day to believe that you are at work in the midst of everything that we do. Father, as we come this morning, would you meet us in this place and change us?  Help us see Jesus.  We believe if we see Him we’ll be changed.  It’s in His name we pray.  Amen.

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Building Psalm 1272020-04-08T12:05:17-06:00

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Restoration Psalm 126

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PSALMS OF ASCENT: Restoration  Psalm 126

It’s hard to imagine what that day might have been like.  My guess is that they knew that it was coming because the army was gathering and building around the outside of the city.  But that day—that day when the walls of Jerusalem (their very shield) started to come down at the hands of the Babylonians.  That day must have been like no other day they ever experienced in their life.  Every single dad was trying to protect his kids; every single mom was trying to stand in the way of harm coming.   As that wall came down, every single Israelite that stood in the city of Jerusalem knew that their life from that day forward was going to be definitively different.  It happened in 586 BC when the Babylonians came and took over.  They took all the Israelites off into exile where they were to live the rest of their days, presumably, under Babylonian rule.  Where they didn’t get the chance to celebrate their own culture, where they didn’t get the chance to worship freely their own God.  They were taken from their homes and displaced from everything that they knew and every dream that they had or hope that they saw on the distant horizon; it all vanished on that day as those rocks started coming down.  Can you imagine what that might have been like?  If you’re a parent, can you imagine what it might have been like to know that you had a journey in front of you where you had to try to protect your family and your kids, not knowing, even if you made it those 500 miles from Jerusalem to Babylon, what might be waiting for you when you got there?  Could you imagine, if you were a single person and not having protection from a family that you loved and cared for, how alone you must have felt as you made that walk?  It’s hard for us to imagine what THAT day might have been like and what THAT cloud that came over that Israelite nation might have felt like.

I wracked my brain trying to think if there were any modern-day equivalents to what happened.  The only thing I could think of that comes close is the current civil war and tragedy that’s going on in Syria.  I don’t know that the Israelites’ journey into exile into Babylon looked all that dissimilar from what it’s looked like for four million refugees to flee Syria.  Four million people to flee and half of those, at least, are children.  Can you imagine what it must be like to be one of these moms or dads holding a one-and-a-half-year-old boy.  That’s the feeling Israel felt as they were carried into Babylonian exile.  Not only did they have that emotional angst of “we’re leaving every thing we know, every hope, every dream, every thought that we’ve ever had is going to have to be rewritten and redreamed,” but they’re going and leaving a place that they’ve called home and they know it’s going to look different when they come back.  For these Syrians, that’s absolutely the truth.  (Showed picture of Syrians and Syria)  Can you imagine what it must have been like for those Israelites to be taken from everything that they knew, from the very soil that was under their feet that they knew it was going to be different when they came back.

The only thing that may be harder to imagine than being taken into exile….is coming back from exile.  It just simply didn’t happen in the ancient world.  Once you were taken into slavery, to get out of slavery would take an act of God, because your whole entire economic system started to be built on the idea of having free and forced labor.  The Israelite people had this promise from God that, while they were taken into exile in 586 BC, undergirded all of their exile and all of their pain and all of their doubt about their future — that God was going to be good to them.  Indeed He was.  In seventy years, a miracle happened.  There were people that started to come back from exile.  There was this edict by this evil king who said, “You Israelite people can go back and you can start to rebuild your land that has been absolutely pummeled.  You can start to go back and re-envision what it might look like to be the people of God in the promised land that He’d given you.”  They started to reimagine and they started to rebuild and it was this mighty, miraculous hand of God where life in the Israelite people started to be reawakened.

The only thing crazier than being taken into exile might be returning from it!  That’s what God did after seventy years.  The exiles started to come back.  When they came back, they started to write songs.  Their songs said similar things to the ones we just heard —- You make beautiful things out of dust.  God, you awaken life out of death.  God, you breathe light into darkness.  God, you are miraculous.  Tucked into these Psalms of Ascent, as the nation of Israel would sing on their way to Jerusalem, was a reminder that what is now is not what will always be.  They’re reminded that it’s okay to have hope.  They’re reminded that it’s okay to dream.  This psalm (Psalm 126) is important for us today, because it’s really easy for us to think and believe that our current circumstances will define and will be our future.  It’s easy to believe that the pain that we currently walk in, or the doubts that we currently have, or the things that press in on our life and the disappointments…..it’s easy to believe that those things will always be right in front of us.  The reason that songs and psalms like Psalm 126 are so important is because they remind us {will you look up at me just a second} that exile is never the end of the story.

Psalm 126.  Listen as these poets and songwriters invite us into these beautiful deep truths of what it means to be the people of God:  When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.    Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”  The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.    The psalmist starts out with “When the Lord restored……”   In the Hebrew the word (restored) carries with it the idea of God hitting rewind and bringing us back.  {Rewind was a term we used back in the day where we had these things called VCRs……..}   The Lord sort of hit rewind and He brought us back to this place of life and He brought us back to this place of vitality, and it took seventy years, but God started to breathe life into dead things.  Chip and Joanna Gaines — You’re great and “Fixer Upper” is awesome, but “Fixer Upper” you’ve got nothing on the God of Heaven, because He loves, loves, loves to take broken pieces and restore them and make them whole. He loves to take lives that are in the valley of the shadow of death and lead them to light.  He loves to take brokenness and breathe His healing.  He loves to give grace.  He loves to restore fortunes.  Therefore, in light of that, friends, I want to encourage you today to refuse, REFUSE, to allow your present circumstances to limit your vision for future potential!  It’s so easy for us to think man, we’re in this spot right now that’s difficult and we’re in this spot right now that’s painful and where sorrow seems to prevail and that’s just the way it’s always going to be.  If this psalm says anything to us, it says our God is able to take what may seem like the most desperate of situations and turn it for good.  It’s so easy to let our present reality be shaped by our current circumstances.  What the psalmist would say to us is let your present reality be shaped by God’s past faithfulness with the conviction that He will continue to be good into the future.  This is not some pie-in-the-sky, ‘I hope I win the lottery’ type of hope.  This is a historically-informed conviction that what God did, God can do.  It’s believing that His past faithfulness has to influence our present and will determine our future.  If God could bring exiles back to a land, if He could restore their fortunes…..  Listen, I know you’ve got your story today and I know you may be walking through a really difficult situation, but I’m just going to sink my anchor in the pages of history and in the faithfulness of God and I’m going to believe today that, regardless of what I’m walking through, You have been faithful, God, and I believe that you will be faithful again.  Anything is possible. Impossible is nothing for our God.

This word “fortunes” is sort of weird, isn’t it?  I sorta feel like we’re invited on a pirate ship or something and we’re searching for buried treasure.  When I fixed started to look at that I thought it must mean financial security and it must mean God restoring us to the place of physical wealth and all these things.  As you read the psalm, that’s not at all what the psalmist is writing about.  He’s going to talk about three fortunes that God restores to these people of Israel as he brings them back to the land.  Look at the first one:  When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.   When Israel was brought back to the land, when God’s hand moved mightily…..yeah, he brought them back physically, but he also brought them back spiritually. He brought them back to the place where they could start to envision that God would move mightily and would work wonders in their time like he had in the past.  God invites his people to dream.  In fact, his Spirit in us, as followers of Jesus, stirs in us to imagine what God could do.  Look at the way it’s said in the book of Acts (2:17). They’re quoting from an Old Testament passage from the book of Joel that talked about the coming and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit:  And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.    Even the old folks are going to go, “Oh, there’s a new day on the horizon.”

What they’re talking about here is not necessarily the dream you have when you’re asleep.  Those can be really powerful.  But I’d argue that the dreams you have when you’re awake are far more powerful than the dreams that you have while you’re asleep.  That the stirring in you of God, might you work in this in a way that I can’t possibly imagine.  Or you may be walking in the valley of the shadow right now and all of your dreams have fallen by the wayside because of your present circumstances.  You may have gotten the call this week that you lost that job that you loved.  Or you may be walking through a situation, relationally, that is not going the way that you want it to.  You may have gotten served those divorce papers today, so the dreams that you have, the hopes that you have, have gone out the window.  I love the fact that when God restores people, He restores the deepest things in their humanity.  The ability to, once again, think about….God, what might you do in the midst of this darkness.  Pain has this ability to shut down our dreams, doesn’t it?  It has this ability to say no, you can’t go there, you can’t think that, you can’t hope for that, you can’t pray for that.  What this passage reminds us is that God has the ability to reawaken the dreams that lie dormant inside of us.  {Will you look up at me for just a second?}  The dreams that you have in your heart and your mind have the ability to change your family, to change the direction of your life and to change the world and the Enemy would love to beat you down to the point where you let go of the dream.  I want to say to you this morning, it’s safe to dream because you have a God who invites you to trust Him in His faithfulness.

Dreams have the ability to change the world.  August 28, 1963  — “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today.  I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.  I have a dream today.  I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Dreams change destinies!  They do!  When we let go of the dreams that God has birthed in our hearts and when we let the present circumstances nullify those dream, instead of having faith, as hard as it can be…..isn’t it hard?  It is HARD to have a dream, isn’t it?  Dreams demand of you.  To have a dream demands that we look at the present circumstance and we go, “We’re not okay with what currently is, we are hoping and praying for more!”   And that takes work, doesn’t it?  It’s easy to be complacent.  Dreams demand of us.  They demand that we step into arenas — they send us to places and spheres of life where we don’t know how things are going to turn out.  It’s so much easier to play it safe than it is to dream.   But, friends, you are, we are the people of God and when God restores it’s not just giving material restoration, it’s reawakening us to the possibilities of what might happen because God is for us.  Our worship pastor, Aaron Bjorklund, grew up a missionary kid and served with World Venture.  He said to me, “Ryan, one of the gifts the American church can give to the world is the ability to, once again, dream of what God could do.”   What dreams have gone dormant in you, friends?  Would you release those and let God reawaken them today?

Listen to the way the psalmist continues:  Then our mouth was filled with laughter…  I love this, this restoration!  The deepest places of our humanity being reawakened by the grace and by the goodness of God. Have you thought about laughter?  You can only laugh in the present.  You can’t laugh in the past.  You can’t laugh in the future.  You can only laugh WHEN you’re present and aware and dialed in to what’s going on around you.  Have you ever been sitting at a dinner table and somebody told a great story and everybody laughed and somebody walked to the door and asked what you were laughing about?  Everybody responded, “You had to be there!!”  There’s someone that tries to retell the story and it totally falls flat —- No, it wasn’t like that.  You really had to be there.  You not only have to be there physically, but you have to be present.  God’s saying, “I reawakened the ability to laugh in my people.

Did you know that kids laugh somewhere between 300-400 times a day?  We usually meet that quota at our breakfast table!  Adults laugh 15-20 times a day.  What happens to us as we “mature?”  I love hearing my kids laugh!  There’s nothing better to me than my five-year-old daughter’s uncontrollable belly laugh.  Nothing better!  As a dad, the thing I love about it most is that I hear her laugh and I KKNOW that she’s enjoying the life that she has.  As a dad, I want nothing more for her than to drink deeply of the grace of God and when she laughs like that I know she is.  What if we started to believe again that God loves to hear his children laugh? That God isn’t some cosmic killjoy and when we start laughing He’s like, “Let’s get serious here! This is serious business—life!”  What if we started to believe God in heaven, our Good Father, loved to hear us laugh and that laughing isn’t something that just happens physically in us, but that there’s something deeply spiritual about being aware of the moment we’re in in a way we can find the divine humor in it.  What if we believed our God invited us and loved to hear us laugh?  That’s Fortune #2.

Fortune #3 — ……our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy….   God restored Israel to the point where they able not to text with joy, not to email with joy, but where they were able to say listen, with everything we have in our deepest being, we are people who’ve recognized God, you’ve been good to us.  Our present circumstance didn’t dictate our future and so we will shout with joy, “You’ve been good!”  I love this!  …then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”  Joy is probably the greatest evangelistic tool we have at our fingertips as followers of Jesus.  I’m all about you sharing your faith and we want to train people on how to do that.  Whatever method you want to use is probably fine and will work great, but more than sharing your faith, maybe we need to concentrate on having a faith worth sharing! That we’re walking deeply with our Father and we know his goodness…..not just in the seasons of life that we can celebrate, but where we know his goodness even in the valley of the shadow.  C.S. Lewis says, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”  C.S. Lewis is saying that joy is heading us and leading us to the place where we can’t help but speak of it.  That’s how we step into it fully.  So the psalmist concludes by saying, “Oh yeah, and we are glad.”  God was awesome.  He’s great and we were glad.  You may be too, this morning.  You may go man, that’s where I’m at — God, you’ve restored me.  God, you’ve brought me back.  God, you’ve reawakened laughter and you’ve reawakened dreams and you’ve brought me back to the place where I have seen your hand and I know your joy and I’m unwavering in that.

But what happens if we’re on the other side of exile?  What do we do if we’re still in Babylon?  If we’re still in the land that we’ve been taken to?  What do we do with a passage like this when we get the call that we’ve lost the job? Where we find out that the husband or wife is leaving?  What do we when the relationship is broken beyond repair?  What do we do, when we’re living IN exile, with these shouts of praise from the other side?  Exile is the feeling everyone of us has felt.  It’s a place every single one of us has been.  It’s that deep and abiding feeling that we have been helplessly abandoned to the desert and nobody knows and nobody cares and nobody’s coming to our rescue.  We’ve all been there and we’ll all be there again.  What do we do when we find ourself in THAT place?  {That’s such a great question.  I’m so glad you asked that question.}  The psalmist anticipates that question because look what he says in verse 4:  Restore our fortunes, O Lord….   Some translations will say ‘Restore us again, Lord,’ as if to say this cycle is cyclical.  That we’re taken into exile and God, you reawaken things and you bring us out, but that’s never the end of the story.  We often find ourselves back in exile someday and what do we do when that happens? The psalmist invites us by his very words to say when that happens, when that’s the place you find yourself in, when you’re on the other side of exile….not the ‘we’ve been released and God your great’……cry out!  Pray!  But pray with confidence.  Pray with informed hope. History is the context of biblical hope.  We don’t hope just sort of nilly-willy, pie-in-the-sky hope.  We hope because of who God is and what God has done.  We look at his track record and we determine to sink the anchor of our present into our great God, trusting that He was good, that He is good, that He will be good.

So in the midst of hurt, how do we hold onto hope?  Well, we pray: God, would you restore us?  God, would you work?  God, would you move?  But if I were you I’d be going alright, that’s sort of easy to say, Ryan, but how can we have confidence that our present circumstance doesn’t need to dictate our future vision? {I’m glad you asked that.}  Here’s what he says:  Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!  The Negeb is the southern region of Israel.  It’s extremely dry.  It’s a desert.  It is a desolate place.  Yet, every once in a while there’s rain that comes.  Because of that fact, there’s these river beds that are dry.  What the psalmist is saying is that there’s some dry places in our life.  There’s some places that have grown dormant.  There’s some places where life has dried up. So God, we are asking that you would move and that you would work in those dry places for the glory of your name.  The psalmist gives us a perspective in our pain.   The illustration of streams in the Negeb reminds us that although it’s dry and although it’s desolate, it is a temporary situation.  Listen to the way that the great author/pastor/poet Eugene Peterson puts it:  “The watercourses of the Negeb are a network of ditches cut into the soil by wind and rain erosion.  For most of the year they are baked under dry sun, but a sudden rain makes the desert ablaze with blossoms.  Our lives are like that — drought-stricken — and then, suddenly, the long years of barren waiting are interrupted by God’s invasion of grace.”  {How awesome is that!}  Here’s what he’s saying:  It’s safe to hope.  Maybe this morning your simple prayer is God, I need you to bring the rain!  God, I need to remember that what I’m walking through right now is not what will always be. That there is hope on the horizon.  I need to remember, O Lord, that you’ve our mourning into dancing, you’ve loosed our sackcloth, you’ve clothed us with gladness, you’ve done it before, O God, would you do it again?! That’s the perspective we hold onto in the midst of our pain. We remember in the midst of all of it, that our pain will not overtake the goodness of the gospel and the Spirit of God moving and working in our life.  Paul writes:  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corin. 4:8-9)   The pain will not overtake you and there’s a perspective that we need to carry into the valleys of life, remembering our God is a God who works miracles and breathes hope into dead things.

He goes on: Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!  You understand the illustration?  The author is saying that the tears that fall fall into the soil of our lives, but those tears turn into seeds that give birth to good fruit, good things and eventually, joy.  Here’s his declaration:  Not only do we have a perspective in the midst of pain, but we havepurpose that’s found within our pain.  I know there’s a number of you walking through situations in life right now and your question is God, how could you work in this?  God, how could you move in this?  God, how will you show your redemptive hand in this health crisis we’re walking through?  In this situation that just seems all-consuming…..I go to bed thinking about it, I wake up thinking about it.  It presses in on every side.  God, how could you have purpose in that?  To quote the great missionary to China, Amy Carmichael:  “God never wastes His children’s pain.”  There’s a purpose in your pain.

Let me point out two things that, biblically, we God using pain to do.  You look at the story of Joseph.  Joseph walks through the valley of the shadow of death.  He’s sold into slavery by his brothers and he comes to the point at the end of his life where he says this: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Gen. 50:20)  The saving of many lives because Joseph walked through being sold into slavery by being imprisoned unjustly, forgotten by the pharaoh and his workmen.  He goes hey, this all happened that God might be good and save many, many lives. {Will you look up at me just a second.}  I have no idea what you’re walking through, but I do know that God is bigger, that he has a purpose and that he is at work.

One of those purposes might simply be that you can be a comfort to others who will walk through pain, because as Paul so aptly writes to the church at Corinth:  (Our God) comforts us in all our affliction….  {Isn’t that great? Have you ever stopped to read some of the absolutes in the Bible?  In every affliction we walk through, God wants to be our comfort.}  …so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corin. 1:4)   God never wastes his children’s pain.

You can have perspective in your pain.  There’s purpose in your pain.  And finally the psalmist says:  He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.  I love that the psalmist doesn’t write might come home, most likely will come home, 99% chance he’s coming home.   No, here’s what the psalmist is saying: Regardless of what you’re going through, there’s a promise bigger than our pain.  There’s a purpose in our pain and there’s a perspective we can have through our pain.  He shall be good.  He will move.  It may be this side of heaven and it may be the next side of heaven, but can we step back for a moment and agree that regardless of whether or not it’s within these eighty years we might get on this earth, that that’s simply a blip on the radar of eternity.  You are an eternal being.  God says he WILL work for the joy of my people even in their pain.  The prophet Isaiah says (and Jesus quotes him in Luke): ….to grant to those who mourn in Zion—-to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (Isa. 61:3)    

I don’t have any clue what you may be walking through today.  You may be on the side of exile where God has brought you back to the land and you’re dreaming again, you’re laughing again, you’re walking in joy again.  You might be on the other side of exile still, waiting.  If that’s you, my word for you is that, as followers of Jesus, we do not celebrate the resurrection one Sunday every single year to try to remind ourselves that Jesus rose from the dead.  We, as followers of Christ, are invited to live in resurrection reality and resurrection power every single day.  To take the dead things of our life and to lay them at his glorious throne, to believe that he restores fortune, that he awakens dreams, that he brings back laughter and that he causes shouts of joy. Friends, that’s not just a distant hope.  That can be a present reality.  So whatever you’re walking through this morning, will you, with me, REFUSE to allow your present circumstance to dictate your vision for what God might do in the future.  Let’s have, as a Body of Christ, an historically-informed hope — He was good and He will be good again.  What IS now will not always be, because my God is alive and active.  He raises the dead. He makes beautiful things out of dust, in my life and in the life of his people.

I want you to take a few moments as you watch this video to pray:  God, what are some things in me that I need you to restore?  Maybe it’s a family that’s gone off track from where you’d hoped it would be or thought it might be.  Maybe it’s some decisions that you’ve made, or that other people have made, that have gotten you into a situation where you’re just going God, I don’t see how we’ll get out of this.  Maybe it’s a phone call that you got from the doctor this week.  Whatever it is would you, along with the psalmist, pray: God, would you restore AGAIN.  We believe that you can.  In case you doubt, I just want you to see a few stories from our Celebrate Recovery Ministry that remind us that God is still on the move.  {VIDEO PLAYS}

Would you please stand and receive the benediction today.  May the God who is able to do far more abundantly than anything you could ever ask or think or imagine, may He awaken in you dreams that have gone dormant. May he bring back laughter where there’s sorrow and may he free you to walk in the joy that is yours because you are His.  In the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen and amen.

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Restoration Psalm 1262021-10-21T09:58:47-06:00

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Worship Psalm 122

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Worship  Psalm 122

What are we doing here?  Have you ever stopped to think about that?  I don’t mean the existential question of: what are we doing here on this little blue ball that we call earth?  I’m not asking about the purpose of life or anything all that deep.  I’m simply asking, what are we doing HERE?  At this moment in time, for this hour and fifteen minutes on a Sunday morning.   My guess is you got up—you either set your alarm to get up or someone woke you up.  You woke up, brewed some coffee, went downstairs, ate some breakfast.  If you have kids in tow, you tried to force them to eat, which didn’t go all that well.  You tried to force them into the car.  If you’re like me and have a three-year-old, you got your three-year-old into the car and he insisted on buckling himself in, which means you all sat in the car for five minutes waiting for him to buckle himself in.  You got here and, if you’ve got kids, you went to check them in and you encountered a system that we haven’t quite worked all of the bugs out of yet.  I promise, we will and it’s going to be awesome when we do.  You went over to the cambros of coffee and you may have squeezed out a half cup of coffee.  You came in here, you sat down, and immediately when you sat down I said, “Will you stand up?!”  Then we sang some songs.  Have you ever noticed that this is the only place where we do something like that?!  Throughout your week, there is no other time where you gather together with a bunch of other people and sing songs.  This is unique!!  Why are we here??  Are we here because we’re bored on a Sunday morning and we need something to do?  Why are we here?  Why do we gather?

The passage of Scripture we’re going to look at this morning is going to answer for us, in part, at least, why we’re here.  That passage is Psalm 122.  It’s part of a bigger package of psalms called the Psalms of Ascent.  Psalms of Ascent are Psalms 120 through 134, fifteen psalms.  They were psalms that were uniquely designed for the nation and people of Israel.  They were psalms that the people of Israel read as they hiked to Jerusalem.  Every male, if they were able, was required to get to Jerusalem for one of three feasts every year.  They would go on this trip with a number of other people.  There was somewhere between (depending on whose numbers you agree with) a half a million and two million people that would flood into the city of Jerusalem to celebrate these feasts.  The Psalms of Ascent functioned sort of like a backpacking hymnal.  They were songs that they would sing along the way.  So, if you like musicals, this is for you!!  This was a hike where you’re going along and song just burst out.  If you don’t like musicals, you may have wanted to walk alone and read them as poems.

Psalm 122 is an invitation for us to look towards Jerusalem with the people of God, because the journey in their Psalms of Ascent reflect our journey as followers of Jesus.  They were singing on their way to celebrate a feast, but we are gathering together to remind ourselves of the Savior.  They sang of their protection.  They sang of God’s goodness.  They sang of God’s love.  They reminded themselves of the bigger story that they were found in.  In that way, the Psalms of Ascent ministered to our souls as well.  Listen to Psalm 122, a psalm of David:  I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”  Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!  Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.  There thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David.  Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!  “May they be secure who love you!  Peace be within your walls and security within your towers!”  For my brothers’ and companions’ sake I will say, “Peace be within you!”  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

The theme of this psalm can be found in the very first verse.  Here’s what David said:  I was glad when they said me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”    He’s saying, I’m starting this journey and something within my soul wells up and I’m glad when it’s time to go to God’s house.  I’m glad when it’s time to go to worship.  That’s what David’s writing about in this psalm.  He’s writing about worship.  Just a quick clarification:  there is a general or generic worship that’s simply the gaze and direction of your heart.  You are a worshiper.  You worship 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  There’s never an empty throne on anybody’s heart.  Our devotion goes toward something.  {Look up at me for just a second.}  You do not worship because you are a Christian; you worship because you are a human.  It’s something that we do.  It’s what we were designed for, it’s what we were made for.  BUT that’s not what David is talking about in this psalm.  He’s not talking about the generic 24/7 worship that you were designed for.  He’s talking about the practice of worship.  The specific practice of worship that we’re doing this morning that they did in the temple or the synagogue as Hebrew people.  It’s what we do when we gather together as the church, as the people of God.  He’s talking about the decision that we make to position ourselves under the authority of God and say, “God, we long for you to speak.”  That’s what he’s talking about.

Now the question you might push back with is:  Well, if we’re suppose to live lives of worship, why do we need this one hour every Sunday?  {That’s a great question, I’m glad you asked that.}  Here’s why:  Because the practice of worship (what we do in this time together) shapes the entire life of worship.  What we do when we gather together for the practice of worship is intended to shape and to define the way that we live, every single minute of every single day.  Think of the nation of Israel—they had seven feasts that they celebrated.  These seven feasts took up a small portion of their year, but they were intended to remind themselves of the often clouded realities that surrounded them and that they lived in every single day.  The feasts and going to temple were anchored in the soil of their days, intended to shape and define their entire life.  What are we doing here?Well, we’re gathering for the practice of worship because we believe, as followers of Jesus, that the practice of worship (what we do when we gather together) helps to give texture to, helps give content to, helps give structure to the entirety of the lives of worship that we’re called to live for the glory of God.  That’s why we gather together.  I hope it’s not just because you’re bored on a Sunday morning and I hope it’s not just because you’ve done this for your entire life.  I hope that’s not why you come.  I hope you come because you’re convinced that what we do here shapes everything that you do out there.

You might have noticed that worship is a bit contentious; it’s a bit divisive.  There’s been questions about worship…..only for 2000 years has the church debated about worship.  What type of songs should we sing? Should we sing ancient songs or should we sing modern songs?  How bright should the lights be?  Should the lights be all the way on, should they be all the way off, should they be somewhere in between?  Should the pastor/speaker wear a suit or tie; is he allowed to wear jeans?  What should the liturgy look like?  What should we do with this hour we have together on a Sunday morning?  There’s whole denominations built around the answer to that question.  Do you know why that question’s debated?  Because it’s debatable!!  If anybody says to you, “Hey, we nailed it!  This is exactly what the Bible says this time should look like when you gather together as the church, publicly, to practice worship together.”  If anybody says this is what it should look like, be skeptical and run the other way.  Because there isn’t anything in Scripture that is prescriptive and says THIS is what it needs to look like.  We have a lot of DEscription about what the church does when it gathers together, but nowhere do we find God saying, in his Scriptures, “This is what it must look like all the time, every time.” {This is for free this morning…}  Which makes this one of the most culturally, transferable, beautiful invitations the world has ever seen.  On every corner of the globe, people can take the content of these Scriptures and worship God in a way that feeds their soul and is a reflection of their culture.  {Wasn’t planning on saying that but it’s true, so it’s good.}

Did you know that even in Jesus’s day worship has been debated.  Jesus encounters a woman at the well (John 4:19-20).   This woman identifies Jesus as a prophet of God.  In light of that, listen to what she asks him:  The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. {So I’ve got one question that I’ve gotta ask you. One question that’s been gnawing at me.  One question that’s been circulated around our town and our city and our day.  One question we’ve been arguing about.}  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”    Isn’t that interesting?  She identifies Jesus as a prophet and has one question: Hey, when we gather publicly for the practice of worship, where should we do that?  She’s not asking about how we live lives of worship 24/7.  She’s talking about what we are doing here this morning.  Listen to the way Jesus responds (John 4:23):  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.  Here’s his point — it doesn’t much matter the place that you worship, but the person you worship.  That’s what’s important!  And the way you go about worshipping…..is your head engaged in it; is your heart engaged in it; are you fully in or is this something that you’re just going through the motions and doing.  It was such an important question for her that it gnawed and ate at her.  What are we doing here this morning?  Well, we are intentionally practicing worship, because we believe that the practice of worship shapes and defines a life of worship.

I just want to drill deeper into how David draws that reality out in this psalm (Psalm 122) and we’re just going to walk through this together.  Listen to what he says:  I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”   Just a quick timeout.  Don’t you love David’s almost giddiness?  Like, hey, it’s time to make this journey.  It’s time for people to come and to descend on this city to worship our great God.  I grew up in a household where we went to church every single Sunday.  It wasn’t a debate.  It was Sunday…we went!  My father would wake us kids up by singing “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.  Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.  Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, children of the Lord!”   When I was a teenager, I would much rather have been a child of the pillow!  He always seemed to be glad to come and meet with the church and to declare the glory of God.  I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with him.  I don’t know how you feel about what we do in this space, in this time, but David said, “I’m glad.”  He said let US….this is a communal pursuit.  The tribes are referenced here.  This is people journeying together, going to meet with God.

He said, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”  If you were to come and knock on the door of my house, my guess is that you would anticipate that somebody from my house would come and would greet you.  David’s saying, “God, we’re coming into the space that you inhabit.  We’re coming and positioning our hearts.  We are knocking on the door of heaven, entering your house, because our expectation is that we would meet with you.”  What are we doing here during this hour that we have together?  Well, we’re engaging the practice of worship and worship positions us to encounter the presence of God.  It’s not that God isn’t other places.  It’s that He meets us in a unique way when we gather together as the church.  We are here because worship is intended to stir our hearts with the reality of the presence of the king.  Worship, or what we do on a Sunday morning, is not intended to satisfy our desire for the presence of God.  It is intended and designed to whet our appetite.  We should leave this place going I want more.  In fact, we should leave this place going ONLY every single minute of every single day should satisfy the desires that have been stirred in me to live under the umbrella of the presence of this great God.  There’s nothing special about the place, but there’s something distinctly special about the communal pursuit.

Listen to the way David echoes this is Psalm 63:2 — So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.   So I wanted to ask…..maybe you’re here and you hear this and you say, “Alright, worship positions us for presence,” but that isn’t something you sense when you come here.  That’s not something that you feel.  I wanted to answer the question:  How can we position ourselves better to receive the presence of God that He longs to pour out on his people in worship.  Worship doesn’t happen because you just show up!!  {How many of you know that?}  Worship happens when we show up with a heart that says, “God, I want to encounter you.”  Let me give you three quick ways on how we position ourselves to receive his presence.  (1) We position our hearts through confession.  It means that before we get here we take time to say, “God, would you search me and would you know me?  And if there’s any way offensive within me, would you draw it out, because I’m going to intentionally lay myself before you and if there’s any junk in my life in the way, I want to get that out of the way before we go.”  It’s confessing all throughout.  When we sing songs like “It is well with my soul,” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sung that and thought, “It’s not well.”  I sing it, but I sing it as a confession…..God, make it well.

We position our hearts through confession.  Second, we position our heads through intentional focus.  If you don’t come in here with the decision made I’m going to focus….I’m going to think about the songs that we sing….I’m going to think about the words that we say….I’m going to think about the prayers that we pray and the Scriptures that we read, it’s going to pass you by if you don’t intentionally say, “I want to be HERE.”  It is. We live in a culture where our attention span is rapidly decreasing.  In the last 15 years, the average attention span has gone from 12 seconds to 8 seconds.  It’s a rapid decline.  A goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds!  I know, it’s hilarious!  You know what’s not funny?  We’re getting dumber as a species!  We are!  It’s hard for us to focus.  One of the things we do when we come to worship is to say, “God, I want to intentionally come and connect with you.”  It’s the same if you go out on a date with your boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse.  If you have something in between you that’s distracting you the entire time, you don’t get to connect with them, do you? The same is true when you come to worship.

We position our hearts through confession, our heads through focus and finally, our bodies through posture. We are holistic beings, friends.  So when you’re talking with somebody that you don’t like what they’re saying, innately, without even thinking about it, you’ll sit back in your chair and cross your arms and go like this (stare). Why?  Because you’re saying, “I’m closed off to you.”  I’m blocking myself from you.  There will be times when you don’t feel like singing.  There will be times when you don’t feel like listening.  There will be times when you don’t feel like raising your hands to declare the glory of God.  But when you do that, God will trigger something in your soul that awakens you to His glory and His presence and to receive from Him.  So sometimes we act our way into feeling; we don’t feel our way into acting.  Let us go to the house of the Lord to meet with God.

Verse 3.  Here’s how David continues:  Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.  There thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David.  Jerusalem—-built as a well-built city.  If you’re to go and read about the actual, physical city of Jerusalem, you would see this reflected….the architecture of this city seems to be planned out, seems to have been thought through.  There aren’t a lot of awkward gaps or places where people look at it and go, “Well, I’m not sure what they were thinking there.”  No, it was intentional—every piece of it.  I don’t think that’s really what David was writing about here.  I think the point David is making is actually found down here in verse 5.  He says when go there, when we go to worship, there are thrones of judgment that are set.  The thrones of the house of David.  He’s going when we walk there, we see judgment.  That’s a really negative word in our minds.  That’s a scary word.

We were driving back from California and we drove passed a house that had a big, white cross in its backyard. The cross had John 3:16 written on it—For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”   I went wow, that’s one way of getting the word out!  Then, on the very bottom of the cross there was this huge sign, in all caps, that said, “JUDGMENT IS COMING.”  I thought, “Whoa!  The message is:  surrender to the love of God before He judges you for not doing so!”  Right?  I’m going I don’t exactly know if that’s the best way to go about evangelizing….  But judgment IS coming.  It has this sort of negative connotation.  If you look up the word “judgment,” here’s what you’ll find. Judgment is the straightening out of that which is crooked or the healing of that which is broken.  Judgment is God taking all of the wrongs of the world and making them right.

When David says listen, we go to the house of the Lord and it’s a well-built city and there’s judgment there, here’s what he’s saying.  He’s saying God takes us when we’re sort of flying upside down and we’re out of sync and we’re out of joint and in worship, He reminds us of who He is, of what He’s done and of what’s most true of the world that we live in.  It’s the action by which he straightens things out and puts them to rights…..that’s what judgment is.  When we come and we worship, here’s what we’re doing:  we’rereorienting our lives around a greater reality.  A reality that’s often clouded in the day-to-day life.  A reality that often slips our mind. Worship is intended to remind us of the way that things actually are, because I have a tendency to get caught up in the immediate.  I have a tendency to get caught up in the scarcity.  I have a tendency to get caught up in violence of this world and I forget that every square inch of this globe is owned by my Father.  Worship reminds me of that reality.

Look at the way that David draws this out for us in Psalm 63.  There are three things he points to about seeing and looking on and beholding God in his temple.  Here’s the deeper reality that he’s reminded of:  1) God, you are glorious and you are powerful.  I hope every single Sunday we gather, you walk out of here remembering God has never thought ‘I wish I could’ or ‘I wish I didn’t’ or ‘if only my hands weren’t tied, I would fill-in-the-blank.’  Every single Sunday we gather, I want to remind you that Jesus, the slain, risen Messiah, sits enthroned above all of the earth.  He’s comfortable.  All of creation bows down at his word.  I want you to get that every Sunday.  I can get caught up in the fact that there’s some things in this world that don’t go the way that I wish they would.

Second, he says that we’re reminded of your steadfast love.  Your love that holds us even when we let go.  Your love that’s faithful even when we fail.  God, you don’t let go of us.  In worship we’re reminded of that reality, so in light of that David says, “I will bless you.  You’re worthy of it—your glory, your name, all that you’ve done,   all that we see throughout history—-God, you are worthy to be lifted high above it all.   As Saint Augustine so aptly puts it: “A Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot.”

So in the practice of worship, we are reminded that we are intended and designed to live lives of worship, and reorienting ourselves around the truth of who God is is one of the things that helps us so that.  Every time we get together, we’re going to read from the Scriptures.  EVERY time.  My mom had this saying, “If I don’t need my Bible, I don’t need to be there.”  I agree.  If you ever don’t need your Bible, you don’t need to be here.  Because I hope you don’t care what I think. You care what God thinks, when we gather to center around His truth and who He is.  Secondly, when we gather together we’re going to sing songs that reflect the truth of who God is.  I love this passage—We went to this well-built city.  Built—as in it stood before we got there.  As we said during our time of musical worship, we aren’t inventing something new here, friends.  We aren’t blazing new ground. We aren’t innovative……we’re ANCIENT. When we worship, we are entering into a well-built city.  We stand on the backs of the apostles and of the saints of old.  We stand on the backs of faithful men and women.  So we read prayers and we say creeds and we sing songs that are absolutely ancient.  Why?  Because we want to remember we’re part of a stream that’s been going for 2000+ years.  But, we also sing songs that were written last week, because we want to remember that we’re part of something distinctly future.  But we enter into a well-built city and by that we mean we remember we’re part of a story that didn’t start today, but that started at the dawn of creation.  This is OUR moment in THIS time where we get to carry the baton.  We do so reminding ourselves that this is a relay, friends.  There were people that ran the race way before we got it handed off to us.  The truth that we gather around is ancient, present truth.  It’s truth that was and that is and it is to come.  I don’t know about you, but I want my life to be built on a foundation that stands when the storms of life come.   When we reorient around reality, what we’re doing is saying, “Jesus, we want you to build a firm foundation, because we know that the storm is coming.”  So that we can say:   “On that day when my strength is fading, when the end draws near and my time has come….still my soul will sing your praises, 10,000 years and then FOREVERMORE!”

Aaron and I don’t pick songs that we hear on K-Love and like the sound of.  We choose songs intentionally with you, the body of South, in mind, with the Scriptures in our hearts, saying, “God, we want one central message for this moment in this time.  Give us the right songs, the right truth that we can sing.”  We want songs that will help you stand on the day when the storms do come.  We circle around a deeper reality.  What if you viewed your time in worship—what we’re doing here—as building a foundation?  A foundation on truth and a foundation that will stand.

Listen to the way David ends the psalm:  Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!  “May they be secure who love you! Peace be within your walls and security within your towers!”  For my brothers and companions’ sake I will say, “Peace be within you!”  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.   I’ve always read that verse 6 and thought we should be praying for the city of Jerusalem and that there would be a ceasing of war in Jerusalem.  And indeed, I do think we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  I also think we should pray for the peace of Paris.  I think we should pray for the peace of Baghdad.  I think we should pray for the peace of Jakarta.  I think we should pray for the peace of Baton Rouge.  I think we should pray for the peace of Dallas.  I think we should pray for the peace of…..the globe.  By saying we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem is David implicitly saying we should ONLY pray for the peace of Jerusalem or that we should pray for the peace of that specific plot of land that we call Jerusalem.  No, we should pray for the peace of everywhere. This is our Father’s world.  What if David the psalmist doesn’t mean first and foremost that you should pray that there is peace in the literal city of Jerusalem.  What if, first and foremost, he means that you should pray for the peace that’s found in Jerusalem to reside in YOU.  Listen to what he says.  He says pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  That’s the Hebrew word “shalom.”  It means peace, but more than that, it’s this picture of healing, it’s a picture of wholeness, it’s a picture of vitality, it’s a picture of the life that happens when God breathes on it.  That’s what shalom is.

This word “security” is the word “shalvah.”  It means security but it means more than just having a bank account that can sustain you, or having an insurance policy that you’re comfortable with, or having a security system in your house that works.  In the Hebrew, the root word comes from the word “leisure,” where you can sit back confident and comfortable with the reality that God is good, that God is for you, that God is over you and that God is within you.  So what if David is saying sure, pray for the peace of the city of Jerusalem, but more than that pray that the kind of peace that’s found in Jerusalem is also found in you.  That’s what worship does. Worship shapes us, makes us and defines us through shalom.  We’re shaped through the peace that we get. When we sing songs like “Oh for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise…” we remember that we’re gathered with the church below and the church above.   When we remember that all of our lives that Jesus is worthy of every single nook and every single cranny and every single moment of every single thought…..    When we are reminded of the fact that sin will have no dominion over us because we are no longer under law but under grace…..      When we are reminded of the TRUTH that you cannot out-sin His grace, that His steadfast love is faithful to hold you even in your failure…..   When we remember those things, we step into a peace that just overwhelms us.  I hope it does.

You will never hear me say, “Leave your pain and leave your baggage at the door and come to worship.”  Have you ever heard somebody say something stupid like that?  No offense, but it is!  If we say, “Alright, leave it at the door and come and worship,” what we’re saying is that God can’t handle the real big stuff in your life.  That God can’t handle the pain.  That God can’t handle the doubt.  No, no, no, He can!  I invite you every single Sunday to bring the doubt, bring the pain, bring the hurts, bring the questions, bring the grit, bring the dirt, bring it ALL to worship.  Because in worship we bring our pain and our baggage, but in worship our pain and our baggage meet his provision and his promise.  That’s what happens in worship.  And when THAT takes place we are shaped through shalom.  Peace.

When I was on vacation the last few weeks, I had a chance to read the book called The Nightingale.   Loved it! It’s about World War II.  One of the main characters is Isabelle.  Isabelle is part of the resistance against the Nazi domination of France during the first part of World War II.  She’s a feisty character and pushes back and helps rescue airmen who have been shot down.  She gets them across the border of France and through the mountain passage down into Spain where they can be safe.  As part of their journey, they set up these safe houses along the way.  They’re places that people who are behind enemy lines can come and get a good night’s sleep and can a warm meal.  They’re places where people who are behind enemy lines can meet and connect and look at a map and then go back out for the journey that they’ve been called on.  I picture the practice of worship as a safe house.  It’s NOT the destination.  It’s the fuel stop along the journey of faith.  A place where we can get fed, look at a map and head back out on the journey.  Friends, part of the problem with “The Church” in America is that we’ve started to view church as something you attend.  You cannot attend church!! You ARE the church!  When we gather on a Sunday morning here, you hear me say this, “Welcome, South Fellowship Church!”  Not, welcome TO South Fellowship Church.  This is where we meet, but the church is who we ARE.  This is just the gathering for worship, a safe house along the road of following Jesus.  You don’t attend church…..you ARE the church.

So you think about this psalm.  They’re singing it while walking to Jerusalem.  They’re walking there to celebrate one of three feasts.  One of the feasts they would go and celebrate is the Feast of Passover.  It would be the feast where they remembered God passed over them in Egypt—spared their firstborn.  It was a feast that was symbolic of the rescue and the redemption and the blood that covered them because they were followers of God.  As part of that, they would have seen all this blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem because you’d have, arguably, a million plus people descending upon this city and all of them wanting to sacrifice a lamb to remember that there’s a peace that flows in Jerusalem.  As blood flowed through the streets of Jerusalem because of those animal sacrifices, they were reminded that peace is only found in the blood of the lamb.  Centuries after those feasts were set up, you have Jesus of Nazareth who gets on the back of a donkey and walks into the city of Jerusalem and claims to be the Lamb of God.  Writing about that walk the prophet Isaiah said centuries before Jesus came:  He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isa. 53:5)  Friends, Jesus IS the peace of Jerusalem.  As followers of Jesus, we come to worship expecting, anticipating, that there will be a peace that flows over us because Jesus is for us, in us and above us and that He is good and we gather under His banner.

So, friends, I don’t know how you walked into these doors today, but I do know this:  I know that peace is available to you today.  Because peace has a name and his name is Jesus.  When we gather together, we gather to remind ourselves that we are part of a bigger story.  We step back into it.  We don’t step back into it by stepping into a sanctuary.  No.  Our worship is not about a sanctuary.  Our worship is about a savior.  Our worship is not about going and climbing a mountain.  Our worship is about a man, his name is Jesus.  Our worship is not about gathering in a place.  Our worship is bowing at the feet of a person.  That’s why we come together.  When we come together, God starts to, through the practice of worship, shape us to live lives of worship because He meets us here in a unique place in a unique way.  He reorients us around the truth that His grace is sufficient in every season and His love is steadfast and holding us.  He reminds us that there is still a peace that flows from Jerusalem; his name is Jesus the Messiah.  So, friends, I have no qualms about encouraging you to not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but to do so all the more as you see the Day approaching, encouraging and loving one another, but remembering that the practice of worship frees us and releases us to live lives of worship for the glory of God, for the joy of us his people, and for the good of his beautiful world.  Let’s pray.

Before you go rushing out of here, I just want to give you a moment to take a deep breath.  I don’t know originally why you came this morning.  My hope is that now you know why you came.  Maybe now you realize I came because the practice of worship shapes me for a life of worship.  That’s the goal — that we would do this every moment of every day.  Jesus, I thank you for the way that you meet us in this place.  Thank you for the way that we encounter your presence when we gather together.  God, I thank you for the way that as we circle and reorient ourselves around your truth you awaken things in us.  Lord, I thank you for the peace of Jerusalem, the peace of Jesus, that covers us, that frees us, that heals us and releases us.  Lord, I pray that you continue, as we think about this moment in this time, that it would birth something in us that would last far longer than the hour plus that we have together.  But that it would shape and define our whole lives.  It’s in the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.

I was a college pastor for five years before the Lord led Kelly and I back to Colorado to pastor this church.  As a college pastor I would walk onto college campuses and had the chance every single week to engage college students with questions about faith.  I started to hear this resound that echoed off of university campuses all across southern California.  It was this resound:  I used to go to church.  I just didn’t get it.  I started to ask more questions and you know what was interesting?  It’s not Jesus that they didn’t like.  It’s not necessarily even YOU that they didn’t like.  Or me.  What they didn’t like was that church never felt like a safe place to struggle. What they didn’t like was that church never felt like a safe place to doubt.  What they didn’t like was that they felt like, in order to enter these doors in any sort of church, they had to have life figured out and they had to have it together.  In order to come (to church), they had to arrive at a place where they knew intuitively, if they were honest, that they would never get to.  They didn’t know that we all just play games!  Or do we?  They didn’t know that THIS is a safe place to struggle, a safe place to wrestle.  The question I want us to engage with this morning is: What happens when life falls apart?  What happens when we have questions that we don’t have answers to?  Do we push in or do we run away?

I have three kids: seven, five and three.  I have a boy, a girl and a boy.  My boys absolutely love to wrestle with me.  They love it!  My son Reid, who’s three years old, will come and jump on me unexpectedly.  Anybody else have that blessing on a daily basis?  I’m sitting there minding my own business and it’s like a cannonball and he lands on my lap!  He grabs my shoulders and says to me, “Daddy, I’m a jaguar!  Rowr!!”  For a few moments I pretend to be scared and then I go, “Well, I’m a lion!”  Then we’re rolling around and we’re wrestling on the floor.  I had a friend a number of years ago tell me, “I measure my parenting effectiveness by how much time I spend on the ground.”  I like that.   Our kids love that!  What is it about wrestling that our kids love?  They love the contact.  They love the clinging.  They love the physical interaction.  They love to feel you.  I think they also love to know that you’re stronger than them, even though they resist that.  They love to know that at a moment you could just flip them over, pin them, done, no conversation, no questions asked.  They love that! They desire that contact, that interaction.

What if God was the same way?  What if God loved the wrestling? What if far more than answering questions, God loved authentic doubt?  What if faith looked far more like wrestling than it did certainty?  What if?  What if church once again became a safe place to say, “I don’t have it all figured out.”  “I don’t know all the answers.” “There’s some things that haunt my soul.”  “I can’t figure out why we’re following God and they passed away.”  “I can’t figure out why I lost the job.”  Why the relationship crumbled. Why the health report didn’t come back the way we wanted.  I can’t figure it out.   What if church became, once again, a safe place to wrestle?

If you have your Bible, turn to Genesis 32:22-32.  We going to look at a passage where Jacob is going to wrestle with God.  Over the past few weeks we’ve been walking through this narrative of the patriarch Jacob. Remember, Jacob is born as a second born in a first-born society.  He’s loved way more by his mother than he is by his father.  He prefers to cook in tents rather than hunt in the fields.  All three of those things were stacked up against him from birth.  From birth, he’s trying to prove himself.  He’s trying to say, “I’m okay and I’m deserving of any love that should come my way.”  Throughout the course of his life, he has some successes.  He goes and lives with his uncle for 20+ years.  His uncle is coercive and manipulative, but Jacob prospers even there.  God’s hand is on him.  Now, he’s being led back home, the place that he left over two decades ago.  On the way there he’s going to have to encounter his brother, who he ran from 20+ years ago.  It’s this picture of….you and I know this journey….to face the things on the deepest level that haunt our souls.  We can’t run from them forever.  Jacob is throwing things ahead.  He’s sending gifts to his brother to try to appease him and to be accepted by him.  It’s on THIS journey, before he meets his brother, that he has an encounter with God.

Here’s how the encounter looked.  The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.  And Jacob was left alone.  And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  And he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”  But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”  And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.  Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

What’s going on?  What a strange passage!!  Can we all admit that that’s a weird passage?!  We don’t have to pretend that the Bible always makes sense at face value!  What a strong passage!  Jacob is camping.  He’s on a solo camping trip, he’s all alone.  He’s got his tent pitched and he’s ready to go and somebody shows up out of nowhere and goes MMA on him.  They wrestle through the night.  At some point, this man/God just touches his hip and he’s out of joint in his hip for the rest of his life.  Couldn’t you have done that earlier?  If all he had to do was touch his hip, was this really ever any sort of wrestling match worth betting on?  What in the world is going on here?!  I think if you read the passage from the perspective of God, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  But if you read the passage from the perspective of Jacob, it starts to make more sense.  Jacob saying: Oh yeah, we were wrestling and it was……we were face-to-face and we were going at him and I almost had him. If you were to ask my kids if they could beat me in wrestling matches, both of my sons, three years old and seven years old…..and I’ll admit I’m not exactly a physical specimen, but I’m pretty sure I can take them…..most of the time they would agree with you.  They’d go hey, I think it’s 50/50.  We’re hearing this interaction (of Jacob) from the perspective of Jacob.  We read it through the lens of our enlightened minds and go, “Come on!  That would never happen.”  God just appears out of nowhere and wrestles with Jacob throughout the night?  Come on!  The Bible is so ancient, it’s so primitive, it’s so out of touch.  And yet….  We’ve all have those seasons in life where we’ve wrestled with God, haven’t we?  We’ve all had those questions that we can’t seem to get resolution for.  We’ve all had these mysteries that sorta sit on our shoulders and weigh us down where we go God, I don’t get why you did that or didn’t do that and God, I don’t understand why that’s happening.  All of us, whether you’re a follower of Jesus this morning or not, have had these questions where we’ve wrestled with God.

My experience has been that those questions revolve around two primary things: 1) God, who are you?  Because I believe you are all-powerful and I believe you are all good and the Scriptures really teach me that.  But if you’re all-powerful and you’re all good, then do you not care?  That’s one of the questions we have.  For well over a year after my mom passed away, I wrestled with this: God, who are you?  The second question is like it. God, who am I?  Who am I to you? Do you love me?  Do I have worth?  I think all of the questions that we wrestle with as human beings—-and those are human questions—-if we were to boil them down and tear away all the layers, what we’d get down to are two primary questions:  God, who are you? and, in light of that, God, who am I?  So here’s what I want to do this morning.  I just want to give you the freedom to say, “I don’t always understand what God is doing.”  I want to give you the freedom to say, “I have questions.  I have doubts.”  I know, I get it.  In modernity and a version of Christianity that’s been entrenched in modernity, we have equated faith with certainty, but I want to assure you the Scriptures never do.  They never do.  People who walk by faith, they wrestle with God.  They struggle with God.  You read through the book of Job, ok?  Job interacts with God.  He wrestles with God.  It’s only when his friends come and they have all the answers that Job gets off track.  His friends start trying to answer the questions that aren’t intended to be answered.  They want to say, “Job, here’s why it happened.  And here’s how it happened.  And here’s a resolution.”  And God goes no, no, no, no, no, just wrestle with me.  This stinks!  Draw near.

David, the man after God’s own heart, will say to us in Psalm 73:3, why in the world do the wicked prosper? He’s like I don’t get it.  I’m trying to do everything right here, God, and the people that are against you, antagonistic towards you, are the ones you seem to be blessing.  What’s the deal?  You have John the Baptist, a friend and relative of Jesus the Messiah, sitting in a jail cell (Matthew 11:4-6) knowing that his days are coming to an end.  In fact, days later his head, literally, will be on a platter at Herod’s party.  He sends his disciples to go ask Jesus, “Hey, are you the one that we were waiting for?  Because this doesn’t look like it’s going to turn out good.”   What’s he doing?  He is wrestling!  He’s wrestling with God.  He’s not settling for easy answers.  You have the apostle Paul, once called Saul, who has this thorn in his flesh and he says:  Three times I pleaded….. (2 Corinthians 12:8).  It’s not this hey, three times I politely asked you, “Jesus, would you please take this away?” In the Greek it carries with it this emotive, deep longing of…..God, COME ON!! ACT! MOVE! DO!  I believe that you can.  Why aren’t you??

If you read through the Scriptures and look at people who follow Jesus, here’s what I think they would testify to you and to me — they would testify that the only faith worth having is an honest faith.  A faith that’s mixed with confidence and questions.  A faith that doesn’t always have it all figured out, but that says I’m unwilling to let go even when there’s questions.  I’m clinging to you.  I’m wrestling with you.  God, I am in this for the long haul.  Here’s the truth of the matter, friends—-Wrestling with God is essential towalking with God.  It’s not some sort of nice addendum to the Christian life.  It is central in who we are as followers of Christ.  That there’s things that are going to come up in our life where we’re not going to have the answers and we’re going to have to enter into seasons of struggling and seasons of wrestling and we are better for it.  I think a lot of the narrative that we’ve embraced as a church culture in the West is:  walking by faith means that you’re always certain, that you’re always confident, that you’re always sure and if you aren’t, then you’ve gotta get it figured out before you really consider yourself a follower of Jesus.  Dallas Willard, sort of tongue in cheek, said the way that we teach theology, typically, is you should believe this whether you believe it or not.   And that’s true, isn’t it?  We know we’re not suppose to doubt, but what happens when we do?  We know we’re “not suppose to question,” but what happens when we have questions?  You show me a strong friendship and I will show you two people who have the ability to wrestle with each other.  To disagree and to still say, “We’re in this together.” You show me a marriage where one person has just shut down and another person makes all the decisions, tells everybody what to think and what to do, and I will show you a straw man of a marriage.  It’s this question, it’s this interaction, it’s this wrestling where we really grow in relationship.

I want to show you the dynamics of how this happens in the life of Jacob.  Genesis 32:22.  Let’s look at this and sort of dissect it a little bit more to see what was going on in Jacob’s life and how did God use it.  This is after he sent all these gifts ahead of himself to try to earn the acceptance back from Esau.  The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.  And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”   Not only has day broken, but the narrator of Genesis is so poetic and it’s so beautiful…..there’s this breaking of day that’s happening, certainly, but there’s also the breaking of Jacob. Jacob’s being torn down.  Jacob’s being shown who he really is.  Over the course of this evening what’s been happening his entire life sort of comes to a focal point, to a fruition, and what we start to see is God is lowering him in order to eventually elevate him.  He’s breaking him in order to rebuild him.  It’s often in those unwelcome seasons of brokenness that we see the preceding unprecedented seasons of fruitfulness.

Jacob’s left alone.  He is vulnerable, he’s open and what I have found over the course of my life, and maybe you would disagree, but what I’ve found is when I’m most broken I’m most open.  Anybody want to agree?  I will to cling to my own abilities until I have nothing left to cling to.  Any amens out there?  This is the human story. This is human nature.  When Jacob is left alone, here’s what he starts to do.  He starts to be open.  He starts to be vulnerable.  He starts to interact with God in a different way.  We see that his isolation leads him to a place of revelation.  Here’s the thing for you this morning.  You may be going through one of those seasons of loneliness.  You may be left alone.  The word I want to speak over you is when you’re alone you have two choices:  loneliness or solitude.  It all has to do with the attitude.  God, are we going to wrestle with you or are we going to focus on the fact that we’re all alone.  Loneliness or solitude?  Jacob chooses solitude.  He engages with God.

The second thing we see is that he’s out of joint.  Not only physically with his hip, but life just feels like it’s just been thrown upside down and spun around and thrown out there.  The attempts he’s making to win the approval of his brother are falling short.  He thinks he’s walking into a war that there’s no way he’s going to win.  He is out of joint.  God is bringing him low.  It’s the picture of a farmer tilling the soil in the springtime before he starts to plant the seeds.  The soil that’s gotten hard after a long winter.  He needs to dig deep down into in order to start to break it apart, so that the seeds will take root.  If God just throws the seeds on top of Jacob, his heart isn’t ready to receive them.  It’s this process that God leads him through where he eventually comes to the place where he’s able to receive.  I love the way that John Bunyan, the great Puritan author, puts it: “Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think.  It’s wounding work; without the wounding there is no saving.”  It’s that tilling process.  We don’t like it, but we need it.  The song that Aaron just sang so beautifully for us by Jason Gray, he says, “The wound is where the light gets in.”

All of us get to that point in life where God is tilling the proverbial soil of our soul and here’s what we all have to deal with:  are we going to be the type of people in those seasons who tap out or cling on?  I call my generation the “tap out” generation.  When it gets hard, we leave.  When it’s tough, we’re gone.  What I love about Jacob is he knows he’s not going to win this battle.  He’s already lost it!  He says, “I won’t let go.”  A few weeks ago, I meet with a friend in my office.  He’s been through the valley of the shadow of death.  He’s lost some things that were dear to him.  Sitting with him in my office, I said to him, “Hey, I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t know why this all happened and I don’t know why God allowed it.”  To say anything else would have been disingenuous.  I could have gone theological as far as the problem and pain and the reason of suffering, but it wasn’t what he needed.  My encouragement to him was you have two choices:  you can either push away or you can cling on.  That’s the place we all get to in the wrestling with God.  Are we going to be the type of people who cling on or are we going to be the type of people who push away?

Sometimes God invites us into seasons of mourning rather than seasons of knowing.   And that’s okay.  We don’t need to trivialize those things.  As Christians we sometimes do, don’t we?  Here’s one refrain that just drives me nuts — Well, everything happens for a reason.  It’s like the Christian trump card.  BOOM!  What are you going to say to that?!  Well, does it?  Does everything happen for a reason??  If that’s true, we’ve got to find reason for some pretty crazy things, don’t we?  Do you know what the Scriptures actually say?  You can’t find any verse that says “Everything happens for a reason.”  What the Scriptures actually say is that God weaves together good out of everything for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)  He’s able to take these things, that maybe without Him would be disjointed, and He weaves them together for your good. You know what that means?  Not everything was good until God got ahold of it. {That’s for free.}

Jacob is alone, he’s wrestling, he’s out of joint, he’s disoriented.  Verse 26:  Then he (the man/God) said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  And he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.”  Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  What’s Jacob’s deepest longing? When we gets ahold of God, what does he want more than anything else?  Blessing.  He wants a good word spoken over him.  He wants to hear the voice of God saying you’re okay, I’ve got you.   I’m good.  I’m in control.  I love you.  He wants to hear that his life matters.  You know what’s interesting?  Jacob’s already been blessed.  If you read back through the Jacob narrative, it starts with him stealing a blessing from his older brother.  Remember, he dresses up as Esau.  He walks into Isaac, his father.  Isaac lays hands on him and Isaac blesses him.  But Jacob knows that blessing was never intended for him.  For the decades that follow, those words, rather than being seeds of hope in his life and goodness, actually start to turn on him, because the words spoken over him he knew wasn’t actually for him.  When He’s wrestling with Jacob, what does God ask him?  What’s your name? You go back to Genesis 27…..Isaac, his father, asked him the exact same thing:  What’s your name?  At THAT point, he did not answer honestly.  He said, “My name is Esau.”  Because I think that’s what I have to do to get blessed.  I have to lie about who I really am.  I have to ignore the deep, painful places of my soul where I didn’t add up.  I’ve got to put on a mask.  I’ve got to put on a show.  In order to be blessed, I’ve got to lie about who I really am.  But when God gets ahold of Jacob, He says, “Jacob, what’s your name?  I need you to say it.  I need you to admit it.  I need you to step out of the shadows.  I need you to come clean, because if you’re going to be blessed, it’s only going to be as you actually are, not as you wish you were.  So, Jacob, what’s your name?”  I imagine Jacob’s mind immediately goes back to putting on all of the clothes that were Esau’s, covering himself in fur that looked like Esau’s freaky hair and lying about his name.  At this moment, Jacob says, “I am Jacob.” My prayer is that some of you will have an “I AM JACOB” moment with God today.  This is who I really am.  And in saying “I am Jacob,” what Jacob’s saying is I’ve been the swindler, I’ve been the cheater, I’ve been the liar; I’ve lived up to everything my name meant and everything my name said.  It’s in this moment—this moment of brokenness, this moment of solitude, this moment of openness to God—God says back to him, “Ok, Jacob. Here’s the thing….drum roll…..your name is no longer Jacob.  You’re wrestling with me, Jacob.  You’re interacting with me.  You’re not pushing me away, you’re drawing me in and you’re saying I won’t let go! Therefore, your name is no longer Jacob, swindler, cheater, liar, thief.  It’s no longer that.  Although you have to come to terms with the fact that that’s reality.  Now your name is Israel, which means you strive with God.” Isn’t it interesting that Jacob’s name goes from cheating people—which is horizontal—-to wrestling with God.

Here’s what we start to see—that you and I, we have to admit that so much of the time God doesn’t answer the questions we have.  We don’t have the “everything happens for a reason and here’s the reason” type of life with God, do we?  If you do, I’d love to meet and talk with you.  I’ve got some questions for you.  I don’t.  We have the type of interaction with God where we go to him with questions and longing…..hey, will you bless me?  Will you make this situation turn out well?  Will you redeem the pain?  I’m going into battle with Esau and all I want, God, is for you to tell me that I’m going to win this battle.  That’s not what he hears.  What God does, so much of the time, is he doesn’t answer the question that we ask, he answers the question underneath the question underneath the question.  He answers the thing that’s deepest within us—the longing that we have most that just occupies it.  If we were to resolve that question the other ones wouldn’t matter quite as much.  Here’s what God does.  He says:  genuine prosperity (or blessing) is only grounded in renewed identity. It’s Him saying this is who you really are.  It’s the only way we can live with and wrestle with the questions of life.  Why does this happen?  Why did that happen?  Why did that person get sick?  Why did that person die?  I don’t know all the answers to those questions, but I’m going to wrestle with God and I’m going to cling to God and I’m confident that what’s more important to God is not that I gain something, but that I become someone.  That He starts to change me from the inside out.  Did you know that you’re invited to have an Israel type of faith?  The type of faith where we wrestle with God, where we strive with God.  Why is that a great and beautiful thing?  Because it means you’re clinging to him.  It means you’re saying, “I will not let you go until I hear from you—who am I?”  And, friends, that’s the gospel.  The gospel answers the question: who are you?  So if you walked in here JACOB, my hope is that you walk out ISRAEL.  You walked in maybe cheating and manipulating people.  I want you to walk out wrestling with God.  This is the gospel, because here’s what he says over you—-I have adopted you! (That’s identity, yes?)  I have called you my own.  I chose you before the foundation of the world that you would be holy and blameless in Christ.  That you would be adopted as sons and daughters of the King.  He will not always answer every question, but He always gives his blessing.  His blessing is found in the reality that YOU..Hello!!..you’re name is child of the one true King!!  You’ve been saved!  You have been redeemed!  That’s your name!!

As Jacob starts to walk away, he walks away with this limp.  It’s the “gospel limp,” friends.  It’s the “I have wrestled with God”….I’ve come with my questions, I’ve come with my doubts, I’ve come with my fears and I still have a lot of those, but I know who I am!  I am loved by Him and I am chosen by Him and I am called in Him and He is the rock that I am building my life on!  Struggling with God always leads to a transformation from God. He goes, “God, I’ve seen you face-to-face.  We’ve been intimate together.”  But that only happens through the authenticity.  It only happens through the wrestling and the struggling.  We often look for answers, but God just wants our honesty.  I don’t get it, God, but I know you’re good and I trust you.  Isn’t it fascinating that when Jacob wrestles with God and he comes out the other side….if you were to look at him you’d go, “Oh, man! He got the worst end of that deal! The rest of his life he’s just dragging a foot!”  But I think if you were to talk to Israel, what he would say to you is….I know it looks like an injury, but I want to tell you it’s a reminder.  It’s a reminder that I’m no longer Jacob but I’m Israel.  It’s a reminder that I can have a relationship with God that’s honest and I can wrestle with him.  It’s a reminder that I’m no longer who I was, but I am who He says I am!   I don’t know about you…I want that limp!  I want the reminder God, this is who you say I am.

If you’re thinking, “Paulson, I’m still a little bit held up on the ‘is it all right to question God?’  Is it all right to doubt?  Well, I would submit to you it is.  Jesus did.  That’s the trump card!  He’s in the garden going to the cross and he cries out, “Father, if there’s another way, let’s do it that way!  Father, I don’t get it!”  Luke 22:44 says he’s sweating drops of blood!  He’s so agonized by what he knows awaits him.  He’s wrestling with God. Then he clings to his Father and then surrenders to him — Not my will, but yours be done.  It’s interesting that in the same way that Jacob was left alone, your King, your Messiah, was left alone.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Therefore, because he was left alone, the Scriptures say that you never have to be abandoned.  The Scriptures are really clear in Romans 8:38 that nothing can separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Just like Jacob, Jesus was out of joint on the cross.  His bones had dislocated, his muscles moving around.  He was out of joint Psalm 22:14 says, but because he was out of joint, you can be made whole.  The Scriptures are clear in saying that by faith you are made complete in him.  Because he gave up his name…..the Scriptures say that he emptied himself of all that it meant to be God (Philippians 2:7) and that he took on the very nature of a servant and submitted to God, even to death on a cross.  He gave up his name and because he gave up his name and his glory, YOU can be filled with all of the fullness of God.

It doesn’t mean that we always get all the answers.  But it means that we have the most important answer.  The answer to the most important question:  God, do you love me?  And in the midst of all the chaos in the world, of all the pain and all the questions, His cross and His resurrection declare over you—You are loved.  You are chosen.  You’re forgiven.  That’s your new name.  You are redeemed.  So, friends, because of the work of Jesus, we can wrestle honestly with God AND walk confidently in his world!  And I would pray that you do.  My prayer is that this would be a safe place to say, “I don’t get it.”   A safe place to say, “I’ve got questions.”  A safe place to say, “God, I don’t understand why you didn’t heal this way and this time and God, I don’t understand why that didn’t work out the way that I hoped it would.”  Where the cross would hold us in such a way that it would allow us to cling to God, even when life doesn’t make sense.  Let’s pray.

Before we go running out of here, I just want to invite you to take a deep breath.  What’s going on in your life that maybe you’ve ignored and pushed down?  I don’t know about you, but I’m really good at that.  What are the things that if you were just honest with God and didn’t say what you thought He wanted to hear but what was really in you, what would you say?  This just in—he knows anyway!  Jesus, we come to you today. And in all of the brokenness of this world—we don’t have all the answers to it, we don’t have it all figured out, but Lord, in the midst of all of that and whatever life brings our way, whatever storms we find ourselves in, our desire is to be the type of people that say I’m holding on; I’m clinging to you, Lord.  We believe that you’re clinging even harder to us.  Lord, would you help us to be honest with you, to engage you not as we wish life were, but on the terms that life really is.  Father, as we’re honest with you and honest with ourselves, may we hear you speak a better name over us.  Lord, would be hear the truth that we are children of the One True King—adopted, saved, redeemed, made holy—because of the work of Jesus.  May that draw us in in every season.  May we cling to you, rather than running away.  God, as we’re honest, would you do a work that only you can do.  It’s in your name that we pray.  And all God’s people said….Amen.

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Worship Psalm 1222020-08-20T13:22:15-06:00

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Providence – Psalm 121

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PSALMS OF ASCENT: Providence   Psalm 121

All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the life of faith is painted as a journey.  At the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 12, Abraham, this father of faith figure, is called out from the land where his family had lived for years and he’s invited to follow God into the unknown.  I think in a lot of modernity, the life of faith has been painted as this sort of ‘settler’ type faith, where we know what we believe and we sort of set up shop there.  In the Scriptures though, this invitation from God is to follow Him.  There’s movement.  There’s journey.  I’d say it like this — The life of faith is the life of a pilgrim more than a tourist.  It’s somebody who’s going someplace, who’s desire is to follow in the way of Jesus, to live in the way that He lived and to approach the world in that fashion. As opposed to a tourist who just observes.  They’re just sort of along for the ride, but a pilgrim gets their hands dirty.  They’re involved in the nitty gritty of life and a pilgrim of faith is one who’s learning to live that way daily, following Jesus.

The Hebrew people had these traditions that were woven into the fabric of their culture.  That they were pilgrim people.  They were on a journey somewhere.  In fact, three times every year, they would make a journey to Jerusalem, or Zion.  They would go during the feast of Passover, the feast of Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles.  In each one of these journeys they would go from wherever they lived and they would walk, literally up, to Jerusalem.  The ancient writer, the poet who wrote the psalms, David who wrote many of these psalms, wrote these songs that they would sing along the way on their journey to Jerusalem.  They’ve come to be known as the Psalms of Ascent—it’s Psalm 120 through Psalm 134.  These fifteen psalms were songs that these Hebrew people would sing as they walked from wherever they lived up to Jerusalem.

In many ways, they were not only their songbook, but their guide book as well.  Inevitably, in any journey, you’re bound to encounter obstacles, you’re bound to encounter trials.  I can remember last summer when my family and I were traveling from Colorado to California to go on vacation.  We’re one of those crazy families where we drive all night.  Driving all night is better than having our kids awake in the car for most of the time and wondering if we’re there yet; or our car turns into this snack bar immediately if my kids are awake, so I’d much rather drive all night than have my kids awake while I’m traveling.  We left (my in-laws house in) Vail at about 8 PM and headed west for California.  After we passed through Grand Junction and Fruita, hit the Colorado border and got into Utah, it was about midnight.  We were on the eastern desert of Utah and there was this massive thunderstorm that rolled through.  One of those heat thunderstorms where the lightning is purple and the sky lights up with every single bolt of lightning.  You can see everything around you for miles! Not only that, the rain was just pummeling our car.  Kelly was driving at that point in time and pulled the car over and said, “Ryan, I cannot go on any farther.  I can’t see the road!”  I couldn’t see the road either, but I took over at the wheel and drove us through the thunderstorm then handed it back over to Kelly.

I think in life we encounter those moments, don’t we?  Those thunderstorm moments.  Every significant journey encounters some prominent obstacles.  There’s no way to avoid it.  The question is:  Where do we go when we encounter those thunderstorms of life?  Where do we go when the obstacles hit?  Psalm 121, where we’ll be camping out today, is one of those Psalms of Ascent.  It’s a journey psalm.  It’s a pilgrim song that the Hebrew people would sing on their way to Jerusalem.  Listen to the way this psalm reads:  I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.  The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

In light of the thunderstorms of life that we inevitably face—the health crisis, the job crisis, the life that seems to be teetering on the brink of crumbling—what do we do with Psalm 121?  God seems to make a promise that, at least depending on how you read it, He sometimes doesn’t keep.  He says, I will not let your foot be moved. Your foot’s not going to slip.  Or, Israel, I will watch over you.  I’ll be your shade, the sun won’t strike you by day.  If we were to go around the room this morning, we could probably tell stories where it seems like our foot has slipped or the sun has struck us, metaphorically speaking.  What do we do with this psalm that seems to suggest that God’s going to protect us in any and every situation?  All throughout the history of people who have followed the way of Jesus and, before that, people who were worshippers of the One True God, they had this way of reading this psalm.  Their way of reading this psalm wasn’t that God’s going to just keep you from all harm.  It wasn’t that He was going to prevent you from all harm.  The way that they read this psalm was that God was going to preserve you from all harm, during all harm, keep you in and keep evil from overwhelming you, that God was going to be gracious to sustain you.  We say it like this:  God doesn’t promise toprevent you from walking into harm, He promises to preserve you when you encounter harm.  That’s the promise of Psalm 121.  That’s the promise that God gives, that He’s going to accompany you and that this world is ruled by Him. Paul, in the book of 1 Corinthians (10:13), would say it like this:  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.  Notice this journey of walking with God is not a promise that He’s going to prevent you from temptation or from harm, but that He will give you a way out, He’s going to preserve you through it.  That’s the promise of the Scriptures all throughout, that’s the promise of Psalm 121.

It’s echoed in the lives of these heroes of the faith.  Joseph — As he’s walking with God finds himself in jail, but God doesn’t give up on him there.  God preserves him through that experience.  Daniel — He’s this exile in Babylon.  This devout follower of Yahweh. God doesn’t prevent him from the lion’s den, but He preserves him through it.  You have the Apostle Paul who finds himself walking this road of suffering and yet, God continues to strengthen him.  Paul would even say hey, some of these things that have been the hardest moments in my journey have actually been the times when God has shined through me most strongly.  The question isn’t whether or not we’ll face obstacles in life—-that’s inevitable.  The question is where do we turn when we do?

So listen to Psalm 121 because it’s going to give us some instruction here.  The psalmist writes:  I lift my eyes up to the hills.  From where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  As the Hebrew people would travel this journey, this walk of ascent up to Zion, they would see mountains in their view.  They’d look to the hills, they’d look to the mountains.  Up on the mountains they saw, there would have been shrines of worship.  The mountains were places where many of the worshippers of other gods would set up their temples or set up their Asherah poles.  The mountains, for many of the ancient people that were living during the times the Scriptures were written, were where they worshipped.  The author of this psalm is saying, When I get into a pinch and when I get into trouble and when I need help and when the journey of life has obstacles along the way, where do I look for my help?  Do I look to these other gods?  Do I look to these idols—- Baal, Molech, these Asherah poles—-do I look to those things?  The sun god, the moon god, the rain god.  When I am in need of help, who do I cry out to?  He says, no, I’m not.  I’m not going that road where I’m going to cry out to these other cultic gods.  I’m going to cry out not to the god who stands on TOP of those mountains, but I’m going to cry out to the God who MADE those mountains.

I started to wonder for me, maybe for you, too, what are some of the mountains that we look to.  What are some of the things we put our hope in?  I’ve noticed, for me, that when I’m in times of need and when I face obstacles or thunderstorms of life, I’ll admit to you the first person I look to……is ME.  The mountain of me.  I try to control the people around me and I try to control the things around me.  I try to assert dominance in order to make things go the way that I want them to go.  The main mountain I look to is the mountain of me, the mountain of self, the mountain of ‘I can do this’ and ‘I can make it through.’  The invitation of Psalm 121 is not to look to ourself, it’s not to look to anything else other than the God who spoke all of this into existence. What a beautiful invitation the Scriptures give us — my help comes from God, the maker of it all.  If that’s true, I just want to draw out this morning, three really quick things that we can take home and apply from this psalm.

The first is this — I love that the psalm assumes that we’re going to need help along the journey of faith. Where does my help come from, I’m in trouble!  I am struggling here.  Here’s the first thing I would say to you this morning is instead of ignoring your need,admit your need!  There’s going to be times in life, inevitably, when we will need help.  The main determining factor as to whether or not we find help, will be whether or not we ask for it.  I know, it’s rocket science!  But that’s the main determining factor.  The people who find themselves helped by God are the people who cry out to God—-God, I’m in need and I need you to show up.  All throughout the psalms, we see David the psalmist crying out, God, I’m in trouble, I’m in a dark spot and I need you to show up.  Psalm 121 implicitly invites us to live a life where we constantly cry out, where does my help come from because I need help.  Many people know that the Titanic set out on its transatlantic journey and they didn’t have enough life boats.  They had only 20 lifeboats when they would have needed probably close to double that for all the people on board.  But what’s really interesting is of those 20 lifeboats that were on board, 18 of them were actually released to help people get off of the Titanic.  But there were 472 open spots on those lifeboats! Four hundred seventy-two lives that could have been saved of the 1500+ people that died.  Almost a third of them could have been saved if they just would have said, “I need help!”  Maybe that’s where you’re at this morning.  Maybe this morning would be a time where you’d say back to God, “God, instead of ignoring my need or instead of turning to the mountain of self, or whatever else we look to to rescue us, {you’d say} I am in need of help today and I’m asking you to show up.”  Instead of ignoring your need,admit it.

Here’s the second thing the psalmist would invite us to—- instead of looking to creation, instead of looking to the things that we can control and that we can do and the achievements that we can sort of hold close and cling to, instead of looking to creation, instead of looking to the mountains, look to the creator, look to the maker of the mountains.  Then the psalmist gives us these really beautiful pictures of the way that God looks after his creation.  Listen to what he says:  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  The thing I love about this is that God doesn’t say, hey, if you behaved well, if you have it all together, if you do everything that I ask you to do THEN I’m going to look over you.  No, that’s not what the psalmist says.  The psalmist says that because God is the creator God, He cares for you.  PERIOD.  He cares for you regardless of what your life looks like.  He cares for you regardless of the places you’ve been and the mistakes that you’ve made.  The psalmist says God watches over you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  There’s never been a day He hasn’t looked after you, that he hasn’t cared for you.  We look to the creator, not to the creation because He cares deeply.  He doesn’t slumber, he doesn’t sleep.  God’s interest in you does not wax or wane depending on your spiritual temperature or how good you think you’re doing.  He’s consistent.  He is constant.  What’s interesting to me is as I read through this psalm, the word “you” is used nine different times — He watches over you…. He keeps you….  He guards you….  He protects you….   And every single time, it’s used in the singular form as if to say, this isn’t a general ‘He’s watching over you or y’all or all y’all,’ but He’s watching over you, specifically YOU and He cares for you.

Back in the time that this was written, one of the major gods that was worshipped by the other religions and the other tribes of this time was Baal.  One of the priest’s main jobs in their interaction with their god Baal was to wake him up.  So when Elijah was sort of going at it with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18, he says they should shout a little louder because maybe your god’s sleeping and maybe you just need to wake him up and maybe then he’ll show up and fire will reign down.  The psalmist is saying your God never sleeps and you don’t need to wake him up.  And you don’t need to dance for him and you don’t need to perform for him. You can trust in the creator, not the creation because He loves you, because He’s for you, constantly.  There’s never been a moment when that wasn’t true.  I love the way the great Puritan author, John Owen, puts it: “The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay of the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to him is to not believe that he loves you.”

The psalmist goes on and he not only says my God is not falling asleep, He is not slumbering, He looks over me and He keeps me every single day, but he goes on to say:  The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.  The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in….  So, we see not only that God cares for us and that’s why we can worship the creator and not the creation, but we also see that He keeps us, that He guards us, that He protects us.  It’s one of the main themes of this psalm.  That word “keep” (the way the ESV translates it) is used six different times — God protects you….  God guards you…. God keeps you…  He echoes what Psalm 46:1-3 would say about this God Yahweh, this covenantal God:  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  {Don’t you love that?  I love how real the Scriptures are.  They don’t say, Hey, good news!  You’re never going to face trouble.  No, they’re way more real than that.  It’s great news; you’re going to face trouble and in that trouble God will be your strength.} Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way {Can you imagine the earth giving way and having the type of trust in our God that we would say even then God, we’re going to trust you and even then we’re going to push into you.}  …though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.    God, we’re going to trust you that you are good even then.  What’s the psalmist saying, because we’ve all faced times when it seems like God’s protective hand seemed to slip off of our lives. What’s the psalmist saying?  The psalmist is saying NOT that you will not encounter trouble—-we’ve already talked about that—-but that I will never encounter a trouble or an evil that will sink my faith because God is the one who’s holding me tight.  No trouble we encounter will have the ability to get between us and God. That’s what the psalmist is saying.  He’s going to keep you, He’s going to hold you, in the midst of trouble, in the midst of struggle.  He not only cares for you, but He keeps you.  Eugene Peterson, in his great book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (which we highly recommend you read along with this series), paints this picture:  No amount of water in the ocean can sink a boat, unless it gets inside it.  That’s the picture the psalmist is painting, this picture that there can be all of this evil that is swirling and swarming around you, but God is this God who says I will not let it get inside of you and I will not let it sink your boat.  He’s echoing what Paul would write to the church at Rome in Romans 8:28, 31, 32.   That nothing can separate you from the love of God that’s in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Martin Luther, the great theologian and hymn writer, wrote the hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God and one of the verses of that hymn says:  And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed, His truth to triumph through us.  The Prince of Darkness grim, We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, For lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.   One little word is going to take him down.  So, instead of ignoring our need, we admit our need.  Instead of looking to creation, we look to the creator because our God cares and our God keeps what’s entrusted to Him.  Because that’s true, instead of living with uncertainty and instead of living in fear of the next obstacle we’re going to face, the next thunderstorm that’s going to blow through our life because hey, this just in—it’s going to come, it’s a matter of time……instead of fearing those things, the invitation is to trust in our great God, to have an abiding confidence.  That’s what this psalm is.  It’s a declaration of trust.  Where does my help come from?  It doesn’t come from the mountains, as beautiful as they are and as majestic as they are.  My help comes from the creator of the mountains.

For us as followers of Jesus, help has a name.  In Psalm 121, they didn’t have this full picture of God yet, but for us as new covenant believers, our help has a name.  His name is Jesus!  We can trust him in any storm and any thunderstorm in any season of life on the journey of faith.  He is faithful and we can trust him confidently, because he has already quieted the biggest storm that we will ever face.  The storm of the sin that separated us from God.  He quieted it with his life, with his blood, with his death and with his resurrection.  Hope has a name and if you don’t know him this morning, we would love for you to meet Him.  The name of our hope is Jesus the Messiah, who, in giving his life for us, invited us to confidently walk with Him regardless of whatever trials come in our life.  We are the type of people who say God, we trust you.  We’re walking with you.  We are looking to you for our help, because our help has a name and his name is Jesus.

Jude, in this little tiny letter at the end of our Bible, right before the book of Revelation, has this beautiful doxology and it’s where I’ll end our time together this morning, too.  Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling {Hope has a name. He’s not going to let the water get in the boat, so you can admit your need instead of ignoring it.  You can cry out for help, he’s not going to let you down.  He’s not going to let you stumble.}  …and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only god, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:24-25)   So as people who walk this pilgrim journey of faith, inevitably, troubles will come.  When they do, know that you can call out not to the creation, but to the One who with one word spoke it all into existence.  What a joy to walk with that God!  I pray that you will, in the name of Jesus.  Amen.

I was a college pastor for five years before the Lord led Kelly and I back to Colorado to pastor this church.  As a college pastor I would walk onto college campuses and had the chance every single week to engage college students with questions about faith.  I started to hear this resound that echoed off of university campuses all across southern California.  It was this resound:  I used to go to church.  I just didn’t get it.  I started to ask more questions and you know what was interesting?  It’s not Jesus that they didn’t like.  It’s not necessarily even YOU that they didn’t like.  Or me.  What they didn’t like was that church never felt like a safe place to struggle. What they didn’t like was that church never felt like a safe place to doubt.  What they didn’t like was that they felt like, in order to enter these doors in any sort of church, they had to have life figured out and they had to have it together.  In order to come (to church), they had to arrive at a place where they knew intuitively, if they were honest, that they would never get to.  They didn’t know that we all just play games!  Or do we?  They didn’t know that THIS is a safe place to struggle, a safe place to wrestle.  The question I want us to engage with this morning is: What happens when life falls apart?  What happens when we have questions that we don’t have answers to?  Do we push in or do we run away?

I have three kids: seven, five and three.  I have a boy, a girl and a boy.  My boys absolutely love to wrestle with me.  They love it!  My son Reid, who’s three years old, will come and jump on me unexpectedly.  Anybody else have that blessing on a daily basis?  I’m sitting there minding my own business and it’s like a cannonball and he lands on my lap!  He grabs my shoulders and says to me, “Daddy, I’m a jaguar!  Rowr!!”  For a few moments I pretend to be scared and then I go, “Well, I’m a lion!”  Then we’re rolling around and we’re wrestling on the floor.  I had a friend a number of years ago tell me, “I measure my parenting effectiveness by how much time I spend on the ground.”  I like that.   Our kids love that!  What is it about wrestling that our kids love?  They love the contact.  They love the clinging.  They love the physical interaction.  They love to feel you.  I think they also love to know that you’re stronger than them, even though they resist that.  They love to know that at a moment you could just flip them over, pin them, done, no conversation, no questions asked.  They love that! They desire that contact, that interaction.

What if God was the same way?  What if God loved the wrestling? What if far more than answering questions, God loved authentic doubt?  What if faith looked far more like wrestling than it did certainty?  What if?  What if church once again became a safe place to say, “I don’t have it all figured out.”  “I don’t know all the answers.” “There’s some things that haunt my soul.”  “I can’t figure out why we’re following God and they passed away.”  “I can’t figure out why I lost the job.”  Why the relationship crumbled. Why the health report didn’t come back the way we wanted.  I can’t figure it out.   What if church became, once again, a safe place to wrestle?

If you have your Bible, turn to Genesis 32:22-32.  We going to look at a passage where Jacob is going to wrestle with God.  Over the past few weeks we’ve been walking through this narrative of the patriarch Jacob. Remember, Jacob is born as a second born in a first-born society.  He’s loved way more by his mother than he is by his father.  He prefers to cook in tents rather than hunt in the fields.  All three of those things were stacked up against him from birth.  From birth, he’s trying to prove himself.  He’s trying to say, “I’m okay and I’m deserving of any love that should come my way.”  Throughout the course of his life, he has some successes.  He goes and lives with his uncle for 20+ years.  His uncle is coercive and manipulative, but Jacob prospers even there.  God’s hand is on him.  Now, he’s being led back home, the place that he left over two decades ago.  On the way there he’s going to have to encounter his brother, who he ran from 20+ years ago.  It’s this picture of….you and I know this journey….to face the things on the deepest level that haunt our souls.  We can’t run from them forever.  Jacob is throwing things ahead.  He’s sending gifts to his brother to try to appease him and to be accepted by him.  It’s on THIS journey, before he meets his brother, that he has an encounter with God.

Here’s how the encounter looked.  The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.  And Jacob was left alone.  And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  And he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”  But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”  And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.  Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

What’s going on?  What a strange passage!!  Can we all admit that that’s a weird passage?!  We don’t have to pretend that the Bible always makes sense at face value!  What a strong passage!  Jacob is camping.  He’s on a solo camping trip, he’s all alone.  He’s got his tent pitched and he’s ready to go and somebody shows up out of nowhere and goes MMA on him.  They wrestle through the night.  At some point, this man/God just touches his hip and he’s out of joint in his hip for the rest of his life.  Couldn’t you have done that earlier?  If all he had to do was touch his hip, was this really ever any sort of wrestling match worth betting on?  What in the world is going on here?!  I think if you read the passage from the perspective of God, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  But if you read the passage from the perspective of Jacob, it starts to make more sense.  Jacob saying: Oh yeah, we were wrestling and it was……we were face-to-face and we were going at him and I almost had him. If you were to ask my kids if they could beat me in wrestling matches, both of my sons, three years old and seven years old…..and I’ll admit I’m not exactly a physical specimen, but I’m pretty sure I can take them…..most of the time they would agree with you.  They’d go hey, I think it’s 50/50.  We’re hearing this interaction (of Jacob) from the perspective of Jacob.  We read it through the lens of our enlightened minds and go, “Come on!  That would never happen.”  God just appears out of nowhere and wrestles with Jacob throughout the night?  Come on!  The Bible is so ancient, it’s so primitive, it’s so out of touch.  And yet….  We’ve all have those seasons in life where we’ve wrestled with God, haven’t we?  We’ve all had those questions that we can’t seem to get resolution for.  We’ve all had these mysteries that sorta sit on our shoulders and weigh us down where we go God, I don’t get why you did that or didn’t do that and God, I don’t understand why that’s happening.  All of us, whether you’re a follower of Jesus this morning or not, have had these questions where we’ve wrestled with God.

My experience has been that those questions revolve around two primary things: 1) God, who are you?  Because I believe you are all-powerful and I believe you are all good and the Scriptures really teach me that.  But if you’re all-powerful and you’re all good, then do you not care?  That’s one of the questions we have.  For well over a year after my mom passed away, I wrestled with this: God, who are you?  The second question is like it. God, who am I?  Who am I to you? Do you love me?  Do I have worth?  I think all of the questions that we wrestle with as human beings—-and those are human questions—-if we were to boil them down and tear away all the layers, what we’d get down to are two primary questions:  God, who are you? and, in light of that, God, who am I?  So here’s what I want to do this morning.  I just want to give you the freedom to say, “I don’t always understand what God is doing.”  I want to give you the freedom to say, “I have questions.  I have doubts.”  I know, I get it.  In modernity and a version of Christianity that’s been entrenched in modernity, we have equated faith with certainty, but I want to assure you the Scriptures never do.  They never do.  People who walk by faith, they wrestle with God.  They struggle with God.  You read through the book of Job, ok?  Job interacts with God.  He wrestles with God.  It’s only when his friends come and they have all the answers that Job gets off track.  His friends start trying to answer the questions that aren’t intended to be answered.  They want to say, “Job, here’s why it happened.  And here’s how it happened.  And here’s a resolution.”  And God goes no, no, no, no, no, just wrestle with me.  This stinks!  Draw near.

David, the man after God’s own heart, will say to us in Psalm 73:3, why in the world do the wicked prosper? He’s like I don’t get it.  I’m trying to do everything right here, God, and the people that are against you, antagonistic towards you, are the ones you seem to be blessing.  What’s the deal?  You have John the Baptist, a friend and relative of Jesus the Messiah, sitting in a jail cell (Matthew 11:4-6) knowing that his days are coming to an end.  In fact, days later his head, literally, will be on a platter at Herod’s party.  He sends his disciples to go ask Jesus, “Hey, are you the one that we were waiting for?  Because this doesn’t look like it’s going to turn out good.”   What’s he doing?  He is wrestling!  He’s wrestling with God.  He’s not settling for easy answers.  You have the apostle Paul, once called Saul, who has this thorn in his flesh and he says:  Three times I pleaded….. (2 Corinthians 12:8).  It’s not this hey, three times I politely asked you, “Jesus, would you please take this away?” In the Greek it carries with it this emotive, deep longing of…..God, COME ON!! ACT! MOVE! DO!  I believe that you can.  Why aren’t you??

If you read through the Scriptures and look at people who follow Jesus, here’s what I think they would testify to you and to me — they would testify that the only faith worth having is an honest faith.  A faith that’s mixed with confidence and questions.  A faith that doesn’t always have it all figured out, but that says I’m unwilling to let go even when there’s questions.  I’m clinging to you.  I’m wrestling with you.  God, I am in this for the long haul.  Here’s the truth of the matter, friends—-Wrestling with God is essential towalking with God.  It’s not some sort of nice addendum to the Christian life.  It is central in who we are as followers of Christ.  That there’s things that are going to come up in our life where we’re not going to have the answers and we’re going to have to enter into seasons of struggling and seasons of wrestling and we are better for it.  I think a lot of the narrative that we’ve embraced as a church culture in the West is:  walking by faith means that you’re always certain, that you’re always confident, that you’re always sure and if you aren’t, then you’ve gotta get it figured out before you really consider yourself a follower of Jesus.  Dallas Willard, sort of tongue in cheek, said the way that we teach theology, typically, is you should believe this whether you believe it or not.   And that’s true, isn’t it?  We know we’re not suppose to doubt, but what happens when we do?  We know we’re “not suppose to question,” but what happens when we have questions?  You show me a strong friendship and I will show you two people who have the ability to wrestle with each other.  To disagree and to still say, “We’re in this together.” You show me a marriage where one person has just shut down and another person makes all the decisions, tells everybody what to think and what to do, and I will show you a straw man of a marriage.  It’s this question, it’s this interaction, it’s this wrestling where we really grow in relationship.

I want to show you the dynamics of how this happens in the life of Jacob.  Genesis 32:22.  Let’s look at this and sort of dissect it a little bit more to see what was going on in Jacob’s life and how did God use it.  This is after he sent all these gifts ahead of himself to try to earn the acceptance back from Esau.  The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.  And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”   Not only has day broken, but the narrator of Genesis is so poetic and it’s so beautiful…..there’s this breaking of day that’s happening, certainly, but there’s also the breaking of Jacob. Jacob’s being torn down.  Jacob’s being shown who he really is.  Over the course of this evening what’s been happening his entire life sort of comes to a focal point, to a fruition, and what we start to see is God is lowering him in order to eventually elevate him.  He’s breaking him in order to rebuild him.  It’s often in those unwelcome seasons of brokenness that we see the preceding unprecedented seasons of fruitfulness.

Jacob’s left alone.  He is vulnerable, he’s open and what I have found over the course of my life, and maybe you would disagree, but what I’ve found is when I’m most broken I’m most open.  Anybody want to agree?  I will to cling to my own abilities until I have nothing left to cling to.  Any amens out there?  This is the human story. This is human nature.  When Jacob is left alone, here’s what he starts to do.  He starts to be open.  He starts to be vulnerable.  He starts to interact with God in a different way.  We see that his isolation leads him to a place of revelation.  Here’s the thing for you this morning.  You may be going through one of those seasons of loneliness.  You may be left alone.  The word I want to speak over you is when you’re alone you have two choices:  loneliness or solitude.  It all has to do with the attitude.  God, are we going to wrestle with you or are we going to focus on the fact that we’re all alone.  Loneliness or solitude?  Jacob chooses solitude.  He engages with God.

The second thing we see is that he’s out of joint.  Not only physically with his hip, but life just feels like it’s just been thrown upside down and spun around and thrown out there.  The attempts he’s making to win the approval of his brother are falling short.  He thinks he’s walking into a war that there’s no way he’s going to win.  He is out of joint.  God is bringing him low.  It’s the picture of a farmer tilling the soil in the springtime before he starts to plant the seeds.  The soil that’s gotten hard after a long winter.  He needs to dig deep down into in order to start to break it apart, so that the seeds will take root.  If God just throws the seeds on top of Jacob, his heart isn’t ready to receive them.  It’s this process that God leads him through where he eventually comes to the place where he’s able to receive.  I love the way that John Bunyan, the great Puritan author, puts it: “Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think.  It’s wounding work; without the wounding there is no saving.”  It’s that tilling process.  We don’t like it, but we need it.  The song that Aaron just sang so beautifully for us by Jason Gray, he says, “The wound is where the light gets in.”

All of us get to that point in life where God is tilling the proverbial soil of our soul and here’s what we all have to deal with:  are we going to be the type of people in those seasons who tap out or cling on?  I call my generation the “tap out” generation.  When it gets hard, we leave.  When it’s tough, we’re gone.  What I love about Jacob is he knows he’s not going to win this battle.  He’s already lost it!  He says, “I won’t let go.”  A few weeks ago, I meet with a friend in my office.  He’s been through the valley of the shadow of death.  He’s lost some things that were dear to him.  Sitting with him in my office, I said to him, “Hey, I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t know why this all happened and I don’t know why God allowed it.”  To say anything else would have been disingenuous.  I could have gone theological as far as the problem and pain and the reason of suffering, but it wasn’t what he needed.  My encouragement to him was you have two choices:  you can either push away or you can cling on.  That’s the place we all get to in the wrestling with God.  Are we going to be the type of people who cling on or are we going to be the type of people who push away?

Sometimes God invites us into seasons of mourning rather than seasons of knowing.   And that’s okay.  We don’t need to trivialize those things.  As Christians we sometimes do, don’t we?  Here’s one refrain that just drives me nuts — Well, everything happens for a reason.  It’s like the Christian trump card.  BOOM!  What are you going to say to that?!  Well, does it?  Does everything happen for a reason??  If that’s true, we’ve got to find reason for some pretty crazy things, don’t we?  Do you know what the Scriptures actually say?  You can’t find any verse that says “Everything happens for a reason.”  What the Scriptures actually say is that God weaves together good out of everything for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)  He’s able to take these things, that maybe without Him would be disjointed, and He weaves them together for your good. You know what that means?  Not everything was good until God got ahold of it. {That’s for free.}

Jacob is alone, he’s wrestling, he’s out of joint, he’s disoriented.  Verse 26:  Then he (the man/God) said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  And he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.”  Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  What’s Jacob’s deepest longing? When we gets ahold of God, what does he want more than anything else?  Blessing.  He wants a good word spoken over him.  He wants to hear the voice of God saying you’re okay, I’ve got you.   I’m good.  I’m in control.  I love you.  He wants to hear that his life matters.  You know what’s interesting?  Jacob’s already been blessed.  If you read back through the Jacob narrative, it starts with him stealing a blessing from his older brother.  Remember, he dresses up as Esau.  He walks into Isaac, his father.  Isaac lays hands on him and Isaac blesses him.  But Jacob knows that blessing was never intended for him.  For the decades that follow, those words, rather than being seeds of hope in his life and goodness, actually start to turn on him, because the words spoken over him he knew wasn’t actually for him.  When He’s wrestling with Jacob, what does God ask him?  What’s your name? You go back to Genesis 27…..Isaac, his father, asked him the exact same thing:  What’s your name?  At THAT point, he did not answer honestly.  He said, “My name is Esau.”  Because I think that’s what I have to do to get blessed.  I have to lie about who I really am.  I have to ignore the deep, painful places of my soul where I didn’t add up.  I’ve got to put on a mask.  I’ve got to put on a show.  In order to be blessed, I’ve got to lie about who I really am.  But when God gets ahold of Jacob, He says, “Jacob, what’s your name?  I need you to say it.  I need you to admit it.  I need you to step out of the shadows.  I need you to come clean, because if you’re going to be blessed, it’s only going to be as you actually are, not as you wish you were.  So, Jacob, what’s your name?”  I imagine Jacob’s mind immediately goes back to putting on all of the clothes that were Esau’s, covering himself in fur that looked like Esau’s freaky hair and lying about his name.  At this moment, Jacob says, “I am Jacob.” My prayer is that some of you will have an “I AM JACOB” moment with God today.  This is who I really am.  And in saying “I am Jacob,” what Jacob’s saying is I’ve been the swindler, I’ve been the cheater, I’ve been the liar; I’ve lived up to everything my name meant and everything my name said.  It’s in this moment—this moment of brokenness, this moment of solitude, this moment of openness to God—God says back to him, “Ok, Jacob. Here’s the thing….drum roll…..your name is no longer Jacob.  You’re wrestling with me, Jacob.  You’re interacting with me.  You’re not pushing me away, you’re drawing me in and you’re saying I won’t let go! Therefore, your name is no longer Jacob, swindler, cheater, liar, thief.  It’s no longer that.  Although you have to come to terms with the fact that that’s reality.  Now your name is Israel, which means you strive with God.” Isn’t it interesting that Jacob’s name goes from cheating people—which is horizontal—-to wrestling with God.

Here’s what we start to see—that you and I, we have to admit that so much of the time God doesn’t answer the questions we have.  We don’t have the “everything happens for a reason and here’s the reason” type of life with God, do we?  If you do, I’d love to meet and talk with you.  I’ve got some questions for you.  I don’t.  We have the type of interaction with God where we go to him with questions and longing…..hey, will you bless me?  Will you make this situation turn out well?  Will you redeem the pain?  I’m going into battle with Esau and all I want, God, is for you to tell me that I’m going to win this battle.  That’s not what he hears.  What God does, so much of the time, is he doesn’t answer the question that we ask, he answers the question underneath the question underneath the question.  He answers the thing that’s deepest within us—the longing that we have most that just occupies it.  If we were to resolve that question the other ones wouldn’t matter quite as much.  Here’s what God does.  He says:  genuine prosperity (or blessing) is only grounded in renewed identity. It’s Him saying this is who you really are.  It’s the only way we can live with and wrestle with the questions of life.  Why does this happen?  Why did that happen?  Why did that person get sick?  Why did that person die?  I don’t know all the answers to those questions, but I’m going to wrestle with God and I’m going to cling to God and I’m confident that what’s more important to God is not that I gain something, but that I become someone.  That He starts to change me from the inside out.  Did you know that you’re invited to have an Israel type of faith?  The type of faith where we wrestle with God, where we strive with God.  Why is that a great and beautiful thing?  Because it means you’re clinging to him.  It means you’re saying, “I will not let you go until I hear from you—who am I?”  And, friends, that’s the gospel.  The gospel answers the question: who are you?  So if you walked in here JACOB, my hope is that you walk out ISRAEL.  You walked in maybe cheating and manipulating people.  I want you to walk out wrestling with God.  This is the gospel, because here’s what he says over you—-I have adopted you! (That’s identity, yes?)  I have called you my own.  I chose you before the foundation of the world that you would be holy and blameless in Christ.  That you would be adopted as sons and daughters of the King.  He will not always answer every question, but He always gives his blessing.  His blessing is found in the reality that YOU..Hello!!..you’re name is child of the one true King!!  You’ve been saved!  You have been redeemed!  That’s your name!!

As Jacob starts to walk away, he walks away with this limp.  It’s the “gospel limp,” friends.  It’s the “I have wrestled with God”….I’ve come with my questions, I’ve come with my doubts, I’ve come with my fears and I still have a lot of those, but I know who I am!  I am loved by Him and I am chosen by Him and I am called in Him and He is the rock that I am building my life on!  Struggling with God always leads to a transformation from God. He goes, “God, I’ve seen you face-to-face.  We’ve been intimate together.”  But that only happens through the authenticity.  It only happens through the wrestling and the struggling.  We often look for answers, but God just wants our honesty.  I don’t get it, God, but I know you’re good and I trust you.  Isn’t it fascinating that when Jacob wrestles with God and he comes out the other side….if you were to look at him you’d go, “Oh, man! He got the worst end of that deal! The rest of his life he’s just dragging a foot!”  But I think if you were to talk to Israel, what he would say to you is….I know it looks like an injury, but I want to tell you it’s a reminder.  It’s a reminder that I’m no longer Jacob but I’m Israel.  It’s a reminder that I can have a relationship with God that’s honest and I can wrestle with him.  It’s a reminder that I’m no longer who I was, but I am who He says I am!   I don’t know about you…I want that limp!  I want the reminder God, this is who you say I am.

If you’re thinking, “Paulson, I’m still a little bit held up on the ‘is it all right to question God?’  Is it all right to doubt?  Well, I would submit to you it is.  Jesus did.  That’s the trump card!  He’s in the garden going to the cross and he cries out, “Father, if there’s another way, let’s do it that way!  Father, I don’t get it!”  Luke 22:44 says he’s sweating drops of blood!  He’s so agonized by what he knows awaits him.  He’s wrestling with God. Then he clings to his Father and then surrenders to him — Not my will, but yours be done.  It’s interesting that in the same way that Jacob was left alone, your King, your Messiah, was left alone.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Therefore, because he was left alone, the Scriptures say that you never have to be abandoned.  The Scriptures are really clear in Romans 8:38 that nothing can separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Just like Jacob, Jesus was out of joint on the cross.  His bones had dislocated, his muscles moving around.  He was out of joint Psalm 22:14 says, but because he was out of joint, you can be made whole.  The Scriptures are clear in saying that by faith you are made complete in him.  Because he gave up his name…..the Scriptures say that he emptied himself of all that it meant to be God (Philippians 2:7) and that he took on the very nature of a servant and submitted to God, even to death on a cross.  He gave up his name and because he gave up his name and his glory, YOU can be filled with all of the fullness of God.

It doesn’t mean that we always get all the answers.  But it means that we have the most important answer.  The answer to the most important question:  God, do you love me?  And in the midst of all the chaos in the world, of all the pain and all the questions, His cross and His resurrection declare over you—You are loved.  You are chosen.  You’re forgiven.  That’s your new name.  You are redeemed.  So, friends, because of the work of Jesus, we can wrestle honestly with God AND walk confidently in his world!  And I would pray that you do.  My prayer is that this would be a safe place to say, “I don’t get it.”   A safe place to say, “I’ve got questions.”  A safe place to say, “God, I don’t understand why you didn’t heal this way and this time and God, I don’t understand why that didn’t work out the way that I hoped it would.”  Where the cross would hold us in such a way that it would allow us to cling to God, even when life doesn’t make sense.  Let’s pray.

Before we go running out of here, I just want to invite you to take a deep breath.  What’s going on in your life that maybe you’ve ignored and pushed down?  I don’t know about you, but I’m really good at that.  What are the things that if you were just honest with God and didn’t say what you thought He wanted to hear but what was really in you, what would you say?  This just in—he knows anyway!  Jesus, we come to you today. And in all of the brokenness of this world—we don’t have all the answers to it, we don’t have it all figured out, but Lord, in the midst of all of that and whatever life brings our way, whatever storms we find ourselves in, our desire is to be the type of people that say I’m holding on; I’m clinging to you, Lord.  We believe that you’re clinging even harder to us.  Lord, would you help us to be honest with you, to engage you not as we wish life were, but on the terms that life really is.  Father, as we’re honest with you and honest with ourselves, may we hear you speak a better name over us.  Lord, would be hear the truth that we are children of the One True King—adopted, saved, redeemed, made holy—because of the work of Jesus.  May that draw us in in every season.  May we cling to you, rather than running away.  God, as we’re honest, would you do a work that only you can do.  It’s in your name that we pray.  And all God’s people said….Amen.

PSALMS OF ASCENT: Providence – Psalm 1212020-10-21T14:38:21-06:00

PSALMS OF ASCENT: A Grateful Discontent Psalm 120

PSALMS OF ASCENT: A Grateful Discontent  Psalm 120

This morning we’re starting a new series called “The Psalms of Ascent.”  When Ryan came to me, I said, “Man, Ryan, that’s pretty courageous of you to ask me to have the first message for this series.  Thank you for sharing that.”  Then I read the psalm he asked me to preach on and I said, “Oh yeah, thanks a lot, Ryan!”  We’re all going to read it together.  Let’s read Psalm 120 together:  In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.  What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?  A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!  Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!  Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.  I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!  {I didn’t hear any amens on that!}

I go to Ryan and asked him, “Where do you want me to go with this psalm?”  He doesn’t tell us how we have to preach but we discussed it together.  Where I want to go with this psalm right off the bat is go to God, because I think we’re going to need His help as we look at this psalm.  So let’s bow our heads in a word of prayer.  Our dear heavenly Father, what an amazing God you are!  I thank you that you’re here.  I thank you that your Spirit is here reminding us of your truths and your teaching.  Lord, I ask that you will make this psalm come alive to us, because right now it seems like a distant thing.  Lord, would you infuse it with your presence and Jesus, thank you so much, because of your work we’re able to come together now like this.  We love you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  May you be lifted high and glorified.  I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

As I was thinking through this and trying to find some ways to identify with the psalmist, or writer of the psalm, there was a story in my life that happened back in high school.  I have to preface this by saying I’m kind of a wus when it comes to violence.  We saw how the psalmist was struggling with being in a violent context.  I’m kind of a wus like that.  I never got into fighting.  I do remember that in my senior year toward the end of the football season…..I was a football player, can you believe that?  One day we came in from practice.  It was cold, muddy, mid-November.  We had done terrible.  We come in there…..my locker was here….on this side was my friend Don and on this side was a fella named Charlie.  I could tell that tensions were rising, but I didn’t know anything about the circumstances.  I was taking off my shoulder pads, my jersey and I was working on my shoes, these cleats, and all of a sudden there was this major fight going on over my head!  Charlie had jumped on the bench, jumped over me, grabbed Don, pushed him into the locker.  Don fought back and I’m right there in the middle of this thing, so I take off my shoe and start batting them on their heads, trying to break these two stupid dudes up.  At the time it seemed like a long fight.  It was probably 12 seconds, if that.  Some other guys came over and we were able to break them up.  The coach came in and raked them over the coals.  I could never quite shake that.  That sound of flesh punching flesh.  That wet sound.  It still bothers me!  I felt trapped! There was my locker….there’s Don….there’s Charlie.  I went to the coach and asked for a different locker.  I never got it.  Actually, Don and Charlie got to be on speaking terms.  Sometimes it takes a good fight to be able to talk.  I was still frustrated and angry!  I felt trapped in that situation.  I can remember thinking, “I can’t wait until I go to college next year and get out of this town!”

I think the psalmist is kind of caught in a similar situation.  I think he’s feeling trapped, he’s feeling closed in.  I think that because it may not jump out, but that first verse that says:  In my distress…  That word, distress, comes from a root word that means “narrow,” that means “confined,” that means “closed in.”  I always get the picture that the psalmist is feeling like the walls of his life are beginning to close in on him.  He’s frustrated because of the lying and deception around him.  He’s frustrated because of the violent conditions of his society that’s there.  I like how The Message says it:  Deliver me from the liars, God!  They smile so sweetly but they lie through their teeth.  That gives you a little bit of flavor about what this writer’s going through.   I don’t know if these were gossips talking behind his back.  I don’t know if he was someone who had kind of entered into an agreement with some people and then when he turned his back, they had no intention of following through.  I’m not sure what it was, we don’t know the circumstances, we just know he was ticked.  I look at this ‘they smile sweetly,’ and I have to admit that I don’t have to go very far to think about some sweetly smiling individuals.  Deliver me from….from the advertisers that put these products up on the TV and say, “If you just try this product, you’ll turn out like this hunky model.  Dan, you may even have hair!”  Deliver me from lawyers who get on TV and say, “Hey, you can get rich quick by just suing the pants off everybody around.”  A few weeks ago I was able to go to a conference in California.  We were flipping through the channels there and there was this lawyer I see all the time on our TV….and he was out there in California.  I was ticked.  If I said his byline, you’d all recognize him.  It bugs me.  Deliver me from politicians.  I’d better not go into that!  Deliver me from those religious celebrities that say that if you just do this, this and this and you do it my way, you’re going to please God.  You’re going to be able to go on and be assured of heaven.  Oh and by the way, 25 bucks will really help this thing continue…..     Deliver me from those who smile sweetly, but they lie through their teeth.  I can identify with the psalmist in that.

I can also identify with the psalmist when he’s talking about living in a violent type of society.  Verse 5:  Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tent of Kedar!  Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.  I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!  That’s a pretty strong statement: I’m for peace, but they’re for war.  I wanted to find out more about Meshech and Kedar so we could understand that.  {Dan puts up maps of the Middle East}  The psalmist is writing from Israel.  Meshech is on the north end of modern-day Turkey.  It’s on the shore of the Caspian Sea.  The people of Meshech…it was quite a description of these folks that I found.  They had two types of trade/commerce.  They traded in copper vessels and they traded in people.  People?  That’s right.  They would go to their neighbors and kidnap them then sell them and make lots of money.  That was their reputation.  They were a brutal people.  An interesting description I found about Meshech — they were barbaric, brutal and “they were harsh and tough people, not advisable to live with or especially not to have a conflict with!”  Well, where was Kedar?  Kedar is in Saudi Arabia in the desert.  That’s about 1000 miles in between.  It’s pretty hard for that guy to live in both neighborhoods at the same time. Kedar had a similar reputation.  They were one of the twelve tribes of Ishmael.  They were the ones that stepped into the military role for that nation.  Militarily, they were strong and swift and they were ruthless. Ruthless in the fact that when they conquered someone they would seek to intimidate them and break their will and they did it in horrible ways.  Meshech and Kedar.  It seems what the psalmist is saying is, I live in very violent times and I’m tired of it!  I don’t live near the Caspian Sea or down in Saudi Arabia, but where I live is just a violent culture.  I think we can identify with that especially as we look at this past week.

But it still brings the question where do we go with this psalm?  Come back to the psalm:   In my distress I called to the Lord…..    Distress….I just hate these liars.  I’m frustrated with these violent people.  You know, Lord, I’ve got a solution.  What will you do to them?  I think arrows are pretty good.  Or burning coals are even better.  The psalmist was pretty desperate. It reminds me of my swinging football cleats.  I was doing it with a lot of anger.  I was frustrated.  Where do we go with a psalm like this?  Especially as we’re trying to kick off a brand new series.

As I said, the series is called “Psalms of Ascent,” so we have to figure out what psalms of ascent really are. Aaron gave a very good overview of that.  As I was looking up the Psalms of Ascent and trying to see what it meant…..it’s 15 psalms.  Psalm 120 is the first one, so it goes to 135.  In this hymn book of the Jewish people, which is the book of Psalms, you have a little chorus book of 15 songs.  They use these on a regular occasion. People have tried to figure out what these mean—Psalms of Ascent.  Sometimes you see “songs of degree.”  One commentary I read, the author thought it meant songs at which they sang at a different key and they kept going up one key at a time.  I’m thinking, “Wow, that’s two octaves.  That’s pretty high when you get there.”  I don’t think that was it.  Some people believe it was when the Jewish people were at the temple and they went from the Court of Women to the Court of Israelites and went up 15 steps and said a psalm on every step.  That could be, that makes sense.  Songs of Degree…..some people feel it’s degrees of growth and maturation.  So it’s different steps in our discipleship life, different steps in our walk with God.  That could be, that makes sense, too.  But I’ll go back to what Aaron said:  I believe what the purpose was of these Psalms of Ascent was as the Jewish people came to Jerusalem, they would sing these psalms together.  There was a command that God had given them that three times a year every Jewish male was suppose to go to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast.  So you had these kind of pilgrimage journeys where you’d start from your village, go out to the main thoroughfare and all of the sudden you’d join others.  They’d become hundreds and they’d become thousands as they were making their way to Jerusalem.  They would recite these psalms together as they were going.  Why is it called “ascent?”  Because Jerusalem sat at the top of the Jerusalem mountains and any place in Israel you had to go UP to get to Jerusalem.

Deuteronomy 16:16 gives these festivals:  Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths.  They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed.    Each one of those feasts has some significance in the redemptive history of Israel, but also in the agricultural cycle of Israel.  First we have Spring feasts.  The feasts really start with Passover.  Passover — Wonderful story about how God delivered His people from Egypt.  Passover and Unleavened Bread go together.  Passover is where they had to slaughter a lamb and put the blood on the door and then the Death Angel passed over and then they were removed from Egypt by God’s mighty hand.  But there’s a third feast that falls in that same cycle and it’s about three days after Passover.  It’s called “First Fruits.”  It marks the beginning of the barley harvest, which is the earliest harvest that the Israelites have.  What they were required to do was come with an offering that they would give to God of that first harvest.  What that signifies is that they were bringing the very first harvest that they received, they were giving it to God and trusting God that He’d take care of the weather, He’d take care of all the conditions and He would bring in more harvests after this.  In other words, they were stepping out in faith, trusting God and thanking Him.

The second are the Summer festivals.  It’s only one festival and it’s the Festival of Weeks.  It’s about 50 days or seven weeks after Passover and after First Fruits.  We know it as Pentecost, but it lines up with the wheat harvest.  They would bring an offering of the wheat harvest to God.  They came and celebrated again their gratefulness to God.

Finally, you have the Fall Festivals and there were three.  These were spread over about twenty days.  People weren’t required to come to all three festivals, but they were required to come to the last one, the Festival of Shelters/Tabernacles.  It started with the Festival of Trumpets, where trumpets would sound in the temple and it signified that we’re calling people to come to this place of worship and to come together and we’re going to deal with our sin.  That’s where you have the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.  It wasn’t really a festival, it was more of a fast in which they would come before God as a nation and through the use of a scapegoat, God would cleanse the nation ritually of their sin.  But, five days later, that would lead to having this festive occasion called the Festival of Shelters/Tabernacles, where everybody lived in tents.  Everybody kind of remembered how God led the Israelites through the wilderness as they lived in tents.  They would also celebrate the last harvest in their agricultural cycle and they would say, “God, thank you.  You’ve brought the harvest in safely. We now have plenty as we’re getting ready for the winter rains and have to wait a long time before we can plant again.”  So there were these three festivals that they were required to come to.

So where does this psalm fit in with that?  Where does a psalm….the fellow seems so discontent, so dissatisfied. How does it fit into getting involved in a pilgrimage?  Or putting your face toward Jerusalem to go to the place where God dwells?  The more I thought about that the more I realized that when I’m really content, everything’s going hunky-dory, I’ve got it all together, I’m not going to move any place.  I begin to MOVE when my heart breaks, when I’m dissatisfied, when I’m frustrated, when I’m angry.  That’s what motivates me to start thinking, “There’s gotta be something better!  There’s gotta be something more!”  Only as we are discontent/dissatisfied—-dissatisfied with our surroundings or our circumstances—-will we long for something better, will we start movingtoward God’s best.  I wrote that on Thursday, but as I was thinking about that I realized I hate the word ‘only’ so scratch it out.  I like the statement AS we are discontent, we long for something better.  God can use any number of things to get us moving, I know that.  But I know in my own life, when I’m frustrated, when I’m discontent, when I’m dissatisfied, THAT’S when I begin to move, that’s when I begin to ask, “God, where is all this stuff you’ve promised?  Why do I live in a world that seems so violent?  Why do we lie so much?  Why? Why? Why?”  Eugene Peterson has a great quote: “The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God….  {And I would say that phrase, ‘wholeness in God,” is what the word ‘shalom’ or ‘peace’ really means.  We’re on a quest for shalom.}  A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, or before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace….   The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world.  It is a renunciation of the lies we have been told about ourselves, our neighbors, and our universe.”   It’s that opportunity we have to be able to realize the dissatisfaction, the discontentment that is welling up inside of us really can be used by God to take us further and deeper into who He wants us to be.  That’s why I think Psalm 120 has something to do with being grateful for our discontent, because it’s the beginning of getting involved in the journey.

I want to share some thoughts/observations about Psalm 120.  I go to the one verse in Psalm 120 that really jumps out at me that I think is the key to this psalm.  It’s verse 1:  In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me.   When I read this psalm a number of times, in the beginning I skipped that verse.  I don’t know why.  I kinda jumped because I was into some of the details….the arrows, the burning coal.  In my distress I called to Lord, and He answered me.  First observation, let our distress drive us to call out to God.  When I say let it drive us, that means we’ve got to acknowledge it.  That means we’ve got to call it what it is.  That’s where I think the psalmist does such a great job.  I don’t know who he is, or who she is.  The writer just lays it out there — I’m sick of this!  You may not have those confining situations that the psalmist talks about.  You may not be all upset about people gossiping.  You may not get whacked out about violence like I do.  I don’t know what it would be in your life that is making you feel trapped, where the walls seem to be closing in.  Maybe it’s a job that just keeps eking away more and more of your time and robbing you of that precious time you want to have with your family.   Maybe it’s a family that has stopped relating.  Maybe it’s the fear of raising kids in a world like this.  Maybe it’s just reading headlines.

I’ll go back to my week and share what was kind of trapping me and making me feel frustrated.  It was a sadness when I heard that Eli Wiesel passed away.  Eli Wiesel was a holocaust survivor.  He committed his life to making people aware of the holocaust, that they would not forget what took place.  The thing that was interesting to me was his death occurred right when I’m reading a book on Auschwitz, the extermination camp.  I started about a week and a half ago {it’s summertime and I should be reading some fluffy beach book}.  I’m seeing these depictions of violence, of man against man.  I’m wondering how in the world can something like that happen. What a debauchery!  Then we get the news about Dallas.  What a debauchery!  Five policeman killed trying to protect people who were upset with them.  In the process, they lose their lives.  Throughout the week, Channel Nine news had a special on the rise of heroin addiction in our community.  As Kerry and I watched those little reports every night, it was startling, it was numbing to see kids, in the prime of their life, sitting on a bike path shooting themselves with heroin and realizing that it’s going on (all over).  In the process of all this this week, I’m trying to prepare for this message and I’m sitting there frustrated and then I go to the message.  I start working on Bible verses.  Then I watch the news and I get frustrated.  Then I go back and work on….    It’s like, come on, Dan, you’re the one who’s suppose to be preaching on In my distress I called to Lord….   So I was like, oh, I should call to the Lord.  So I began to lay it out to Him and to call on Him.   Of all those things (that frustrated me this past week), I was extremely brokenhearted about the heroin addiction and I just hurt.  So I began to call out to God about that.  In the process…..I don’t know if it was a little voice, I don’t know if it was an inner conviction, but all of a sudden, I began to realize hey, I’m a man of peace and I live in a world that calls for war.  I identify somewhat with the psalmist here.  Wow!  A man of peace.  I want to say to each and every one of you that has Jesus Christ in your hearts, you are people of shalom.  You are people that God has transformed and changed from the broken flesh that we are because Jesus has reconciled us to God’s intention. Is there any wonder why we’re discontent with the world we live in??

Look at Colossians 1:19-20 — It was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in , and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace {shalom} through the blood of His cross.  Jesus came to reestablish the shalom of peace that God had intended when He created this world.  He came to bring peace between sinful human beings and a holy God.  He came to bring peace/shalom between others.  He came to bring peace and shalom between ourselves as we wrestle with who we are.  I thought this was a great little quote I read this week:  “When Jesus died on the cross, He signed the peace treaty with His blood and ended for eternity the war between humanity’s sin and God’s holiness.”  He signed a peace treaty and his blood covers us.  Is it any wonder that we are dissatisfied with the broken world we live in?  I just want to encourage us not to get too content with our surroundings, but let’s be dissatisfied….

One of the things that struck me about that, too, is as I put it in the context of the Psalms of Ascent, I realized here are Jewish people who are coming together.  They’re looking towards Jerusalem, where they know the throne of God is, and they’re going to go worship together and they’re going to celebrate together and have a great time.  They’re motivated to move in that way.  But then they’re going to come back.  And they’re going to come back to the same broken places, with the same violent people and the same gossips and liars.  The Psalms of Ascent do not talk about escape.  No!  They talk about a pathway to God and then we can come back to the same place.  I think that many times in our American Christianity we have developed much more a theology of deliverance.  Whereas the rest of the world has developed a theology of endurance.  God calls us to come back, to live among the violent people, to live among the gossips, but to live with shalom, that peace that only God can bring into a broken situation.  Therefore, we go on pilgrimage to Him, but we return.

Second observation might seem obvious — Be honest about it!  When we cry out to God, be honest about it. Don’t try to cover it up with some pious language.  I don’t know how we’ve done it, but I’ve grown up in the church and know the churchianity route and I’ve learned how to pray pious prayers.  Impressive prayers.  God’s not impressed, because He knows what’s going on in my heart.  He knows if I’m spitting angry, so why not just be angry at God?  The psalmist was.  What a great example.  I think God encourages us to because He knows how He created us and He doesn’t want to see us stuff it down.  If you’re angry, be angry at God because He’s big enough to take it.  If you’re brokenhearted, be brokenhearted with God because He’ll pick you up and hold you.  Many of you know this — I am a worry-wart.  I’m a wus and a worry-wart!  God knows I worry, but you know what, when I worry I go to those things that are closing me in and I just hold them to myself and I worry. And I keep them with me instead of lifting them up to God.  Philippians 4:6-7 says:  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God {the shalom of God}, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Again, I want to show you what The Message says about this (same verse) because I love how it translates that word peace:  Don’t fret or worry.  Instead of worrying, pray. {Did you catch that? You can either worry or you can pray.  You can either worry or you can call out to God.  Worry keeps me from going to God with my distress.  I can still take my anxiety and give it to Him.}  Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns.  Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.  It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.  We have to acknowledge that so we go to God in pure honesty, trusting that He will take us.

One last observation—and to me it’s a key observation coming from this verse.  God hears and God answers. God hears when we go to Him even when our verbiage is a little rough.  God hears.  And God answers.  I can’t tell you what the answer may be.  In fact, when I go to this psalm, I’m convinced, as I studied this psalm, that God’s answer to this person is not in this psalm.  Some commentators have thought the arrows and burning coals is really God’s response when the psalmist says what should they get.  Tell you the truth, that’s more my answer.  That’s like my football cleats banging somebody’s head.  I don’t think God’s answer is in this psalm.  And I think that’s a wonderful gift to us, because if his answer is in this psalm we’d say that’s gotta be our answer, too.  I think God communicates to each and every one of us, individually, uniquely, with His answers for our lives with what we are struggling with, what we feel closed in about, what seems to be hampering us from looking toward Him.  He answers us.  If we’re going to receive those answers…..we’ve got to listen.

That was one of the things I was asking myself—how do I listen better?  How do I listen period to God?  How do I tune my heart to be able to receive what He has?  There’s all kinds of ways to do it, but is there something in this psalm that can help me.  This wild psalm where he’s complaining about violence, he’s complaining about lying, he wants them to get pierced with arrows, burned with coals…   I think there is something…..I don’t think I can say IN the psalm, but OF the psalm, because this is the first psalm of the Psalms of Ascent. Therefore, I needed to step back and take a look at the context of how these people were singing it.  They’re singing it on a road to pilgrimage.  They’re headed to Jerusalem.  Then I asked myself, “I wonder what it would be like if I started everyday, during this series that we’re going to have, just reminiscing, meditating upon this festival cycle.  Would that soften my heart to God?  I wish I could tell you I got this idea two weeks ago.  It came to me on Thursday so on Friday morning I decided to do this.  Wouldn’t you know, at The Guys Must Be Crazy (early morning men’s Bible study), without me even trying, we started to do it.  Reflecting on the festivals.  The Spring festivals, Passover — Yes, the Israelites were in Egypt. Yes, the Passover lamb…the blood was put on the door, but guess what? Jesus was the perfect Passover lamb.  And Jesus himself came in and lived in this world with everything that we had, yet he sacrificed his pure self and his blood was taken and covers us. The Death Angel has no control over us any more.  We are freed from the fear of death.  We can live this life in fullness, because Jesus, our Passover Lamb, came.  We can approach Unleavened Bread and we can realize the leaven can be cleaned out of our lives, because Jesus has cleansed us.  He has done the work.  We can start this journey following Him.  First Fruits — three days later —- Jesus rose from the death he had on the cross.  He was the first fruits from among the dead and He invites us to come and join Him in his resurrection of new life.

Then we come to the Summer Festival, the Festival of Weeks, fifty days later, the Festival of Pentecost.  The Jews were celebrating how God provided the harvest for them, but we celebrate how God provided His Spirit for us.  And how his spirit comes and indwells us and we become the temple of God ourselves and every place we walk, He goes with us.  He empowers us.  He fills us with teaching and with knowledge.  Yes, Jesus is the Passover Lamb, He’s the First Fruits from the resurrection, but because of that, we now have God himself dwelling within us….   We come to the Fall Festivals and we hear those trumpets blasting, calling the people to come worship God and you know what, we can worship God EVERY day.  We don’t have to go to Jerusalem.  You don’t have to come here to South.  We can worship God everyday because His temple is within us and He calls us to come into His presence.  When we come into his presence, we realize how unclean we are.  Yeah, lying lips, violence….sure, I look at other people, but guess what, I’m whacking people in the process.  That’s that Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur — realizing that God has cleansed me because Jesus himself became the scapegoat that carried my sin out of the camp and it never came back.  And it brings me to this Festival of Tabernacles, where the Jews were looking back at when they lived in tents, but we now look forward to how God himself is going to tabernacle with us.  The day is going to come when He is going to dwell among us and there’s not going to be any separation.  When I began to mediate upon that (the Festivals), when I began to see that cycle of redemption, it filled my heart with gratitude.  It enabled me, at that point, to be able to go before God with my frustration and say, “God, I know you’ve got an answer.  I’m going to trust you for it because this is amazing.  Thank you!”

The Psalms of Ascent — I invite you to go on that journey for these next 8 to 10 weeks.  I invite you to reflect on these festivals each day and realize those Jews long, long generations ago were headed toward Jerusalem to worship God.  We can worship Him now!

I’m reminded of my locker room encounter — Don and Charlie.  Don was the first of my high school classmates to die.  He died about a year (after graduation) in Vietnam.  I got word while I was a freshman in college.  I was saddened for Don—I didn’t know if he was a follower of Christ.  It reminded me again of that fight and…..oh, Charlie.  It made me frustrated at him.  Twelve years ago, I went home to visit my mom and dad.  Mom told me Sara got married.  (Sara was probably the cutest girl in our youth group.  She sang at my wedding.  She had a beautiful voice and was a godly woman.  She had married an older gentleman and lived on a farm together.  He died of cancer.  Five years later she remarried.)  I asked mom who she married. Guess what?  She married Charlie!  My first response was, “She married Charlie??!!  What happened to Sara?”  My dad looked at me and said, “Dan, I think you should ask ‘What happened to Charlie?'”  They told me that Charlie had accepted Jesus as his savior and that he’d been transformed.  They said that Sara and Charlie were united in a wonderful marriage.  I called Charlie that night.  He sounded just like he did in high school.  I’m still picturing a guy with a vile temper and yet, he said, “Dan, it’s great to hear from you!  I gotta tell you!  I’m a follower of Jesus!”  I said, “I heard that!”  He told me the whole story.  He told me how he now worked in the youth group and would pore into kids.  In two weeks from that phone call he was going to go with a group of people to Haiti and they were going to minister together.  He said, “Dan, this is the best!  I just love what God’s doing!”  You know, in my distress, cry out to God and He answers, even when we’re not listening for that answer.  He’s still working.

Let’s pray.  Our dear heavenly Father, what an amazing God you are!  And how amazing is the gospel, the Good News.  That you came and sacrificed yourself to be our Passover Lamb, our scapegoat.  You’ve removed our sins as far as the east is from the west.  You came and dwelled within us and you call us to come and dwell with you.  What a tremendous God you are!  Lord, as we begin this journey of ascents, would you teach us from the experience of the Jewish people.  But Lord, would you teach us today, in our context, how to approach you? How to step by step ascend to your throne.  We praise you and thank you.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray this.  Amen.

PSALMS OF ASCENT: A Grateful Discontent Psalm 1202020-08-20T13:25:19-06:00
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