We’ve been looking at Psalms for the past seven weeks. I hope one thing you have learned in this series is that the Psalms are versatile. There is a Psalm that fits very succinctly and successfully into whatever your life struggle is.
Whether you need HOPE…
...When it Seems like No One can help.
…Or When the world is falling apart.
…Or When You Can’t Escape Negativity…
…Or When You Can’t Figure out number three across on your daily crossword puzzle.
(OK. That last one wasn’t part of our series, but still…the Psalms would offer hope in that situation. See: A five letter word for the Savior of the world.)
But what happens when you no longer need hope? What do you do then?
Psalm 30 has the answer for us. Before we begin dissecting the text, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. Exalt the One Who Exalted You
Psalm 30 is written by a guy named David. He was perhaps the greatest Biblical musician of all time.
Greater than Chris Tomlin.
Greater than Amy Grant.
Greater than whoever wrote “Zacchaeus was a wee little man.”
In fact, he’s the first guy to author more than one song that is preserved in the Bible. (In the Bible there are songs recorded by “artists” prior to David. One was written by Moses and his sister Miriam. Another song by Moses and his assistant Joshua. One more song was written by a lady named Deborah and a guy named Baruch. But since it’s their only song, you might call them a one-hit wonder.)
David, on the other hand, wrote 73 different Psalms. Since there are only 150 Psalms, that means we he was only 2 Psalms short of writing fifty percent of all the Psalms.
Psalm 30 is a Psalm written late in David’s life. He’s had a lot of practice and gotten very adept at lyrical word play. Check out verse 1:
I will exalt you, LORD, for you lifted me out of depths. (v.1)
It’s perhaps a bit difficult in English, but do you see the word play?
The subject and objects are reversed,
But the verbal idea remains the same:
I will lift up the Lord,
Because the Lord lifted me up.
Lifting God up is exactly what David does. Check out verses 1-3 and count up the number of times that David refers to God as doing a benevolent action:
You lifted me out of depths.
Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
You spared me from going down to the pit. (v.1-3)
Did you count?
God is the doer of four benevolent actions.
He lifted David out of the depths.
He healed David.
He brought David up from the realm of the dead.
He spared David from going to the pit.
Granted, David is listed as doing one of the actions.
But that one action is to call on God to help him.
100% of David’s praise EXALTS God.
What percentage is it in your life?
For example, if you don’t have COVID how do you talk about it with others?
I follow all the rules.
I wear a mask when I sleep.
I stay quarantined.
I do everything online.
I don’t know what everyone else’s problem is, but I figured out the secret to staying COVID free.
You’ll notice that was also five verses.
And…ZERO mentions of God.
Or maybe if you’d done well economically during COVID.
I brainstormed new ideas for my business.
I thought creatively.
I worked hard.
I had a great savings account.
I kept my family financially stable.
Five more verses…
…and God is nowhere to be found.
If your language makes it UNCLEAR who gave you healing,
Your language isn’t CLEAR enough.
This is especially true in the area of salvation.
There is nothing that is MORE obviously God’s doing than our salvation.
We have literally earned nothing but hell with our sins.
Zero amount of good works can save us.
We can’t even believe in Jesus’ saving power with the Holy Spirit working faith in our hearts.
If we give the impression it’s about what we do, then…
What does that teach others?
I had this friend on Facebook. He liked to write his testimonies about how God had worked in his life. One of his testimonies struck me:
“Dude man, I totally surrendered to God. I got on my knees. I called out at the top of my lungs. I meant it. I really meant it. And then I made it my goal to always follow him like no one else had ever followed him. I would be God’s warrior. I promised God that. And I’ve been fighting for him ever since. Man…That’s how I got saved.”
You mean that’s how you saved yourself.
Tell me -- Why did you need God again?
When it’s CLEAR God’s brought healing, God calls us to CLEARLY give HIM praise.
This isn’t difficult.
There are plenty of action verbs that accurately describe what God did for us!
He lived for us.
He died innocently in our place.
He rose triumphantly.
He called you in the Gospel
He washed you in his baptism.
He gives you his body and blood in communion.
He planted faith in your heart.
He caused it to grow.
He strengthened it.
He helps it grow.
He caused it to bloom.
And led you to share the Gospel with others.
He plants faith in their hearts.
He strengthens that faith. “
He helps that faith grow.
He causes it to bloom…
You get the point.
This is ALL about God.
Therefore, God deserves ALL the praise.
Our response when God brings healing is to give ALL praise to him!
II. The Praise Pro’s Praise Pointers
So how do we do that?
David is a praise pro.
Maybe we can get a few praise pointers from him.
This section is called “The Praise Pro’s Praise Pointers”
(1) Admit Your Failures
In 1 Chronicles 21, David has been king in Israel for decades. And things have been going very well.
His army had victory after victory.
His enemies had retreated.
The economy was booming.
The people were happy.
I’m a pretty sweet king.
I think people should know how sweet I am.
Let’s take a census of all the fighting men in Israel so that everyone will know I have the biggest army in the world.
And we can write it down for people to know how big an army I had and that I am probably the greatest king in history.
To be fair, David’s advisor advised against this:
Didn’t GOD do all this?
Why are YOU so concerned with exalting YOURSELF?
The king overruled him.
The command was carried out.
This command was also evil in the sight of God; so he punished Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:7)
The punishment was awful.
It ripped through Israel and spread way faster than COVID-19.
In three days, 70,000 people died.
It was God’s way of saying to David and all of Israel
“You didn’t make this great nation happen. I did. It was a gift. And…I can rip it just like that.”
By the time David gets around to writing Psalm 30, God has relented.
David had repented.
David had asked God for mercy.
Most importantly, God had mercifully ended the plague.
David writes about it in this Psalm. He says:
God’s anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime;
Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
When I felt secure, I said, “I will never be shaken.”
Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm;
but when you hid your face, I was dismayed. (v.6-7)
Doesn’t that seem strange?
Why would David want that recorded for all to see?
Afterall, his original goal was to make himself look great.
This account makes him look like a prideful jerk.
But David no longer cared.
Because this wasn’t about him.
This was about God’s mercy.
It’s still about God’s mercy today. Therefore, it’s important to remember this in our praise life:
Admitting our FAILURES magnifies God’s MERCY!
Because you might read this story and think that’s really mean of God to do that!
These people didn’t deserve that!
They didn’t deserve what God gave them.
They didn’t deserve MERCY.
Because David had sinned, sin deserves death.
The people were sinners, sin deserves death.
But God stopped the death, in favor of his mercy.
The more David proclaimed and let people know, “This was my fault!”
The more incredible God’s mercy that said, “I am erasing your fault.”
To think of it one more way,
If I met you for a movie and I said, “Some guy paid for my movie ticket!” You’d said, “That’s nice.”
If I met you for a movie and I said, “Also he bought me this extra large popcorn and soda,” You’d say, “That’s very nice.”
If I met you for a movie and I said, “Actually he’s gave me a ride, has been paying for my rent for the past year, paid of all my students loans, gave me a job, bought me a new wardrobes, and he even got me a NEW subscription to Disney Plus in time for The Mandalorian season 2.”
You’d say, ‘That’s amazing!”
It’s the same with God.
The more we understand our debt.
The better we understand God’s mercy.
The more others know about our debt.
The more others know about God’s mercy.
And isn’t that what we’re about?
Planting Jesus in North Raleigh?
(2) Be Public About It
In verse 8-9, David describes how he pled for his own life in the midst of this self-imposed pandemic:
To you, Lord, I called; to the Lord, I cried for mercy:
What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it proclaim your faithfulness? (v.8-9)
I think this is an interesting way for David to plead for his life.
God just illustrated that David didn’t need him.
But David is now pleading that God did need him.
Because if he dies from the plague, he’ll just be a pile of dirt.
And dirt doesn’t make a lot of noise.
It doesn’t know any worship songs.
If you listen quietly though you can hear…
What’s David’s point?
God, I promise I can be a lot louder than that dust.
I promise I’ll praise you with more vigor than the dust.
I promise that more people will come to know the Gospel on account me, than that dust.
Do the same.
Be public about your praise.
Be louder than the dust.
The other day Julianna took Daniela to the park.
As they were there, she struck up a conversation with some parents.
Suddenly, the conversation was interrupted by Daniela.
She wasn’t crying.
She wasn’t pouting.
She wasn’t complaining.
She was singing a song that she had just learned;
Cristo me ama, bien lo se.
Su palabra me hace ve
Que los ninos son de aquel
El es nuestro amigo fiel!
Si Cristo me ama!
Si Cristo me ama!
Si Cristo me Ama!
La biblia dice asi.
No regard for being in public.
No regard for what others might think
No regard for whether she pronounced each word correctly.
For all to hear.
(3) Dance! (And if you’re bad at dancing, Employ Unexpected Acts of Praise)
Check out verse 11. David says:
You turned my wailing into dancing;
You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. (v.11)
Sackcloth is a rough material.
It’s what sacks are usually made out of it.
And sacks are not usually the best type of clothing.
But wearing sackcloth was an Old Testament way of showing your sorrow.
People would put on the itchy, scratchy sackcloth to show God, “I feel so bad about my sin. Comfort doesn’t matter to me right now. Being right with you does.”
After his sin and the subsequent plague, David was in sackcloth.
But thanks to God’s mercy.
Now he had traded in his sackcloth…
For dancing shoes.
I don’t know what kind of dance David did.
Was it a Latin Salsa?
A line dance?
Or just the rubber band?
I don’t know.
That’s not the point.
The point is that David was so happy with God’s incredible grace that he couldn’t help but dance!
You might be looking at this what now and be thinking – I can’t dance!
It’s not the dancing part that’s mandatory.
Here’s the heart of this truth:
Proper praise results in UNEXPECTED displays of THANKFULNESS.
Stopping your car at an intersection and handing a $50 bill to the man on the corner.
Attending, not one, not two, but three Growth Group studies online.
An Instagram account that shifts from photos of you to declarations of praise to God.
An eerily happy disposition even during ELECTION season.
Think outside the box here.
How can you praise God in an UNEXPECTED way this week?
(4) Always Praise
Because while David ends the Psalm, he isn’t ending the praise. In fact, look at what he concludes with:
Lord my God, I will praise you forever. (v.12)
He didn’t say, “I will praise you for an hour on Sunday.”
He didn’t say, “I will praise you for a week”
He didn’t say, “I will praise you until it appears the plague is over.”
Here’s how confident David is.
Check out the introduction to the Psalm.
It says, “For the dedication of the temple.”
David didn’t dedicate the temple.
He didn’t finish construction while he was king.
He didn’t begin construction while he was king.
He didn’t even lay the foundation.
All he did was use some of his own money to buy the land that the temple would eventually be built on.
David is so confident that God will continue to show mercy.
David is confident that God will continue to show kindness.
David is confident that God will continue to be God.
That includes 2020.
That includes right now.
No matter what year it is.
No matter what month it is.
No matter what time it is.
There’s a lot of negativity right now.
One morning while I was in Colombia, I awoke early.
I made the terrible mistake of checking the news.
I thought: “I need something less negative.”
So, I did the exact opposite and opened Facebook.
More dirty politics.
I was starting to feel a bit depressed from all the negativity when Daniela woke up. I was happy to see her and excited to start the day with this beautiful ray of sunshine.
But first, she needed to take her medicine.
And the only way to get her to take her medicine is to bribe her with Spanish YouTube Kids’ songs
I sat her on my lap and pulled up the video on my phone called Cinco Patitos. Maybe you know its English counterpart:
Five little ducks went out one day.
Over the hills and far away.
Mother duck said, “Quack-quack-quack-quack.”
But only four little ducks came back.
As the song progresses, the mother duck slowly loses all five of her ducks.
As I watching this video, I saw the sadness on the cartoon mother duck’s face, and for the first time ever fashioning myself a parent, I thought to myself:
This song is horrible!
Where did all the ducklings go?
Did one of them get COVID?
Was one of them abducted?
Why didn’t the government do more to protect the duckling from disappearance?
And my mind was filled with more negativity.
Even in kids’ songs!
Negativity is everywhere.
Where do we turn to escape it?
Where do we find a place without negativity?
God’s got an answer for us. Before we look at it, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The Place without Negativity
Check out the first verse of Psalm 84:
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! (v.1)
That’s the adjective the writer uses here.
Not even pretty.
That’s a word reserved for the finest occasions in life.
A snow-capped mountain with a sunset backdrop.
A fine meal at a five-star restaurant.
A bride walking down the aisle.
But here the adjective is used to describe God’s dwelling place.
Does sound lovely.
And immediately leads to the question:
Where is God’s dwelling place?
Scripturally, there are a couple of different Sunday School answers that might fit under the category: “Place where God Dwells.” Let’s examine each in context to determine what the Psalmist is talking about.
This is a very common Sunday School answer and it is one hundred percent accurate. Jeremiah 23:24 says, “‘Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?,’ declares the Lord, ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” This is the reason theologians call God, omnipresent. It’s a scholarly term that means, “God is everywhere.”
He’s on the shores of the Outer Banks.
He’s on the highest peaks of the Blue Ridge trail.
He’s in downtown Raleigh.
He’s on the streets of Durham.
He’s here at 1100 Newton Road.
And he’s 2,172 miles away in Bogota, Colombia.
There’s something about that answer that doesn’t make sense in this section.
Because while God is everywhere, it seems strange to refer to some places on earth as God’s dwelling.
A dwelling implies residence.
Where God puts his feet up.
Where God is cozy.
I don’t believe it’s correct to say that a strip club is God’s dwelling place.
I don’t think a meth lab is God’s stomping grounds.
It is absolutely wrong to say that the local KKK meeting is where God likes to hang out.
To be fair: God’s there.
But it’s not his dwelling place.
This leads to a second common Sunday School answer. God is in heaven (which is exactly what Psalm 115:3 says, “God is in heaven.”)
And unlike earth, heaven is absolutely, 100% guaranteed void of any negativity.
Think about that:
For example, when we returned home this week, we were able to get all the mail we had missed out on during our six-week hiatus.
Can you guess what much of that mail was?
Political attack ads.
A whole stack of them.
Taller than all seven books in the Harry Potter series.
There aren’t political attack ads in heaven.
Because there isn’t negativity.
There aren’t any COVID testing sites in heaven.
There are not any angry emojis in heaven.
There are not any angry talking heads on CNN or Fox News in heaven.
There are not any racist slurs.
Heaven is lovely because there isn’t even a smidgen of an ounce of negativity.
But I don’t know if heaven is what the Psalmist is talking about here.
Because as you read the rest of the Psalm it becomes apparent that the Psalmist is longing for a place he can physically get to in this lifetime.
He talks about people traveling great distances to get there.
As a place that birds can get to.
It’s a physical place.
The phrase “God’s dwelling place” in this Psalm has to be something physical you can get to on earth.
And it has to be somewhere that give you a glimpse of the positivity of heaven.
Friends, it’s the only Sunday School answer we haven’t considered yet.
The author of this Psalm was one of the Sons of Korah. Does that sound familiar? We looked at a Psalm of this writer way back during our Anxiety sermon series. Psalm 42. It was written by one of the Sons of Korah who had been separated from Jerusalem during a civil war. As a result, his soul longed for returning to the temple where he could worship God, just like a deer pants for streams of water.
If this Psalm was written around the same time as Psalm 42.
Then, the “God’s dwelling place” referred to is none other than the temple.
But what about modern times?
We don’t have a temple.
We have a...
Jesus said this to his disciples, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:20)
This is more than just a, “I’m everywhere,” statement by Jesus .
Here he promises to be with his people when they gather in his name.
He promises to be in his word.
He promises to be in Sacrament.
He promises to be with his people.
This was key for Jesus’ disciples to hear. Because very soon after these words were spoken, Jesus would be killed.
He would rise.
He would physically ascend to heaven.
And Jesus’ disciples would be left behind.
They would be persecuted.
They would have to gather together in small, hidden rooms for fear of being hauled off and thrown into the lion’s den because of their faith…
Jesus would dwell with them.
II. Yearning for God’s Dwelling Place
At the time that this Psalm was written, the people gathered to worship God in the temple. This Psalmist couldn’t wait to get back there. In verse 2 he writes, “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”
Again, the writer was a priest who had separated been separated by civil war from God’s house.
If ever there’s been a time in history that people could understand what this guy was feeling, 2020 is it.
Do you yearn for this place?
Does your heart and your flesh cry out to be with God’s people?
Are you about to faint?
Are you kinda glad that COVID happened? It has really freed up your weekend?
Does your heart yearn for the latest episode of The Bachelor more than seeing that one church guy again?
Honestly, is there a part of you that is thankful you have an excuse not to go, because then you don’t have to run the risk of seeing that guy with a political opinion different than yours?
I don’t mean to guilt you into putting your physical lives in danger.
Not at all. Not remotely. That’s not what I’m saying.
If you don’t have some kind of yearning.
If you don’t have some kind of want.
Even a smidgen of, “I’d like to gather again.”
I do have deep concern for your souls.
If your heart isn’t yearning for the place where God’s people gather…
It’s hard to see how your heart is yearning for God’s people.
And if you’re heart isn’t yearning for God’s people…
Then, how can your heart be yearning for God?
And if your heart isn’t yearning for God…?
You are in spiritual danger.
To put it another way, God calls his people his “body”.
Now it isn’t very common for someone to say to me, “Phil, I like you. But I really hate your left kneecap.”
You can’t love a person and hate their body part.
Similarly, you can’t claim to love God and want nothing to do with his people.
A heart not yearning for God’s DWELLING PLACE reveals a lack of yearning for GOD.
And if you don’t yearn for God.
This is terrifying.
Because you might be on the verge of getting exactly what you want.
Not being near God or his people.
Thankfully even when we weren’t yearning for God…
God’s heart yearned for you.
He abandoned his heavenly throne.
He came to the negativity of this place called earth.
He experienced an ungodly amount of negativity.
He took on all the negativity of your sins.
He died and came back to life.
He conquered death itself that we too might conquer death itself and enter the eternally perfect courts of heaven.
God YEARNS to dwell with YOU.
God yearned to dwell with you so much that he died for you.
And God yearns to dwell with you so much that he is calling to you right now.
But that isn’t just for his own sake.
It isn’t to boost his ego.
It isn’t so that God can call up his buddy Moses and say, “Guess who hung at my house last week?
God yearns to dwell with you for your sake.
Not just in heaven.
Look at what the Psalmist writes next:
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young—a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Back in the day, the temple was an incredible structure. It was made with large columns with trellises near. It was an easy spot for a little pigeon to hide in. High above the city, he could see danger from a mile away. Hidden in the crevices, he was protected. Tucked into the little nest, he was safe.
If God does that when birds go to God’s dwelling place.
What will he do for you?
God BLESSES time dwelling with him.
He uplifts his people.
He encourages his people.
He comforts his people.
He rebukes his people.
He strengthens his people.
He inspires his people.
He cheers his people on.
He does that for his people.
Through his people.
In the place where his people dwell.
III. What Now?
(1) Do WHATEVER It Takes TO Dwell with God
Check out the next verses of the Psalm:
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion. (v 5-7)
In Old Testament times, it was common to make a pilgrimage to God’s temple in Jerusalem. Since the temple was in the south, those in the north would have to travel about a hundred miles just to get to the temple.
The place that is mentioned here is the Valley of Baca. That’s not even a real place. It means “valley of sorrows.” The point is that even though the journey might be long and filled with sorrows (i.e. “I have a blister on my right heel from walking in these sandals for so long)…
The blessing of gathering with God and his people made all the pain worth it.
Do the same.
If it means going to Saturday worship because there’s a smaller crew of people, do it…even if you can’t hang out with your friends as early.
If it means putting on a mask even though it’s a bit uncomfortable, but it allows you to gather, do it.
If it means turning off your phone while you sit in front of the laptop to ensure you can get the most out of online worship, do it.
Because honestly, people are doing whatever it takes to get to the voting booth this year.
Why not do whatever it takes to dwell with God and his people?
(2) Do WHATEVER It Takes as You Are IN God’s Dwelling
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
At the temple, one of the jobs was to open the giant doors to the temple and close the doors behind the people that went in.
That must not have been a very glamorous job.
No one cheers for the doorkeeper.
No one celebrates the doorkeeper.
No one gives out awards for the best doorkeeper in the business.
Yet the Psalmist was happy to be a doorkeeper.
Not ‘cause he loved holding doors.
Because it meant he was in God’s house.
Same thing, friends.
God wants us to be thrilled to do whatever he calls us to do because we are doing it in God’s house.
Whether it’s baking cookies…
Or holding the oven door open for the guy making cookies.
Whether it’s singing music.
Or holding the folder open for the guy singing music.
Whether it’s holding the door.
Or disinfecting the handles for the guy who holds the doors.
Look at how the Psalmist concludes this song --
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you. (v.11-12)
Did you hear that?
Did you hear what God withholds from those dwelling with him?
No good thing.
All good things are yours as we gather around God’s Word.
Look at our church sanctuary when you have a chance.
What do you see when you look at it?
This wood on this altar that has some chips in it.
The carpet that’s stained.
The baptismal font that has some warping in it.
Sometimes the pews that have Oreo crumbs on them.
The cushions near the altar that are somewhat faded.
But look again.
This is so much more than that.
This altar is where the life changing Gospel has been preached to a man who thought his drug-filled past meant God could never love him.
This carpet is where I was standing as I prayed with a mother who had lost a child.
This baptismal font is where my shaky, water filled hands have delivered God’s baptismal promises to a beautiful newborn girl.
These pews are where I sat as I held the hands of family who had lost a loved one and shared the promises of the resurrection.
The cushions at this altar are we guilt stricken, conscience terrified sinners have knelt and heard God’s promises: This is my blood given for you.
How LOVELY is God’s dwelling place.
It is no fun feeling forgotten.
I still have memories of a time in middle school that I had to stay after for one reason or another and Mom had to come pick me up instead of taking the bus home. Of course, this was well before cell phones, let alone smartphones. And I just remember standing there in the school parking lot… watching… as I heard each new car come by and each one turning out not to be ours for what felt like a very long time. And I’m pretty sure I started to feel a little upset that I was left waiting for so long, and then as the minutes crept on, maybe a little more so scared that maybe she forgot entirely.
Well, I did not live out my youth in a dumpster behind the school. Naturally, she did show up. And all told, I don’t think I was waiting more than 15 minutes. When you’re young, that can be a scary long time.
But, it’s hard to feel like you’ve been forgotten by somebody. It’s tough when it’s someone close, like family or a friend. You were going to get together and they just… don’t show. They didn’t message you because… well, they forgot. And it’s a little harder when it’s not a one-off accident but you just sort of fade out of someone’s life. Someone you thought you mattered to. Maybe life changed and those regular opportunities that you saw each other stopped happening. One of you took a different job or the evening activity where you crossed paths is over. And now that the friendship would require active outreach to maintain… you’ve stopped hearing from the other person.
It can be really discouraging to find out you’re not as important to someone as you once thought. And since we’re dragging ourselves down the hole, let’s just go all out and ask – how much worse if it’s God who’s forgotten us?
I mean, you may know better. God doesn’t forget, you say. But that doesn’t stop the feelings. That doesn’t stop the question from cropping up sometimes. Let’s not pretend we’re too good to feel that way or that it would be somehow shameful and embarrassing to admit. Because our psalm for today comes to us from King David. David was one of the greatest kings of Israel and one of the greatest examples of faith in the Lord from the Old Testament. But David was human. David was sinful. And David had his times of weakness. Psalm 13 is just one example of his wrestling with that sinful nature, in this case struggling with feeling forgotten by God.
Listen to the start of this psalm and see if these words resonate with you at all:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I experience worries in my soul,
sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy tower over me?
Look at me. Answer me, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes
so I do not sleep in death,
so my enemy does not say, “I have overcome him,”
so my foes do not rejoice when I fall.
I read that, and it almost makes me want to cry. Big, manly tears mind you, but still. It’s heartbreaking to hear someone else suffering like that but perhaps even more so because I know exactly what that feels like. There’s so much trouble in our world and our lives, but we get through it because we know we have our God to lean on, that he is always there to help us… so how do we handle it when we feel like that’s not there anymore? If we start to question, doubt, or just plain think that God’s not helping?
Ridiculous, you might think. But falling into that is easier than you think. King David succumbed to it. Take a look at each of his laments and ask yourself if you’ve ever felt that way…
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
When we suffer under a difficulty, when we pray to God for help and nothing changes, when days turn into weeks and maybe even years and it’s still the same… How long can we endure before our prayers turn into cries like this? How long, Lord? Are you listening? Are you there? Why are you hiding? Am I waiting at the bottom of a to-do list that you’ll never get to or have I dropped off your radar entirely?
How long must I experience worries in my soul,
sorrow in my heart every day?
And without help, without attention… how many days do you spend wrapped up in your worries, and how many sleepless nights does it bring? If God would just help, or at least acknowledge you, then maybe you could have some peace knowing this will be handled. But when it’s so painfully obvious that you’re on your own, you end up in that state where nothing gets done because all your time and energy is consumed by worry and sorrow.
How long will my enemy tower over me?
And maybe this struggle is caused by more than just bad circumstance. Maybe there’s literally people acting against you. We talked about this last week. Maybe you have a particular thorn or two in your side. Maybe it’s just the random indifference or even spite of the people you meet day to day. But it’s easy to feel like you’re always losing against them, you’re always the one who has to bend and give in and give up, and it shouldn’t have to be that way right? If God were here, if God were on your side – how can you lose against mere people?
Look at me. Answer me, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes
And here’s the thing. The questions pile up. The evidence piles up. We wonder why God doesn’t help, why he doesn’t act, where is he at all. I mean, as Christians we understand and accept that this life needs to have some trouble in it. God said it will not be perfectly easy. But… when we’re in the middle of so much trouble, is it too much to ask him to at least explain a little? To “give light to our eyes” and show us why this is going on? It would be so much easier to bear if we could see the purpose behind it but so often it feels like we get nothing but radio silence from him. It can come to this point where maybe we accept the suffering but all we really want to know is, “why?”
so I do not sleep in death,
so my enemy does not say, “I have overcome him,”
so my foes do not rejoice when I fall.
And maybe one last point that sort of drives home this idea that God is just not paying attention. Because what sort of message is it sending to the world when his people are the ones suffering the most, getting beaten down the most, and succeeding the least? If enemies literally kill us and God does not retaliate. If our lives are struggle after struggle against those that look down on us for being Christian, what does that say? They sit and laugh and rejoice because they win and we lose and we’re not clever enough to see how wrong we are because if God really were here, they wouldn’t be able to get away with half of what they do, right?
And you know what? When you consider the evidence that God has forgotten you… it can seem pretty compelling.
But… you can’t just look at half the evidence. David, after all his laments here, did not stop at that point. After listing all the reasons he has to despair, he finishes the psalm with these words:
But I trust in your mercy.
My heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD
because he has accomplished his purpose for me.
After everything he just listed off, how could David make such bold claims as this? Well, we’ll get into more detail about it, but it really comes down to this one word here at the end of the first line: “mercy”. In the original language the word here is hesed, a special word that really captures what God’s love is all about. My favorite way to bring it into English is “unfailing love”. And there’s a couple things about it that make it unique…
God’s love is unlike most love we know. We usually love as a reaction, regardless of which kind of love you’re talking about, whether it’s family, friend, romantic, or just about a good cheeseburger. Something appeals to us and we love it as a reaction. But, not God. God’s love has its origin within himself. He loves because he chooses to. it has nothing to do with us or who we are or how we act.
Even more than that he loves because it is a defining quality of who he is. So, God’s love is not something that changes by circumstance either. It’s not affected by what he saw on Facebook or the news that morning or that something he just ate is disagreeing with him like our emotions can be. He cannot stop loving us because it literally defines who he is. God’s love for you… is an objective fact.
And most importantly, God’s love has a singular, driving purpose. To do what is best for you at all times. That is all God does with his love, and the power and authority he has behind it. He only ever uses it to do what is best for you.
All of that is wrapped up in that word, hesed. And that alone is evidence enough to dispel the doubts that God may have forgotten us. We just trust in that mercy, that unfailing love. But the great thing about God? He doesn’t just stop there. He has left us so much proof that he loves you. So much proof that he does not forget, that he does not abandon. So, let’s take time this morning to consider the trail of evidence he left us.
From the moment the first people, Adam and Eve sinned, he was there to help. They broke his law, they condemned themselves and everyone after to eternal separation from God, and yet God came immediately and promised a savior. He promised someone who would undo the devil’s work and bring peace back between themselves and God.
Now we don’t possibly have time to get into every example, but from then on, the Old Testament of the Bible is largely just account after account of God’s faithful love to his people. Both taking care of them in the moment and, more importantly, guiding history to reach the point when we were ready for the savior to arrive. And those people constantly turned away, constantly rejected God, constantly complained, constantly forgot him. But all the evidence is there… he never forgot them. He never abandoned them. He always did what was best for them.
And of course, we reach the culmination of God’s unfailing love through history when we get to Jesus. When he became one of us so that he could go in our place. For all the times we’ve turned from God or doubted his love or failed to trust him…Jesus did it all perfectly and then sacrificed his perfect life so that our wrongs could be taken away from us. He suffered our punishment so we could be set free.
God… who does not need us. God… who we only ever antagonize. God… gave up everything and died so that we could be spared the punishment we rightly earned. And to prove it was true, he rose from the dead and proclaimed us forgiven in him. That is the full expression of his hesed, his unfailing love. Jesus is truly the best evidence that God has not forgotten you.
And even though it’s the best – it doesn’t stop there either – God keeps going! In the history that followed God still watched over his people and still guided his believers to spread that good news about Jesus across the world. He took care of those who loved him and he reached out through them to as many more as they could.
And through their effort and God’s guidance… you have been taught about Jesus. You have been brought to faith in him. And you have the truth and trust that lets you escape this world and go to paradise. God did that for you. He has never forgotten you, he is always thinking about getting you home with him.
But you know what? Let’s bring it back down for a minute. Yes, God has saved you through Jesus, and yes that’s all we truly need and it is the best demonstration of his love. But even back at our daily problems… he is still here. He has not forgotten you and he has not left you alone. And there’s more evidence. I know you have it. Look back over your own life. I’ll give you a minute. Look back and see the times that God has guided you, guarded you, directed you, cared for you.
Maybe that accident you narrowly avoided. Maybe a foolish decision you made that should have derailed your whole life but God corrected. Maybe it’s all the times God just let the right pieces fall into place at exactly the right time to bless you better than you thought possible. Just look, you’ll see the evidence that God has been there all along.
With that in mind, I want to circle back on our original problem… when we are in the midst of trouble we don’t understand and don’t seem to be getting help. Because none of what I just said suddenly will change the situation or explain what God is up to, right? The solution… is to build up our trust. See trust is what we hold on to when we don’t have proof or evidence that something is true. Trust is what we give someone when we don’t know for a fact how they will act.
Trust is what lets us say to God, “I am suffering. But I know you’re here. And I know you love me. And I believe you when you say this is what is best for me, even though I can’t understand or see how that is.” Trust does not need to understand everything God does, trust just knows that God loves us, and that can be enough. And in the end, when he does deliver us, like the boy waiting for his mom to pick him up from school, we’ll look back and realize, we weren’t really waiting all that long. God had it under control.
And so when we struggle about feeling forgotten by God… return to God. Go back to his word and consider his promises. Promises like this one:
I will never forget you. (Is 49.15)
Doesn’t get much more direct than that, does it? And that’s just a sample. You’ll find that and many more scattered throughout his word. And then on top of that, you’ll find proof that he carries out his promises. Beyond the greatest promise and fulfillment of Jesus, you’ll see so many other times that God said he would act… and never once does he fail. The evidence is all there.
And, as if all that were not great enough, God’s word has a special promise associated with it. He promises to work through that word in his power to build up your trust in him. It’s not even up to you. Being in his word, studying what he has given us – he will do the work of building up that trust.
In the fullness of that trust, we can endure the difficulties. Not that we won’t occasionally lament. Not that we won’t have days when it feels like more than we can bear, but at the end of it all, we can repeat confidently with David:
I trust in your mercy.
My heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD
because he has accomplished his purpose for me.
A first-person shooter is a type of video game where you experience the action from the perspective of the protagonist, who is shooting to fight off those attacking them. It is a very popular genre of game, offering the thrill of being in a very dangerous situation, depending on your own skills to come out alive, but with no actual risk. It provides a sense of being there yourself.
Many Psalms are written from a first-person perspective. Much of the Bible is third-person narrative, telling the story of how everything was created by God, how Jesus went about teaching and finally ending up at the cross. Other parts are instructive, telling us what to believe and what we should do as children of God. We can nod in agreement and say we believe what it is saying. But when we read many of the Psalms, we are taking the words of the Psalmist and making them ours; this makes things more personal.
In the case of Psalm 71, we see no writer or anything else in the title. Many think this was written by King David in his later years, but we need not concern ourselves with that. What we do notice is that this was written by a person who had gone through many trials and difficulty, in fact, was still going through them, but had a strong faith in his God to save him. The troubles are not specific. So we can read this, putting ourselves into the Psalmist’s shoes, and appropriating for ourselves the faith and hope that he has.
Hope for when Others are Against You
I. Turn to the Lord
II. Tell of the Lord’s works
I. Turn to the Lord
A. Facing wicked people
In the beginning of this Psalm we hear the Psalmist asking God for deliverance, “from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of those who are evil and cruel,” “from my enemies who speak against me; those who want to kill me,” from people who are pursuing him and want to seize him. We have to recognize that there are wicked people in this world, who oppose God and oppose us who follow him. The Psalmist was almost certainly a man of good character, and still he was pursued. We may not have anybody who wants to kill us, but there are people around us who are evil and cruel, who want to tear us down, take credit for our accomplishments, take advantage of our kindness, deceive us and take our money. They want to defame us, make us look shameful. And as we get older, we get more feeble, both mentally and physically, more easily taken advantage of. Without a God who loves us in this world, it would be a scary place.
B. Asking the Lord to deliver and saveLike the Psalmist, there are evil people who are against us. But like the Psalmist we can turn to the Lord, ask him to rescue us and deliver us, to be for us a dependable refuge. The Psalmist has learned this from his youth, yes, even from birth; he had faith in the Lord, he relied on his God. He knew him whom he had trusted.
Some of us have grown up being taught that same faith, learning to know that our God will save us from a young age. Others have learned that later in life. It is all based on how God has saved us, first and foremost, from our sins, from our guilt, from eternal punishment. We put a big cross in our church to remind us of how he sent his Son into this world to take our sin and its punishment, to die in our place on that cross, then to rise again to life for our assurance. He saved us from our greatest trouble; he can be depended on to save us from our lessor troubles. He saved us from the devil and his evil angels; he can be depended on to save us from wicked people around us.
What does that look like?When we look at the world around us, especially through modern media like television and the internet, seeing wars and bloodshed in many areas, we realize what a sheltered life we have, for the most part, here in the United States. Here is one of the ways our God has sheltered us, by placing in in a country, community, and perhaps even in a family relatively free of violence and fear of physical harm. Now that’s not completely true of everyone in this country; we each have to consider our own situation and thank God for protecting us alive to this day, for the opportunity to live relatively free of threats and bloodshed. We pray for reprieve from threats we face in our situation, but we will find other ways God has protected us. Even with threats around, he can protect us from many kinds of dangers we may not even know about. And we all pray that he keep us safe in this dangerous world.
Threats come in more subtle and less physical ways. Many people around us do not believe in Jesus, and, as Jesus says, those who are not for us are against us. We can be thankful for protection, for the most part, against physical harm from these people. But their anti-Biblical opinions and feelings, their belittling of Christian beliefs, their reliance on their own efforts rather than on God’s, can be wearing, gnawing at the edges of our faith. We turn to God in prayer and in his word to give us strength to withstand these subtle but dangerous attacks on our faith. In this sense these people are against us.
But there is another way this Psalm gives us hope when others are against you.
II. Tell of the Lord’s works
A. Tell of the Lord’s righteous actsIt has been said that the best defense is a good offense. In the second part of this Psalm, the writer uses this approach. In the face of people opposing him he says, “My mouth will tell of your righteous deeds, of your saving acts all day long.” He goes on to say this in different ways. It was an important part of his life.
He would tell how the Lord forgave him his sin, adopted him into his family, grows his faith through the word, and gives him an eternal home in heaven. These are righteous acts and done for all believers that all can tell about. He would also speak of how the Lord had protected him and prospered him, given him health and family, among many other blessings. Since we don’t know who the writer is, this list could vary, depending, for example, on how healthy he was and how big a family he had, just as it will vary for all of us. But there would be a list of things, righteous things, the Lord had done for him in his life.
This telling of these righteous things would have the effect of turning back those who oppose him, even calling them to repentance and faith in God. Telling of the things God has done for us is how faith is planted in the heart of a person. But this telling of things God has done would have beneficial effect for the speaker, strengthening his own faith as well.
B. Teach the next generation
But there is another purpose for telling these things. He notes, “since my youth, God, you have taught me.” He had learned of God’s righteous deeds while he as young. Earlier in this Psalm he had said, “From birth I have relied on you.” God had almost certainly not taught him directly; this teaching came through his parents and other faith-filled people around him. They spoke of God’s righteous deeds to their son.
And so he goes on, “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.” He wanted to relay this message of God’s righteous and saving acts to the next generation, which would certainly include his own children and grandchildren, if he had any. In fact this could have been some of the only things he could do in the last years of his life, when he might otherwise feel feeble and useless.
C. Tell of the honor and life that awaitsThe Psalmist ends this Psalm on a high note of praise for his God, even though, he writes, “you have made me see troubles, many and bitter.” His confidence, his hope is this, “you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.” His hope was ultimately in the resurrection to an eternal life of joy and bliss. On the day that will happen, all those who opposed God and his people, who refused to listen to him, will be “put to shame and confusion.”
What does this look like?Remember this Psalm is written from a first-person perspective, so when we read it we put ourself in his position. We tell of his righteous acts, we tell what God has done for us to whoever will listen. Are you forgiven, are you blessed by God, do you have hope in God for all eternity? Then tell about it, make that telling a part of your life. Is there a generation around you that needs to hear of God’s righteous deeds? Tell them, pass it on. Do you have a hope of heaven? Let your hope be known to those around you. Take up the words of the Psalmist.
We can conclude with him, “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you—I whom you have delivered. My tongue will tell of your righteous acts all day long.” Amen.
Darkness can be terrifying.
When we’re young, the literal darkness hides the horrible things that our imaginations fill in. At that point in life, our limited experience has not yet fully convinced us that monsters and aliens and other horrors don’t actually exist.
As we get older, perhaps the imagined fears give way to worse fears because they are real fears. Sure, there’s the ever-present fear of trying to navigate a room in the dark with the threat of getting a LEGO in your foot. But more than that, there are unsafe places in the world and there are real dangers out there. Darkness makes it that much harder to see the danger coming and wind up in a bad state.
And the psalm we’re looking at today mentions a few that can give us pause. Terror by night. Arrows by day. Traps. And maybe the most prescient, three times mentions plague and pestilence.
There are dangers in the dark that give us pause even as adults. Other people who want to hurt us because they’re desperate or greedy or just disturbed. There are dangers that fly even in the day that may keep us up at night. It’s a dangerous business just going out your door sometimes; we tend not to think about the thousand horrible things that could happen to us on just a trip to the store under normal circumstances. And today? Well today we’ve all got one thing at the forefront of our minds, don’t we? Pandemic. Now we’re all told it’s more dangerous than ever just to set foot outside. It can feel dark all around.
And the darkness is scary because it hides things. Darkness is dangerous when you can’t see what might hurt you there. And things like a novel coronavirus, well it doesn’t need the darkness to hide, it’s just plain invisible. Contrary to our belief of pulling the blanket over our heads, what you can’t see can indeed hurt you. And what you don’t know can indeed be very dangerous.
But you know what? Those are not the things that should scare you. There’s another kind of far more harmful and deadly danger in our lives. There’s another real danger hiding in the darkness; laying traps, shooting arrows, and spreading a plague far, far more serious than COVID-19. It’s there, it’s real, and it’s worse than deadly.
And not a single one of us can see it on our own. It’s hiding in the dark, and the dark is all around us.
I’m talking about the fight for your soul, the fight over your eternity. We come into this world totally in the dark about it. Totally ignorant of what is going on beneath all this. You see, in this world there is one hidden path to eternal life – everywhere else leads to destruction. But we are in the dark. And on so many levels.
For one, we don’t know the danger we’re in. At the end of this life it will be decided: will you spend eternity in paradise or torture? That is a simple fact that we are born not knowing. And there’s no way to even figure that out from the world. It’s just plain hidden. And this is going to decide your eternity. Eternity... is one of those concepts that just blows your mind. No matter how many years you’ve spent here, you still have no frame of reference to compare that to eternity!
Think about all the time you’ve been alive. Imagine if all of that time had been nothing but the worst pain you’ve ever experienced. My imagination rejects the idea and just comes up with “yeah that’s bad.” And that’s eternity barely warming up.
What’s my point? The danger of eternal punishment is the only danger that should really scare us.
And like I said, we’re brought to this world not even knowing quite a bit about that danger. We are very in the dark about it all.
…we don’t know there’s more to come after this life.
…we don’t know that where we spend that eternity is decided when we die here.
…we don’t know that we’re straight on the path to damnation
…we don’t even know that the alternative path to heaven is utterly hidden from us.
That’s the scary darkness we’re born in. Where is the hope in this darkness? Of course, most of us here today know. Let’s hear it again in the words of our psalm:
One who lives in the shelter of the Most High
will stay in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD,
“My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.”
Surely he will rescue you from the fowler’s trap,
from the destructive plague.
With his feathers he will cover you,
and under his wings you will find refuge.
His truth will be your shield and armor.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the plague that prowls in the darkness,
nor the pestilence that destroys at noon.
Yes, the psalm mentions some dangers, things that could make life dark. But what it says is that God will protect you. He makes it so we don’t need to be afraid of any of those dangers. How? Why?
Zero in on the end of verse 4:
His truth will be your shield and armor.
In many ways the real danger and fear posed by darkness is in ignorance. We can’t see what’s in the dark, we don’t know what’s there and thus it can hurt us and thus we are afraid of it. But God knows all. God sees all, and God brings light to our lives with truth. He shows us not only the dangers all around, but he shows us the one path that leads to eternal life and then takes us by the hand to walk it.
God does not share all his knowledge with us, of course, but he shares more than enough for us to be safe, to see where we’re going and have no cause to be afraid. He tells us all we need to know in his Word and that light lets us see.
It lets us see that heaven is only open to those who do everything he asks
It lets us see that we cannot do what he asks
It lets us see that he has done it all for us in Jesus.
In Jesus we have been credited a perfect life and in Jesus’ death and resurrection we have been forgiven all our sins. And in God’s grace and mercy we have been made to believe this by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came to us each and granted us a new heart that knows God, trusts God, and wants to do what God asks.
The truth that God shares with us, the truth he causes us to trust lets us see in the dark, it brings light to the dark, and since we can see, we don’t have to fear the dangers around us here.
But, that doesn’t necessarily mean we can just relax and ignore them either.
Pardon an example that’s a little on the nose, but imagine being stuck in the middle of a pitch-black warehouse full of traps. Pits or explosives or sharp objects or whatever you want. Very dangerous, very deadly all around in the dark. There is an exit, but again, it’s pitch-black. You’d never make it.
Now, someone turns on the floodlights. And that someone comes in to lead you along the one safe path to the exit. You are saved! No more despair! BUT, just because you can see where you’re going and have someone leading you… well that doesn’t mean the danger doesn’t still exist, right? The traps are all still there, you need to tread carefully and follow your savior’s lead to make it out safely. You can’t just wander off in whatever direction you like or ignore your rescuer. You need to stay sharp and pay attention and follow that one safe path out. If you don’t follow carefully, you might as well have stayed in the dark!
That is the situation we find ourselves in now. We have been rescued. We have been given the light that drives back the darkness. We are on the path that leads away from death to eternal life.
But the dangers all around us are still very real. There is hope and help plenty. But we have to stay vigilant. We cannot let ourselves grow careless.
Because that great liar, the devil, still lays his traps out there. And he still tries to call us off the trail and away from the protection of our Lord. He can’t force off the path. He can’t take away your light. But he wants you to fail. He wants you to suffer alongside him. And so he whispers exactly the things you want to hear:
Oh that’s right, you know something awful about that other person – won’t people be paying you some attention to share that story?
Another drink? What’s the harm?
Go on, click that link. You’ll enjoy it and no one will know.
That person was really rude to you. That’s not fair! Let them have it.
Look, you have to do what’s best for you. Giving to God can come after that.
These are just examples of course. You know best what his voice sounds like. I know I do.
He can’t pull you away by force. But he strives and connives to lure you off. And it’s so easy to think… it’s not a big deal. Just one little step to the side… what’s the harm?
After all – the good things we do – those don’t save us. Jesus saves us. Does it really matter then if we skip this one or that one? And – how hard should I bother fighting that temptation? I always seem to give in in the end, and I know God will forgive me. So why even fight that hard? Or at all?
If the good doesn’t save us… and the wrongs are going to be forgiven? Then what does it matter if we stray a little?
I think you know the answer is yes. But let’s talk about why. Those “little things” are a lot more dangerous than they look. In fact, when I said way back when there was another danger in the dark we should be afraid of… well this is it.
You see, we are saved by God through faith. Faith is the thing in us that holds onto and trust the truth that Jesus died and rose to bring us to heaven. That faith isn’t even our doing, it is given to us by the Holy Spirit. And faith is not just… knowledge. It is a living trust in God. You may say, I can sin when I need to, I’m not going to forget that Jesus died for me. But it doesn’t work that way.
Follow this logical progression with me, if you will. The first and greatest command is you shall have no other gods. It means we fear, love, and trust in the Lord above everything else. Whenever we sin, we are breaking God’s commands. We are breaking trust with him. We are saying, “God I know you say not to do this, but I don’t trust you’re right. I think doing it will be better for me.” You see… sin erodes our trust in God. Sin destroys faith.
Every time we give in, we stray just a little further from the lit path and a little deeper back into the darkness. And every time we make it easier to think, “Do I really need that light to guide me at all?”
And maybe you’re left thinking: if it’s so dangerous to wander and it causes such damage then we’re in a bad state on our own. Because we do wander. We do give in to temptation. What can be done?
Well, today’s message is about hope, isn’t it? And God gives us that as we walk the path home with him. To continue the psalm:
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only observe it with your eyes.
You will see the punishment of the wicked.
Yes, you, LORD, are my refuge!
If you make the Most High your shelter,
evil will not overtake you.
Disaster will not come near your tent.
Yes, he will give a command to his angels concerning you,
to guard you in all your ways.
They will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the cobra.
You will trample the young lion and the serpent.
There are dangers all around and maybe we wander into the dark for a bit, but God is here to call us back and hold us by his side. Every time we start to stray, we can look back at him and he will pull us in close and hold us tightly. His word is his power, his truth is still the light that shines the way. He has the power to restore the trust we let crumble. He has the power to build us back up in our faith.
We will stumble, we will make mistakes, we will wander. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need God. But let us always keep a healthy fear of the dark so that when we find ourselves in the dark we know, without hesitation, not to stay there, to turn our eyes back to God. In him is the light, and in him is safety.
God promises as we finish the psalm:
The LORD says,
Because he clings to me, I will rescue him.
I will protect him, because he acknowledges my name.
He will call on me, and I will answer him.
I will be with him in distress.
I will deliver him and I will honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him,
and I will let him see my salvation.
The only thing that can take you away from God is you. If you wander, turn back. If you find yourself in the dark, turn back to the light of his hope. Rest in his protection and know that you are safe. He will guard and keep you here and more importantly, he is here to take you to eternal life with him. When that day comes there will never be any more danger, any more darkness and you will safe forever. That is the only thing that matters.
You have seen the light of God’s salvation. Fix your eyes on that light and follow it home. Amen.
Have you ever made a house of cards? It is a tedious task and you have to be very careful at every step. As you successfully get taller, it can look like a rather grand construction project. But of course it can fall down with one false move. Or if someone comes in and purposely knocks it down. And the whole thing is destroyed.
Does your life ever seem like a house of cards? Does it feel like it could fall or has already fallen down like house of cards? Or does world feel like it is falling down like a house of cards—disasters and wicked people everywhere?
Well, there is a Psalm for that. It was one of Martin Luther’s favorite Psalms and gave him hope in difficult times. It can do the same for us. Let us take a look at it as
A Psalm of Hope for When Disaster Strikes
I. God is our fortress as the world falls apart
II. God is our fortress as the wicked fight
I. God is our fortress as the world falls apart
A. The world is falling apart
In Psalm 46 we read, “though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.” (v2-3)
Another hurricane has hit the Alabama coast and Florida panhandle with 100 mph winds, 30 inches of rain, and a 6-foot storm surge. There are more storms forming and they have already had to start using the letters of the Greek alphabet for names. Fires are ravaging the west coast. A pandemic is sweeping through the world. Many other disasters are happening all over the earth. So indeed the “waters roar and foam,” though the mountains aren’t falling into the heart of the sea just yet. It is still pretty scary.
What is happening to this world? Well, it all started when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s clear command. And then we hear God say, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (Gen 3:17). And Paul tells us, “The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it” into a “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:20,21). Natural disasters will increase and become signs that the end is coming, as Jesus says, “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” (Lk 21:11). We can consider Covid-19 one of those pestilences. And we can conclude:
This world is falling apart.
We note that these all came into this world because of sin, directly or indirectly. Now it would be pretty hard to point to any particular sin causing most earthquakes, though some other disasters can be traced to or worsened by sinful acts of mankind. Was the larger death toll in the United States caused by mismanagement of our government or were there larger, uncontrollable forces at work? Is our worsening weather caused by overuse of fossil fuels or are the other things happening we can’t explain? I really don’t know. Plenty of accusations are flying around as people panic and are desperate for some explanation. But no one really knows. And WE don’t need to.
B. God is our fortress in this world
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (V1-2). That is a lofty thought, but how does it work? In what way is God a refuge and strength?
Later in this Psalm we read,
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day” (v4-5).
God takes his people and forms them into a city, his city, a holy place, where he dwells, where he provides pure streams of water. Through his Son and the shedding of his blood on the cross, he has purified us to be his holy people. He is pleased to live within us, to call us his own. And to protect us. That doesn’t mean nothing will ever happen to us on this earth. In fact, we will go through much tribulation. But nothing can separate us from him, nothing can truly harm us; even death itself becomes for us the door to heaven.
But this is hard to hold on to, hard to believe. So he provides streams of water to revive us, the message of his Gospel, the good news of all that he has done for us. It starts with how he created us, how he preserves us, how he saved us, how he made us his own. When we review that good news, we are revived, we are renewed in believing that he is projecting us in the midst of disasters and pestilences. It is what we gather in this church to hear and rejoice in. We conclude:
God provides us a refuge in this world.
Truth: God is our fortress as the world falls apart.
II. God is our fortress as the wicked fight
A. The world is full of wicked people fighting us and others
But it is not just storms and pestilences that attack us. The Psalmist tells us, “Nations are in uproar” (v6). Then he goes on to talk about “desolations…on the earth,” then “wars,” “the bow,” “the spear,” “shields,” all of these parts of fighting, killing, and savage acts. This is all the direct result of sin, of wicked people in this world. While this is pictured as things happening between nations, similar things happen on a more local level, in communities, even in families. People shooting each other in increasing numbers in certain areas. Things happening that make some people even afraid, whether wrongfully or rightfully, of the police who are supposed to protect them. Bombs, missiles, armed conflicts ending in casualties in many parts of the world. People feeling driven to demonstrating, even rioting, in a desperate attempt to find solutions.
Again, our Lord Jesus told us these things would happen in this sinful world. He said, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…At that time many…will betray and hate each other” (Mat 24:6-10). Even his people will be persecuted and put to death. We conclude:
The world is full of wicked people who fight us and each other
B. God breaks and protects from the fighting
But there is hope for us who trust in our God. The Psalmist writes,
“Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire” (v8-9).
Now in an absolute sense, this hasn’t happened yet. The final fulfillment of this awaits the last day, when it for sure will happen. And defeating and punishing all the wicked people in this world, namely, those who refuse to listen to the Lord, will be devastating, will cause desolations on the earth.
But when the Lord comes to rule in a person’s heart, when that person comes to believe that he is their Lord and Savior, amazing things happen. Their stony hearts are broken, they become forgiving rather than belligerent, They put down the spear and bow; they seek reconciliation rather than war. When a person accepts that they are a sinner, that God has forgiven them, that he wants them in his family and will protect them, then they no longer feel a need to fight, they can let go and let God take care of them. The Lord does that when he comes into a person’s heart; he did that when he came into your heart. We conclude:
God breaks down the fighting in his people’s hearts.
Of course this is not a perfect change on this earth. We still retain an old self that is slow to trust and slow to let go the instinct to fight; this change grows as we grow in our faith. Then there is the fact that we still live in a sinful world, full of other people who do not believe, who feel a need to fight and defend themselves. Now God will sometimes allow the wicked to inflict wounds on his people to carry out his purposes on this earth, but he will not let anything truly harm us or separate us from him. He is our fortress.
God protects his people from the attacks of the wicked
The Psalmist goes on to write:
“He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.” (V10)
There will come a time when this change will become perfect. Our Lord will return to this earth. The wicked will be consigned to hell; this will be the desolations he brings to this earth, leaving the implements of war broken on the ground and showing that the Lord is exalted. At the same time his people, confirmed in their holiness, will be gathered to live with him in heaven, in perfect harmony and peace, with him and with each other. There will also be no more disasters of disease or flood or earthquake. Just perfect peace and tranquility.
God will deliver his people from this wicked world.
Truth: God is our fortress as the wicked fight.
God said he will protect us and deliver us. We often suffer because we do not trust him enough. But he has provided the stream of his gospel to strengthen our trust.
Be refreshed by the streams of his gospel.
Through the gospel he not only strengthens us, he changes us, leading us to fight less and trust more. We can become more peaceful and at peace.
Let his gospel put you at peace and live in peace.
God is a fortress for his people in this world that is falling apart and at war. He is almighty and wants to be with us. Let us learn to trust in his protection. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (V11). Amen.
A song for the ascents.
Before we dig into the Psalm proper, I’d like to speak a moment on this heading, “a song for the ascents.” Most of the headings we find in our Bibles are additions put in by modern publishers to help us in following the flow of thought. They do not exist in the original languages.
This is not always the case in the Psalms, however. Many of the headings or notes we find in Psalms exist in the Hebrew text. See, the book of Psalms was something like an ancient Jewish hymnal. And so, we often find there notation for their musicians, or a mention of the author, or the historical context the psalm was written in, or in this case, the purpose of the psalm.
Psalm 121 is the second in a block of fifteen psalms labeled as “Songs of Ascent”, give or take how you translate it. Without any further explanation, we are left to speculate on what exactly this means, but we can make some fairly educated guesses. For example, it could refer to songs the priests sang as they went up into the temple to worship. It could also refer to songs that people would sing as they went up to Jerusalem to worship at the temple each year.
Even the psalm itself “ascends” in thought as it progresses, each thought building on the last to a grand final point. And so today we’re going to ascend this psalm together, one step up at a time, and learn what our God has to tell us about help.
We begin with the question:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains.
Where does my help come from?
It is again unclear exactly why looking at the mountains causes the author to wonder about help, but we can again, make a couple of good guesses. For one, mountains were often dangerous places. And not just dangerous to be on, but oftentimes they were sources of dangers. Criminals of all sorts would hide out there. Invading armies would cross the natural borders that mountains created in order to conquer the land. The natural barrier of mountains can even be responsible for some nasty weather patterns. So perhaps looking to the mountains caused our author to think about his problems. Problems he could deal with himself. After all what was he in the face on an invading army or a natural disaster?
Sitting in a moment of quiet and thinking over your problems, real or imagined, is a good way to start feeling helpless. To think that you can’t possibly have what it takes to overcome what you’re dealing with or what might be coming. You think, I can’t possibly deal with all that, who can I get to help me? What can I get to help me? And now you’re adding on top of that panic that you might not find the help you need and you have no idea what the consequences of failure might be.
I’m sure you’ve had this struggle. Are you perhaps even in the grip of it now? We like to think we live nice, orderly lives that we are in charge of, but there is so much out of our control. We just don’t think about it, we don’t realize it day to day. Our health, our finances, our relationships with others, the very world we live in… Any one of those could change at a moment’s notice, and it might not even happen because you did anything wrong. And it may not be in your power to fix it. What do you do when the prognosis at the doctor is grim? When some accident drains the bank account or a turn of the economy takes away your paycheck? When someone you care about decides that they’re just… done with you?
We want to be prepared. We want to deal with the situation. But we need help. Maybe that’s the reason the author was looking to the mountains. Maybe he was already feeling the natural fears of life and the mountains felt like a place of security. After all, it’s easy to hide in the mountains. And even if armies sometimes cross mountains to invade, mountains do provide a natural barrier. You can’t cross them in wide ranks and so it’s an easy place to defend from.
So maybe that’s what we’re doing. Maybe we’re already feeling helpless and a little panicked and we’re looking around asking… where does my help come from? The mountains? Well, probably not literally. But what would be the mountains we try to look to for help? It might depend on the trouble itself, but I’m guessing things like…
…our bank account
…our own strength or ingenuity
…our family or friends
…doctors or medicine
…government or authorities
These are the things that will keep us safe, right? We take care of ourselves generally. But if we need a little more we have family and friends we can lean on. And in extreme cases we can trust in professional help. The medical community or emergency services or law enforcement or government assistance. Sometimes just remembering that whole support network is there is enough to calm us down.
But the fact is that mountains are not a perfect barrier for troubles. Danger still gets through. Nor is any human source of assistance. I’m not calling any of those things or people unreliable, but they’re not perfect. They all can make mistakes. They all can be caught off guard. They all can miss things or make bad judgment calls or any one of a hundred other things because we are all sinners living in a sinful world.
So, you can look at the mountains in fear or you can look at the mountains as a source of sorta-protection but either way the question remains… where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
Okay, let’s not pretend we didn’t know this was the answer. Especially sitting here, gathered together to worship the Lord, we all know, intellectually, at least, that the LORD is where we find our help.
And we know what he has to offer. We know what a great help he can be. After all, he is the maker of heaven and earth. Not only does that mean he has unimaginable power to help us, it also means that all of this is his. He has authorship, ownership, and the authority to be in complete control of… everything.
So how will he use that immense power and authority to help?
He will not let your foot stumble.
He who watches over you will not slumber.
Yes, he who watches over Israel will not slumber.
He will not sleep.
Those are broad claims! A perfect God, always watching. But let’s explore what exactly that means… how he does this. Because I would guess that even though you knew this truth before coming here today, there are still times when you feel helpless. So, what does it mean to trust in God as your vigilant helper? Does it mean when trouble surfaces, we pray to God and then sit quietly while we trust and wait for him to fix everything?
Well, no, probably not. Because God helps through means. He created things here and put people in our lives to help us. So, when we have problems we pray, we ask him for help and support and guidance and then we go to the things and people he’s given us. Things like…
…our bank account
…our own strength or ingenuity
…our family or friends
…doctors or medicine
…government or authorities
But hold up. How is that at all different than before? It’s a change in attitude. First of all, it changes how we approach looking for help. We go to these things not as our saviors, but we go to them recognizing them as good gifts that God put in our lives for us. There is a big difference between saying “Doctor, heal me!” and “God, please use this doctor to heal me.”
But more importantly, it changes our attitude when the help “fails”. And I put fails in quotes because when we trust in the Lord for our help, there isn’t failure. God is in control of it all, isn’t he? God uses the means here on earth to help us in the best way he knows, right?
If one source of help doesn’t turn out how we want… it is not a failure. God is guiding you along a different path. So…when the Lord is our help, we don’t have to fall to pieces and lose hope when one avenue doesn’t work. The Lord chose to let this happen. The Lord is still your help. If both of those are true, then there is still complete hope. God still helps, but he does it in the way he knows best.
The friend may not be there to help you move. The police may not have prevented the break-in or recovered your property. The doctor may have misdiagnosed you or wasn’t able to fix whatever it was. But when we know the Lord is our helper… that’s okay. Because God has not abandoned you.
This, perhaps, is a good place to interject a related thought as we celebrate kids’ ministry this weekend. Because this right here helps highlight why teaching our children about Jesus is so important. I know as parents you want your children to be safe and protected. More than anything you want to be there to help when there is trouble. And oftentimes, parents are the closest source of help that God uses for children. But as a parent, does it bother or even scare you that you can’t always be there? You can’t watch a child all the time, it’s not practical. And as they grow, they get further away. And someday… well someday it’s likely your child will be here on this earth when you are not anymore.
That’s okay. Because, just like all these other sources of help we talked about… it was never really you helping. It is God helping through you. And that is a very very good thing. You don’t have to be afraid or bothered that you might not be there when you’re needed… because God will be. God keeps working when you can’t. God picks up the slack when you’re not there. And God is even better at loving and caring for your child than even you are.
This is why children need Jesus, so they always have him to help. So he can always be there for them when you maybe cannot. Teach your children Jesus, and with him in their heart, they will always be safe.
Because for them and for us all, God does not rest. He does not sleep. He does not take his eyes off you for a moment. And he does not make mistakes. Earthly help may not always be there when you need them. They make mistakes, but the power behind them, God, is using them for your benefit and he is always there and he does not make mistakes.
The LORD watches over you.
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
In fact, it goes beyond the troubles we may tend to think of as needing help. God is here to guard and shield you from things no one else has any control over. No one can stop the sun or the moon (at least not outside of Bond supervillains). But God is your help and protection.
Because God has already helped against the most terrible force that no one else can control: death.
Sin is the real problem. Sin is in this world. It’s the reason so much is wrong, it’s the reason we need help so often. And sin is in us. When God says, “Do!” we say, “No, thanks.” And when God says, “Don’t!” we say, “Uh, why not?” And when God says, “Trust me.” We say, “I think I can do better.” Our disobedience to God earns us death. Not just the end of life here, but eternal death separated from God himself. You can’t change that, and no one and nothing here can.
That is the default destination we are born into. Talk about needing help.
But the Lord as our help? He just… makes it right.
The LORD will watch to keep you from all harm.
He will watch over your life.
I’d like to talk a moment about the last words in each of these lines. In the original language there’s some extra connotation to the literal meaning of these words. If we were to translate these words more literally, we might come up with this instead:
The LORD will watch to keep you from all evil.
He will watch over your soul.
When you look at that, and you consider our real problem (sin and eternal death), you can start to understand what it really, really means that the Lord is our help. He wants to keep you from evil. He wants to save you from sin and death. And… he’s done it. Jesus did it. He came to earth as a human being, as one of us, and lived under the law like one of us. And then he gave that life to you. At the same time, he took your crimes and he paid the punishment they deserved. He died in your place.
Jesus on the cross, shouting, “It is finished!” Jesus leaving the tomb on the third day. That is God as your helper. By his sacrifice you are forgiven your crimes and you are no longer cut off from the Lord. Eternal life is yours now, not death.
Now, I don’t want to be coldly logical about this, but let’s be honest. Getting you to that eternal life is priority number one. Anything else you might have to go through… no matter how horrible it might be… well, it doesn’t last, and if that’s what it takes… it’s worth it. Only eternity lasts. When God says that he wants to keep you from evil and watch over your soul, this is what he’s trying to accomplish. He died so you could have heaven. He will do everything he can to get you there.
The LORD will watch over your going and your coming
from now to eternity.
So sometimes it may seem like no one can help. But that’s only because we’re not seeing it. The truth is there is always always always constant help from God. The Lord has promised to watch over every step from here to the end. But we have to understand his goal. Everything he does is directed at getting you home safely. That is the mission. We may have to slog through some rough patches to get there.
At the same time God is not callous and malicious. God cares about your day to day struggles too. And so he has also promised this: as much help as you can bear.
What do you mean “as much as I can bear”? I mean that we need troubles. We couldn’t handle life being easy. If this life were perfect we would quickly forget we need God. We would quickly forget that we’re looking forward to something better. We need trouble to remember that we need God’s help. And God will help. God does help. Sometimes… sometimes that bad situation is the help we need. Think about a struggle you’ve endured lately. Think about one you might be in now. Maybe you can think of a way God is using that to bless you. Or maybe you can’t. Even if you can’t figure out the reason, you can still trust that God is using it to guide you home. That’s the help he promises.
Brothers and sisters, whenever you struggle, whatever you struggle, take this psalm and put it somewhere you’ll need it. Remember the Lord is your help. Remember how he has helped you through Jesus. Remember how he’s helping you now. He has bought you eternity and he is here every step of the road home. You always have his help.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
I could point to some cameras, some microphones, a computer, and a mixing board as the handiwork of my brother and myself. These things have enhanced our livestreamed and recorded services. Is this something to be proud of? We have others in our church who can make music, together or by themselves; we have those who can teach, who can disinfect, who can arrange flowers, who can keep track of finances, and many other things. We have members who do amazing things at work, though it may not always be visible, members who can make amazing meals for their families, and the list goes on. Are these things to be proud of?
Let us hold that thought while we take a look at some other handiwork, namely God’s handiwork. As we see this phrase in our text, we will see some aspects of God’s handiwork in us.
Look at God’s Handiwork
I. Our being saved is God’s handiwork
II. Our good works are God’s handiwork
I. Our being saved is God’s handiwork
A. We are saved from eternal death by God.
V8: It is by grace you have been _______. (saved)
Consider for a moment what that means. Some people—maybe you or someone you know—have been saved from drowning, saved from a burning building or car, saved from cancer, saved from a terrible fall. It was probably frightening, and the person saved was certainly grateful.
But those are cases of being saved from temporal death. Here we are talking about being saved from the eternal wrath of God where punishments last forever. It can make your skin crawl just thinking about it.
For as Paul points out in the verses before our text, we are by nature spiritually dead in our sins. We didn’t know God, didn’t want to know God, didn’t want to listen to him, didn’t want to follow his commands. What we did, even those things that look good, were done entirely for ourselves. And you were facing God’s wrath, his eternal wrath, for this.
But you _______ ________ saved. (have been) through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
Done by God, by grace, not from yourselves, not by works.
V8: Your being ________ is God’s handiwork. (saved)
B. We are saved by God’s saving work in Christ
Think briefly what that handiwork involved. He couldn’t overlook or ignore sins. Punishment had to be carried out. So he sent his one and only Son to become a human, to become Jesus, to be loaded with our sins, to inflict the punishment due our sins on him, to abandon him to the agonies of hell while he hung on that cross, and to die as an ordinary human being. It was not his death, he had never sinned and earned death, his death was our death. He saved us from death, he saved us for eternal life.
For it is by grace you have been saved through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
This is God’s handiwork.
Your being saved is God’s handiwork.
What now? What now is a good question to ask. How to respond to someone who has saved you? How do you repay someone who got your life back for you? We start with contemplation and praise, like the shepherds and Mary on the night of Jesus’ birth. As it sinks in, we are ready for what God prepared us for.
II. Our good works are God’s handiwork
A. God has prepared good works for us to do
V10: For we are…created in Christ Jesus to do _______ _____. (good works) which God prepared in advance for us to do.
It is not just that we respond to God’s gracious act of saving us by doing things pleasing to him, he is the one who has prepared works that we are to do. If we are filled with gratitude for his saving us, certainly we will want to do them.
Let’s note something about them first. These aren’t even our works. These are God’s works. He has prepared them for us.
So even our _______ _________ are God’s handiwork. (good works)
B. God’s word describes the good works we are to do
So how do we go about finding out what good works God has prepared for us? He doesn’t usually speak directly to us individually, but he has spoken to us through his word. So, we take his word and apply it to our situation in life.
Are you married? What does God’s word have to say to people who are married? Love your spouse, not just in the sexual sense but in the sense of figuring out what they need, what would be good for them, and doing that. He has some specific things for each spouse: husbands to love and be ready to sacrifice for their wife, wives to submit to, to follow their husbands. There’s nothing about husbands disciplining their wives or ruling over them; likewise, there is nothing about wives becoming doormats and serving their husbands like slaves. It all starts with love and continues even when the other is not so loveable.
Are you not married? God’s word has something to say to you do. Keep the marriage bed pure; it is not for those who are not married. Look for a caring, believing spouse to share your life with. And learn that you can serve the Lord single as Paul did.
Do you have children? God’s word tells us not to exasperate them. Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Love them, feed them, care for them, take time with them, make them a priority in your life.
Are you a young child at home? God’s word tells us to obey your parents in the Lord. This means trusting the Lord that he will work good for you in your obedience even in cases where your parents might be wrong. Keep your room clean, do your chores, finish your homework—the rules your parents have set for these things are there to prepare you to be responsible adults in this world.
Are you a worker? Are you a boss? Are you a teacher? Are you a law enforcement officer? Do you have what seems like a menial job? Are you working to support your family? Are you cooking and cleaning for your family? Apply God’s word to your situations in life and do the good works he has prepared for you to do, remembering these are God’s works, no matter what the world thinks.
Think about this. Are the teachers over at Precious Lambs doing anything less big than Elon Musk is flying astronauts to the space station or developing environmentally friendly electric cars? Absolutely not. Is the husband struggling with spreadsheets or factory assembly pieces doing anything less big than Jeff Bezos is delivering those countless boxes to your doorstep? Absolutely not. Supporting a family and training children is not spectacular but it is important for a good society and so that our families become and remain part of God’s family into all eternity. This is God’s work.
We should note that when we let God’s word guide us in good works, it will often bring us into conflict with what is common and what is considered good and bad in this world. What constitutes family and marriage, how we should train our children, how we should respond to laws and rules we don’t like are just a few examples of this. But even in these cases these are good works our God has prepared for us to do. We remember again:
Our good works are God’s handiwork.
What Now? As we look around ourselves in this world, we see many people trying to do great works in many different ways. Some are simply wrong, some are misguided, some are good. As we seek to do good works we want to look to God’s word for our guidance—learn it, trust it, put it into practice.
As we look at where we come from and what we are doing, and then what God is doing, somethings become clear. When we are born into this world, we are dead in our sins. But God saves us through his Son Jesus. Our being saved is God’s handiwork. But once saved he has plans for us, he has good works planned for us. The good things we do in response to his saving us are part of God’s plan. Our good works are God’s handiwork. And Paul sums it up succinctly:
What is God’s handiwork?
We are God’s handiwork, saved by his grace, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. We will want to live as his handiwork in this world. We pray to our God for help in living this life. Amen.
We are finishing up our sermon series on anxiety today.
In our first message called “Why are you so Anxious, O My Soul?”, we learned that anxiety thrives on uncertainty, but is driven out by certainty. That’s why we cling to God’s promises, because there isn’t anything more certain than our certain God.
In the second message called “The Anti-Anxiety God”, we studied the those certain promises of Jesus: Promises that guaranteed a place in heaven, knowledge of the way to heaven, the Holy Spirit within us, Jesus never truly leaving us, and the peace of God himself.
Today we want to talk about how to battle anxiety on a day-to-day basis.
A battle with anxiety can come out of nowhere.
It was the day after I had preached the Anti-Anxiety God sermon for the third time. I was very literally listening to parts of it, in order to critique my delivery, and editing down the full service to get a very brief sermon-only YouTube video.
When I received an email from our adoptive agency…
There was a humanitarian flight leaving that Friday that we could possibly get on in order to get down to our daughter in Colombia. All we had to do was fill out a few some forms online (in Spanish), finish up getting our medical reports Apostilled downtown, and hope that we get on the flight.
Almost immediately, my mind was racing!
When was this email sent?
How much time do we have?
Is this the fastest internet connection to use or should I call up Spectrum??
How am I supposed to fill out a form in Spanish?
Is the link to the right website?
This word “salida.” Google translate says it means “exit” in Spanish. But are you sure it isn’t asking my favorite place to eat lettuce?
Are the “apostilling” accepting appointments?
Do you think they’ll squeeze us in if I ask nicely?
What if they do but the notaries did the notary-ing incorrectly and it doesn’t get accepted?
What if they do but the notaries are offended by my misuse of the word “notary-ing” and I don’t get accepted?
What happens if we do all this work and we don’t get on the flight?
Will I be prepared for worship?
What happens if we do all this work and we do get on the flight?
Will I be prepared for fatherhood?
It was attacking me.
It was winning.
And right after preaching a sermon on anxiety.
What tools does God’s Word give us to fight off an anxiety attack? Before we look in God’s Word, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
Philippians 4:4-7 is a section of the Bible made for battling anxiety.
REJOICE in the Lord always! I will say it again: Rejoice! (v.4)
Do you know the backstory to this section of Scripture? It was written by a guy named Paul. Paul was a believer in Jesus who had gone to many different cities spreading the good news about Jesus, the Savior of the world. But some people didn’t like it. They falsely accused him of starting riots and planning to destroy Jewish tradition. As a result, Paul was put on trial and taken into the city of Rome in order to await trial by Caesar, the king of the Roman empire.
Paul waited for that trial for two long years.
During that, he was under house arrest.
And while he was under house arrest? He wrote these words.
REJOICE in the Lord always! I will say it again: Rejoice!
Can you believe that?
It’s like Paul was on quarantine for two whole years.
What reason could Paul possibly have to rejoice?
A big one.
(1) …In the LORD
This is a key phrase.
Because there aren’t always amazing reasons to rejoice.
During the pandemic, you might have had to lower your expected reasons for rejoicing.
You might’ve rejoiced....
…in completing a word search.
…in the new season of Umbrella Academy on Netflix.
…in tutoring your kid to a B- on her English homework.
…in the Uber Eats guy bringing food before his expected arrival time.
When there aren’t a lot of good reasons to rejoice, Paul provides one:
In the Lord.
Rejoice! In the Lord, there is freedom.
Rejoice! In the Lord, there is belonging.
Rejoice! In the Lord, there is forgiveness.
Rejoice! In the Lord, there is eternal life.
Rejoice! In the Lord, there is peace.
(2) …as a Verb
It’s easy to misread this phrase in Scripture as a command to “feel happy.” That would be strange. Because it is hard to command emotions.
Just ask any mother of a newborn baby who looked at their tiny newborn throwing a fit and said, “Just be happy.”
Or when I tell me dog to just “be peaceful.”
It doesn’t work.
God doesn’t command us to feel an emotion of happiness here.
He’s commands us to do the action of rejoicing.
To sing a hymn.
To turn on worship music.
To shout God’s praise.
To write a praise post on social media.
To take a moment with your kids to talk about how great God is.
God isn’t commanding an emotion.
He is commanding a verb.
Despite our emotions!
And here’s the genius of God.
When you start singing…
When you start shouting…
When you start smiling about the joyful things God has done for you.
You start to feel joyful.
Which is why Paul tells us to do this…
Since it is an action, rejoicing is absolutely something that you can do in any situation.
Don’t believe me?
Consider Paul! He had recently been rioted against, falsely accused, transported hundreds of miles away from his family, endured a shipwreck, been bitten by a snake, and locked under house arrest for two whole years…
Still he writes: REJOICE!
The same is true for you.
Gained a job? Rejoice.
Lost a job? Rejoice.
Finances good? Rejoice.
Finances tight? Rejoice.
Feeling comfortable? Rejoice.
Feeling stressed? Rejoice.
Everyone healthy? Rejoice.
A loved one sick? Rejoice.
No matter what you’re feeling.
No matter what your situation.
Not matter what’s going on.
Rejoice in the Lord always; I’ll say it again: Rejoice! (v.4)
II. Be Gentle
Check out the next verse:
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. (v.5)
The word translated “gentleness” is the Greek word “epiekes.” It means to “be in submission” or to “be passive.”
That’s interesting here.
Because oftentimes when it comes to anxiety, we tend to fight it:
I don’t want this to happen.
I won’t be able to hand that awful thing.
I’m so angry and upset. I will fight to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
Does that fighting bring you peace?
Does fighting whatever it is that’s causing you anxiety bring you calm?
That’s why Paul wants us to be gentle in our words and actions…
(1) …to prevent ANXIETY BUILDUP within YOURSELF
Because anxiety is a pinball in a pinball machine.
And as the anxiety makes its way towards you and the little flipper thingies, you could gently hold down the button and calmly receive the ball, cradling it between the downward slant of the machine and your little plastic flipper thingie.
You could press the button as soon as the ball connect with the flipper causing it to fly in the opposite direction.
Directly into more bells and bumpers which causing your anxiety’s velocity to simply increase.
Imagine that you just got a message about a meeting with your boss at work.
It makes you anxious cause you don’t know what it’s about.
Because you’re anxious, you speak gruffly to my spouse.
They correctly tell you, to “calm down.”
You’re anxious that they’re right so you snap back at them even more loudly.
You look over at your kids who are making you anxious that they heard you.
So, you slam the door in a huff, noticing your neighbors across they street, anxiously wondering if they heard you as you drive to the office.
And you ignore the friendly greetings of your coworkers as you get to your desk, because “you’re not in the mood.”
When you calm down.
You don’t just have the anxiety of your boss’ meeting.
But the anxiety of ruined relationships.
Instead of responding to anxiety with volatile words…
Take a breath.
Avoid angry outbursts to keep anxiety from increasing within you.
(2) …to prevent BUILDUP within OTHERS
Allow me to illustrate this point. By communicating the same truth in two different ways:
1. Oh friend, there’s a mistake in this report.
2. HEY LOSER! THERE’S A MISTAKE IN THIS REPORT!!!
1. Honey, we’re running short on funding.
2. WE’RE RUNNING SHORT ON FUNDING!!!!
3. Sorry, Kids. This home teaching thing is difficult.
3. LISTEN, RUNTS! THIS TEACHING THING IS DIFFICULT!!!
Which style puts you on edge more?
The same is true for others too.
Be kind with your words.
To prevent anxiety for others.
But before you say, “Pastor, who cares about everyone else’s anxiety…”
Listen to the last part of the verse.
(3) …because the LORD is near
That’s both a scary and comforting thing.
On the one hand, God is near, and he hears you speaking that way to the spouse he created for you?
To the parents that he gave you?
To the children that he gifted you?
How much do you think it pleases him when you do that?
On the other hand, God is near.
You’re in his hands.
You are his forgiven child.
Whatever anxiety is causing you to feel so frustrated, it’s nothing compared to the God who died and rose again to save you.
You’ll be okay.
Take a breath.
III. Be Prayerful
One more section of WHAT NOW? Think of it like a secret weapon against anxiety:
Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. (v.6)
This verse really helps us to understand the word, “prayer.” Paul has followed it up with a synonym, “petition.”
What’s a petition?
A petition is something that you sign in order to ask someone in a higher-up capacity (government, work, school) to change something.
For example, a petition was integral in change the Wake school plans to be more virtual than in-person this year.
A petition was integral in allowing us to fly on a humanitarian flight to Colombia.
Petitions are integral in changing hidden racial prejudices within our American system.
If the change that you want has to do with your personal life, who do you take the petition to?
The government doesn’t care that much about you.
Your boss might not either.
Who should you petition in order to remove anxiety in your life?
Bring your petition…
(1) …to God
God’s never too busy.
God’s never too stressed.
God doesn’t require a group of about 500 to sign your petition before he takes the anxieties in your life seriously.
In fact, God already took the source of your ultimate anxiety (sin) out of the equation, before you ever even petitioned him.
He came to earth for you.
He lived perfectly for you.
He died innocently for you.
He rose triumphantly for you.
Now he waits attentively to hear your petition.
To listen to your anxieties.
To share your anxieties.
And he wants to hear it all.
(2) …in ALL Things
Sharing anxieties can absolutely improve your outlook, right?
But sometimes you don’t know who to share your anxieties with because…
Maybe they’ll gossip.
Maybe they’ll judge.
Maybe they’ll just get angry about that secret thing.
Maybe they’ll think this isn’t important enough.
Maybe they’ll do that thing where immediately; they start telling you all about their own similar anxiety before you finish your first paragraph.
He’ll simply listen.
No matter what it is that’s causing you anxiety, you can talk to God about it.
(3) …with THANKSGIVING
Look to the end of this verse on prayer. It mentions that we should pray to God with thanksgiving.
It’s kind of a circle back to verse 4 that says, “Rejoice in the Lord always!”
God wants us to come to him with a thankful heart, because that immediately refocuses our hearts from anxiety to thankfulness.
It’s like an actual thanksgiving meal where you sit down to a meal filled with delicious hot baked turkey, green bean casserole with the little crispies on top, asparagus, cranberry sauce, three different kinds of potatoes, hot buns, corn on the cob, and a variety of grandma’s hot pies awaiting you in the oven.
It’s VERY hard to make your first words a complaint.
Thanksgiving battles anxiety.
Even if you aren’t at the Thanksgiving table.
Looking for a practical way to do this?
Here’s what I was told to start doing by a pastor who knows what he’s talking about:
Before I begin each morning devotion.
Before I begin with prayer.
I force myself to write out 5 things that I am thankful for.
Could be anything.
My beautiful wife.
My beautiful daughter.
The dog licking my leg.
The cat batting my hand as I write.
The taste of last night’s Doritos on my breath.
But here’s what happens.
No matter how groggy.
How grumpy I might be.
Taking a moment to reflect on what God has given me, battles that anxiety.
Instead of focusing on what I wish were true,
I look at the amazing things that are already true.
And it immediately gets much tougher to be anxious.
IV. God’s What Now?
There’s an interesting finale to our sermon. Because usually we end with WHAT NOW’s for us. These are take-homes for us to put into practice.
But we’ve already got three of them.
This week we are ending with God’s WHAT NOW?
What is GOD going to do for you and for me to battle anxiety?
Look at his promise in verse 7:
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (v.7)
Paul was quite familiar with guards.
Since he was under house arrest, yes, he knew he couldn’t go out into the world.
But he was also safe from unlawful people who wanted to kill him.
Roman guards were there at his door 24/7.
Armed with a sword.
Skilled with defense.
Protected with armor.
In verse 7, God promises to
Send His PEACE to GUARD your heart.
It’s a peace beyond understanding:
We are sinners.
God is holy.
Jesus died and now we have peace?
Yet this is a true peace.
It is a God given peace.
It is a peace that guards our hearts and our minds against any anxiety that comes our way.
This means you aren’t alone.
You don’t have to battle anxiety alone.
God is with you.
God is battling it for you.
And God always wins.
In Jesus, you will have PEACE. Amen.
We started our sermon series called ANXIOUS FOR NOTHING last week and talked about how anxiety thrives on UNCERTAINTY. This means that rather than cling to uncertain truths like “things should get better” or “I think COVID will be done soon”, we cling to the CERTAIN truths of God to battle anxiety.
Today, we’re diving into a situation where the disciples had all kinds of reasons to feel anxious, but Jesus gave them even more reason not to be. Before we begin, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. All Kinds of Reasons for Anxiety
The lesson comes from John 14. In this account, Jesus and his disciples were gathered around a table celebrating the Jewish Festival called the Passover. It was a celebration of when God delivered the Israelite people from their slavery in Egypt.
The mood was festive.
Jokes were made.
Kosher finger foods were passed around.
Wine was available to consume in moderation.
Suddenly, Jesus broke the festive mood:
“Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” (John 13:21)
Things got real quiet, real quick.
Who is it?
Can’t be me.
Probably James the Less, he’s been quieter than normal tonight.
I do hope, Jesus, that it isn’t me.
Jesus responded: “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas.” (v.26)
Judas looked down at the piece of gravied bread.
He looked up at Jesus.
And got up and left them room.
As the rest of the disciples watch Judas leave in shock, Jesus gave them more sad news:
“My children, I will be with you only a little longer.” (v.33)
As I’ve told you before:
I will be betrayed.
Nailed to a cross.
And by the way…
“This very night you will all fall away on account of me.” (Matthew 26:31)
You’ll abandon me.
To which Peter replied:
James the Less, most likely.
But never me!
Jesus sadly looked at him and said:
Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” (Mt. 26:34)
I think it’s safe to say that at this point, the festive mood was dead.
All that was left was anxiety.
Is Judas really going to betray you?
Is Peter really going to deny you?
Are we really going to abandon you?
And if you die, what’s going to happen to us?
What about our safety?
Won’t we be next in line for the cross? I’m not ready to die!
And what about our ministry?
What about your followers?
What about our mission?
If you leave us in charge, this kingdom of God thing is going to die.
The mood in the room had changed.
Festivity has been replaced with anxiety.
But Jesus didn’t let the anxiety linger. As big as their anxiety was, his promises were even bigger:
“Do not let your heart be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (14:1)
Did you catch that?
Jesus speaks firmly.
Jesus speaks calmly.
Jesus speaks peacefully.
Stop being anxious.
Stop letting anxiety take over.
Listen to me.
I have some promises for you that will work against your anxiety.
Promises of peace.
Friends, these promises were written down.
They were written down because they are for you as well.
If you feel like 2020 is about as anxious as a party with Jesus where he predicts his betrayal:
Listen to your Savior.
He has promises for you.
II. Anti-Anxiety Promises of Jesus
(1) You have a ROOM in Heaven
I don’t know if you’ve been out and about trying to get into any of local establishments since they’ve reopened, but it isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Restaurant seating has been cut in half.
Stores have limits on how many people can enter.
The other day we tried to get into Top Golf. Have you heard of this? You swing a golf club with some friends and try to get the balls to land in particular targets. I was looking forward to it.
They serve chicken wings.
They serve beverages.
It’s out in the open air.
You’re walled off from everyone outside your group.
It seemed like the perfect COVID-19 activity.
Apparently, so did everyone else.
There was a four-hour wait to get into play. But we couldn’t make a reservation over the phone. We had to get there in order to physically put our name on the list. We did; only to discover the waitlist had grown to 4 ½ hours. We decided to wait to see if it was going to drop, only to discover that the entire first floor was empty! They had room, but because of COVID – they didn’t have room for us.
Heaven is not like that. Jesus said about heaven:
In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that you may also be where I am. (v.2-3)
Heaven isn’t filled to capacity.
There aren’t rooms off-limits because you are too full of sin.
It isn’t a priority club for all the “most holy of people” who wear nothing but religious jewelry and win Bible trivia every time.
One particular room.
(2) You know the WAY to Heaven
This is another thing that’s a stress off your back.
Because a lot of people have ZERO idea how to get to heaven. It’s one of the reasons that people avoid the question. They don’t know the answer and that uncertainty leads to all kinds of anxiety:
How do I get to heaven?
Learn the right set of Buddhist rules?
Sacrifice to the right Hindu idol?
Follow the correct Islamic principles?
Or just generally do “good” things…
What are good things?
Is it this set of “good” things over here?
Is it this set of “good” things over there?
And what if I mess up?
Can I start over?
Do I need to give my money to a charity?
What if I don’t have enough?
But you don’t have to worry about any of that. Because Jesus has revealed the way to you:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (v.6)
It’s as if you enter “eternal life” into Google Maps and it simply brings up a photo of a cross.
He is THE Way.
Not “a” way.
Not “one of the” ways.
Not even “an optional” way.
And you know him.
You don’t have to try and recall it from that time you drove with your dad.
You don’t have to try and listen to Siri while a rainstorm is causing the 5G to slow to 1G.
You don’t have to try and follow a treasure map that your 4-year-old son drew with a blue Crayola. (Is heaven over by this green squiggle over here?)
Jesus is the way.
And you know Jesus.
So, you know the Way.
Consequently, that segues into our third key truth:
(3) You Know the REAL GOD
Sometimes Social media can be frustrated. If you’re trying to follow Beyonce on Instagram, there’s a lot of options.
Thankfully, Instagram helps people out. It places a little BLUE checkmark next to the Real Beyonce.
Jesus is like that blue check mark.
If you’re looking for the real God, you’ll find him in Jesus.
If you know me, you would also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him... Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. Or else believe because of the works themselves. (v.7, 10-11)
And Jesus’ works?
They were things that only God could do!
He walked on water.
He stopped storms.
He pulled bread out of thin air.
He pulled fish out of thin air.
He made the blind to see.
He made the deaf to hear.
He made the lame to walk.
He raised the dead.
But three times.
And then when he died.
A time when most people do nothing.
He did the one thing that no one can do while living.
He conquered death.
He brought himself back to life.
That’s a God thing.
This means you don’t have to keep looking for the Real God.
You have found him, in Jesus.
(4) God WILL WORK through You
This one is important.
Because right here during COVID, you might not feel as productive.
You might not be able to have face to face meeting with clients.
You might not be making the same amount of money that your business did beforehand.
You might not be working at all, because you lost your job.
Or you might be working, but the whole job feels extra stressful with all these rules and regulations that you aren’t able to put smiles on people’s faces like you could before.
But look at Jesus’ promise:
“Truly, Truly, I tell you: The one who believes in me will do the works that I am doing. And he will do even greater works than these…” (v.12-14)
Did you see that?
Jesus works through those who do work through him.
And that work?
It’s always greater than anticipated.
When you sit down your kids amid an argument over whose turn it is to hold the Elsa action figure and you tell them about sharing with each other just like Jesus shared salvation with us. Jesus is working through you. It’s greater than settling an argument. It’s about training your kids in Jesus.
When you scroll through your social media feed and you see an angry political post, but instead of clicking ANGRY face and resharing that, you find a photo of your friend’s new baby and type out: “What a blessing! Praying that Jesus keeps her safe always.” Jesus is working through you. It’s greater than a simple compliment, it’s introducing your friends to their Savior.
When you lovingly, kindly make a meal for your spouse, clean the dishes, throw the garbage out, pick up the kids’ toys, and put the child to bed all so that they can relax on the couch with their favorite Netflix show and a glass of wine, Jesus is working through you. It’s greater than making them happy. It’s showing them the sacrificial love that Jesus showed for you.
Here’s the point.
You may be at home.
Life may be different.
But Jesus has work for you.
And he will work through you.
(5) The HOLY SPIRIT Is in You
Ever heard of the Holy Spirit before?
He is the unsung hero of our Triune God.
The Holy Spirit is God.
The Holy Spirit is invisible.
The Holy Spirit is in this worship place right now.
Because the Holy Spirit is always at work when God’s Word is spoken.
The Holy Spirit creates faith.
The Holy Spirit blazes with fire.
The Holy Spirit can turn someone’s life around from sin to eternal salvation.
It’d be nice to have the Holy Spirit with you as you went about work for Jesus.
Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. He is the Spirit of truth. (v.16-17)
During the pandemic, mental health is down. Many are turning to mental health professionals for help. There are even some excellent Christian mental health counselors that I know, have worked with, and highly recommend.
But even those professionals have office hours.
Some of them you can only get to through Zoom.
Sometimes, they get distracted by their own mental health.
You have the Holy Spirit as a Counselor.
He lives in you through faith.
And as you are undergoing anxiety.
As you are feeling stressed.
He is the one who recalls promises from God:
God has a home for you.
You know the way to heaven.
God is working through you.
You are loved, God is working through you!
I am with you.
But it isn’t just the Counselor, Holy Spirit who is with you….
(6) You are not ABANDONED by Jesus
And you’re probably thinking. What are you talking about?
Jesus isn’t here.
I don’t see him.
He had the good sense to stay home away from the virus.
I’ll give you this point: Jesus is not visible.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t here.
Look at what Jesus himself had to say:
“I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you.”
Orphan has taken new meaning to me.
Since working on the adoption, we have been exposed to a variety of children that live in an orphanage.
These kids don’t have a family unit.
They don’t have a “parental guardian”.
They seemingly abandoned.
But then again, that’s a very earthly version of the story.
Because Jesus loves them.
He died for them.
He rose for them.
He works through their biological parents to get them to the orphanage.
He works through the orphanage to get her profile to an agency.
He works through the agency to connect them to parents.
And through those parents he might introduce them to their Savior.
It might look like Jesus has left you.
You are not an orphan.
You are HIS.
III. What Now?
This is more proactive than anything. But if you want to head off anxiety, you need a healthy dose of God’s promises.
In fact, you need to regularly ingest his promises.
It’s like taking an apple a day to keep the doctor away.
Or taking a zinc supplement to stave off the common cold.
Or rubbing Lavender on your hair to prevent male pattern baldness. (I obviously have not done that).
The point is that sometimes we supplement our health to keep up our physical health.
The same is true with our spiritual health.
To stave off anxiety, it is valuable to take a healthy dose of Jesus’ promises on a regular basis.
Where do we get that?
Is CVS even open on a Sunday?
Look at the last couple of verses after Jesus gives these promises. He says:
“I have told you these things while staying with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I told you. (v.25-26)
Jesus said that to his disciples.
One was named John
Months later, the Holy Spirit came to these disciples and reminded them of everything that Jesus promised them.
Coming to John.
Reminding him of these promises.
Having John write them down.
So that you might know them too.
Remind yourself of these promises.
Jesus didn’t give you these promises so that you would have ANXIETY.
He gave these promises so that…
I let him tell you:
“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not let it be afraid. (v.27)
Not as the world gives.
From God himself.
No matter what it looks like in your life.
You have PEACE.
Dwell in that peace.