Psalm 23


            This is one of those days where sacred time needs to break into secular time and transform it.  April 15, as all Americans are quite aware, is tax day.  Those procrastinating souls who have hoped for the return of the Lord before this date are now faced with the reality of secular time.  But in this sacred season of Eastertide, a focus on new life can bring a transformation from fear to faith, from fretting to resting.  Psalm 23 is just the right message for this time.  Yet, because of its familiarity, we might only associate it with funerals and miss its relevance for now.  So, the following is my contemporized version of this most famous of psalms:
Jesus is my pastor, and I lack absolutely nothing because of it.
My merciful overseer is watching me while I rest secure on a nice soft bed of grace;
             he leads me into an unhurried life; he is thawing out my cold anxious soul.
He leads me in all the right ways for the sake of his great name.
Even though I get lost and find myself in a dark alley,
             I really have no fear of evil;
for I know God is with me,
             his Word and Sacrament – they are sufficient to comfort me.
I have a big ol’ appetite and hunger for you, God,
             and you satisfy it,
             even though I have enemies within arm’s length;
you encourage my mind with joyous thoughts,
             so that my heart overflows with hope.
I am quite sure that goodness and mercy will follow me for a lifetime,
             and I will live in peace despite any adverse circumstances my whole life long.

Psalm 121

            This is one of my favorites in the entire psalter.  It is a beautiful majestic psalm which can be used for any and every occasion.  So, I often use it when making hospital visits, counseling a wide array of situations, and for my own personal edification.  It seems to me that one cannot possibly overuse this psalm.  The psalm was originally one used for ascending the hill into Jerusalem.  In other words, it anticipates meeting with God.  Just like a lover who looks forward to meeting his beloved and thinking about how wonderful she is, so the psalmist looks with adoring affection on the God he is about to encounter.
 
            The psalm is rich with a theology of grace, watch care, and loving attention.  This is a God who is powerful and merciful, a God able to help and desiring to do so.  In a world that seems so often distant and unaffected by the divine, this is a psalm to repeat over and over again in every situation of life so that the truth of the Lord is engrafted deep into the soul.  In each unwanted circumstance the psalm can be spontaneously used as an immediate prayer, and with every anticipated event it can provide the words to address the most pressing of needs.  Let the words resonate within you as people created in the image of God, connecting with him on both the cerebral and visceral levels of your life:
 
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.” (ESV)

Isaiah 43:1-7

            There are times when our souls can become parched and dry, times when it seems no one quite understands, and as if circumstances might overwhelm the spirit.  The best remedy to such times is to fill oneself full of God, his grace and love.  Today’s Old Testament lesson is the perfect prescription for those passing through difficulty and/or wondering what lies ahead, fearful of the future.  As I do often, here is my translation and interpretation of this encouraging passage of Holy Scripture; may it fortify your soul today and lead you through the sticking points of life:
 
Now listen up to what the LORD says, the One who created you and formed you:
“Don’t be afraid, because I’m the God who has bought you from the auction block with the ultimate price;
            I have called you by name, and you are now mine.
When you are in water over your head, I want you to know that I will be with you;
            and when it seems like you are drowning, please understand that I’ve got you;
when you walk through fiery trials, I want you to know that you will not be burned,
            and the circumstance will not consume you and burn you out.
This will all be true because I am the LORD your God,
            the Holy One, your Savior.
I put everyone around you in their place,
            and there is no one who is in a position to buy you back from me.
Because you are infinitely precious in my eyes,
            and honored, and I love you,
there is nothing I would not give for you,
            nothing I would not do to keep you with me.
Don’t be afraid, because I am with you always;
            I will gather all my children from the east and from the west,
            so that you will never be alone on this earth.
In fact, I will command all the ends of this planet of yours
            to not withhold, to bring together every son and daughter from the farthest reaches,
everyone who is called by my name,
            whom I created for my glory,
            whom I formed and made.
You are all in this life together,
            and I, the LORD, am watching over each and every one of you. 

 

Bank on it.”

On the Need to Recognize God’s Presence

 
 
The Old Testament prophetic tradition minced nothing and cut to the heart of a matter.  For example, the prophet Amos sarcastically lamented over people who went through the motions of worship without a pure heart:  “Bring your tithes every three years.  Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings – boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do” (Amos 4:4-5).  The prophet Hosea responded to impure and disingenuous worship:  “When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the LORD, they will not find him; he has withdrawn himself from them.”  Hosea lays out what God really wants:  “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 5:6, 6:6). 
 
            The New Testament book of Hebrews continues this practice of going after the heart of an issue.  The author plainly tells us that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  Quoting Psalm 40:  “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.  Then I said, ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God’” (Hebrews 10:4-7).  Jesus is the superior presence above all else.
 
            Our trouble in the church is the age old predicament of caring more about the presence of other things rather than the presence of God.  When Jesus entered the temple courts and went after the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice, he was not speaking to pagan kings or Gentile sinners; he was speaking to people who professed the name of God and worshiped him (John 2:13-22).  But they did not seek the presence of God with all their hearts as their primary allegiance, and it ticked off Jesus.
 
            We must all desire the presence of God more than anything else in the whole world.  We must love Jesus more than we love anything or anyone else.  We must desire the presence of God in the church building more than the building itself.  We must desire the presence of God in the ministries of the church more than just having the programs themselves.  We must desire pastors who have the presence of God with them at all times more than we desire pastors who are present everywhere.  We must desire the presence of God in our families more than we desire the presence of kids, or order in the house, or that everything lives up to our standards.
 
            Jesus wants our hearts where they belong:  desiring the presence of God more than anything; and, loving him more than anyone.  Many of the Jews of Jesus’ time lost their true sense of purpose as God’s people.  They neither perceived nor focused on God’s presence, but cared more about the presence of animals and sacrifices, making money, and keeping their social positions secure. 
 
            If we are not pursuing nor looking for God’s presence, we are likely not to find it when it stares us in the face.  Last year the Washington Post orchestrated an interesting experiment.  They had arguably the best violinist in the world, Joshua Bell, play in the train station as a regular looking street musician complete with open violin case to catch monetary offerings.  Not only did Bell play some of the most difficult pieces of music for the violin, he played them on a Stradivarius worth $3.5 million dollars.  His earnings for a few hours of work:  exactly $32.17, less than the $100 for one ticket at a Boston concert hall he played just three weeks before.  No one noticed the extreme talent right in front of their faces, much like those who only saw Jesus as a regular guy instead of the incarnate Son of God.
 

 

            James 4:8 says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”  God is present, whether we recognize him or not.  He longs for you to pursue him more than you pursue money, other relationships, or other things.  The path to church renewal and revitalization is not through clever ideas or more tech savvy services; it is through Jesus.  You know, the guy always present, hanging around on the street corner.