With-ness

A sermon on Psalm 23 preached on March 30th, 2014.

Sermon audio 

One of my very favorite TV shows is Mythbusters. It airs on the Discovery Channel, and it’s about a bunch of scientist and special effects artists who test out whether there is truth behind tall-tales, conventional phrases, and if the stuff we see in movies is really possible in real life.

Just to give you an example, they ran a whole experiment on whether or not it’s really all that easy to steal candy from a baby. After a day of bringing in babies of all ages and handing them lollipops—the huge ones that you get at an Aunt Sarah’s restaurant—they found that once the children get used to holding it, they quickly fall in love with its bright colors, and it’s very hard to take it out of their hands.

Of course they found that the hardest part of taking candy from a baby was that whenever you did so, the baby would start to cry—you would feel evil for having taken the candy. So it is possible to steal candy from a baby, but it turns out, it’s not so easy.

In another episode, they did a pirate special. The episode was filled with myths from the movie series Pirates of the Caribbean. Their big experiment in that episode involved testing the real reason why we see so many pirates wearing patches over one of their eyes.

I had always thought that getting an eye poked out was one of the vocational hazards of being a pirate, but as it turns out, that’s not at all the reason why pirates wear eye patches. Pirates wear eye patches so they will always have one eye that is adjusted to the light and another that’s always adjusted to dark. If they run down into the lower decks of their ship, they can simply shift their eye patch to the other eye, uncovering the eye that was adjusted to the pitch dark so that they could see below deck right away.

The Mythbusters tested this idea and lo and behold it checked out! It totally worked!

Anyone with kids or grandkids knows what it’s like to turn out the lights in the living room before heading upstairs for bed, only to step on a Lego or a superhero figure left in the middle of the room. It causes a surprising amount pain. If only you wore an eye patch then maybe you would have seen it before you stepped on it!

Our eyes need to adjust to both the light and the dark, or else we have a hard time finding our way.

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Psalm 23 is the most widely known piece of scripture there is. Most of us I imagine could at least stumble our way through it without having the words in front of us. As children, we heard its words for the first time. And then when we received our first bibles from our church we opened them to the very center and we flipped to Psalm 23 together and read those words aloud. Slowly but surely its words sunk into our heads.

The 23rd Psalm has become a part of who we are, and even reciting it is an exercise in pulling together all the different parts of our lives. That’s what makes it a comfort psalm—it reminds us of our journey of faith. Its words sink deep inside of us and they become a part of who we are.

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Why do we like this psalm so much? Out of everything in the bible, why Psalm 23? I think it’s because through its words we here God’s greatest promise to us. And it’s the same promise that is at the heart of the Gospel too: it’s the promise that God is always with us.

There are plenty of other places in the bible where God declares he will always be with us. In Isaiah we hear the word Immanuel—one of God’s many names. Immanuel means “God with us.”

But here in Psalm 23 we have more than a name. Here we have an assurance that no matter where we go, even if we’re walking through the darkest parts of our lives, God is still right there with us. Comforting us. Protecting us.

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There’s something else about Psalm 23, though. So often we think that we do this faith thing best when we’re riding high, when life is good and we’re happy and every cloud has a silver lining.

Somehow we’ve whittled faith down to something like a Hallmark card. Faith, when we’re doing it right, we think, is supposed to make us feel good. Isn’t that the way God wants us? Shouldn’t we feel blessed and be the kind of people who smile while we count our blessings? Happiness, we think, is the currency and the evidence of faith.

Or consider what kinds of things many of our friends, neighbors, or co-workers say to us to try to lift our spirits during difficult times. Some might say things like,

Cheer up! Things aren’t so bad!

or some might try to solve our issues for us and give us advice like,

What if you tried to go out more and get some exercise?

Whenever we’re down and we hear others say these things, we understand that they mean well, but frankly they just don’t help. When somebody says these sorts of things, they’re trying to abolish the darkness around you, and all their words just make you feel like you’re doing something wrong—that first and foremost, you need an attitude change or you need to fix something about yourself.

The words of the 23rd psalm guide us to do things differently. If we followed the counsel of the 23rd psalm, we wouldn’t be too quick to offer others advice about how to stay out of the dark valleys of life, nor would we try to offer quick solutions about how to get though them.

If our friends understood the wisdom of this psalm, they would simply walk through our troubles with us. They would know simply just to being there and standing along side of us—right smack-dab in the middle of our troubles with us. That’s the best way care for each other. Simply sitting right by our side and listening.

So often we assume that if we ever come across darkness in our lives, if depression ever overtakes us, if we feel trapped in the dark places, then we must have done something wrong. But this psalm says no, that’s not right at all! This Psalm assumes that along our journey, we will all encounter dark valleys, and the Shepherd’s strategy isn’t to avoid them or try to walk around them, the Shepherd’s strategy is to take our hand and walk straight through those dark place with us.

The divine shepherd of the 23rd psalm knows that the only way forward is through. Through the pain and loss, through the disappointment, we can lean on the One who walks beside us and offers us protection and presence.

This psalm tells us that God never abandons us. God always sticks by our side, and most of the time the best care there is is simply being there.

This Psalm attests to the power of presence—the “with-ness” of God.

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Lent is time of walking through the darkness—the darkness between two bright lights. If you’ll remember weeks ago, we talked about the Transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus is high atop a mountain with Peter, James, and John, and right in front of their faces, Jesus becomes transformed by light.

During Lent, we travel with Jesus after the bright light of Transfiguration Sunday has faded. Lent is a time for our eyes to adjust to the light and the dark of our journey with Jesus. And as we wind our way though the valley between the mountain where Jesus was transfigured and the mountain where Jesus will be crucified, we see all sorts of things—glorious and terrible things: mountaintop transformations, prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus arrested, persecuted, and put to death. But still we are called to follow along that pathway. To walk with our Master, teacher, and friend through the darkest valley. To share our with-ness with Jesus.

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God has never promised anyone fair weather or a smooth journey. God never promised Jesus any of these things either. God never said that having faith means we never stumble through darkness. All that we are promised is that God will be with us when we do. That is God’s greatest promise: with-ness.

We have a God who knows the journey we make. We have a God who has felt suffering and rejection. Who walks with us, adjusting his eyes so that he can guide us in the dark places we sometimes find ourselves in. We have a God who promises to be with us. Always. Who will never abandon us. No matter what. No matter where.

All praises the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.

Alleluia! Amen.

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