Category: psalm

Psalm 22: A Surprising Lenten Study

Last Wednesday night I led the meditation for our community Lenten “meal and meditation” service. I chose Psalm 22 from the lectionary for the previous Sunday, but used the entire psalm rather than just the last portion. Here’s the study — 

Psalm 22: A Lenten Study

During the Lenten season, Psalm 22 provides a wonderful narrative of the movement from despair to hope. This psalm is particularly appropriate for the Lenten-to-Easter season because Jesus quotes the first portion of verse one while he hangs on the cross (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46).

But, there might be more to Jesus’ quotation of this psalm than his lament over God’s abandonment. There might be something there both surprising and encouraging.

David, the psalmist to whom this song is attributed, begins in the depths of loneliness and despair in verses 1-2:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

   so far from my cries of anguish?

2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

   by night, but I find no rest.

Here is the cry of one who feels utterly abandoned, and yet knows that his God is still somewhere within hearing. One commentator suggested that verse one is a contradiction, expressing abject abandonment by God, while at the same time addressing God as “my God.” Walter Brueggemann notes that this is classic lament — a cry from the heart in the midst of turmoil and loneliness.

However, in verses 3- 5, the psalmist begins to recount God’s history with Israel. Perhaps the psalmist thinks that by reminding God that in the past, Israel has a history of crying out to God and then being saved by God, that this history will move God to action this time.

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;

   you are the one Israel praises.

4 In you our ancestors put their trust;

   they trusted and you delivered them.

5 To you they cried out and were saved;

   in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

The psalmist speaks of God “enthroned” and as the “one Israel praises.” The psalmist’s ancestors “trusted and you delivered them,” he argues. Then, using parallelism, he repeats his argument that Israel “cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” In other words, the psalmist is saying, “I’m standing in the tradition of those before me, who cried out to you, and whom you then acted to save.” This passage exemplifies the Old Testament tradition of “contending with God” — which sounds much more respectful than arguing with God. Nonetheless, that is what is happening.

In verses 6-8, the psalmist reiterates not only his abandonment, but the ill-treatment and abuse he suffers at the hands of those who mock him and his God:

6 But I am a worm and not a man,

   scorned by everyone, despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock me;

   they hurl insults, shaking their heads.

8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,

   “let the Lord rescue him.

Let him deliver him,

   since he delights in him.”

Of course, these words and phrases are echoed in the New Testament crucifixion of Jesus in Matthew 27:27-44. Jesus is scorned, mocked, despised, and ridiculed, along with his God’s reputation.

We don’t know exactly what difficulty David was experiencing when he wrote this psalm, but somehow these descriptions in Psalm 22 become prophetic indications of how Jesus will be treated. This is the lived personal experience of both David and Jesus.

In the midst of describing the insults he is enduring, David reminds God of their personal relationship. It’s not enough for God to be reminded that God has acted on Israel’s behalf in the past (v3-5). The psalmist now reminds God that:

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;

   you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.

10 From birth I was cast on you;

   from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

This is not an appeal to the general history of the nation of Israel, but a personal account of God’s action and David’s response. David says that God was instrumental in his birth — “Yet you brought me out of the womb.” But, God also created the circumstances for David to trust in God — “you made me trust in you,” David says, as if to further obligate God to help him in his present distress.

Again, David restates verse 9 in verse 10 by saying, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” This connection involves God’s presence and power before, during, and after David’s physical birth. This is David’s claim to God’s response.

In verses 11-18, David asks for God’s near presence — “Do not be far from me,” he pleads. David equates God’s proximity to him as the assurance of God’s action for him.

Then, as evidence of why David needs God, he details the threats surrounding him, and the weakened condition he is experiencing:

11 Do not be far from me,

   for trouble is near

   and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;

   strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

13 Roaring lions that tear their prey

   open their mouths wide against me.

14 I am poured out like water,

   and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart has turned to wax;

   it has melted within me.

15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

   and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;

   you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,

   a pack of villains encircles me;

   they pierce my hands and my feet.

17 All my bones are on display;

   people stare and gloat over me.

18 They divide my clothes among them

   and cast lots for my garment.


Bulls, lions, and dogs are incredibly strong and ferocious adversaries. These predatory images are metaphors for the real threats to David’s existence, and also reminiscent of similar threats faced by other Old Testament heroes.

Along with these descriptions of predatory threats, David describes his physical condition in verses 14-15 and 17. Being “poured out like water” could mean that his strength is ebbing and he is almost empty of reserves. Bones out of joint, heart melting, mouth dried up to the point of his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, and being laid in the dust of death, are all indicators of the low level to which he has sunk physically and spiritually.

Again, in these verses there are prophetic echoes of the treatment and condition of Jesus as described in the crucifixion scenes. Jesus’ thirst on the cross; his exposure to both the elements and the stares of onlookers; his humiliation as bystanders gloat about his fate; and, the scene where those who witness his suffering not only do nothing to intervene, but cast lots for his clothes are horrifying.

In verses 19-21, David again requests that God “not be far from me.” As David asks for God’s intervention, he again details the threats against him and asks God specifically to meet those threats. He asks, “Deliver me from the sword…the power of the dogs…the mouth of lions…the horns of wild oxen.” The implication is that God can defeat all of these threats, and David uses pleading petitions for God to “come…deliver…rescue…save” him from these impending calamities.

19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.

   You are my strength; come quickly to help me.

20 Deliver me from the sword,

   my precious life from the power of the dogs.

21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;

   save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

Suddenly, the scene and tone shift dramatically beginning in verse 22. David is no longer alone, but in the presence of “my people” and “the assembly.” Perhaps this means a worship setting, possibly the Tabernacle. Not only does a worship setting imply that people are with David, but that God is also present, just as David has requested.

Because God is present, the tone of the psalm also shifts from lament to praise.

22 I will declare your name to my people;

   in the assembly I will praise you.

23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!

   All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!

   Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

24 For he has not despised or scorned

   the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

   but has listened to his cry for help.

 25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;

   before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.

26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;

   those who seek the Lord will praise him—

   may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth

   will remember and turn to the Lord,

and all the families of the nations

   will bow down before him,

28 for dominion belongs to the Lord

   and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;

   all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—

   those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him;

   future generations will be told about the Lord.

31 They will proclaim his righteousness,

   declaring to a people yet unborn:

   He has done it!

David, to an ever-widening audience, sings the praises of God. He begins first with his people — perhaps his family and those closest to him — “I will declare your name to my people,” he says. Then, the circle widens to the “assembly” which is typically thought to be those assembled at the Temple for high holy days.

Then, the circle expands to include the descendants of Jacob, reiterated as the descendants of Israel — Jacob’s name having been changed to Israel. Verse 27 expands the circle to “the ends of the earth” and “all the families of nations.” Further, in verse 29, “All the rich” and even the dead — “all who go down to the dust.” All people in every circumstance from the best off (rich) to the worst off (the dead) will kneel before God!

But there is another aspect to these final verses 22-31. Previously, David recalled both God’s action in the nation’s history and his own person story. Here, however, he shifts from past tense to present to future tense. David says,

“For he has not despised or scorned

   the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

   but has listened to his cry for help.”

No longer pleading with God to act, David now proclaims that God has not done as the crowds did to him — God “has not despised or scorned” him. In addition, God “has not hidden his face, but has listened to his cry for help.”

Typically, the Bible links God’s presence and hearing with God’s acting. So, if God is present, then God acts. If God hears, then God acts. If God’s “face” is turned toward the petitioner, then that is a sign of God’s favor and action. God’s attention, in other words, means that God is acting.

But, there is a future component to God’s response as well. The poor will eat and be satisfied

…all the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord

…all the families of nations will bow down to him

…all the rich will feast and worship (feasting being a part of a holy day)

…all the dead will kneel before him

…posterity will serve him

…future generations will be told about him

And what will the future generations be told about God? He has done it!

In other words, God has saved David, his people, and his creation, again!

Now, imagine the crucifixion scene with me one more time: Jesus is hanging on the cross and has been for several hours. His strength is failing, his bodily systems are shutting down. He’s thirsty, wounded, bleeding.

But before he dies, Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, in Aramaic, his native language — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Of course, through the history of Christianity, those words have been interpreted as God’s abandonment of Christ as he bears the sins of the world.

But what if Jesus is really trying to communicate a message to those nearby, and to us today? What if all Jesus can manage is to utter the first words of Psalm 22, but he knows how that psalm ends? It’s like when someone utters the first part of a famous saying or song, and without thinking you fill in the rest of it. Suppose I said, “A stitch in time…” Those familiar with the maxims of Ben Franklin would add, “…saves nine.”

Or if I started singing, “O say can you see…” and immediately you and other Americans would know I was singing The Star-spangled Banner, our national anthem.

Jesus knows Psalm 22. His hearers know Psalm 22. So, perhaps by just beginning to utter this psalm, which says so much prophetically about Jesus, he knows that some will understand. Jesus knows that while Psalm 22 begins in lament, it ends in praise and rejoicing.

Suppose Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples, his mother, and those who are standing at the foot of the cross by reminding them of the meaning of the whole psalm.

Suppose Jesus is saying, “I’ve cried out to God for help, and things look bleak now. But God has always saved his people, and he will do so again. God has always responded. Like David, God has known me since before I was born and called me to this work. And, like David, God will come near, listen, and act. And, when this is all over, we will all know that God did it!”

Read Psalm 22 with that idea in mind. If you do, you might just hear the psalm’s lament, repeated by Jesus on the cross, as the beginning line of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Quite an appropriate and encouraging passage for this lenten season.


Singing a New Song

pianohymnbookLast Sunday we had an old-fashioned hymn sing at our church. For several weeks our members noted their favorite hymns, and our choir director collected and organized their requests. Last Sunday we sang the top 10 favorites, and we’ll sing the others during the future services.

My message that day was brief because we followed our hymn singing with communion as we always do on the first Sunday of each month. I departed from the lectionary to read an appropriate psalm —

“He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”-Psalm 40:3 NIV

After reading that short verse, I shared six types of new songs God has put in our mouths. My point was that the new song God has given us reflects who we are as God’s people in all the circumstances of life.

This new song is a song of praise.

This is what the psalmist says his new song is. No longer are we confused about who deserves our praise because the God of all creation is the only rightful object of our praise and worship. Charles Wesley penned the iconic hymn of praise when he wrote, “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace.” But the new song is not only a song of praise.

This new song is a song of unity.

When we gather on Sundays for worship, we sing together, lifting our voices as one people because we are part of a community of faith. Unlike the exiles in Babylon, who asked “how can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land” we are no longer strangers, we belong to the family of God, the community of faith, and our song is a song of unity. “We Are Called To Be God’s People” reflects not only our individual relationship to God, but our corporate, communal relationship as well.

This new song is a song of  justice.

We sing as celebration that one day God’s justice will prevail. In 2007, our church was asked to host the Martin Luther King Day service for our town. We were hosting the newly-formed Boys and Girls Club of Chatham in our church, which was the first racially-integrated afterschool program in our county. Both white and black worshippers filled our sanctuary on MLK Day for worship. At the end of that service, we joined hands and sang, “We shall overcome.” For the first time in Chatham, that song became, not just the song of the black community, but the song of justice for our entire community. Justice must be a part of our new repertoire of song because justice means that God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.

This new song is a song of thanksgiving.

Gratitude for God’s blessings, for God’s grace, and for God’s mercy should be part of our spiritual songbook. At Thanksgiving we sing, “We Gather Together” and “Come, Ye Thankful People Come” but thanks to God for God’s blessings should be sung more often than once a year.

This new song is a song of lament.

The problem with what is now called “praise and worship” featuring rock bands and full-stage lighting is that it leaves no room for sadness and sorrow. The psalmists wrote songs of lament, sang them with heartfelt emotion, and offered them as prayers for God’s mercy and grace. We need to lament as we stand in God’s presence, even in the 21st century. Perhaps especially in the 21st century. Lent provides a time of solemn reflection and self-examination. “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” reminds us of Christ’s sacrificial death. “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” asks in plain but mournful language for us to remember the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. We need to go to “dark Gethsemane” at times as prelude to the joy of Easter.

This new song is a song of confidence.

Christians hymns have always described our faith and hope in God’s presence now and in the future. “We’re Marching to Zion” asserts our faith that our lives have meaning and purpose, that we are on a journey whose destination is God. Songs that reflect the confidence we have in God’s love and God’s plan form the foundation for all the other songs in our Christian hymnody. Simply put, we sing because we believe. From the earliest psalms to the most contemporary musical expression, we Christians have sung our faith boldly and with great confidence.

The new song God has put in our mouths isn’t just one tune, with one theme, for all time. The new song God gives us reflects God’s presence in our lives at all times, in all places, and for all people. Sunday when you sing, think about what type of song you’re singing. Then connect that song to the work of God in your life and in the life of your congregation.

Finally, remember the instruction of John Wesley to “sing lustily and with good courage.” If you do, the second part of Psalm 40:3 just might become a reality — “Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”


Sermon: The Eyes of a Servant

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, November 16, 2008.  The text is Psalm 123.  I hope your day is a good one. 

The Eyes of A Servant

Psalm 123 NIV

 1 I lift up my eyes to you, 
       to you whose throne is in heaven. 

2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, 
       as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, 
       so our eyes look to the LORD our God, 
       till he shows us his mercy.

 3 Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, 
       for we have endured much contempt.

 4 We have endured much ridicule from the proud, 
       much contempt from the arrogant.

Dinner at Ernie’s in Santa Fe

I don’t know if Ernie’s restaurant on Canyon Drive in Santa Fe is still open or not.  Debbie and I ate there nearly 30-years ago on one of our first trips to our Baptist conference center in Glorieta, New Mexico.  I was leading a conference at Glorieta, and as I told you last week, we skipped a session one night to go into Santa Fe to have a really nice dinner.  I can’t remember if it was our anniversary or not.  We did spend our 10th anniversary in Glorieta, along with about 30-folks from our church that were with us.  We went out to dinner that night, too, and when we returned and had settled in, we heard the musical sounds of our group serenading us from outside our window.  But that’s a story for another time.

So, I don’t remember why we had gone to Ernie’s to eat.  Actually, the choice of Ernie’s was random, I think.  We had been to several art galleries on Canyon Road, and Ernie’s was right there, too.  At that point in our young lives, with two kids, and me still in seminary, we did not eat out a lot, and when we did it wasn’t any place fancy.  The What-a-Burger next to the church was a favorite stop, as were  a couple of chain restaurants in Irving, Texas where we lived.  But, fine dining was something other folks did.  

Ernie’s was a really nice restaurant.  We could tell right away because the utensils were not wrapped up in a paper napkin.  Real silverware, real cloth napkins, and not one, but two waiters per table.  I remember I ordered the pan-fried trout.  Debbie remembered I ordered the trout, too, so the trout made a big impression on us.  

As we were in the process of eating, I had sweetened my tea and laid the empty sugar packet on the table.  I have a thing I do with sugar packets: I tear the top off, empty the sugar into my glass, then insert the piece of the sugar packet back into the empty pack, and fold it up.  I don’t know why I do this — some obsessive-compulsive disorder, I am sure — but that’s what I do.  Makes a neat compact piece of trash.  

So, I had performed that little ritual and laid the rolled up packet on the table.  Before I knew it, the waiter slid by, and in one smooth motion picked up the empty packet and kept going.  Well, Debbie did the same thing, without all the tearing, rolling, and so forth that I did.  She laid her empty sugar packet on the table.  The waiter again, glided by, scooping up the sugar packet without saying a word.  

We were very young, and at this point, very unsophisticated.  Not like we are today.  We got tickled at the glide-by-waiter.  So, I took a pack of crackers, unwrapped it and laid the cellophane wrapper next to my plate.  Guess what — Mr. Waiter-on-the-Spot swooped by again, picking up the wrapper.  This time I think he was slightly annoyed, as we were visibly giggling as he passed by.  

Now, my point of that whole story is not to tell you how unsophisticated we were in our late 20s, even though we were.  My point is that the waiter was watching us.  Even before we needed something, he anticipated what we were about to need, and was there to refill our glasses, pickup our salad plates, and clean up all the sugar and cracker packets we were tossing about.  His eyes were always watching for the next thing we might need.

Psalm 123

Which brings us to our text today, Psalm 123.  This psalm is a song of mild lament.  The psalmist is looking to God — I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.  His request, his prayer, is that God will have mercy on his people for they have endured contempt and ridicule from the arrogant and proud.  

In all probability, this song goes with others written during the Babylonian captivity.  Like Psalm 137 which laments —

 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept 
       when we remembered Zion.

 2 There on the poplars 
       we hung our harps,

 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, 
       our tormentors demanded songs of joy; 
       they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD 
       while in a foreign land?

The writer of Psalm 123 was feeling much the same quiet shame and humiliation.  But in verses 2 and 3, he says 

2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, 
       as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, 
       so our eyes look to the LORD our God, 
       till he shows us his mercy.

 3 Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, 
       for we have endured much contempt.

The people of God are looking to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for mercy.  

The Eyes of Servants

Friday night Debbie and I attended the ordination of David Smith, chaplain at Chatham Hall, to the order of deacon in the Episcopal Church.  David will be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church in a few months, but the route to priesthood requires that one be ordained a deacon first.  

The bishop of this diocese commented that deacon means servant, and that David was to serve his Master, Jesus Christ, with humility and obedience.  

In the first century church, the Seven were chosen to do the work of service, to look after the care of widows especially, so that the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.  The idea of servanthood is both an Old and a New Testament idea.  

Servants Look to Their Masters

The point of the psalm is to remind God’s people that their only hope is to look to God, as a servant looks to his master, or a handmaid looks to her mistress.  

Servants watch their masters for indicators of how they, too, are to live.  A good servant sees the habits and lifestyle of his master and seeks to incorporate those qualities into his own life.  Jesus both taught and demonstrated how his followers, his servants, were to live.  

Jesus taught that we were to turn the other cheek, to not return insult for insult, even physical insult.  He demonstrated that teaching when arrested and ridiculed.  When the temple guard arrests him in the Garden, Peter draws a sword and in a wild swinging motion, severs the ear of the high priest’s servant.  We often picture that scene as everyone standing around and Peter acting alone in desperation.  But, I think it was chaos.  Lots of pushing and shoving and yelling and cursing — sweaty guards grappling with now-awake disciples for possession of Jesus.  But, Jesus calms both sides, heals the servant’s wound, and goes willingly with the guard.  

Later, as the Roman centurions plucked out his beard, spit in his face, railed at him blasphemously, the Bible says that he did not respond or answer them.  He has become, in Paul’s words, “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”  

The question we must ask ourselves is — Are we watching Jesus when conflict, war, and discord present themselves to us?  Our Anabaptists friends, the Mennonites and Amish, practice a lifestyle of peacemaking that puts us as Southern Baptists to shame.  Why do we not turn our eyes to Jesus to watch how he responds to violence and conflict in his world?

But, we also look to Jesus to see how he treats the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan — the weakest in his society.  In every instance, when we look at what Jesus does, our eyes see him feeding the five thousand, healing the sick, touching lepers, making blind eyes see, and caring for those who are on the margins of society.  

Those not in church, those who do not claim to be followers of Christ, see this care for the poor and marginalized more clearly than we do.  Ask most of the unchurched what they think the “church” ought to be doing and the answer you will most likely receive is feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, helping those least able to help themselves.  They get it, but do we?  If our eyes were really turned to Jesus we would see how he lived and how much he thought the poor, the weak, and the marginalized needed his care.

Matthew 25 quotes Jesus in the clearest language —

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

 37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

 40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

 41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

 44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

 45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

 46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Could that be more clear?  The righteous, the right with God, are those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, welcome the strangers, and care for the sick.  They are welcomed into life eternal, those who have not done these things are not.

Looking to the World or To Jesus

But, the argument for not looking to Jesus for guidance, for clues about how we are to live, is that we live in the real world.  A world where the weak are taken advantage of, the powerful rule the day, and unless you want to get run over, you’d better look out for yourself.  In other words, we find the practical world more appealing as a master.  

Because when this world is our master, and we look to its ways, we can follow our own reactions.  When someone hits us, we can hit them back.  And, if we don’t do that, then we are considered weak and cowardly. 

Or, we can take the attitude that the poor, the marginalized, don’t deserve our help.  That they are on their own, and can make their own way.  It’s interesting that there are two words used for the poor in the Bible. One means a man who is reduced to begging and is not respectable.  The other means a person who is poor, but still lives frugally and respectably — in other words, the undeserving and the deserving poor.  But in the Sermon on the Mount, guess which word Jesus uses when he blesses the poor?  You guessed it, the undeserving.  Those who are at the bottom of the pile, perhaps even because of their own choices.

So, if we take our attitudes from the world system — the system of power, and of strength, and of dominance — then we are looking to our master, but our master is not Christ.  

Now, if all this sounds really tedious, and difficult, and unpleasant, here’s the point.  Jesus came to change things.  

I’m reading Journeying Out: A New Approach to Christian Mission, by Ann Morisy.  Morisy says that the church, even when it is doing good, can be very much like the world.  We want to meet needs.  And so we organize need-meeting ventures: we feed people, clothe people, shelter people.  But, our focus can easily slide into the focus of any helping organization — number of meals served, number of beds occupied, numbers of coats given away.  No different than an organization that does not claim that Jesus is its master.

Rather, Morisy suggests, than adopt a strictly needs-meeting approach, we should look to Jesus.  Jesus not only fed people, he sat and talked with them, he engaged them in conversation.  He knew their names and their stories, and he let them participate by offering a few loaves and a few fish to the effort.  

Jesus not only healed people, but he touched lepers, he explained that a blind man was not blind due to sin but so that God’s power could be revealed.  He engaged the blind man by asking him what he wanted.  The decision to see was the blindman’s, not Jesus’.  

Morisy says that three principles should guide our venturesome love — love that steps outside its comfort zone to engage with all those around us:

  1. We must recognize the importance of struggle to the kingdom of God and the well-being of the children of God.
  2. We must take seriously the mysterious part which those who are poor and marginalized have in the purposes of God.
  3. We must take seriously the implications of the fact that we are all brothers and sisters with the same Heavenly Father.  — Journeying Out, Ann Morisy, p. 37-39

So, when we turn out eyes to Jesus, we see that Jesus came to —

  • To change worship from a perfunctory performance to a real encounter with God.  
  • To change righteousness from a term that could only be applied to the rich, powerful, and well-placed, to a condition of the heart, a child-like state of trust and hope.
  • To change society from its devotion to power, to embrace love as it’s operative principle.
  • To change his disciples from servants of the world, to servants of God.

Like our waiter at Ernie’s, our eyes should always be watching Jesus, anticipating what he might want us to do next.  Moving to do that which he calls us to do.  To change our world, to live as though the kingdom of God has come, to be an outpost of heaven here on God’s earth.  

When I was a teenager, I attended church camp, as I did just about every year.  One night at the end of the worship service, we all stood to sing, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.  Something changed in my life that night. I was already a Christian, I had professed faith in Christ and followed him in baptism when I was 6 years old.  But, I had not really grasped what it meant to follow Jesus, to turn my eyes, my heart, my attitudes toward him.  To be like him, to be conformed to his image.  To serve him with my whole life.  That night started me on that journey.  A journey that has brought me this far.  The failures along the way have been mine, the victories his.  

I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.  Amen.

Sermon: The Next Generation

Here is the sermon I preached this morning from Psalm 78:1-7, titled  The Next Generation.

The Next Generation

Psalm 78:1-7
1 O my people, hear my teaching; 
       listen to the words of my mouth. 2 I will open my mouth in parables, 
       I will utter hidden things, things from of old-

 3 what we have heard and known, 
       what our fathers have told us.

 4 We will not hide them from their children; 
       we will tell the next generation 
       the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, 
       his power, and the wonders he has done.

 5 He decreed statutes for Jacob 
       and established the law in Israel, 
       which he commanded our forefathers 
       to teach their children,

 6 so the next generation would know them, 
       even the children yet to be born, 
       and they in turn would tell their children.

 7 Then they would put their trust in God 
       and would not forget his deeds 
       but would keep his commands.


A lot has happened since we were together last.  Most significantly, our nation has elected to the highest office in the land a person whose story is unlike any who have held that office before.


Political pundits and historians will debate and dissect this election for years to come, but one thing is clear — young voters gave overwhelming support to Barack Obama.  By margins of almost 3-to-1 18-29 year olds voted for a biracial 47-year old man with an African name, whose roots are in Kenya, who grew up in Hawaii, and whose mother and grandparents were from Kansas.  


In their book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & the Future of American Politics, Morley Wingard and Michael Hais predicted that Millennials would help carry this election for the Democrats.  Here’s why:


    — 40% of Millennials (those born after 1982) are African-Am, Asian-Am, Latin Am, or of racially mixed backgrounds.  

    — Now 2x as many MIllennials as Gen-Xers, and already a million more Millennials than Baby Boomers.

    — Millennials are now becoming the focus of our entire society 

        — Only 500 books were written about the Gen-Xers in the 1970s

        — Already over 9,000 books have been written about the Millennial generation


Socially, Millennials are remaking our society in other ways as well:

    — Millennials are team players, preferring to work in groups than individually.

    — Millennials are connected to each other, even when away through text-messaging, cell phones, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking sites.

    — Millennials also volunteer and participate in community service programs at a higher rate than previous generations.  80% have done some type of community service in the past year.  

    — In Pittsylvania County, to become a Graduate of Merit, kids have to complete 140-hours of community service.

    — Schools and colleges are now as interested in a student’s social contributions as they are their academic achievement.


In cultural issues, Millennials are breaking new ground as well:

    — Race is transcended as friendships are forged across racial barriers.  With 4-in-10 Millennials of non-white races, kids have grown up going to multi-ethnic, multi-cultural schools.  

    — Sexual orientation is also not a big deal to this new generation — the culture wars fought over homosexuality by their grandparents seem strangely out of touch to today’s youth.  


Winograd and Hais — “The Millennial generation acquired a unique set of attitudes and beliefs in its childhood.  The upbeat optimistic attitudes of Millennials, their ethnic diversity and openness to non-traditional sex roles, their strong connections to family and friends, and their concern for the wider community will bring major and long-lasting changes to American society and politics in the years ahead…”  p86.


The Mandate of Psalm 78


As the writer of Psalm 78 extols the works of God, he realizes that the knowledge of God, reverence for God, and love for God are not just for his generation.  The psalmist reminds God’s people, who would read this Psalm in the assembly in the Temple, that the present generation has a responsibility to the generations to come:


We will not hide them from their children; 
       we will tell the next generation.


Economist are telling us that we are mortgaging our children’s and grandchildren’s futures by our failed economic policies.  Our national debt will be left to the coming generations, to those not yet born, to repay.  


Environmentalists are telling us that we are leaving an environmental disaster for our children and grandchildren.  Global warming’s effects are just now ringing alarm bells among our scientists and politicians.  The twin issues of energy and affluence have converged, and in the process of becoming the wealthiest nation on earth, we have sacrificed God’s good creation on the altar of our own comfort and convenience.  Our children and their children will pay the price for that selfishness.


But, those disasters are not the only legacy we are leaving to the Millennials and their as yet unborn children.  There is a darkside to what is happening to this generation:


According to Doug Stringer, founder of Somebody Cares, and author of the new book, Who’s Your Daddy?, Millennials are an at risk generation:


    — One-third of them have been drunk in the last month

    — One in four uses illegal drugs

    — One million are pregnant, and 1/3 of those will seek an abortion

    — Millennials see 14,000 sexual references in media each year, and a recent study announced this week that watching media depict sexual activity increases the likelihood that teens will also participate in sexual activity outside of marriage.

    — 40% have a self-inflicted injury

    — 1-in-5 has contemplated suicide, and over 1500 kids each year kill themselves.


Doug’s book title, Who’s Your Daddy? expresses the idea that this is a generation that is at risk of following the wrong guidance and influence in their young lives. 


Doug tells the story of friends of his who minister to street kids in Brazil.  Walking the streets of Rio one day, they stopped to talk to street kid, a boy of about 10.   When they ask him who is father was, the boy replied with the name of a demon, known in the folklore of Brazil.  


The Church is Failing The Millennials


The Psalmist warns us that we have a responsibility to the generations to come.  But today, we are failing that generation.  


— Although Millennials are more socially-conscious and more willing to volunteer to help others, religion and church do not have much appeal.  

— While 15-24 year olds make up 18% of our population, they are only 10% of our church families.

— Today the average worshipper in US congregations is 50 years old.  That’s 6-years older than the population average.  Our churches are increasing older, and increasingly out of touch with this new generation.


Dan Kimball wrote, They Like Jesus But Not The Church, based on his interviews with Millennials.  Many of them perceived the current church atmosphere to be judgmental, narrow, exclusive, monocultural, and hypocritical.  


While 60% of older adults claim religious affiliation, only 18% of Millennials say they belong to any religious group.  It is not that Millennials do not want to know God, it’s that the church as we know it today is getting in the way.  One pastor expressed this dilemma in marketing terms, “It’s not the product they don’t like, it’s our store.”  


What Is the Church To Do?


Why aren’t we reaching the next generation with the good news of Jesus?  I think there are lots of reasons:


1.  We haven’t tried.

2.  We don’t know who they are.

3.  We want to protect what we have.

4.  We think because we find meaning in institutions and traditions that others will also.


And the list could go on.  There are, however, hopeful signs.  


1.  Millennials are not resistant to God, just our way of understanding God.

2.  New expressions of church are emerging — 

    — skate park ministries are springing up around the country 

    — new congregations are attracting young adults to a more casual, informal and yet community-building experience.

    — new technologies that serve this generation can also communicate the good news to them as well.


Pollster John Zogby, in his new book, The Way We Will Be, says —


“That’s how you make contact with First Globals (millennials) — by opening doors, not closing them; by stretching your borders (the National Football League, for example, trying to make inroads in Europe); and by remembering as NASCAR  clearly does that while its present fan base might actually be solidly red-state, those Wal-Mart shopping GOP-voting, race-car enthusiasts have children who are growing up in a globally based online world where distinctions such as red state–blue state are increasingly meaningless.” -pg 118


Helping Millennials Find Their Spiritual Home 


When it became apparent that Barack Obama might win the presidency, I bought his memoir, Dreams from My Father, because I wanted to understand who he was and what had shaped his extraordinary life.  


The book is Barack Obama’s story of growing up in both white and black worlds, and of his journey to find his place in this rapidly changing world.  Part of that journey was Barack’s trip back to Kenya to meet the family he had never known.  Barack, which means “God’s blessing” traveled back to Kenya, and met his paternal grandmother, half-brothers and half-sisters, aunts, uncles, and countless cousins.  


Upon arriving in Kenya, plans were made to take Barack to the family home in the small remote village of Alego.  His sister told Barack they were going back to “home squared.”  Obama asked, “What does that mean?”  


“It’s something the kids in Nairobi used to say,” Auma explained.  “There’s your ordinary house in Nairobi.  And then there’s you house in the country, where your people come from.  Your ancestral home.  Even the biggest minister or businessman thinks this way.  He may have a mansion in Nairobi and build only a small hut on his land in the country.  He may go there only once or twice a year.  But if you as him where he is from, he will tell you that hut is his true home.  So, when we were at school and wanted to tell someboy we were going to Alego, it was home twice over, you see.  Home squared.”  


Our challenge is to help the next generation find their true spiritual home — home twice over — home squared.


The Next Generation is Waiting


This week I have been in San Diego where I led a conference  for small churches.  Over 50 conference leaders and speakers from around the world presented workshops to over 2,000 participants at the National Outreach Convention, an annual non-denominational event that offers insights into how churches large and small can reach their communities.  


Francis Chan, author of Crazy Love and a pastor, spoke that last night.  Now, I have to tell you that most of the time, those who lead conferences seldom go to the other conferences, or even the large worship gatherings.  Some have to catch flights back home, others just skip.  I have done both in my conference leading experience.  


Friday night, I debated with myself about attending the last worship session.  I had never heard Francis Chan, so wasn’t sure what I would miss if I didn’t go.  I thought about going to have a really nice dinner at a restaurant close by, but then decided I would go.  


Chan’s message was powerful.  The audience was moved by his challenge for those of us in leadership, those at that conference, to be fully, totally committed to Christ.  At the end of his message, he invited those who wanted seek God further, to come to the front and kneel in prayer.


Then, he said, “The conference leaders here will walk among you, lay hands on you and pray for you.”  He went on and on about the spiritual power of laying hands on someone — how God say the faith of both individuals and honored it.  And then he said, “If you want someone to pray for you, to lay hands on you — one of the conference leaders — come down to the front and kneel.”


Dozens of people — men and women — streamed down the aisles, finding a spot in the front of the stage to kneel.  Waiting for someone to touch them in prayer.


I’m sitting there thinking “I do not want to do this.  Who am I to lay hands on anybody?”  But then I noticed that no conference leaders were coming forward.  Nobody.  I was on the fourth row, and so reluctantly, I got up.  In my heart, I felt God say, “Do the work of an apostle.”  And so I determined to do it.  It was only later that I realized the verse actually says, “Do the work of an evangelist.”  But, maybe that I needed to do the work of an apostle that night.  An apostle is one sent from God.  


 About that time, another conference leader came from my left.  He and I were the only two out of 50 there!  


Slowly I began to move those kneeling on the floor.  Heads were bowed, they were waiting.  As I touched each person a profound sense of God’s presence came to me.  Some shook visibly as my hands were laid on their heads.  Others began weeping.  No one said a word, just the touch of one person encouraging another.  I moved through the crowd, laying hands on each person kneeling.  


As I walked out on the other side, an amazing thought came to me.  What if I had not been here tonight?  I would have missed the blessing of touching and praying for these people, and they would have had no one to touch them for God.


And then it hit me — there are many just like them, waiting for someone to touch them in the name of Jesus.  There is a generation yet unborn, waiting for someone to touch them in the love of God.  There is a generation of the brightest, most optimistic kids our nation has ever known, waiting for someone to connect with them, and touch them with the good news.  What if we are the only ones here willing and able to touch this generation for Christ?  


The psalmist says —



so the next generation would know them, 
       even the children yet to be born, 
       and they in turn would tell their children.

 7 Then they would put their trust in God 
       and would not forget his deeds 
       but would keep his commands.


Oh, remember the little boy on the streets of Brazil?  Today when you ask him who his father is, he just smiles and says, “Jesus.”


Sermon for Sunday, Feb 10: Turning Guilt Into Gladness

Here’s my sermon for tomorrow, Sunday, February 10, 2008 from Psalm 32. This is the first Sunday of Lent, and so Psalm 32 is an appropriate place for us to begin our reflection during this Lenten season. Have a wonderful day on Sunday!

Turning Guilt Into Gladness
Psalm 32

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