Sermon: Just Not Feeling It
Scripture: Psalm 95: 1-2
Date: February 24, 2019
Several weeks ago, Brent came and asked me what I would be preaching about in these Sundays leading up to the beginning of Lent so that he could pick out choir music that went along with the messages and I said, helpfully, “I have no idea.” And then in a moment of complete reversal of fortune theology I got this, what I thought at the time was, really brilliant idea and I said to him, “What if we reverse the process and instead of you picking out music to go with my messages, why don’t you pick out the music for each Sunday, and then give me the scripture and the theme and I will put together the sermon based on the theme of the music. Well, at least it sounded good in theory. But then for the first week, Brent picked out music drawn from the prophet Micah. Really? Most people don’t even know where Micah is in the Bible. And Micah is a prophet of doom and gloom. The only time when we read from Micah is at Christmas when he interrupts his doom and gloom to talk about the Messiah coming from Bethlehem. But it is just a momentary interruption and then it’s back to the terrible plight of the people. But there is that one part of Micah that talks about “acting justly, and loving mercy, and walking humbly.” I could work with that. But this week? He gives me Psalm 95 – which reads:
The beginning of this Psalm is all about celebrating God but I have to say that I’m really not feeling it: as United Methodist delegates from all over the world gather in St. Louis to basically decide whether there is even going to be a United Methodist Church going forward, and as our government is hopelessly polarized and paralyzed by ultra partisan leaders I am just not feeling it when the Psalmist says “O come let us sing for joy”. and as we experience seemingly day after day of rain and flooding and gloom, I am struggling to feel it with the Psalmist when he says “Come before Him with Thanksgiving.” You see this Psalm is all about celebrating but I’m just not feeling it this morning. Sometimes it’s just like that, isn’t it? There’s just too much wrong and pain in our world and our church and our lives and we just don’t feel like there’s a lot of cause to celebrate. So I’m sorry Brent but I may need to alter our agreement just a bit and instead of a message based on this Psalm, I think I’m just going to reflect on three stories this morning.
The first story is one I have touched on as recently as the series I just finished concerning the giants we face. It is a small part of the larger story of the Jewish Exodus from the land of Egypt. After four hundred and thirty years of slavery, the Jews were free. God had heard their pleas, gone head to head with Pharaoh with Moses as the Israelites champion and won their release from captivity. It must have been a time of great celebration. And so God led them out of Egypt with a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. But, of course, we know the story. After the Jews had left, Pharaoh changed his mind. And so he gathered together his army, the most powerful on earth, mounted his chariot, and went off in pursuit of the Jews. And he and his army caught up with them near the banks of the Red Sea. For the Jews it was an impossible choice. If they moved forward they would drown in the sea. If they turned back they would face death, or at least renewed captivity at the hands of the Egyptians.
And it is in that place between the sea and our foes, that faith becomes difficult to celebrate, doesn‘t it? It is in those moments in life when we face seemingly impossible choices, that we begin to question everything. In their despair, the Jews said to Moses “Did you bring us out here to die because there weren’t enough graves in Egypt for all of us?” And we can hardly blame them, can we? No matter which way they looked, all they could see was death. Now, of course, we know how the story ends. The sea is parted, the Jews cross, and when the Egyptian army tries to follow, the seas close in and destroy the army. We call it the miracle of the Red Sea. When I was in seminary, our professor of Old Testament tried to take the miracle out of this story. He said that the most elementary knowledge of geography would tell us that this body of water was not really the Red Sea. That was a mistake in the translation. That what we’re really talking about is the Sea of Reeds, which is more of a marshy area which is usually mostly dry in the first place and even in the rainy season is only a couple of feet deep. Here’s a picture of that. (Show 1st picture). As opposed to the Red Sea which may have looked something like this when it was parted. (Show 2d. Picture) So it was really no miracle that the Jews could walk across the Sea of Reeds, he said. he real miracle, if there was one, was not the safe crossing of the Jews, but the destruction of the Egyptians. And that while we are so busy focusing on the parting of the sea, we miss what the story is really about. This is not a story about miracles, the professor said, this is a story about trusting God. You see, the imagery of the sea parting and then closing again, destroying the Egyptian army, is so vivid, so awesome, and yet so horrifying, that we are distracted from the rest of the story. We fail to see two important lessons here about trusting God.
Now we‘ve already said that God led the Jews out of Egypt as a pillar of fire and cloud. Always clearly visible, leading them on the way. There could be no doubt that they were moving in the right direction. God was clearly visible to them. We could really get used to that kind of God couldn‘t we? Now that’s a God we could really celebrate isn’t it. Have you ever come up against an obstacle and found yourself struggling to see God, no matter where you look. The Israelites didn’t really appreciate a God who was so clearly visible at all times. In our darkest times as well as our brightest moments. In our times of confusion and lostness. How often have we longed for just a glimpse of God when our lives are filled with despair and we wonder if we‘re heading in the right direction. When we‘re lost. Oh God, show us the way. Lead us like you led the Jews out of Egypt. But then we come to the banks of the sea, and suddenly the way becomes not so clear. So what did the Jews do. They started to look back over their shoulders. And suddenly they became more concerned with the evil that followed them, then the God that lay ahead, leading them on. And so they stopped and gave in to their despair. It washed over them in waves greater than any the sea could muster, and it threatened to defeat them before one weapon of the Egyptian army was raised in battle. And so what had to happen. They had to learn to trust, not only in God‘s deliverance, but also in God’s providence. Why is it that God‘s people have always cherished God‘s leadership, but have seldom relied on His presence? Lead us O God, we cry, but when He leads us to the banks of the sea with seemingly no good way forward its, “Have you forsaken me. Why would you lead me here?” But notice in the story here that God does a most unexpected thing. Just when it looked like all Hope was lost. He moves from in front of the Jews, to behind them.
The writer tells us this: And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. You see, trusting God is not just a matter of trusting Him to lead us, it’s a matter of trusting Him to always be where we need Him most to be. Sometimes we need God to clearly lead the way, but at other times we need Him behind us holding back the armies of temptation and sin while we struggle to gain our firm footing. On the banks of the sea the Jews learned to trust in the providence of God, to know that God is always where we need Him most. And that with God, no force is too great and no obstacle is too large. Max Lucado writes:
I believe that many of us go through life sucking on pacifiers. Oh, we don‘t
see them because they‘re in our bank. Or they‘re parked in our garage. Or we live in them.
Don‘t put your hope into things that change – relationships, money, talents, beauty, even health. Set your sights on the one thing that can never change: trust in your Heavenly Father. God loves those who need Him most, who rely on Him, depend on Him, and trust Him in everything.
In the good times and the difficult ones, we must trust in God’s providence to lead, but also to protect us from that which dwells back over our shoulder. God does not lead us to destruction, nor will He let destruction overtake us if we trust in His presence. Is it the obstacles that lie ahead of us, or the demons that lap at our heals that we fear the most? Do you trust God to see you through? Because He would not, He does not, bring you this far to leave you now.
Perhaps it is that understanding of scripture that the Psalmist had in mind when he wrote : Come let us sing for joy to the Lord. Because we are not singing for joy over the circumstances of our lives. No, we Sing and celebrate the Lord, no matter what.
Isn‘t it wonderful when God protects us from our enemies, clears the obstacles from our path, overthrows our foes? Answers our prayers. Trusting is so much easier, then? We call those times miracles, but for God it is simply a matter of trust Him to do exactly what He told us He would do.
And Israel learned one other thing about trusting on the banks of the sea. Sometimes trusting is nothing more than a leap of faith. With the Egyptians growing large on the horizon and the sea still raged before them, before even Moses knew what the plan was going to be, look what God said, move forward and see what I will do. Why do you cry to me? Don‘t you trust me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward. One writer comments:
Once we realize that God wants us to be his agents , we may think that our own tools are totally inferior to the task he wants us to perform. If that should happen, just think of Moses‘ staff and his hand. It is not the sturdy wood of the staff, not the muscles of your hand that makes the difference, that we celebrate; it is God at work in and through you. Most of us want to know the plan first. Before we plunge into the sea, we want to know that we will reach dry ground. But here‘s the key, we do not put our trust in the outcome, we put our trust in the one who brings about the outcome.
And so the Psalmist writes: Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
And then consider our second story, the story of Gideon. Self described as from the weakest of the tribes, the tribe of Manasseh, and the weakest in his own father’s house. In other words the weakest of the weak. But still God called him to rescue Israel from the powerful Midianites. I’ll be with you, God says, and by yourself you‘ll defeat the Midianites. But Gideon did not trust God. And so he set before God some tests to see if he would truly be faithful. You see, it wasn‘t that Gideon did not want to be used by God, he just didn‘t think he was capable of being used by God. I want to go Lord, but I am so inadequate. So often I think we suffer from that kind of attitude in the church. We mean well. We see so much that needs to be done, but we don‘t believe that we have the necessary tools to make a difference. And no matter what God does to convince us, we struggle to really trust Him. Just as no matter what God did to convince Gideon, Gideon still did not really trust Him. And so, he gathered together an army of 32,000 to fight the Midianites. But God says to him, that‘s too many. Tell your men that whoever is afraid should go home. And when 22, 000 of them leave, Gideon starts getting a little anxious. Suddenly his army is down to 10,000. That‘s still too many, God tells him. And so he tells Gideon to take them down to the water and set apart all of those who lap the water with his tongue like a dog. The rest send home. What a preposterous sight that must have been. The great army of Israel kneeling by the water, and 300 of them lapping the water like a dog. These will be the ones to fight the Midianites. By the three hundred men who lapped I will save you, and deliver the Midianites into your hand. God tells Gideon
Now, why wouldn‘t God let Gideon go to battle with 32,000 men. Even at that number they were outnumbered by the Midianites. But, you see, the issue was trust. Gideon wanted to be able to trust in his own might to win the battle, but God said, trust me. You see, God‘s servants never suffer from a lack of resources, but we often suffer from a lack of trust in the resources that we have. This story is so absurd, choosing an army by those who act like dogs, because God wants Gideon to trust that God himself will win the day. And indeed, He does. The Midianites flee without Gideon and his “army” even lifting a sword. And so the story of Gideon is repeated time and again. When God‘s people trust Him, God provides the victory. As they conquer the promised land against all odds.
Even Jesus and the Disciples facing a hungry crowd of thousands with just a few fish and loaves learn the lesson that when we trust God, He always provides. But too often we are blinded by what we don‘t have and so fail to trust in what we do have. The church is powerless, when it does not trust God. But like the Jews who crossed the sea on dry land while the mighty Egyptian army wallowed in the mud, and like Gideon, the weakest of the weak, before whom the Midianites fled, there is nothing we cannot accomplish if we trust in God who is wholly trustworthy. Remember what Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
Now I said that there were three stories. But that was a little deceptive. Because the third story is yet to be written. Yet to be completed. Because it is our story. And just like the Jews on the banks of the sea, and Gideon in the face of the Midianites, the real question is not whether we believe in God, it’s whether we trust Him. In the difficult times, the times when I’m just not feeling my faith, I have come to the realization that Gideon was right. He was the weakest of the weak. Even with an army of 32,000 he could not defeat the Midianites. But God could, with just one man. Trust in the Lord.
Tell the people to move forward, he said to Moses. Trust me. Surely you know that I would not bring you this far, to leave you now. But you know what, so many times when I have faced seemingly impossible situations, when the world seems to be collapsing all around me, I have forgotten……. Thank you Lord for reminding me.
The church is not always a mountain top experience. Sometimes we come to stormy wares. There are times of great pain and trial. Even times when I have thought about walking away. But God has always been faithful. And I know this morning that He would not bring us this far, just to let us go. I trust Him to get me through the stormy seas. I trust Him to hold back the foes before they overtake me. He always has. And He always will.
And though I know that there times like these we face today, dark times as well as bright ones. Times when difficult, even painful choices have to be made. Times of being backed up on the shore of the sea. But the church has always made it. God’s people have always triumphed in the end. Because God has always been faithful. And it occurred to me, as I reflect on what’s going on all around us and is going on right now in St. Louis, that God would not lead us this far, to leave us now. Because our God is wholly trustworthy. So like the Psalmist: let us come before Him with thanksgiving and extol Him with music and song. Even in those times when we’re just not feeling it.