Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 10th 2019.
I want you to hear again the words of Psalm 91:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
Now, having heard all those words, how many of you feel confident that you could jump off of a building and not hit the ground?
But clearly the bible says that he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways, on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone…so we should be good right?
Of course, I am jesting. If you read all of Psalm 91, what you will find is God’s promise of protection. You will hear comforting words of God’s presence with you during difficult and frightful times. You will hear that God is a refuge and a fortress. You will hear God’s promise that those who love him do not need to live in fear.
What you will not hear is encouragement and permission to do something stupid. At least, that’s not what I hear. But if I only looked at verses 11 and 12, if I didn’t read them in the context of the rest of the Psalm, or in the light of the rest of the scriptures, I might really struggle to know what those words really meant. I might be tempted to misuse them. That’s what happens when you only look at one verse.
The Psalms are some powerful prayers and songs and expressions of the struggle of having faith in a world of good and evil. There are 150 of them, and they touch on just about every mood and emotion that you can imagine; everything from the greatest joy, to the depths of despair, to even anger and hatred. Consider this verse:
“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”
That is scripture. It’s Psalm 137. Now those words could cause you to recoil. You could say let’s just cut those words out. You could try to convince yourself that those words represent a primitive and brutal God that we enlightened folks have had the good sense to do away with; that we no longer believe in. Or you can step back look at the entire Psalm, look at all the Psalms actually and realize that the psalms are taking all our emotions, our joy, our pain, our fear, our anger, our hope, the psalms are taking the great big mess that is human life and throwing it down in front of God’s altar and saying: here, Lord. This life of mine, with all it’s beauty and all its ugliness…this life belongs to you.
It is so tempting to want to pare scripture down to just those parts that we agree with, or that make us feel good; it is so tempting to use verses to justify ourselves and our opinions, but we have to remember that we are not justified, we are not made right with God, by verses of scripture. We are made right with God by the cross of Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection are our justification, not this verse or that verse of scripture.
In our Gospel today we are told the story of Jesus’s temptation in the desert. And one of the ways that the devil tempts Jesus, is by trying to use a verse of scripture to mislead him. In fact he uses verses 11 and 12 of Psalm 91. The verses we just heard. The devil tried to use the words of scripture to tempt the Word of God, the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. But it didn’t work. Jesus knows that scripture is not about using this verse or that verse to support doing or believing what you already want to do or believe. Scripture is a gateway into a living relationship with God. Scripture is a story that we are invited to see ourselves as a part of. Scripture is about so much more than just the words of the page, it is about having a relationship with the power behind those words. We read and study scripture, not to memorize the verses (although many of them are quite memorable and meaningful), but rather to continually see ourselves as a part of God’s story.
You know, it is important to remember that there were faithful people in the world, long before there was a bible in every hotel nightstand. There were people that knew the story of God, even if they hadn’t memorized all the words, and even if they couldn’t read them. When the Children of Israel entered into the promised land, they may have had some writings of Moses, but they certainly didn’t have all the scriptures as we know them. What they did have though was a story and a ritual, and they were instructed to keep them together: make your sacrifice, make your offering to the Lord and when you do, repeat this story. And this is the story they were instructed to memorize:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”
Go back and take a look at that passage in Deuteronomy again and when you read that little story, pay attention to the pronouns. The story moves from he to we to me. The story moves from talking about God’s relationship to an ancient ancestor, to God’s relationship to his faithful people, to God’s relationship with me. That is what scripture, when used properly does, it makes the connection between us and our ancestors, and between us and God.
Friends, the Bible is such a treasure trove of stories and insights and wisdom. You will find here words that will comfort you and words that will challenge you. Some verses will make you feel righteous; other verses will call out your sins. Listen to all of them. Hear the whole story.
As Jesus proved in the desert: the power of scripture lies not in knowing one verse, but in knowing the God that inspired all of them.