Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rock Solid

Psalm 18: 1-6, 31-35, 46                                                          
Many years ago I took a seminary required course called Clinical Pastoral Education at Bridgeport Hospital.  It’s designed to teach you how to minister to those at bedside in, often, sad or dire situations.  And so I was on call one night and was called to the bedside of dying Alice.  Alice was in her 90’s and her son Martin, who called for a chaplain, was in his 70’s.  And they were Jewish.  And it was Shabbat, the Sabbath.  And no rabbi would come because it was Shabbat. 

So I took a deep breath and entered the room.  Alice’s breathing was slowed and labored and her son was standing next to her.  I explained that her rabbi was unavailable until after Shabbat but that I had some Jewish prayers for the dying that I could read with them.  Martin looked at me, he looked at the prayer book, he looked at his mother and then said quite abruptly, “No, 23rd Psalm”.   And so I shut the book and said, “Yes, that I can do.”  I closed my eyes and with my hand on Alice’s shoulder I prayed the 23rd Psalm.

When I finished there was a heavy silence in the room.  I turned around to look at her son; and this big old burly man had tears in his eyes.  Martin thanked me and then began to tell me about a particular time during WWII when he was in the Army.  He said, “I was in a foxhole and we weren’t sure if we would make it out.  Just when we were about to give up hope someone began praying the 23rd Psalm and it helped pull me, us through that night.” 

You see for Martin, this particular Psalm became the solid foundation upon which he could stand for the rest of his life.  For him God’s reliable presence was tangible in every way when he heard the 23rd Psalm.  For him witnessing his mother’s death was like being in a foxhole with all the uncertainty of the future and the loss of the present so palpable.  But God was there.  God was the foundation upon which he could carry on and make it through that night at Bridgeport Hospital and at other chaotic times in his life.  The Book of Psalms has a way of doing that, of soothing the soul.  

I believe that’s because the Psalmist pulls no punches.  Every human emotion or human experience is touched upon in the Psalms.  Nothing is too minor, too terrible, too egregious or too sweet that can’t be brought before the Lord.  The Psalmist, who is often thought of as David, beats his chest in anger in one Psalm and then belts out a love song in the next. 

Our Psalm for reflection this second Sunday in Lent is Psalm 18.  Not in its entirety because it is one of the longest and most literally complex Psalms out of the150 Psalms, so we will hear selected verses. It is a royal Psalm of thanksgiving and celebrates God’s deliverance of the King from dire military threat, who is traditionally understood as King David.  Now David was a praying man so let us now hear what he might have prayed on his day of deliverance from his enemies,
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
    my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
    my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
    so I shall be saved from my enemies.

The cords of death encompassed me;
    the torrents of perdition assailed me;  
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
    the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called upon the Lord;
    to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
    and my cry to him reached his ears.

For who is God except the Lord?
    And who is a rock besides our God?—
 the God who girded me with strength,
    and made my way safe.

 He made my feet like the feet of a deer,
    and set me secure on the heights.
 He trains my hands for war,
    so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.

You have given me the shield of your salvation,
    and your right hand has supported me;
    your help has made me great.

The Lord lives! Blessed be my rock,
    and exalted be the God of my salvation,

I can just picture mighty King David coming back from the latest military campaign perhaps against those Philistines again.  He approaches the citadel victorious yet dusty and sweaty from the hot desert sun with the weaponry of war already being molded back into plowshares.  There is peace once again and he has time now to reflect upon his latest experience.  “The Lord lives,” he exclaims, “Blessed be my rock and exalted be the God of my salvation”.

The Lord is rock solid for David, that amidst all of the calamity, all of his misguided attempts at relationship, all of the victorious and not so victorious military campaigns God is great, God is sovereign, God is the rock upon which he girds ups his strength and so he offers his grateful heart in this Psalm. Psalm 18 is a powerful affirmation of the cosmic, universal reign of God and it is upon this foundation of faith that all hope is built.

One of my cherished childhood memories is going to church each Sunday and singing some wonderful hymns.  These hymns of faith still resonate with me now so many years later much like the 23rd Psalm did for Martin.  We are singing one today as the final hymn, ‘My Hope is Built on Nothing Less’. It is the refrain that echoes in my heart and mind over these many years ‘On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand’.

This is good news when we are having valley experiences, and I know we all do, when honestly, everything looks grim.  When the sand that our feet are planted upon is sinking around us, we can stand firm upon the rock of Christ and God is our salvation.  When we claim this, we claim God’s sovereignty, God’s authority and rule amidst powers that seek to deny and destroy it. In this claim, you claim God’s sovereignty for your own life when you feel as if the world, or people are against you, pounding you like a medieval battering ram battering a castle gate. In this claim, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” you cannot lose; you can only be stronger.

It is the Apostle Paul who reminds us in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Well most of us could probably make a long list in response to that question, right?  Like our government who on a whim seems to change things on us, the tax collector who is relentless each year about this time, our neighbor who just can’t remember your property line or theirs, our relatives who talk behind your back, even ourselves for heaven’s sake when we put roadblocks everywhere to healthy living and effective relationships.  There is a lot that can be against us.  But the victory has been won in Christ, ‘who in all things strengthens me.’  That is how we know that God is for us and not against us.

Christ is rock solid, loving us, forgiving us and shoring us up.  God is the rock of our salvation. And like King David and like Martin we too could write our own Psalm of deliverance that would be as effective as Psalm 18 or 23 because we have the ultimate assurance that we are not alone but have a strong foundation upon which to lean, and from which to walk confidently through our lives. Stone by stone we work our way through Lent.    

These rocks here today are smooth and shiny. They are hard and solid and I can imagine that if larger, the size of a bolder, we could stand on it as solid ground.  Last week 1 Peter’s message to us was that Jesus is the cornerstone of our spiritual homes and we are the living stones.  We blessed the stones that you brought in and then you took them home as a reminder that Jesus is the cornerstone of your unique and individual life.

Today’s message from Psalm 18 is that God is our rock and our salvation. The stones that we have here displayed are to be a reminder that God is YOUR rock and YOUR salvation.  You will be offered at rock as you leave today to keep in your purse or pocket or in a prominent place where you can see it.  It is a reminder of God’s covenant of everlasting love.

So be at peace now knowing that God through Jesus Christ is solid, that you have a firm foundation upon which to stand.


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