Somewhere along the way, we forgot how to sing.
In the Bible there are two Psalms that describe a vast range of emotion and experience as God's people, and they are encamped right next to each other. Psalm 137 is a lament and plea for justice about the fallen nation that is held in the grip of sinful people. It describes the mocking presence of rulers and tormentors who did not love or fear God, and called on the people to sing songs of praise and remembrance of Jerusalem, the city left in ruins. It was like rubbing salt in the wound. None of them felt like singing at all. Instead they felt as if God had left them.
Psalm 136, placed right before the lament found in Psalm 137 is just the opposite. It is a psalm of gratitude and thanksgiving. It encourages all who read it to raise our voices in thanks and praise to God as we remember everything He has brought us through. The two Psalms work together because it is most often the dark times that we go through, by God's grace, for which we are the most thankful. So the lament and gratitude go hand in hand as we worship our God.
What is the big deal then? Doesn't this just naturally happen? We have good days and we have bad days and a lot of days in between. Yes, but how do we honor and celebrate those victories and losses? Do we, like the psalmist, lift our voices and sing? I don't think so. No instead we too often throw parties for ourselves to celebrate our own works when things go well. When things go poorly, we hide it away, for fear of showing our pain, or we take it out on others, or sometimes even ourselves. We do not often have the courage to take tragedy and make music from it. In hiding our pain, we have lost our voice.
In tough times, the artists are often the first to be cut from the public square. Yet it is just as often the arts that pull us all out of our places of despair into new light - and there have been times where the Church inspired those artists. I'm concerned today though, that the artists are not being inspired by us, for we have failed them, and ourselves. We have forgotten how to sing and lost our voices. Because we could not sing our laments, we cannot sing our songs of thanksgiving and praise, and our spirits, which the psalmists tied to our very breath, remain stagnant and unmoved.
Lift up your voice and sing, whatever you find yourself going through today. It will stir your soul and bring you closer to God, out of the darkness and into the light.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit..."
He changed the world by calling the least, the last, and the lost. In a world that only knew how to use the poor, He only gave. They were not any more loyal than the rich and powerful. They came to be fed, healed, delivered from spiritual oppression. Some of them said thank you. Some did not. Many people followed Him. A few actually put His words into practice. In the end, they all either turned on Him or abandoned Him, and He died... perhaps the poorest spirit of them all.
"You are the salt of the earth... the light of the world..."
But they were not. They were nobodies. The man who memorized this message was a hated tax collector and traitor to his own kind when he first heard these words. He rated below Judas the thief. On their best days, they were just people, trying to get by in a world that seemed set against them. Whatever He saw in them, they did not see in themselves or in each other. It is a strange thing to have the one in Whom you hope, put their faith in you.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets..."
The laws and their interpretations piled up more and more all the time. It seemed impossible to please God. How can you earn a life of peace and comfort? Nothing seemed to work. They wanted to give up and come up with new laws, simpler laws. They wanted to start fresh. He looked at the broken mess of their lives and told them they were not far from God at all. They were just missing one thing.
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder'..."
Justice, in its purest form, has always been 'an eye for an eye'. Justice had gone missing though. When the Jews were trampled down by the Romans, where was their justice? When their property was confiscated and their people sold into slavery, where was their justice? Injustice led to anger and desperation, and that led to hate and violence and vengeance. That story ends with rivers of blood poured out across the nations. He does not deny the injustice. He denies the vengeance. He denies the violence. He defies the hate and the desperation, and He even defies the anger experienced in the face of injustice. What are we to do in the face of injustice? Seek reconcilliation above all else, He says.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery..."
To be poor is to know want and to want what is not yours. He proclaims that it is not merely the act of taking that which is not yours which is wrong, but even the wanting itself. Not only is anger intolerable, so is desire. Anything that causes uncontrolled desire should be cut off. Marriage is a calling from God and it is to be entered into and lived trusting in God's provision, not demanding fulfillment from one another.
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely...'"
It is a human privilege to be able to speak truth. The powerful ability to speak is part of our connection to the image of God. Lies therefore are a desecration of that image. This desecration becomes even worse when we speak untruth and point to God. There are no need for vows. Every person carries the seal of heaven as one of God's creations, as one of God's children. That is enough, and more than anything else we can call up to vouch for us.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye...'"
Injustice is not defeated with punishment. Injustice is defeated by reconciliation. In a complicated world of desperate needs and broken dreams, sin compounds upon itself as one misdeed is countered by one worse. Evil snowballs into atrocity. 'An eye for an eye' was the attempt to cut the cancer out before it spread too far. He is not proposing surgery though. What He speaks to them is a cure for the cancer. He will not cut anyone out and He will not let us cut them out either.
"You have heard that it was said 'You shall love your neighbor...'"
You have set the bar too low, He explains. From the beginning, we were meant to be extraordinary beings. We were made in the image of God. We were taught to be Holy, because He was Holy. When we saw the world fall apart around us, we lost our confidence in God. We failed when we tried to fix the world ourselves. We made it worse. So we lowered the standards for ourselves and repeated this process over and over and over again. Now we have no standards and we still cannot seem to satisfy that overwhelming sense of injustice in us. Depression sinks in as our hope goes out. There is no way out. We are powerless against the waves of death and destruction that come our way.
But His voice rings out from the chaos. It's time to raise the bar. It is time to set your sight back on the God who made you. You will never hit the target if you keep aiming below it. Anyone can just get by... You are a child of God and it is time to start acting like one.
Here is an excerpt from my new book, which I hope to be available as an ebook in September. I believe there is hope in the midst of the violence which has plagued our country, particularly in these last few months.
"After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked."
[The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 5:1–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.]
This second healing miracle does not have the obstacle of distance. It showcases the power of Jesus over time. Here in this place of physical debilitation, surrounded by dozens, maybe more than a hundred blind, sick, and lame people, Jesus picks out one and asks him an audacious question. “Do you want to be healed?” The question is so direct and the answer so obvious that it almost invites sarcasm. It is like asking that question to someone laying in a hospital room.
Except, that is not quite true. A better analogy would be that it is like someone who has laid in a hospital bed for 38 years. Would they still want to be healed? Maybe not. Maybe in that amount of time they would have given up hope and just wished for death. Maybe they had grown so used to the injury that they did not even realize they were hurt. Maybe this man showed up at this pool each day, not because he expected to be healed, but because this was his community… these were the type of people he could understand.
It was in the middle of this hurt community that Jesus called him out and asked him if he wanted out. “No one will help me. They all rush to get in front of me whenever I get a chance to get out.” Jesus called to him and he responded with excuses. True, though they may be, he did not really answer the question Jesus asked. He did not listen to what was asked, he answered a different question instead. He answered the question, “Why have you not healed yourself?”. But that is not what he was asked. Jesus only wanted to know if he still wanted to be healed.
Time does strange things to us. Some things heal. Other things get infected. Most things scar over as a reminder of the wound. It happens in individuals and it happens in communities as well. It affects our political perspectives. When we are at a place that holds history, good and especially bad, we get defensive. We place memorials at the roadsides where loved ones have been killed. We retell ourselves those stories in our minds over and over again.
Our perspectives change though and the details come in and out of focus until they fit whatever grand design we are trying to justify for ourselves and others. It is our way of making sense of why bad things happen to us, and we all do it. Jesus calls us out of that though. Instead of asking for a reason we are the way we are, He simply asks if we want to be healed.
How often have we been hurt in the political and community battles we face and find there is no way past the hurt, past the wounds. Generations upon generations compound scars upon scars until no one remembers what started the war, only that we were born either to cut or bleed. It is in the midst of those situations that Jesus calls us out and asks us if we want to be healed. Again, He gives us no flashy show of power. He only asks us to start living like we are healed, picking up our bed, and walking into something new.
I live in one of the most over-church areas of the entire world, or so it often seems to me, and yet even here it is absolutely staggering the amount of struggle people have with sin and disconnect from both God and the local church. It creates strange dynamics in ministry. I recently ran into an acquaintance who said they were in between churches presently and cited the reason for looking to move to a new congregation being that their current preacher was pressing through the Gospel of John over the course of the next year.
Hearing that brought up a whole mishmash of thoughts and feelings in me. Part of me thought that was perhaps crossing the line from boldness to foolishness on the preacher's part. Another part of me felt defensive on their behalf over the issue of leaving a congregation over an issue without actually talking to the preacher about it first (probably the most common form of dealing with disagreement in our area). I don't even know who this preacher is, so I'm really in no place to judge this decision. But the conflict here begs the question: how do preachers decide what to preach?
There is a conception, particularly among non-preachers, that those of us who preach regularly simply sit down with our bible sometime during the week, pray, and then open the book to whatever passage God "leads"us. I actually attended a church where the elders took turns doing this during the worship service itself. Wherever the bible opened, that was where they began preaching in an impromptu style. I bet they preached on the Psalms a lot. That was an awesome church that has high expectations not only for pastors, but for regular members as well regarding seeking forgiveness from one another through confession and not compromising their beliefs just to fit in with the world easier.
Most preachers are not that extreme, but there is a notion that God may change your message Saturday night or Sunday morning, which makes it more challenging to get motivated in preparing sermons Mondays and Tuesdays. Why do the work out God's going to change it all at the end? I have legitimately had that happen at least once that I can vividly recall. God asked me to change my first sermon I preached in the first church I was appointed to on the Saturday night before. I have to give Him credit, He let me know He appreciated the work I put into it, but He had a story me He wanted to share instead. After preaching/storytelling, one of the youth told me that was the weirdest sermon they had ever heard. A few weeks later, a woman from a different church asked for a copy of that sermon she had heard about to use at their administrative board meeting. That was the last I heard of that sermon and have no idea why God asked me to change it or what the effects were...I was simply trying to be faithful in serving Him.
I was not preaching on a weekly basis until my second appointment where I discovered it is a lot more stressful to do the Saturday night work up a sermon thing every single week. Some Saturdays are just as difficult to come up with sermon material as Mondays. So I started experimenting with another end of the preaching preparation spectrum: sermon series.
My first sermon series were not topical, they were based on preaching through books of the bible. In fact, my first sermon in my second appointment was on Luke chapter 9 which was the lectionary gospel text for the day. The next week I just went on to the next passage (which followed right along with the lectionary for quite awhile). When I finished one book I would set about looking for a new bible book to preach through and usually checked the lectionary first. Over time I began to see certain topics or themes developing within the texts themselves and began to highlight them, so I guess I was preaching topically and book by books at the same time.
Planning it all out ahead of time freed up my time and lowered my anxiety immensely. My freedom from worrying about God changing it all up on me was reduced by the fact that I was preaching so often, if I messed up once I would get plenty of opportunities to make it right later. The frequency of pressing opportunities may be one of the biggest influences on how a preacher prepares their sermon. But this really is a much more hands on, be-in-control kind of method as well and it has the track potential of pushing God out of the preparation time.
Today I still preach in prepared series of sermons, although sometimes they are more topical and use a variety of scriptures, although they are usually rooted in some particular book or passage. I have come to a place of peace with this presently because of two things I have learned.
1. You can and you need to commit to the scripture text. I learned from Dr. Ellsworth Kallas that you can't preach well if you constantly bounce between texts through the week. All of scripture is God's Word and He can use any of it so just pick your text Monday and commit to it. Let God change your stories and illustrations, but commit to the text.
2. God can lead you to the right message on Monday as well as He can on Saturday night. He can even lead you to the right message 6 months or a year ahead of time if you are truly open to His guidance. Just recently this was affirmed as I had a 6 week series planned out with two breaks for guests speakers preaching in my place. I felt good about all but the last week, which was preaching on the topic of death, and it was scheduled for a day we were going to be celebrating with a lot of guests. It wasn't bad, it just felt awkward. God had other plans though. The first guest preacher, without knowing it, preached on the very next topic in the series, even using some of the same scripture, so that it would have been redundant for me to preach the same sermon again the following week. Therefore, all the weeks were moved back. God affirmed preaching this series He just had someone else in mind to preach that fifth sermon besides me.
God is at work in our planning when we invite Him in. We can hear the rumblings of His movement even from weeks away if we are willing to set aside the time to be still and listen. God connects our days and weeks together in a greater movement and He invites us to see the currents flowing beneath the waves if we are brave enough and committed enough to take the time to swim down deep enough in Him. How is God connecting your days and weeks and what greater movement is He doing in you?
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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