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April 15, 2018

 “God Is Our Stronghold”

April 15, 2018

 

Today’s psalm begins with the proclamation- “The Lord is my light”- The Psalmist, who most Biblical scholars believe was David then goes on to proclaim that God is his salvation, and is the stronghold of his life.  One very significant thing about these metaphors is in the use of the possessive. There is an intimacy of first person address: "My." This language indicates that David and God have a close relationship and are not strangers. Second, the poetry of the verse pairs "my light" and "my salvation" with "stronghold of my life." In today’s sermon we will explore these three metaphors: how God is our light, how God is our salvation (And that is a word we need to unpack a bit), and how God is our stronghold.

 

How God is our light.

Light is so important in an often dark world. I have many memories of how light has comforted me over the decades of my life- I remember my orange nightlight squirrel from when I was a toddler. As long as that night light glowed through the darkness, I felt safe. I remember the first time I saw sunlight shining through a stained glass window in a small chapel and experiencing the presence of God as a 5 year old child.  I remember the first time I saw lights on a Christmas tree, and how beautiful it was(and still is to me every time I see them) Light is beautiful, comforting, and at times, can guide us through the darkness.

 

David is in a very dark place-evildoers, adversaries and foes surround him. An army looms on the horizon. False witnesses speak words of violence and lies. David is surrounded in shadows. He needs God’s comfort. For David, God is his light. Just as it was true for David, so is it true for us-God’s light can help us walk down the right path, help us in the midst of truly difficult times, and can help us find our way, even in the dark. Theologian Augustus W. Hare wrote, “In darkness there is no choice. It is light that enables us to see the differences in things; and it is God who gives us this light.”

 

When I was 16, I learned how important light was. I had a great opportunity to go mountain climbing up in Oregon with my uncle. We planned on climbing one mountain in just one day, so we packed our daypacks with about 20 pounds of climbing equipment, left early from our base camp at around 7 a.m., and began our ascent of Mt Thielsen, also known as the  “Matterhorn”(don’t get excited- it is in Eastern Oregon and is called that only because it looks like it, and isn’t really that hard to climb at all)- Anyway, we got to the summit of the Matterhorn at about 4:00 in the afternoon. It was truly exhilarating to stand upon the peak. We had a quick bite to eat, and began the descent. Before too long the sun set, and about ½ way down the mountain trail, we were in complete darkness. I turned on my flashlight, and put it in front of me. I was cold, exhausted and grumpy, but that light showed me the way through the darkness, and kept me from stumbling. After about 6 hours of trudging down the trail, we made it back to base camp. That flashlight guided me all the way back and I would’ve been lost or tripped without it. God’s light can be just like that flashlight, and can keep us from getting lost in this world, or being tripped up. As it says in Psalm 119:105, “God’s word is a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path.” God’s light shines before us, showing us the way through the darkness.

 

But in the psalm, David struggles between light and dark, between confidence and despair. At times he can keep his focus upon the light before him; and at times the darkness overwhelms. He begins well enough, as verses 1-6 are statements of confidence, a sense that God is present and will hide and protect David from his enemies. David offers sacrifices of praise and joy for God. He has hope as he focuses upon God’s light and presence.

 

Then come verses 7-12- David’s confidence wains as he fears his circumstances, as he gazes at the darkness which surrounds him. “Hear O Lord when I cry aloud! Be gracious to me and answer me! Come my heart says, seek God’s face- Your face O Lord do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” In the midst of his difficult circumstances, David takes his focus off of God’s light, and notices the shadows all around. He sees the danger, the violence, the war raging around him, and he begins to fear that God will not stay with him in the dark. He loses all hope.

 

There are those moments in our lives when the darkness seems so strong, when all we see are the shadows around us; a loved one dies; we are diagnosed with cancer, some other disease or declining health; We wonder how we can put food on the table with a shrinking income or face financial ruin; One of our children or grandchildren is in crisis. As a nation right now, you could easily argue that we are caught in the grip of darkness-with blatant racism revealing itself, bitter disagreements on gun control and the direction of our nation. We wonder how we can ever come together again or see light. I am a Rotarian, and one of the things we say when we meet is the pledge of allegiance, which these days I find incredibly hard to say the words of with any meaning behind. French spiritual writer Michel Quoist wrote, “We must welcome the night. It is the only time that the stars shine.”  In those moments of despair and struggle, the darkness seems so overpowering, so vast. We can take our focus off of the light in such moments, just as David did. Then the shadows envelop us and we too can lose all hope.  It is in such moments that we need to seek the light of God’s stars, to seek God’s face, just as David did.

 

How God is our Salvation

Christian evangelist Tony Campolo tells about the African American Baptist church he served in Philadelphia that one day every year celebrated student recognition day. Once, after a few students had spoken, one of the pastors strode to the pulpit and started his sermon in a rather abrupt way: "Young people, you may not think you’re going to die, but you are. One of these days, they’ll take you to the cemetery, drop you in a hole, throw some dirt on your face and go back to the church and eat potato salad" (Perceptions, Maxie Dunnam, p. 25).

 

Friends, the potato salad promise is, quite simply, that all of us are going to die- absolutely, guaranteed. But our response to this promise can be to give up hope, and to die living, instead of to live dying. That is in part what salvation is all about for the Christian- We believe we are saved from death through Christ, who has gone to prepare a place for us, eternal in the heavens.

 

The word in Hebrew translated as “Salvation” “ye-shah” also means liberty, and deliverance. That understanding of liberty or deliverance extends to our daily struggle to walk the path God intends for us whether Christian or Jewish. For no matter how hard we try, ultimately, we fail- we use our hearts, our hands, and our voices for violence, for hatred, for excess. And yet, if we confess our sins, God is abundant in grace, and renews and restores us. Salvation gives us liberation, and whether we confess our sins on Yom Kippur in the month of Tishri or we confess them to God anticipating forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice.  “ye-shah” allows us to be righteous before God, and to begin anew to share God’s love through our actions. “Ye-shah” helps us to die living, instead of to live dying.

 

 

That brings us to the third and final metaphor David lifts up at the beginning of the psalm-

How God is our Stronghold

The "stronghold of my life," adds a sense of protection and power. The Hebrew word ma‘owz, "stronghold" suggests a place of safety or protection from those who would do physical harm (cf. Ps 31:2) For those of you who have read the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, or who have seen the movies, (Please read the books first- they are better) I am sure you remember the place in Tolkien’s story when the people of Rohan are forced to retreat to their stronghold, a place known as “Helm’s Deep”. Helm’s Deep had never fallen in the long history of the people of Rohan. It was a place of safety and strength. And in the battle for Helm’s Deep against the evil wizard Saruman and his Orc army it would prove strong once again as Gandalf and his armies come to the rescue and rout Saruman’s forces.

 

A stronghold is a place of predominance- where one prevails in the midst of difficult circumstances. David understands that God is his stronghold because God is his light which shines in the darkness and his salvation. By the time David writes verses 13-14, he has gone into his stronghold of faith and found hope, comfort, guidance and peace once again. He says “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Then he encourages his readers and listeners in confidence saying, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.”

 

This past Thursday afternoon-Friday afternoon, I had to run to my stronghold in the midst of a 24 hour difficult stretch of events in my life. First, I learned that the extra care we had arranged for through hospice was being refused by my mother, who lives in an assisted living apartment in Eureka. So I contacted the hospice nurse and asked her to help, quite frankly feeling rather helpless in the process. Then I went to see one of our congregants at Linda Vista. Unfortunately, I became the target to transfer her anger upon for being there instead of at home. It was not an easy visit, although at least I got a prayer in. I left that encounter feeling rather deflated. Friday morning, upon arriving at work, I was told that someone had slept downstairs at the preschool door and had left a mess. I went to check and indeed found quite a mess, which I then cleaned up and placed into our garbage bin. It was approximately at that same time that my wife texted me to let me know that our daughter, Abigail, may have come down with Strep, and that I needed if possible to accompany her to the doctor that afternoon. I then went to put up an official document for our new boiler in the boiler room out behind the sanctuary. On my way I noticed there must have been a bit of a party on the church grounds the night before. There were some beer cans which I picked up, along with a bag of clothing and other stuff on our office porch. I also found a young man sleeping in one of our bushes, woke him up gently and asked him to get moving for the day. I then noticed a pillow and pad that had been thrown into our office area, and asked our office manager Susan for a key to get in and get rid of that as well. Two people who were sitting in our office lobby and whom we have been assisting off and on for the last two weeks then let me know that it was their stuff. I told them we couldn’t store personal items for folks on church grounds, because if I let one person do it, then everyone else who is homeless will want to do it as well, and then we would find ourselves with 50 sleeping bags and tents all over the place. By this time I was getting to the end of my “grace quota”, but was trying to be nice and yet firm. The young man of the couple picked up their gear, and I headed out to throw out some other garbage I found around the facility. When I came back, he was letting the office manager know what a mean, mean, awful pastor she was working for. And this all happened before I was going to sit down and write the perfect sermon which would perfectly unite Jews and Christians together in the Spirit of God! The darkness was trying REALLY hard to overcome the light in those moments.

 

I took a big breath, and retreated to God’s stronghold and remembered some of the teachings I learned from Anne Lamott’s book on prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow. In the midst of her own stressful time, Anne wrote, “As Kurt Vonnegut put it, welcome to the monkey house. This is a hard planet and we’re a vulnerable species. And all I can do is pray- HELP…help us walk through this; help us come through. Help! It is the first great prayer.” And so I prayed, “Help. Help. Help. Help!” – thinking about my sick mother, sick daughter, the constant struggles we face in helping the homeless and poor…I  then closed with the second great prayer to God-“Thank you.” I got some peace and perspective, and went out and spoke more with the young couple at the door. I texted my daughter to see how she was feeling. I had a bite to eat. And then I wrote this sermon, giving thanks that God provided an illustration of my going into the stronghold-although I admit I would’ve been just fine using someone else’s difficult stretch and reliance on God in such times, but God had other plans!

 

Are you facing some difficulties? Is there some incredibly dark or stressful situation in your life that seems to overpower the light? David addresses all of us, here and now to go to our strongholds of faith, to “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” God’s light will shine in the shadows, and help you to see things as they truly are. God’s saving grace is always there helping us to live fully the lives we have been blessed with. So, as we go to our strongholds of faith, we know that our God is near and present; offering help, comfort, guidance and peace. May God be with us, shining before us, delivering us from darkness, as in those moments of difficulty, we too take courage and wait. Alleluia. Amen.

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