Epiphany 3A

January 16, 2017

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 4:12-23

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Isaiah 9:1-4

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 27:1, 4-9

    Author: Stan Mast

    It was Emily Dickinson who clearly enunciated one of the great principles of effective preaching: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.”  Most everyone who hears your sermons already knows the truth.  Thus, you’ll have to find a new way to tell it so they will listen to the “old, old story.”  No, I didn’t say that we have to tell a new truth.  Paul warned against such innovation in his fiery epistle to the Galatians.  “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel other than the one you accepted, let him be eternally condemned (Galatians 1:9).”  But we should add, “If anyone is preaching the blessed Gospel in a boring, humdrum way, let him turn in his preaching credentials.”  So we need to work at telling the truth slant, at an angle, so that it can find its way into bored, distracted, defended minds and hearts.

    I say all that to introduce the angle I’m suggesting for your sermon on Psalm 27.  Once again the Lectionary slices and dices this Psalm, leaving out crucial parts for reasons beyond my understanding.  I’m going to ignore those editorial choices and focus on the whole Psalm, because my angle on Psalm 27 comes from the second to the last verse (13), and particularly the word “see” that also occurs at crucial places throughout the Psalm.  “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”  I can’t see that goodness now; it’s too dark.  But I am still confident, in spite of what goes bump in the night, that I will see God’s goodness in my life.  There’s my angle– the image of seeing in the dark.

    Have you ever noticed what happens when you are suddenly plunged into darkness?  My favorite picture of that response comes from a Sunday night “in a deep and dark December.”  People were exiting the sanctuary after a Service of Lessons and Carols, when suddenly all the lights in the building went out and it became pitch dark.  Everyone stopped in their tracks, put out their hands in front of them, and began to walk very tentatively, shuffling through the halls, feeling their way to their coats and the doors.  I know, because I was bumping along with them.  It’s hard to walk confidently in the dark.  Indeed, it’s dangerous.  That’s what your sermon on this text could focus on—what you need to do to be able to say, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

    There is a great tension in this Psalm.  Perhaps dichotomy is a better word.  It is composed of two entirely different stanzas.  The first one is a magnificent confession of unshakeable trust in God.  “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear….”  The other part is a fearful prayer of lament.  “Do not hide your face from me….”  So great is the contrast between these two parts that a number of scholars say we have to separate poems artificially joined here.  Verses 1-6 are a Psalm of light, while verses 7-14 are a Psalm of darkness.

    That may be, but I think a literary explanation of the tension misses a deeper spiritual explanation.  Isn’t it true that our lives are often filled with exactly the tension expressed here, a tension so powerful that we feel divided, almost like two different people.  Sometimes we are so confident of God’s love and care that we are just as bold and strong and courageous as the Psalmist in verses 1-6.  Other times we are so enveloped by the darkness of life that we are simply overwhelmed by its troubles, and we fear that God has turned against us.  Then we say things like verses 7-14.  The Christian life can be incredibly bright when the Lord turns his face toward us and unspeakably dark when we enter the “dark night of the soul.”  Isn’t that your experience?

    Here’s the question: how in the world can we have the confidence of verses 1-6 when we are walking in the darkness of verses 7-14, so that we can say verses 13-14.  Here’s the answer: it all depends on what we look at.

    The source of the darkness in verses 7-14 is enemies.  Over and over David talks about them.  His life was full of them, from his dismissive older brothers and that insulting giant to lions and bears attacking his flock of sheep to Saul and the Philistines to his own children and his own sinful nature.  As I pondered that reality in David’s life, my first thought was that most of us don’t have lives full of enemies.  We don’t live in a war torn land as David did.  We don’t face the attacks of wild animals.  We don’t have powerful people trying to put us out of business and, indeed, out of the picture entirely.

    But then I realized that many Christians do have enemies, and I don’t just mean Christians being physically persecuted all over the world from India to Indonesia to Iraq.  I mean that many members of your congregation know about enemies all too well—bullies at school, abusive spouses, competitors at work, opponents in church disputes, not to mention the spiritual forces of wickedness who always lurk behind the scenes of every human conflict (Ephesians 6:10-20).  Enemies can make the Christian life very dark indeed.

    That is especially true when we allow ourselves to focus on them. That’s what makes the difference in Psalm 27.  When the Psalmist focuses on the Lord as his light, he fears no one.  He is bold, courageous, and confident.  He holds his head high and strides through the night.  But when he allows himself to focus on his enemies, his faith wavers and the darkness comes crowding in.  He can’t see God’ face any more, and he feels overwhelmed by everyone, even God.

    So the question is, what can we do to keep our eyes off our enemies, or whatever else makes the Christian life dark and frightening?  We can do what the Psalmist’s heart told him to do in verse 8.  “Seek his face!”  Rather than focusing on the faces of his enemies, he seeks the face of God.  That’s what we have to do in order to see in the dark.

    But what does that mean, in practical terms?  Verse 4 tells us.  “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”  Let’s unpack that.  “One thing I ask, this is what I seek … to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord….”  “One thing….”  That’s a key—a single minded focus.  One of the reasons we don’t walk as confidently as David, indeed, can’t, is that our eyes dart everywhere.  Our desires reach out in so many directions.  We seek so many things.  And the result is that we end up seeing a lot more darkness than God.  We must single-mindedly seek God’s face.

    That is, says David, we must “gaze upon his beauty….”  The word “gaze” refers to a clinging, lingering look, as though our eyes are chained to God.  David is talking about a visual feasting on the beauty of God.  The beauty of God is his grace, his love, and faithfulness, and strength, and compassion—everything summed up in that word in verse 13, “I will see the goodness of the Lord….”  The secret of seeing in the dark is fixing your mind on the task of gazing on the goodness of the Lord, rather than on the badness of the darkness.

    Again, what does that mean practically?  How in the world can we see God’s goodness? Where can we possibly see God, who is invisible?  Well, says David, “in God’s house, in his temple.”  David meant that literally, because in those days God’s glory, represented by that great shining cloud called the Shekinah, hung in the house of God between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies.  David knew there was a place where the glory of God was located.  And though he couldn’t personally enter that place, he could get close.  In the tabernacle designed and built according to God’s explicit directions, he could be surrounded by all the symbols of God’s glory.  Even when he was away from Jerusalem, he knew it was there.  The Psalms are filled with his yearning to return to Jerusalem so that he could gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and seek his face in God’s house.  So the secret of seeing in the dark is going to the place where we can see the beautiful glory of God.

    That sort of leave us out in the dark, doesn’t it, since we don’t have such a building.  Well, no, it doesn’t leave us in the dark, because we have something better than a place.  We have a person who said that he was greater than the Temple (Matt. 12:6).  Indeed, when John 1:14 says that “the Word became flesh,” it literally says that the Word “tabernacled” among us.  That’s the very word that described God’s house in the Old Testament.  God’s new temple is Jesus Christ.  And says John 1:15, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”  What the blind man said in John 9 is true for everyone who knows Jesus as Lord.  “One thing I know.  I was blind, but now I can see.”  We can see even in the dark, for, as Jesus said in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

    That’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it?  The imagery of Jesus’ words is a direct fulfillment of Psalm 27.  Yet we who are Christians do walk in darkness at times.  How can it be that we who have the Light of the World in our lives still know times of darkness? We find the answer here in Psalm 27.  It’s because we don’t keep our eyes on the Light. We don’t single-mindedly seek the face of God in Jesus Christ.

    Or to put it in Jesus’ own words, “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness….”  “Whoever follows…,” but if we stop following, if we take our eyes off Jesus and begin looking around at the darkness, we’ll lose our sight of him and see only the darkness.  To regain our sight, to see in the dark, to walk in confidence even in dark times, we must turn our eyes on Jesus.

    One of those sentimental old hymns that I love so much puts it this way.  “Oh soul, are you weary and troubled?  No light in the darkness you see?  There’s a light for a look at the Savior and life more abundant and free.  So turn your eyes upon Jesus.  Look full in his wonderful face.  And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

    Of course, it’s not as easy as the hymn makes it sound.  But it is possible, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the lens of the Holy Scripture, in the company of the Holy Catholic Church to turn your eyes upon Jesus. Gaze upon the beauty of the Savior and you will see in the dark.  Then you can say with David, “I am confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. So wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

    Illustration Idea

    Speaking of the lens of Scripture, I’ve been fascinated recently by all the TV ads for those virtual reality goggles.  I’ve never put them on, but apparently it’s quite an experience.  Put on a pair and you are introduced to a virtual reality that is overwhelming.  People gasp and cry out in delight as they see things they couldn’t see before.  Those things that aren’t really there, but they seem so real that it’s like being in another world.  Or so I am told.

    When we put on the lens of Scripture, we don’t see virtual reality.  We see a reality we couldn’t see before, but a reality that is really there, a higher and deeper and wider reality than we could ever have imagined—the reality of God’s love in Christ (cf. Ephesians 3:14-21).  When we are enveloped by darkness so overwhelming that it seems like the only reality there is, we must put on the goggles of Scripture.  Then the light of his glory and grace will come shining through.

    I’ll end with a story from Annie Dillard who was seeking a place where her spiritual hunger could be satisfied.  I share this because of her reference to the dark night of the soul.  I’m not sure you can use it in your sermon on Psalm 27, but you can enjoy it or perhaps be provoked by it.  In her search she visited a Catholic church.  “The Catholic church at least proved more innovative. On one occasion, parishioners partook of sacred Mass to the piano accompaniment of tunes from ‘The Sound of Music.’  Dillard sighs, ‘I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the hootenanny.’  She adds, ‘In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks.  We positively glorify them.  Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter.’”  (from “Books and Culture”)

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Corinthians 1:10-18

    Author: Scott Hoezee