This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Dear people of God,
Most of us live cozy lives. For most of our days, it’s as if we’re living in the bottom of some valley somewhere. Ours is a lush green valley, with a river running through it that is full of fish. Ours is a nice stone house snug in the corner and a warm fire in the hearth. In our valley, we’re all protected and secured by the rolling hills around us. The hills that protect all around us seem like they have always been there, and like they always will be there. It’s true, some of life’s storms do blow over the top of our valley, and it’s also true we have our dreams and desires and sometimes life goes as expected and sometimes it doesn’t. But really, we’re surrounded in a good way by the mountains and rolling hills around us.
Over here, let’s call those mountains the mountain of family, which, if it’s tall enough in our lives, keeps us from feeling alone to face the world. There is always family, and when a family is healthy and functional... we can say and do a lot of things wrong and family will still have our back and be there for us.
And over there, let’s call those the rolling hills of church. When some of the life that belongs outside of our valley starts to look pretty tempting, when selfishness and greed and all kinds of bad habits start to get the better of us, when we forget about the Lord above and grace on earth, our brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ surround us and keep us from being swept away.
Family, church, but also modern medical science makes life rather cozy. For most of us, we don’t fear dying tomorrow, we don’t walk around on pins and needles thinking that today we’re here and tomorrow we might be gone. Especially not because of a small pox epidemic, or because we’ll die during child-birth, or because some strange illness will make us sick and there will be nothing anybody can do. We have this great storehouse of medical power that God, in his grace, gave to us, and it too blocks most of the fearsome winds of illness.
We are surrounded by all these good things and there are many more. Through them our Father brings peace and joy and love and hope into our lives. Most days it’s rather cozy here in our valley. Most days we are busy doing our thing, with the occasional gust of wind. And most days we feel very surrounded... but in a vague way, like hills and mountains on the horizon.
And then there are times, when a wind comes right over one of those hills, and descends upon our cozy little house and it shatters the windows and hurls open the door and it’s all very terrifying. In the past, it’s always happened to somebody else in the next valley over, to their friend, or to their child. The storm was always in the other person’s life, but this time... it’s not. The storm is around you.
It’s your turn. From where you sit, right now, it feels very much like the mountains weren’t high enough, your valley doesn’t seem cozy anymore.
The feeling of being exposed, of being vulnerable and all the questions that follow--this is all familiar territory for the human race in general, but it’s also very true for the little group of God’s people that Psalm 139 talks about. If you think about what Psalm 139 says and think about a little geography, you see that from the very beginning of our story God has placed his people in a very interesting situation. He has placed them in actual valleys, in plains, surrounded by real mountains, and beyond those mountains there were some pretty terrifying things.
Imagine the divine plan of it all. Of all the land God could have given his people, he gave them Israel. Down south, just beyond the Judean mountains, was Egypt, with its’ powerful armies and mighty construction projects. A land of chariots and horses and slaves. In comparison, what were the Israelites, God’s chosen people? These were people through whom God was to bring grace and love and peace to the world? The Israelites were nothing but poor “ex-slaves” with no armour and no fighting experience. Their God’s idea of military strategy was to march around a city like Jericho until the walls fell down! Not exactly approved technique in the eyes of their world!
To the north, just beyond the hill country of Ephraim, was the Hittites. Another powerful nation, and like the Egyptians, they wanted all the milk and honey of the promised land.
To the east, just beyond the mountains of Edom and Moab, were the Babylonians, with their mighty forces and their determination to make the lives of God’s people miserable.
And to the west of Jerusalem, The Great Sea, with it’s terrifying storms and great beasts of the ocean. Israel was not a seafaring nation, they were not world travellers, and they were not beach people. They liked the protected mountain valleys of Jerusalem. They may have lived on a city on a hill, but it was one that was surrounded by many hills, keeping bad things away.
They, like us, knew they were a weak people... but they also had this strong Father in heaven, this Yahweh, the LORD God. Psalm 139 makes it so clear, no matter where the people of God went, they could not escape from God.
There are two ways of reading Psalm 139. One is terrifying. When you are in the middle of sin, when we are living a lie, when we feel caught in sin, then Psalm 139 might just make us feel uneasy. How many times does the person who wrote this Psalm say something to the effect of, “Wherever I am, God can see me and he is there too.” When we’re not right with God, like the proverbial child caught with his hands in the cookie jar, when the word says “Wherever you are, God is there too,” well, that makes us more than just a bit uneasy!
But look again at Psalm 139. It’s not supposed to be read that way. This Psalm is not trying to scare us into loving God, no more than the storms that do come into our valley are there at God’s hand to scare us straight. God our Father can be in the same place as evil, but he is never there just to frighten us.
Psalm 139 is a psalm that speaks of God’s love. The truth is what the psalm says it is. The Lord knows us, and sees us everywhere. “You hem me in-- behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.”
This is a beautiful image. There is only one more exposed place in our lives: above us. Mountains and hills all around, but here we have this image of God putting his hand over his people--the last exposed spot. Now his people are protected from the north, south, east and west, and now God, in Psalm 139, is said to put his hand on them from above. Not to condemn. Not to destroy, but to calm and protect. To love and to relax. To heal.
Sure, says the psalmist, it would be nice if there never were any storms. “If only you would slay the wicked,” he says. But he leaves it at that. In the end, he says--as we all say today--“test me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
And most days, that all seems to be enough. We figure it should be enough, it would be enough, if God just kept the storms to a dull roar, out there, outside of our valley, or at the very most, above our heads. O.K. on second thought, let them get close enough to remind us he’s there, so that we’ll love him and pray to him, but don’t let them get close enough to really shake our faith or make us ask questions to which there are no answers on this side of life!
But still, those sorts of storms do come, and they come here. Not above our heads, or out there, or to somebody else, but here. In your life. In my life. And they are myriad in number.
An abnormality in the brain.
A death in the family.
A wounded spirit.
A life that feels like it is wasted.
A relationship that is tattered and torn.
A dream that is dashed.
It is natural for us to wonder what is going to happen. Who is going do something about this and what are they going to do?
But the greatest part of the story, the good news for today and for tomorrow and every day we walk this earth is that while God the Father is beyond time and space, he sent his son Jesus, into our valley, and he’s here right now. Many years ago Jesus came. Born in Bethlehem. He grew up--infant, toddler, child, young adult and, finally, a man. But always God’s son, here, in our world. In our valley.
He knew the sorrow and the loss and the threat and temptation of this life. He got to know what it was to experience the troubling side of life. But rather than seeing it all and just saying, “Well, that’s the way it is here, and it will always be that way and I guess you’ll have to just deal with it...,” Jesus didn’t say anything like that. No.
Remember how one day, Jesus was going into a town, and he came across a mother, a widow, walking in front of a casket. She was leading her dead son, her one and only son. She was walking out of her valley, out of a city called Nain, to lay her son (and her hope) in the ground. But look at what happens when Jesus sees this woman. In Luke 7 it says that when Jesus met this woman his heart went out to her... His heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” He went up and touched the coffin and the people carrying it stood still. No doubt! They, like us, wondered what will happen when the winds of heaven meet the winds of this earth. When the Lord of life meets the forces of death.
So what happened? Jesus went up and touched the coffin, and the people carrying it stood still. And Jesus said, “Young Man, I say to you, get up!”
And he did! Clearly, Jesus was the Son of God. Only God could work that kind of miracle. Just by the touch of his hand.
We’re told that another time he saw some children, and he took them on his lap and he placed his hands on them and blessed them. These were children who would grow up in the same sort of world you and I live. These were children who, like you and I, sometimes just needed to be reassured. He placed his hands on them and blessed them. I wonder if anybody made the connection on that day to Psalm 139: “You hem me in, behind and before, you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” Jesus. Immanuel. God with us. On that day, the parents of those children were able to see with their own eyes that the Lord of the universe was so close, so spiritually and physically close, that he could put his hands on a child and bless that child.
Remember too, when Jesus walked into our valley, it was known then as the valley of the shadow of death. When he first came, it was death valley, yet he protected us from the shadow of death. No, he destroyed that which made the shadow. Today, there is no more death, or mourning or pain, because already today, the old order of things is passing away.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to see that. James once said to the early church “If anyone is sick he should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” (James 5:14,15)
There is so much to think about with an instruction like that. But maybe we can over-think things. We’re good at that, you know. We are used to understanding everything around us. There is always an expert available somewhere. Rarely do we follow instructions. We look for the specialist, the one who knows. We have this deep need to understand things before we do them, even if it is so simply explained in the Bible.
But it’s not so complicated. This passage is what it is. It calls for a step of faith. It brings out a trust in us. When we gather to worship like this, even when we quietly pray by ourselves for whatever storm is in our life, we’re not here to get enough people together to really pump up the spiritual energy. Our God does not need to be called into action with all the great drama like those old false prophets tried to do to call their false god’s into action. When we gather for worship, when we pray in our hearts, we’re not trying to dance according to some magical rite that we only pull out in times of real crisis. We’re not here today to twist God’s arm, or push him out of the driver’s seat of life and take control ourselves. We are here because we are so far in over our heads. It’s so obvious to all of us.
We need Jesus. He is the great physician, the healer of body and soul. We ask him to hem us in like he promised in Psalm 139, behind and before, and to put his hand upon us.
Some 2000 years ago, Jesus walked into our valley, into all of your valleys and he never left. Even after he destroyed the stickiness and permanence of sin, even after he broke death’s grip and rose from the dead, even after he ascended in heaven, he sent his Spirit here. It is his Spirit that now hems us in. It is his Spirit that goes with us everywhere we go. It is his Spirit that encourages, and guides, and directs, and heals.
And so the winds will blow. But they will not blow us away. The storms will come, but let ‘em. They are not bigger than our God, than our Father, Son and Spirit. Jesus is alive, and his spirit is here.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Call to Worship: Psalm 95:6,7
Silent Prayer Concluded with Hymn: “Spirit of the Living God” PsH # 424
Prayer for God’s Greeting: “May God’s grace, mercy and peace be ours, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Hymn: “God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength” PsH # 46
Service of Reconciliation
Prayer of Confession
Hymn of Confession: “Out of the Depths I Cry” PsH # 256
Assurance Of Pardon: Psalm 130:7,8
God’s Will for Our Lives: Romans 12:1-8
WE HEAR THE WORD
Hymn: “LORD, You Have Searched Me” PsH # 184
Scripture Reading: Psalm 139, James 5:13-16
Sermon: “We’re Surrounded”
Prayer of Application: “Father, we thank you that you surround us from the sides and from the top! We thank you that you have done so in Jesus Christ! We praise you that you continue to surround us by the power of your Spirit. We pray for those who experience storms and winds. May our worship draw us closer to you. Help us to see Jesus. In his name we pray! Amen!”
Hymn: “Blessed Assurance” PsH # 490
Doxology: “Like a River Glorious” PsH # 560
Prayer for God’s Blessing: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen!”