I start today with a story straight from the pen of a theologian I respected very much, Ravi Zacharias. He was a Christian apologist which means he wrote and spoke defending the basic principles of Christianity, especially to secular institutions. Unfortunately after his death two years ago, scandal was discovered as he had evidently abused his position of authority. I was deeply disappointed in his abuse of power but still believe he was a wonderful teacher. In his book The Logic of God, he introduced a chapter with this account: “The story is told of a cynic sitting under (an oak) tree, carrying on a jesting monologue with God. His grounds for complaint lay in what he considered to be an obvious failure on the part of God to go by the book on structural design. 'Lord,' he said, 'how is it that you made such a large and sturdy tree to hold such tiny, almost weightless nuts? And yet you made small, tender plants to hold such large and weighty watermelons!'
As he chuckled at the folly of such disproportion in God’s mindless universe, (an acorn) suddenly fell on his head. After a stunned pause, he muttered, 'Thank God
that wasn’t a watermelon!'”1
The takeaway from this story— God doesn't make mistakes.
1Ravi Zacharius The Logic of God pg 196
Our congregation has seen a good share of differently-abled members. And as I review the list in my mind, I recognize the many blessings they've brought to our family of faith. The joy that they have brought, the laughter we share, their willingness to go above and beyond what comes easy for many of us. It just seemed to me as I wrote, that while Jesus healed that woman, we don't want to assume that anyone suffering from an ailment that the world considers abnormal is in any way a mistake. God doesn't make mistakes. A final word on that from a wonderful, faithful woman of God who has spent 55 years in a wheelchair after a diving accident, “It is a glorious thing to know that your Father God makes no mistakes in directing or permitting that which crosses the path of your life. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter. It is our glory to trust Him, no matter what.” Joni Eareckson Tada.
This sermon sort of went on a path of it's own there. I had no plan to write about any of that, but that is how the Spirit moves sometimes. The message I was working on dealt more with today's Psalm. Sue read only the first 6 verses, but if you were to read the whole psalm, you would find the structure repeats itself over the full psalm. And what is the structure we see? First, verses seeking God's help... “let me never be put to shame... deliver me and rescue me; save me... Be to me a rock of refuge,...a strong fortress, to save me... Rescue me.” Those are cries to God for help written by the psalmist; words we might repeat in our own times of trouble. But following these calls for help we read statements of trust; “For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from my birth; (you are my strong refuge. My mouth is filled with your praise-- verses 7 and 8). This pattern repeats three times in the whole psalm.
Another theme that seemed noted by many of my sources, the psalm seems to have been written by someone advanced in age. And this perspective reminds us of the lifelong presence of God in our lives. “ Upon you I have leaned from my birth... you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, from my youth..” and verse 18 says, “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation.”
These patterns reveal that the psalm is actually a song of praise. The psalmist offers praise that in times of trouble we can trust that God will never leave us or forsake us. Praise for the presence of God with us-- from birth to old age. And I hope that as we grow older with God at our side, that we grow in wisdom as well. I know I've grown in patience and in trust as I've aged. Our experiences bring wisdom. It is a shame that our culture does not always recognize the power of the wisdom of its elders. As Presbyterians, our name is from the Greek word for wisdom, presbyteros. We are a church that seeks to use the gifts of elders for leadership. In her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott wrote of elders and the tools of wisdom: “It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools — friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty — and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”1 We are mostly grown up here, and these rusty tools Anne wrote of are likely a part of who we have become as our hair becomes gray or white and our bodies no longer move as freely as they once did. The rusty, bent, old tools maybe includes a psalm like 71, a tool that brings to our mind the protection, the presence, the grace of our Lord. And this understanding should naturally lead to us offering praise to the One who is our help and guide and strength and savior and Lord. We all have experienced a taste of the grace God offers. And while life is not always peaches and cream, we live a pretty good life here in Litchfield, Minnesota, USA. But our praise should not be limited to 45 minutes on Sunday morning. No, it is a lifetime—from the womb to old age—God is and will be with us and we offer our praise for this presence.
As I said, life is not all peaches and cream, and the psalms acknowledge that. In his commentary on Psalm 71, J. Clinton McCann, Jr. wrote, “Faith lives amidst adversity, [but] praise is not the celebration of the powerful and the prosperous; rather, it is the language and the life-style of those who know at all times and in every circumstance that their lives belong to God and that their futures depend on God.... Jesus knew that persons who strive for the kingdom of God will face adversity, but he trusted and taught others to trust that God's providence is sufficient. The psalmist knew that same trust and... was committed to teaching it to others”2 The differently-abled people in this world certainly experience adversity. But we have been witness to so many who live a life of joy and thanksgiving and praise. The woman in today's reading was healed by Jesus and we read, “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” And we certainly understand that reaction. But consider the untold numbers of people praying for such a healing, not healed and yet give praise to God!
And I must admit, my suffering has not been comparable to so many. And so I go back to the person who has been my guide understanding how to praise in the face of adversity, once again the paraplegic, Joni Eareckson Tada. Perhaps there is no one in our world who understands suffering better than this woman who was paralyzed in a diving accident at age 17 and been wheelchair bound ever since. She is a cancer survivor as well. She has often told of her conviction that her faith would be nowhere as strong as it is if not for the adversities in her life. She wrote about 10 words a few years after the accident that changed her attitude and her outlook. “'I always thought that God was good,' I said to (my friend Steve Estes). 'But here I am a quadriplegic, sitting in a wheelchair, feeling more like his enemy than his child! Didn’t he want to stop my accident? Could he have? Was he even there? Maybe the devil was there instead.'' There's much more in her account of their conversation, but eventually Steve spoke the ten words that Joni says changed her life: “'God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.' The sentence hit me like a brick. Its simplicity made it sound trite, but it nevertheless enticed me like an enigmatic riddle.'” As they delved into the mystery of adversity, as Joni tried to make sense of it all, Steve told her, “Welcome to the world of finite people trying to understand an infinite God. What is clear is that God permits all sorts of things he does not approve of. He allows others to do what he would never do — he didn’t steal Job’s camels or entice the Chaldeans to seize Job’s property, yet God didn’t take his hand off the wheel for a nanosecond.”3
“In you, O LORD, I take refuge.” That is how our psalm began. In our call to worship we proclaimed, “God is our shelter and protection.” We can trust God, we can take refuge in God because God doesn't take “his hand off the wheel for a nanosecond”. The psalm ends, “My praise is continually of you.” So may we take refuge in the Lord when troubles assail. May we look for God's hand when we suffer and find comfort and peace. May we seek to find meaning in all of life, knowing that the Lord is with us always; from the womb to the tomb. Circumstances may cause us to wonder; aging may bring wisdom but also aches and pains; evil may seem awfully strong; but our hope is in the Lord. As the hymn says, “Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come; When sorrows like sea billows roll,” we can have peace. Not because our trials are banished but because the Lord is in control and the Lord loves us. Again from our call to worship, “From our very first breath to our last, God's love and compassion never fail.” And so we offer our praise. Amen.
Hymn: It Is Well With My Soul 401 HLC
1Quoted from website Working Preacher, Eric Matthis, January 31, 2016
2“The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:960.
3Jone Eareckson Tada, article on the web page desiringGod