Sermons That Work

Listen to the Way…, Proper 8 (C) – 2010

June 27, 2010

Listen to the way Eugene Peterson translates Psalm 77 in The Message:

I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might, I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens.
I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord;
my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.
When friends said, ‘Everything will turn out all right,’
I didn’t believe a word they said.
I remember God – and shake my head.
I bow my head – then wring my hands.
I’m awake all night – not a wink of sleep;
I can’t even say what’s bothering me.
I go over the days one by one,
I ponder the years gone by.
I strum my lute all through the night,
wondering how to get my life together.
Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?
Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn threadbare?
Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners?
Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
‘Just my luck,’ I said. ‘The High God goes out of business
just the moment I need him.’”

How many times have we felt like the poet? How many times have we felt bereft, abandoned, hopeless? How many times do we face the dark sleepless night of despair?

It has been said that the poetry of the psalms is the language of God. This is language God understands. They represent the collective history of our people talking to God. And in most cases, as in Psalm 77, they convey our deepest feelings as we try to get God’s attention.

The poet describes our feelings when we are feeling under attack, when we are feeling rejected, when we need some reassurance that someone out there cares – and that “someone” had better be God, the Lord, the Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.

Elijah knows these feelings well. The entire nation had abandoned God for a competing deity, Baal, the god of King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. Even after soundly defeating the prophets of Baal with the remarkable kindling of wood soaked in water, there was still a price on Elijah’s head. He was a hunted man. So after sitting under a broom tree and sulking, God instructed Elijah to commission Elisha to finish the business he had begun. The only strategy Elijah and Elisha seem to know how to employ amongst the great apostasy in the land is almighty, powerful, fire-breathing lightening and flames from heaven. And Elisha orders up a double of whatever powers Elijah can muster. And as we know, Elisha strikes back at any and all opponents, even summoning a couple of she bears to gobble up forty-two of the little boys who taunt him about his bald head!

So we can somewhat understand, with this in the background, the disciples wanting to rain fire from heaven on the Samaritans who want nothing to do with Jesus because he wants to worship on Zion in Jerusalem and they worship on a different mountain. And when we are honest with ourselves, we would all like to take care of annoying, recalcitrant, threatening people this way. Why not?

Well, as it turns out, “Why not?” turns out to be Jesus, who says, “No, we don’t do that kind of thing. No time for that. Keep your eyes on the prize. Set your faces toward Jerusalem. Keep your hand on that plow; hold on. Hold on, hold on, Keep your hand on that plow; hold on.”

There are several important things in this. Luke is asserting, once and for all, that Jesus is not Elijah. Before, Matthew, Mark, and Luke had all believed that Jesus was Elijah. But when Elisha took his hands off the plow and asked to have a farewell party with his family before following Elijah, Elijah said, “Sure, go ahead.” Not so with Jesus. No time to bury your dead father. No time to say good-bye. No time to turn back to the way things used to be. Set your face toward Jerusalem, keep your hand on that plow, and hold on.

Secondly, the later prophet Malachi had said, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and children to their parents.” Whereas we hear Jesus talking of turning fathers against sons, husbands against in-laws, and all the rest. We hear Jesus saying there is no time for traditional family matters. The urgency of proclaiming the kingdom of God calls for a radical break with tradition and familiar institutions. Set your faces toward Jerusalem, and keep your hand on that plow, and hold on. Hold on, hold on, Keep your hand on that plow; hold on.

Jesus is carving out new territory and new strategies for dealing with rejection: keep focused on Jerusalem, keep focused on the good news of the kingdom of God, plow a furrow straight into the heart and mind and love of God, where there is no place for silly displays of power and destruction of one’s enemies – no room for ancient quarrels.

Jesus seems to be saying:

“Remember who I am. I am not Elijah. God raised up Elijah to get your attention refocused on the one God who matters, the one God who cares, the one God who, at the end of the day, will lead you, just as God led you out of slavery into freedom in the hands of Moses and Aaron. Now God has sent me, has actually come down as me, to dwell amongst all ya’ll and help you to see that it is useless and meaningless to dispute which mountain you will use for worship.
“What is at stake here is serving God and serving your neighbor. And guess what; those stubborn Samaritans, like it or not, are your neighbors. Later I will tell you a story in which you will learn that on some days the only person who seems to understand what I am really saying, doing, and urging you to do, will be one of those Samaritans you want to reduce to heavenly barbeque! There are good Samaritans everywhere. You cannot judge a book by its cover. How many times must I tell you that?”

Now Jesus could just as well have started in as Psalm 77 does. Facing rejection among the Samaritans he could, like Elijah, sit under a broom tree and complain:

“Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?
Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn threadbare?
Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners?
Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
‘Just my luck,’ I said. ‘The High God goes out of business
just the moment I need him.’”

But Jesus knows what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” The poet in Psalm 77 sits down feeling utterly abandoned and begins to remember. As Eugene Peterson translates in The Message: “Once again I’ll go over what God has done, lay out on the table the ancient wonders; I’ll ponder all the things you’ve accomplished, and give a long, loving look at your acts.”

When we set our faces toward Jerusalem, that place, that singular place on earth, where God makes God’s name to dwell on top of the holy hill of Mount Zion; when we hold on to the plow without looking back at all the distractions, all the rejection, all the hurt, all the brokenness; we see, we remember the things God has done. We remember God’s care for God’s people. We stand in awe of the mighty things the Almighty has done all the way back to the beginning, the “In the beginning,” taming and ordering the chaotic waters of creation.

Jesus knows that fixing our hearts and minds on this God of the Bible will lead us away from senseless controversies, away from any feeling of abandonment, and reset our faces toward Jerusalem. This God will once again give us the strength to put our hand to that plow and hold on. It’s the gospel plow taking us straight to the heart of God and God’s love.

Hold on, because God has new, awesome, and amazing things for us to do and to experience. Some of it we may not like. Hold on with Jesus and you will be sure to face rejection of all sorts.

But when we “strum our lutes all through the night pondering how to get our lives together,” Jesus acknowledges that it will be in the singing of poetry such as the psalms that our God will not only hear us, but will hold us in his hands. It’s like singing the blues, like singing those old-time gospel blues:

Keep on plowing, don’t you tire,
Every round goes higher an’ higher,
That gospel line gets mighty hot,
Just hang on with all you got,
You can talk on me as much as you please,
For your talkin’ ain’t gonna stay on me
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
Come on to me, I am the Way
Keep your hand on that plow, hold on
Hold on, hold on,
Keep your hand on that plow, hold on

When we keep our hands on that gospel plow, when we sing these psalms of old, when we take time to remember what God has done, we find ourselves staying away from stupid, senseless controversies. Then and only then can God’s healing Spirit begin to pour into our hearts to heal our brokenness and bring us back from the dark sleepless nights of our despair.

Keep your hand on that plow, hold on!

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Christopher Sikkema


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