Monday, May 21, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: The Gift of Room

Preached Sunday, May 20, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 4:1-8; John 8:31-59

There was a minister’s cartoon that I still think about. It shows a preacher in the pulpit; and you can tell he is very serious. He is shaking his fist in the air and saying, “This is not just my idea. This is the idea of someone who knows what he is talking about!” If you want to know, I think about this a lot.

In light of this I noticed this farming illustration in Psalm Four. I think it opens up our understanding of this psalm. It is the illustration of the grain and the wine. “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.” (Psalm 4:7)

It’s about the harvest. It would be like saying, “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their wheat and potatoes abound.” Or maybe it would be like when someone’s cattle and alfalfa abounded.

When I was growing up, I daydreamed all the time. One of my many daydreams was about being a farmer. Farming was all around me where I lived, and I had friends whose families farmed, and I worked for farmers.

Of course I daydreamed about a lot about doing a lot of other things too. I daydreamed about being an archeologist, and about being in the service, because there was a war going on, in those days, in Vietnam.

In my farming daydreams, I would think about the farms around Live Oak, the ones I particularly liked; and I thought about diversification. What would I grow to balance my farm’s operation? My friend David Crane’s family farm grew walnuts and prunes. In any given year they might say that it was a bad year for prunes but not so bad for walnuts, or vice versa. To have a good year for both would be exceptional. It would be an almost impossibly happy harvest.

So Psalm Four tells us that there is a certain kind of happiness, and joy, and gladness that you have when everything is going well; when everything abounds. And the psalm tells us that there are some people who are really looking for this kind of happiness. This is a very conditional kind of happiness. It’s very rare.

I know that there are people who live in the expectation of this kind of rare and conditional happiness. Such people have talked to me; not about their happiness, but about their unhappiness. I know what would make them happy, but I suspect that it mostly won’t happen to them.

Even if that conditional happiness came their way, I almost doubt that they would recognize it when they saw it. I think they would manage to find something wrong with it.

The psalm tells us about these people with the unhappy expectations. “Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?’” These are the people who can’t see any good even when it falls into their lap. The psalm writer says that he has more gladness than they have, even when everything abounds for them; when everything goes their way.

The writer of this psalm shouldn’t have more gladness than others, because this person knows that there is something wrong. Things are not abounding for him. This psalm is a cry for help. We don’t know what kind of help the writer needs or wants because he doesn’t tell us, but he does say, “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God.”

David, or some member of the David family, asks for “relief” (as the New International Version translates it). But the original Hebrew allows us to translate it with a more vivid word; a word you can tell stories about. “You have given me room when I was in distress.” What our translation calls “relief” is really the Old Testament concept of “room” or “largeness”.

For several years, when I was growing up, we lived in an old farmhouse on a few acres of what had once been part of a small farm. I could look out my bedroom window and (looking across our yard) I could see down the long rows of an old walnut orchard. Through our front windows I could see some of the acres we owned, and then there was a big prune orchard.

Beyond that there were more and more orchards. The orchards ran almost a mile north, on that side of our house. I learned to love the feeling of having plenty of room.

When I was in my first church, as a pastor, my housing was the mobile home that my church owned in a mobile home park. When I looked out my windows I saw other mobile homes only a few feet away. I could even look into their windows, and they could look into mine. I closed the curtains with the worst views, as much to keep from looking at them as to keep them from looking at me.

It drove me crazy. I had no room. I had learned, in life, to love having lots of room.

In the Old Testament, and in the Book of Psalms, having room is the opposite of being trapped in a small space. It is the opposite of being in a cage. It gives you room to maneuver. It probably has to do with combat, because there was almost always a war, or some battle or fight, going on. The room to maneuver means that you can face a problem by going forward, or by backing up, or by going around it. Having room is the same thing as having options.

The writer of the psalm doesn’t tell us what his trouble was, but it may have been a lack of room, a lack of options. God had answered his prayers, before, by simply giving him room to maneuver. That had been good enough. Even the room to maneuver is a kind of abounding.

Sometimes I find myself talking to younger people who have had a serious injury, or an illness, or lost a job, and they feel that everything is impossible. They have nowhere to go. Usually, because they have family, and friends, and abilities, I can see that they will be OK. They will be able to find options if they keep looking; even if they don’t see this all at once for themselves.

Even being young is an option. The problem is that the young don’t realize how young they are.

There is a positive twist to this. Once, when Kim Schafer was using the gas barbeque in back of the church, I confessed that I had never used a gas barbeque before. And Kim told me this. He said, “Then you can’t learn to do this any younger.” It was his dad Vernon’s saying.

It’s a good saying. It says, you have room right now. You have options. You can learn something new; something different.

This psalm is a prayer of faith. Faith is the ability to see the room that God has given you now; or being ready to see that room when it opens up for you.

There is not always room there right now. Sometimes all the doors do close, and God has not opened the window yet. But there are times when faith is the willingness to stop saying “no” to every option that God sends your way.

The writer of this psalm was a person of hope, and part of his problem was that he was surrounded by people who resisted hope. His hope was God. God was his glory and honor. God was his possibility; his room giver. He was surrounded by people who worshiped another kind of god.

It seems as though he was surrounded by people who mocked him for what he knew about God. “How long will you turn my glory into shame?” They made fun of his sense of the glory of God and the faithfulness of God.

The psalm writer called God, “my righteous God”. He meant the God who was righteous for him, whether he deserved it or not. If David or another member of his family had run out of room even through their own fault, God was still righteous and ready to give them new room, when the time was right. Saying “my righteous God” is a lot like saying “my faithful God”.

The voices that say, “Who can show us any good?” are the voices of those who are in love with the god of the pessimists. There are such people. There are those who love to say “no” to every open door and window. You can count on their ability to find reasons why there is not enough room to do anything. You can count on their ability to find reasons why there is not enough room for you to do anything. They will love to give you their wonderful reasons for saying “no”. They will love to see that outlook take root in your life.

There is not much room to maneuver in the world of saying “no”, but maybe, for that reason, it is a strangely cozy world. It is a world that has comforts of its own; but it is a kind of dream world. In a universe where God, in his love, gave everything for us, their world of saying “no” is a world of lies. There is even a presence of hell and devilry in that world, and I want no part of it, at least not in my better moments. “How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?” (Psalm 4:2)

When God has so much hope and room to offer us, choosing anything less is like choosing lies and delusions. The actual phrase “false gods” (as it is in the New International Version) is not in the psalm; but there is a word there that the people of Israel used when they talked about the false gods. It was a word that meant the emptiness that some people chose to worship.

Those are the false gods the psalm warns against. It’s as much of a lie as thinking that you can only be happy when everything abounds. It’s a false god that ruins many lives.

Jesus came to die for our sins on the cross and to be, for us, the God who gives us room. Jesus grew up singing this song about a kind of freedom that that can be joyful even when nothing abounds for you except that faithful and righteous love of God; as if God smiles when he thinks of you. Jesus grew up singing about a freedom that comes from the love of God; a freedom which we can refuse; or a freedom to which we can say “yes”.

Psalm Four told the growing Jesus to bring this freedom and this joy to others. He grew up to tell his people this. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) And he offered them the ultimate freedom: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51)

The psalm prepared Jesus because it taught him to expect that he would find many people who were dead set against believing him; people who could never accept his offer. Those who resisted Jesus show us that there are people who will think, and say, and do anything (absolutely anything) to avoid the freedom that Jesus came to give. They even accused him of being demon possessed. (John 8:48) In the end, they crucified him for what he offered to give them.

Jesus is the God who has come into our world to give us room in our distress; a heart and mind that do not live in a cage. This is what it means for God to be our righteous God who gives us room in our distress.

This freedom and this life begin when we say yes to the God who comes to us in Jesus. He denied himself room on the cross, so that he could give it to us when we seek his peace. Then, no matter what happens, we can have more joy in our heart than the ones who seem to have everything go their way.

1 comment:

  1. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life", John 3:16...
    And I do believe that! Because He loves us...He is there for us, sinners!
    Psalm 119:11" I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee."...and that is what i try to do in my day to day life!

    Love yous words, Pastor, Than you!