Have you ever felt like you are staring at the back of God’s head? (Feeling forgotten by God), Psalm 13

Sermon:        Have you ever felt like you are staring at the back of God’s head?
Scripture:     Psalm 13
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              July 2, 2017, Communion

You may listen to the sermon here:

This morning’s preaching text is printed in your bulletin. I encourage you to read it from your devotional Bible later today and note the differences in how it is presented.[1] Today we will read Psalm 13 from Peterson’s The Message.  Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Psalm 13, The Message

1-2 Long enough, God—ic-ma173-icon-holy-seraphim-sarov-deathyou’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.
Long enough my arrogant enemies
have looked down their noses at me.

3-4 Take a good look at me, God, my God;
I want to look life in the eye,
So no enemy can get the best of me
or laugh when I fall on my face.

5-6 I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
I’m so full of answered prayers.[2]

“Long enough, God, long enough!”  Have you ever uttered that flavor of a prayer beforeGod?

Long enough, God, you’re ignoring me!

Long enough, God, people are speaking all kinds of lies about me at work!

Long enough, God, I’m tired of the gossip spoken about me and my family all the time!

Long enough, God, I’m anxious about not being able to pay my bills on time!

Long enough, God, my body cannot go through any more tests, procedures, or pain anymore!

Long enough, God, the anguish of my beloved’s death bitingly stings my soul to the point of no relief.

Long enough, God…hey God, are you even listening to me?

Long enough, God, are you even there?

Long enough, God, I’m tired of staring at the back of your head; turn around and look me in the eye face-to-face!

All of us at one time or another has had, is, or will have these types of prayers escape our lips.  It doesn’t mean we are faith-less people or bad people; feelings of abandonment by the Ultimate Source of Life is endemic to our human condition. Even Atheists and Agnostics, those who don’t believe in any Higher Power or those who do not know what Higher Power to be in relationship with at all will at some point in their life encounter one of Life’s realities, drop their hands, droop their shoulders, and lift their faces heavenward and cry, “Long enough, God.  This is too much for me to bear!  If you’re out there, I’m talking to you so this is a good opportunity to prove yourself to me!”  Today’s psalm is a song of lament, a prayer of beseeching God’s presence and care when life feels overwhelming.  It’s in the Scriptures because it’s a universal cry that even the biggest, roughest, toughest spiritual giants among us have even prayed. I love what the great Reformer, John Calvin wrote about the psalms. He says, “The Psalms are an anatomy of all parts of the soul.”[3]  Oh what comfort that brings us!

There’s comfort as a person of faith to be able to approach the Lord so honestly with raw fear and emotion in times of uncertainty in our life. There’s comfort knowing that God is big enough to absorb those flashes of doubt in what is normally a solid faith in our life. There’s comfort in the fact that like the psalmist, there are those moments we feel we are looking at God’s backside and are desperate for Him to turn around and look at us; just imagine what it is like for those who don’t even think or consider God is in the same room; at least we see God’s backside!

The psalmist is pouring their heart out to God to please take notice of them, acknowledge them, and rescue them.  He or she is demanding that God pay attention to their plight. But then there is a shift in the song and prayer. At the very end of the lament the worshipper cries with celebratory tones in verses 5 and 6:

I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—
I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
I’m so full of answered prayers.

I like to refer to this as the “even though but still aspect” of a follower’s spiritual journey. This aspect is all throughout the Bible, too.  For example, Even though I failed my exam, I still know that you are in control of my life!  Even though the bank account is almost overdrawn, I still thank you for providing for me out of your provisions from only you know where that will see me through.  Even though the chemo stings and the radiation burns or causes me gross fatigue, I still know Whose I am and will not waiver.  Even though the shadows of depression are overwhelming me, I still know that you have been to the depths of that hell yourself in Jesus and I get the privilege of feeling the depth of feeling you feel.  The psalmist, even though in the waves of those most desperate times and situations, still knows that God is bigger than any obstacle or problem he or she will ever face. We must note that the psalmist does not say how God specifically answers their prayers but only that they are answered.  We do not know if the psalmist got what they wanted from their prayers or whether God granted them what they needed in their prayers; all we know is that the psalmist, even though in the moans and deepest cries for help, they still had confidence and assurance the Lord is in the process of answering those prayers.

Beloved, what are the “Even though but still” moments in your life right now? Think about a moment. Think to yourself of a dire or less than positive situation you are in now and turn it into a prayer. Pray, “even though such-and-such is happening, I still know in the end you will look at me in the eyes and answer my prayer according to your glorious riches and purposes!”

How can you or I even dare think we can pray to God like that? We dare to pray and believe it because our Jesus prayed the same thing in Gethsemane and on the Cross. “Even though I am scared to death, I still pray not my will but Thine be done!”  “Even though they have beat me, spit on me, and taunt me, I still believe you will not hold this against them.”

How can you or I even dare think in those moments when we feel God has turned his back on us God will still answer our prayer and make good on His promise to restore our lives and restore the light in our eyes to look at life again? Because even though, while we were yet sinners and alienated from God and one another, God still came down to live, walk, and to die among us in Jesus Christ.

We know that in the middle of our doubts, Jesus sits at the Table of God and says, “Beloved, even though battered by life, come and sit with me now.”

We know that when we feel the Lord has his back to us, he smiles lovingly and says, “Beloved, my back was turned just a moment to prepare your meal and banquet that we may dine together and celebrate the Light in your Life! I didn’t leave; I was getting something prepared just for you!”

I invite you to eat of the Lord’s Table this day, my friends. Come scared and leave assured. Come broken and leave being whole. Come with your doubts and leave with assurance.  Listen to the Christ as he says to you, “Silly one, come up here and sit next to me and tell me what’s going on in your day; I want to hear it from you.”

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley,org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See, for example, how the NRSV translates it: How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord,  because he has dealt bountifully with me.
[2] The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson.
[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Preface on the introduction of Community.

Abundant Life and Our Habit of Following the Stranger’s Voice, John 10:1-10

Sermon:          Our Habit of Following the Stranger’s Voice
Scripture:        John 10:1-10
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                May 7, 2017, The Fourth Sunday of Easter; Communion

 Turn in your Bible to John 10.  Let me set up the scene while you’re getting there.  In order for chapter 10 to make any sense, we need to know what’s going on in the chapter before it.  You see, when placed together, chapters 9 and 10 create a drama in three distinct acts.[1]

Act One is from verses 9.1-12.  It’s a Story whereby a man who was born blind was healed with a little of Jesus’ spit that was rubbed on his eyes.  Miraculously, the man was able to see for the very first time in his life and the crowd was going crazy over it.

Act Two is from verses 9.13-41.  This part of the Story reminds us that no good deed ever goes unpunished.  You see, Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath which was considered a violation of the Law Code for doing any work on God’s day.  The healed blind man was brought before the Pharisees and religious leaders and was demanded to explain what happened. Sadly, the Pharisees and others did not like the man’s explanation and called for the healed blind man’s parents to come and testify. The parents, who did not want any problems with the religious officials appeared before the court and said, “Hey, he’s of legal age and isn’t our responsibility so take it up with him!  We had nothing to do with his healing!”  So, the religious officials call the healed blind man back to appear before the court, who by this time was pretty much over having the best day of his life ruined by the religious buzzkills.  He finally told the Pharisees, “If this man, i.e. Jesus, was not from God, he could do nothing.”  Well, the Pharisees got upset for being schooled by the illiterate healed blind man and kicked him out of the community.

Act Three is where we pick up today.  Jesus hears the healed blind man has been excommunicated for giving God the glory for the healing and seeks him out. Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” and the man declares, “I believe it’s you, Jesus!”  Some Pharisees heard this and confronted Jesus about it and he tells them, “This blind man sees and yet you who are the keepers of the Law are blind as bats about the Ways of God and your sin remains!”  This is where we pick up in the Story today.  Remember, Jesus is speaking to the religious officials in our Story. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

John 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”  6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.[2]

Some of you may not know but I married a twin. I first asked Kelly’s twin sister Kathy out on a date and she shot me down as she was already dating somebody; graciously, however, she suggested I meet her twin sister when she arrived for the next quarter in a few weeks. It was the proverbial love at first sight, at least for her! Ha! Me, too! It was only after we started dating that I learned there are certain challenges when dating a twin.  For example, it was hard for me to tell the two of them apart on the telephone whenever I called. I thought I recognized Kelly’s voice from her sister, Kathy’s, but there were a few times in the early stages of our relationship Kathy led me on a time or two.  It was only after getting to know Kelly and spending time with her that I was able to discern the subtle nuances of each of their voices.

Beloved, this is what Jesus is telling us today. This is what he was telling the Pharisees centuries ago. The religious officials who were to be shepherding the people with the Words and Ways of God corrupted the message ever so subtly. Over the centuries, they transformed God’s covenant of loving relationship with the chosen people into a relationship conditioned on proper spiritual and physical behaviors. The Pharisees made God’s Word to mean that if you do certain things and behave in a certain way, then you can have a relationship with God. Jesus turned what they said upside down. Jesus proclaimed that if you have a meaningful relationship God, then a person’s behaviors will naturally fall into place.

Hence, the fact the blind man was healed on the Sabbath was a violation of behavior that there should not be any work on the Sabbath because it pollutes the day’s holiness; Jesus, on the other hand, declared that the healing of a broken man and restoring him to health and relationship with God’s community will prompt the healed man to live a God-honoring life. It’s here that Jesus goes and really stirs the proverbial pudding raising the ire of the Pharisees.  Aristotle’s first rule of rhetoric is to know your audience before speaking to them and Jesus had his audience nailed.  He was speaking to the supposed shepherds of the flock of David. He was speaking to those who were entrusted by God with the care of the Jewish people.

We miss the shock value of Jesus’ words today that were clearly heard by the Pharisees because they knew their Hebrew scriptures. As Jesus spoke, I must believe the Pharisees had churning around in the back of their mind the words of God spoken by Ezekiel. The prophet Ezekiel some 600 years earlier wrote in Ezekiel 34 the following condemnation from God to the religious leaders of his day.  God declares,

1The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals…10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

It’s at this point Jesus begins speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd, the gate to a place of safety and the caretaker of the Sheep.  Jesus was announcing that from now on, the voice the sheep will hear is a voice of love and grace, a voice of concern and care, and a voice of protection and solace. It would be a voice of comfort and not a voice of burden.  It would be a voice correction and not a voice of retribution.  It would be a voice of grace and not a voice seeking personal gain.  Jesus’ words were the equivalent of a rhetorical slap across the face of those religious leaders in charge because they knew the rest of Ezekiel 34 where God declares,

15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

If we are honest, we will admit it is often hard for us to discern the stranger’s, the thief’s voice, from the voice of the Shepherd who wants to care for us.  On one hand, we hear the stranger’s subtle voice because our lives have been inundated by the din of our world; on the other hand, we hear the subtle voice of the thief within the church itself. Like the times of both Ezekiel and of Jesus, some things just don’t change.

The voices of the culture wooing us away from abundant life are many.

There’s the voice of, “If it feels good, do it.”

There’s the voice of, “Bigger is better.”

There’s the voice of, “The more you have, the happier you are.”

There’s the voice of, “My way is the best way” which is similar to the voice that says, “If it does not harm anyone else then what’s the problem?”

There’s the voice of, “The product and result are more important than the people who are involved in the process.”

But the church also declares strange, thieving voices that compete with the words of the Good Shepherd.  There are elements in the church that have reimagined the voices of the Pharisees like the voice of the Prosperity Gospel that declares God will abundantly bless you with physical and tangible blessings if you have enough faith.  These are the ones who forget that Jesus was born surrounded by manure, was homeless, and who did not own a thing other than his clothes.

There’s the strange, thieving voice in the church that says if you don’t believe like I believe or do what I do then you’re not a real Christian at best or you’re going to hell at worst. These are the ones who obviously have not read our Story about the Good Shepherd today.[3]

There’s the strange, thieving voice in the church that dares to lift the so-called charismatic gifts above the supreme charismatic gift all Christ-followers are to demonstrate and that is self-sacrificing, intentional, inconvenient agape love.[4]

There’s the thieving, strange voice in some churches that tell you that it’s okay to believe whatever you want to believe about Jesus but who ignore the Lord’s words in today’s scripture whereby Jesus says he is the gatekeeper and caretaker of the sheep. Jesus is not a way but the Way. How God works that out, I don’t know as that is God’s work. I believe the demise of the American church began decades ago when we ceased to unequivocally declare loud and clear that Jesus is the gate and that whoever enters through that gate will be made healthy and whole.

The Good News of our Story is that Jesus comes to give us abundant life.  We tend to think of abundant life as that when God pours blessings upon blessings in our life like the Kia Soul commercial that has it compared to a Nissan and both are filled with Skittles and the Kia has so much more room to hold more!  Friends, our understanding of abundant life is too westernized, too Americanized.  We think abundant life is about more and more when it really is about less and less.

Abundant life is the embracing of the simple gifts of life that God provides.  UCC pastor, Dr. Shannon Michael Pater says that throughout John’s gospel, Jesus outlines the abundant life in clear but simple ways. He is the water of life (4.14); he is the bread of life (6.35); he is the light of the world (9.5); and today he is the gate, gatekeeper, and shepherd.  Living abundant life is about the simple basics of drinking water from the Spring of Living Water.  Living an abundant life means breaking and eating the body of the Lord Jesus Christ in a community of fellow believers manifesting the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Living abundantly means sunbathing (pun intended) in the Light of the World so that in turn we as Christ-Followers will shine it upon others.

This morning, we come to the Table provided for and prepared by Christ to remind us what abundant living truly is. Abundant life is simple. Abundant life is sacrificial. Abundant life is life-giving to others.  As we come this morning, let’s ask ourselves which voices we are listening to in the world. Today, let’s make the commitment to earnestly listen for the Shepherd’s voice. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 2) (Kindle Location 16078). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.  Article by Shannon Michael Pater.
[2] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[3] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Locations 16105-16107). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. Ibid.
[4] See 1 Corinthians 13 en toto. Speaking in tongues is fine but Paul insists that love trumps it in the gifts department.

Maundy Thursday Reflections: Matthew 26:31-25

Sermon:          Maundy Thursday Reflections
Text:                Matthew 26:30-36
Preacher:       Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:       First Pres DeLand
Date:               April 13, 2017, Maundy Thursday

For the last two months, we as a congregation have been looking earnestly at what it means to be called by God.  We learned that our primary call is to love the Lord our God with everything in us.  We are then to turn that love outward in expressions of grace and care to those sisters and brothers about us whether we know them or not.  Well, Maundy Thursday is like a semester final to see how well they both learned and lived out their call; tonight, we witness how well the first twelve disciples did in their test as to knowing what their calls were.  Tonight, we see that when the tires of their discipleship hit the hard realities of life’s road, they each failed miserably.

Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Triduum – the three days leading up to Easter morning – is a disciple’s final exam in Christ-followership.  It is our exam on whether or not we fully understand and grasp God’s call upon our lives.  The question looms before us:  Will you or I do any better than the Twelve?

Having just finished reinterpreting the Passover meal, Jesus takes the disciples to a place adjacent to Jerusalem and the Temple.  There on the top of the Mount of Olives, Jesus looks across the Kedron Valley to look at Jerusalem softly glowing in the night’s light. The disciples are confused at all that is going on and they are totally clueless as to what is about to happen next. Gazing west towards Jerusalem, Jesus comes right out and paints the picture.

31Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” 33Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” 34Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” 35Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.[1]

Those of us from the South listen to Peter and we slowly shake our heads and say with provincial sarcasm, “Bless your heart.”  We realize that Peter, ironically, is committing the very same sin as Judas committed as well as the sin our first parents in the Garden of Eden did:  He is guilty of hubris.  You know, hubris.  The prideful knowledge that one has when he or she knows better than everyone else around them.  Adam and Eve tried to eat of the fruit of knowledge because they wanted to know what God knows.  It was a classic fail.

Then there’s Judas. Judas, one of Jesus’ Twelve who believed he knew how Jesus should act and behave more than Jesus did himself and sold Jesus out to the authorities for thirty coins. Again, it was a classic fail.

Now Peter.  Peter raises himself above the other disciples and boldly declares in verse 32, “Even if THEY desert you, I will never desert you!” Dear Peter. He keeps piling it up on himself when in verse 35 he blurts out, “I will not deny you!”  I don’t think Peter was trying to throw the other disciples under the bus by inferring he was better than they; rather, it appears Peter had an overstated understanding of his own sense call with Jesus.  I think he believed, like many of us do if we are honest, that he “got” Jesus and what Jesus was and is all about. In his mind, he has figured out what it means to follow Jesus. Perhaps it is because Jesus called him The Rock of the Church; maybe it was because Peter was one of the Fab Four[2] key disciples Jesus always called upon.  Sweet Peter. He felt so confident in his walk and relationship with Jesus. Sadly, like those before him, Peter’s answer and subsequent actions both italicized and bolded the indicia of his hubris.  It, too, was a classic fail.

Peter and the other disciples failed the test that night.  When presented with their call to love the Lord God at all costs, they turned tail and ran for their own lives. They all denied him.  I have no doubt Peter and the others have ringing in the back of their minds Jesus’ words from an earlier Story when Jesus shared, “The one that denies me before others shall be denied before the angels of God.”[3]

Beloved, tonight reminds us that we have failed, are failing, and will fail the exam, the test as well.  Tonight, is the night Jesus asks you and me at the Table: Whom or what do you follow?  Before we proudly exclaim like Peter, “Of course it’s you, Lord!”, perhaps we need to hold our tongues and be honest with ourselves, with one another, and most importantly, with God. We know what our call is.  We know who it is we are to follow and love. Yet each of us in our own ways in the specific circumstances of our lives has denied him, too.  Just like Adam and Eve, Judas, and Peter before us, we fail classically at it as well.

Beloved, as we make our way through the Triduum, let us prayerfully reflect whether or not we take our calls seriously. Let us prayerfully reflect if Jesus is the core of your life and mine or is Jesus and our life in Christ a simple add-on.

Let the Spirit speak to each of us. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor and Teaching Elder
First Pres DeLand
724 North Woodland Avenue
DeLand, FL 32720
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.  All rights reserved.

[1] Matthew 26:31-35, NRSV.
[2] I.e. Peter, Andrew, James and John Zebedee.
[3] See Luke 12.9.