“One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of The Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4)
Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, The Second Sunday of Lent, 24 February 2013. Texts for Lectionary Year C: Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35
I don’t normally preach on the psalms, and I don’t have a good reason for that, really. I suppose, like most preachers, I am attracted to the gospel as the primary voice of the Sunday readings, which does us all a disservice, because the psalms have much to say to us. So, for the rest of Lent, I want to focus my messages on the psalms. This Sunday we hear Psalm 27, a rich feast of ideas that has been described as a mix of “raw honesty and terror … [that] should bring us to our knees”.
Rolf Jacobson, a professor of biblical studies at Luther Seminary, lost his legs to cancer when he was a teenager. At first he was told he was going to die of his cancer, but when he learned that he was going to live, he describes how he had to manage new fears. How was he going to get through life without his legs? How was he going to manage that? The first verse of Psalm 27 became a kind of touchstone for him, a source of strength that helped him go forward: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”.
That first verse is indeed a wonderful promise, full of power, but Psalm 27 is not a magical spell. It is a great statement of faith, but it is also fully honest. The psalm has been described as a debate between trust and need. The first half is full of confidence, as the psalmist practically boasts of how God will get him through every crisis and threat. Verses 2 to 6 develop this idea. The psalmist boasts that his enemies can lay siege to him, surround him like a hostile army, but he is unafraid. No matter what happens, he says, “I will sing and make melody to the Lord” (27:6).
The verse that speaks to me in this first half is verse 4: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of The Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4). This is not only an expression of confidence, but it is also full of longing. The Psalmist loves the sanctuary of the Lord for its beauty and serenity, but also wishes that he could remain there in untouched confidence and peace, spared from the challenges of life. It is a verse that speaks to me of every beautiful church or cathedral I’ve lingered in, every peaceful sanctuary or retreat centre where I founjd a refuge from the world.
We call the “retreats” because we know that we can’t stay there forever. We “retreat” from the world and its cares for a time and go somewhere holy – a monastery, a church camp, some place where beauty and holiness and prayerful attention to God are maintained and offered to we who need them. The last time I was on retreat I stayed in a rustic cabin in the woods behind a Franciscan monastery, and worshipped with the brothers twice daily, in their chapel with windows overlooking the Canadian Rockies. When the time came to go, part of me wanted to stay.
In verses 7 to 12 however the mood changes. The psalmist seems to lose his confidence, and the voice raised in melodious song in v6 now sounds anxious and frightened. Hear me, God, don’t leave me alone, don’t abandon me to my enemies. The psalmist begs, “Do not hide your face from me” (27:9). These verses, heard in Lent, make me think of that terrible voice we hear from the cross, crying out in pain and fear, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.
All week I’ve been struggling to say something profound about today’s readings and about this psalm in particular, and all I’ve been able to come up with is that this psalm speaks to the human experience of our faith. At least, it speaks to my experience of faith. There are times I’ve felt close to God, when I’ve enjoyed a sense of the holiness and beauty that comes from worshipping with beloved Christians, of being in the company of wise and thoughtful believers, and I haven’t wanted the moment to end. I’ve wanted to stay “in the house of the Lord all the days of my life”. I haven’t wanted to go back out into the world with all its ambiguities and moments when God seems far away or unreachable.
As is the case with many of the psalms, however, there is a “turn” or moment of development at the end. The psalmist reminds us of the faithfulness of God and urges us to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for The Lord!” (Ps 27:14). Much the same thing is heard in the final verse of our second reading, when Paul urges the Chrisitians at Philippi to “stand form in the Lord in this way, my beloved” (Phil 4:1).
Courage and perseverance are necessary to the life of faith lived outside of the retreat centre. Without courage and perseverance, fear can overcome our faith. We all deal with fear in one way or another: fear of an unknown future, fear of failure in our work, in our relationships and committments. Notice that the in the seocnd half of Psalm 27, the psalmist is honest about his fears, and is honest about the fact that bad things may, and probably will, happen to him. He doesn’t ask God to make his enemies disappear, but only to give him the ability to walk “on a level path because of my enemies” (27:12). AS Rabbi Abraham Heschel has written, the psalmist here does the work of a prophet, in that “the role of the prophet is to cast out fear. The psalmist is not only praying to God, but also talking to himself”. The psalmist reminds himself that God will be faithful, that he will see “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”. We see the same faithfulness and trustworthiness of God in our other readings, in God’s promise to Abraham (a promise which is made in the midst of a dark and fearful crowd) and in Jesus’ longing to comfort God’s people “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”, if only they will let her.
We know that the retreat centre, whether it’s a monastery or a church service or just a quiet moment of devotional time, will not last. We go to these places and times to remind ourselves of the presence of God, of his faithfulness to us, and of his sworn intent to bring us to “the land of the living”. That land need not just be heaven. It can be the pleasure and joy of daily life on earth, in relationship with God and with one another. The final verse of Psalm 27 thus brings us back to the certainty and joy of the first verse, and gives us a path forward through life: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord”.
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