No One Empty-handed
This fall we are exploring together the significance of five major covenants between God and humanity in the Old Testament. The first one is with all creation after the flood where God promises to never again destroy the earth. The second is with Abraham and Sarah where God promises that God will be with them, that they will be blessed to be a blessing, and that all the world will be blessed through them. The third one is with the ancient Hebrew people at Mount Sinai when God gives them the 10 Commandments and promises them a land in which they can dwell safely. The fourth one is with King David and his descendants where God promises that a descendant of David will always sit on the throne of Israel. (We’ll consider the 5th covenant in a couple weeks.)
These covenants are sacred commitments to relationship, initiated by God for the sake of the people, and belonging in this relationship shapes the people’s identity and behavior. Because they see themselves as people who belong to God and one another, they behave in particular ways. Until they don’t.
I want to start by telling you that what I want to talk about this morning might feel like some heavy lifting for your brain. And that’s on purpose. I know you are thinkers. I know that one reason you are part of this congregation is because you want to think about your faith, and not just passively accept whatever a preacher is willing to spoon feed you. I admire that about you. It’s one reason I love being your pastor. I also think it’s incredibly important because there’s a lot of theology out there that has been harmful to people. It might not seem harmful on the surface, but depending on what happens to you, if you follow the logic all the way down, it could be confusing or even hurtful. Let me give you an example. What about the idea that God has a wonderful plan for your life individually? That’s great for privileged people. What about people in war torn regions whose children die in refugee camps? What kind of a wonderful plan is that? This is related to the idea that everything happens for a reason. Really? Everything? That might make us feel better when we are mildly disappointed, but what about when the hurt is deep? I have seen that idea cause a wound that festers in some people. And when those two ideas combine they give birth to the idea that God is directly causing everything that happens and that it’s all good. I’m pretty darn privileged and that doesn’t even work for me.
And so the question is, do we have any alternative? Those beliefs are the ones most commonly spouted by Christians who get their songs on the radio or speak up in public. Honestly, they are the easiest things to say and to understand because they are so absolute, black and white, only one way to see it. And they work for some people. But not everything has to work for everyone and if they don’t work for you, I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to believe that. You are a Christian and you don’t have to believe stuff that hurts you, that denies your life experiences. You have other choices. There are other faithfully Christian beliefs about who God is and what God may be up to in the world.
Now, granted, they take more thought. We have to dig a little more. And be a little more patient. But I think that’s OK and I suspect a lot of you are willing to do that digging and thinking and waiting. If not, that’s cool. No pressure. Christianity is a wonderfully wide system with lots of room for different ways to viewing God and the world, and here at Zion we celebrate that. Not everything has to work for everyone, thanks be to God. But this morning I want us to consider a few options of what we can do when we feel like God has let us down.
We’re going to allow some words of ancient wisdom to speak to us. We’re going to look mostly at Psalm 89 this morning. That’s page 926 in your pew Bibles. It’s 52 verses long and I’m going to skip around a little bit. If you were here last week, the beginning of this is going to sound familiar to you because it is a celebration and affirmation of God’s covenant with King David and his descendants. Let’s start in verse 1.
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your descendants forever
and build your throne for all generations.’ ”
Now verse 14:
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance;
they exult in your name all day long
and extol your righteousness.
For you are the glory of their strength;
by your favor our horn is exalted.
For our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel.
Now verse 34 through the end:
God says, “I will not violate my covenant
or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
His line shall continue forever,
and his throne endure before me like the sun.
It shall be established forever like the moon,
an enduring witness in the skies.”
<Listen here for a pivot>
But now you have spurned and rejected him;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have violated the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust.
You have broken through all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.
Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword,
and you have not supported him in battle.
You have removed the scepter from his hand
and hurled his throne to the ground.
You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with shame.
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how short my time is—
for what vanity you have created all mortals!
Who can live and never see death?
Who can escape the power of Sheol? <the grave, where all the dead go, not a place of hellish punishment>
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted,
how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,
with which your enemies taunt, O Lord,
with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.
Blessed be the Lord forever.
Amen and Amen.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
This Psalm really bothers some Jewish and Christian biblical scholars. Verse 34 affirms that God says “I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips.” And in verse 39 the Psalmist says to God, “You have violated the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.” Verse 1 says, “I will sing of your steadfast love forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.” And verse 49 says, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” God has made a covenant and this Psalmist is absolutely sure that God has broken the covenant.
To the best of our knowledge, this Psalm was written after the city of Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians. For hundreds of years, the people had been drifting away from the boundaries of identity and behavior that would honor their covenant with God. The prophets rail specifically against greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy. The warn the people over and over that a nation who continues in this way cannot survive. Now we can say that’s because God punished them, or we can say that’s a pretty natural consequence for a corrupt nation. Remember that it was the king’s responsibility to lead the way in covenant living. Economics may not trickle down, but culture does. The leader sets the tone. And if you have leaders who stop allowing their covenant with God to shape their identity and behavior, who practice greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy, then we really shouldn’t be all that surprised that the people follow the same lines and eventually the nation becomes vulnerable to attack. Americans, are we listening?
So, when this Psalm is written, the nation has collapsed. The city of Jerusalem had been under siege for so long that starving people ate their dead relatives, including parents eating their children. (God has a wonderful plan for your life.) At this point, the temple has been completely destroyed. The elite people have been captured and forcibly relocated to Babylon. The king was taken with them and the last thing he saw before his captors blinded him was the murder of his family. (Everything happens for a reason.) At this point, the Psalmist is right: there is no king of Israel. The throne has been hurled to the ground. The days of his youth have been cut short and he is covered with shame. So what the heck do we do with that?
What do we do when we think the covenant has been broken? And let’s be honest, we usually feel like it’s God who broke the covenant and not us, don’t we. Because we are decently good people. Surely we don’t deserve whatever is happening to us, whatever disappointment or illness or financial hardship or relationship strife or grief or loss or crisis of faith. God has let us down and usually we don’t know what to do with that, even if it is natural consequences, even if we can recognize how some of our choices have led to this place. We still don’t feel like God should have let it happen. Because God has a wonderful plan for our life and everything happens for a reason.
Here’s why I like Psalm 89: because I think it gives us a place to start. I love that this is in our Bible because I think this is a word of comfort and direction to people who feel like God has let them down, like their life is so far off track, like things just have not turned out like they were supposed to. Because it doesn’t say God has a wonderful plan for our life or that everything happens for a reason. It says, “Why am I and my people living in this hell?” In fact it says, “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”
When we find ourselves at the end of our rope, with our backs agains the wall, you know what God wants? Our honesty. In the giving of the law in the book of Exodus chapter 34 God gives directions for the offerings that the people are supposed to bring on particular occasions, and verse 20 says, “No one is to appear before me empty-handed.” No one is to appear before God empty-handed. And when we feel like we have nothing else to bring, I think that we need to appear before God with our honesty. Bringing nothing is not an option. And so when you feel like you have nothing else to bring, bring what you have. Bring your disappointment. Bring your fear. Bring your grief. Bring your confusion. Bring your exhaustion. Bring your skepticism. Bring your anger. Bring them as an offering, the best you have in this moment. Don’t show up grudgingly and fling them on the altar. Show up intentionally, carrying what you have, and with reverence and trust and maybe even a little bit of hope, lay that offering at the feet of Jesus. Bringing nothing is not an option, so bring the best or the worst that you have and give it to God.
I promise you that an offering of angry skepticism or exhausted grief, brought to God with intention and honor, will be accepted and blessed. And hopefully once you’ve brought it to God, you’ll have less of it in your spirit. How do I know? Because it’s in the Bible.
There are other theological conversations that we can have, and we will, about the sovereignty of God and to what extent God is responsible for what the bad things that happen in our lives and in the world. We’re actually going to talk about that the last Sunday of Advent. For this morning, I want to just open the door for you that if you have beliefs that don’t work for you, that are actually hurting you, it’s OK to let them go. Because either God will give you a totally new belief or God will reveal an insight about your current belief that you’ve never considered before. Not everything works for everyone. And God is still speaking. Amen.
As Brian comes back to the piano, I want to give you the opportunity to bring an offering this morning if you need to. I invite you to find a place of openness and listening in your body. You may want to you close your eyes and root your feet firmly on the floor. … I wonder how many of you have something that you need to bring this morning. Is there a heaviness in your soul this morning? If not, thanks be to God, you can listen for the Spirit or pray in solidarity with others. For some of you, I know there is. A heaviness … Name it this morning. Is it doubt? Is it disappointment? Is it fear? Is it grief? Is it anger? Is it shame? Is it unforgiveness? Whatever it is, give it a name this morning. And a shape. Feel the weight of it in your heart and in your hands. And now if you want to, visualize yourself bringing it as an offering to God. Maybe you see yourself at the foot of the cross. Maybe you’re walking forward here and laying it on the chancel floor. Bring it with intention, with devotion, because it is what you have to give God right now. It is your offering. Imagine yourself offering it to God, not because you need to get rid of it but as a gift to God, however that relationship may feel to you right now. This is your offering. You will not appear before God empty-handed. You have this thing to bring, so bring it. Give it to God in faith that God will do with it what God always does: God will make something better with it. God will transform it and use that thing, that heaviness, God will use it for the healing of the world. Give your offering today.
… And now I’ll pray a closing prayer … Accept these offerings now placed on your altar, O God. Grant that they may be symbols of ourselves now offered more fully to you. Use these gifts and us, we pray, that your will be done on earth, even as it is done in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.