Psalm 34: 9-14 (with reference to Eph. 5: 15-20)
Preached at Zion UCC Arendtsville August 19, 2012
I turn the porch light on a lot because I have an elderly dog with frequent need to go outside at night. With little else to think about while standing there waiting, I wonder about the moths who immediately cluster at that porch light. Why do they do that? I did a google search for that answer, and it turns out that scientists don’t know for sure. They have theories, though. The strongest seems to be that moths navigate by celestial means, angling their flight by the position of the moon. Apparently they think my porch light is the moon! I feel sorry for that confusion, but really what can I do? Lilly needs the light.
What I’m about to say next will give you some insight into how my mind works, but as I look out at our gathered congregation—it’s almost as though someone turned the porch light on at 9 am and here we all are! Like moths drawn to the light. Why are we here? I guess, like Lilly, we need light in the darkness.
And I wonder if we’re drawn here because we have a fear of the Lord. I’m not talking about the kind of fear that some churches preach. The kind of fear that says there is a rigid line to walk and one step over the line and we find ourselves in the outer darkness. I’m talking about the healthy kind of fear about which both the Psalmist and Paul talk. This sort of fear is responding to a sense of urgency, an awareness that time is short and we need to be in the Lord’s presence…now. This sort of fear is the beginning of wisdom. Because it is only in the presence of the Lord that our lives have meaning, purpose, hope. Otherwise, we get swallowed up in the darkness.
Psalm 34 says “O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.” As I consider the myriad of human problems I encounter among you in a week’s time, it seems that most of those problems center on fear. It’s a human condition. For instance, I fear I’ll stand up here and have nothing to say! But I think that for the most part we share the same fears.
We fear the world is a mean place and getting meaner all the time. We fear that our children will be hurt and that we can’t protect them, as happened in Colorado. We fear that we won’t live long enough to accomplish our purpose in life, or that we will outlive our purpose in life. And I think I speak for the majority when I say that we fear that our lives do not reflect our faith and discipleship. And these fears all center on scarcity…I won’t be strong enough, I won’t be good enough, there will not be enough goodness to go around. And Psalm 34 reminds us that several thousand years ago people worried about the same things.
Nancy deClaisse-Walford, in a commentary on this text, helpfully notes that Psalm 34 is an alphabetic acrostic. There are 22 verses, and 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. “Each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways. Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public—that is, individual and corporate—recitation; in addition, literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, summing it up from alif to tav, from A to Z.” She then goes on to suggest that this Psalm was written by David on the occasion of his deliverance by God from a time of great trouble and fear. In these words we find hope for deliverance from all sorts of terrible trouble. First we offer praise to God and then we take to God our fears.
Our former Conference associate minister used to use a beautiful benediction that still rings in my memory. “May you love God so much that you love nothing else too much. And may you fear God so much that you fear nothing else at all.” That quality of fear can best be described as awe and reverence. Awe of something that is so mysterious, so powerful, that we are drawn to it like moths to a flame. It is a flame that burns, yet does not consume…like the burning bush that caused Moses to step aside. This kind of fear has nothing to do with our other fears our human fears that we encounter in day to day living. Those fears have to do with our own limitations. There is nothing limited about God, especially God’s capacity to deliver us from evil.
Sam Candler says this quality of fear has to do with respect for the positive mystery of God—a tremendous and fascinating mystery. This fascination is for us awe and wonder and we just can’t stay away. “This positive fear does not focus on scarcity. This positive fear knows no limit to the grace of God.” I suppose that this respectful fear could be likened to the days when simply to hear one’s teacher threaten to send home a report of bad behavior, was sufficient to straighten one up. At its heart, fear of God is a function of our love and respect for God, and God’s love and respect for us. Fear of God is simply a desire to live in God’s awesome presence.
So how do we step out of our day to day fears, and step into God’s presence? If we allow them, our daily fears and distractions will indeed pull us in the wrong direction. We have to navigate our way to God’s presence and it is easy to get pulled off course, like a moth who mistakes my porch light for the moon. God’s presence is the only light to which we should allow ourselves to be drawn. And in that presence we are safe and at peace.
Recently I’ve begun a personal quest to recommit to and reconnect with my God. It was an outgrowth of my recent sabbatical. I’ve shared with you the crazy story about how I stumbled across the spiritual director for whom I was looking. It really proved to me the old adage that when the pupil is ready the teacher will be found. What I’m searching for, and what I think we are all looking for is a place to take my fears and my longings; a place in which my hopes and dreams can be examined by God. And then God can help me decide if those dreams are worthy and show me the way to their fruition. I’m looking for a home with God.
The great writer and spiritual guide Howard Thurman wrote an essay called “An Island of peace within one’s soul.” It is magnificent and begins like this: (written in 1953, it reflects the masculine bias of formal English language.)
The individual lives his life in the midst of a wide variety of stresses and strains…No one is ever free from the peculiar pressures of his own life. The only hope for surcease, the only possibility of stability for the person, is to establish an Island of Peace within one’s own soul. Here one brings for review the purposes and dreams to which one’s life is tied. This is the place where there is no pretense, no dishonesty, no adulteration….What one really thinks about one’s life stands revealed; what one really thinks and feels about other people far and near is seen with every nuance clearly labeled: love is love, hate is hate, fear is fear. Well within the island is the Temple where God dwells—not the God of the creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart. Into His presence one comes with all of one’s problems and faces His scrutiny….How foolish it is, how terrible, if you have not found your Island of Peace within your own soul! It means you are living without the discovery of your own home.”
How do we get home? How do we get to that island of peace while we are swimming in a sea of fear? I don’t know of any shortcut home, except through prayer, praise, and contemplation. If we want to feel the presence of God we have to spend time seeking God. Our fear can be replaced with confidence and trust as we integrate action with periods of intentional prayer in our faith life.
Or maybe we should just sing as Paul suggests in our Ephesians reading! As the old saying goes, the one who sings prays twice. However we choose to come into God’s presence, us holy ones, God is there waiting for us. Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.