When Heaven & Earth Move in Concert  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

A homily given by Denis Haack for the ordination of David Richter

Trinity Presbyterian Church / November 9, 2008


In his wonderful story, The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien gives us a piece of advice: “It does not do,” Tolkien says, “to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” Isn’t that great? It should be common sense, but if you are like me, we tend to forget.


Keep that in mind as I read our Scripture for tonight because I’m going to come back to it. The text I’ve chosen is a Hebrew poem, a psalm composed almost 3000 years ago, but it could have been written yesterday. Though ancient it is not archaic, but finely tuned to the glorious but broken reality where we live out our lives. The text is Psalm 73.


Psalm 73 divides into 5 sections—in the English translation we’re reading tonight those divisions are marked by the repetition of the word “but.” I’ll point them out as we go along.


The psalm opens with a single verse in which the poet makes a statement of faith. This is what, in other words, he believes to be true. Listen as I read: Verse 1: Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. He believes God exists, is good, and is a personal God who is calling a people to be in personal relationship with him.


The next verse, however, begins with “But…” and marks our first division. He believes in a good and personal God, but that raises a serious difficulty. Life just doesn’t seem to work out that way. The poet lives, as we do, in a broken, unjust, and cruel world where often the goodness of God seems to be a very distant, even dubious proposition. Listen as I read: Verses 2-15: But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children.


The poet’s faith that God exists and is good is challenged by what he sees day by day. If God is good, why is life so bloody unfair? If he is good and truly God, why does he not simply stop the unspeakable cruelty in Congo’s seemingly endless civil war where pre-adolescent soldiers and gang rape are systematically used as weapons to terrorize innocent civilians? If God is good, why do executives that led their institutions into bankruptcy sail walk away with golden parachutes while ordinary workers lose their jobs and pensions? If God is good, why does injustice seem to smirk every time we open the newspaper? Do you not feel this tension? Only someone who is dangerously out of touch with reality could possibly miss it. I believe God is good, but the world is horribly unjust…


And this brings us to the next repetition of the word, “But…” marking the next division. Listen as I read: Verses 16-27: But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.


Trying to sort it all out seemed to him “a wearisome task” he says. Day after day the evidence mounts, doubts rise, and the cynicism of our skeptical world seems to seep in at the edges of our consciousness. We believe God is good, but how does that square with the evidence of our eyes and ears?


A “wearisome task,” the psalmist says, “until”—“Until I went in to the sanctuary of God.” And it is here that something profound happens, it is in the sanctuary of God where he begins to see past the surface of things to the unseen foundations that lie beneath them. Life is not merely what it seems, but deeper than we can imagine, far richer than the details at the surface seem to suggest. There is, our poet claims, a hope that turns out to be far greater than our doubts and far more reassuring that our greatest confusion.


And this brings us to the final division of the psalm. Listen as I read verse 28: But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge that I may tell of all your works.


Here is the wonder of it. The psalmist has discovered there is a far better solution to his doubts than just having answers for them. After all, doubts and challenges can multiply faster than answers. He hasn’t sorted out all the difficulties that living in a broken world presents, because he can’t, just as we can’t. Instead, he discovers something far more profound and satisfying. He is reassured that justice will out in the end, that the story of history is not yet completed and is not swirling out of control. God is good, and promises that all things are in his hands and that the ending of the Story will be far better than we could possibly imagine in our wildest dreams. That’s the reassurance the psalmist finds in the sanctuary, a hope worth living for, even though it doesn’t stop the horror unfolding in the Congo, nor does it allow us even a glimpse of how the gross unfairness of life fits into the good plan of an almighty God. We are left standing at the edge of mystery.


The final answer we are left with is not a philosophical insight, or an airtight argument to forever unpack the mystery of God’s providential plan for justice in human history in this broken, unfair world. The final answer, instead, is God’s personal presence, and the evidence of his goodness down through all the centuries. Because it is here, and only here, that I have a deep reassurance that just because I cannot see a reason for suffering, that does not mean there isn’t a reason. Just because I cannot make full sense of things does not mean that everything is senseless. God exists, he is good, and as long as that is true, my smallness is swallowed up in the immensity of his grace and the incomprehensibility of his being. And make no mistake: this is not an escape from reality, it is escaping our limited finiteness to rest in his ultimate reality.


“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” Doubt about a good God in an unjust world is merely one of the dragons we must face. If we had the time, we could name more of the dragons that lurk nearby. Most of the time, though, like the hobbits in Tolkien’s story we prefer to ignore them, acting as if we can stay safely out of their clutches, behind the carefully constructed walls of our homes, schools and churches. Dragons do not, however, stay buried in their caves, and our refusal to keep them firmly in our calculations is one reason Christianity seems so irrelevant, superficial, and inauthentic to the postmodern generation.


The Hebrew poet found relief from his nagging doubts in the sanctuary of God. It was within the meeting of God’s people, before God’s face, captured by his love, and in the hearing of God’s word that grace could be found. “But for me it is good to be near God.”


In Christ, God entered human history—our personal history—the same history that seems to make such a mockery of our belief that God exists and is good. Not only did he enter human history, he embraced the unfairness and injustice of that history so intensely that no suffering is now foreign to him. When we are near him, we are near the God who not only exists, and is good, but who knows the injustice with which we struggle not because he is divine and so knows everything, but because he walked through it and his body is ravaged with the scars to prove it.


I don’t know how it will get sorted out. I have no idea. But here is the good news. The One who has promised that it will be made right has made Christ the judge. In other words, in contrast to every other religion, Christianity claims that the God who walked through the injustice himself is the one who, in the end, make justice flow like a river until righteousness covers the earth like water covers the sea. I don’t know how he will accomplish that, but here’s the deal: when Christ was on the cross he tore down the barrier keeping us out of the sanctuary so that now we can have a personal relationship with the God who exists and who has proven his goodness in history.


Tonight we set apart a man to take his place—metaphorically speaking—in the sanctuary, who will now minister to those of us who believe, but who find it hard. It’s not that our statement of faith is incorrect or weak; it’s because we live, day by day, near dragons. The apostles tell us in the New Testament that one of the gifts God has given his church are leaders who listen before they speak, who know when to teach and when to remain silent. Leaders like David and Kelly who are so generous in offering their lives and home as a sanctuary, a safe place where people can find grace for wounds and doubts. Leaders who have not slain all the dragons, but who walk alongside us, assuring us that even little hobbits have significance in the cosmic scheme of things. That the dragons of doubt, or skepticism, or consumerism that sap our souls can be defeated, not because we are such great stuff, but because we have a champion who has gone ahead of us, has faced down death and come out the other side alive, forevermore.


Tonight, in a very special way we are given a chance to see beyond the surface details of things. Not because we are in a church building for one more service, but because we are about to witness something extraordinary. An ordination to ministry is actually a very auspicious event. It is a matter of church polity, true, but it is far more than that. It has legal ramifications in that after this David can baptize, marry, and bury people, but it is more than that, too. It has personal meaning for me, since in a few minutes when I join the other elders of the church to place hands on David to set him aside as a teaching elder, it will be for me a highlight in a long friendship I cherish as precious. But it is more than that, too. Mark my words: tonight heaven and earth will move in special concert, though so few of us have eyes trained to see beyond the surface of things that most of us may fail to notice the cosmic shift in reality.


Since I began with the words of J. R. R. Tolkien, I will end with his words as well. They are words of hope—the sort of words we discover when we carry our doubts and fears, bloody from stumbling upon a dragon, into the sanctuary to be near to God. They are words to hold onto, because they capture something of what it means to live in the in-between time, between Christ’s first coming to announce the arrival of his kingdom and his second coming when he arrives to consummate it. Hear them, beloved of God, and be filled with hope:


            All that is gold does not glitter,

            Not all those who wander are lost;

            The old that is strong does not wither,

            Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

            From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

            A light from the shadows shall spring;

            Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

            The crownless again shall be king.


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