Message by Stephen Radke
A few weeks ago I was sitting in very back seat of plane travelling from Alice Springs to Adelaide. I had the three seats to myself and I was reading for this sermon and at times looking out the window at the red sand hill country below. I felt a presence quite near to me and I looked and just next to me was one of the cabin staff. She had moved close and was peering at an angle above my head through the plane window. She kept looking out the window as I looked at her face and she said that we fly over a place on this flight, a place I had not heard of. She said that her partner works there. Every time she works on this flight she looks to see the place where he is. She said to me, ‘Isn’t it strange that I am up here in this plane and he is working deep underground’.
When you and I read Psalm 1 we so often read it from the perspective of the partner deep underground. There we are working hard on our own projects. The project could be a very holy project, working hard, slaving to please God because we are expecting that in return he will reward us. Or it could be a very selfish project aiming to please ourselves and build our own idea of our best life. In any case we read the Psalm and are not aware that someone who loves us deeply, just as we are, is very close looking on us and speaking tenderly to us.
Today I am going to talk about three ways we can read this Psalm:-
The first way of reading this Psalm is as a person working hard day and night to please God to get a reward from him. Just like a fly in fly out worker working 12 hour shifts underground for 14 days straight, expecting God to be pleased with us and give us the success and prosperity we think this Psalm speaks of. We read, ‘Blessed is the one who has not walked in the counsel of wrongdoers and has not taken a stand in the path of sinners or dwelled in the seat of mockers.’ And we think, ‘Yes, that is me working faithfully to do the right thing by God and expecting in return that God will repay me with a long and prosperous life.
Many years ago, my dear sister Linda died of cancer, she was 54. Linda lived a good and godly life. She prayed, she sang of God, she raised her children as Christians. When she died she was working as a secondary school chaplain and I am sure she would have been a pastor if our church had allowed it. I thought, how could she not beat this cancer. She served God, she did everything this Psalm speaks of. Surely the last verse of this Psalm is the word of God, it says, ‘the Lord watches over the way of the righteous’, surely that meant he would heal Linda. So many people prayed for my sister also I am sure her children prayed for her healing. When Linda died I felt deeply let down by God. For many years anger and unforgiveness toward God burned in me. Deep down in me. I was deep down in that mineshaft of anger and disappointment with God. I knew absolutely that God can heal illness, I have seen it and yet he did not heal my sister.
Why did God not keep up what I saw as his side of the bargain? Surely if we do good by God he will do good by us? Is this what this psalm is saying? Many good living people read this psalm this way. I call it a religious way of reading this Psalm. Many of us in the church and many outside the church read this psalm that way. I am sure that you have been to many funerals where people only speak of the good things the person who has died has done. People expect that God will be pleased with good people who keep the law, who pray, pay their bills and do not cheat and he will as a reward take them to heaven.
The second way of reading this Psalm is that when we read a person ‘delights in the law of the Lord’ we are struck with guilt and say to ourselves, ‘I don’t do that’. ‘I actually mostly please myself and when I help others I do it for a benefit’. I do good things so people will like me and speak well of me, I don’t actually find pleasure in God’s instruction at all’. In reality I avoid God’s laws because they make me feel guilty. This is the way I would normally hear this verse in the Psalm. It accuses me. I cannot please God. This Psalm accuses me and tells me I am lost. I feel like St Paul who wanted to do the right thing but knew he did not. The Lutheran church’s teachings tell us that the law of God always accuses us. It is like a mirror we look at that shows up our short comings, our faults, our failures. The law of God is like a young person looking in the mirror. Look, there is another zit. My body is too thick or too thin. I am not as good looking as the girl who just sent me a snapchat of herself with her cool friends at the pool. How can we delight in a mirror that shows up our faults?
But there is third way to read this Psalm. When I looked at the hostess looking past me and out the window of the plane to the ground below I saw in her eyes a gentle concern for her partner. I was a stranger to her, yet I became aware of her connection to that man underground. With my COVID mask on, I was seeing a very private moment between a person and the one she loved. How would it be for you if God is really and absolutely like that young woman connected to you with a gentle concern and a deep love. How would it be if God were watching for us with eyes like that, thinking with gentle love on us while we are working underground, whether we are lost in our own efforts to get God to reward us, deep down underground full of disappointment, or deep down in our guilt feelings toward God?
The good news of the Bible goes a lot further than this picture of love and tenderness. It tells us that God has come deep down underground to where we are. You and I may be in the darkest of places with no light at all and God is there. We may not see him or feel his light, but he is there. God himself knows despair. Jesus said the cross, ‘God my God why have your forsaken me’. You may be in the deepest suffering and in suffering that has no meaning that you can see, yet Jesus who descended into hell is with you. The gentle tender love of God reaches and seems to dwell at times in the deepest pit of suffering. The Psalmist says, The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Jesus says, ‘Come to me all who labour and I will give you rest’.
You see, it is only at Jesus’ cross that we see how meaningless it is to think of God as someone who works on a reward system. It has never been an idea in God’s head that the universe is based on a reward system. The idea of God working on a reward system is a human idea and is not based in the heart of God, nor is it based in the Scripture. God always intended before time began to bring the whole creation together in his Son Jesus. No matter how hard we work we can’t put God in debt to us. God owes us nothing, yet God chooses to give us everything freely as a gift. When we see God himself on the cross it makes no sense that God should reward us anything. Instead, we are confronted by a loving God who gives everything for us as a pure gift.
The cross also answers the question of our guilt and our guilt feelings. Because at Jesus’ cross our guilt at not keeping God’s law is removed and cleaned away. Through Jesus’ blood you are forgiven.
The cross also speaks to our suffering. The cross doesn’t answer the question of meaningless suffering, like my sister’s cancer, but at Jesus’ cross, we see God himself suffer and die. The all-powerful God in his tender love put himself in the middle of human suffering. Suffering that so often seems to have no reason we can see.
You are united to this suffering Jesus in your baptism. You have been joined to Jesus who brings the tender love of God into the darkest human experiences. No matter how deep down our mineshafts we are, Jesus is there with us. As the eyes of the woman, I saw in the plane expressed gentle and caring love yet Jesus’ love is deeper because he is here. His tender love is here with you. Surrender to his tender love today.