To thee, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in thee I trust, let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me. Yea, let none that wait for thee be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. Lead me in thy truth, and teach me, for thou art the God of my salvation; for thee I wait all the day long. – Psalm 25:1-5
Psalm 25 is an expression of trust in God against all foes, from A to Z. In fact, the psalm is written as an acrostic, in which the verses begin with each successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Of course, such a literary device is not immediately obvious in the English translation; however, we are able to capture at least a hint of the meter of the psalm and to note its careful construction.
The psalmist begins this hymn with an extreme profession of trust in God. ”To thee…I lift up my soul.” This baring of the soul is an expression of confession – of coming clean, of being completely honest and vulnerable to God, of revealing not just various behavioral misdeeds but rather the most personal secrets of our being. The lifting up of the soul, is an act of sacrifice – I lay my soul on your altar.
The psalm expresses both trust and repentance, both expressions of faith and teachings of the law, both cries for personal safety and petitions for national prosperity. In addition, the psalmist weaves an unusual thread among these verses concerning his enemies. ”Let not my enemies exult over me,” he pleads in verse 2, and “let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous,” in the verse that follows. We see this concern arise again later, as the psalmist laments, “Consider how many are my foes” in verse 19.
The psalmist may use his foes as a foil to help differentiate righteous living from the ways of the foolish. On the other hand, he may recognize and seek divine protection from foes at every level of his being – those obstacles of grace which thwart sincere attempts to live in right relationship with God. The psalmist may identify foes of faith in the secrets of our soul (v.1), or in our ignorance of God’s ways (v. 5), or in our guilt for “sins of… youth” (vv. 7, 11), or in the entanglements of life from which we need to be “plucked” (v. 15), or in a profound loneliness or deep depression (v. 16). The psalmist seems to find foes in both the various troubles of personal life (v. 17) and in the ominous enemies of Israel (v.27).
We don’t fully know if this psalm was fashioned to form a list the foes of faith. What we do know is that it offers a clear assertion of the faithfulness of God. In Psalm 25 we find assurance that God can be trusted from A to Z.
Good Father, help me lift up my soul and put my trust in you – not in the fickle circumstances and moods of life. Grant me wisdom and strength to be more than a conqueror through Him who loves me. Amen.
“Can I Get a Witness?” -
A sermon by Gorman Houston
First United Methodist Church, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
January 19, 2014 and February 9, 2014
Does the name Martin Niemoller mean anything to you? Probably not. You most likely do not know the German Lutheran pastor, born in 1892. I doubt you know that he was intensely loyal to his homeland, that he dutifully became a cadet in the Imperial Royal Navy, that he served as a U-Boat commander during World War I. It would be unlikely that you would know that after the war, he went to seminary and, like his father, became a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church and served a church near Berlin. You probably do not know that Martin Niemoller was an early supporter of the Nazi party, or that he justified Adolph Hitler’s anti-Semitic views as being simply extreme expressions of the prejudice which he and most other Germans held at the time. Nor most likely did you know that later Martin Niemoller became disillusioned with the Nazi regime, that he was arrested, that he was sent to a concentration camp in 1937, and that he remained in a prison camp at Dachau until it was liberated by Allied forces in 1945.
You may not know any of this about Martin Niemoller, because when Martin Niemoller died in 1984, nearly 40 years after his release from prison, he was famous for only one thing. He was not famous for what he did; he was not famous for what he wrote; he was not famous for what he said. Martin Niemoller is known even today for what he did not say, for what he never said.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
“Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Have you ever felt the sting of disobedience? The gut-wrenching shame of knowing what is right but not doing it? Sometimes when we do wrong, we can feel a certain excitement. Do you know what I mean? There is a bit of a thrill in being bad, a bit of adventure, perhaps. But it’s different when our sin is not one of commission but rather of omission. There is no thrill of knowing the right thing to do, but refusing to do it. It doesn’t feel daring. It doesn’t feel exciting. It doesn’t feel liberating. It feels cowardly. It feels shameful.
Tony Campolo, the wild Baptist preacher from Philadelphia, Pennsalyvania, speaks of his sins of omission. “I remember (the day),” Campolo writes. “I remember (the day) when I realized I (wasn’t a Christian). “I was in high school, and there was this kid named Roger. He was gay and everyone made fun of him. We ridiculed him. You know what high school kids can do to a kid like Roger. We made his life unbearable. We mocked him. When he would go into the shower after gym, we would wait until he came out and then we would whip our towels at him and sting him. Sometimes it would get ugly.
“I wasn’t there” Campolo continues, “the day (a group of guys) pushed Roger into the corner of the shower and… urinated on him, but (I was there the next day when we learned that) he (had gone up in) the attic in the middle of the night and hung himself.
“And I knew right then that I wasn’t a Christian,” Campolo writes, “Because if I had been a Christian (I would have said something.) I would have stood up for my friend Roger. Even if they ridiculed me for doing it. I would have been his friend. (But I was not a friend – not a friend of Roger… not a friend of Jesus.)”
There is no thrill of knowing the right thing to do, but refusing to do it. It doesn’t feel daring. It doesn’t feel exciting. It doesn’t feel liberating. It feels cowardly. It feels shameful.
In the prayers I remember from my childhood are these words…
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
Luke, the evangelist, records in the first chapter of Acts the final words of our Lord. I’m not talking about the seven-last-words of Jesus on the cross… “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me;” or “Father forgive them for they know not what they do;” or “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit;” or the rest. I’m talking about the last words of our Lord before he ascended into heaven; the last command he gave to the people who followed him: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the world.”
We could call it the five final words of Jesus, “You shall be my witnesses.”
“You shall be my witnesses.” Those 5 instructional, prescriptive words form Jesus’ final instruction to his followers. And what Jesus was saying is my people will be known for what they do – known for what they say. Sometimes religious people are known for what they do not do. “We don’t drink; we don’t smoke; we don’t swear; and we don’t associate with people who do.” Nah… Jesus said his followers would be known not for what they did not do. They would be known for what they did do. “You shall be my witnesses.”
For the first 300 years of the church, the Apostolic Age, that’s exactly what happened. The followers of Jesus were powerful witnesses. Against all odds, amidst harsh persecution, with no trained clergy, no standardized Bible, no favorable tax laws for charitable donations, not a single building, no pipe organ, no piano or guitar, no printing press, no radio, no television, no mass media, no social standing – equipped with nothing but faith and hope and love and the charge of their Lord, the earliest followers turned the world upside down.
Most scholars who follow this kind of thing put the number of Christians at the time of Jesus spoke these final words at around 120. After three years of teaching, preaching, healing up and down Palestine, Jesus had accumulated around 120 followers. But listen to this. By the time the Roman ruler Galerius issued an edict ending the persecution of Christians 300 years later, ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire had converted to the Christian faith – from 120 followers in 30 AD to nearly 7 million in 311 AD.
Remember, the followers of Christ Jesus had nothing, they were persecuted for their faith. In fact, in the years just before 311, Roman Emperor Diocletian launched the bloodiest campaign against Christians that the empire had ever seen. Followers who refused to recant were imprisoned or martyred, their property seized. And all the while the movement was taking over the world, growing by 40% every decade.
You say, “Gorman, that rate of expansion could not have been sustained.” You’re right, of course, because most movements reach a tipping point, that is they begin to grow at an increasing rate, then they continue to grow but by a decreasing rate, then they plateau. It would be hard to sustain the kind of growth they were experiencing. You’re also right because if the movement had continued growing by 40% every decade, there would have been no one left to convert within another 100 years. By the year 400, 100% of the population would have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord, would have become followers of Jesus Christ. 100% of the population (not just of the Roman Empire) but of the entire world – the entire world’s population transformed, one life at a time.
How did this happen? The five-final-words of Christ – “You shall be my witnesses.” The people of God were known for hospitality, compassion, generosity, as they offered faith, hope, love. Oh, there were differences of theology, but the variance in beliefs was to be expected. There were differences in social standing, differences in races, differences in backgrounds, but none of that was an issue. There were cultural barriers, language barriers, travel barriers, but none of that was able to slow the movement. What was important was that one-by-one all the world was coming under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, entering a life-changing relationship with Jesus, being filled with his Holy Spirit. The movement was heart-to-heart, hand-to-hand, life-by-life, and nothing could stop it… nothing, except…
Over fourth century, the people of God quit sharing their personal stories of faith; they quit reaching out in hope to individuals who were desperate. They quit caring as personally and passionately for the poor and the dispossessed. They quit expressing personally their compassion and love for others in a way that offered transformation. Everything changed. What brought that about? You may wonder.
Well, the conservatives among us probably guessed it – governmental interference. You’ve been telling us for years that nothing has the power to stop economic growth faster than government intervention. You’ve said it over and again that nothing has the ability to squelch innovation more completely than government intervention. Even before there was a FOX News Network we heard over and again that nothing is able to mess things up more than governmental intervention. Well, that was certainly the case of the vitality of the Christian faith. Christianity was no longer outlawed, and the persecutions stopped in 311, but what distorted the faith and made it ultimately almost unrecognizable to early Christians was when Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. At that point, the mighty, unstoppable movement of God was reconstituted from a movement to an institution. No longer were you a Christian because Jesus Christ was your Lord and Savior. Now you were a Christian because you were a Roman. There was no need to tell the story of faith it seemed. People were now Christian because they lived in a Christian nation. No heart needed transforming. No conversion was required. And those for whom faith had been transformative were outnumbered by those who were Christian in name alone. Now the church became focused on other matters – standardizing belief, consolidating power, raising money, building cathedrals, burning heretics, disempowering outsiders, establishing a professional clergy. When the changes were complete, the Christian faith looked far more like the Roman Empire than it did the movement Jesus Christ started.
I don’t believe that Constantine or the line of leaders who institutionalized the faith meant to strip the faith of its zeal and spiritual power. It was an unintended consequence. It was not what any one did. It was what no one did. It was a sin of omission.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
When I read this passage in Acts, the question I am left with is, “Can I get a witness?”
The idea makes at least some of us cringe – and for good reason. Maybe you have experienced the awkwardness of some total stranger asking you if you have been saved. It’s so confrontational, so in-your-face, so impersonal, so offensive. Is that what Jesus meant? Well, Jesus didn’t say, “You shall be my confronters.” He said, “You shall be my witnesses.”
Or maybe you have heard people tell of us some incredible, miraculous event in their life that brought them to Jesus. You may think, that’s quite a story. I’d tell it too if I had experienced something that sensational. Jesus didn’t say, “You shall be my showmen.” He said, “You shall be my witnesses.”
Or maybe you’ve seen a preacher on TV or somewhere who seems to have all the answers, who knows and can quote the appropriate verse of the Bible for every circumstance of life, who can respond to any situation and never get stumped. You may think, If I knew all the answers, I’d tell them too. Jesus didn’t say, “You shall be my experts.” He said, “You shall be my witnesses.”
Do you know the name Jennifer Rothschild? I didn’t know Jennifer Rothschild, but Jeanne did. She knew that Jennifer Rothschild was a beautiful Christian woman, a fantastic musician, a great Bible study leader. So we invited her to Mobile. She came filled the sanctuary. I didn’t know until then that she was blind. She told her story, how she loved music, how her faith was important to her. She told us how she began being aware of problems with her sight as a young adult. She said she prayed for her vision, and she went to doctor after doctor. Until one day she was told by the doctor that there was nothing more that they could do. She would lose all of her vision quickly. Jennifer Rothschild said she was devastated. God had not healed her. When she got home from the doctor’s visit, she went to the place she felt most comfortable. She went to her piano and sat down on the bench, and she began to play the first song that came to her mind… “It is well with my soul.”
There was no miracle. She did not get what she wanted, what most people have and never even think about. Her world was going dark. She would be completely blind. Jennifer Rosthschild did not understand the mysteries of faith. But under the Lordship of Jesus Christ she knew that she was in God’s care and keeping, and she sang, “It is well with my soul.”
That is a witness.
It’s not complicated. It’s just telling your story. But don’t undersell it. Being a witness of Jesus Christ is risky business. It means caring about someone, it means being your brother’s keeper, it means having your heart broken by another person’s suffering, it means being affected by a situation so deeply, that you can’t let go of it, you can’t stay silent about it, you can’t not get involved. Isn’t that the essence of Jesus’ life? Don’t you think he wants the same from you and me?
And isn’t that what Jesus taught. Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? A person travelling on the Jericho road was beaten, stripped, robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite came upon him and passed him by, but a Samaritan came upon him, saw him, had pity on him, bound up his wounds, took him to an inn, provided for his recovery. Now that’s a witness, don’t you think?
The problem for us is not that we can’t offer a witness. It is rather that we don’t offer a witness. Our problem is that we’ve outsourced witnessing. We’ve created an industry of professional witnesses.
Some of you have spent time in courtrooms for a variety of reasons. Most of us have at least watched enough television to know what a witness is. To establish the facts of the case, a lawyer will put someone on the stand who can tell what she saw when the bank was robbed. A lawyer will put on the stand someone who can tell what he saw when the accident occurred. They are witnesses. They were there. They saw it all. This is their story of how it looked and felt and sounded. They are witnesses.
But often, lawyers will call someone who was not there, who didn’t see any of it. They cannot talk about what actually happened. They can only talk in theory about what could have happened. They are professional witnesses. “The pictures I’ve looked at of the tread marks at the accident scene could be explained in a different way,” the professional witness might say. “The DNA gathered at the scene may be considered inconclusive,” the professional witness might say. They are not witnesses… they are paid, professional witnesses.
When the mighty movement of God was institutionalized, it no longer was spread through the faithful witness of followers of Jesus Christ. Now it is spread through professional witnesses, paid witnesses…clergy, like me, I guess.
Oh, most of us are personal witnesses to the grace and power of God, but don’t expect the Christian faith to grow when it is only propelled by a handful of professional witnesses, rather than by the legions of followers whose lives have experienced the touch of God’s grace.
Can I get a witness? That’s the question today. That’s really always been the question Jesus asks of his people.
This weekend we observe the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I can’t help thinking about the Civil Rights Movement, most of which unfolded during my childhood. I didn’t understand what was happening for the most part, as it was unfolding. Sometimes I wonder how I would have responded had I been older. Would I have offered a faithful witness or would I have ended up on the wrong side of change, on the wrong side of history? Had I been there would I have had courage to stand up, to speak out, to act up… or would I have kept quiet, done nothing, and just waited to see how things unfolded?
I do not stand in judgment of those who responded in different ways in those days. I just wonder if I would have had to join Martin Niemoller confessing my sins of omission…
When they refused to give the right to vote, I did not speak out because I could vote.
When they refused to give justice, I did not speak out because I was treated justly.
When they refused to give access to education, I did not speak out because I was afforded an education.
When they refused to show hospitality, I did not speak out because I was never turned away.
When they blamed the victims for the crimes, I did not speak out because no one ever blamed me.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
Jesus is looking for those who will speak up, those who will stand up, those at times even, who will act up.
Jesus did not say, “You shall be my institution.” He did not say you shall be members of my church. He did not say, “You shall be my experts.” He did not say, “You shall be my morality enforcers.” What did he say? “You shall be my witnesses.” By telling your story, by sharing your faith, by offering genuine love, you will change lives, you will usher in the kingdom of God, you will transform the world.
The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan were from the institution, and they passed by.
The Samaritan was a witness. Can I get a witness?
Institutional thinking says, evangelism is important because the church needs more people.
But a witness says, evangelism is important because People need the Lord. Can I get a witness?
Institutional thinking responds to problems indirectly by establishing agencies, bureaucracy, and programs.
A witness responds to problems by reaching out directly with faith, hope, and love. Can I get a witness?
Institutional thinking seeks first to protect the organization
A witness seeks first to share the love of Jesus. Can I get a witness?
Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!
Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory! [Selah] - Psalm 24:7-10
The third and final segment of Psalm 24 begins with a call for gates to be lifted and doors to be opened, Since this is a pilgrimage psalm, it is easy to imagine the pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem amid open gates and going into the Temple through open doors. Finally their journey ends, and they may encounter “the King of Glory.”
It is worth noting that the psalm does not call for the gates and doors to be opened in order to afford pilgrims access to the holy site but rather to welcome “the King of Glory.” We do well to consider this call in both our churches and our personal lives. We welcome the King of Glory, as we remove the barriers, which we have erected to separate us from the divine. The psalm, which concludes with a rabbinical question to affirm the worthiness of God, may prompt a different and quite probing question within us, “What is keeping God at a distance…” or, “What is keeping God from ruling my life?”
It is also helpful to view this psalm in the way in which this journey to Jerusalem forms a metaphor for a faith pilgrimage for us. Such a journey begins with an affirmation of God’s goodness in the grandest terms, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” This basic affirmation offers guidance as the pilgrim journeys progressively closer to the Divine, first by offering confession and seeking “clean hands and a pure heart” and finally by welcoming the “King of Glory” to govern all of life. Such a view affirms that we are all works in progress, that we are all on a faith pilgrimage, and that as we seek God’s goodness and truth, our journey leads us into deep and profound relationship with the Divine. From this perspective we may live life fully and freely and view death in glorious terms as a call to “Lift up your heads, O Gates, and be lifted up you everlasting doors that the King of Glory may come in.”
Surely the majestic conclusion of this psalm forms a stirring confession of faith to guide the pilgrim along life’s journey. ”Who is the King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle…. The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory!”
Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land. I am weak, but thou art mighty Hold me with thy powerful hand. Amen
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Whoever has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. [Selah] -Psalm 24:3-6
The second movement of Psalm 24 opens with a pair of questions, which mirror the rabbinical teaching style of Jesus’ day. The questions are not rhetorical. They call for a response. However, these questions seek affirmation, not information. The call-and-response approach serves to engage the congregation by declaring a shared belief or basic truth.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” By voicing these questions, the psalm shifts its focus from declaring the sovereignty of God in verses 1 and 2 to acknowledging the fallen-state of humanity. The basic dilemma in the Jewish faith, the Christian faith, and all faiths is reconciling the sinful creation with its sinless creator. It is the same concern voiced by heavenly beings in Revelation 5, who ask, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” The response to the angelic inquiry is the familiar affirmation of the risen Lord, “Worthy is the lamb that was slain.” In Psalm 24, the response to the question of worthiness to “ascend the hill of the LORD” forms a moral and spiritual aspiration.
“Whoever has clean hands and a pure heart… those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” The psalm serves to call upon the congregation to align their lives with Jehovah God (LORD) by veering from neither holiness nor morality – by not pursuing “that which is false” and by not “swearing deceitfully.”
These verses reach a climax in proclaiming that blessings come to those who “seek the face of the God of Jacob.” What a powerful concept this is! Intimate friendship with God is often defined metaphorically in the scriptures in terms of the face of God. ”The LORD make his face to shine upon you,” we read in Numbers 6, “The LORD lift up his countenance upon you.” Such is the goal of faith, to be in intimate friendship with God, to “see God face-to-face.”
The possibility of an intimate relationship with God is made even stronger by the psalmist’s use of “the God of Jacob.” Often Jehovah is called “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Here the use of the name Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, has a powerful relational value for several reasons. First, the psalmist remembers that God has made himself known through his relationship with the forebears of the Hebrew people. Perhaps most important to the psalmist is that Jacob was hardly a man with clean hands and a pure heart. Yet when this cheating scoundrel responded to God’s call and changed his ways, he was able to encounter God and to find God’s favor.
We perhaps understand Psalm 24 most fully when we recognize that it is one of the psalms used by pilgrims as they journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem. We can imagine that as these sojourners approached Mount Zion, “the hill of the LORD,” the words of this psalm spoke to their soul and called for confession – to denounce wicked ways and to seek God with clean hands and a pure heart.
Lord God, in my pilgrimage of faith, I confess that I my hands are not clean and my heart is not pure. My motives are mixed; my methods mingle truth and deceit. Cleanse me of all that distances me from you and from your ways. Amen.
The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers. – Psalm 24:1-2
What a majestic beginning the twenty-fourth psalm has! These are verses worthy of keeping in our minds and on our lips – a grand assertion of the sovereignty of God. While the first two verses differ in tone and content from the remainder of the psalm, they open psalm 24 boldly.
“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,” the psalm begins, “the world and those who dwell therein.” By establishing God’s ownership of the earth, the psalmist declares God’s authority to govern the earth.
“He has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers,” the psalmist declares in reference to the primeval deep of Genesis 1:2. In ancient times the earth was thought to be a flat land, floating on chaotic waters. In our day we might say, “God has placed the earth in the vastness of space” or “set Earth in orbit about the sun.”The psalm makes no scientific claim – only a faith assertion. The ancient and modern understandings share a profound recognition that the life-sustaining properties of our planet hang in delicate balance by the design of God.
In many ways, the first verse of psalm 24 works to keep our lives in balance. When we begin to “think more highly of ourselves than we ought,” when we put too much importance on the accumulation of wealth, when we forget who created it all and owns it all, our lives reclaim life-giving balance simply by remembering, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”
Good Father, I am yours, and I live in your world. Align my life with your world and your will. Amen.