Monday, September 3, 2012

Psalm 119:105-112

“Traveling Light”
MasterPiece Church
02 September 2012
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
You English lit buffs undoubtedly recall that this is the opening paragraph of the famous 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton -- which popularized the dark and stormy night theme that everyone lampoons.

Darkness -- even in someplace as advanced as Victorian London -- was always dreaded. It still is in the remote places. About 25% of the world’s population lacks access to electricity. And the nights are dark -- truly dark.

I’ve been on some very remote islands without electricity on dark and stormy nights where the clouds covered the stars and the moon. And you couldn’t tell if the noise on the other side of the block wall was an old tree creaking in the wind or some unwanted animal guest or the boggie man.

Many of the islanders with whom we work are or were animists -- keenly aware of the spirits of their ancient ancestors -- spirits which harass humans -- especially if the people haven’t paid enough homage to them.

And as I have listened to them tell their stories of spirit encounters -- and how afraid they were -- I realized that almost all such encounters occur at night -- in the darkness. Many were dark and stormy nights.

Bad things happen in the dark. The spirits are active. The wild coyotes are awake and outside your window. The reprobates wander the neighborhood.

It was 2 AM when the home invaders kicked in the door of the house two doors down from us last month.

Darkness happens -- and it is particularly scary if you have no access to a light. Light changes things.

On May 18th, 1980, Ken, a 20-something son of a couple in our central Washington State church, woke up from his late Sunday afternoon nap. Well, actually he hadn’t been out of bed at all on Sunday. He was too wasted from the night before.

But along about 4 PM he drifted out to the living room of his parent’s home. Nobody was there. He tried flipping on the lights but the electricity was out for some reason. And it was eerily dark for May.

He stuck his head out the back door to call for them and to see if his parents were out in the back. Not only were they not there but the backyard was gone, too. Everything was gone -- hidden in gray. The sky was dark and ash from Mt St Helen’s was drifting down like thick snow. But Ken didn’t know that’s what it was.

Ken hadn’t been paying attention to the news so he didn’t have a clue that the mountain 130 miles to the southwest had been rumbling, and so he didn’t know that it was volcanic ash falling on their Central Washington town.

He ran out the front door, covering his nose and mouth with a towel he’d grabbed in the kitchen, and banged -- banged on the neighbor’s door.

No one was there, either.

He didn’t know it but all the neighbors were downtown at the fire station helping with emergency services.

It was growing darker by the moment. And Ken’s imagination started to run with the situation. In his stupor and hang-over he quickly determined that the second coming of Christ had occurred and he was left behind.

He was afraid of the dark -- the forever dark -- the eternal dark. And he began to cry out to God -- loud -- really loud -- desperately begging forgiveness and rescue.

Less than a minute later he saw the headlights of his father’s farm truck, choking on the ash, but still chugging up the hill toward the house. He’d never been happier for light. And that was a turn around moment in his life. He would never be without light again.

No one wants to be in the darkness without a light.

But what if you have to move about and carry on in the darkness? If life requires it? What if it’s not a choice to stay home all cozy by the fire?

Does that raise the value of light? Can you feel and sense what light is worth? The psalmist is hoping so.

“Your word is a lamp before my feet
and a light for my journey.”

~ Psalm 119:105 (CEB)

The psalmist isn’t just thinking of lamps as a nice metaphor for God’s Word. I mean it is that -- but more than that THE WORD IS AN ACTUAL CREDIBLE CHALLENGE TO THE DARKNESS THAT WE ALL ENCOUNTER ALONG OUR JOURNEY. That will be the key point this morning as we begin to unpack the Nun stanza of Psalm 119.

And I want to make five quick observations about the text and then pull us back to see how Jesus fits in all of this. For really, he’s our obsession -- nothing more nothing less.

Observation #1 -- IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORD.

As we’ve seen in the past, Psalm 119 is a poem that celebrates the value of God’s Word.

Now, as with all good poets, the psalmist -- and we do not know his identity... There is no indication in either the text itself or any kind of consensus in tradition about his identity. So we just affectionately call him “the psalmist.”

As with all good poets the psalmist has figured out how to say the same thing in numerous ways. So, for example, throughout the psalm he uses 10 synonyms for the Word of God.

Sometimes he calls it -- “the law” -- which is an English translation of the Hebrew term torah.

Now torah doesn’t actually mean law in the same sense that moderns use it -- maybe we shouldn’t translate it that way. But we have a long history of doing so. Torah, though, is “direction” or “guidance.”

Sometimes there are other synonyms for God’s Word, such as:
  • righteous rules (vs 106)
  • God’s promise (vs 107)
  • rules -- again (vs 108)
  • instruction (vs 109)
  • precepts (vs 110)
  • laws (vs 111)
  • statues (vs 112)
There is no significance difference in meaning when these terms are used here in Psalm 119. They are all referring to God’s Word -- the fact that by his grace God has mercifully revealed himself, his expectations, and his directions.

No one has to go it alone. No one has to try to manage the darkness on their own. God himself has intervened and given us critical information to navigate the journey. It’s all about that Word.

Second, WALKING IN THE DARK IS DANGEROUS.

You already know that -- but the psalmist drives the point home again and again throughout Psalm 119 -- and here in the Nun stanza he rehearses that theme again:
  • “I have been suffering so much” (vs 107)
  • “Though my life is constantly in danger” (vs 109)
  • “Though the wicked have set a trap for me” (vs 110)
There isn’t really any kind of safety guarantee for the righteous. If anything, at times righteousness makes you more of a target -- puts you in even more danger.

At one time I was a Red Cross certified lifeguard. And one of the first things they train you about water rescue is that panicked victims are usually combative.

If you approach them directly they will jump on you and attempt to push themselves up while pushing you down. That’s why you try to hand them a floatation device rather than your hand. And when you have to grab a victim you do it from behind.

How many of us have been pushed under by the people we’ve tried to help? You get in the water to help and they turn on you. And I’m, of course, not just talking about water rescue.
  • “You’re not doing enough.”
  • “You should have done this or you should have done that.”
  • “If you REALLY wanted to help you’d give me a _________.”
With this barrage of negativity caregivers -- helpers, rescuers, righteous people -- are easily depressed. Or at best they are keenly aware of the darkness which surrounds them.

Even though you’re trying to help they grouse at you.

And then there is the overall general darkness with which we all struggle -- the darkness that comes your way regardless of who you are.

You just happen to be living in a country where a tyrannical dictator takes over -- or where the draught comes and dries up all the crops -- or for some, you get the tyrannical dictator and the draught at the same time! It’s not really your personal fault.

There is plenty of darkness in our broken and fallen world. And some of you are experiencing the darkness a lot these days.

Do you remember the Peanuts character cartoon PigPen? There was always a cloud of dust hanging over him. It went everywhere he went. And some of you are feeling that way trying to figure out how to get out of the cloud.

So, observation #3 -- STEP BY STEP GOD’S WORD LEADS US

“Your word is a lamp before my feet
and a light for my journey.”

A light shining in front of your feet so you know exactly where to step -- or not step. This is the practicality of it. The light of God’s Word shows us what we need to see so that we don’t misstep.

For example, we just finished studying the New Testament book of James. And there is a big emphasis in James on being “quick to listen and slow to speak.”

That’s how to stay on the pathway. But if you talk a lot and have to say something about everything -- if you quickly shoot your mouth off when someone offends you -- you’re going to find yourself pulled off course.

The Word of God is showing you how to get over a dangerous mountain by holding your tongue -- because you know that God will eventually right the wrongs that have been done to you. That’s the light it brings to the situation.

In the psalmist's world lamps were small and they didn’t give off a lot of light -- not much more than those little flashlights we gave to the children in Kids’ Word this morning. But they gave off just enough illumination that you could see a foot or two in front of you.

What that meant was that if you were not getting enough light on the path you were moving too fast and you needed to slow down. And that’s how God operates. He always shines enough light to take the next step. But he rarely flips on the flood lights at night to illumine the big picture.

Let me clarify, yes, we do have the bigger picture of what God is doing in history -- and that should be an encouragement. But we don’t have the big picture of all that is immediately happening around us. That would lead to sensory overload and drive us crazy.

In my experience, though, the biggest frustration that people have with God is that they want more information from him than he is willing to give. Why am I sick? Why did she die? Why doesn’t God give me a job?

We want more light so we can move a lot faster. We’re impatient with the God pace -- where he shows you just enough light so that you can take the next necessary steps.

We have a TomTom GPS device that we use when we’re looking for directions around town. Once you enter the destination, Mandy -- and that’s what we call our GPS -- "Mandy" -- because the device is set with a female voice it calls "Mandy." Once we enter the information, Mandy will generate a map so we can see the general route. But it’s really too small to see much detail.

So we listen to Mandy give us directions.
  • “Exit right in 2 miles.”
  • “Turn left here.”
  • “Stay on the motorway.”
  • “As soon as possible turn around.” 
You get the idea. She leads us almost step by step where we need to go. She never explains why she chooses the route she chooses -- and sometimes we wonder about that.

God’s Word operates like Mandy in the sense that it gives us just enough light to discern the next steps -- and not a lot more.

Fourth, GOD’S WORD IS A RELIABLE AND THUS TRUSTWORTHY LIGHT.

Between my 9th and 10th grade years in school our parents took us on a road trip across the country. On that trip we spent some time with family friends in Kentucky -- where the father in the family was a university professor -- a geologist, I believe.

And on a Saturday morning he and his sons took us all spelunking in a cave that was deep down and deeply dark. Using ropes we dropped down to where there was not a glimmer of light. We crawled on our stomachs through narrow crevices in the rocks.

It was an adventure. And if we didn’t have those lamps on our helmets -- there was no way we’d ever find our way out. We’d still be down there.

And I remember worrying he whole time we were underground -- not about the bats that occasionally flew in our faces -- but I worried about the batteries. It was a bit irrational but -- “What if the batteries in our lights all suddenly go out? I bet it’s happened!”

The psalmist is celebrating the reliability of God’s Word. Since God himself is the power source it never needs charging. The batteries in his Word never go out.

What this means is that we can go on the journey with confidence that we’re not going to be stranded in the dark by a battery failure. We can commit to the journey with stout hearts -- courage -- fearlessness.

So the psalmists says:
  • “I will keep your righteous rules.” (vs 106) -- That is, I’ll keep trusting in what you’ve said.
  • “Teach me your rules!” (vs 108)
  • “I won’t forget your Instruction.” (vs 109)
  • “I won’t stray from your precepts.” (vs 110)
  • “Your laws are my possession forever because they are my heart’s joy.” (vs 111)
  • “I have decided to keep your statutes forever, every last one.” (vs 112)
These are all statements of commitment and confidence in the light of the Word.

Lord, your Word is reliable, so I am investing in it -- 100% -- lock stock and barrel. I’m going to note, learn, and inwardly digest it so that I can become a mature, convinced, and convincing follower...

I’m going to set-out on a road-trip to a new place with only your GPS giving me turn-by-turn directions because I know that your directions are reliable -- and consistent with your plan for my life -- and the world.

Fifth observation -- GOD’S LIGHT TRANSFORMS.

In vs 107 the psalmist says: “Lord, make me live again according to your promise.”

The Message rendering of this is fun -- makes me think of LEGOS: “God; put me together again with your Word.”

People who live in northern areas where the winters are long and dark, often suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) -- a moodiness or even depression which seems to be triggered by the protracted grey and darkness outside.

Sometimes this disorder is remedied with a light treatment. The affected person is exposed to a lot of bright white full spectrum light. Light livens up the situation.

Not only does the Word show us how to live and how to make decisions consistent with God’s agenda but through serious exposure to it along the journey the light in the Word restores life in us. Vitality!

That’s what light does.

In the gospels Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” That’s John 8:12. Also in the gospel of John -- first chapter -- Jesus is described as “the Word” sent by God -- “the light that shines in the darkness.” (vs 5) Do you see it? Word and light.

So read these New Testament descriptors in light of Psalm 119:105 (pun intended) -- for Jesus is the fulfillment of the ideas presented in the poem -- the Word and the light.

Jesus is your word -- a lamp before your feet and the light of the world for your journey.

Kids get excited when you give them a flashlight. The psalmist got excited because he had access to the written Word of God -- his plan and agenda expressed in precepts -- directions -- righteous rules, promises, instructions, statutes, torah...

What he had was limited -- a kind of foreshadowing of what was to come when the Word became flesh and lived among us -- but he was totally psyched about God’s Word.

How much more so for us --
  • we not only have the written Word of God in scripture... 
  • We not only hear the Word proclaimed in the preaching... 
  • But we are also in-person-witnesses of the Word -- the light of the world that transforms every person and situation where it is allowed to shine.
And I want to invite you to invite the light of the world -- God’s living Word -- into your life as the transforming GPS that will keep you moving in the direction and along the path that he has set out for you.

Indeed, it was a dark and stormy night... but we’re not afraid because the good news is that “Your word is a lamp before my feet and a light for my journey.” ~ Psalm 119:105

Let’s pray --
We have again heard your Word, Lord -- the good news of Jesus -- the Word who came to live among us -- to die for us so that we might be forgiven of all our mis-steps -- and who as the light of the world conquered death and set us on a new path for a new life.

Some here might be coming to the realization of this reality for the first time this morning. Lord, take them along the next step as they turn to you, confess their failures, and receive you into their lives. Keep them close to you and faithful so that they might experience the light for their life journey with you. Amen.
Let's join together in the affirmation of faith which is from John 1 --
Before the world began, the Word was there. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was there with God in the beginning.  Everything was made through him, and nothing was made without him.  In him there was life, and that life was a light for the people of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not defeated it. ~ John 1:1-5 (ERV)
Unless otherwise noted all scripture is quoted from the Common English Bible (CEB), ©2011 by Common English Bible.

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