January 30, 2022

Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.

Psalm 71:3

The following story was told by Katie Hines-Shah, as published in the Christian Century: “My son, about four years old, asked me, “Mama, what do you want to be when you grow up?”  It was a question he was used to hearing as a preschooler, and he tempered his answers to his audience. He wanted to be a fireman when he went to the station down the block, a gardener when the maintenance crew came by, a basketball player as we passed the teens at the park. I was used to hearing this question too, although my answer didn’t change as often as his. Over the preceding years I had explained to countless relatives, committees, and bishops that I really wanted to be ordained.  Driving down the road that day a few years into my first call, I answered my son: “When I grow up I think I’ll still be a pastor.”  From the backseat came an exasperated sigh. “No Mom, I meant, What important job do you want?” Jesus was right. No prophet is accepted in his own hometown. Or even in her own car.”

In these weeks of Epiphany, we are asking the question, “Where can my hunger for hope be fulfilled?”  Last week, we discussed the need for Scripture.  We are privileged to have the Scripture in our churches and our homes; we need to use that privilege and seek to know the Lord through its pages.  I read a very powerful statement on Facebook about the word of God: “If you are a Christian and you do not know the word of God, you are a soldier without a sword.”  We are needing that sword this very day to fight against the lies, conspiracies, fear, and anything else that the world is trying to make us believe that is contrary to the nature of God.  Devote yourself to Scripture; in the pages of the Bible, we find the true source of hope.  It is never the world; that is what our tempters want us to believe.  Another way that we find hope is by being faithful to our calling and through that, being faithful to God.  Being faithful is this week’s focus.

Being faithful means not turning to a different direction when things turn sour.  It is not running away when things start to become stressful.  Faithful means being loyal and steadfast.  No matter what people say or do, we are to remain loyal and steadfast.  When Jesus proclaimed the word in Capernaum at the synagogue, and they wanted to drive him off the cliff, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).  He did not let the reaction of one group of people halt his entire ministry.  He knew that things would be difficult, but that he must do what God had called him to anyway.  He did not retreat and do nothing.  He did not let fear of retaliation, disapproval, or even fear for his life stop him from following his path as ordained by God.  Like him, we cannot let that get in our way either.  If it gets in our way, it is getting in God’s way.

I served as a chaplain at Marion General Hospital for six months.  I had many wonderful visits, but I had my fair share of other types of visits as well.  On one particular visit, I was preparing myself to enter the room of a Jehovah’s Witness patient.  I was not quite sure what to expect, but I decided to approach the patient like any other, letting them know who I was and what I was there for.  It was my first engagement with a Jehovah’s witness, but what could go wrong?  Before I had the words “I am a chaplain…” he was pointing his fingers at me and basically yelling for me to get out of the room at once, for he did not associate with my kind.  I noted in vain that I was not there to try to convert him to anything and that the chaplains are here for everyone regardless of religion, not representing any particular denomination, but he would not have it, so I left.  It was hard to turn right around to the next patient after that, so I decided to spend time charting to allow myself to de-escalate.  But I knew that being faithful would mean being able to move forward and not worry about the people who refuse my offer for conversation.  God would give me the opportunity to speak to many other appreciative patients that day.  If we let hurtful words and confrontation get in our way too long, we are actually letting it get in God’s way who wants to get back to speaking through us.  This is why we need to remain faithful through whatever we face; we never want God to be hindered through our own selves being sidelined.

I am confident that Moses felt hindered by the way people treated him.  Paul most likely did as well.  Moses dealt with many complaining Israelites: “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.  The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Eygpt!  There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death’” (Exodus 16:2-3).  And while Moses dealt with grumbling, with people falsely assuming that he is trying to starve the people, Paul dealt with direct opposition too, to the point that he was thrown into prison on multiple occasions.  Remember how Jesus told the disciples: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).  Thus, Jesus tells us directly that we will face opposition as long as we are on this world.  Moses did not have these words of Jesus, but he had the encouragement of God.  Paul certainly had these words for guidance.  And we do too.  The first takeaway, then, is that being faithful to our call as Christians means going against and walking through the opposition of the world.  Second, by going against and walking through this opposition, we are not letting our opponents get in the way of God.  We were not told that this decision would be easy at all.  We were told the very opposite.  It is a hard path to walk.  That is the very reason that we were also sent an Advocate, to intercede for us and on behalf of us when we need it most (John 14:26).

We affirm now that we are faithful when we come to God, and not to someone or something else, when we are facing trouble.  But if the hope that we show in turning to God does not have anything to show for it – if we hope in God but constantly let those hopes become dashed – it will not be a very good way to find hope.  In fact, it will have exactly the opposite effect.  In order for our faithfulness to God to be soul-sustaining, then, in addition to being God-fulfilling, fulfilling God’s purposes, we must recognize a couple key attributes about God.

First, God believes in you even when you do not believe in yourself.  When Jeremiah responded to God calling him, “Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy, “God proved to him that God would give him what he needed to fill the role: “Now I have put my words in your mouth; see, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms” (Jeremiah 1:6, 9).  If you recall, God did the same thing for Moses centuries earlier when Moses lacked the words and ability on his own. God can use and does use any and every one of us, even when we do not think that we are capable.  We only have to respond by accepting what the Lord is trying to give us, and by using the talents that the Lord has blessed us with to reach and inspire others.

Second, God is our rescuer.  If and when we place our trust in God, God will be able to rescue us from whatever is of the world that is eating away at us.  Psalm 71 offers God as a place of refuge, a rock, and the deliverer from the hand of the wicked.  We enable God to protect us when we turn back to God for that protection.  Being faithful gives us hope because without constantly seeking God, God may be able to say when we reach the pearly gates, “I do not know you.”  When we do constantly renew our trust in God, even despite great turmoil, we are offered the only sustaining source of hope that we can ever find in this life.

A third attribute about God that causes our faithfulness to beget hope is God’s ultimate will.  God has already won the battle between good and evil; we have to let him win the battle between good and evil in our own lives.  Once we allow it to overwhelm us, the force of good will overcome the influence of any of the bad.  Further, God’s ultimate will is to redeem all of creation, so that they may exist happily ever after with God in heaven.

Believe in the God who believes in you.  Believe in the God who rescues you from despair and hopelessness.  Believe in the God who is working ultimate good and justice for the end of time.  This is what we are being faithful to when we are faithful to God.  We are faithful despite the opposition that we face because we believe in this benevolent God.  We are faithful despite the opposition so that nothing gets in God’s way.

Why did the people want to drive Jesus out of his own hometown?  The actual reason is because his teaching was contrary to what they had known.  Even though Isaiah 3:6 noted that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” the idea that people other than the Jews would see this salvation was hypocrisy to them.  Joni S. Sanken, professor of preaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, notes, “Jesus’ mission has only begun, but he has boldly revealed himself as one at odds with his religious community” (NP C.1.100).  There will be self-identified Christians who will tell you that you are doing it wrong; you do not have to listen to them.  God is the true source of direction; not other people around you.

Our society often does not empower the youth.  For generations, youth have been told, you do not have enough experience.  I too have been told on a number of occasions that I will understand when I have more experience, or that I still have a lot to learn about being a good Christian.  Actually, those are both true.  Yet the message that we hear from Jeremiah is that God empowers whoever God wants to, whatever our age, and whatever our experience.  God tells us too, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1:5).  Yes, you can be a vessel for God’s glory.  Yes, God can and is using you.  Help God’s reach to grow.  Pray as the Psalmist did.  When Jesus returns, whenever that might be, it will not matter who we say we are.  What will matter is if we are in right relationship with God.  “Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.  Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.  For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.  Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.  My praise is continually of you” (Psalm 71:3-6).  Part of being faithful is to pray.  Pray regularly.  Talk to God.  Make Psalm 71 your own prayer.  Show God your commitment to God’s cause.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Jeremiah 1:4-10
1:4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
1:6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
1:7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.
1:8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
1:9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.
1:10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Psalm 71:1-6
71:1 In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.
71:2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me.
71:3 Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
71:4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.
71:5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
71:6 Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.

Luke 4:21-30
4:21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
4:22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
4:23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'”
4:24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.
4:25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;
4:26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.
4:27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
4:28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.
4:29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
4:30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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