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“Loving God for ‘Nothing’ ”
Sermon on Psalm 73
In the psalm we just read faith itself seems to be hanging in the balance. We began this sermon series with the self-assured confidence of Psalm 1: that psalm ends with the words “The LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” The first verse of Psalm 73 almost echoes this: “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.” But then the poet of Psalm 73 begins to question this received wisdom. His faith tells him that God is “good to the upright,” but his experience is telling him something different.
The psalmist looks around and sees that the “wicked” and the “arrogant” are actually doing pretty well. Our translation tells us that they are prosperous, but the Hebrew says even more: that they are fulfilled and at peace. They are healthy and free of all pain; they are “not plagued like other people.” And instead of being grateful for being favored with health, wealth, and freedom from care, they are haughty and obnoxious. They think they have earned their good fortune. They feel superior to other people, and other people accept their self-evaluation: they “turn and praise them.”
It’s an old problem, isn’t it? We start noticing this unfairness in the way of things at a young age: the classroom bullies who wage Facebook campaigns against their targets so that teachers and other adults never detect what they’re doing; the exam cheaters who never get caught; the rich kids who flaunt their wealth by making demeaning remarks about the clothes or cars or houses of the not-so-wealthy kids. As children and teenagers we believe that these favored kids will have their day of reckoning, but sometimes we meet them as adults and see that they are just grown-up versions of their old selves – they are still sleek and prosperous and seemingly trouble-free. “The world is unfair,” we conclude, and perhaps – more dangerously – “Why bother to do the right thing?” Like the psalmist, we may say “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” Maybe God is not so good to God’s people after all.
These are the thoughts that are plaguing the psalmist as he surveys the moral landscape. What he realizes only later, when he goes “into the sanctuary of God” and finds peace, is that he was in moral and spiritual danger himself. His “feet had almost stumbled,” he writes; he had nearly slipped into a permanent state of envy, bitterness, resentment, and estrangement from God. He has had a close call.
The question is, what was it about going into the sanctuary that changed his mind? In the sanctuary his perplexity was changed to the certainty of faith. He has tried to figure out for himself why life seems so unfair; he thinks it through over and over again, but comes to no satisfactory conclusion. It is only when he goes into the sanctuary of God that he realizes he has been asking the wrong questions.
Psalm 73 is in some ways a poetic meditation on the theological problem posed by the book of Job. We spent one Sunday last summer considering the book of Job; if you remember that or are already familiar with that book, you’ll remember that a character called the “Adversary,” someone who acts more or less like God’s District Attorney, makes a wager with God on the faithfulness of God’s beloved servant Job. Job, too, is “upright and pure of heart,” “blameless” in all his deeds. The question the Adversary puts to God is this: “Does Job fear God” – or love God – “for nothing?” In other words, if Job were not so blessed with health, wealth, and children, would he still be God’s loyal servant? God accepts the Adversary’s terms, and terrible calamities swiftly befall Job: his house is destroyed, his children are killed, and he is afflicted with hideous and painful sores all over his body. At first Job says all the things we hope he’ll say: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD.” After his health goes, though, he begins to protest. He wants to question God face-to-face about the unjust treatment he is receiving. Three so-called friends come to sit with him, and the four of them engage in long theological arguments that go nowhere. Job is not vindicated and his sufferings continue. Finally, God speaks to Job “out of a whirlwind” and takes Job on what is essentially a “whirlwind” tour of the whole created world, in all its vastness, wildness, and splendor. At the end, Job changes his mind about pressing his case with God. “I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust."
Job never gets an answer to his question, but after his encounter with God he doesn’t need an answer anymore. He realizes he was asking the wrong questions. He has changed his mind about God.
Our psalmist has also had an encounter with God that has caused him to change his mind. In the place of worship, a place of both memory and hope, the psalmist feels envy and bitterness fall away. He is no longer interested in the payoff for his good behavior. The schemers and pleasure-seekers can do what they will, but they’ve lost their power over his soul. It is enough for him to be near God: “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.” The “goodness” of God is not in the blessings God can confer, but in God’s own self. The psalmist, like Job, has learned to love God “for nothing.”
It can be helpful for us Christians to remember that our spiritual ancestors, the ancient Hebrews, worshiped and served God for thousands of years without any notion of being rewarded in an afterlife. That means that when they suffered persecution and injustice they couldn’t defer their hopes of God’s vindication beyond the grave. If they felt a disparity between faith and experience, they had to trust that whatever was happening to them, whatever chaos was going on around them, that somehow God was in that, too. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” That is loving God for “nothing.”
A couple of weeks ago we observed All Saints’ Day, the day the church has set aside to remember the faithful people who have gone before us, whose patient endurance has given us a model for our own lives. Some of them have been actual martyrs, people whose bravery and fortitude were a public witness to the faith they professed. Most of our models, though, are those innumerable ordinary saints who struggle and suffer the afflictions that go along with being human – serious illnesses, devastating losses, personal failures, sorrow and grief – and still come to the conclusion that a life lived in the presence of God, however difficult, is worth it. They are the “pure in heart” of the Beatitudes, the people Jesus was thinking of when he called them “blessed.” Those who persevere in faith, who still perceive God’s goodness when they have run out of luck, are models for all of us. They remind us that we are not left alone and defenseless in our times of affliction, because for a Christian affliction – the sign of the cross of Christ -- is accompanied by consolation.
It takes imagination to see the goodness of God when life seems to be dealing you a bad hand. It takes a certain kind of faithful imagination to see blessing in what looks to most people like a curse. But it is also a choice to exercise this kind of imagination: we can choose to focus on the unfairness of life or we can choose to focus on the signs of God’s goodness. What a blessing it is to be able to say with the psalmist:
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Manassas Presbyterian Church
November 18, 2018