[A sermon based on Psalm 27 for the Second Sunday in Lent]
The early 17th century scientist Galileo held, contrary to the scientific and religious beliefs of his day, that the earth orbited the sun rather than the other way around. He was forced by the Roman Catholic powers to recant his belief. According to a long-held legend, at some point following that recanting the great scientist muttered, “But it does move,” meaning that regardless of what anyone said, the Earth did in fact orbit the sun. Galileo was right, of course, because facts are facts. Facts are facts no matter what opinions are; facts are facts no matter what appearances are. Anybody can see that the sun comes up in the morning and sets in the evening—only it doesn’t. Anybody with any sense would believe that the Earth is the center of the solar system—only it isn’t.
Psalm 27 opens with some of the surest of all sure facts: “The LORD is my light and my salvation” and “The LORD is the stronghold of my life” along with two strong related assertions in question form: “whom shall I fear?” and “of whom shall I be afraid?”
One fact is the fact of the Lord. The Lord is. God is the fact on which all else is based. Moreover, the God who is has revealed God’s self to be a God whose most defining characteristic is love, an assertion that seems to go beyond the affirmation of the Psalm—but not really, because of the second fact.
That second fact is that the Lord is the source of our help. The psalmist uses three terms to name God as our help. First, the Lord is our light; when we are beset by spiritual, emotional, and other kinds of personal darkness, the Lord dispels it. Second, the Lord is our salvation; when we are lost and wandering, the Lord finds us, rescues us, and puts on the safe way. Third, the Lord is our stronghold; when we are under attack, the Lord provides shelter, refuge, and protection for us.
A third fact is that we can have great trust in the Lord. That fact is found in the assertions “whom shall I fear?” and “of whom shall I be afraid?” Because God is and because God is the source of our help, we don’t have to be afraid.
Those are the facts regardless of opinions and appearances to the contrary.
And that’s good news, because there is a lot of which to be afraid, most of which can be summarized in the word “people.” Now, to be fair and honest, we are often our own worst enemy. In the words of that great Okefenokee philosopher Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” During Lent we spend time thinking about the danger we can be to ourselves and about the grace of God that delivers us from our own foolishness and meanness. But in this psalm the writer talks about the threats that come from the foolishness and meanness of other people, whom he calls “evildoers,” “adversaries,” “foes” (v. 2), and “enemies” (v. 11).
When the psalmist gets specific about the danger these adversaries pose, he says “false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence” (v. 12). In other words, people were threatening him with words.
Make no mistake: words can injure badly. Many if not most of us carry with us the echoes of some unkind or untrue words that someone said about us along the way, words they spoke out of their own weakness or to further their own agenda. In these days of social media it is way too easy for someone to be maligned without substantiation; it is also way too easy to pile on someone through cyber-bullying. The point is that words can do real damage to a person.
For example, the words of others can be a great threat to our reputation even if we are innocent. You may have heard the news last week that Atlanta has been invited to consider becoming a contender to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. When I heard that, my mind naturally went back to the 1996 Olympics and then to the Olympic Park bombing to which Eric Rudolph, who had also bombed an abortion clinic in Birmingham, eventually pled guilty. But many of you will remember with me the name of Richard Jewell, the security guard who spotted the backpack that contained the bomb, alerted police, and moved people away from it, likely saving many lives. Jewell became a suspect and was considered such for months; his name was in the news in that negative way for a long time, even though he had nothing to do with the bombing and in fact was a hero. Richard Jewell died, by the way, in 2007 at the age of 44.
Such threats—threats posed to us by the hurtful words of others—cannot harm the person who trusts in God, the psalmist declares.
But it sure does seem like it sometimes. The threat sure does seem mighty real sometimes. It sure does seem like God has abandoned us to our adversaries sometimes as they speak against us with seeming impunity. And the psalmist affirms those truths, too: “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me. … Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence” (vv. 7-9a, 12).
We all know that history and fiction are filled with stories of impregnable fortifications that fell. We wonder if the onslaught of words might bring us down, if someone’s efforts to take verbal bites out of us might finally lead to our being devoured.
The Psalmist believes in the end, though, despite his doubts along the way, that God will deliver him. He says, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (v. 13). While it is tempting to us to interpret that line in light of the reality of heaven, the psalmist mean that he would see the goodness of the Lord in this life. God loves us and God will help us in this life.
When I know that I am under attack, I live in the belief that God will deliver me. When we know that we are under attack, let us live in the belief that God will deliver us.
God is always reaching out to envelop us in God’s strong arms. Those arms are long and they will reach us. They are worth waiting for …