In January of 2004, the carcass of a dead, 56-foot-long whale washed up on a beach along the southwestern coast of Taiwan.
The decaying remains lay on the sand for two weeks until authorities finally decided to haul the dead whale to a lab for an autopsy. According to news reports, it took 50 workers and three heavy-duty cranes some 13 hours to hoist the 66-ton goliath onto a flatbed trailer. Once the trailer began moving, curious townsfolk poured into the streets to watch the jaw-dropping spectacle of a whale carcass inching its way through downtown.
And then it happened. As the trailer truck crawled along at a snail’s pace, with inquisitive onlookers lining both sides of the route, the whale exploded. That’s right, the carcass blew up!
In the belly of the beast, built-up gases given off by the whale’s decaying flesh, combined with the many bumps in the road, caused a messy eruption of epic proportion. Cars, buildings and people all got splattered with rotting whale innards. Traffic ground to a halt for hours, and the smell was almost unbearable.
It’s a safe bet no one got up that morning expecting to be covered in whale guts by high noon. But isn’t that just how life happens sometimes? You’re quietly going about your business, and then, a dead whale detonates not 20 feet in front of you. Or something else equally disgusting and repulsive blows up in your face. You don’t see it coming. You didn’t plan for it. And you certainly don’t welcome it.
Nevertheless, life oftentimes has an explosive way of suddenly changing course with little or no warning. And BOOM! You’re flung down a messy, rotten, stinking path, and you’re left feeling some combination of hurt, confusion, anger, and exhaustion, and you’re also asking lots of questions that have no quick-and-easy answers.
When life stinks and faith clashes with that reality, it surely isn’t easy holding fast to the belief that God is in your corner, on your side, and working for good. And as gut-wrenching emotions hit the fan, you’re left wondering where God is in the midst of the hardest, most painful moments of your days and the worst, most soul-crushing seasons of your life.
If you’ve ever had something seemingly so unfair happen to you that you simply cannot understand how a good and loving God could let it happen, then you need to sit awhile with Psalm 73, our Scripture lesson for this morning.
The writer feels like he’s getting a raw deal. He believes that God exists, and that God is good, and that God is in charge of all Creation. But the psalmist nevertheless is deeply troubled by a crisis of faith. He’s ready to walk away from God; he stands on the edge of throwing in the towel on belief, and he holds nothing back in airing his grievances.
Let these ancient words begin changing me and changing you by the power of the Holy Spirit:
Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth. Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them. And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning. If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms.
When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you. Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, to tell of all your works. (Psalm 73)
It’s an all-night rager of a pity-party that stirs up the psalmist’s crisis of faith.
And it begins – perhaps innocently enough – when he decides to check out how the ungodly are getting along in life.
It likely isn’t a conscious decision. Maybe he’s sitting at the doctor’s office one day and starts thumbing through a magazine that features photos of posh celebrity homes. Or maybe he does business with an ungodly proprietor who always seems to have the Midas touch. Or maybe he catches a glimpse of the town’s insipid, not-always-so-honest mayor tooling around in a flashy new car.
Whatever the reason, the psalmist starts paying attention, and his confusion grows over the apparent prosperity, fulfillment, and blessing enjoyed by the arrogant, the wicked, and the other sweaty ingrates who reject God. The psalmist looks at their lifestyles – the fancy cars, the designer clothing, the gilded mansions, and their high-falutin friends, and wonders why he, too, isn’t enjoying the best life ever.
Like many of us, the psalmist has been lured into the trap of loving the world and all the shiny baubles that clutter it up.
He loses concern for the sin of the successful and instead zeroes in on the success of the sinful. In simple terms, we call that envy – our tendency to compare ourselves with others in ways that leave us feeling deprived and short-changed, and thus we start wanting what others have. For the psalmist, envy pounds long and hard on his door, and he lets it in, and envy now colors everything he sees like an all-consuming fire. Here’s how he sees it:
“So, this is how life really works, eh?! These godless people, they live on easy street! They live longer, play harder, and get away with murder! They wear their cutthroat, power-hungry attitude like a badge of honor. They put themselves first and ignore God altogether. And they – not me – are the ones getting the biggest slices of the pie?!
“You can’t win for losing! You try to honor God, and stay humble, and do good, and guess what – you’ll have a tough, mediocre life. But live by lust, power, greed, and deceit, and you’ll become a celebrity. God is good to the pure in heart? Hah! I purified my heart and cleaned up my act all for naught.”
I don’t know about you, but I can relate to most all of that.
I sometimes wonder if it pays to be faithful and do the right thing, to love and serve God and neighbor, when it seems like I have to fight for every inch and every scrap. Corrupt politicians, evil dictators, and corporate raiders always seem to get off scot-free, and arrogant executives and godless celebrities get their own TV shows. Why is God blessing them more than God is blessing me?
My sin of envy is on full display.
But before I or any of us bails out on God, Psalm 73 invites you and me to sit with its author and learn from his experiences.
For starters, it’s OK to pour out your heart to God.
The psalmist takes his doubt and confusion to God in prayer – a brutally honest confession that’s addressed from the heart of its writer to the ears of the God he believes is ripping him off. He doesn’t pretend that everything is OK. He wrestles with the tension of holding onto God’s goodness while dealing the dark thoughts and visceral emotions filling his soul and spirit. And through it all, the psalmist keeps it real with God. “I’m so angry, God! I don’t understand what’s happening or why! I want some answers!”
There’s no record that God ever rebuffs the psalmist or anyone else for being brutally honest. God is big enough to handle your anger, your pain, and your questions. So go ahead, let ’er rip! Don’t keep those emotions cooped up inside. That only builds layers of resentment between you and God. Stored up anger vents itself in headaches, ulcers, bitterness, resentment, and outbursts of anger that all are disconnected from the real problem. So, go ahead: Lance the boil! God is willing to listen with compassionate and understanding ears.
It’s OK to pour out your heart to God, and second, think before you act.
Envy has so filled the psalmist’s heart that he’s fed up with godly living. He’s angry and disillusioned. Even so, he stops to consider the impact his next steps will have. He realizes that going public with his inner struggles and expressing his anger and cynicism in words likely will make him the devil’s tool for the ruin of God’s people.
Rash words and unfiltered actions almost always bring negative consequences that usually leave us wishing for a do-over. Our poorly chosen words and ill-conceived acts bring regret and heartache, because we don’t stop to consider the upshots of what we said or did. But the psalmist pauses to consider that his decisions will have ripple effects on others.
It’s OK to pour out your heart to God; think before you act, and third, change your perspective.
The psalmist’s inner conflict remains a heavy burden until he enters the sanctuary of God. Simply put: The psalmist goes to church! As long as he tries to reason his way out of his troubled perception apart from God, he’ll always be hitting his head against a brick wall. But in worship, the psalmist encounters God and God’s infinite perspective, and that changes everything. In the sanctuary, God – not the psalmist’s problems – becomes his focus. In God’s sanctuary, the heart of worship reminds the psalmist of God’s intentions to dole out justice in God’s good time.
Sure, the godless prosper in their sin – for a time, perhaps from a human perspective for a lifetime. But from the perspective of eternity, from the point of view in worship, theirs is a quick ride to the bottom. God completely controls their destiny, and in the end, things likely aren’t going to turn out so well for those who persistently oppose God and God’s intent without remorse or repentance.
When he joins the congregation of God’s people and becomes one with that company of people living the grand adventure as God intends, the psalmist regains his bearings and learns how to live well and to die well. Not all his questions are answered. But at least he’s again headed in the right direction and finds strength for his next steps with God.
It’s OK to pour out your heart to God; think before you act; change your perspective, and finally, never forget that God’s presence is all the goodness you really and truly need.
God’s presence with you and me is all that matters. It means that we are loved all the time and for all eternity. We can be still; we can stop striving, and we can stop fretting about what our neighbor has and we don’t. God’s presence by the Holy Spirit of Christ means comfort and security in all our troubles.
Strange as it sounds, it is possible, at the same time, to feel sorrow and joy, doubt and confidence, anxiety and peace. Those are the paradoxes of living life in the flesh on this earth. Peace and joy in the Lord are not just fleeting emotions. They are deeply rooted confidence in the goodness and love of God and in God’s redeeming and saving purposes for us and the world.
In the end, to be blessed is to be more than happy, more than lucky, more than having all we want. Being blessed means that we are loved and accepted by God and we enjoy God’s favor in this world and the next. It means that our souls are connected to Jesus – the Source of Living Water that allows them to thrive in any and all circumstances, good and especially bad. So, even when you have the feeling that your flesh and heart are failing, and your faith and belief are waning, never forget what the psalmist discovers: “God is the strength of your heart and your portion forever.”
We walk by faith when we look to God to share all our concerns and worries, trusting that God cares for us. And nothing will ever change that – not even being covered in the guts and gore of exploding whales or whatever else bursts upon us from a dead, lifeless, and decaying world.
Ancient words, ever true.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, June 20, 2021. It is the third in his series “Summer in the Psalms.” Scholarship, commentary and reflection by J. Clinton McCann Jr. and Lloyd Stilley inform the message.