It’s mighty tempting to forget that God rules the world and we do not.
Instead of praising God and giving thanks to the Lord for the merciful, loving order that he brings to Creation, human inclination – more often than not – is to pat ourselves on the back for being so great, and to trust first and foremost in ourselves and our own wits, and to grab for ourselves all we can when opportunity presents itself, and to trample over anyone or anything that stands in our way – include maybe even the Lord himself!
But, like pressing a reset button, this morning’s Scripture lesson in our “Summer in the Psalms” series reshuffles the deck of relationship between heaven and earth.
Psalm 33 deals out two trump cards: A call to humility, and an invitation to trust in God rather than human ability, power or wisdom. Those seemingly authoritative worldly institutions in which too many of us place too much trust – politicians, armies, weapons, governments and corporations – are all merely alluring-but-impotent mirages that disappear in light of God’s authority and control over all the world.
The astounding good news of Psalm 33 is this: The real power that’s the driving force of the universe, human history, and personal existence is the steadfast love of God filling the earth. The ultimate reality and authority in all of Creation is love, which – as the Cross stands in testimony – is made perfect in weakness.
Even so, you and I aren’t allowed to just sit back and watch God’s reign unfold. We all play active roles in God’s salvation drama, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But, for now, harness the power of the Holy Spirit and listen for the Word of the Lord in Psalm 33.
Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright.
Praise the LORD with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
For the word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth obey the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.
The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind.
From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth – he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.
A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear obey, on those who hope in his steadfast love, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield.
Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
Indeed, God looms large and in charge over the world, and God wraps everything tightly in love. Period. Full stop. End of sentence.
Yet, the spot where the rubber of that truth meets the road of daily living points to a kind of balancing act – a veritable tightrope walk that all believers gingerly tread every day.
On the one hand, yes, our ultimate trust is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.
But on the other hand, it’s foolish to believe that we can rest on our laurels and not have to do a blessed thing so long as we trust in God for all good things.
Holding fast to faith does not mean kicking back, doing nothing, trusting God, and thinking all will be well. If so, then why try to get a good education? Why try to hone skills that can land you a good job? Why take out insurance on your house? Why save for retirement?
Why do any of that?
Because blessing often comes in the form of opportunity, provision in the form of preparedness, protection in the form of hospitality, and we need eyes fully trained on the hope of God’s promises to recognize when God rewards the fullness of our trust with the reality of holy openings that create way for God’s loving care to blossom and flourish.
Think in terms of the well-told story of a man who finds himself in dire straits: Floodwaters are rising all around his home. The man cries to God for help as he moves from his home’s first floor to the second to escape the rising water. He cries out again as the water keeps rising, and he flees to the attic, and eventually all the way out to his rooftop.
Then someone cruises by in a boat and offers to ferry the man to safety. But the man refuses: “No, thanks. I’m OK. God will take care of me!”
A helicopter flies overhead and lowers a ladder to the man, but he waves off the arial help: “No, thanks. I’m OK. God will take care of me!”
Later, as the floodwaters begin to carry him to his death, the man lets out a final cry to God: “Why didn’t you help me, Lord?” And from the heavens comes God’s reply: “I sent you a boat and a helicopter! What more did you expect?”
Clearly, this hapless man placed his trust in the right place but let that trust blind him to the reality of God’s help in the answer to his frantic prayers.
That’s where this balancing act on the tightrope of faith gets tricky.
We do, for sure, need to work hard to make our livings. We do need to take out insurance policies and build retirement portfolios. We do need to take precautions to keep ourselves healthy. We do need to pursue all prudent measures to make our homes secure of burglars and our community safe of crime. Some of that, in fact, reflects good stewardship.
But as we do all that, if we fixate only on those outward things, we’ll fail to make the spiritual connection that, if God is not our ultimate security – if God is not in, through, under and behind all of that outward activity and whatnot, then ultimately whatever we do is all finally futile, fragile, and one day fruitless.
Every now and then, a sports reporter will approach an athlete and start the interview with a compliment about the athlete’s sunning performance on the field, court or course. And it can be a little off-putting when the athlete shrugs off the compliment, points to the sky, and says, “It’s not me. It’s ALL God!” It would be almost as jarring if the athlete said, “Yes, I know. I am truly great, aren’t I?”
Like the man caught up by floodwaters, surely there’s some middle ground here.
Yes, a Christian athlete is right to locate God as the ultimate source of his or her athletic gifts and talents. But the athlete still must do her or his part to nurture those gifts and talents, to hone and refine them through a lifetime of practice and discipline.
So, maybe, like a lot of things these days, it’s not either/or but both/and – both all God and all athlete, or at least both all God and a good measure of athlete. Both entities – divine and human – are proper and worthy recipients of congratulations, gratitude and praise. The athlete cannot do much without God’s gifting, but God cannot do much to make an athlete excel if he or she refuses to get off the couch and put in the effort to develop the core gifts that God has given.
Psalm 33 nails it: Our ultimate hope and security do come from God. It’s foolish and faithless to believe otherwise.
At the same time, we would be equally foolish and faithless to not see how God works through the ordinary things of life, too, and through our efforts, and through our works. Absent that understanding, it’s really easy to fall off the tightrope to the right or to the left.
One final example: When the famed cellist Pablo Casals was around 90 years old, he still practiced the cello for hours each day. By that age and after his storied musical career, Casals surely had nothing left to prove. So one day someone asked him, “Why do you still practice so much?” “Because,” Casals replied, “I think I’m getting a little better.”
A great gift from God is no excuse to slack off and avoid hard work. And for believers, faith and trust in a great giving and loving God are no excuses to not also recognize that we still have much to do in our lives to cooperate with God in caring, protecting and nurturing our bodies, minds and spirits, and in loving, welcoming and serving friend, neighbor and stranger.
So, no, don’t put your trust in earthly things. But neither should you fail to shore up things on earth. That’s not always easy, and what to do isn’t always obvious. But there’s always room to get a little better. And, by grace, one of the Holy Spirit’s many jobs in our lives is to do just that – by helping you and me keep our balance on the tightrope walk of life.
Ancient words, ever true!
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, July 4, 2021. It is the fourth in his series “Summer in the Psalms.” Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee and J. Clinton McCann Jr. inform the message.