Last week found me living the bachelor life.
My wife and sons were out at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake to attend Synod School, the annual educational and fellowship gathering of Midwest Presbyterians.
Alone at home, I felt no need to prepare any meals from scratch. The refrigerator held scads of leftovers, so I figured I’d be all set food-wise. But by midweek, I was running low on milk and eggs, and the car needed some gas, so I cruised over to KwikStar to provision myself for the remaining short duration of my bachelorhood.
After filling the car’s tank with fuel, I went inside KwikStar to pick up my milk and eggs. Those two items really were all I needed. But then, as I stood in line waiting for my turn with the cashier, there to the right they sat: Cranberry, white chocolate chip cookies, a dozen of them, neatly stacked in two piles inside a plastic flip-top container. And they were calling my name!
A little treat would be nice, I thought to myself. By that point in the week, I was starting to miss my family, and what better way to lift my spirits than a cranberry, white chocolate chip cookie. I figured I’d just nibble away at one or two cookies and save the rest as a kind of welcome home gift for my family.
Ya, well, that didn’t happen.
Much to my enduring shame, those dozen cranberry, white chocolate chip cookies disappeared after a couple nights of binge-watching movies on Netflex, and the plastic flip-top container is nestled somewhere in the recycling bin. And we’re out of milk again.
As I went to bed those two nights, having had more than my fill of cranberry, white chocolate chip cookies, the distant rumblings of tummy aches were poking over the horizon, which likely accounts for the sour stomachs that oh-so-ungraciously provided o-dark-thirty wake-up calls a couple mornings last week.
My embarrassing nights of bakery debauchery seem part and parcel of humanity’s never-ending quest to find something that satisfies and provides meaning in life.
It’s as if we’re endlessly plagued with this nagging feeling that our lives are lacking something. We sense within ourselves a longing and a hunger for something, but we’re never quite sure exactly what that something is.
So, we go searching. And searching. And like the lyrics to Mickey Gilley’s old country classic, we usually end up “looking for love in all the wrong places.” And once in all those wrong places, we’re never shy about savoring thing after thing in hopes that something will scratch the itch of our finicky, listless, prone-to-wander hearts.
But the truth is, nothing ever does truly satisfy. Things like food, work, sex, status, possessions, or thrill-seeking are not what give shape, purpose, direction, and meaning to our lives. Yet, some people – maybe many of us – conclude that the problem is not in the “thing” itself but in the fact that we currently don’t possess the “thing” in sufficiently satisfying and life-affirming quantities.
One or two cranberry, white chocolate chip cookies taste pretty darn good, so naturally, a dozen cranberry, white chocolate chip cookies will be even better, and life will be great. So, we gorge ourselves on the excesses of life hoping they’ll satisfy our ravenous appetites. But they don’t.
Christian writer Ravi Zaccharias describes the emptiness that overtakes us during our overindulgent wandering: “The loneliest moment in life,” he writes, “is when you experience that which you thought would deliver the ultimate, and it has let you down.” Sixteen-or-so centuries earlier, St. Augustine echoed the same phenomenon with these words: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
And long before St. Augustine, the author of this morning’s Scripture lesson declared that finding meaning and satisfaction in earthly living is solely and completely centered in seeking and serving God.
Listen, now, for the Word of the Lord in Psalm 63. But let me issue a caution: The first eight verses – the parts about seeking and serving God – slide down the gullet like sweet honey. But the last three verses of this expressive poem make a hard turn that just might sour your stomach.
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So, I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So, I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals. But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped. (Psalm 63:1-11)
Imagine sitting down around the table for a big holiday meal with your family.
The patriarch or matriarch takes his or her place at the head of the table and silences the conversation with an invitation to bow heads and say grace.
“Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we receive from thy bounty. Bless this food to our use and us in your service. And slaughter all our enemies. Amen.”
You’d likely be able to hear a pin drop in the stunned silence that would follow, as all heads turn to the head of the table to try and figure out why grandpa or grandma concluded such a lovely prayer about God’s goodness and provision with a request for God to wipe out the opposition.
That’s the effect that Psalm 63 has on its listeners. This otherwise lilting poem that expresses both utter longing for God and complete satisfaction in communing with God wraps up with definitely less-than-poetic statements about having one’s enemies smitten from the face of the earth.
On one hand, it’s a real head-scratcher as to why this psalm ends in what at first blush sounds like some very un-God-like terms. It’s surely a whole lot neater and tidier to hopscotch over such harsh biblical talk.
But here’s the thing: The closer you get to God, the more you begin to sense God’s holiness. And the more you sense the glory of God’s holiness, the more you see how tawdry and crude our fallen world is by comparison.
So, when you conveniently skip over the parts of the Bible that mention God’s judgment on sin and brokenness – or the need for God to judge evil and those who perpetrate it, the end result is reduction in the shining splendor of God’s grace.
Grace shines all-the-more brightly when we truly understand what sinful people like you and me would otherwise deserve, all things being equal.
No one likes pondering thoughts of God’s judgment and punishment of evil. But something of the holiness and righteousness of God gets lost in the bargain if and when we ignore the reality of God’s wrath against evil. And if we let that happen, the steadfast love of God that saves us by grace and grace alone woefully becomes a little less amazing.
Those who willfully stray far away from God should expect some kind of response from heaven’s throne. To try and tap dance around the idea that a holy God of power and glory will just let evil slide on by without a reckoning just ain’t right. We cannot avert our eyes forever and a day from the prospect of judgment, from the surety of wrongs being righted, from the reality of injustice being addressed. If we let that vision of God’s Kingdom fade away, then we effectively jettison our hope that God will, in the end, bring justice to our living in the final righting of every wrong.
As Christians, the Spirit of Jesus inspires us to hold good hope for all, fully recognizing that any “evil” people we might name need no more or no less of Christ’s saving blood and God’s amazing grace than we do. We wish for all to be saved. We do hope that those who’ve left the fold return to Jesus, so that God’s response to wickedness and injustice can be seen by these people also as having ultimately fallen upon Jesus alone.
Because it was the Cross that carried the full weight of God’s justice and righteousness, and it furthermore was the Cross upon which the necessary judgment on evil fell. Evil and wickedness, and those who sin high-handedly, cannot be winked at or waved away lightly. Indeed, we need to know about the reality of judgment in order to savor God’s grace the way it deserves to be relished. And when we recognize that we ourselves are saved by that very same grace, we desire it to wash upon all others, too – even those who wish us harm and do us wrong.
Pondering these dimmer realities of faith – acknowledging the senses in which all of us have been, and to some extent still are, enemies of God – maintains the bubbling effervescence of grace as the intoxicating elixir of divine love that it really and truly is. That’s what it means to repent daily, to unlearn continually the patterns of sin and the rhythms of evil, as we seek to become holy people, forgiven of sin and forgiving those who sin against us.
In the end, just as the psalmist declares, when God is all you have, you have no need to search for anyone or anything else.
Thanks be to God!
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021. It is the seventh in his series “Summer in the Psalms.” Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee, Gregory Jones, J. Clinton McCann Jr., St. Augustine of Hippo, and Ravi Zaccharias inform the message.