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Weak Knees and Stumbling Feet

March 30, 2008

Psalm 121; Jude 1:24-25

Several years ago right before the 11:00 A.M. service, I was speaking to people as I often do. I walked over and spoke to Ned and Betty Hammond, and Ned handed me something that was rolled very tightly and secured with rubber bands. It clearly was a catalogue, but he was quite secretive about handing it to me. He shoved it into my hand and said, “I thought you might enjoy this.” I honestly wondered if Ned was giving me a Victoria’s Secret catalogue because of his secretive manner. I waited until I returned to my office to unwrap it. Once I removed the rubber bands, I saw that Ned had given me a catalog of walking canes.

A note taped on the front of the catalog read, “Pride goeth before a fall,” a quote from Proverbs 16:18. That passage was so appropriate for a walking cane catalog, but I could not imagine the need for such a catalog. I thumbed through it, amazed at the variety of canes available. It is evidence that falling is very much an issue in our society. We have all seen and heard many jokes about the commercial where a senior adult calls out, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” If you are a viewer of Saturday Night Live, you have seen many jokes about people falling. In fact, Chevy Chase made a career out of mocking former President Gerald Ford and his propensity to stumble and fall.

Falling is not always a joke. We read Scriptures and understand from the book of I Samuel that Eli’s fall was a tragedy. When the old priest Eli fell over backwards, broke his neck, and died, no one was laughing. Scripture says he was overweight and advanced in years, but the reason for his fall seems to have nothing to do with his physical stature or his age. Eli fell over backwards because word came to him that the Ark of the Covenant had been stolen by the Philistines, the arch enemy of the people of Israel. He was shocked, stunned, over the theft. You remember that the Ark was an ornate box, gilded or covered with gold. It was thought that God had found His seat on that box. When the people of Israel went into battle, they carried that box, believing that God’s invisible presence was accompanying them into battle. That Ark gave them the assurance of protection. The Scripture says a child soon born after Eli’s death was named Ichabod, which has the Hebrew meaning, “the glory of the Lord has departed.” Falling may not be funny at all.

Early last night, I visited with two of our members in an assisted living facility. Both now are confined to wheelchairs because they have suffered physical harm from falling. Many of you realize that we are in an aging society. I might have some good news for you though. Last year, the Hallmark greeting card company sold 85,000 cards, sending the well wishes “Happy 100th Birthday!” Reaching 100 years of age is quite a milestone. My dad, who is eighty-seven, reads the obituaries regularly and says that it is rare for anybody listed there to die at the age of 100 years. His conclusion is that if you make it to 100, you have it made. I am encouraging him to go for it.

Many, many people in this country are older than sixty-five years of age. I learned just last week that one-third of those who are sixty-five and older will suffer a fall during this coming year. Many of those injuries immobilize people for a week, several days, and sometimes much longer than that. It is the reason we have rails on the hall of our senior adult classes. It is the reason a catalog of walking canes is available. People need the stability. They may choose to use a walking cane. If you ask my dad where his cane is, he will tell you, “I always have it with me.” You probably will not see it, however, because he keeps it in the trunk of his car. I am not sure how much help that cane is providing.

Falling can happen to anyone. Isaiah says, “Even youths shall faint and be weary and young men shall fall exhausted.” Young people fall, too. A story in the book of Acts tells about a young man who was sitting in a window, listening to a sermon by the apostle Paul. He fell asleep and tumbled out of the window. The apostle Paul had to interrupt his sermon in order to revive the man who had fallen. This incident is probably more of a commentary on Paul’s preaching than it is on the sleep deprivation of the young man.

I had a conversation over lunch on Thursday with a group of clergy. Several of them agreed that the way a person speaks and the way a person writes are not necessarily equally good. We discussed some very prominent writers whom we had heard speak. Many are not good speakers. A difference is apparent between the use of language when speaking and its use when writing. This is the reason Paul said that people did not regard his sermons very highly, but they considered his writing to be very strong. Writing needs few adverbs and conjunctions. Paul does not necessarily follow that advice. His words seem to flow like water over a waterfall. Apparently, his preaching was not nearly as strong as some of his contemporaries, as for example Simon Peter.

Solomon had decided to build a beautiful temple on Mount Moriah because he felt that God should not ride around on a box, on the Ark of the Covenant. He felt God needed a permanent place to dwell, so he built God’s house, a holy temple, on a holy hill, located in the heart of Jerusalem. Consider the contrast here: the old Canaanite religion promoted the belief that false gods lived on top of the mountains; the people of Israel believed in one true God living on a hill.

Psalm 121 falls into the category of the Psalms of Ascent. These psalms were sung by the people of Israel as they made pilgrimages to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They sang these psalms very much like we sing, “We’re marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion; We’re marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.” Consider the words, “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” Psalm 121 focuses on God’s protection. It says that God is going to watch over us day and night, that He neither slumbers nor sleeps, and that the sun will not smite us by day nor the moon by night. It is a figurative way of saying, “We have God’s protection 24/7.” This psalm is a source of assurance, emphasizing the fact that we are always in God’s care. We all need that assurance.

The first two verses of Psalm 121 are inscribed on the walls of a community center in Franklin, North Carolina. None of us would be able to read those words because they are in the language of the Cherokee Indians. A man named Sequoia formulated his own alphabet so that he could put the language of his people into written form. Maybe you have been to the Ocunaluftee Indian Reservation and seen Unto These Hills, a drama presented at the theater there high on a mountain. Psalm 121 plays a significant part in that drama that reveals the history of the Cherokee people.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed into law an order of removal, which stated that all Native Americans east of the Mississippi should be relocated to the other side of the river. Many were sent to the state of Oklahoma, “Indian territory,” it was called. In the very bitter winter of 1838, 17,000 Cherokees were rounded up and herded like cattle to Oklahoma. Some were issued blankets that had been used by soldiers who had died of smallpox. The harshness of winter and disease killed about 4,000 of the Cherokee, nearly one-fourth of the group. That journey was known as “The Trail of Tears.”

In Unto These Hills, Chief John Ross quotes the words of Psalm 121 before the Cherokees leave on this march: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” As you sit in that great amphitheater and watch this drama unfold, you nave a panoramic view of the Smokey Mountains, the place the Cherokee people consider to be God’s Country.

The Bible tells us often that God alone can give us strength, that God alone can keep us from stumbling. “He will not suffer your foot to be moved,” this psalm says. The Bible reminds us that one kind of falling is not just physical falling. A second kind of falling is spiritual falling, a spiritual tendency to stumble, lose our footing, and fall flat on our face.

What causes this kind of stumbling? In terms of the spirit, what is the impediment, the stumbling block? The cause is almost always some adversity that challenges our faith. You can see how the phrase “Trail of Tears,” so much a part of the Cherokee history, could also be used to describe what some people endure. It could be used to describe what the Hebrew people endured. At the time Christians were being persecuted, the book of Hebrews harkens back to a prophesy of Isaiah and speaks words of assurance to people who are under fire, people who are being persecuted for their faith. Hebrews reminds those Christians, “Strengthen your feeble arms and your weak knees. Make level paths for your stumbling feet” (Hebrews 12:12-13).

What is the impediment? In Psalm 73:2-3, we read, “My feet had well-nigh slipped when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Usually, some adversity that seems totally unfair, some kind of injustice, interferes with faith. It creates an impediment and causes stumbling and falling in the life of faith. Another impediment is the feeling of persecution, a thought that the evil prosper while the righteous seem to flounder.

Last week, I spoke with a man who has had great loss in his life. He has lost two children and his wife. He might have stumbled, but he found firm footing in his faith. This week, I spoke with a couple who tragically lost a sixteen-year-old child to a violent death. They are stumbling, too. This kind of adversity enters our lives and creates for all of us an impediment to the sure footing of our faith.

The book of Jude, a little book near the end of the Bible, was almost certainly written by a younger brother of Jesus. When I was in seminary, that possibility seemed debatable; but now the best commentaries are saying that this book was almost certainly written during the last half of the first century by the young brother of Jesus, Jude. The message of Jude, contained in only one chapter of twenty-five verses, presents the message, “Stand firm and keep the faith, even in the midst of great trouble.” Jude is written against a background of people who took for granted the grace of God. Their basic position was that if God is a God of grace who will love us anyway, then we can just live it up, do whatever we please. Jude asserts that those who tell you that are false teachers.

On Monday afternoon, we had the funeral for Theola Ruff. Shortly before that service, one of her family members told me something I found very interesting. The person said, “Theola’s father is buried in a small cemetery in Texarkana. We are not sure whether it is Arkansas or Texas. It is somewhere near the state line. On his tombstone are inscribed the words from Isaiah 40: ‘Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.’”

This passage of Scripture comes to my mind when I consider the issue of spiritual stumbling. Think about Isaiah’s message to the exiles, people who had been treated unfairly. They had numerous reasons to stumble spiritually, but Isaiah says that that those who wait upon the Lord will find the strength to keep a sure footing. They will “mount up with wings as eagles.” An eagle does not fly in a flock. It is a solitary bird that soars above the crowd. I suppose we could say that the eagle is a symbol of great accomplishment. It appears on the seal of the United States of America. The Eagle Scout Award is the highest award in Scouting. Think of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landing on the surface of the moon. They reported, “Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.” Soaring like an eagle means that we have great accomplishment above the crowd. Isaiah says that those who wait upon the Lord will experience that sense of triumph.

Then Isaiah adds, “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall run and not be weary.” That is the dream of every person who has ever run a marathon. Most runners will admit that in a long race, they reach a point at which they hit the wall. They feel as if they cannot keep going. A disciplined runner learns to run through that pain. Imagine being able to run without ever being weary. Think of Charles Lindbergh who was known by his fellow aviators as the “Lone Eagle” because he could get more mileage out of a tank of gas than any other pilot. He knew how to fly along the face of the mountains and catch the updrafts. Lindbergh’s expertise was employed by aircraft pilots during World War II. The pilots were not able to get as much mileage as they needed out of their airplanes, so they asked Lindbergh, who seemed to fly almost effortlessly, to serve as consultant. “To run and not be weary” means that we just sail through life with nothing to bother us, no trouble along the way. Perhaps life offers a few times when we are unburdened.

Consider the last portion of this Scripture: “They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall walk and not faint.” That does not seem like such great shakes after you consider soaring like an eagle and running without being weary. Walking without fainting does not seem much like an achievement at all. In fact, when we read these words, we could easily think that Isaiah is arranging these accomplishments in descending order. I learned from John Claypool, however, that Isaiah is actually giving these to us in ascending order. Occasionally, we may have great triumphs. Sometimes we might run without being weary. To walk and not faint? Life is so daily. That might be the greatest accomplishment of all.

Ask Buzz Aldrin, “What was the toughest time in your life?” I doubt he would talk about Tranquility Base or walking on the moon. When Buzz Aldrin returned from that space mission, he fell into a deep depression. He became an alcoholic and battled that addiction. Aldrin would probably say, “You know, the toughest time I ever had was walking on planet earth.” Ask Charles Lindbergh, “What was the toughest time in your life?” I doubt Lindbergh would mention flying across the Atlantic in The Spirit of St. Louis. I suspect he would not talk about flying at all. He would likely talk about the time when his child was kidnapped and killed.

Great success in times when life is easy just does not have much staying power. What really matters is being able to walk and not faint in daily life.

I preached a sermon similar to this one at a meeting of Boy Scouts at the National Order of the Arrow Conference on the campus of the University of Indiana. Most of the 15,000 Boy Scouts were the “cream of the crop.” Almost all were Eagle Scouts. About 1,000 Scouts attended this worship service.

At the end of the service, a man came forward and said to me, “I know exactly what you are talking about. I was an Eagle Scout. I was also in the Marine Corps and was highly decorated. I competed in a Boston Marathon and won. I had so many plans.”

I questioned him about his running, as he was in a wheelchair. He had no legs.

He explained, “I won the wheelchair division. I know what it is like to have great accomplishment. I know what it is like to run and not be weary. I have had times like that in my life. I also know that the only way you can live this life daily, “to walk and not faint,” is to find your strength in God. I have been through a lot in my life, including losing these legs in a war. The hardest thing I have to do every day is to drag myself out of bed, get into this wheelchair, and face another day.”

Life is hard. When we face adversity, we might very well stumble in our spiritual walk. The only source of strength available to us is the Lord. We must wait upon the Lord. At the end of the Bible, Jude 1:24-25 gives us both a benediction and a doxology. Listen to these words: “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.” If you prefer to live your life without stumbling, without falling, spiritually speaking, you can find your strength as you wait upon the Lord.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely


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