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Encouragement: A Prayer for the Faithful

May 3, 2009
Sermon:  May 3, 2009
Text:  Psalm 71

I would like us to turn to the text for today, Psalm 71.  I read this powerful psalm and started thinking about the prayer of a faithful person.  It then occurred to me that I needed to ask my dad to read this Scripture this morning.  I cannot think of anyone in my life who has exhibited a life of faithfulness any more than he has. 

While preparing this sermon, a line from the hymn “He Leadeth Me” kept coming back to me.  Perhaps you know these words:  “His faithful follower I would be, For by His hand, He leadeth me.”  I suppose if I were going to summarize the essence of today’s message, it would be in those words.

Personal laments are part and parcel of the book of Psalms.  Those psalms classified as a traditional lament follow a familiar pattern.  The psalmist states a complaint, a concern, which he lifts up a petition, a prayer, to God.  The psalm will conclude with words of assurance and affirmation of faith, with words of trust and praise.  That cycle is repeated three times in our Scripture passage for today.  It is as if the psalmist is saying, “Listen.  I have been through this experience multiple times, and I can tell you that every single time God has been faithful.  God is reliable.  God is dependable.”   

In Psalm 71, we see the petition in the first three verses:  “Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness.  Turn your ear to me and save me.”  The psalmist then moves right into words of praise and trust:  “…you are my rock and my fortress…you have been my hope…my confidence…I have relied on you…I will ever praise you.” 

The second and third petitions inform us that the psalmist is an aging person, a person with a little mileage on the odometer.  They inform us that the psalmist has been around for a while.  Consider Verses 9 and 12: “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone…Be not far from me, O God; come quickly, O my God, to help me.”  Verse 18 offers the third petition:  “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.”

The rhythm here expresses confidence, a word actually used in Verse 5.  This is not self-confidence; it is confidence in God, an expression of utter dependence on God.  The psalmist, recognizing that God is the source of our help and our source of hope, describes God as righteous five different times in this psalm: Verse 2, Verse 15, Verse 16, Verse 19, and also Verse 24.  Psalm 71 is an confirmation that God does things right.  He is just and merciful.  He is a God of grace.  He is a God of comfort.  Because God is affirmed as a righteous God, a faithful God, the response of the psalmist is to declare that he, too, is going to be faithful and tell others of God’s sovereignty.  Because God has been so faithful to us, it is our responsibility to respond to Him in faithfulness.

The psalmist is not idealistic.  He knows that trouble is part and parcel of life.  This psalmist adds in Verse 20 that he has seen many bitter times but knows that God will see him through all of those troubles.  The psalmist says, “you will restore my life again… you will again bring me up.  You will increase my honor and comfort me once again.”  I love the message of the anthem this morning, “God Leads Us Along” with words that come from the book of Isaiah:  “God leads His dear children along some through the waters, some through the flood, some through the fire, but all through the blood.”  God is faithful to every one of us, no matter the circumstances. 

When I was in seminary, I read a book by Viktor Frankl called Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he chronicles his incarceration in a concentration camp during World War II. Frankl, a Jewish man and Viennese psychiatrist, wanted to tend to those who were ill.  He could do very little except sit by their bedside and sometimes simply mop their fevered brow with a damp cloth.  He noticed that the officials in charge could take away many, many things from those prisoners.  They could never take away their attitude, however.  He learned through that experience that we always have the freedom to choose what our attitude will be in every circumstance. 

I want to suggest five characteristics or marks of a faithful person, which I give to you as a dichotomy.  These dichotomies express two choices we can make in our attitude.

First, we have a choice between resentment or generativity, a forty dollar word I got from Eric Erikson, a word you may have never heard.  Some people, as they grow older, have an attitude of bitterness.  In many cases, they resent their limitations and loathe the need to move to a new environment or circumstance.  They despise being left alone or losing their health.  Those who have a sense of generativity, however, see life as an opportunity to pass along to others something of value.  They want to make the world a better place and leave behind some of their wisdom, some of their observations.  You certainly see this desire in writers, scientists, musicians, and teachers – those who want to help younger generations understand what they have learned in life. 

It is exciting to work alongside young people and see their growth and development.  I have really enjoyed working with the Boy Scouts of America throughout the years and leading seminars such as Preparing for the Teen Years, designed for sixth graders and their parents.  Watching those sixth graders chomping at the bit to become teenagers and get into that youth group last Friday night was exciting.  Here I was – an old, gray-haired man of average size – with the opportunity to speak to those kids and help them understand what lies ahead in their future.  Here I was – an old, gray-haired man of average size – with the opportunity to speak to their parents who are the age of my oldest children and talk with them about how to help their children adjust to these teen years.  That generativity is to be cherished.

I had the opportunity to talk about generativity with forty-five or so senior adults at a retreat this week at White Oak Conference Center in Winnsboro.  I encouraged them to leave behind a legacy.  I encourage you to do the same.  Tell your story.  Inform others about your childhood, your family.  Write down this information.  Make a recording or even a videotape for those who come behind you so that you leave some record of what you have learned.

I gave my personal testimony here several years ago on the first Sunday of the new year.  My wife ordered five copies of the recording, which she sent to our children.  She wanted them to have a record of my testimony.  You, too, can make a record of your testimony.  Leave it as a record for your family so they will know how you came to know Christ.  Tell your children and your grandchildren what God has done in your life. 

We have all heard that we cannot take it with us when we leave this earth.  No U-Haul trailer filled with our possessions will follow behind our hearse.  We cannot take it with us.  Something we can take with us to heaven, however, is our family.  We can take our spouse, our children and our grandchildren to heaven.

I find the words of Steve Green inspirational:  “Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful.  May the fire of our devotion light their way.  May the footprints that we leave lead them to believe and the lives we live inspire them to obey.  Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful.” 

Did you notice that the writer of Psalm 71 declares three times that he is going to be a witness?  Verse 15:  “My mouth will tell of your righteousness.”  Verse 16:  “I will come and proclaim your mighty acts.  I will proclaim your righteousness.”  Verse 18 adds that he will “declare your power to the next generation.”  Here is a prayer of a faithful person, an elderly person, responding to God’s righteousness and faithfulness.  God expects faithfulness of all of us.  Being a faithful Christian means that you make a decision to do what is right single day, for a long, long time.  Being a faithful witness is so important.  Nothing is more important than that aspect of generativity. 

The second dichotomy is the choice between the attitude of anxiety and contentment.  Many people live with fear and worry.  For the Call to Worship at the beginning of this service, I quoted from another appropriate psalm for people who are growing old, Psalm 37.  There the psalmist tells us three times not to fret.  Worry is a huge waste of time.  Anxiety expends energy and gets us nowhere. 

Think of the Apostle Paul who wrote that great book of Philippians, especially Chapter 4, Verse 6.  Can you imagine a man on death row, a man facing a death sentence, writing about anxiety?  He says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”  Paul tells us that we must put our troubles into prayer.  Then he makes a promise in Verse 7:  “And the peace of God, which is beyond human understanding, will keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.”  Near the end of Philippians 4, Paul says, “I have learned the secret of contentment.  I know how to find contentment in whatever situation I find myself.”  In prison facing a death sentence, he talks about contentment.  He says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  We have a choice in our outlook.  Those who are faithful find joy in life.

I saw Bob Sanders eating lunch with his daughter at a local eatery Friday afternoon.  Bob has had a difficult time with the amputation of a leg.  He now wears a prosthesis, and he was walking quite well.  He seemed to be the same Bob I have always known. 

I asked, “Bob, have you been fishing lately?”

He answered, “A few times, but I have to be careful.  My leg might rust.”

Here is a man facing a difficult circumstance, but you see that his attitude is so positive, so uplifting.  We have the same choice. 

Consider the third dichotomy between those who do not have a sense of humor and those who do.  People who see no humor in life live with a kind of bitterness that poisons their spirit.  Because they do not see anything funny, they pretty much live by the lyrics of the old HeeHaw song:  “Gloom, despair, agony on me, deep dark depression, excessive misery – If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.  Gloom, despair, agony on me.”  To those who do not see the comedy of life, everything is wrong, everything is awful, and everything is bad.  That kind of attitude will absolutely wear you out. 

My dad has an idea that is right on target.  He says that some people’s minds wear out first while others’ bodies wear out first.  The trick is to try to keep them together so that the mind and body wear out at about the same pace.  I do not know how I am going to do it, but Dad seems to be doing that quite well.

People who are faithful have a healthy sense of humor.  They can laugh, not so much at others, but at themselves.  Humor is a good medicine.  Readers’ Digest uses that slogan, which actually came from the book of Proverbs:  “A cheerful heart doeth good like a medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).  As far as I can tell, laughter is a natural tranquilizer with no harmful side effects.  It really does make a difference in the quality of life.

I roasted Judge Bruce Littlejohn when the Salvation Army honored him as the Toast of the Town.  At that event, I commented on bald-headed men.  I said that men who are bald on the back of their head are great lovers and that men who are bald on the front of their head are great thinkers.  Men who are bald all over think they are great lovers.  When I told that about Bruce, he just rubbed his hand across the top of his bald head.

Bruce had many humorous tales about his time on the bench.  Once while serving as a circuit court judge in Abbeville, South Carolina, this fellow came up to Bruce as court was about to begin.  He pleaded, “Judge, I have to be excused from jury duty.”

Bruce asked, “What’s your problem, fellow?”

The man answered, “My wife is going to conceive a child this afternoon.”

Hearing the man’s words, the bailiff rushed over and explained, “Judge, you are going to have to excuse this man.  He is not well educated.  What he means is that his wife is going to deliver a child this afternoon.”

Bruce answered, “Well, in either case, I think he ought to be with his wife.  Let’s excuse him.”

Those stories are rated PG-13.  This next story is rated R. 

I always teased Bruce about his neckties because every necktie he ever wore was stained.  If the tie was not stained, it did not take him long to get a stain on there.  I said at his roast, “You can boil one of Bruce’s ties and make a pretty decent soup.”

I remember a story Bruce told to a civic club several years before his death.  Bruce was at a beach and saw a young lady, scantily clad in a bikini, walking in the sand towards him.  He said, “It made me think that perhaps her bikini was made out of one of my discarded neckties.  And there was some fabric left over.”  Bruce, ninety-two when he was telling this story, added, “I tried really hard not to look, but I must admit.  It did make me feel like I was eighty again.”

A sense of humor goes a long way to creating a healthy mind.  It is one of the characteristics of a faithful person.

The fourth dichotomy is the contrast between disgust and integrity.  Have you ever known people who have a negative attitude about everything?  All of their thinking is critical, and they have no kind word about anyone.  Everything must be focused on them and what they want and need.  You get the idea that they are miserable, that they have always been unhappy, and that they really do not want to be content. 

When you live life with integrity, you know that life will not always go well.  You do have awareness, though, that you have been true to yourself and that you have done the best possible.  You have made mistakes, errors, along the way.  You have also committed sin, but God has forgiven that.  Because you have been redeemed, you live with a sense of wholeness.  We must take time to stop and reflect on what we have done in our lives, on what we have accomplished.  We need a chance to look back as God did in the act of creation and say, “That is good.”  When we are able to do that, we affirm our sense of integrity.

Moses never made it to the Promised Land, but he did get to see it from the top of Mount Pisgah, from a peak called Nebo.  God gave Joshua the responsibility of leading the people into the Promised Land.  Likewise, David never actually saw the temple built.  He saw it only in his mind’s eye.  God did not allow David to build the temple because he had blood on his hands.  God gave his son, Solomon, the responsibility of building the temple.  We might not get everything accomplished, but we live with integrity knowing that others will pick up the work and finish it.  

Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian, wrote thirteen huge volumes called Church Dogmatics, in which he challenged and reinterpreted Christian doctrine.  While giving a lecture at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond about his theology, a woman there, a lay person who had come to hear Dr. Barth’s lecture, announced, “Dr. Barth, I am frustrated.  I do not really understand everything you said.  I wonder if you could summarize all of your theology in one sentence?”

Barth took a big puff on the pipe he was smoking and exhaled a cloud of smoke.  Resembling Moses coming down Mount Sinai, he responded, “I would summarize all my theology in one sentence:  ‘Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so.’”  His response shows an attitude of assurance. 

Consider the words to that children’s song:

                         Jesus loves me, this I know
                        For the Bible tells me so. 
                        Little ones to Him belong.
                        They are weak, but He is strong.
                        Chorus: 
                        Yes, Jesus loves me.
                        Yes, Jesus loves me.
                        Yes, Jesus loves me
                        ’Cause the Bible tells me so.
 

I received an e-mail from one of our members this week that said senior adults are the ones who request “Jesus Loves Me” most often when churches have hymn sings.  A ninety-two-year-old pastor took that fact under advisement and wrote some alternate words:

                        Jesus loves me, this I know.
                        Though my hair is white as snow
                        Though my sight is growing dim,
                        Still He bids me trust in Him.
                         Chorus:
                         Though my steps are oh, so slow,
                         With my hand in His I’ll go
                         On through life, let come what may,
                         He’ll be there to lead the way.

The greatest assurance of all is that Jesus loves us.  Do you have that assurance?  Have you acknowledged the Lord Jesus as your Savior?  If you have never done that, could I invite you to make that decision today?

 Kirk H. Neely
© May 2009
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