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God Heartens

God Heartens.
Psalm 27   Matthew 5: 13 – 20
A fortnight ago I turned to Psalm 27. I read it. It spoke to me.  The Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear? I have read it virtually every day since then. It is so beautiful, inspirational and encouraging. So I have decided to share what I understand and build a sermon.
So let’s start at the beginning. The psalmist is a person who has known fear and dealt with it. Fear is a powerful emotion arising from a specific threat or danger to us. In fact fear is a good thing. This last week I watched an episode of ‘Foyle’s War’ where the character Pearce says to a young woman about to be dropped behind the enemy lines in France during WWII; ‘You must fear because it is very dangerous and your fear will keep you alert and alive.
Fear is a good thing. It does keep us alert and safe. As they say fear instigates fight or flight. The issue with fear is that it needs to be managed. Uncontrolled fear will possibly endanger us more than fear itself. Sometimes a thing is so frightening we do freeze. Unmanaged fear can lead to anxiety. Anxiety is not the same as fear. Anxiety is the fear of something unspecific and general. One can say an imagined fear. So walking down a dark street may make us anxious at the possibility of being attacked. Yet there is no evidence that you will be attacked. Anxiety can lead to fear. They are interrelated, but remain distinct. We know that unmanaged fear and anxiety can develop into a phobia of one sort or another. Let us go back to the psalmist and see how he handles his fear. It would also be true to say that the psalm is not a poetic essay on fear and fear management, but it does offer us an insight.
At the very beginning the psalmist tells us two important things. That fear has been part of his life and that God is the source of his strength. The Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear. It is a personal testimony about his life and his strength to cope. The psalmist has had to deal with real fears. His imagery is taken from military conflict.  He has been attacked or an attack is threatening. His context is much more of world where tribal fighting and national plunder took place. He says that even though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. What has given him heart – the courage and strength to face these dangers?  
The psalmist says three things about God. God is his light. The imagery is plain. God lightens his path. God is his sat-nav giving him the directions he needs to find his way though life. But God is not merely a guide or a map: a thing so to speak to use. God is active and rescues, saves and helps him.  God is my salvation he says. Here is a person who believes in a personal God. God is no distant out-of-reach deity, but one involved with us.  God is the psalmist’s stronghold. The image of a safe place is conjures up the notion of a fortified building.  These three images of God are given in the opening sentences of the psalm. God is a guide, a rescuer and a safe place. Each image respectively tells us that God provides us with a way of living; that God proactively comes to help us; and, that God provides a safe place for us to be.
The psalmist has no sense that God is going to take the trouble or danger away. Rather God’s presence provides the safe place, the way to respond and ultimately God will rescue us. The psalmist goes on to talk about God being his shelter in the day of trouble, that he will be hidden under the cover of God’s tent and that he, the psalmist will be set upon a rock – a place of safety.  So the psalmist exalts in God.  God gives heart to the psalmist. God heartens us with encouragement, guidance, presence and security.
The psalmist shares his personal prayer – his request. It is a beautiful request in that it uncovers the beauty of faith and religion. We see the range of emotions in his prayer. The psalmist’s request resonated with me and heartened me. I from time to time feel overwhelmed, threatened, alone and become anxious because of my fear. I’m sure I am not alone in having such feelings. So too the psalmist prays, in spite of his assurance and faith in God;
‘I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in God’s temple.’
The psalmist asks that he might live in the house of the Lord all the days of his life. For the psalmist to be in God’s presence and beholding God’s beauty is all that matters.
Now when you read this for the first time I guess you’re getting stuck with this notion of being in God’s house all the time. It sounds as if he wants to be in church – I would say the worship centre – all the time. I want to say that what makes sense of this request to dwell in the house of the Lord – the Temple – is understanding the background and the development of the role of the temple in ancient times.
The psalmist’s request is re-iterated in verses 6 and 8;
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, LORD, do I seek.  Do not hide your face from me.  [Ps 27: 8,9]
There are a bundle of images that need to be unpacked. They are temple, lord’s house, tent, shelter, and the face of God.  The temple, lord’s house, tent and shelter all refer to a place of worship and where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The key understanding of a tent, temple and the room for the Ark of the Covenant was that this is where God was present on earth. Notwithstanding that they encounter God in many places such as the Oaks of Mamre, the Reed Sea, the burning bush, by the brook they believed that God or the gods were present in the temple.  These concepts – house of the Lord, Temple, shelter, and tent – all refer to the same thing.  These are the places where people came to offer sacrifices and experience God’s presence. This was generally understood across the nations. SO to destroy a temple meant you drove away the presence of the god, whose temple it was. 
The Jewish people came to learn the hard way, that God was present everywhere. When their city Jerusalem and temple were destroyed in 587 BC and they were taken to Babylon – modern day Iraq – some thought that this would be the end of their god. But they learnt to come together, to read the Scriptures, to explain them, to pray and sing psalms of praise. The Greek word for coming-together is synagogue! By the time of Jesus, 500 years later, there was a well developed notion that God was present when God’s people gathered. There was a firm view that where people of faith came together the temple of God was formed. In other words God is present in the congregation wherever and whenever people of faith gather. So Jesus could say, where two or three come together in my name there I am in their midst. That is why Paul said that we, the gathered people, are the temple of the Holy Spirit. So if the psalmist was writing today his temple would be the congregation of the faithful.
This changes the whole image of the psalmist’s poetry. The psalmist is saying I want to be in the presence of God always. Today that would mean a strong relationship with the congregation of God’s people. When we say it like that we get a different understanding of what it means to live in the house of the Lord.  It means we sustain a relationship with God through the community, because we together constitute the ‘temple’ of God. Where God dwells.
Friends the message is this. Though we have much to be anxious about today, though we do and will have reasons to fear the future, yet we have God who is our guide, our rescuer and our safe-place. God is for us so who can be against us, wrote Paul. If we live in the presence of God together we will be heartened and strengthened by God and God’s people. It is God who gives us the heart to persevere and rise above our fears and anxiety. And God works in strange ways. So wait and watch and look for God the Holy Spirit working in your life.
That’s what the psalmist says; Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! [Ps 27: 14]
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  05/02/2017
 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org.au