April 26, 2015
In a documentary titled Mother Teresa, a priest who had known her since she was young noted this misconception about Teresa. Most people think she went to Calcutta and was so moved by the conditions of the poor that she had to do something. The priest then says “that was not it!” Instead, “she knew the love of Jesus and it was specifically because of that love that she responded.” As another writer says of Teresa, “Worship changed her.” Because she knew what God had done for her in Jesus Christ, she felt called to show mercy to others.
Last week, I talked about us coming into the presence of God in worship and how we should respond in praise, confession and a willingness to hear and do God’s work. Today, I want us to look a little deeper into how the worship of an Almighty God changes us. When we come into God’s presence and learn from God’s story, our world and worldview changes. No longer should we be concern with “the self.” Now our vision is godly; we’re to look at the world through God’s eyes and respond in a manner that furthers God’s kingdom and that will bring God all glory. Today’s passage comes from Psalm 34.
According to the subscript, David wrote this Psalm before becoming king. Saul is king of Israel and he’s after David. In his flight, David is captured by the Philistines, Israel’s age-old enemies. David is then taken to the King of Gath. Fearful of what might happen, David acts as if he’s crazy by clawing at the doors and letting spit run down his beard. The king, seeing David in such a condition, chastises his servants. “Do you not see this man is mad?” he asks. “Why did you bring him to me?” The king of Gath must have had a sense of humor for he then asks, “Do I lack for madmen?” David’s trickery is successful. He is released. If you’re interested in the story, you can find it in 1st Samuel, chapter 21.
This is a Psalm of Thanksgiving to God for having delivered David from trouble. But it doesn’t just apply to David. In fact, any of us who have felt God’s salvation might pray this Psalm as a way to give thanks for what we’ve experienced.
Let’s think of the Psalm in the context that it’s set in Scripture. David is fleeing Saul but he’s not exactly in the presence of friends. He’s got to come up with a plan to get away for he represents a threat not just to Saul but to other kings around Israel. And he comes up with a “crazy” idea. He’ll act insane.
You know, David could have claimed responsibility for his deliverance. Why didn’t he? After all, he was the one who thought up the stunt. If God had been the deliverer, why wasn’t there bolts of lightning or flames of fire? To have someone act crazy seems a little wimpy for God. In fact, if you go back to the 1st Samuel account, you won’t find God being mentioned as intervening in this situation. Instead, this passage was probably a folk story that gave ancient Israel a good laugh at the cunningness of their great king, David. These are the stories that helped endear David to the Hebrew people. But David, the Psalmist, knows who butters his toast. He points to God.
This speaks well of David’s character, his crediting God for his salvation instead of claiming responsibility himself. Despite his faults, David recognizes that all his blessings are from God. That’s why he is remembered as a great king and able to survive Bathsheba-gate and other scandals of his administration.
There are two parts to the part of the Psalm I read this morning. In the first seven verses, the Psalmist recalls God’s good deeds. In verse two, he proclaims God’s good news to the humbled, verse four to the fearful, and verse six to the poor. This section ends with the Psalmist envisioning the angel of the Lord on sentry duty, camped around those who fear the Lord, saving them from their troubles. God is good; the Psalmist knows this! God wants what is best for us and for all his creation.
The second part of this Psalm concerns itself with our response to the goodness we’ve experienced from God. Reformed theology—the theology of the Presbyterian Church—taking its cue from scripture, has always maintained that God’s grace comes before human response. In other words, we don’t buy grace, we can’t bribe God for it, and we don’t keep God’s law just so God will be good to us. God has already proven his concern for his people as the Hebrew people experienced over and over again. We, too, have experienced this love through Jesus Christ. After reciting his experience with God’s grace in the first seven verses, the Psalmist invites us to experience it. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” he proclaims. “Come, O children, and I will teach you to fear the lord.” “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit; depart from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” Having encountered the divine, the Psalmist invites us not only to experience God but also to change our lives to reflect God’s righteousness. First there’s God’s grace, then our response!
How many of you have seen the Robert Devall movie, The Apostle? It came out 15 or so years. In it, Devall plays the character of Sonny, a Pentecostal-holiness preacher who, in a fit of rage, takes a baseball bat to his associate pastor, who is having an affair with his wife. Not only is the guy his wife’s lover, he’s also gaining the loyalty of Sonny’s kids. The man dies and Sonny flees, settling in rural Louisiana where he takes on a new identity as Apostle E. F. Teaming up with a retired African-American pastor, the two set out to rebuild an old church building and to establish a new congregation.
Soon, with an old school bus and the remodeled church building, Sonny is back in the preaching business. His first Sunday is a bit slow, but slowly he fills the building and soon the congregation is hopping. Although the style of worship is foreign to traditional Presbyterian worship, there is little doubt that God is present and that Sonny believes in what he’s doing. Even when the law finally catches up with him following an evening service, Sonny is calm. Asking the officer for some time, he takes off his watch and jewelry and gives them to a man in the church and asks him to hock the items and use the money to keep the ministry going. In the final scene of the movie, Sonny and a group of fellow prisoners are working in a chain-gang. As they work in a ditch with swing blades, Sonny recites a litany of God’s goodness and his fellow prisoners respond with praise.
As humans, we have our share of shortcomings and failures. Sonny had more than his share, including murder, yet in the movie Devall was able to show God working through his character such as when he stands down a bulldozer driven by a local bigot who planned to destroy the church where Sonny was preaching because of the interracial makeup of its members. With confidence, Sonny was able to confront this guy and soon, the bigoted man is on his knees praying. The movie shows God using Sonny, a broken and guilty man, just as Scripture shows us God using David, despite his shortcomings.
Robert Devall, in an interview after the release of “The Apostle” was asked about why he would display bad side, the weaknesses of the preacher. He said:
“[W]e either accept weaknesses in good people or we have to tear pages out of the bible. I would have to rip the Psalms out of the bible and never read them again. Because no one less than the greatest king of Israel, King David, the author of the Psalms, sent a man out to die in battle so that he could sleep with his wife. And that was a far more evil thing than anything Sonny would ever, ever do.”
As humans, we have our good and our bad sides. We can be petty and needy, especially when we focus on ourselves. If David had wanted to claim responsibility for his escape from the Philistines, he could have and no one would have thought twice, but God wouldn’t have received the glory and ultimately, that’s what is important. We need to get the focus off us and onto God—that is what worship is all about.
If we want true joy in our lives, we need to bask not in what we’ve done but in what God has done. If we want to truly reflect Jesus to the world, we can’t focus on ourselves. David knew his success belonged to God and was able to rejoice, not in what he could do, but in what God was doing. And David invites us to experience God, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Will we take up on his offer? Will we allow worship to change us so that we might live not for ourselves, but for our Lord Jesus Christ? May his name be honored in our lives. Amen.
 Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007), 77.
 1 Samuel 21:10-15.
 Bill Blizah & Ronald Burke, “The Apostle: An interview with Robert Devall, Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 2, #1 (April 1998). See https://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/apostle.INTERVIEW.htm