Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 3, 2016
As this is the Fourth of July weekend, I am going to take a break from our trip with Paul around the Mediterranean World, and look at Psalm 144. The Psalm, attributed to King David, reminds us of God’s protection. David calls on God to save him and the nation. As we celebrate the 4th of July this weekend, it’s important for us to remember that our safety and future hope doesn’t come from our nation’s powerful military and economy. Nor does our salvation come from electing the right leaders, as some suggest. Our salvation is from God, alone. Our security is from God, alone. Read Psalm 144…
I know some of you saw the movie, “A Walk in the Woods” and others of you have read the book by Bill Bryson. As often is the case, the book is much funnier than the movie, but sometimes real life is even funnier than the book. Bryson and his sidekick, Katz, were a hoot. But so were Paul and Dave, whom I got to know when hiking the Appalachian Trail. On the trail, when you sign into registers, most everyone assumes a new name. I was “Sojourner.” They always signed in as “The Brits.” I first met them in Duncannon, Pennsylvania, along the Susquehanna River and we kept running into each other all the way to Katahdin in Maine. By the time they reached the end, I think they had more funny stories than all the rest of the hikers put together.
It all started in the North Georgia Mountains where Dave (the serious one of the two) woke one night. He heard something chewing on their packs, which they had stored under the eve of the tent. Dave woke Paul and asked for the “torch.” The British don’t have flashlights, they have torches. Unlike most of us who hiked the trail with a mini-flashlight, the Brits shared a single light. But it was a big one, a five cell mag-light, the kind police use. With the light in his hand, Dave quietly unzipped the tent. Reaching out with the torch, using it as a club and not a light, he pounded the critter gnawing on their packs. The skunk wasn’t amused. When I met them a 1000 miles later, there was still a lingering smell around their tent.
This was the summer of ‘’87. Crocodile Dundee was popular at the movies, as were all things Australian. Nothing got under these guys skin more than being confused with being an Aussie. They were proud Brits. And they were more than happy to make fun of this land they were walking through. “America is land where something is always biting on you,” they complained. But they didn’t despised everything American, for Paul fell in love with a hiker from Maine. A year later, they married.
The summer of ’87 was interesting time for them to be in America as we were gearing up for the primaries that occurred the next winter. Almost every hiker I knew had a chance meeting in New Hampshire with a potential presidential candidate. During this summer, in preparation for the upcoming primaries and the ’88 elections, many of the Baptist Churches in the northeast held revivals with the theme, “America: God Loves You.” Somehow, these characters from across the Atlantic obtained bumper stickers with this theme on it. They stuck those bumper stickers on the back of their packs and with a magic marker wrote underneath, “But He prefers the British.”
Taking pride in one’s country is a noble thing and can even the source of good-natured humor, but only as long as we do remember to keep things friendly and realize that we are all created in God’s image and have a common Lord. And pride should always be tempered with a grateful heart for the benefits we enjoy such as having a wonderful country even if, at times, there are too many biting insects.
The Psalm we’re looking at on this day before the Fourth is both personal and corporate. The Psalm begins in the first person singular as the Psalmist offers an individual plea to God. The Psalm ends in the first person plural, as the people collectively acknowledge their hope in the Lord. It’s important for us to understand the way the Psalm is bookend: the focus is on God at the beginning and the end. There is also humility in this Psalm. The Psalmist isn’t bragging about his position of power, but expresses his trust in something greater than he.
The Psalm starts out with an invocation in the form of a hymn, giving thanks that God (the Psalmist’s source of security) has prepared him for battle. In ancient times, this Psalm was connected to David’s battle against Goliath. We can understand this for God gave the shepherd boy David the ability to use his hands (and arms) to sling a rock at the giant’s forehead. But this Psalm isn’t just about a boy saving the nation. The boy is now the king, yet there are still those who are against him. He’s afraid. The giant had fallen long ago, now there are others threatening the kingdom. Although God has trained him for war, the Psalmist knows that his true source of safety isn’t in his ability on the battlefield, but grounding his life in the God in whom he seeks refuge. The prayer for protection must come daily. Yes, the Psalmist has had victories in the past, but he must always remember who was responsible for them. In a way, it’s as if he’s praying the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” We need God’s mercy continually in our lives.
In verses three and four, we hear echoes from other places in the Old Testament. “What are human beings that you make so much of them?” Job asks God. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” according to Isaiah. The Psalmist acknowledges not only his own mortality, but the special relationship he has with Lord that allows him (and also us) to bring our concerns to God.
In verses five through eight, the Psalmist makes his plea for God to look down and intervene. Eugene Peterson, in his book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, observes that the Psalms are full of “enemy talk.” “God is the primary subject in the Psalms, but enemies are established in solid second place,” he writes. In this way, the Psalms are realistic.
We have enemies, just as David did. Our enemy may be ISIS, North Korea, a disgruntled neighbor, an angry coworker, or a relentless disease. Our enemy may come after us with a gun, attack our reputation with words that cut like a knife, or destroy our body. Whatever way, we all have (or at some point will have) enemies. In the Psalm, it appears David is facing both a military and a political threat. With smoke from the mountains and lightening like arrows, the Psalmist wants God to free him from such adversaries. He wants God to save him from those who have invaded his kingdom, along with those who speak ill of him.
In verse nine, in anticipation of victory, the Psalmist promises to sing a new song of victory to God. Again, his enemy is defined as an alien, one who has perhaps invaded the kingdom, but also one who is speaks false about the king and who does, with his right hand, what is evil. “God, if you save me, I am going to sing your praises so that everyone will know it is you, not me, who makes the difference,” the Psalmist implies. Victory isn’t about what we do, even if we are fighting the battle. Yes, God gave the Psalmist the ability to fight, but the Psalmist is still dependent on the Almighty.
The Psalm makes a change in verse 12. Instead of focusing on his own need for safety, the Psalmist envisions his people enjoying the fruits of the kingdom as God blesses them with peace and bounty. The walls are secure, there are no cries of distress, children are bountiful and livestock abundant.
At the end of the Psalm, we’re given a parable that reminds us that our happiness comes, not from our hands and abilities and efforts, but from God. We trust God and find happiness in the bounty he provides. But do we?
Think back to that bumper sticker my British friends defaced. You know, the sticker got it right. God does love us! And for that, we should rejoice. But we should never forget that God’s love is so great that not only are we loved, God loves world. God’s created everyone in his image and wants us all to strive to love him as much as he loves us.
This year as our nation celebrates the Fourth, we are on edge. We have enemies in the world. The recent attacks in Istanbul, Bangladesh, and Orlando make us uneasy. The uncertainty in the world as experienced through the British vote to leave the EU and the turmoil leading up to what seems to be never-ending elections in our country have us wondering what might be ahead. Furthermore, some of us face personal battles with enemies who, for one reason or another, want to do us harm. That enemy might be another person or an illness such as cancer. Will the American experience that kicked-off 240 years ago, tomorrow, continue to thrive? Will we, in our personal lives, continue to thrive? We don’t really know for we are mortal. But this we do know: “Our help is in the name of the Lord.”
I don’t know what will happen, but I know that the answer to our nation and the world’s ills lie, not with us, but with God. Like the Psalmist, who begins and ends focused on God, we must begin and end there. So tomorrow, when you wake up on the Fourth of July, let your thoughts go to God in prayer. Give God thanks for the nation we have and for all in it that is good. Confess that which is not good to the Almighty, asking for wisdom to help make it better. Live the day in prayer. And when evening falls and the fireworks have all exploded, and finally quietness engulfs the night, continue to meditate on the Lord as you ask for protection through the night in anticipate of the coming of another day. Amen.
 James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 437.
 Artur Weiser, The Psalms (1959: Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 823.
 Job 7:17.
 Isaiah 40:6
 Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 95.
 Psalm 124:8