Limited | Sermon from January 14, 2018

Based on Psalm 139

There’s nothing quite like holding a newborn baby.

I’m not much of a crier, but both times I held my children for the first time, I cried like the baby they were. Holding new life, being even simply in the presence of new life, has this mystique, this power, that penetrates deep into our soul. It’s as if our humanity, the very basis of who we are, resonates deeply in the presence of humanity born afresh and anew. We see the potential, the hope, the joy, that a new life brings. And, when a new family member is born, we know the depth of love that goes with us as we see flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone born again into the world.

Such was my experience with my newborn children. I bet you can think of when your children, or grandchildren, or perhaps nieces and nephews, were born into the world. And if you haven’t had that joy yet, I bet you can imagine it.

When Dana was pregnant with both boys, I often felt impatient. I waited for the day that I would meet my child for the first time and begin the journey of getting to know them. As much as nurture shapes who we are, we come into the world with a particular nature, and I couldn’t wait to experience their nature, to find out all about who my children are. And sure enough, now that they are older, I can see how their personalities were there at the moment of birth. What a joy it is to get to know them, to live life together with them, to see them grow and blossom into the fullness of who God made them to be.

And that’s just the point of this Psalm: God made us. We are each of such divine authorship that God knows us intimately. In fact, God knew us before time! This Psalm, attributed to David, tells us that God was there, forming us, knitting us together in our mother’s wombs, having already become intimately acquainted with us as God’s “eyes beheld [our] unformed substance.” We are, indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.

And that intimate acquaintance doesn’t end with forming us before we’re born. God’s intimacy with us remains throughout our lives. The Psalm opens up that way, declaring that God has searched and known us, that God knows when we sit and when we rise, that God is acquainted with all our ways. There’s literally nowhere we can go to get away from God, for God is always with us, aware of even the deepest, darkest secrets we hold. But for David, this isn’t something to fear; no, this is a promise of protection, a promise of presence that will always serve our best interest, for we are God’s and God is ours. The intimacy we enjoy with God is so deep, so profound, so close, that we’re tied together with an unbreakable bond. God is ours forever and will know us intimately, even the deepest parts of us, protecting us along our life’s journey.

This is a gorgeous Psalm. Classic. Beautiful. So many lines that we have heard before; many we may even know in our hearts. The lectionary, an ancient preaching schedule of scripture, prescribed only verses 1-6 and 13-18 for preaching, and certainly I considered doing just that. But then I read the end of the Psalm and I felt the Holy Spirit speak a word to me. It’s a word I don’t often consider, at least consciously, but it’s there as a part of my being. I usually don’t desire to share that word, although it’s still there. God certainly knows it’s there, for God knows the depths of me, even the parts that I might rather hide. That word is this:

O that you would kill the wicked.

It’s a surprising turn in the Psalm. After this gorgeous poetry that describes God’s knowledge of us, God’s motherly attention to our formation, and God’s protection of us throughout our lives because God’s presence is everywhere, we get this word that seems to fall out of nowhere: O that you would kill the wicked!

David knew something about the wicked. While this Psalm was written in David’s memory, not by David himself, the priests who composed it remembered the time when David was surrounded by enemies. You may remember the story from 1 and 2 Samuel. God had chosen David to be King of Israel, but there was a problem: they already had a king and Saul was his name. Saul was also anointed king by God, through the prophet Samuel, and was sitting on the throne. According to David and his allies, God had moved the anointing from Saul to David because Saul had proven inept and unable to listen and follow God’s commandments. But as with anyone who holds any power, Saul was reticent to let it go.

So, nothing less than a civil war breaks out. Most people side with Saul, as most people of a nation tend to side with their existing rulers if civil war breaks out. The minority side; the less powerful, less well-equipped, less disciplined, under-financed, ragtag group of rebels, belongs to David’s side. They’re the insurgency, they’re the terrorists, and Saul is intent on stamping them out to return Israel to peaceful rule.

David believes in God’s sovereignty and God’s will. He believes that it will triumph, given enough time. He remains faithful to God. But he also knows what it is to be surrounded by hostile forces, bent on his death and the destruction of his insurgency. He knows what it is to count his enemies. While he remains convinced that God will have his way, making David king of Israel one day, he’s in the midst of a political nightmare. And so he cries out to God

O that you would kill the wicked!

This is not polite conversation.

Today, we don’t kill the wicked, we vote them out of office. While it’s still somewhat impolite to talk about politics, when we do, we don’t ask God to kill our politicians and leaders, as David does here. We may ask God to change their minds, we may ask God to swing elections in favor of a certain candidate, we may ask that particular policies prevail, but we don’t ask that people die. And anyone who does immediately becomes part of the fringe of our society, outside the mainstream.

And when it comes to people we might think of as the incarnation of evil itself, like ISIS, we don’t ask God to kill them. We want them stopped, we rejoice at the defeats that have driven them out of Iraq and turned them from a nascent nation-state into a guerrilla insurgency, but we don’t ask God to kill them.

And when it comes to our personal enemies, I bet we don’t ask God to kill them, either. I have personal enemies, people who would rejoice when I fail and hope for my destruction. It just happens in this life; as we live our lives, the presence of evil in the world causes a few folks to hate our guts. That happened to me last year at Reinhardt. It was the first time I could remember actually experiencing people working against me, hoping to see me fail. I counted these persons as my enemies for there was no other word to describe them.

And even still, no matter how much pain and suffering they caused me, I didn’t wish God to kill them. I bet, as you think of personal enemies you have, you don’t wish God to cause them harm, or even worse, to kill them.

So what are we to do with a phrase like “O that you would kill the wicked?”

Reinhardt started off well. And throughout my short tenure there as their chaplain, I saw students growing in their faith. Weekly, I would have at least one student, but usually several, stopping by my office to tell me that they weren’t quite sure about God, but they wanted to believe. We had some of the most amazing and life giving conversations I have ever had as these students moved toward accepting Christ. Worship attendance grew dramatically, especially as we fine-tuned worship to fit the needs and culture of the average student there. I saw several students for spiritual counseling, walking difficult journeys with them. In short, I saw the Holy Spirit doing amazing things at Reinhardt. My soul was encouraged and glad.

Unfortunately, things did not go so well with the leadership of the university. The chaplaincy role reports both to that leadership as well as to the United Methodist Church, which led to conflict when the university wanted to use the chaplaincy role in unethical ways. Once the president realized she could not utilize that position as she wanted, she moved with swiftness to remove me from campus, attacking me and the United Methodist Church in the process. The goal, it seemed, was to undermine and discredit me so that students and faculty would not be upset when I inevitably left. This is what caused friends to turn to enemies, the first time I could remember experiencing people actively working against me, hoping to see me fail.

After only six months at Reinhardt, the bishop moved me to a church. I left feeling like a failure. Mentors in my life, Bishop Bryan, our district superintendent Rick Lanford, and above all, my wife reinforced to me over and over again that I was not a failure. And, there’s truth to that, but the fact remains that ministry failed at Reinhardt, and not of my own doing. It simply failed, and I was powerless to make that change.

There were limits to what I could do. I could not change hearts and minds, I could not fix poor leadership, and above all, I could not create justice for myself and the student body. I wanted to so badly, I wanted to seize control, take charge, and go on a crusade, taking down my enemies in the process. I saw what the Holy Spirit was doing in that place and it grieved my heart to see the Spirit being squandered and squashed. I wanted to do something to fix that!

But the reality was I could not create justice. I could not fix the situation. I was limited.

We don’t like having limits on ourselves. I’ve heard several of you say, and I’m this way too, that the fastest way to motivate us is to tell us we can’t do something. We love to push back against limits and prove that we’re actually capable where there’s doubt. We do that through our jobs, working harder and harder to gain position and status. We do that through working out, setting harder and harder goals. We do that through making resolutions and then having the discipline to stick with them. We do that through our schedules, adding more and more to our responsibilities and proving to the world that we’re more capable than we’re thought to be.

The problem is, as we know from experience, our limits catch up with us. Our souls fall apart because we’re too busy and we find ourselves spiritually dry. We lose our patience and our graciousness too easily because we’re too busy responding to the demands others place on us and fail to take care of ourselves. We overwork ourselves, whether in working out or simply in working, because we want to prove, deep down inside, that we’re limitless in potential and ability.

I thought that way, too. Then I met Reinhardt.

Discovering, and then admitting, that we have limits is hard and painful. But that’s what David demonstrates for us in this Psalm. O that you would kill the wicked is an honest, prayerful, response in the face of limitations.

David knows it’s not his job to defeat his enemies in battle. If God commanded it, he’d do it, but outside of God’s command, he cannot. He doesn’t have the soldiers, he doesn’t have the equipment, and he’s not going to engage in guerrilla warfare. He’s extremely limited in what he can do, and so he’s prayerful, asking God to do what he cannot. Rather than fight against the limits, rather than engage in behavior he shouldn’t because he wants to control everything, he accepts his limits and prays that God will do what he cannot.

That’s where I found myself at Reinhardt. I began to pray like David. God, you know me. You know I haven’t done anything wrong. You know that you’ve called me to this work. So go forth with your power and defeat this wickedness! Destroy this evil! For the work of justice, which is the work of righteousness being born into an evil world, is God’s work. I am sometimes a vessel through which that happens, but I am limited because I cannot create justice.

I cannot. That’s a hard phrase. But I simply cannot. I can only create the right conditions for the Spirit to do its work. There’s more than I cannot do than I can. That’s been a hard lesson, too. But that’s the example David sets for us this morning.

O that you would kill the wicked is a confession: God, I can’t take care of this on my own. But you know me. You know my needs, because you put me together before I was even born! You knit me together in my mother’s womb, you care about me so much that you go before and behind me, protecting me. You are the great caregiver and, in your limitless power, you will do what I cannot. That’s David’s confession this morning, which calls upon us to make it our own personal confession. God, you are the great caregiver and in your limitless power, you will do what I cannot.

While we may not advocate for killing our enemies, David’s point remains relevant: we must admit what we cannot do and leave it to God to do for us. We must admit that we have limits and, when we run up against those limits, leave it to God to surpass them.

God can do what we cannot, for we, as humans, have limits. The question before us this morning is whether or not we’re brave enough, and humble enough, to admit that we have limits.

The free will God has given us means that we can use that free will to accept where we have limits or to try and play God. When we accept our limits, the Holy Spirit moves in power to create the changes and solve the problems we cannot. Where we don’t accept our limits, where we try and do things that we are simply not capable of doing, we inhibit the Spirit’s ability, we stand in the way of what God wants to accomplish, because we too busy playing God to let God be God.

We can be busy playing God with our health, trying to heal ourselves, unwilling to accept the limits to modern medicine and our own inability to heal ourselves. Letting God be God of our health means confessing our limits to God and asking God for healing.

We can be busy playing God with our finances, unwilling to accept that we cannot afford everything, that we cannot do everything, that we cannot keep up with the Jones’s. Letting God be God of our finances means confessing our limits and asking God to grant us wisdom and a generous spirit.

We can be busy playing God with our families, unwilling to accept that we cannot heal our families and make them whole. Letting God be God of our families means confessing those limits and asking God to bring peace to strife, trusting that God will do so.

We can be busy playing God with our jobs and community commitments, unwilling to accept that we only have so much of ourselves we can give away, unwilling to accept that our time is limited, unwilling to accept our humanity. Letting God be God of our vocation means having the faith to know that saying no to opportunities and limiting our commitments will give God the opportunity to make us whole and grant us peace.

We can be busy playing God whenever we realize we have a limit and refuse to acknowledge it, which is exactly what our culture teaches us to do. Power through is the mantra of the day, but powering through only powers us down. Conquer is the name of the day, but conquering only tyrannizes our souls. Rise above is the name of the day, but when we try and rise above without divine power, we only make higher the fall that eventually comes.

Stop.

Accept your limits.

They’re different for all of us, but they’re there.

Humility is knowing ourselves so well that we know our capacities and capabilities and stay within the boundaries they create. Humility is accepting limitations, leaving God to do what we cannot do on our own.

I cannot create justice. I cannot change hearts and minds. But God can. I confess to you this morning that I struggle to stay in those boundaries. I like feeling powerful. I like conquering things. I like getting recognition when I have accomplished something. And I just like the internal satisfaction of accomplishment. I can do many things, but true wisdom, and true peace, has come in this past year when I have learned to accept my limitations and trust God to do the rest.

That’s David’s example in our Psalm. O that you would kill the wicked is his confession of his limitation and prayer for God’s assistance. This morning, let’s make that our own personal confession: God, you are the great caregiver and, in your limitless power, you will do what I cannot.

We can make that our confession because we can trust that the God who beheld our unformed substance, who placed us in his book before we were a glimmer in our parents’ eyes, who lay his hand upon us while we were yet unborn, still knows us well enough to take care of us, to provide for us when we reach our limit. God takes care of us, for God is within us and around us, constantly aware of our limits and moving in power to do what we cannot.

O that you would kill the wicked. David knew his place in the cosmic order of things. He knew what he could do and what he needed God to do. He accepted his limits with humility. How well do you measure up to David?

Hear this word, and let it be a word of comfort for you as you consider the limits you face: we are limited, but God is limitless.

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