"Not Just a Formality"#91-02
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 10, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Psalm 32
"Happy is the man whose breach of trust is forgiven, whose failure is covered." That's the opening line of an ancient Near Eastern poem that's been passed down to us over the millennia. Even though we are separated from it by some 3,000 years of time and distance, I have felt the emotion of this poem. I know what it's talking about. I remember. I remember sitting in a booth at a Village Inn 22 years ago. The four of us had come there that evening to talk. I had thought of this as more of a formality—lip service, more or less. I wanted to get their blessing to marry their daughter, Amy. I didn't think it was necessary, but Amy insisted.
In my mind it was a formality because we had already gotten their blessing a year ago when we had gotten engaged the first time. Now, this was just a matter of getting their blessing again. But I don't think I understood what a blessing was and is. Like I said, this technically was our second engagement. We had broken up, called it off, canceled it just two months before the wedding day. She had bought a dress, picked a venue, printed invitations, and then it was over before it had even started. Now we were just trying to put all that behind us. We had changed our minds, decided that we did want to get married.
And though, at least from my perspective, we didn't need it, here we were asking for their blessing. But I have not yet considered the matter from their perspective. Doing this is a little easier now after 22 years of marriage, raising four children, two of whom are over 18. I have a better sense of what it's like to be sitting on the opposite side of the booth. See, I had hurt them not by anything I had done or said, but for what I had failed to do. I didn't understand it until I considered it from their perspective. After Amy and I had called off our engagement, I stopped talking to her parents. I just stopped.
After dozens of dinners at their home, after being welcomed into their family reunions and birthday parties and game nights, or just to stop by on a Saturday to do laundry after they had become like a second set of parents to me, I just stopped talking to them and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because I was immature or embarrassed, or that I just didn't want to hear from them at the time. And this hurt them. This wasn't just a formality for them. This was about repairing a breach of trust, restoring a rift in a relationship, being a family. "Michael," they said, "you didn't even call us. Why didn't you come to us? Why didn't you talk to us?"
And all at once, sitting in that booth in the Village Inn just off the interstate, it hit me like a wave of regret, a flood of guilt. In that moment, I knew that I had hurt them and could never forgive myself. Looking back on this, I believe this was a turning point in my life. Things could have been different from here on out. What had started as a rift, they could have made into a permanent fault line. What began as a breach, they could have held onto as an unforgivable failure. They could have nursed a grudge until we all drowned in its flood, but they didn't. They chose to bless rather than to curse, to truly bless, not just a formality. They chose to restore the rift, repair the breach, and cover my failure. They confronted me, explained how I had hurt them, and then decided not to hold it against me and not to withhold their love. To this day, I know the truth of that ancient poem in my bones. "Happy is the one whose breach of trust is forgiven, whose failure is covered." Although, happy might be a misleading translation. In many translations of the poem, the word used is "blessed," blessed. But I went with happy first because I wasn't sure we use that word enough in everyday situations to really sense the meaning, although I suppose I did just use it in the story that I told you.
I had wanted their blessing. I had been treating blessing as a formality, an empty word, but they knew that there was more to it. To bless someone is to speak good words over them, words that come with commitment, and to be blessed is the state of having those good words spoken over you. Sometimes having those words spoken over you make you feel happy, but not always, or at least not at first. Either way, the blessedness this poem is extolling is not dependent on our feelings. It depends on the one speaking the blessing. The poem comes to us from the Psalms, the songbook of ancient Israel, from Israel's most famous psalmist, their favorite singer/songwriter and ruler, King David.
David speaks of the blessed situation that comes from having good words spoken over you despite your failures. But it's more than that because it depends on whom is speaking the good words. It's one thing for a stranger to speak good words over you, and it's another thing entirely if someone close does the same for you, your future in-laws, for example. That's because in a close relationship like that, a relationship with commitment, a transgression, a trespass, it's not just a broken boundary or a broken rule, it's a breach of trust, a rift, a betrayal. A transgression in a close relationship hurts more and costs more. So, choosing to speak good words, to patch the rift, to bless rather than to curse in this context is costly. In this poem, David talks about the tremendous impact these good words had on him. Here's how it starts as recorded in Psalm 32.
"Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose guilt is covered. Blessed is the person for whom the Lord (the God of Israel) does not count his guilt against him and in whose spirit there is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. Because day and night, Your hand, O Lord, was heavy upon me. My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I will acknowledge my sin before You, O Lord. I will not hide my guilt. I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord and You forgave the guilt of my sin. For this reason, let everyone, everyone who is faithful, pray to You upon finding out. Surely in the flood of great waters, they will not come near him. You are a hiding place. You're a hiding place for me. You preserve me from trouble. You surround me with shouts of deliverance."
I said that I could relate to this poem, that I could feel the emotion—and I can sometimes. But that wasn't always the case and even today it isn't always the case. Sometimes God feels distant, and maybe you can relate better to that sentiment.
This poem, this in-your-guts intimacy with God, this closeness, sometimes torturous, sometimes joyous closeness to God, it sounds strange. The poet is clearly concerned about God. You might even say obsessed. What God thinks about him is more important than anything else to him. His relationship with God is the water main of his life. It supplies everything in the house. Such intense personal dependence on God is rare even among the religious.
Even religious people often treat God as a formality—the man upstairs who mostly minds His own business and lets you mind yours. Or God is in the background, part of the help, there to answer prayers like a butler or a janitor, or like a doctor—He's there for emergencies only. Or for the less religious, God is absent or non-existent, like a father who skipped town. These images for God may express your sentiment or mine, but they would not satisfy our poet. For him, God isn't just the water main of his life, but the foundation, the roof, the four walls, the fireplace, and the family around it. God is the vital center of his life, closer than a mother or a father, more intimate than a spouse.
"You are my hiding place," he says to God. "You surround me." It sounds strange because it seems to go against so much of everyday experience. God seems absent, doesn't He? I can't see God. I don't hear His voice audibly. I don't smell His after shave or the home cooked meal that He's made. I don't feel His hand on my shoulder, or maybe I do. The poet says that when he kept silent, when he wasn't talking to God, trying to cut God out of his life, he was miserable. This misery, he realized later, was "God's hand heavy upon me," he said.
Recently, I was talking with a friend who wouldn't normally consider himself a religious person. For the most part, he has lived as if there is no God. And for the most part, he lives what should make for a happy life. He's got steady employment, plenty of money. He lives in a nice house near the beach. He enjoys good friends, good food, good times. Recently I asked him, "How are things?" "Empty," he said, "like a well dried up in the heat of summer empty. I have all the things that should make me feel happy, but it still feels empty." Our poet might say that my friend is feeling the hand of the Lord heavy upon him. Not for any single sin or transgression he's committed, although like you and me, he's got plenty of those, but that's not the source of the emptiness he feels.
The poet would say that it's the rift in the relationship with the One who created him. Maybe you feel it, too. Our poet thinks of life in this way because he's heard and read and studied the Torah, that is the first five books of the Bible, starting with Genesis. The Torah is a long and complicated account, but one way to summarize it is this. It's about God, the Creator, who chooses to bless His creation, who chooses to speak good words over and into and through His creatures, ultimately through His human family Israel, even when they treat His blessing like a formality, which is one way of summarizing the recurring problem revealed in the Torah.
God's chosen family Israel treats His blessing like a formality, like a brief exchange in a Village Inn just off the interstate. When they did that, when we do that, when we let silence stand between us and God, when we let the words go unspoken, we are like David in the psalm, a dried-up desert, a home cut off from the water main, a son separated from the family. God confronts us, explains that we are hurting only ourselves and that He chooses not to hold it against us. He chooses to speak good words over us, words of forgiveness, words of blessing, and this is no formality. David cannot contain his discovery.
He's got to share it with us, with you. He has found forgiveness with God and he has to share this blessing with everyone. He says, "Let this be for all the faithful, for all who have faith in God." Some translations say "godly," that is all who look to God and rely on God. Let all the godly pray to you at a time when you may be found, which is right now. And then after he says to God, "You are my hiding place. You save me from trouble. You surround me with shouts of deliverance," He talks to us. He says, "You, you who are hearing this or reading this, let me instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go. Let me counsel you with my eye on you. Do not be like a horse or a mule without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle or else it will not come near you. Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord. Be glad. Be happy in the Lord and rejoice you who are right with Him. Shout for joy all of you whose heart is upright."
Listening to the poem, it's hard to tell if we're supposed to be hearing the voice of the poet or the voice of God, because David, remember, is part of the family, God's family, Israel, the family created to speak for God, to be a blessing to every other family in the world and to bring them in also. But as the Torah and the rest of the Bible tell us, even Israel made God's Words a mere formality. When the Word of God came in Person, Jesus, the Son of God, He confronted them. Jesus told them, "You honor Me with your lips, but your heart is far from Me."
But they didn't get it, didn't understand it or didn't want to understand it. Maybe it was immaturity or embarrassment or that they just couldn't stand the truth Jesus was speaking. So they betrayed Him, abandoned Him, tried to silence Him by crucifying Him. And we would've done the same had we been there. Looking back, this was the turning point for Israel and for us. Things could have been different from here on out. God could have made this rift a permanent fault line. He could have nursed a grudge until all the world was cursed forever, drowned in a flood. But He didn't. God chose to bless rather than to curse. God covered, repaired, and restored. He raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus confronted His people, explained how they had hurt Him, how much it had cost Him, and that He wouldn't hold it against them, that He would never withhold His love from them. Those who believed became His family, God's family once again. And like David before them, they had to share this blessing with everyone.
And that's why I'm talking with you today. God's good words for the world through Israel in Jesus, through His family over the centuries have come to me and I'm sharing them with you. That's what my future mother- and father-in-law were doing for me. When they spoke those words at the Village Inn that night 22 years ago. These words were more than a formality. They were for more than just a wedding, just a marriage, just a single family. They were sharing God's blessing in Jesus with me, a bigger blessing they had received from their parents, their pastors, teachers, friends, and from each other. They were passing these good words onto me. I'm sharing them with you.
Maybe it's been months or years since you've heard from God. Maybe you've never heard. Maybe you heard from Him yesterday and like David, you can't stand even a moment of silence between you. Whatever the case, would you hear it again? In the Name of Jesus, whatever you've done or failed to do, all is—all will be—forgiven. In the waves of regret, in the flood of guilt, He is your hiding place. He gives His blessing, not just a formality, but a place in His family. Amen.
Reflections for September 10, 2023
Title: Not Just a Formality
Mike Zeigler: We're visiting with Dr. Tim Saleska, a professor and an author of a commentary on the psalms of the Old Testament. Welcome back, Tim.
Tim Saleska: Thank you, Mike. Happy to be here.
Mike Zeigler: Tim, last week we started talking about psalms as poetry, and we discussed questions like why is there poetry in the Bible? Why wouldn't God stick to more straightforward speech? Could you briefly recap what we've said so far?
Tim Saleska: Yeah, I thought that one of the main things that drew me to the psalms was the complexity of language that can lead your mind down many different avenues. So that's one of the reasons I think we have poetry; it leads us down interpretive paths that can produce wonder and awe and comfort, sometimes distress, all of those things as we make our way through them.
Mike Zeigler: Something that helps me understand that is when I think about truth as not in the first place a statement, but truth is a person. Like Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." And so the Scriptures aren't just giving us information, they're inviting us into a relationship with a Person. He is the truth. One of the ways that the psalms bring us to that complex truth is through the use of a language device often called metaphor. So let's talk about metaphor, maybe just start with a definition.
Tim Saleska: Sure.
Mike Zeigler: What's a metaphor? How do you recognize one in the psalms?
Tim Saleska: Sure. A metaphor, strictly, you compare one thing to another thing. So if the Lord is my Shepherd and He's the One leading me, what does my life look like? Is He really like that? Or do I really live as if I'm in charge of my own life and making my own decisions? See, do I actually live by another metaphor or am I thinking about my life as being led like the psalmist is? If I'm not, why not? If I am, how does that look? See, those are the kinds of things that I like to begin to think about and that the imagery of the Bible starts to enable for us very beautifully.
Mike Zeigler: I'd like to talk more about that. First, I want to register a negative reaction someone might have to the idea of metaphor, and you said you delight in the complexity of language. Other people want things to be more straightforward. They don't like if something has multiple meanings. And so maybe they hear this talk about metaphors with some suspicion. Metaphors are apt to be hijacked or taken in the wrong direction, or maybe it's even a less than truthful way of speaking. It's just sophisticated lies or something like that. But clearly God uses metaphors in His Scriptures and the psalms, and He sees something redeeming about them. What is it that's redeeming about metaphors?
Tim Saleska: Boy, you've asked a whole lot of questions there. First of all, about it being sophisticated lies. I react strongly against that, because even science speaks in terms of metaphors and analogies in order to get their ideas across to things. It's a way that helps shape our thinking and gives direction to our thinking. If you begin to think, what is the meaning in life? That's too broad a question to answer. But if you use the metaphor, life is a journey, now you have a direction to go. Oh, that means there's a goal. Wonder what the goal is.
Mike Zeigler: So we're always being shaped by metaphors. And if we're not being shaped by the metaphors of the psalms and the Bible, then we're being shaped by other ones.
Tim Saleska: Exactly.
Mike Zeigler: So you started talking about, "the Lord is my Shepherd," and in your commentary you mentioned this other metaphor of "I am the captain of my own soul." So those are metaphors in conflict and are going to shape us in different ways.
Tim Saleska: The psalm sounds so soft and gentle, but in another way and if you look at it right, it's challenging everything that you are taught by our culture to be and the way to think about yourself.
"What do you mean, I'm being led? What does that mean?" Well, that means you're not in charge of your life. That means you've got to trust someone else that they're leading you. "Well, how do I do that?" You see, how then do I think about my work, my vocation, my job, my family, everything in terms of that metaphor? See, that's not a question easily answered or quickly answered. It's challenging. And the psalm, then you can keep coming back to it as a reminder, as encouragement, as a place of meditation and contemplation and relaxation. As Christians, who are we being led by? Where's this Person, this God, leading us, the Lord? What does it mean for us?
The psalm challenges you to rethink your life when you start to hold it up to other pictures and images of what life is supposed to be, and even pictures of success versus this picture. See, those clash. I hope everybody can see that.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"My Soul, Now Praise Your Maker" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.