"What Are People Good For?"#91-09
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 29, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Psalm 46:1
What are people good for? They're good for sharing life but not securing it. This last summer we were traveling on vacation with some friends. We took a road trip to Colorado together, two families each with a mom and a dad. Each of us with four children, ages 12 to 20, so 12 people in all. And because traveling across the country, hiking through the mountains with four 40-year- olds and eight free-spirited young adults isn't exciting enough, we decide to play a game, a slightly awkward role-playing game for the whole trip. Each person was assigned a secret mission, a mission to act out some strange, out-of-character behavior. We all got one, and we're supposed to guess everyone else's, and at the end of the trip, we'd all share our guesses. But as it turned out at the end of the trip, most of us had no clue what each other's missions were. Very few of us discovered anyone's mission, but what we did discover was just how odd, slightly annoying, and sometimes inexplicably weird these people we're traveling with could be.
At the beginning of the trip, we each drew out of a hat, a folded slip of paper detailing the assignment. A third party who wasn't on the trip had come up with all the missions so that each of us would be equally in the dark. When I unfolded my paper, it said, "At least once every hour announced that you have to go to the bathroom." Which, during the 12-hour car ride, wasn't all that strange. Although, by the time we got to the mountains, my teenage children were commenting on how dad has the bladder of a two-year-old. And I didn't even say it every hour. Sometimes, I forgot. Other times, I was just tired of playing this dumb game, but I said it enough to make it weird.
As for the dad and the other family, his strange behavior was that whenever someone asked him a question, instead of answering the question, he had to reply with a random fact. "Hey dad, how much longer did we get there?" "Did you know that the capital of Vermont is Montpelier?" "Dad, what time is it?" "Did you know that the study of the measurement of time is called Horology?" At one point, his wife even scolded him. "She asked you about lunch. Why are you talking about the car you drove in high school?" And good sport that he is? He says, "Oh, it's just what I do."
Three days into the trip, the other dad and I are riding along in the car together, just the two of us on some errand we were given. We're talking and I ask him a question. And out of left field, he says, "Did you know that the chapters and verses of the Bible weren't added until the 16th century?" Now, I've known this man for over 20 years. He's like a brother, like an uncle to our children. I know him pretty well, and I know that sometimes instead of answering a question directly, he'll tell a story. So I'm listening intently to him telling me about this interesting fact, and I'm waiting for him to make the connection. But it never comes. And assuming that it's me who's failing to make the connection, I ask, "Okay, but what does that have to do with what we were just talking about?" And all he says is, "Oh, it's just what I do."
Now, in about 10 seconds, I would guess it that this is his mission. This is his thing. And yeah, it took 10 seconds, I'm a little slow on the uptake. But after that, it dawned on me and I realized what was really going on. And then, for the rest of the trip, it was great fun to watch him work, to be in the know with him quietly sharing in this mission with him and all that it entailed, the humor, the horror, the embarrassment, the agony. I would share it all with him, but it took 10 seconds, and those 10 seconds felt like an eternity. I was really sad and scared for him, for his family, because he's losing his mind and I'm wondering how I'm going to break it to his wife.
I've seen the onset of dementia can happen to someone in their forties. Maybe you've seen it, maybe you've experienced it—what it's like to watch a loved one become someone else, a shell of a person that people wants to depended on. For 10 eternal seconds, these were my dark meditations. It was like looking into the future, catching a glimpse of the flaw by which the security system would be breached and the whole tottering structure would collapse, burying us beneath it. Because it doesn't matter how secure someone seems on the outside, people change not just from aging or illness or injury, people change, sometimes inexplicably. When your dad says your mom isn't the woman she used to be, and he wants to move on. When your mom says she realized that she never really loved your dad and wants to go searching for her soulmate. When the company you trusted goes in a different direction, without you. When a best friend stops calling and you don't know why. When the structures, institutions, and traditions that once gave you security start to totter and the ground you're standing on caves in, it's like free fall, time slows down. That's how those 10 seconds felt in the car with my friend, like I was losing everything.
Now, I can look back on this with the benefit of hindsight. Now, I can look back on it and laugh because it was just a game. And after everything was revealed, I was relieved. And after I stopped announcing that I had to pee, they were, too. But that relief would be short-lived if we didn't pause long enough to grasp this truth about people, about what they're good for. People are good for sharing life with, but not for securing it.
Finding security and sharing life is the theme of a well-known poem in the Bible. A poem known as Psalm 46. This poem was the inspiration behind Martin Luther's famous hymn in German, the title is "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott." In English, it's been translated as "Our God is a defense and tower, a safe stronghold. Our God is still. A tower of strength, our God doth stand. A mighty fortress is our God." The hymn and the psalm that inspired it talk about security, where security is found and how it's shared. Security, according to the psalm, is not found in a building or a bank account. It's not found in a friend or a family or a social political identity. It's not found in an institution, in a cultural tradition, or even in a soulmate. Security is found in God alone. And this life that God secures is not for isolated individuals. It's not something saved for a solitary religious experience. It's not reserved for privately held spiritual beliefs. It's not about God for me only, but God for us. Our God is a refuge and strength. He secures life to be shared with other people.
Listen to how it sounds in Psalm 46. "God is for us, a refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear when the earth shakes. When the mountains totter into the heart of the sea, let its waters roar and foam, let the mountains tremble at its swelling. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy dwelling place of the Most High. God is in her midst. She will not totter. God will help her when mourning dawns. The nation's rage, the kingdoms totter. He gives His voice, the earth melts. The Lord of the heavenly armies is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress. Come and see the works of the Lord, what devastations He brings on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow. He shatters the spear. He burns the chariots with fire. Be still, He says. Stop striving and know that I am God. I am high above the nations. I am high above the earth. The Lord of the heavenly armies is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress."
The poem is about life with God, the God of Jacob. Who is Jacob? Jacob was an insecure, conniving, backstabbing cheater. That's what his name means in Hebrew, Yaʿaqov. His older twin brother, Esau was a man's man. Their father Isaac loved Esau best. Esau was a hunter, a woodsman, a rugged explorer. Jacob, Genesis 25 tells us, was quiet. He liked to stay in the tent. He was what we'd call indoorsy. But God chose Jacob for this assignment, for this mission to share God's blessing, God's life, God's security with all the families of the earth. And this mission would put Jacob in an awkward position, maybe even make him play the fool. It would involve dismantling Jacob's impressive but, ultimately, fatally flawed self-preserving security system. It would mean Jacob would have to stop using people and stop avoiding them so that he could start sharing God's life with them.
But this proved to be too much for Jacob and his family. God was patient with him, but they just couldn't accept that God alone was their security. They wanted God-plus, God plus a big army, God plus a steady paycheck. God plus health insurance. Even though theirs was Jerusalem, theirs was the city of God, the holy dwelling place of the most high, the source of the river that flowed through them to all creation. He was all theirs already—but they wanted more. They couldn't just share this life. They had to secure it on their own terms. There were moments when it was revealed to them, 10 eternal seconds when they could see the small but fatal flaw in their self-made security system, the glitch by which the whole structure would collapse.
But then the moment passed, and they went on with their games. So God Himself came. God's eternal Son was born into Jacob's family. He took the Name Jesus and came into their city, God in the flesh, and He showed and told His sisters and brothers in a hundred different ways that He would be their security, not God-plus, not God plus a political program, not God plus a firearm, not God plus the weekend. God, alone, is your security. But Jesus saw that they wouldn't budge, they couldn't. Even though where they were standing wasn't safe, even though the whole structure was unsound, even though it had a fatal flaw, those insecure sons and daughters of Jacob went on playing their games until it fell. But Jesus stayed with them even when it fell on Him.
The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth revealed their fatal flaw and ours. When we try to secure life on our own terms, all we get is death, even the death of God. And God, in love, let us kill Him. And being killed by us, Jesus brought the whole damned structure down with Him. And I'm using the word damned as a technical term for "under God's eternal curse," because that's what God thinks of our attempts to secure life apart from Him, and the cross of Jesus showed it. But three days later when the dust settled, Jesus was standing again. He's alive again as secure in God His Father as He has ever been, still with life to share, still for them, still for you, still for us. Psalm 46 reminds us what we and people like us are good for. We are good for sharing life, not securing it.
To secure something is to make it safe, to protect it from danger. For example, you secure your doors. You lock them up at night to make your house safe. You secure your child's seatbelt to protect them in the case of an accident. You secure your keys to your key chain, so they'll be there when you need them. Now, scale that up as big and as high as it will go. That's what it means to try to secure life. It means trying to make all of life safe and certain so that whatever you want will be there when you want it. And Psalm 46 reminds us just how absurd such a task would be. Like a toddler on a tricycle trying to do the job of a tow truck or a freight train, people are not good for this task, not in the slightest.
Even the things that seem most steady and secure in this life: mountains, kingdoms, nations, the very ground under your feet, all that is shaky at best. You can rage against this truth, you can fight with it. You can suck it up and accept it, but you cannot change it. Everything you work for and fight for and try to secure will eventually slip from your grip. You can't secure life. You can't use people to secure it, so stop trying. Be still. Now, let's be clear about what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that you should stop locking your doors or buckling seat belts or keeping track of your keys. I'm not telling you to stop trying to be wise with money or stop being faithful to your spouse or children or friends or neighbors. I'm not even telling you to stop playing games, even the ones that might make you look the fool.
All I'm saying is that when you follow Jesus, when you depend on Him and have died with Him in Baptism and live again by God's Spirit, none of those other activities have any bearing at all on your security. They don't make you secure eternally or temporally, that's God's business. And if we leave that business to God, then we can come back to those other activities unburdened and use them as vehicles for sharing God's gifts, God's love, God's life with others.
After those 10 eternal seconds with my friend in the car, while our families were traveling in Colorado, I felt a massive burden lifted, not because I realized he wasn't losing his mind yet, although that was a relief. No, the burden lifted came from remembering that I don't have to expect him to provide security for anybody, and I don't have to expect that of myself.
My friend and his family are Christians, followers of Jesus. We are a part of the church, citizens of the city of God. We know who our refuge and strength is. If you haven't been baptized into Jesus or if you haven't been gathering with the community of your Baptism, go, get baptized. Be a member of a church that gathers around Jesus, His Word and His gifts. Travel with them, sing with them, pray with them. Eat and drink, laugh and cry, and play games. It won't be perfect. Those people you travel with are more clueless, odd, and annoying than you first suspected. They will behave strangely, unreliably, and often inexplicably. But that's okay, you don't need them to secure you, save you, or complete you. Jesus has all that covered. All that's left for us to do is be still and know that God is God, and then share our assignments and missions and all that they entail—the humor, the horror, the embarrassment, and the agony and love. Because that's what people are for.
Would you pray with me using the words of this prayer from Martin Luther, the Morning Prayer? I thank You, my Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger, and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands, I commend myself, my body, my soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.
No Reflections for October 29, 2023
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Psalm 46: God Is Our Refuge and Strength" by Ben Vanderhyde, sung by Erik Herrmann. (© 2023 Ben Vanderhyde) Used by permission.
"The Lord God Is My Strength" by Phillip Magness. (© 2006 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.
"Salvation Unto Us Has Come" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.