The Second Sunday in Lent
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Last week I started a new sermon series called “Words Matter,” and I started with the word shelter from Psalm 91, which begins: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’” I told some stories about shelter: about the time I spent the night in a back yard igloo when I was a boy; about the time my friend Chuck and I rode out a violent thunderstorm under a thin sheet of plastic; and about the time my wife Christy and I camped in the Badlands in a tent that nearly blew away. In my charge to the congregation at the end of the service I said, “You who abide in the shelter of the Most High know that it is warmer than an igloo, safer than a sheet of plastic, and sturdier than a Wal-Mart tent.” But there was one shelter story I didn’t tell you, one I’ve been thinking about since then.
I can’t remember how old I was, probably not more than ten or eleven, but my family took a trip down south and we spent one night at Cloudland Canyon State Park in North Georgia, which I still remember as one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. We cooked our supper over an open fire, asked my dad to tell us one of his “Herbert Rabbit” stories, and when it was time for bed I crawled into my pup tent and wriggled down into the depths of a slumber party sleeping bag. I had put up the tent myself, and put it in a place where the ground looked nice and smooth, but I didn’t have any kind of mattress, and as I lay there I began to feel every root and rock beneath me, and there were a lot of them. No matter how much I twisted and turned I couldn’t seem to get comfortable. It took forever to fall asleep and when I did I think I woke up again every time I rolled over and felt those roots and rocks under my bruised body.
I didn’t have a watch, so I didn’t know what time it was, but at one point in that endless night I began to imagine that it was getting lighter outside. I thought, “Morning is coming! Thank you, Jesus!” I unzipped my sleeping bag, put on my clothes, and crawled out of the tent. I stood there for the longest time, looking at the silhouette of the trees against the slightly lighter sky, but the longer I stood the more I realized it wasn’t getting lighter outside. It was just as dark as it had been when I first stepped out. My brother Scott had a watch with a glow-in-the dark dial, but I couldn’t remember which tent he was in, so I just started unzipping tent flaps, reaching inside, and feeling around for a wrist. I startled one of my little brothers, who woke up and made a noise like a scared rabbit. But eventually I found Scott’s wrist, and his watch, which told me it was 10:30 p.m. And can I tell you this? The thought of going back into my tent, and lying down on those roots and rocks again, and suffering for another seven or eight hours, absolutely sucked the joy out of me.
Years later I saw an ad in a backpacker’s magazine that showed someone shivering inside a tent and asking the question, “Will morning ever come?” And immediately I thought of that night in Cloudland Canyon. But morning did come. Somehow I fell asleep again, even under those circumstances. Somehow I made it through that long, miserable night. And when I woke up the next morning, and saw the light of day, I got my joy back—all of it—all at once. I had never been so happy to get out of bed.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation,” David says, at the beginning of Psalm 27. He doesn’t say it because he has spent the night on a bed of roots and rocks, at least I don’t think so. He says it because he has been surrounded by his enemies, and in the dark he hasn’t been able to see them, he has only been able to imagine them, and the more he imagines the worse it gets. I was talking to someone about that last week, someone who seemed surprised that David had enemies. Wasn’t he Israel’s beloved king, the man after God’s own heart? Yes, but there was that whole period of time when he hadn’t become king yet, when the old king, Saul, was trying to track him down and kill him before that could happen. There may have been plenty of nights when David was hiding in a cave, finding it impossible to sleep on the rocky floor, knowing that Saul and his army were out there somewhere, creeping up on him in the darkness. David may have been whispering to himself like that man in the ad, “Will morning ever come?”
It makes you wonder how things got so bad, because there was a time when Saul loved David. You can find the story in 1 Samuel 16. It was after David was anointed but before Saul knew anything about it. Apparently the spirit of the Lord that had been resting on Saul came mightily upon David, but when it did it left Saul, and was replaced by an evil spirit that tormented him. His advisors said, “Let us look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit comes upon you he will play it, and you will feel better” (you know, “music soothes the savage beast,” and all that). One of them remembered David, a son of Jesse, who was skillful in playing the lyre. They went and got him and after a few days of hearing his music, “Saul loved him greatly.” He sent to Jesse, saying, “‘Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.’ And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him” (1 Sam. 16:22-23).
But that was before David killed Goliath, and before all the women of Israel began to sing, “Saul has slain his thousands but David tens of thousands.” That was before Saul was seized by a spirit of jealousy and tried to pin David to the wall with his spear, not once but twice. That was before David had to run for his life, and ended up at the Cave of Adullam, which is later described as a “stronghold,” and a “fortress.” The author of 1 Samuel says, “Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to [David] and he became captain over them. Those who were with him numbered about four hundred” (1 Sam. 22:2). It’s basically the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, except that David didn’t have much to be merry about. King Saul, who had once loved him, had turned against him. He came after David with 3,000 hand-picked soldiers vowing that he wouldn’t return until David was dead.
It reminds me of a story I once heard Jim Forbes tell. Forbes is a well-known pastor, once ranked among the 12 most-effective preachers in the English-speaking world. He was at some conference I was attending when he began to talk about facing opposition from the leadership at one of his churches. It was a prominent church, one that had been proud of itself for calling its first African-American pastor. But now some of the same people who had called him had turned against him. I don’t even remember the reason; it may not be important. Whatever it was, it was enough to keep Forbes awake at night. He talked about tossing and turning, trying to put his worries out of his mind so he could sleep. His bed was probably comfortable enough, but it may as well have been the roots and rocks I tried to sleep on in Cloudland Canyon. Until one night, as he was lying there trying to sleep, he thought of Psalm 27. Forbes said the whole thing came into his mind at once, and although he had never memorized it he was able to sit up in bed and recite it, word for word.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
That’s not the end of the psalm. It goes on for a full fourteen verses. But to his amazement Forbes was able to recite the entire thing, and when he was finished he was able to lie down and go to sleep.
Forbes told us that the words of that psalm never left him, and to that day he could recite them all. I remember hearing all that and thinking it would be a good psalm to memorize, especially if I ever faced opposition in a church.
And then I did.
I don’t need to tell you the reason; it’s probably not important. But some of the same people who had called me to that church turned against me, and I couldn’t sleep. In those days I learned what my absolute minimum amount of sleep was—four hours—because I would toss and turn until midnight, trying to come up with an irrefutable argument against the accusations of my enemies, and then, exhausted, I would fall asleep until four o’clock when I would wake up and start all over again.
It went on like that night after night, for weeks, for months. I would come home from work and tell Christy the latest development in the story and she would listen, patiently, but it put her in a difficult place because she couldn’t really do anything about it. She couldn’t go up to those people and say, “Hey, stop saying hateful things about my husband!” It would have only made things worse. So, she did the only thing she could do: she believed in me, because she knew me. She knew my heart. But God bless pastor’s spouses everywhere. And God bless Jim Forbes’s spouse, because she must have heard it all, too, and she may have been there on the day he opened the door to his office at church and found that someone with a key had opened the door, thrown all his books off the shelves, and propped a piece of poster board against his desk that said, “Go home, Preacher!”
At the church’s next business meeting things turned ugly, with people threatening him with lawsuits and even bodily harm, but in that moment Forbes got to his feet and right there in the middle of the business meeting he began to shout the words of Psalm 27 at the top of his lungs. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear! The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid!” He recited the whole psalm, all the way down to its final words:
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of
the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!
When he finished the room was silent and the meeting was over. I don’t know it for a fact, but I can imagine that when he went home that night Jim Forbes slept like a baby. And when he woke up the next morning and saw the sunshine streaming in through his curtains he may have said, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”
Which is ultimately what I learned in my own experience with church conflict. You know that night in Cloudland Canyon when I couldn’t sleep, when I was lying there wondering if morning would ever come? Well, there was something else I couldn’t do: I couldn’t make morning come any faster. I couldn’t increase the rotational speed of the earth no matter how hard I tried. Morning would come when it came, and not before. But it did come. It always comes. It came on that morning in North Georgia and it came in that conflict I was having in my church. It didn’t come because of something I did; it came because the Lord is my light and my salvation. All I had to do was remain faithful and do my job. Eventually those five people who were trying to get rid of me got tired of trying and left the church, and when they did things got better almost immediately.
“Wait for the Lord,” David says, and he should know. He had to wait a long time. But after seven years of running for his life, Saul, his old nemesis, was killed in battle, and the people of Israel came to David and begged him to be their king. He accepted, and ruled over them for another thirty-three years. He was the greatest king who ever lived in Israel, and the most beloved. Not that he didn’t still have some sleepless nights. It’s not easy being king. But even on the worst of them he must have remembered, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” And so he says to us, to all of us who are tossing and turning, wondering if morning will ever come:
Wait for the LORD;
Be strong, and let your heart take courage;
Wait for the LORD!