The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
Who among us does not wish to be brave before danger and calm before threat?
David is – at least at his best moments – that kind of person. Yet, his having courage and serenity is not something he achieved. It is something he received as a product of something else. That something else is this: David had allowed himself to fall head over heels in love with God.
Can’t you hear it in this Psalm? David can’t stop thinking about God. He can’t get enough of God, and aches to keep in close contact with God. More than he values anything else, David values being with God and knowing God.
Listen to what this God-enthralled man says here. There is only one thing that he “seeks after”: to live in God’s house all the days of his life, to see God’s face and to behold God’s beauty, to inquire in God’s temple and to understand God’s mind.
David’s love of God tempers his fear of everything else – as when a mother’s love of her child causes her to push aside her fear and to run back into the burning building to attempt a rescue, or when a soldier’s love of his band of brothers causes him to defy his fear and to throw his body on the hand grenade to shield his buddies from its blast.
When David asks rhetorically, “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 is not being oblivious to the real dangers that beset him. Well aware is he that an army is encamped against him, that enemies, breathing out violence, surround him, and that evildoers assail him to “devour his flesh”, as he puts it.
No, David is not being oblivious to the hard realities and the threatening possibilities. Rather he is refusing to be intimidated by them. For he knows that, whatever losses he might suffer, he cannot lose the most precious treasure of his heart – that, while life might hurt him, it cannot harm him at his core.
When the deepest desire of our heart is satisfied, the loss of other desires cannot unnerve or debilitate us. In fact, what we value most determines the shape and extent of our courage, and of our serenity.
Because David’s heart is set on seeking the Lord and waiting for Him, the uncertainties of this world cannot unsettle his soul, disturb his peace or daunt him from fighting the good fight. One suspects he senses that this world’s most vicious blows would only drive him deeper into the arms of the God who means the world to him.
Certainly, David has his doubts from time to time, and he knows moments of worry and faintheartedness. You can hear it in the sudden change of tone in verse 7. There the man who has up until that point been exuding nothing but confident exuberance sounds shaky of heart and weak in the knees. But notice where his fundamental anxiety lies! It is not in the horrors that might befall him, but in the possibility that the God he loves might hide His face from him, might cast him off and forsake him. Ultimately, David fears nothing but losing contact with God – and that frees him from every other fear.
David’s courage and serenity derive from his valuing his connection with God above all else. For that connection is something which enemies, who could take everything else away from him, could not even touch. He might lose his power, prosperity, success, loved ones, or many of his joys, but he cannot lose his deepest joy and consolation.
David fears little because he loves much.
Three days ago, Jeff and I, along with a group of pastors at the Serra Retreat Center, heard Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Seminary, tell a story that I had heard him tell a decade before, only this time it got me thinking of a different point than the one he had in mind. He told of a conversation he had with a young couple during their premarital counseling. They were only a few weeks from the wedding, and were putting the finishing touches on the service, when the man suddenly blurted out, “I am so scared of this!”
He suddenly had his fiancée’s undivided attention. Seeing the look on her face, he quickly explained that he wanted to marry her, but was terrified of losing her after they were sharing their lives together. He added, “When my mother died, the grief was just overwhelming, and I love you even more. I just don’t know how I could ever survive if something happened to you once you were my wife.” Then he looked with pleading eyes to Craig for some kind of comfort.
But Craig said he had to give it to him straight. He said something along these lines: “The hard truth is that 100% of marriages come to an end, either through divorce or through death. The best scenario you can hope for in marriage is that the two of you will spend decades together in shared happiness and mutually supportive intimacy – and then, unless you are very unusual and both die at the same time, one of you will bury the other – and it will be the hardest things you’ve ever gone through. If you are the survivor, you will be more in love with her then than now, and the loss of her will devastate you all the more because of it. She will have become so much a part of you, that you will no longer know who you are apart from her, and you will not know what to do with yourself without her. You will feel as if you are the one who is lost – and you may even wish you were.”
Though Craig moved on to make another point, I started to think of a point I’d like to make with some other people who are similarly intimidated by the risks of life. I started imagining myself in conversation with one particular young man and challenging him to “man up” and to love his beloved courageously.
I imagined saying to him, “How much do you love her? Do you love her enough to risk her going first? Do you love her enough to hope she goes first, so that she might be spared the pain of being the one left widowed?
“Love defies fear. Love refuses to shrink from the prospect of pain and loss in loving your beloved well.
“Love is not blind. With a clear eye, it sees the real dangers; but with an equally clear eye, it sees what really matters. Love so values the well-being of the beloved that it is not too scared to pay any price to insure it.”
Loving God with everything we’ve got and others as ourselves is what matters most of all. If our values are right, we will be serene and courageous before the risks of living life well. Let us pray.