Psalm 143
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 25, 2024

When I was 17 and had just begun letting Jesus change me, I heard a rich heiress talk about how He was changing her.  She said, “I came to Jesus while still a very self-absorbed, spoiled person.  I had become impressed by what He might do for me:  relieve me of the weight of guilt and shame, give me hope in place of my despair, fill my life with meaning and purpose, and introduce me to joy and peace.  And He did all that.  But I was using Him to serve my pre-determined, self-preoccupied agenda.  I was treating the Lord of the universe like my personal cosmic butler.”  She paused and then continued: “The wonder of it all was that He accepted a relationship with me on such terms!  Though he was worthy of better, He was willing, out of His love for me, to be used – just so I’d stay in touch.”

David begins today’s Psalm preoccupied with his troubles and with obtaining God’s help with them.  David prays from a place of self-interest, hoping to enlist God into serving his interests.  Yet, his doing so works on him in ways he hadn’t envisioned, and it redirects his praying from being all about his deliverance from trouble to being also about his obedience to God whatever the trouble.  We do well to note that David concludes his Psalm, not with a final appeal for help, but with a full-hearted declaration of his commitment to be God’s servant.

In the first verse of this Psalm, David implores God to listen to him and give him what he seeks for his dire situation.  “Hear my prayer, O Lord,” David begs, “…answer me in your righteousness.”

Yet, with that thought, David recognizes that his degree of righteousness gives him little reason to expect anything from God.  He admits that “no one living is righteous before you”, and so he pleads that God would not “enter into judgment with your servant,” – that is, hold David’s sins against him – but would think only of His own divine mercy.

This reorientation of David’s focus off of himself and on to God builds up David’s hope of help.  Encouraged by the possibility of undeserved kindness, he pours out in detail how bad things are for him: his life is being crushed to the ground; his spirit is growing faint; and his heart, dismayed.  David’s spelling out before the Lord his appalling weakening before his appalling circumstances shifts his mind from dwelling on his present poor prospects to dwelling on God’s past perfect grace. David prays, “I remember the days of old, I think of all your deeds.”  This recalling of his people’s history and of his own personal history moves David to reach out to God as his best and only hope.  He prays, “I stretch out my hands to you, my soul thirsts for you like a parched land [for rain].”  David is here starting to seek God Himself and not just God his “Need- Meeter”.  As David fixes his sights on God, he gains both more hope and more awareness of his need for God alone.  He cries out, quoting the exact words he’d used in Psalm 28 when he faced previous desperate times, that if God fails to respond, “I shall be like those who go down to the Pit” – “Pit” being another name for “Sheol”, the bleak darkness into which he believes the dead descend.

Horrified by that possibility, David’s Psalm then turns in yet another new direction.  He reaffirms his faith in God and his resolve to make it his first priority to do God’s will.  He declares “in you I put my trust” and “to you I lift up my soul”.  He concentrates less on escaping troubles and more on obeying God’s commands.  In verses 8-10, he prays three times in a row that God would show him His will so that he might walk in it.  He prays, “Teach me the way I should go…teach me to do your will…let your good spirit lead me on a level path”, a level path being a clear, smooth one from which he might not stray and on which he might not stumble.

David, however, does not primarily hope in how good the path is or in how good he is at walking it, but in how good is the God who created both the path and David.  He certainly does not speak of his following this path as an effort he makes on his own.  He speaks of it as putting his trust in the Lord, of lifting up his soul to the Lord, of his fleeing to the Lord for refuge, of his depending on the Lord’s good spirit.  He walks the path as one who is giving his entire life over to God.

Though at the start David’s chief concern was his deliverance, now it is his obedience.  His preoccupation has undergone a transformation by prayerful reorientation.  He’s become preoccupied with fulfilling God’s will, with his eyes less on how it will go for him because of God and more on how it will go for God because of him.  David now asks God for help “for your name’s sake” – that is, for David’s story to reveal God’s righteousness and steadfast love and thereby give God a good name before others.  Though David may still want to see his enemies “cut off” and himself brought “out of trouble”, he wants as well to serve God’s glory.  That’s why his parting word to God is: “I am your servant!”

From time to time, we all need such a reorientation of our chief preoccupation.

It won’t happen, however, by our just drifting into it.  It will only happen by our prayerfully involving God in the whole of our life, both the good parts and the bad, and by our deciding again and again to put God and His will front and center.  As E. Stanley Jones once put it, “If you don’t make up your mind, your unmade mind will unmake you.”  So we must choose to make up our mind to serve the Lord with determined dedication, whatever the price – like a rock climber named Alex Honnold does in a less significant pursuit.

Six years ago Alex became the first person to scale El Capitan “free solo”.  El Capitan is the 3,000 foot granite face in Yosemite that’s widely considered the most challenging wall in the world.  To climb it “free solo” means Alex climbed it by himself without ropes or any equipment – with nothing but his own hands and feet.

Alex lives most of the year out of a van, a lifestyle known as “dirtbagging, which he calls “an intentional choice to prioritize my vocation”.  He says that his vocation, his prime focus in life, is to conquer all the hardest climbs in the world; and that, for the sake of that purpose, he’s willing to give up comfort, stability and safety.  Alex says, “I am probably more intentional with the way I live life than anyone.  I’ve made clear choices about what I value and what risks I’m willing to take.  I’m doing exactly what I love…[Call me] crazy or stupid.  But I can justify all my choices.  Can you say the same about your life?”

Indeed, can we?  Am I all in on serving the One I call my All?  Am I faithfully deciding again and again to make loving and obeying God my chief preoccupation?

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