07/16/23 – A Light Unto My Path – Elder Alan Willadsen

A LIGHT UNTO MY PATH

July 16, 2023
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Elder Alan Willadsen

One of the main points I remember from my preaching class is the congregation does not care about my process or how I arrived at the main theme.  I’m going to ignore that guidance and you are about to be the victims of my disobedience.  John Godfrey Saxe said, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” The same can be said for sermons.  Whether we have a full-time or part-time pastor, transitional or called/installed, teaching elder or certified ruling elder, his/her/their style likely will be different and require adjustment on our part, so I’m trying a different approach with today’s sermon.

We are in a time of transition, a time when we seek to discern God’s will for this community without the guidance of a pastor, utterly reliant on God’s Word and the Spirit’s leading.  May we not wander in the wilderness for 40 years like the nation of Israel when they left Egypt.  A significant difference between Israel and Westminster is in the number of leaders.  The Hebrew people had Moses.  We are blessed with 5 elders on Session and 6 deacons caring for us.

As a guest preacher, I generally defer to the congregation’s practice with respect to the order of service, number of Scripture readings and translations used, role of liturgist, and hymn selections.  I do get to pick the Scripture passage(s).  For quite some time Westminster has had sermons informed by the Revised Common Lectionary.  I respect that practice here and generally follow the lectionary when preaching elsewhere.

The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle through the Bible generally consisting of four daily readings, one each from Hebrew Scripture (either history or prophecy), Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel.  We just heard three of the four passages from this week’s lectionary readings.  We did not hear today’s Psalm—yet.

I dearly love the Psalms.  They are so relatable, so human, so honest, covering the entire range of human experience:  from being in a valley as dark as death to the top of a mountain; completely obedient to God’s law to utterly disobedient and sinful; elated and depressed; praising God’s enduring presence and lamenting God’s apparent absence.  I commend them to you as part of your daily reading.  Read five each day and you can get through the entire book in a month.  Read one a day and you’ll get through the entire book more than twice in a calendar year.

.  On Wednesday I talked with consultant Sarah Tunnall.  Her questions, conversations I had with other members who talked with her, thinking about our resistance to the WATCH program ten years ago or so, and remembering the old joke about crossing a Presbyterian with a Jehovah’s Witness, highlighted how difficult it is for us to discuss and personalize our faith.  We come together, professing belief in God who created the universe, raised Jesus from the dead, and loves us more than we can imagine, yet we are uncomfortable—even fearful—articulating what we believe and who we are as children of God.  The Psalms’ intense, specific language forces us to deal with who we are and what we believe.  I suspect that’s why we rarely hear sermons about the Psalms—they’re too personal.

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church as found in Psalm 119:105-112.

105 Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
106 I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to observe your righteous ordinances.
107 I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O LORD, according to your word.
108 Accept my offerings of praise, O LORD,
and teach me your ordinances.
109 I hold my life in my hand continually,
but I do not forget your law.
110 The wicked have laid a snare for me,
but I do not stray from your precepts.
111 Your decrees are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
112 I incline my heart to perform your statutes
forever, to the end.

Let’s consider each couplet individually.

105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

The world is full of darkness and I easily stumble my way through daily existence.  When I turn to God’s word the world looks different.  Some days I choose activities other than reading and reflecting on God’s word.  Those days end up being even more challenging in some way.  It’s like the old commercial that said, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.”  A day without your word, O God, makes my path more difficult to see.  With your word, I can see your life-giving directions.  God longs to show me the proper path.

In the parable today Jesus teaches how our varied responses to God’s word lead to different results. The path Jesus refers to differs from the Psalmist’s path.  If we are on a rock-hard path, we are closed off to God, unable to even accept the word you sow in us.

God told Rebekah how things would be different, how the older would serve the younger.  Without God’s word lighting that path, Jacob as second-born might not have been noticed.

Do we allow God’s word to show us where to go?

106 I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances.

I long to be obey the laws God gave us. I want to do Your will.  It sure isn’t easy.  How often have I promised to obey You, God?

Isaac trusted you.  He knew his own birth story and didn’t want to go through what his parents went through in getting children.  He knew God provided a way through barrenness and prayed for Rebekah.

107 I am severely afflicted; give me life, O LORD, according to your word.

Though I promise to obey, I fall short so, so often.  My mind is set on things of the flesh, yet God’s great gift is life in creation.  I understand all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  Change that, God.  Let your glory and your word lead me to life on a well-lit path.

Jacob and Esau were severely afflicted.  This was no ordinary sibling rivalry, but one with the life of a great nation of God’s chosen people at stake.  Esau would learn later what relinquishing his birthright meant.  Jacob would experience karma at the hands of his father-in-law and be afflicted when Esau returns.

Like seed sown on rocky soil, afflicted by the inability to put down roots, I cave under pressure.  Like the seed choked by weeds, I am afflicted by desire for the ways and wealth of the world.  Change me to good soil.

How are you afflicted?  What does it mean to you to ask for life according to God’s word?

108 Accept my offerings of praise, O LORD, and teach me your ordinances.

I’m giving you the best I can, God.  I know it’s not good enough.  Take what I offer and show me your better ways.  My praise is nothing compared to Your greatness.

Though Jacob and Esau worked in different occupations, like Cain and Abel.  However, unlike Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau offered nothing to God in this passage.  Both were self-interested rather than worshipful and grateful.

What are your offerings of praise?  How are you open to having God teach you?

109 I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your law.

I know this choice is wrong—to hold my own life in my hand—rather than give it to You.  I do not forget your law—I just don’t always obey it.  Guilt overwhelms me.  I remember you teach us otherwise.

Rebekah remembered to turn to you as Jacob and Esau wrestled in her womb.  She questioned her very life and turned to you.  You comforted her by simply speaking to her.  You promised division, yet she knew you held her life.

Daily we choose the type of soil we are—sometimes consciously, sometimes by inaction, by what we do and by what we leave undone.  We might choose to be a callous, hard path.  We hear your word and respond in a casual, shallow manner.  Sometimes we hear your word and let our worldly-minded self, our craving for instant gratification, our coveting the latest and greatest crowd out the glory you provide.  And sometimes, just sometimes, the life we hold is a life given to you and we yield blessing to you and to the world.

Who holds your life?

110 The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts.

Other people seem like they are out to get me.  It’s not my fault—we’re flawed humans.  Those snares are so, so tempting.  Shine your light on those snares.  Keep me from straying from the path you have illuminated for me.

Trading a birthright for a meal?  That’s like trading a Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card for a 1969 Lee Elia card.  No way is that an even or fair trade.  Esau’s hungry self-interest enabled Jacob to snare him.  Jacob knew what he was doing, taking advantage of his older brother.  For Esau, it was too late.

Are the cares of the world and the lure of wealth snares choking out God’s word?  How wicked are worldly ways?  How do you identify (and avoid) the numerous snares you encounter?

111 Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.

From the creation of the world, You have guided me.  You showed me in the Garden of Eden how we are to be.  May that inform me my whole life long, for that life alone will give me joy.

Esau had a new heritage forever, one in which his rights as first-born would be supplanted in his family by Jacob, but . . . he had a full tummy.  That’s joy!

What is the joy of your heart?

112 I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.

Yes, God, I am inclined to behave—from now on.  May I choose Your will and Your Word from now on.  To what is your heart inclined?

The sower is extravagant in sowing seed.  We have no indication the sower sows anything other than good seed.  He sows on good ground and bad.  What a wonderful promise for us when we’re feeling like we are a hard-caked path or rocky soil.  God sows even amidst the weeds, perhaps hoping we will change and choose to incline our hearts toward God.

In Psalm 126, we hear “They who sow in tears in glad song will reap.  He walks along and weeps, the bearer of the seed-bag.  He will surely come in with glad song bearing his sheaves.”  God sows good seed and surely weeps when we are not good soil.  God also harvests the plentiful yields we offer up.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “[God’s] commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen and heal it.”  Providing food to a hungry Esau (at great cost), sowing God’s word on all types of soil, and shining a light on our path are God’s life-affirming acts.

To God alone be the glory.  Amen and Amen.

 

 

 

© Elder Alan Willadsen, 2023, All Rights Reserved
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