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Sunday, February 25, 2018
The Sacred Thirst Sermon Series, Week 2
Scripture: Psalm 63:1-8 & 1 Samuel 3:1-11
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Before I get into today’s topic, I want to say a brief word about Billy Graham, who died this week at 99 years old. It is a word of gratitude because I have no doubt that my life and faith have been influenced by his ministry. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury eulogized him this way, “Dr. Billy Graham stood as an exemplar to generation upon generation of modern Christians. When it comes to a living and lasting influence upon the worldwide church he can have few equals: for he introduced person after person to Jesus Christ. There are countless numbers who began their journey of faith because of Dr. Graham.” Personally, I have no doubt that the people of Wayne Park Baptist Temple, where I was raised, were motivated in part by Billy Graham’s example, and it was there that the spark of faith was lit within me. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if many of you do not have your own stories that intersect with Billy Graham’s too.
Graham once said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
Now, that will preach, Billy! For his life, example, and faith, we give God thanks for Billy Graham. Well done, good and faithful servant.
I want to start today with a story from twenty years ago, when I was starting at Calvin College. Now students at Calvin are exceptional in many ways, but one way they are different than your average college student is that many go to church on most Sundays. I was raised going to church every Sunday, and I wanted to start off my college years on the right foot, so Sunday after Sunday I’d find friends to go to church with. That worked great for me for a semester, but then it got harder to keep going. I wasn’t enjoying being a perpetual visitor to all of these new churches. They never felt like home. I started to wonder why I went to church. So I stopped going to church by spring semester of freshman year.
Did I sleep in on Sundays? Not really. I actually would get up, grab a Bible and a journal, and as the weather thawed out, I’d sit by a pond in Calvin’s nature preserve and pray and journal. I did this Sunday after Sunday for months, trying to find answers to the void within myself. I joke around now that this half year was the furthest I’ve ever gotten from the church in my life and one of my greatest acts of rebellion in college. But God met me in those times. God did some work within me that got me back to the place where I craved Christian community that exists within good churches. The interior and personal needed some tending so that I was ready to do more with the social and communal.
What God reminded me of in that season is that we all have a sanctuary within our hearts. For some, their inner sanctuary is orderly, spacious, and well lit. For others, it’s a chamber that hasn’t been visited in years and has gotten filled with cobwebs and mildew. Our inner sanctuary needs tending, just like the room we are in now needs constant tending to make it ready for services.
One way we tend to that sanctuary within is through the spiritual discipline of meditation. What is Christian meditation, and how do we practice it? Richard Foster is a Quaker minister, who wrote one of the defining books about spiritual disciplines, called Celebration of Discipline. I’ll be using Foster’s work as a guide for Lent this year, if you want to dig more deeply into these topics. Foster describes it this way, “Christian meditation, very simply, is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word. It is that simple.”
To hear God’s voice and obey. On the surface this sounds simple, but if you’re anything like me you know that the noise of this life makes it so hard to listen for God and that the pressures of life lead us to cut corners on obedience. But, if God is indeed speaking to us, shouldn’t we want to listen? Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear God’s voice?
The Bible talks about meditation a lot. There are fifty-eight references to meditation in the Old Testament, and they orbit around several meanings, “Listening to God’s word, reflecting on God’s works, rehearsing God’s deeds, ruminating on God’s law, and more. In each case there is stress upon changed behavior as a result of our encounter with the living God.” Listening. Reflecting. Rehearsing. Ruminating. All great words that require our attention in this crazy busy world, but we always must keep in mind that this interior work leads to change in how we live. Meditation creates the space for reflection on God’s word in our lives, and I’m afraid few of us leave space for that. We’d all much rather just go to the transformation part of this without any kind of rootedness.
“What happens in meditation,” Foster continues, “is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart. The wonderful verse “I stand at the door and knock …” was originally penned for believers, not unbelievers (Rev. 3:20). We who have turned our lives over to Christ need to know how very much he longs to eat with us, to commune with us. He desires a perpetual Eucharistic feast in the inner sanctuary of the heart. Meditation opens the door and, although we are engaging in specific meditation exercises at specific times, the aim is to bring this living reality into all of life. It is a portable sanctuary that is brought into all we are and do.”
We all have this sanctuary within us where what we experience here in worship together can be experienced at all times and in places. Corporate worship is vital for us and fortifies us, but it is not enough for sustaining us day by day. We need daily space to tend to the sanctuary of our hearts.
Our reading from 1 Samuel 3 gives us an interesting picture of what it looks like to listen for God. The passage begins with these harrowing words, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” What does this mean? Only that people were going about their day-to-day existence as though God didn’t exist or at least that God wouldn’t be bothered with the ordinariness of their existence. Who could blame Samuel either? He was young. He was being raised by a priest whose own sons were corrupt. He had not reason to listen up to that point.
But then the voice came, “Samuel! Samuel!”
(There is an irony in this naming, here, of course, because Samuel’s name means that the Lord listens. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had begged the Lord to give her a baby, and the Lord listened and gave her Samuel, a boy who has not yet learned how to listen for the voice of God! I just love Hebrew wordplay!) Anyway, three times Samuel hears a voice calling his name, and three times Samuel goes to Eli the priest to find out why he is calling to him. Finally, the old priest figures out that God must be calling to Samuel. Who could blame the priest that it had taken him so long to figure it out? After all, the voice of the Lord was rare in those days. So, Eli tells Samuel to go back and respond to God with these words, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” I love what God says to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” Who wouldn’t listen after a word like that?
Three times Samuel thinks Eli is calling him, when it was the Lord the whole time. Like we so often do, he tries to hear God’s voice through someone else. Isn’t it ironic that we often try to hear the voice of the Lord only through others? Meditation is a path for direct access to God, and the witness of Scripture is that God is talking to you if you’ll only listen!
Richard Foster laments, “Human beings seem to have a perpetual tendency to have somebody else talk to God for them. We are content to have the message secondhand….That is why meditation is so threatening to us. It boldly calls us to enter into the living presence of God for ourselves. It tells us that God is speaking in the continuous present and wants to address us.”
Only we can tend to the sanctuary within each of us. I can’t do it for you. You can’t do it for me. Sure, we can challenge and support each other, but at the end of the day, you can’t force me to take care of myself, nor I you.
God is speaking to you, if you would only listen. It’s simple, but it takes practice. When I hear the word “meditation,” I think that must be hard and only a few can do it. But there are “no hidden mysteries, no secret mantras, no mental gymnastics, no esoteric flights into the cosmic consciousness. The truth of the matter is that the great God of the universe, the Creator of all things desires our fellowship.” God wants to walk and talk with you, but God will not force you to do so.
So, I’d like to close today with some practical suggestions on how to practice Christian meditation, and then we’ll actually take a couple of minutes to do it. The first thing you need to do is set aside intentional time to do this. It can be any time of day that works for your life and schedule, but you really must plan it. If you don’t, life will fill that time void, and you won’t get around to it. Carl Jung once said that “Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.” Slow down!
Second, you need to find a place that is quiet and free of interruption. In this world that is filled with beeps from cell phones, it is necessary to find that quiet place. As a parent, I’ll be the first to admit that this is extremely difficult. My day and my house are filled with constant activity. Experiment with different rooms in your home or with different places in the community until you find something that works for you.
Third, find a posture that is comfortable for you. There is no proper way to hold your body when you’re meditation. Some will kneel. Some will sit cross-legged. Some will stand. It should be a posture that won’t distract you from your task, so find the right way of holding your body.
So, once you’ve found the time, place, and position for meditation, what do you actually meditate on? Christian meditation is about focus more than emptying. The most common place to start is to find a short verse or phrase from Scripture to focus on. Spend several days on the same Scripture. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “…just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation.” When we consider Scripture in this way, it’s very different than a Bible study. That type of study is often analytical. It’s important. But meditating on Scripture is more an act of devotion and love. Through imagination and the Spirit, it will speak differently to us. We’ll spend a couple of minutes on this at the conclusion of the sermon.
In addition to Scripture, you can meditate on nature, or a photograph, or a work of art. With our hearts filled with gratitude toward the God who made what we’re witnessing, we spend time on these things that will bring to mind the joy and love of God in our hearts. This is a way of practicing gratitude. You can also meditate on current events, which I think is a bit harder because we move so quickly into judgment or anger about the violence of the world. Still, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it – including current events. Taking the time to be still before the Lord with what pains the world is an act of worship and discipleship. It’s also a great reminder that God is at work in the world and your heart and that God desires you to be an agent of transformation.
So, let’s practice just a little bit this morning. On the screen I have put three verses up from Psalm 65. I find these verses beautiful and evocative. I’m going to read them, and then we’re going to spend a couple of minutes meditating together on God’s Word to us. Here are those verses:
You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.
Friends, tend to the sanctuary within your hearts through meditation. As that inner chamber opens up with the light and love of God, you will be more and more equipped to bring that light and love into this world that sorely needs it.