There's an old Greek proverb that says, "The bow that is always bent will soon break." What that proverb seems to be implying is that the bow that is always under pressure, that never has an opportunity to release or let go, will soon break into a million pieces. If there was ever a proverb that fits the society in which we live, this is it.
Many people, like that bow, are strung out, full of tension, turmoil, fear, and frustration. If one more thing enters their lives, they will snap. If I had to choose one word to summarize how people feel today, I would have to choose the word worried. People are worried today. Many of you have come here with certain concerns on your mind. Some of you are wondering about finances. Others are wondering about unemployment. Some of you parents are worried about your children. Some of you children are worried about your parents.
I grew up in rural Ohio, and sometimes the level of our boredom got to the point where my friends and I would get together late at night and go haunted-house hunting. We'd usually find one down a dusty, narrow lane, where you could hear the shrubs scraping like fingernails against the car. We'd get out of the car in pitch darkness. The wind would be whistling through the trees, and a hoot owl would be singing his song. The house would be just like you would imagine: a dark, gray, imposing figure with the windows broken out and the shutters falling off. The broken picket fence always had a squeaky gate that swung lazily back and forth. We'd go into the house and turn on the flashlight. If you were to reach out and touch us at that moment, you'd have to peel us off the ceiling. Every step was one of caution. Every step was one of concern. Every step was one of worry, because we didn't know what was waiting for us around the corner. Could we handle it when we found out?
Many people are living their lives as if they're in a haunted house. Every step is one of caution, concern, and worry. You ask yourself, "Can I handle what is just around the corner?" If you've never worried, don't worry; you will. You see, worry has a way of coming into our lives at the most inconvenient and inopportune times. Once worry grabs you, it can squeeze out every joy of living. Instead of overcoming, you'll be overwhelmed. That's worry: a formidable foe. The question, then, is how can you and I handle worry when it comes our way. It's not if; it's when.
God has a lot to say about how to deal with stress and anxiety and worry. I found an Old Testament formula that God has given us for dealing with our worries. It's found in Psalm 95, a praise or worship psalm. It was sung during the time of the Feast of the Tabernacles, when the children of Israel would give God glory and praise for the way he had provided for them. This psalm is broken up into two calls to worship: verses 1 through 5 and then verses 6 and 7. The psalmist clearly tells us that when we focus upon the greatness of God, we will worship rather than worry. Our focus determines how we handle the issues and problems that enter our lives.
God is in control.
The psalmist says that in order for us to deal with worry effectively, we must have a proper focus. Focus comes through worship. The psalmist gives us three reasons why we should worship and not worry. The first is found in verses 1 through 5. Notice how the Hebrews worshiped God. They came before him with unashamed enthusiasm, proclaiming him as their rescuer and redeemer. In verse one the psalmist says, "Sing for joy," and in verse two he says, "Extol him with music." The words shout joyfully literally mean "come before God with a ringing shout."
When I lived in Houston, Texas, I was the chaplain for the Astros and the Oilers. After I'd lead a chapel service, they'd give me tickets. One time in the Astrodome, I watched Earl Campbell run over everybody, his own men included, to get to the goal line. When he got to the goal line, he put the ball down. The place went crazy. People were giving high fives and jumping around. The scoreboard went off. The same thing happened when the Astros hit a home run. The crowd gave a ringing shout, because their man scored a touchdown.
I'm not saying that when you come to church you need to give each other high fives or do cartwheels down the aisle, but worship is a time of anticipation and expectation. We come together because all week God has been knocking home runs and scoring touchdowns in our lives. Worship is a time to celebrate what God has done for us.
In verse three the psalmist gives us more reasons. The psalmist tells us that the first reason we should worship and not worry is because God is in control even when we're out of control. In verse three he mentions "the great King above all gods." The psalmist is not implying there are other gods. He brings out the fact that if we are not careful, our problems can become our gods. We can get so focused on our problems that they'll rule our minds, our actions, and our attitudes. But when we see God as he truly ought to be seen, everything else takes its proper place.
Verse four says that the deep places of the earth and the heights are in God's hand. God knows the heights no person has ever climbed and the depths no person has been able to dig. God knows every facet of his creation. God also knows your issuestheir height, depth, and breadth. Nothing you can bring to God will take him by surprise. He not only knows them, he has the power to deal with them.
Verse five says that the sea is his, and that his hands formed the dry land. I'd like you to notice the word made. There's an interesting word picture behind it. It's like a potter, who takes a piece of clay and slaps it on the wheel; when he turns it, he molds it and makes it as he desires. The psalmist is saying God did that with this universe. He molded it and made it as he desires.
One of the reasons we believers become overwhelmed is that we lose perspective on how great God is. This morning I would like to renew our vision of how great God really is. To do that, I'd like you to take a little trip with me. We're going to go halfway across our galaxy. Scientists tell us there are over 200 million stars in our galaxy and over 200 million other galaxies with as many stars in them. Today, we're just going halfway across our galaxy at the speed of 186,000 miles per second, which is just slightly faster than most of you drive. Do you want to know how fast that is? If you were to shoot a bullet at that speed, it would circle the earth seven times in one second. We're going at a speed of 669 million miles an hour. In ten seconds we pass the moon that's only 230,000 miles away. In ten minutes we pass the sun that's only 93 million miles away. One year passes, five years, ten years, a hundred years, a thousand years, 15,000 years at 669 million miles an hour, and we haven't made it even halfway across our galaxy. We journey on for 20,000 years, 30,000, and we haven't made it halfway yet. After 50,000 years traveling at 669 million miles an hour, we've made it just halfway across our galaxy. If you have another 100,000 years, we could go through the next galaxy.
What I'm saying, my friends, is if God is so great that he put this world together and holds this world together, let me ask you, "What is your problem?" Don't misunderstand. I don't want to minimize your problems. They're real; they're painful; they hurt; they're no fun. But the reason we need to focus upon the greatness of God is to remind ourselves that we're not in it alone. We have resources to help us through the issues we face.
The psalmist tells us the first reason we should worship and not worry is because God is in control even when we're out of control.
We are the sheep of the Great Shepherd.
But there's a second reason. In the second call to worship. In verses one through five, we saw a God who's over the universe; he's way out there and infinitely powerful. In verses six and seven, the psalmist narrows it down and shows us that God is also intimately personal. The second reason we should worship and not worry is because we are the sheep of the Great Shepherd. We have a special relationship with him.
Verse six says, "Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker." That's the same word used in verse five. Just as God meticulously put together the creation, so God specifically did the same thing in putting you together. More than 107 million cells in each of your eyes enable you to see. About 60,000 miles of arteries run through your body. There are more than 9,000 taste buds on your tongue. More than 220 bones make up the frame God gave you. Six hundred muscles cover those bones. You are a special creation of God.
I've noticed that God never leaves his creations in the lurch. He always takes care of them. In verse seven the psalmist says there are two ways God takes care of us. First, he calls us the people of God's pasture. The pasture is symbolic of provision. In other words, God will provide for his people. He will lead us to where our needs can be met. Second, we are the sheep of his hand. The hand is the symbol for protection and guidance. When we're in over our heads, God will pull us out. When we need guidance, God will direct us. When we need protection, God will shield us. We need not be intimidated when problems come our way,
This passage always sends me back to the family farm. We raised about a thousand pigs a year. In one field we had two or three hundred little oinkers running around. Every day, at four in the morning, as I'd walk into the field to feed those guys, they'd scatter. Once a little pig came up and began to chew on my foot, so I picked him up and began to pet him. Soon he wanted down. I said, "No, I'll let you down when I'm ready." At that moment, he let out a squeal like I had never heard. In about two seconds, thirty mama pigs weighing five to six hundred pounds each were headed my way. I put him down and headed for the fence. I barely made it over, and when I did, all the mama pigs were snorting and walking back and forth, daring me to come back over and bother one of their kids. Looking back at that situation, I realize the little rascal wasn't intimidated. He was out of control, but he wasn't intimidated. Why? Because he was just one squeal away from help.
Now let me ask you something. If one of God's creatures is that sensitive to the cry of its own, how much more sensitive is the heavenly Father to the cry of his own? Just one squeal away, we have resources. The psalmist says there are two reasons why we should worship and not worry. First, God is in control when we're out of control. Second, we're the sheep of the great Shepherd.
God is saddened by our worry.
There's a third reason. In the second part of verse seven, you'll discover that the psalmist changes his tone from celebration to warning. He says, "Today, if you will hear his voice " The word hear is interesting, because in Hebrew it is coupled with obey. Jesus used the same construction in the New Testament when he said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." That also means: to him who has ears to hear, obey.
The psalmist goes on in verse eight to remind the Hebrews of a time their ancestors failed to listen to God and he refused to give them rest. In other words, because they didn't obey God, they were in a continual state of worry. The third reason we should worship and not worry is because God is saddened when his children worry.
I remember asking a buddy of mine, "Bill, if you could get one thing for your kids, what would it be?" He surprised me when he said, "Rod, if there's one thing I would want for my children, it would be for them to believe me. They'd just believe that I had their best interests at heart. When I tell them something, they'd think, If Dad said it, it's got to be true. I believe it."
I believe that's what the psalmist is saying. All the heavenly Father wants from his children is for them to believe that he'll do what he promises. You'll notice that the first generation of God's children didn't have a very good track record. They really didn't believe him. The incident referred to in this psalm is found in Exodus 17. The children of Israel had been delivered from Egypt. This is the same group that saw the Red Sea parted and the ten plagues sent upon Egypt. Here they are in the wilderness of sin, and they have a problem. They had no water. Verse two says, "So they quarreled with Moses and said, 'Give us water to drink.'" And in verse three, "But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?'" Verse seven is the key verse: "And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled, and because they tested the Lord saying, 'Is the Lord among us or not?'"
The result of strictly focusing on our problems is that we will eventually wonder if God is doing anything at all. Does he even exist? That's what was happening to the children of Israel. Look at Psalm 103:7. Moses, it says, knew the ways of God, but the children of Israel knew the acts of God. Isn't that quite a distinction? The acts of God meant that the children of Israel lived from one miracle to the next and didn't remember anything in between. I find many Christians do the same thing. Moses knew the ways of God; he knew God's character and his integrity. He could say: I don't know how God is going to do it, but he promised and he'll do it.
That's the formula the psalmist has given us. He says worship to get your perspective right, and then believe God and act in faith that he will provide. The first generation of Israelites blew it, but the second generation didn't. In Joshua, chapter 5, you'll read about Joshua as the leader of the second generation.
The Israelites have a major problem. This time it's not water, but a city called Jericho. In verse 13 we read, "Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, 'Are you for us or for our enemies?' 'Neither,'" he replied, "'but as commander of the army of the Lord, I have now come.' Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, 'What message does my Lord have for his servant?' The commander of the Lord's army replied, 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.'"
Here's Joshua, wondering how he's going to deal with the Jericho problem, and the next thing you know the captain of the Lord of Hosts appears. According to the Scriptures, this is God in the flesh, the pre-incarnate Christ. At that moment, Joshua has a choice. He can worship or he can worry. He chooses to worship. Look at the plan he gets from God after he worships. In Joshua 6:3, Israel is told to have the armed men march around Jericho with the Ark of the Covenant once a day for six days. On the seventh day they are to march around seven times blowing rams horns and trumpets, and after the seventh time all the people are to shout, and the walls of Jericho will fall down flat. That's the plan. Now what's it going to take? Faith. I can imagine Joshua now. He runs back to the camp, bursts in on his commanders, and says: Gentlemen, I just received the plan from God. We're going to get all of the people together. We're going to get the men of war, the Ark of the Covenant, and we're going to march to Jericho, and march around it once a day for six days in a row.
Uh, yeah. Is there anything else to this plan, Joshua? they say.
Yep. On the seventh day, we're going to march around the city seven times, and we're going to shout, and the walls are going to come tumbling down.
The commanders are saying: We think something is already tumbled down, Bud.
But they decide to act on faith. They head toward Jericho. Now, imagine you're in Jericho, defending your territory. Suddenly this group of people stops, walks around the city, and goes back.
Second day: stop, walk around the city, go back.
Third day: Hey, quit walking on the lawn, you're wearing a path in it. Ha! Ha!
Fourth day: popcorn, peanuts, and "Watch the children of Israel. It's quite an attraction!"
Fifth day: sneering.
Sixth day: jeering.
But on the seventh day, when they shout, the walls come tumbling down. What was the end result of Joshua's campaigns? Joshua 21:43 says, "So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give to their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there." And Joshua 21:45: "Not one of all the Lord's good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled." Why? Because Israel chose to worship and not worry.
My friends, we have a choice. We can focus on the problem or the Problem Solver. We can worship or we can worry. We can wrestle with our problems, or we can rest in the character of God. The choice is ours. But the psalmist encourages us to worship. God is in control even when we're not. We're the sheep of the Great Shepherd, and he is sad when we worry.
I remember watching a father play with his little boy, repeatedly throwing him in the air and catching him just before he hit the ground. The child was relaxed and having a great time saying, "Do it again! Do it again!" I thought, "If that were me, I'd be stiff as a board." I asked the father, "Can you explain why your child is so relaxed, even when he's out of control?" "It's very simple," he said. "We have a history together. We've played this game before, and I've never dropped him."
Some of you may feel as if you're free falling without a parachute. Some of you are up in the air and not sure exactly what's happening or where you're going next. All I can say to you this morning is, relax. Do your best, knowing God has never dropped you before, and he won't drop you now. You'll discover that when all you have left is God, God is enough.
Rod Cooper is Kenneth and Jean Hansen Professor of Discipleship and Leadership Development at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and author of Holman New Testament Commentary: Mark (Volume 2) (B H Publishing, 2001).