Pursued by God’s Love

As a boy memorizing the 23rd Psalm, I thought the Psalm ended by promising three things would always follow me:  surely, goodness, and mercy. It was the way I was taught to enunciate the words, pausing between each as if there was a comma between surely and goodness. As I was reading the passage out of the Bible one day it struck me, the Psalm ends with a bold confession that no matter what, God’s goodness and mercy will follow us. Surely was not one more item in a list, but confidence in God’s steadfast journey with us. Surely God will follow us with goodness and mercy.

It was not until I was in seminary, studying Hebrew, that I realized just how strong that confession is. The old English translation, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me,” made me think of how my dog used to wander around behind me. Sometimes the dog would get distracted by squirrels, or chase birds taking off from the ground. Always the dog would come back. I began to think of God’s goodness and mercy as dependable companions like my dog, ambling on behind me, sometimes taking off in different directions but always finding me. Surely God’s goodness and mercy would follow along. I learned the Hebrew text uses a strong verb to describe God pursuing us, not simply ambling on behind us.

The idea of God pursuing us is reinforced by the Psalmist’s use of the word Chesed. Chesed is the word often translated mercy in the Psalm. Chesed is translated in other places as loving kindness, covenant love, deep love. Chesed is used to describe God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Chesed is God’s love that does not give up on us but keeps searching for us as God wandered through the garden of Eden calling out until Adam and Eve finally step out of hiding.

Perhaps what causes us to lose sight of the strong confession at the end of Psalm 23 is the way the Psalm lulls us to think that all is peace and calm. We focus on the green pastures, the still waters, and we believe the Psalm merely describes a peaceful stroll with God. However, Psalm 23 also talks about the valley of the shadow of death and sitting down at a table with enemies. The Psalmist is aware that journeying with God does not guarantee that all will be peace and calm.  The Psalm bears witness to a faith that no matter where we travel, in peaceful pastures or dark valleys, God will not leave us on our own. Indeed God will pursue us with goodness and love.

 

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Beautiful Star of Bethlehem Shine On

On Monday, I presided over a funeral for a member of the congregation where I serve as pastor. I found myself standing between two lights:  the light of the Paschal candle and a depiction of the star of Bethlehem. I used these images in the sermon I shared, some of which follows:

We are a people living between two lights.

To my right stands the Paschal Candle. This candle is traditionally lit on Easter and throughout the Easter season, but brought back into the sanctuary at times of funerals and baptisms to remind us of how we already participate in Christ’s power over sin and death. We bring it back often, because we do not often feel this victory and we need to be reminded of it.
It is a light that shines out of the deepest darkness. Being first lit at Easter, it reminds us of the light of Christ breaking forth from the tomb, where we thought all was darkness and finished. The Paschal candle reminds us that we are an Easter people, ours is a resurrection faith.

Behind me, depicted in a banner, is the star of Bethlehem. Tomorrow, January 6th, is the feast of Epiphany. In western Christendom, this date has long been used to mark the end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, Epiphany is the day we remember the visitation of the wise men. Epiphany not only affirms the visitation of these foreigners to the child Jesus. Epiphany not only reminds us of the giving of gifts, strange gifts for a child: gold, frankincense and myrrh; gifts which already betoken a coming death. Epiphany also reminds us that these men were guided by a light, the star of Bethlehem.

We remember that the star, even then, was shinning in a world where death and destruction often seemed to hide its light. We remember that Herod, would later call for the destruction of all the children in Bethlehem, trying to rid the world of the light to which this star points. Though sin continued, though death and destruction still ran rampant; the star of Bethlehem continued to shine, proclaiming God’s gift.

Today, we may feel closest to this last light, the star of Bethlehem. Not just that we are closer chronologically to Epiphany than Easter. Rather we may be feeling closer emotionally and psychologically to this star shining in the darkness.

Amidst the pain of separation that comes with death, we are guided by a light, a ray of hope that breaks forth in the night, a star which brings us to a place of hope and peace and comfort, even amidst decay and death.

We are an Easter people, but we realize that often we are guided through the night by the light of a star.
John says in the beginning of his gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is the hope of our faith which propels us onward.
Jesus, in our gospel text today says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You believe in God, believe also in me.” Here we catch the glimpse of light amidst our sadness and pain, a star shining through the grief to bring us to the hope of resurrection.

We are a people living between two lights. A star in the sky guides us to the light of Easter, but our journey takes us through a death. As the words of one of our Affirmations of Faith puts it, “In life, in death, in life beyond death; we are not alone. God is with us.” Thanks be to God.

That is some of what I shared with the congregation. As I wrote it, and even now as I read back over it, I was also thinking of the tragic death of a friend this weekend. We worked together several years ago and discovered some common interests. One of the things we shared in common was family roots in the Appalachian mountains. As I thought of his death, and standing between these two lights I remembered a song that came out of the Appalachian region in the early 20th century: Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. Several recording artists have performed this song in recent years, but to really enjoy it find a good Bluegrass version like Ralph Stanley’s. (search on Youtube)  There are lots of lines from the song that speak to me in this moment but I keep returning to this verse:

Oh beautiful star, the hope of light
Guiding the pilgrims through the night
Over the mountains till the break of dawn
Into the land of perfect day
It will give out a lovely ray
Oh beautiful star of Bethlehem, shine on

We forget sometimes the pain and suffering that many experience around the holidays. We sometimes jump quickly from manger scenes and lose sight of Matthew’s quote from Jeremiah regarding Herod’s destruction in Bethlehem:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more. (Matthew 2:18)

Epiphany reminds us that God sends us a light even in the darkness, oh beautiful light shine on!