"Trust God and ..." - March 24, 2019

Psalm 37:1-9

When I read over Psalm 37 a few weeks ago, the one verse that stuck in my head, or the one part of one verse, was “Trust in God and do right.”  When I read it more closely, I saw that verse three says,

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. 

That is something very different, and I will get back to that, but I admit that I was disappointed because I had a hymn all picked out to go with trusting God and doing right, not trusting God and doing good.  In fact, I think that might be where the phrase that was stuck in my head comes from. 

It was written by Norman Mcleod, a Scottish Presbyterian who led a group of highlanders to settle in Nova Scotia in 1817.  The community moved to Cape Breton Island in 1829, and then when the same potato blight that hit Ireland hit them in 1847, they all moved to Australia and a year later to New Zealand.  They must have been a hearty bunch.  Mcleod definitely had a feisty streak, and it shows up in the hymn I was thinking about:

Courage, brother, do not stumble,
Though thy path be dark as night;
There’s a star to guide the humble:
Trust in God and do the right.
Let the road be rough and dreary,
And its end far out of sight,
Foot it bravely; strong or weary,

Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

Perish policy and cunning,
Perish all that fears the light!
Whether losing, whether winning,
Trust in God and do the right.
Trust no party, sect, or faction;
Trust no leaders in the fight;
Put in every word or action,

Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

Some will hate thee, some will love thee,
Some will flatter, some will slight;
Cease from man, and look above thee:
Trust in God and do the right.
Simple rule, and safest guiding,
Inward peace and inward might,
Star upon our path abiding,

Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

The music was written decades later by Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, who also wrote “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, and has that same punchy, go-get-‘em feeling.  Go, follow bravely!  Let’s bring in the kingdom of God!  There’s a whole catalog of those nineteenth-century songs that stir up Christian courage.

“Peal out the watchword! Silence it never!

Song of spirits, rejoicing and free!

Peal out the watchword!  Loyal forever,

King of our lives, by thy grace we will be!”

You’ve got to love that.

“Lord, we are able; our spirits are thine.

Remake them, make us, like thee, divine.

Thy guiding radiance above us shall be

A beacon to God, to love and loyalty.”

I’ll stop.  The reason I’ll stop is that Psalm 37 isn’t telling us to do right, but to do good.

            Now, those two impulses are not in conflict.  But to do good, I would suggest, is the harder of the two, in part because it doesn’t always carry the same sense of satisfaction (or maybe “dignity” would be a better word).  To do good often involves setting yourself aside in ways that call for an internal, rather than an external, struggle.

            I would point to the story of Jesus birth.  Matthew [1:18-19] tells us,

“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Joseph would have been totally within his rights, totally justified, at least at that point, to make a public statement about the whole situation.  Instead, he let kindness and consideration take over, and if you put yourself in that position, it is not an easy thing to do, especially in a society where a pregnancy like that would conceivably end up with the mother becoming, at best, an outcast and, at worst, dead.  Then God called on Joseph to go even one step further, to marry Mary and to raise Jesus as his own, which he did.

“Trust in the Lord and do good.”

            The “trust” part of that is major.  Joseph had to keep on trusting God from that moment.  He had another dream, just after the visit of the Wise Men, where he was warned that Herod would try to kill the baby, so Joseph took the mother and child and they became refugees in Egypt.  He had another message in another dream a few years later, letting him know that the coast was clear, and he uprooted them again to go home.  He and Mary had another scare when Jesus was twelve years old and they took him to the temple and when the family left, Jesus stayed behind without telling anyone.  They had to turn around and search all over Jerusalem until they found him.  Tell me that wouldn’t take trust.  Imagine being entrusted with the care of the Messiah, and losing him.  For that matter, I wonder if Joseph suspected that the people who wanted Jesus dead as a child might have gotten to him then.  I wonder if he thought how careless he had been to let him get anywhere near Jerusalem, the center of danger.  I wonder if he had a hunch somewhere in the back of his mind that it could be in Jerusalem that the Messiah would be killed.  I wonder if Joseph understood that even more would be asked of Jesus than had been asked of himself, both in trust and in doing good, more than had been asked of anyone, ever.

            Back in Jerusalem, while Mary and Joseph were going frantic, Jesus had been discussing the scriptures with the teachers in the temple.  One of the passages that he knew was this psalm.  How do we know that?  He quotes it.  We didn’t read the whole psalm this morning.  We heard verse nine say,

“…those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.”

Two verses later you’ll hear, right there, words that Jesus would point to in the Beatitudes.  It says,

“…the meek shall inherit the land.”

Certainly, then, Jesus knew the rest of this passage, with its urging to trust the Lord and to do good, which he did, but also to trust the Lord when doing good would mean bearing up under injustice without giving into it, to show the ultimate inability of hatred and cruelty to overcome innocence and faith, love and mercy.

“Commit your way to the Lord;
   trust in him, and he will act. 
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
   and the justice of your cause like the noonday.”
[Psalm 37:5-6]

For Jesus it would even mean letting them torture and kill him, and the people there that day tossed Jesus’ failure to lash out like them and the rest of us back at him, when that failure was really the greatest success:

“He saved others; he cannot save himself.  He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.  He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to.”  [Matthew 27:42-43]

To do the good he was sent to do, he had to trust as no one else has ever done, committing his way to the Lord, committing his life to the Lord, committing even his dying to the Lord who would vindicate him on Sunday morning, but this was still Friday.

            We, with our enjoyment of being right – let’s even use the word “pride” – want to jump ahead so quickly to the victorious songs and the glory of God, so we rush past the suffering and the trouble that come first, and the ways that we learn the profound lessons of trust and humility.  We miss the songs that say,

“Teach me to feel that thou art always nigh;

teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.

To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,

teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.”

And so I’m going to leave off with that.  I’m going to leave off with the protestors sitting at the lunch counter, holding still while the crowd taunts them and spits.  I’m going to leave off with the parent holding onto the screaming child.  I’m going to stop here with the husband or wife saying, “I’m with you, but if the drinking doesn’t stop, I have to get the kids away.”  I’m going to end with the whistleblower making the phone call.  I’m going to say once more,

“Trust in the Lord and do good,”

and point to someone going us all one better, up on a cross.