Sunday, April 26, 2020
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True Faith: Insurance or Assurance?
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, April 26, 2020
Reading: Psalm 23


At times I feel like my head is spinning. When I’ve talked to people in various capacities over the last few days, that sense of almost being out of control has gripped everyone. The losses we are experiencing as a society are enough to make our heads spin and to feel out of control. COVID 19 makes us feel that we are out of control. Losing loved ones in nursing homes, which should be places of safety and security, makes our heads spin, we are out of control. Then, to hear of the tragic shootings in my beloved Nova Scotia, you realise that things spiral out of control very quickly.

The image I went to bed with last Sunday night, I must confess, was biblical. It was from Psalm we, which is so well-known, but it was the image that collectively we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. While at this time I would normally preach a sermon continuing the theme of Easter, maybe the appearance of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the appearance to Thomas, or of resurrection and of glory. I feel within my heart that the recognition that we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, is what needs to be addressed right now. Many of you are feeling anger at what is taking place, because you do not have control over circumstances. Anger is a natural response.

I love the reminder from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said that for every minute of anger, we lose sixty seconds of happiness. Anger might seem like a good response, but it can eat away at us. Likewise, I feel we’re in shock. I know I was in shock on Sunday. I could barely even move. To think that someone would take so many innocent lives, was beyond reason.

I think with COVID 19, as expressed on the television program Frontline this week, it’s almost as if we are watching a landslide coming towards us slowly, and we don’t know how to push it back. It is terrible when you feel shock and anger and a sense of powerlessness. When we feel it collectively as a society, and as a nation, it is even harder to comprehend and deal with than at the individual level. That is why I love our passage today from Psalm 23. It goes right to the heart of what we believe and think. It was written probably by people who understood the pastoral setting of Palestine, understood shepherds and sheep.

There is nothing profoundly philosophical about this passage. It is about real life, the real experience of shepherds. While it is rooted in something that is rural and agricultural, and it talks about shepherds and fields and flocks, the real gutsiness of it is that it also talks about God, the reality of suffering, and evil. As Christians we often think we should be immune to these things. We think that our faith is like an insurance policy, and if we have an insurance policy, we should not be going through such things. We think that God should not be part of what is destroying our lives and the lives of others.

We question the idea or the notion that this is happening when we have faith, as if faith is an insurance policy against these things. Some people believe in that kind of insurance policy mentality, and they look to God and the Bible and scriptures to preserve and protect them from the things that are going on around them and making them immune to them, as if they should not suffer. Sometimes irrational things are being done on that notion of faith, as if somehow the higher power would not let them endure such things.

I think one of the great criticisms levelled at people of faith, is that this is a naïve understanding. A lot of fingers are pointed at believers who think they have an insurance policy when they don’t have an insurance policy at all. Why is it, if you believe so much in your God, that you are also suffering, just like everybody else? It is not an insurance policy of immunity that you have. This is nothing new. When Jesus was being crucified on the cross, in the Gospel of Matthew there is this incredible encounter between the crowds, some of the religious leaders, and Jesus as he was being crucified.

Listen to Matthew 27, and it’s as if you can hear the skeptics ringing in your ear as they do today. From verse 38:

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself. If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’

In the same way the chief priest, also along with the scribes and the elders, were mocking him, saying, ‘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, for he said, I am God’s Son.

The bandits who were crucified with him, taunted him in the same way.

You see, those who think that true faith in God makes us immune to the sufferings of the world, do not understand the biblical God. And they do not understand the psalmist. The psalmist understood that there are times when we go through the valley of the shadow of death. He knew and understood that like any pastor taking care of a flock of sheep, you sometimes need to go through deep valleys of danger to get to places to replenish themselves. The sheep need to move to new pastures, which means that their challenge was going through the of the valley of the shadow of death.

The psalmist understands that there are times when we suffer.

For example, in the Book of Job, particularly chapter three, Job has this debate with God, and questions about the day he was born, and says, “I wish I hadn't even been born, for it is like there is a shadow over me, and I am in darkness.”

Job understood that sometimes even the most faithful go under the shadow of the valley of death. That we do not have an insurance policy that says you are immune from the challenges of life. So, what then does God give us? If it is not an insurance policy of immunity, what is our faith worth? Well, what God gives us is assurance, not insurance.

I was talking to my insurance broker this week, trying to get a deal. I asked questions about different policies: I wanted to save some bucks. I'm not sure I have, but that’s irrelevant. The point is, I asked what an assurance policy was compared to an insurance policy? They said that an insurance policy pays for specific things that might happen to your car, your health, your business, etc., but an assurance policy knows that bad things will happen, and recognises that there will be calamities, but gives you what they call the whole life policy. In other words, not dividing up things, it covers the whole thing.

Now, let’s not take this analogy too far, but this give us a sense of what God actually gives us. God gives us assurance. This is why Psalm 23 goes right to the heart of people. If you're shocked right now, if you're angry, or frightened, this is what you need to hear. The psalmist does not give a philosophical account of evil. What the psalmist does, is talk about the concreteness of God and what God does.

The first four verses of Psalm 23 are what I just want to focus on for a few minutes. It begins with, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

This has weighty meaning within the context of Israel. This notion of God, the Shepherd, finds its roots in Genesis 49, and the promise of Jacob to his sons that God is the shepherd and the sovereign rock on which people stand. The Lord is not a shepherd in a pastoral sense, but in a sovereign sense. This is the Creator. This is the Redeemer and Maker of the world. This is the One that we turn to in all moments. God is sovereign, God is the Rock, God is the Foundation of our lives.

Then look at the pastoral words that are used after that. “He will make you lie down in green pastures.” All Jewish scholars know that this is reference going to a new field where the sheep find their sustenance. Once a field is barren, they need to know to go to green pastures to feed and nurture their flock. God is the one who feeds us, nurtures us, and provides us with what we need if we turn to Him.

The phrase, “He leadeth me beside still waters,” that’s what was in my mind on Monday morning. On Sunday morning it was the valley of the shadow of death. On the Monday morning, it was beside still waters. The still waters were necessary for the sheep to drink. Rushing waters could not do that, they could not drink from rushing waters, but beside still, quiet waters, they were restored.

Right now, our minds are anything but quiet. Be honest with yourself; you feel like everything is rushing, and we go from one press meeting to another, one more press release, one more series of numbers. It’s all rushing water that is out of control. At times like that, we often rush to speak. We rush in this torrent of information and come up with all kinds of things to say. We need to be careful, quiet and reflective about what we say in moments like this. We can hurt others and ourselves if we speak too quickly amidst the torrent.

I love a story that I read about a young woman who went for a job interview. The person interviewing her said, “I’ve seen your resume. What are some of the things that you do that are particularly creative?”

The young woman said, “Oh well, I'm really good at crossword puzzles. I’ve won awards for crossword puzzles.”

And the interviewer said, “I'm very impressed, but I was more interested in what you do when you're at work?”

She says, “I do crossword puzzles when I’m at work.” She didn’t get the job. She was in a rush to speak.

Sometimes we’re in a rush to speak and we’re sometimes in a rush to find reasons for things, sometimes we’re in a rush to blame God or others for things. A little quiet water would do us all good.

He also does something more. He leads us in the right paths. This is a time for discernment; where do we go, what do we do? When do we open things up? We need the discernment of the Lord. This is important for us. This is a moment where we need to turn to God to give us the path to walk.

Our politicians do their best, our doctors base their thinking on the best advice. Those who seek to bring our society back to normal want to do so with a good heart. Those that are concerned for the economy understand its import. This is a time to walk in the path of the Lord, to be discerning, to pray, and to think.

I love this line. It’s all the way through the Old Testament. It was there during the exile when Isaiah wrote to his people, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” God is a comforter. In the New Testament the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Paraclete” and that means “the Comforter”. God is a comforter to us if we let him.

There’s one last line, and it’s priceless: “He will be with us”, the Lord comforts, because he is with you. “I will be with you,” this is what the Lord says to us. Think about it: the very name of Jesus that we sing every Christmas in this place, is, “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel” – literally, God with us. This is our conviction, that we do not go through the valley of the shadow of death alone. It might seem trite to those who haven't experienced it, or don’t believe it, but to those who know it to be true, it is everything.

This is not an insurance policy; it is an assurance that God goes with us. It is recognition that there are acts of evil in this world, things that kill and steal and destroy human life, be they a virus or guns. They take life and whenever life is taken, it is an affront to the God who made us in his image. There is this evil that can do terrible things, but there is also the assurance that the power of God is to break into that evil, to call people who defy that evil, to resist that evil in the name of the One who made us.

I was thinking back to a story that I shared in this place twenty years ago, about a moment in ministry in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where I ministered. I got a telephone call from a funeral director, who said to me, “Doctor Stirling, do you have an open mind?”

I said, “Hmm, yes, reasonably, not completely.”

He said, “Well, I would like you to do a funeral for us. We have nowhere else to turn. Would you be willing to come down to the funeral home now and see me and the family? And if you decide you don’t want to do this funeral, we understand.”

So, I went down to the funeral home, walked in and there was the family sitting, who had lost a child. I also realised from the look of their attire that they were members of a biker gang. They said to me, “We would like you to do the service for our child, and you can say whatever you want, do whatever you want, but we would like you to do the funeral for this child.”

On the day of the actual funeral, I was terrified. I had no idea what I was going to face. As I arrived at the funeral home, there was a cavalcade of motorbikes lining up down Portland Street in Dartmouth. I went in and the entire place was filled with people who belonged to that gang, and a few family members. I shook. I had no idea what I was going to say. I thought that my message was irrelevant until I came to that one seminal moment, which we often do at a funeral, when we read Psalm 23.

When I looked at this tiny casket in front of me, and I out on the crowd that was gathered, and I read those words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leadeth me…” it was as if all the fears that I had completely and totally left me. At the end of the message, which was very short, I simply held the casket – it was so tiny – in my hands and said, “I leave this child in the hands of the Good Shepherd.” There was not a dry eye in that place. Even those who had lived on the edge of things knew that there was power in that image. And if there was a power of an image for us right now, it is, “Even though we go through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” The assurance of the Good Shepherd. Amen.