Scripture: Psalm 27
The following paragraph comes from an article on the Encyclopaedia Britannica website:
It used to be a standard trope in action movies, although you don’t see it much these days: a patch of apparently solid ground in the jungle that, when stepped on, turns out to have the consistency of cold oatmeal. The unlucky victim starts sinking down into the muck; struggling only makes it worse. Unless there’s a vine to grab a hold of, he or she disappears without a trace (except maybe a hat floating sadly on the surface). It was a bad way to go. Quicksand was probably the number-one hazard faced by silver-screen adventurers, followed by decaying rope bridges and giant clams that could hold a diver underwater.1
It goes on to say that while quicksand is real, it isn’t very dangerous, you won’t sink down in it and drown.
What a relief! Because I grew up watching a lot of TV when I was a kid, including Gillian’s Island, and I remember the constant threat of accidentally stepping in quicksand, getting stuck, sinking down, and dying in it!
So good news! Getting stuck in quicksand isn’t as dangerous as you thought. You don’t have to be afraid of it.
And isn’t this the way we normally handle our biggest fears. We try to minimize our fears. We tell ourselves something like, “Things aren’t as bad as they seem, so you’ll be okay.” “The thing that you’re most worried about right now very likely will not come to pass, so you’ll probably be okay.” “The worst case scenario rarely ever happens, so chances are you’ll be fine.”
I certainly understand the impulse to minimize our fears; I do the same thing myself. But… the Bible takes a different tack: it isn’t interested in minimizing our fears; it’s all about facing our fears, and taking them exactly as seriously as they deserve to be taken… That’s what today’s scripture, Psalm 27, does.
This psalm was written by David, who faced many, many fearful things in his lifetime. And he likely wrote this psalm to help him confront some specific thing that he was afraid of in the moment he wrote it. But scholars agree that what he describes in verse 3—“Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident”—isn’t something that was happening to him at that moment. And what he describes in verse 10—“For my father and my mother have forsaken me”—hadn’t actually happened to him in real life. Nowhere in scripture are we told that David’s parents abandoned him.
See, what David is describing is hypothetical, not biographical. And the hypothetical that he’s describing is really bad. At this moment we’re witnessing the harm that one nation’s army can do to a nation of millions in Ukraine. Imagine the harm that that same army could do if all of its deadly forces were trained on one man. That’s what David describes in verse 3! David is imagining what, for him, would would truly be… the worst case scenario! But instead of telling himself, “Things aren’t as bad as they seem, so you’ll probably be okay,” it’s as if he were saying, “No! Suppose things are even worse than I can imagine! Will I still be okay?”
His answer is yes.
And that’s good! Because that means that if we could only take these words to heart, then we’ll be ready to face anything, right?
That’s certainly what I’m aiming for in this sermon. That’s why I’ve called it a “Template for Trust in Times of Trouble.” Because I believe this psalm gives us a strategy for dealing with things that we are most afraid of right now—whether we’re worried about big things like Russia and Ukraine, possible U.S. military involvement, the threat of nuclear war, rising gas prices and inflation, the economy, the environment… or smaller things like our health, our finances, our families, our jobs, our businesses, our grades. This psalm is a template for dealing with all of it—everything we’re afraid of—and as I say, the psalm’s strategy is not to hope against hope that “things aren’t as bad as they seem.” Because maybe they are! But no… the psalm’s strategy is to offer hope by trusting God “even if things are exactly as bad as they appear.”
So I want this sermon to examine three critically important ideas from this psalm that will help us face times of trouble with confidence: One, we must remember the truth of God’s Word, including God’s many promises to us. Two, we must remember our testimony: in other words, we must remember what God has done for us in the past. And three, we must talk… both to ourselves and to God.
Truth of God’s Word, testimony about what God has done for us in the past, and talking to ourselves and to God. Truth, testimony, talking… That’s what this sermon is about. And I’ll explain how each one relates to our theme.
First, the truth of God’s Word…
Notice the confidence that David expresses in verse 1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Where does David’s confidence come from?
Confidence begins with believing God’s promises found in his Word. In last week’s sermon on Jesus’ temptations by Satan in the wilderness I said that Jesus used scripture to combat every temptation. Well, in verses 1 through 6, that’s a big part of what David is doing. He knows the promises that God has given him and his ancestors. In fact, David himself wrote many of these promises down in the Psalms. But he also knows what Moses wrote in the first five books of the Bible—as well as Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. So when David speaks, for instance, of the Lord being his “stronghold,” or “fortress,” he remembers the story of his ancestor Rahab, the prostitute from the Book of Joshua who hid Israelite spies, who finds a stronghold for her and her family—a fortress from an invading army—because of her faithfulness to God.
And when David writes, in verse 3, “Though an army encamp against me,” he remembers the Egyptian army encamped against Israel by the Red Sea. It looked hopeless for the Israelites, until God made a way for them through the sea.
By all means, David feels overwhelmed and overmatched, but he remembers Gideon feeling exactly the same way. In Judges chapter 7, God deliberately reduced the Israelite army down from 32,000 men strong to only three hundred men, and with that tiny army, Gideon led them to defeat the mighty Midianites. Why did God do this? So that when Israel won the victory, they wouldn’t be tempted to say, “We did this by our own strength, by our own mighty hand.”2 No, Israel would know—the world would know—that God alone gave Israel the victory. And if God alone had all the power Israel needed to win a victory over the Midianites, then that means that God alone has all the power to enable us to win victories over whatever we’re facing.
To say the least, we Christians have many, many more promises from God’s Word than even David had—including the promises of Jesus… Like this one:
What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.3
Or this one:
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”4
Not to mention the many promises of the apostles in the New Testament, like, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them,”5 and “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”6
But David has more than the truth of God’s Word—although that’s quite a lot! And this brings us to Point Number Two: testimony…David has a powerful testimony about what God has done for him in the past. He can draw upon that, remind himself of that. Let’s look at verse 9, for instance: “Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help.” I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: “You have always been my helper.”
To say the least, God was David’s helper when he went up against Goliath. But David’s confidence to go up against Goliath came, in part, from his own experience. When King Saul tells David that there’s no way that a scrawny little kid like him can defeat the mighty Goliath, what does David say?
He tells the king that as a shepherd he had successfully fought off and killed lions and bears over the years—or more accurately, God had empowered him to do so. In 1 Samuel 17:37, he says, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” The Lord who delivered me… In other words, David is saying, “The Lord who did these great things for me in the past has proven to me that he can rescue me and continue to be faithful to me in the future—even with this current trouble I’m facing!”
When we face times of trouble, God intends for part of our confidence to be based on our testimony… experiences of God’s faithfulness to us in the past!
And this brings us to Point Number Three: Talking… to ourselves and to God.
To see what I mean, let’s please notice something very important about the structure of this psalm. Specifically, I need you to notice to whom David is speaking in verses 1 through 6… You may look at verse 7, you say, “Oh, he’s talking to God.” And that’s true… But not in verses 1 to 6… He isn’t talking to God; he’s talking to himself—or he’s writing to himself, same difference… He’s speaking promises from God’s Word to himself! He’s offering a testimony about what God has done for him in the past to himself! He’s talking to himself!
Do you see that?
I mean, I probably don’t need to preach a sermon encouraging anyone to pray when they’re in times of trouble. For most of us, praying comes incredibly easy when we’re facing the worst trouble, right? Trouble drives us to our knees like nothing else, so God uses trouble to help us. I wish we could reliably grow closer to the Lord when we’re not facing trouble—but that’s not usually the case, as I’m sure most of us can testify from our own experience.
But here’s my point: When we’re facing trouble… when we’re worried… when we’re afraid… we don’t want to do the thing that Christian author Dallas Willard warns against in his amazing book The Divine Conspiracy… Wedon’t want our prayers to be nothing more than “worrying in God’s direction.” Do you see what he means? If all you can do is desperately pray, “Help me, help me, help me, God,” that’s better than no prayer at all. And David’s prayer in verses 7 through 12 sounds pretty desperate, too! He’s praying with great anguish. But desperation and anxiety aren’t the only things he’s expressing. He can say with confidence, in verse 13, after his prayer, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” because he has first spent time reminding himself of the truth of God’s Word and his own testimony!
David avoids prayer that is merely “worrying in God’s direction” by thinking things through first, and saying out loud what his soul needs to hear before he prays. This isn’t the only place in the Psalms in which the psalmist does this, by the way. Psalm 42 and 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” The psalmist is talking to himself. Or how about Psalm 103 and 104, David says: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me…” Again, he’s talking to himself… He’s speaking words of encouragement to himself: “You have reasons to be confident in God! You have reasons to have hope and not despair! Let me tell you what they are!” Let me tell myself what they are!
If that helps David, surely it will help us, too! Talk to yourself before you talk to God… So that you aren’t merely “worrying in God’s direction” when you pray, but that you’re also believing in God’s direction when you pray.
Because make no mistake: The Bible makes some ambitious promises about what happens when we go to the Lord believing that he can and will answer our prayers. The apostle James tells his church, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”7 And Jesus himself makes the most ambitious promises about the power of believing prayer. For instance, in Mark 11:23, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”
The truth is, I think preachers like me often ignore these straightforward words about the power of prayer because they indict us and our congregations… they make us feel guilty and ashamed… because maybe we don’t even believe them… because if we really believed Jesus when he talks about the power of prayer, wouldn’t we pray more boldly, and more often? Wouldn’t prayer be at the center of our lives? Wouldn’t we experience less spiritual dryness if we were praying the way the Bible teaches us to pray? Wouldn’t we expect to see more manifestations of God’s power if we prayed as frequently and boldly as the Bible tells us? Wouldn’t we see more signs of revival if we took to heart what God’s Word says about prayer?
Am I wrong?
I shared this last fall, but it convicts me, so I’m going to share it again. I need to hear it, even if you don’t: Christian writer and pastor Richard Foster has written some of the most convicting words I’ve read about the power of prayer. In one of his books he tells the story of young woman named Maria who was a student at the college where Foster was teaching. She fell out of the back of a pickup truck on campus and suffered severe head trauma. Foster, acting as her pastor, rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital, holding her hand and praying for her on the way, while the paramedics worked to save her life. At the hospital, Foster gave a group of students who gathered there a crash course on intercessory prayer: “The brain is bleeding and swelling from the impact of the injury,” he said. “So our initial prayer efforts must focus on seeing the injured capillaries in the brain begin to heal and for the swelling of the brain to slow down.”8 And that’s exactly what they prayed. And guess what? Maria got better! She was healed.
By contrast, Foster described an earlier prayer meeting for Maria with some of his fellow professors at the college. He said that they prayed things like, “It’s in your hands now, Lord; there’s nothing else we can do.” Or “Lord, help Maria to get well, if it be thy will.” Foster said that while he knew his colleagues meant well, their prayers betrayed the fact that they didn’t really believe that Maria would get better.9
His point is, while it sounds pious to say “if it be thy will,” sometimes—not always, but sometimes—sometimes even these words may disguise the fact that we don’t really believe that God is going to do anything when we pray.
Even when these professors said, “Lord, it’s in your hands, there’s nothing else we can do”… What is that? “There’s nothing else we can do”? Because what…? We think that prayer isn’t doing much of anything! That’s what our popular culture tells us, by the way… Whenever there’s some tragedy in the news, inevitably some well-meaning believer will say something about the importance and power of prayer. And it can sound like a cliché: “My thoughts and prayer are with you.” Well, I agree that there isn’t any power in one’s “thoughts” being with someone, except when a sincere person says that, they probably only mean, “I love you and I’m thinking of you”—which is a perfectly fine sentiment!
But there’s been a backlash, especially on social media, against “thoughts and prayers.” And the backlash sounds something like this: “Spare me your thoughts and prayers! Do something instead!”
And as it relates to prayer, what’s the premise of this backlash? The premise is, prayer is not “doing something.”
And all I can say to that is, the words of Jesus, along with the rest of scripture, disagree! Prayer is the most important thing we can do… always… any time.
Listen: This was fortuitous timing, but on Friday, one of you offered to help me with some problem. And in a text message, this person said something that I loved… and it perfectly illustrates my point… This person said, “If I can do anything at all to help, please let me know. I’ll at most be praying for you.”
I’m like, “Yes! That’s exactly what I need to say in this sermon!” I’m cheering on the author of this text message! “If I can do anything at all to help, please let me know. I’ll at most be praying for you.”
Not “at least” praying for you; “at most” praying for you.
It’s a perfect message because he doesn’t say, “Either I’m going to do something… you know, to help you… Or worst case… I’ll at least pray for you. I know that makes me kinda lazy, but it’s the least I can do.” No! He says, “I’m available to help you in any way I can, and while I’m at it—while I’m helping you—the best thing I can do to help you… is to pray. That is the ‘most’ I’ll do… Prayer will prove to be most helpful.”
Notice that David’s prayer in verses 7 through 12 implies that he will also take action. Yes, he’s praying that God will do something, but notice verse 9: “Turn not your servant away in anger.” Those are words of repentance. He recognizes that he has sinned. He recognizes that he is unworthy to receive anything from God. But not only that… Notice verse 11: “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path.” He is telling God that he will obey whatever God tells him to do… whatever he shows him that he needs to do. “Here I am, Lord, show me, guide me, use me.”
My point is, prayer is a part of doing!
No… Prayer is the most important part of doing! It’s not either we do something or we pray. Prayer is doing something—and then we do whatever else God calls us to do in response to our prayers!
Finally, let’s notice again what David says before he prays—in verses 1 through 6. David has some great theology about God. He has a deep appreciation for the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, of God’s glory, of God’s grace. He seems to love and believe in God’s Word. He seems to love God as his greatest treasure and want to obey him, no matter what the cost. He is a perfectly orthodox believer in God.
I give David credit. I feel a real kinship with him. After all, I’m really proud to be an orthodox believer myself. Like John Wesley, I’m an evangelical… Like John Wesley, I am what today is called a theological conservative. Like John Wesley, I believe in the infallibility of scripture. I’m not saying you have to be just like me, I’m just telling you who I am. But that means that like David, I’ll stand on God’s Word. I’ll defend the truthfulness of God’s Word, I’ll defend the historic doctrines of our church! I’ll “out-argue” anyone who wants to “contend” with me for the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”… Jude 3. You want to argue theology with me? “Go ahead… make my day.” Because I love arguing—and I’ve done a lot of it over the years. Unfortunately, all this arguing makes me angry, and the it mostly hasn’t been good for my soul. And that’s my fault. Anger is not my friend. So forgive me, I’m a work in progress.
But… but… but… Here’s my point… All of this wonderful theology that King David and I share—our passionate belief in God’s Word and these doctrines… they simply don’t mean a thing if we don’t pray. If we don’t pray, we can believe up here all the good and orthodox things we’re supposed to [point to head], and we can “wear” whatever good and orthodox label we’re supposed to wear, but if we’re not praying the way we should, who cares?
So everything we say we want our church to be… We’re not going to get there simply by ‘believing the Bible” and “believing all the right doctrines” of our faith. We’re going to get there mostly when God’s people at Toccoa First get on their knees together and pray! The revival we say we want, in our church, in our denomination, isn’t going to happen up here, in our heads; it’s going to happen down here, in our hearts! And it’s going to happen mostly through prayer!
And it won’t happen at all if we don’t pray!
David is a man of prayer… David prays! He doesn’t just say the right words and believe the right doctrines… He prays! He doesn’t get what he wants simply by believing the right things about God in verses 1 through 6. No, he gets what he wants because he spends time talking to God about it, and telling him what he needs!
Oh that we would do the same, brothers and sisters!
“Standing on the promises that cannot fail.
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God
Standing on the promises of God, my Savior
I’m standing on the promises of God”