A Large brown box sat just inside the doors of a church. Even though it was large, it was overflowing with items that people had left behind at church. One morning, the pastor dug inside the box, looking for a lost mitten. There was no mitten – but there was a house key on a sneaker chain, a man’s red wool scarf, and a child’s well-loved blanket. Among the several pairs of reading glasses, sweaters and Bible bookmarks, these things struck her as odd to have been left unclaimed. She had the impulse to carry the box into church and look for the man with the cold neck, a woman squinting at an upside –down bulletin, a teenager locked out of the house and a child crying for their blanket. At the bottom of the box was written a proverb, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” That fits more than the lost and found box – that is one of Jesus’ proverbs. It shares truth for a specific situation – not one size fits all. It’s only the person who needs that particular strength of reading glasses who will find them useful. It’s only a child who loves it who would be drawn to that blanket. That particularity fits all of the scriptures that we call “The Writings.” They were written for specific situations and particular contexts – but sometimes they are EXACTLY what WE need![i]
I. Writings as Correction.
The group of books in the Bible that we refer to as “The Writings” include a large assortment of genres. Psalms, which are poetry or songs, Proverbs (wisdom sayings), the love poetry of Song of Songs and philosophic musings of Ecclesiastes, the book of Job – a tale to counter a point in prevalent thinking about why bad things happen, as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles – history from a particular point of view – and the books of Ruth, Esther and Daniel – hero stories with a point to make. They are all written to inform, instruct or correct something in their own time – but sometimes they provide instruction for us as well. They can function as voices from outside our lives and cultures to challenge our customary ways of doing things.
RUTH. Probably written during the time of Ezra, about 5th c BCE, when intermarriage with people of other faiths or countries had become controversial. In contrast with the laws, which said that the descendants of a Moabite were forbidden to enter the Temple gates for seven generations – David becomes king in three: Ruth and Boaz have a son Obed – who fathers Jesse, who is the father of David. BY LAW – David would be forbidden to even go to the Temple – much less lead processions and rule over Israel as a legendary king. The Book of Ruth functions as a BALANCE or corrective to the law and prevailing practice – a correction for INCLUSION.
PROVERBS and Ecclesiastes are Instructions – but also for specific situations. They are meant to offer practical wisdom – kind of “When in doubt, read the instructions.” The passage in Ecclesiastes 4 may be the best text for preaching at a wedding in the Bible.
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
The Book of Psalms is not just a book in the Bible. But as Harold Bosley describes, “one of our longest, steadiest, deepest looks into the depths of life.”[ii] It is a Prayer book, song book, and devotional. It bridges the gaps between time and culture “with an ease unknown by any (other) book.”[iii] The message of MOST of the Psalms is rooted in fundamental truths about God, humanity, our sin, and God’s offer of salvation. And it presents these profound truths not in arguments, but in song. The Psalms point out God’s deeds in the world, “See what God has done!”[iv]
The Writings include a lot of different kinds of literature. They come to us as voices from outside, with different perspectives than our own – challenging us to rethink or reconsider our actions and our thinking.
II. Psalm 139 The Inner story of our Lives
Psalm 139 offers us more than just a challenge – it tells our inner truth. More poetically and perhaps more honestly than we would dare to do. It is not simply a mirror – but more like an MRI that reveals things we were unaware of, or hoped might stay hidden.
The Longing to escape from God. The raw truth of this Psalm is something that we rarely talk about in church. There are times in most of our lives when we rather desperately would like to escape from God. If this hasn’t been true for you – be patient for a moment on behalf of others. For many of us, there comes a point when we actually DO understand what it is that following God means: the ethical demands, the expectations of allegiance to God above all the distractions of life, that God’s priorities need to find their way into our use of time and money, the challenge of tithing – all of that makes us want to say “No thanks” to God. We would rather follow our own path, to find our way without God’s involvement – to be as William Earnest Henley says in the last stanza of his poem, Invictus:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul. [v]
That may be the backstory of this Psalm – the desire and attempt to flee from God – to the heavens, in the depths of sheol – the utter darkness – and this journey of flight leads to a profound, earth-shaking, soul – shattering revelation. We cannot escape from God.
BUT THEN WE DISCOVER that life, whatever we had thought before about independence from God – that life is actually a JOURNEY OF FAITH with God. As theologian Paul Tillich describes it, the ground-forming realization may come to us – that we are deeply rooted and held – and understood – “by something that is greater than we are, that has a claim upon us, and that demands a response from us. The most intimate motions within the depths of our souls are not completely our own. For they belong also to our friends, (to all of humanity), to the universe, and to the Ground of all being, the aim of our life.”[vi]
The Understanding comes that God is the source and strength of our life. God actually knows us better than we know ourselves. That it was this Supreme Force that wove us together in our mother’s womb. The God from whom we cannot flee is, in fact, the one who gives us life – who is the Ground of our Being. This God is wise and wonderful, caring and generous – and demanding because that is what is best for us. That changes things. That changes us – and helps us understand life as a journey of faith with the one who created us and continues to be the Ground of our being.
And then still more – that this God, who created us and guides us if we are willing to follow – is also our Ultimate Destiny. The KJV reads, “Thine eyes saw the sum total of my days, and in Thy book they were all written.” God is the Ultimate meaning of our lives – with the symbol of a heavenly book as a way of concretizing the idea that we matter individually to God. Our days are not accidental or meaningless – God is the center of meaning and the culmination of our existence is to be united with God.
“How mysterious Thy thoughts are to me, O God! How great the sum of them is! If I were to count them, they would outnumber the sands; and if I were to come to the end of them, the span of my life would be like Thine!” The meaning of life, the mystery of life – has as its base the Ground and mystery of God.[vii]
Sculptor Lorado Taft, has left one of his greatest sculptures, “The Fountain of Time” in Washington Park, near the University of Chicago. In this massive sculpture, he has portrayed the figure of Father Time watching the passing of humanity. People in all stages of life: from babies in arms, happy childhood, confused-looking adolescents, a couple kissing, strong working adults and those in old age. For those walking by, it gives a perspective of eternity. Life goes on – we change. Perhaps as we gaze upon this work, we will understand that whatever we are facing at this point in their lives isn’t the entire picture – and perhaps even understand that among life’s challenges – even though God is not portrayed in the statue, that God’s companionship strengthens us.[viii]
This is the Inner Truth of our lives. Sometimes we flee from God – not wanting to be a part of God’s project. It does require submission and change and it is demanding, not convenient at all – so we flee. And perhaps we learn something profoundly true – the God who pursues us is the one who loves us and wants what is best for us. The God who pursues me is the God who knows me. God, who is with me. ALL of life belongs to God – past and future. God knows our human thoughts and is always with us – anyway. And God is the ONE in who we live and move and have the Ground of our being.
Read through these Writings sometimes. They have treasures to offer if we will dig a bit. And perhaps we will find the very thing that we need. A voice from the outside to challenge us – or the truth hidden deep inside our hearts that will set us free.
[i] Alyce McKenzie, Preaching Proverbs: Wisdom for the Pulpit. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. P. 128-9. This is a portion of her sermon.
[ii] Harold A Bosley, Sermons on the Psalms, p.1.
[iii] Bosley, 2.
[vi] Paul Tillich, “Escape from God” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 46.
[vii] Tillich, 48.