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Psalm 138

Good morning, church. Please go with me to the Psalm we just read together, Psalm 138. If you want to use one of our Bibles, you can raise your hand, and you can actually keep that if you’ll read it.

I want to begin this morning with a word on repetition. Before I was a pastor I was a high school teacher, rode a motorcycle, and smoked American Spirits. Louis would have liked me better back then. Today is his birthday, by the way, Louis is back there running slides for us today as he is so faithful to do. Happy Birthday, man.

Until the year I started teaching, my life had been pretty changeful. Over the three years I was in college, I moved seven times, and my family moved three times. Every semester, it was new classes and a new schedule. I had different roommates each year and different romantic relationships. But that first year out of college teaching high school was a lot of repetition. I would get to school at six every morning, I had the same home room. Every morning I would greet each student at the door by name and shake his or her hand, and every morning a student named Corey Miles would come in, I would say, “Good morning, Mr. Miles,” and he would curse me out and leave my hand outstretched. Putting him on blast. If you meet him, tell him I still want to shake his hand. Every afternoon I would leave and sit in traffic trying to get back to the eastbank and I would call parents. Every night we would take the dog for a walk and I would smoke cigarettes and pray until I was tired enough to fall asleep.

My point is, whether for good or bad, repetition has enormous power to shape us. I learned as a teacher that information needs to be repeated on average seven times before a student can really be expected to know it. Seven separate times. Makes me feel good about getting y’all’s names wrong. Right, Edward?

What we repeat shapes us, or misshapes us. It took me years to stop smoking, even as I noticed I was less and less able to jog, which I loved. It took me even more years to lose the weight I gained while I was teaching, and even more years to forgive Mr. Miles (just kidding, still bitter). I learned that year never to teach something only once, that even though people tire of repetition, we need it to learn, even to feel safe—knowing what I know now about complex trauma, standing at the door and greeting everyone by name was probably the best thing I did as a teacher. And reading the Bible almost every day is probably one of the best things I’ve done as a person.

I say all of this to say, the Psalms are meant to be repeated in our lives. Meg has us read a psalm each week and repeat the Lord’s prayer, not just because of tradition, but because, like the disciples, we need the Lord to teach us how to pray. Over and over again, we need to know the honesty of the Psalms, the emotion of them, the beauty. Both to learn them and to feel safe approaching the throne of the Lord. He’s a good father. He wants to hear from us.

The psalm today gives thanks to the Lord for his faithfulness, and faithfulness, too, is something we have to learn through repetition, through celebration and mourning, that God is there in and through everything, ever faithful.

If you will, please stand with me as I read psalm 138. [] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

Orientation is something I’ve repeated in my sermons. In our Psalm, David says he bows with his face toward the temple, but it’s more than his face. His life is oriented toward worshipping the Lord. Orientation was a practice common among the people of God from the time of David’s authorship of this Psalm until the late Middle Ages. You may remember Daniel doing the same thing even exiled in Babylon. Physically pointing yourself toward at first, the temple of the Lord, and afterward toward the east and the rising of the Sun, waiting on the return of the Lord to the earth.

I want you to notice, this Psalm is attributed to King David, but David died before the temple of the Lord was built. I don’t believe that to be a mistake; I believe this psalm was written by David in hope that his children would receive from the Lord what he could not. The prophet Nathan had told him because of his sin and because of the violence of his ascent, he would not build the temple in his life, so in many ways this psalm, this prayer, is one which hopes for forgiveness, and I would even argue resurrection. His experience with the faithfulness of God in his past tells him God will not fail him in the future, even in the midst of uncertainty. He believes one day, even though he hasn’t seen the fullness of the promises of God in his time, that he will one day worship the Lord in truth. So he bows his face in prayer to praise God for forgiveness and a promise not yet received, not even understood.

In the middle ages, it was common practice to build churches facing east, oriented to the rising of the Sun, and people would be buried facing east in the hope that one day the Lord will return like the dawning of the sun and raise everyone we’ve lost to life with us again. I love little things like that. Little traditions, little repetitions meant to teach us, meant to shape us, to be people who are oriented toward the name and work of the Lord.

Do you do anything like this? I have no idea which way is east. Like any true-blooded New Orleanian, the directions I know are that just to the east of us is the Westbank, and I can tell you which way is riverside, which is lakeside, and I can tell you the fastest way to get uptown at any given time of day.

But even though in our house we don’t bow facing east, we do pray, often with our faces to the ground. And we read the Bible most days in the mornings—less with the baby right now—but then every night with AJ before bed. Why? Because through repetition we learn and are formed.

One practice I learned as a child and left off as an adult: I used to pray before meals. I’ve started trying to bring the practice back into my life, especially after working with my friend Micah as he was writing his dissertation on the theology of food. Eating has become a much more worshipful experience for me, sacramental. I’m not doing a great job with it yet. The other day, Jeremy came over to our house for lunch, and I remembered to pray, and AJ asked, as kids do, “Dad, why do we pray when people are over, but not when we’re by ourselves?” Kids will keep you honest.

When I was growing up I did a lot of practices out of a sense of legalism: I did them because I believed it made me a good Christian, but at this point in my life I don’t believe in good Christians. I believe in sinners saved by grace in Christ, and I believe the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to do good even through me. Today I do things to orient my life toward Christ because I see the way Christ shapes me and I’ve seen the way the other things I’ve pointed my life toward have misshaped me, disoriented me, drawn my attention away from what matters. So I want each day to bow down in my own way with the psalmist to the holy temple of the Lord.

David writes, “before the gods I sing your praise,” and there is some debate on what he means there, but I would argue he’s choosing to worship the Lord in a world in which there are many other gods he could worship. Don’t make the mistake of thinking pluralism is a new thing. In the ancient world, everyone and their mums had gods. It’s the same today. We worship success, education, money, power, celebrity, our kids, culture. None of those are bad things, in fact they’re all good things, but (quoting Keller) the moment you make a good thing into an ultimate thing you’ve created an idol, whether or not you build a figurine of it or bow down to it. It’s a question of orientation. What is your life oriented toward? David says, in front of all the other gods, he bows his face to the Lord. I want to do the same, so I look to the Lord to teach me how to pray.

I want to have hope like David does, here. Hope for my own forgiveness, as David has hope for his. That I will one day be forgiven of my sin and able to worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth. We know the fullness of the promises of God. We get to hold to a hope David saw in part, a hope founded in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God, himself, would bear the suffering and the weight of the collective mistakes of humanity so that we could be free of it, so that we can be forgiven.

I also want to understand, as David does, the faithfulness of the Lord. When I call out, I want to learn to expect God to answer. He says in vs. 3, “my strength of soul you increased,” and toward the end of the psalm he says God fulfilled his purpose through steadfast love. Strength of soul and fulfillment of purpose. There’s a big part of me that longs for purpose. As I go to work each day, as I write and study to preach as well as I’m able, I’m hoping for purpose. I want my life to have been lived for some reason, something bigger than myself, and ever more as I orient my life toward the Lord, I know in my bones my purpose is to be a child of the kingdom here in this life and in the next, to worship God in everything, to enjoy him in everything, to quote the Westminster.

Pastors and philosophers are the only two kinds of people in the world who are asked, seriously, what humanity’s purpose is on earth. I don’t know all of you. I don’t know if you think this life is purposeless, meaningless, and we should enjoy ourselves, or if you think we’re able to create our purpose and pioneer our own destinies. But the Bible teaches our purpose here is delight. As Susanna taught two weeks ago, God didn’t create us out of necessity; He was content in the fellowship of his Trinity. He created us out of delight, and here in our passage we find our purpose is to do the same: to delight in the Lord, in his faithfulness, in his steadfast love.

What a beautiful purpose we have, and the closer we get to God the more we are filled with it. You may say, but that’s not real, it’s a fiction you made up, and I would respond with Lewis and Descartes that even if my belief that we are here to worship and enjoy God is a fiction, my fiction is far better, richer, fuller, than your cold, lifeless truth. We all want this fiction to be true, and I’m telling you it is true. God created us because he delights in us, and our purpose is to delight in him and each other. Not work, or power, or selfish pleasure. We were created for community.

Just like our psalm last week, David praises the Lord for paying regard to the lowly, even though he is the Lord of Lords, he leaves his throne and his importance to spend time with the lowly. Last week we were reading a psalm written as a spiritual when the people of God were enslaved in Egypt, so it was easy to see why they would praise God for his regard for the lowly. This week, though, we see the same exact prayer, but from a king. What he doesn’t say, but what is clear in the posture of the psalm is that David considers himself as one of the lowly, even as king. And when you think about it, as a pastor friend of mine once put it, if you’re leaving heaven behind, is there much difference between a throne in Jerusalem and a field in Egypt?

I hope we, too, can approach God in humility, amazed that this being, who is known and revered throughout the whole earth, in every age, would spend time with us, would want to hear about our day and our worries. Our celebrations. He is the most important being in the universe, but whenever we call he answers, because he loves us like a good father.

I would invite you today to consider where your life is pointed. What is your orientation? And bow this morning with your face to the temple, which for us, like David, is not a place but instead is a promise. A promise that one day the Lord make all things new. In that, we have hope. And as we learn to live and move and have our being oriented toward the Lord and his promises, I hope we learn every day, more and more what it means to live with the purpose of our creator. I hope we learn to delight in him, to delight in his faithfulness, to delight in his love of us and all of creation, to delight in each other as we learn to walk and pray together. Pray with me now.

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