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March 25, 2017

A Secret Place

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, March 25, 2017

Texts: A Secret Place Psalm 91:1-12, 2 Samuel 22:2-3, Psalm 61:2-4,
Revelation 3:7-12

The LORD is my rock and my fortress.
He is my savior and my rock,
in him I find protection.
God is my shield,
the power that saves me.
He is my stronghold,
my refuge,
my savior.
2 Samuel 22:2-3

God is my rock.

Imagine a vast desert plain. Sand and rock fragments stretching away for miles. It’s two in the afternoon. The air temperature is over a hundred degrees. The ground temperature, who knows? We’ve been trekking since sunrise. The water in our packs is warm. Our muscles are aching. But just a half mile away jutting up from the vast, bleak plain is an immense, angular bulk of limestone. We know that on the far side, facing north, there is a shallow cave and at the back of the cave there is a seep, a tiny spring.

We talk to our legs. We can do this. Come on boys. Don’t fail us now. Fifteen minutes max and we will be there.

We make it to the rock. We trudge around the west side, then into the shade on the north side, and finally step into the little cave. Ah! Loveliness beyond words. All the heat of the morning, the relentless glare, the desperate weariness in our legs–for now, gone. We rest in the shelter of the rock.

Safe. Secure. Okay. This is the vision of God, our rock.

I like the KJV language at the beginning of Psalm 91:

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

I imagine that secret cave on the dark side of the rock. In that secret place there is always a cool shadow, protection from the fierce heat of desert sun. It’s always there. It may take effort to find it. It may take struggle to get ourselves to that secret place, that hidden sanctuary. But we know it is there. Waiting. Hope for the rest in that place sustains us in our journey.

God is our rock and fortress.
God is our secret place, our sanctuary.

Another Psalm:

From the ends of the earth, I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed.
Lead me to the towering rock of safety,
for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! Psalm 61:2-4

The towering rock of safety. A fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.

Let’s imagine again that great rock surrounded by vast miles of hot sand and jagged rocks. In this vision, the sun is still beating down. The heat is oppressive like it was in the first vision. But now let’s add salt bush and creosote bushes and rattlesnakes lurking in the bushes and behind rocks. We have to watch every step. If we sit down we have to keep our eyes open for scorpions. Then there are the flies. Big, biting flies. We are constantly on the alert. We slap your neck if there is the slightest wrinkle of breeze on our skin, thinking it is a fly landing.

Enemies. This desert place is actively hostile. This is no leisurely Sabbath afternoon walk. It is a daring traverse of a terrifying landscape.

We dream of the shade of the rock. And of the dark cave away from the flies. We dream of the smooth bare slick rock where there are no hiding places for scorpions, no danger of unseen snakes.

Finally, we are there. We clamber up the toe of the massive limestone and into the secret place, the sanctuary. And sure enough, there are no flies. No scorpions. No rattlesnakes. The cave is a clean, cool alcove. We drop our packs and rest.

Keep that picture in mind as we read again the words of Psalm 61.

From the ends of the earth, I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed.
Lead me to the towering rock of safety,
for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! Psalm 61:2-4

Sitting there safe and secure in the sanctuary in the rock we never want to leave. “Let me live here forever!”

The LORD is my rock and my fortress.
He is my savior and my rock,
in him I find protection.
God is my shield,
the power that saves me.
He is my stronghold,
my refuge,
my savior.

This is faith. This is our song, the foundation of our worship. God is our rock. Our refuge. Our fortress providing shelter from the enemies. Our sanctuary.

I have friends whose lives are touching testimonies to the power of this faith. People who stubbornly practice compassion and integrity and do so out of the strength they cultivate by frequenting the secret place in the Rock of God. The service they give in this world is fueled by their connection with another world. They regularly take refuge in God and from that refuge go again and again into the real world to offer aid and service.

I’m reading a book now by a writer whose focus is social justice or I should say, social injustice. Frequently, he reminds his readers that he rejects all magic and he means by that primarily religion. His parents were not religious. He is not religious. He sees religion as mere fancy, as magic in the dismissive sense of the word.

While there is much to admire in his hardheaded, clear-eyed confrontation with the reality of human failing, human evil, I am struck with the bleakness of his world. He measures his strength against the magnitude of injustice and oppression and the comparison leaves him puny, vulnerable, impotent.

This bleak vision is understandable. Even reasonable.

I imagine him trudging across the vast, barren desert populated by rattlesnakes, scorpions, and biting flies. Pushing forward is the only option. There is no resting place. And he has no certain goal, no confidence that there even is a refuge, a shelter. I respect his courage. But it seems to me the trip is better with hope.

Many of us have also found ourselves trudging across a bleak, hostile landscape. It’s tough. I do not, for one second make light of the difficulties. I don’t make light of the pain. Still, I honor those who have found fresh courage precisely because of their certainty that

The LORD is my rock and my fortress.
He is my savior and my rock,
in him I find protection.
God is my shield,
the power that saves me.
He is my stronghold,
my refuge,
my savior.

It is our privilege as the community of Jesus, as a fellowship devoted to the kingdom of heaven to keep alive this hope.

As I was writing this on Thursday afternoon, Karin called from home with news about one of our neighbors. The husband is a logger. He and I joke together about our women’s —our wives’ and daughters’ obsession with horses. And work together to enable their obsession. He is strong and competent. He earns a good living. . . .

Or did. . . .

A few weeks ago he was diagnosed with an aggressive, incurable cancer. The prognosis is dark and brief. Already he is unable to work.

Suddenly, they have entered a desert. The wife has always gotten her health insurance through her husband’s employment. But now, he is unemployed, unemployable. Their life has been based on two incomes. Now there is only one. They had plans for the future that included good health for both of them. That future no longer exists.

They have entered a vast, bleak landscape where navigation is uncertain and the risks are large and menacing.

The wife is a person of faith. She thanks God for a few blessings that have come her way in this catastrophe. She is going to need more blessings. She is sure God will sustain her and them. She’s going to need the help, no doubt about it. The earthly rock in her life her husband is not a rock anymore.

The rock of financial security is gone.

The rock of health insurance is gone.

The rock of an expected future is gone.

Our friends are facing a difficult traverse. She will do better because she has learned to take refuge in the secret place. Her life is conditioned by sweet communion with God.

God is not a substitute for health insurance and income and living people. We need to do what we can to care for one another, to make sure all have access to ordinary necessities. Still, no matter how well we arrange our personal lives and our life together as a society, we come to the end of our resources and we find ourselves in the desert.

In the last few weeks I’ve participated in funerals for people who died too soon, people who had not lived out their years. Families thrust suddenly into the desert of grief and loss.

In both cases, the families found a measure of help in navigating this stark, bleak desert in the Great Rock of God.

I am reminded of the words of Isaiah 25:

You, O Lord, are a tower of refuge for the poor,
a tower of refuge for the needy in distress.
You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat.
You are as the shade of a cloud cooling relentless.

In Jerusalem, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet. God will remove the shroud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.
He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears.

There are many small places of refuge in our world.

Money in a savings account.
A happy marriage.
Healthy kids.
A good job, a solid career.
Good health.
Health insurance for those times when our health fails.

These are all wonderful assets. We are glad for them. But the day will come when every one of these wonderful assets will fail. Money, health, happiness, friends. Nothing lasts forever in this world. Our lives end. Or the lives of those we love and count on.

That is when it is most precious to have the words of the prophets alive in our minds.

God will remove the shroud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.
God is my rock and fortress
He is my savior and my rock
in him I find protection
God is my shield
the power that saves me.
God is my stronghold
my refuge
my savior.
I will add a gentle word of exhortation here.

One implication of this picture of God as the Rock is the reality that to enjoy the benefit, we have to move. When we speak of God as shepherd, we imagine God out in the wilderness searching for the lost sheep. When we picture God as father or mother, we imagine God actively anticipating or providing for the needs of the children like any good parent would. The focus in these metaphors is divine initiative, divine intention. God moves. God goes searching.

When we picture God as a Rock, it is clear that we must take initiative. We must hike across the vast open plain to taste the bliss of that secret cave with the hidden spring. We must climb up onto the smooth, blessed heights of the great limestone monolith. There is something for us to do.

We can bring ourselves closer to the solace and wisdom available in God. There are concrete, specific actions we can take. I will even go so far as to say, we MUST take, if we want to taste fully the blessings available to us in the divine rock.

If we want the richest available communion with God, a communion that will guide us and sustain us even through loss and disappointment and catastrophe, there are necessary habits: Sabbath-keeping, worship, Bible reading, music, prayer, meditation, contemplation, acts of generosity and compassion. The consolation of faith and the energy of hope is most richly available to those who build habits of communion with God.

These habits do not draw God to us. We don’t imagine that if we engage in some particular religious practice that God will become more kindly disposed to us. But we know that these habits do bring us closer to God. They open us to the sustaining power of God. These habits make a difference for us. They become the secret places of rest and renewal as we traverse the world.

When we make these behaviors habitual, when we come back to them over and over and over again, we take ourselves ever deeper into the sheltered place in the lee of the Great Rock. We become more and more at ease in the company of God.

As we practice these habits of communing with God, the Rock will become our home, sweet home.

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