Sermon: “The Lord is Near” (October 12, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Lord is Near” (Philippians 4:5)
October 12, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the spring of my junior year of high school I dated a girl for a long time…two whole months ☺. I thought things were going great—we had a blast going out, we laughed a lot, and we talked for hours and hours on the phone—so much in fact that I had to literally alternate holding the phone to my right or left ear based on which one was less sore. I was crazy about her.

All that came to an abrupt end during the last period on a Wednesday afternoon in early May when she broke up with me, not face to face or on the phone, but via a note that a friend of hers wrote—ouch! It is not unlike how some relationships end today via a text or worse yet, seeing a change of relationship status on Facebook.

I was completely caught off guard, devastated. And it was great timing because three days later I had to take the SAT—and of course there is no pressure at all surrounding the SAT. I had succumbed to the myth that my whole future hinged on how I did on the SAT, because in a domino effect it would impact where I went to college, who I would marry, what kind of career I would have, where I would end up living and what I would do with the rest of my life—no pressure!

Needless to say, I was stressed out. I went to the high school youth group that night and afterwards had a chance to talk with one of the youth ministers, a guy named Kerry. He pointed me to the following passage from today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6-7).

“Make a trade with God,” Kerry told me, “Give God your stress in exchange for his peace.” Good advice—and it helped…for a couple days…until I was driving to the high school Saturday morning for the SAT, and the stress came flooding back.

How about you today? Is there something in your life that is stressing you out? Have you been recently hurt by someone else? Are you worried about something coming up that you think will have a domino effect on the rest of your life? Perhaps there is something in your life about which you felt at peace for a time only to have the stress come flooding back.

You may think I am going to exhort you today to “make a trade with God.” But I’m not, because that kind of sermon would be about what you need to do, which would immediately disqualify it as a gospel sermon. Instead, I am going to preach about the short declarative sentence Paul wrote immediately before the verses about worry and peace, something based on who God is and what God does, not what you do or don’t do—“The Lord is near.”

“The Lord is near,” Paul wrote.

It is one thing to feel that the Lord is near during a particularly moving worship experience, or perhaps in a setting like the mountains or the beach, or at a special place like Honey Creek. But the Lord is also near us when we are not in any of those places. He is just as near to us when we are running late and stuck in traffic, when we are trying to solve a problem that we thought we already solved, when we are in the wilderness of the mundane, when we are arguing with our family on the way to church (which occasionally happens to a “friend of mine” ☺) or when we feel utterly alone.

When I was a sophomore in college Thanksgiving rolled around, and I was over twelve hundred miles from home. Everyone had left for the holiday weekend and the dorm was completely deserted except for me and a couple sketchy guys that I had no desire to hang out with—I’m sure the feeling was mutual ☺. Late one night I decided I had to get away from the dorm. I grabbed some books with the intention of going to an all-night diner to study.

When I got to my car, an old Ford station wagon, it would not start. I was so tired of being alone in the dorm I zipped up my coat and decided to sit in the car and read by the streetlight instead. I glanced at the stack of books on the passenger seat and grabbed a Bible (Biblical Literature was one of my majors), and I read the last few chapters of the Gospel according to John.

In those latter chapters of his account of the gospel John refers to himself four different times not by name, but as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (19:26; 20:2; 21:7 and 21:20). It is hard for me to articulate but as I read those chapters that phrase—“the disciple whom Jesus loved”—jumped out at me again and again. And I felt something I never expected to feel as I sat bundled up in the cold night in my Ford station wagon that wouldn’t start…I suddenly knew that I was not alone, I suddenly felt that the Lord was near, and that the same Jesus who loved John also loved me—that I too, a stressed out neurotic nineteen year old kid, was also someone “whom Jesus loved.” What a relief!

And this is true for you too. The Lord is near you even during the times when you least expect him to be, and God cares about every detail in your life.

In 1981 Bob Dylan released his album Shot of Love, and in the beautiful song “Every Grain of Sand” he sings movingly about this:

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed…
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand…
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

Throughout the Book of Psalms we are assured that the Lord is near: Psalm 119—“You are near, O Lord, and all your commandments are true” (verse 151); Psalm 145—“The Lord is near to all who call on him” (verse 18), and Psalm 34— “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted” (verse 18). And in Psalm 139 David beautifully describes how the Lord is near, always, no matter where we go:

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).

What does it look like for the Lord to hold us fast? There is a moving poem attributed to Mary Stevenson called Footprints in the Sand that shows us what it looks like that the Lord is near, that the Lord holds us in his right hand:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord

Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints
Other times there was one set of footprints

This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods in my life
When I was suffering from anguish, sorrow, or defeat
I could see only one set of footprints

So I said to the Lord, “You promised me, Lord
That if I followed You, You would walk with me always
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
There have only been one set of footprints in the sand
Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”

The Lord replied, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints
Is when I carried you.”

The Lord is near.

This reassuring truth is reflected in the comforting collect for today, “Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us” (The Book of Common Prayer 234). Paul Zahl writes the following about this collect:

“Without God having already gone before us, we would as human beings in our own strength, face impossible odds…What lies ahead of us, humanly speaking, is too uncertain, too hostile, too callous, too cold, too hard, too impossible. The Collects emphasize the frailty of our case and the dangers in which we are perpetually set, circling the human being like sharks and vultures. If He were not going before us, not to mention covering our flanks, we would, in general, within ourselves, simply freeze” (The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, 103).

The grace of God in Jesus Christ always precedes you, which means, as Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom encourages us, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

And the grace of God in Jesus Christ always follows you too.

Have you ever been driving on a single lane road and found yourself being followed by a police car? Even if you are going the speed limit and your seatbelt is on and your registration is current, do you not feel relief when that police car is no longer in your rearview mirror? When it comes to the rearview mirror of your life, you are not followed by the law, but by the grace of God, as it says in Psalm 23, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (verse 6, KJV).

The Lord is near you, all the time, no matter what.

And it is because the Lord is near that you can ask him to give you peace that passes understanding in the midst of the things that stress you out. And even when you cannot do that, even when you are too overcome to try and make a trade with God, the Lord is still near you, especially when you are being circled by sharks and vultures, especially when you are brokenhearted, especially in the hour of your deepest need.

And that means your future does not lie in the hands of your SAT score or someone’s Facebook status. Your future lies in the hands of the One who has always been near you, who has always held you fast in his right hand. The grace of God precedes and follows you.

The good news of the gospel is that you are one whom Jesus loves.

Jesus loves you so much in fact that on the cross he was flooded with all the stress of all the sin of the whole world—and it broke his heart, and with a pool of tears beneath his feet he died for you. And after being raised again Jesus assures you, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

And at the end of the age you will find yourself face to face with the One who has always been near you, so near that he will wipe every tear from your eyes.

Amen.