March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday

Scripture Reading: Psalm 127:1-2

A song of ascents. Of Solomon.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to[a] those he loves.

Footnotes:

  1. Psalm 127:2 Or eat— / for while they sleep he provides for


Sermon: “Anxious Toil

You may have heard of me. My name is Solomon. Your pastor asked me here to speak to a psalm that bears my name, the 127th in your Bible. There’s just one problem. I didn’t write it.

Oh, I know, Scripture says I did. Scripture says the same thing about many things in its pages, simply because of my reputation. I was, if I may modestly so suggest, quite the wise person. I also had an awesome royal PR department.

Of course, being wise doesn’t prevent one from also being foolish, and sometimes even ruthless. My own life testifies to that.

The son born of a murderous, illicit affair between my father David and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, I wasn’t the king many wanted to see rule over Israel. Nonetheless, I was my father’s favorite. In his last days, he and I worked together to make sure I’d assume the throne when he died.

“Working together,” I should add, meant assassinating anyone who stood in my way, including my older brother.

I ruled during a time of prosperity and peace in Israel. It was a good thing, too. I’m not a general. I’m a man of trade and commerce, a lover of the arts and, I must confess, a lover of beautiful women. I had 1,000 wives and concubines in all, many of them selected for the sake of shoring up political alliances with neighboring countries.

It was my pleasure to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem during this time of peace. Looking back, perhaps, the royal scribes made me a bit wiser than I was.

After all, I died an idolater. My thirst for wealth and power led me to enslave my people and resulted in civil war and the breakup of Israel after my death.

But I digress. Your pastor asked to talk about sleep, rest, and Psalm 127.

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. In vain you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for God gives sleep to those whom God loves.

(Psalm 127:1-2)

It’s been interesting for me to come to this moment in time and look at the world in which you live. Many of you see sleep as a weakness, and in fact brag about how little rest you get. Stress and caffeine and things called television and the Internet all keep you awake.

And you’re okay with that, that’s the wonder of it all. I must admit, scripture can be hard on those who are lazy. Take these verses from Proverbs 6:

How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. (Proverbs 6: 9-11)

Okay, I get that. Too much sleep and a life of laziness isn’t good for anyone. Still, I can give you at least three good reasons to seek the rest that God created you to have.

First, you need to sleep because you aren’t God. I assume you know that. Why don’t you act like it, then?

When you push yourselves morning and night seven days a week for months on end, you put yourself in God’s place. You act as if the world will fall apart if you aren’t constantly doing something.

What foolish idolatry! God wove night and day, work and rest, into the very fabric of creation. They remind us that we are not in control and that our work is not indispensable.

Go to sleep—after I’m done speaking, of course. It’s rude to nod off in the presence of the king.

The second reason we need sleep is because it is God’s gift to us, as well as a sign of faith. When my father David was on the run, hiding in the wilderness and fearing for his life, he wrote, “In peace I’ll both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

Sleep is a sign that God is the One who sustains us, not we ourselves. The faithful sleep soundly remembering that.

All of which brings us to tonight’s psalm. “It’s in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for God gives sleep to God’s beloved.”

You work hard. You stress yourselves out. You stay up late to make up for procrastination. You over-schedule your life. You think you have to do it all. In the process, you make yourselves miserable, sick, and even more open to the Evil One’s wiles in this world.

So, go to sleep. You’ll wake in the morning to discover the God was working even when you weren’t, and that God handled things quite well without you.

As with all of God’s gifts, though, sleep can be both used and abused. That’s where you’ll walk during these next forty days.

The Canaanite general Sisera, for example, made the mistake of falling asleep at the wrong time as well as in the wrong place. You’ll hear what happened when he did.

My ancestor Jacob fell asleep at the right place, with a rock for a pillow. After a nighttime vision, he realized that God is often present when we don’t realize it.

Your New Testament is a wonder to me. It tells how a relative of mine named Jesus came as a new sort of king, ruling in weakness rather than in power.

As you follow his story during this time you call Lent, you’ll begin with a parable Jesus told about ten bridesmaids. All of them fell asleep, yet half had the foresight to prepare for the challenges they might face when they woke up. The other half did not, and had to deal with the consequences.

Like my father David, Jesus enjoyed the sound sleep of one who trusted in God whatever the circumstances. That can be unsettling to those whose faith isn’t quite so strong. You’ll hear how Jesus dozed during a violent storm, and of the lesson he taught his disciples when they woke him up.

There are days we all wish we could awaken from what seems a nightmare, only to discover that the pain and heartbreak we face is all too real. Such was the case for Jesus’ mother Mary as he hung dying on a Roman cross. She’ll share her story with you.

Jesus’ disciples, like all of us, sometimes fell asleep when they should have stayed awake. One of them will ask how often you spiritually sleep through opportunities for sacrifice and service.

Finally, the wife of one of the most vilified men in your history, Pontius Pilate, will share her story. She warned her husband to have nothing to do with Jesus as he stood in the docket before him. Pilate ignored her words and spent the rest of his life trying to wash his hands of innocent blood.

And there you have it―some who slept when they should, others who slept when they should not―all of them a picture of the struggle to balance our need for rest with our need to be spiritually awake as we strive to serve God.

With all my wisdom, I don’t have an answer for how best to do that. What I do know, though, is that asking the question and examining your lives is well worth the effort you’re about to give.