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The Righteous Will Never Be Moved

 

Psalm 112:6

 

I: — There is no rigidity like the rigidity of the self-righteous.   There is no closed-mindedness like the closed-mindedness of the holier-than-most. There is no inflexibility like the inflexibility of those who are right, obviously right, always right. Is this the sort of thing the psalmist was talking about when he wrote, “The righteous will never be moved”?   We know that rigid, intransigent, closed-minded people have always claimed such texts for themselves when eager to trumpet their rigidity as virtuous.

Only a few years ago when the obscenity of apartheid was still operative in South Africa , a baby was found abandoned in a South African city.   Much consternation arose over whether the baby was black, coloured, Asian or white. The consternation arose inasmuch as whether the child were black, coloured, Asian or white would determine forever where the child could live, what schools it could attend, what its social and financial prospects were, and of course, whom it could marry.  The white racists who upheld Apartheid were utterly inflexible.  They were right; they were righteous; and their rigidity was virtuous. (Apartheid, we need scarcely add, didn’t disappear because the self-righteous repented; it disappeared through its own top-heaviness, the impossibility of maintaining it in the face of world opinion and international economics and other such external pressures.)

We might as well add that the rigidity born of self-righteousness is commonly viewed (at least by those who cling to it) as strength, whereas in fact such rigidity is weakness related to fear, unmanageable fear.

 

II: — When the psalmist writes, “The righteous will never be moved”, he has in mind something entirely different from the rigidity of the self-righteous and the fearful. He has in mind, rather, the simple truth that the assaults upon life from without and the irruptions of life from within will never crumble or fragment God’s people. To be sure, developments can always jar and jerk God’s people, can always wound them and pain them. Still, such developments won’t ultimately pulverise them before God, annihilate them before God, turn them into nobodies lost to themselves and scattered before him. The psalmist’s word here is a word of promise,God’s promise: his people won’t be blown away before him.  It’s also a word of defiance, our defiance: we aren’t going to look upon ourselves as hapless, helpless victims whose run-over remains are all that’s left of what used to be that “self” whom we knew and cherished before we were “clobbered” as we had never been “clobbered” before.  The psalmist’s pronouncement is promise on God’s part and defiance on ours.

Both God’s promise and our defiance are much needed in life, because ever so much befalls us from without and rises up from within, ever so much that appears to fragment us and frequently disorients us.  In the course of my life I’ve been hospitalised several times in hospitals from the very large to the very small.  The smallest had only 19 beds and therefore a small nursing staff. It also happened to be where I was hospitalised longest (35 days) and therefore where I came to know the nursing staff best. The nurses from all three shifts used to come into my room on medical business, to be sure, but then linger frequently to speak with me on non-medical matters.  I was startled at the jolts these people had endured.  One nurse, whose husband had been burned to death in a house fire, was phoned at the nursing station each evening by her son who was fleeing the police. Her son was wanted for child molesting. Sitting beside her, overhearing half the telephone conversation, was another nurse whose husband was a police officer searching for the fellow.  A third nurse, born and raised in Germany , told me she had been in Berlin at the end of the war when Russian troops arrived in the city.  The Russian soldiers, she said in her awkwardly accented English, had “rapped” all the German young women they could get their hands on, “rapping” her as well. In addition she had had to watch her father tortured, her father being made to stand in waist-deep, ice-cold water for hours on end.  Just after I was transferred to a Toronto hospital another nurse’s husband was killed in an industrial explosion. All this in the nursing staff of a 19-bed hospital.

These women knew I was badly injured; yet they also knew I was preparing for the ministry. Setting aside professional protocol for the moment they would speak to me and then pause, with a look in their eyes that meant, “What can you say to us from your perspective and out of your resources? Have we been blown apart and are too numb to know it?  Do the secret or not-so-secret shards of our life mean we are in fact as maimed as we appear, that our future under God is as bleak as our past at the hands of the world?”  I trust I was wise enough to speak only briefly, and with whatever sensitivity I could muster at age 23.  Centuries earlier a wiser person than I had said, “The righteous will never be moved.”

I have found that the most telling aspect of life’s blows isn’t the pain; it’s the disorientation, the confusion that accompanies the pain. Disorientation and confusion are much more difficult to endure than pain.  What’s more, just as we all have a different pain threshold, so we all have a different disorientation threshold.  And therefore it’s cruel to say of someone, “What befell her shouldn’t have knocked her askew.  After all, I sustained a greater blow myself and I didn’t become unglued.” It’s always cruel to suggest that someone who doesn’t match us in some respect, in any respect, is therefore weak or silly or (worst of all) an inferior Christian.

Pronounced disorientation is often found where pain is only slight. And in artificial circumstances (such as the midway at the Canadian National Exhibition) disorientation can occur where there’s no pain at all.  At some point you must have put down your money and walked into one of those CNE adventures where the floor is tilted, the ceiling is tilted, and the walls don’t meet either the floor or the ceiling at right-angles. The room isn’t even moving, yet in a few seconds your tummy is upset and you are disoriented. If it weren’t for the posted signs indicating the way out, after a few minutes you wouldn’t be able to find your way out.  Situations occur in life where the trusted shapes and configurations in life (the “right” angles) can’t be found and nothing seems to fit and tummies are queasy and disorientation is undeniable. The situations that do this to people may appear quite modest to those of us who aren’t afflicted at this moment.  Still, it’s utterly unhelpful – and worse than unhelpful – to say to someone caught up in such a development, “Compared to the ‘clobbering’ some people endure you have merely been caressed.”

As often as I remind myself that however much we can anticipate developments in our head we can never anticipate them in our heart; however much we can reason about a development not yet upon us we can’t know how we are going to react; however often I remind myself of this I nonetheless find myself trying to imagine, for instance, what it’s like to be unemployed. What’s it like to find one’s family in financial jeopardy? to have huge tracts of time on one’s hands? to have so little to do as not even to distract oneself from the anxiety that nibbles and gnaws relentlessly? to live in a society that measures self-worth by achievement only to have nothing, in the area of gainful employment, to achieve?  What’s it like to be embarrassed every day, as when someone trying to be helpful cheerfully says, “Why don’t you and your wife come to Stratford with us for the evening?”, and you have to mumble, with head hung low, “We don’t have money for Shakespeare”?

Up to this point the upsets mentioned today are those that befall us. Every bit as jarring, perhaps even more distressing, are those we bring upon ourselves.  To take a “spill” born of sin is still a “spill”, as jarring and wounding as any accidental disruption.  Self-disgust arising from it is all the more nauseating as we admit that there’s no excuse for the “spill.”  Disorientation arising from it is all the more pronounced as we admit that there’s no reason for the “spill.”   No reason? I learned a long time ago never to ask people why they did what they have done, just because they don’t know why.  Kierkegaard, always profound, pithily remarks, “Anyone who claims to understand sin has plainly never experienced it.”

 

III: — Then whether we are violated from without or from within we need to hear again our ancient friend who has been where we are and knows that the righteous are never going to be moved.  We aren’t going to be scattered before God and reduced to nothing in ourselves regardless of how we feel or how we appear.

But who are these righteous who will never be moved?  Not the self-righteous, not those who presume upon a superiority anywhere in life, whether that superiority be real or imagined.  The righteous are simply those who are rooted in Jesus Christ. The righteous are rightly rooted in him in

that he is the right one in whom we are to be rooted. Our Lord was jarred and jolted too, disoriented as well in Gethsemane in a way that you and I can’t fully comprehend. Yet in his resurrection he has been established, set before us as the one in whom the topsy-turvy lives of his people are ultimately settled and secured. Even when the way our life unfolds appears to contradict this; even when we are left feeling that the psalmist’s pronouncement and our Lord’s Easter victory are alike so very remote from us as not to affect us; even here truth remains truth: the righteous, those rightly rooted in the righteous one himself, are never going to be moved.

The apostle Paul tells us of his assorted hardships: shipwrecks, beatings, slander, danger from exposure, hunger and thirst.  It all sounds dreadful, and it was. Yet in his second Corinthian letter he admits that something worse befell him in Asia , something so horrible he can’t describe it and can barely bring himself to mention it. He writes, “In Asia we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. We felt we had received the sentence of death.”   And the result? He tells us that this crushing episode reacquainted him with the fact that his own resources were utterly inadequate and he could only rely “on God who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:8-9)

The question we want to put to the apostle now is, “But when you have been hammered into the ground so as to be crushed, what does it mean to rely on the God who raises the dead?” For the answer to our question we must turn up his letter to the congregation in Colosse, where he writes, “Your life is hid with Christ in God.”   (Col. 3:3) We must be sure to grasp the nuances of his conviction.   To rely on the God who raises the dead is to rely on the God who has raised his Son. In view of the fact that Jesus Christ has been raised and can no longer be victimised by death and by death’s anticipations (sickness, despair, accident, violation, mental collapse); in view of the fact that Jesus Christ has been raised beyond the reach of death and death’s forerunners, our real life, our true life, our inviolable life is hidden in Christ; and because it’s hidden in Christ, it’s known to God inasmuch as God knows his own Son and all who are included in the Son.

Our real life isn’t what we see; our real life isn’t what we’d like to believe about ourselves; our real life isn’t what we are feeling at this moment or at any moment; neither is it what others perceive us to be.  Our real life, rather, is our innermost identity, forged firmly by the grip with which Christ our Lord grips us, maintained inviolably in the strength of his grip on us, and preserved eternally in that all of this is now fixed in the heart of the God who raised his Son, never to abandon him. Who we are most profoundly is hidden in the heart of God; but not merely hidden in the heart of God, for from time-to-time we are permitted to see it for ourselves, and one day it will be displayed for all to see and understand. Our life is hid with Christ in God.

Martin Luther clung to this text as he clung to few others.  In fact it was his favourite.  So very turbulent was his life, so unremittingly was he assailed with misunderstanding, slander, betrayal, attempts on his life, that he clung to the truth that his real life was hid with Christ in God.  When he recovered the biblical truth of justification by faith he was denounced; when he unfolded the logic of the gospel and European Christendom convulsed, he wondered if he had acted rightly in causing such a disruption; when contemporaries like Erasmus, intellectually brilliant but spiritually shallow, laughed at abuses in the church and remained content with laughing, Luther clung to this one text like a lifeline: “Your life is hid with Christ in God.”   When erstwhile supporters deserted him and dark voices within him caused him to doubt himself; when his 14 year old daughter Magdalena died in his arms and 18 month old Elizabeth died in her cradle he could only hang on to his lifeline even if in his distress he could barely croak the words.

During World War II it was noted that pilot trainees rarely became airsick while navigator trainees often did.         The reason was this. The navigator was bent over a map only two feet in front of his face.  As turbulent air bounced the airplane the jostling kept changing the navigator’s perspective on the map and his focus on the map.  Because of a perspective and a focus that changed ceaselessly on account of turbulence, the navigator was dizzy and nauseated in no time.  The pilot, of course, was in the same airplane and buffeted by the same turbulence. But the pilot was always looking out toward the horizon.  Therefore the pilot’s perspective and focus were constant.  The fact that he was looking away from himself and his immediate environment, looking out toward something constant; this stabilised him.

The author of the book of Hebrews urges us to do as much.  We are to have “our eyes fixed on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith.” (Heb. 12:2, J.B. Phillips)   The author of Hebrews urges us to have our eyes fixed on Jesus in the context of the photo-gallery of the great men and women of faith: Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Samson, David.  He exhibits the photo-gallery so that we can look at these giants from time-to-time and find encouragement in them.         But however often we may glance at them, we are not to fix our gaze on them. Since we are rooted in Christ it only makes sense to have “our eyes fixed on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith.”  Since the righteous are rooted in him it only makes sense to have our eyes fixed on him in the midst of life’s explosions and irruptions.

The God who knows his own Son and knows all those included in him; this God Isaiah speaks of as “the rock of our refuge.” (Isaiah 17:10) The righteous are indeed “fastened to the rock which cannot move”; they are “grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love”.  This is why the righteous will never be moved.

                                 Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                             

December 2006