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 First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

 Dr. Todd B. Jones

 3rd Sunday of Lent, March 30, 2014

  God Works the Night Shift as Well as the Day

 Genesis 28:10-22; Matthew 26:36-45

               “He who keeps you will not slumber.  Behold, He who keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:3, 4)

              Is there anyone here today who has not experienced how lonely and frightening the nighttime can be?  Of course, we can feel alone in a crowd in broad daylight, or scared out of our minds in the middle of the day.  But all of our fears and anxieties somehow seem worse at night.  Who has not at least a few times woken up in the night, beset by anxieties, unable to fall back to sleep again?  Perhaps this is why the Psalmist, in Psalm 91:5, spoke of “the terror of the night,” a phrase Shakespeare would borrow and use with great effect in Macbeth.

              Actually, the Bible contains eighty-three verses or stories that are set in or make mention of the night, so essential to any life is dealing openly and creatively with “the terror of the night.”  This morning we heard of Jacob’s dream that night near Haran where he took a stone for his pillow, and dreamt of a ladder that reached from earth to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending upon it.  Jacob felt alone and frightened for all kinds of reasons – many of them self-inflicted by this self-serving schemer – but Jacob was reminded that there is heavy traffic between heaven and earth, and he was reminded in his dream of the promise God had made to his grandfather Abraham, that through his family, God would bless all the families of the earth.  Jacob awoke and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I, I did not know it.”  “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this the gate of heaven.”

              The Bible is full of stories and events set in the darkness and terror of night.  In Genesis 32 Jacob will wrestle with a stranger in the night as he goes to bed knowing he will have to face his brother whom he had wronged many years before in the morning.  It was in the night that the old man Eli heard the Lord calling Samuel, the boy, by name.  Paul had a vision one night in Troas in which a stranger told him to go to Macedonia, where the Gospel would first be heard on European soil.  He also found himself late one night in prison with Silas when an earthquake shook the very foundations of the prison, freeing them in that moment.  Daniel had two visions that came to him by night, and of course, “there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night when an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were sore afraid.”  It was by night that Jesus came walking toward the disciples, on the Sea of Galilee, in the fourth watch of the night, the darkest part of the night, and believing He was a ghost, the disciples were “terrified.”

              We all must contend at times with “the terror of the night,” and in those terrible moments, how important it can be to feel that someone is with us, that we are not in fact alone, but that someone is keeping watch over us to protect us.  Jesus was no stranger to the terror of the night.  It was nighttime when Jesus and the twelve shared the Last Supper.  Judas left that table to betray Jesus to those who would arrest Him.  Jesus led the eleven to Gethsemane, one of the most hauntingly beautiful places on earth.  Today we see there is still an olive tree garden with the dead stumps of ancient trees that are, some of them, over two thousand years old.

              It was in the dark of night that Jesus faced His Gethsemane, just as none of us miss out on our own Gethsemanes.  Jesus’ soul was “troubled and sorrowful.”  This was why Jesus asked His friends to “keep watch” with Him.  I love that phrase, “keep watch.”  We want to know what is happening, and we want to know that someone is watching over us, keeping watch with us.  But of course, in Gethsemane Jesus’ closest friends could not even do this much, leaving Jesus utterly alone and bereft.  Jesus “fell on His face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.’”  On the night of His agony (And all of us face such nights of agony.) Jesus prayed three different times for this cup to pass from Him, only finally to find the strength to accept whatever God wills.  Jesus cries the cry of a soul in anguish, for He knows what awaits Him.  He knows a trusted friend has betrayed Him, and He knows that His three closest friends cannot even stay awake to keep watch with Him.  In silent awe we hear Jesus’ cries of anguish, His prayer for God’s deliverance, and then we hear His resolve to accept God’s will.  Jesus leaves ready, in the terror of the night, to drink the cup of suffering, to endure the cross and to despise the shame, the shame that rested upon the whole human family, for which Jesus suffered and died out of a great and Godly love.

              Where did Jesus find the strength to gather Himself to face what only He was asked to face?  No doubt He found it in the faith that is expressed in today’s Psalm.  “He who keeps you will not slumber.  Behold, He who keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”  In a word, Jesus knew, He believed that even when He felt all alone, He was not alone at all.  “He who keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” The word translated “keep” appears six times in Psalm 121.  It appears first in our Psalm today.  The verb “shamar” is translated “keep” or “keeper,” and is also translated “watches over” or “guards.”  It is a rich word that reminds us that we are not alone in this world.  Jacob realized this in his dream of angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth.  Jesus realized this in His agony of soul.  “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”  In the dark of the night, in the midst of “the terror of night,” both learned that “He who keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”  God is with you all the time, when you feel God’s presence, and even when you do not.  God is faithful, and this God promises ever and always to keep you, to guard your life, to watch over you.

              The best theology has always been at heart popular, that is assessable to “the people.”  Connie and I went with twenty-plus of our church family to see C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce at Tennessee Preforming Arts Center yesterday afternoon.  The production was brilliant, and the whole play, as in the novel, takes place at night, in a dream, and helps us all think about our lives in the light of heaven and hell.  “Heaven,” Lewis says, “has the power to work its way backwards in our lives, transforming and redeeming the whole of our lives.”  Life is either moving in one direction or in the other, Lewis believed, and heaven is a choice, or a whole long string of choices, that all of us are invited by God to make.  Which means that heaven can start for you even here, even now, as it did for Jesus in His cry of agony.  This is because God is always with us, always for us, always ahead of us.

              These are the three simple words given by theologian Rob Bell in his brilliant book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.

              Jane Fonda came to faith in Jesus after years of trying every form of self-help in search of salvation.  Once she was asked, after her conversion to be a believer in Jesus, the question, “Why?”  She said, “I could feel a reverence humming in me.”  Which I take to mean that Jane Fonda realized that she is not alone, that someone greater and infinitely more mysterious is always with her.

              So Rob Bell leaves us with three words to describe God.  With.  For.  Ahead.  God is always God-with-us.  In his dream one night, this name was given to Joseph: Emmanuel.  God never, ever chooses to be God-apart-from-us.  God is with us when we feel it, and God is with us when we don’t.

              God is for us.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?” asked Paul in his letter to the Romans.  God is for you like only your mother is for you!  No one loves you like your mother, except God, who loves you better than she ever could, deeper and unfailingly.  This is God’s promise.

             And God is ahead of us.  There is no tomorrow we face but that Jesus has already been there, to forge the way, to blaze the trail, to prepare for us the road we will walk.  I mentioned my mother.  The last two nights of her life, I was privileged to “keep watch” over her.  I slept by her bedside in one of those uncomfortable hospital chairs that folds into a bed and isn’t good at being either one!  I listened to her labored breathing, and I thanked God for how blessed I was to call Eva Marie Auer Jones my mother.  Of course, we were not alone those last two nights.  There was One keeping watch over us.  You see, “He who keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.”

                                                                                      Amen.

 

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