Safety in Rest, Safety in Adventure
by Jack Wald | November 6th, 2005

Deuteronomy 33:12, Psalm 131

Life isn’t safe. I was with my father this last month and dealt with the concerns of my five sisters that he will be unable to take care of himself now that my mother has died. He has a bit of a short-term memory problem. As he told me, “I can get to where I am going but once I am there, I forget why.” They are concerned with his driving by himself, getting lost, having an accident.

In an email to my sisters and their husbands, I told the story of my daughter Elizabeth. When she was six, she was climbing a tree with her younger sister Caitlin. I measured later when Caitlin showed me where she had fallen and it turns out that when Elizabeth missed a branch, she fell 3.6 meters and broke her arm.

What should I have done to prevent this? Should I have kept her inside and not permitted her to climb a tree? The world is a dangerous place. When Caitlin was under two, we were talking with some friends next door when Elizabeth, who was then four, came running saying something about Caitlin. I ran around the side of the house and found her floating face down in a small fish pond. I pulled her out and she was ok, but later that day our neighbor filled in that little pond.

Parents of children have to take the risk of sending their children into a world where it is not safe. I told my sisters that we need to do the same with our father. To limit him might make his life safer, but would that be more detrimental than getting lost or having an accident?

We can put a lot of effort into safety but that will not make the world safe. We look both ways before we cross a road. We put sharp knives in places where children cannot play with them. We put airbags in cars. A lot of money is spent to make the world safer and yet accidental injury kills one million children under the age of 14 each year. In 1998, ten million people died from infectious diseases. There is a lot on the news these days about a bird flu pandemic that could have devastating consequences. In the last century, 200,000,000 people were killed as a consequence of war and 45,000,000 were killed because they were Christians.

Does the fact that some people live to be one hundred years old make the world any more safe? Inevitable death makes the world intrinsically unsafe. When you are born to die, where is safety in that? Even those who survive childhood accidents, infectious diseases, war and persecution will die. In the developing world, the average life expectancy is 64. If you live in an industrialized country, average life expectancy is nearing 80 years old.

Life is not safe. We can do things that make life safer but the certainty of death makes the world ultimately unsafe.

So what do I mean when I have a sermon title, Safety in Rest, Safety in Adventure?

There are images and promises in Scripture to which I cling. I discovered one of these in the summer of 2000 when I preached from the Psalms of Ascent. Psalms 120 to 134 were psalms Jews sang as they made their way up to Jerusalem for one of the three annual festivals. Jesus sang these psalms as he came with his parents and neighbors each year.

From the time that I preached from Psalm 131 five years ago, the image in that psalm has stayed with me and I have prayed for myself and others to experience the peace and rest that comes from that image.

Psalm 131
My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

A nursing child greedily sucks at the breast for milk. A nursing child is demanding. A nursing child worries, straining for the breast, crying when it does not get the milk it craves. But the picture here is of a weaned child at rest in its mother’s arms. The child no longer demands milk, it has learned to find its own food. The child is not grasping, demanding, struggling. The child is at rest in the arms of the one who protects and nurtures. The child is content.

There have been many times in my life when I have been consumed with worry and anxiety. The problems and challenges around me seemed too great to conquer and I sank into despair. I remember vividly a time when I was in seminary. I had several papers to write and exams coming up. I was working with junior high youth at our church. I had my own girlfriend issues with which to contend. There was so much happening and I felt that I was sinking under the waves.

I pulled myself into a comfortable chair, tucked myself into a ball, almost as if I was trying again to climb into the womb, pulled a blanket over my head and then began to pray. As I prayed, I submitted to God and his sovereignty and then the most amazing thing happened, I felt the peace of God come over me. I felt this transformation, it was not just an intellectual awareness.

This summer when I worried about the state of the church in Morocco, I had a similar experience.

The pattern in my life is that I worry about great matters, or things too wonderful for me. I worry about the church in Morocco and I worry about world affairs. I read the news and am disturbed about the instability of nations, the cruelty of individuals, the injustice of society. And then I have to crawl back into the arms of God and submit to his care as a weaned child in his mother’s arms.

This is the focus of this psalm but I have taken the image further. The child in his or her mother’s arms is not worried about the dangers around them. The child is safe, at peace, content. Although the world is not a safe place, we are safe in the arms of God.

This fall when I was reading through the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, I came across another wonderful image. This one is taken at the end of the Pentateuch, in the 33rd chapter of Deuteronomy. Moses, who is denied the privilege of crossing over the Jordan into the promised land, proclaims a blessing on each of the tribes of Israel.
About Benjamin he said:
“Let the beloved of the LORD rest secure in him,
for he shields him all day long,
and the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders.”

I was so taken by that image. I was at a prayer conference when I was in New Jersey and as part of the conference, we were to take magazine pictures and make a collage about where we were spiritually. I cut out a picture of a young boy sitting on his mother’s shoulders looking to where his mother was pointing. Next to that picture I wrote the text from Deuteronomy that I just read.

When I came to Morocco I searched on the internet for a photo to illustrate that verse and found the one that is printed in our bulletin this morning. I loved the picture of the mother pointing because it spoke to me of God leading us into adventure and showing us where to look. But I love this picture that is in the bulletin because of the joy of the young boy on his grandfather’s shoulders.

A mother holding her weaned child is a passive image. I like this one because it is an active image. A child held in her mother’s arms is safe, but so is a child exploring the world on her father’s shoulders.

See in the picture how the grandfather holds on to the legs of his grandson so he will not fall off. A child on the shoulders of his parent or grandparent is safe from the dangers of the world. He has a view of the world he did not have before. He can see all the possibilities around him and when the parent or grandparent moves, the child moves with him to explore the wonderful world around him.

These are images that stay with me and help me when I find myself becoming stressed and anxious. Because I am under God’s care, I am safe. I am safe when I retreat from the world and seek solitude with him and find myself as a weaned child in his mother’s arms and I am safe when I am out in the world riding high on his shoulders in an adventure with him.

There are two questions that come to mind when I say this, how is it possible that I could be in this position to be safe in the arms of God? And the second is what exactly do you mean when you talk about safety?

Let me address the second question and I will come back to the first later.

In the bulletin is a painting by Caravaggio painted at the end of the sixteenth century and titled Rest on Flight to Egypt. This is a picture of Mary holding Jesus as they left Bethlehem to go to Egypt. After the Magi visited Joseph and Mary and gave gifts to Jesus,
Matthew 2:13
an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

They left immediately and with good reason. Herod sent instructions to his soldiers and all the baby boys living in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger were killed. As this slaughter took place, Joseph and Mary were on the way to Egypt with their young son, Jesus. One of the things I like about this picture is the peacefulness of it. The baby Jesus is resting comfortably in his mother’s arms and Mary’s head is nestled against her baby, enfolding him from all sides.

The peacefulness of the picture stands in contrast to its title, Rest on Flight to Egypt. You would think that looking at a picture with that title, you would see people looking anxiously for the ones pursuing them. But not in this picture and so it speaks to me of peace and safety in the midst of the danger in the world.

Notice another detail in the picture. On the left side there is a wing coming down over the right shoulder of Mary, covering and protecting Mary and Jesus. This speaks of another Biblical image of God. In Luke 13:34 Jesus grieves for Jerusalem:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

We who are the children of God can be safe when we come to him, as a chick under the protection of its mother’s wing.

But Jesus was not always a baby. Jesus grew up. And when Jesus was thirty years old, he set out on a public ministry that distressed his family and made him the target of the ruling Jewish authorities who determined to kill him. And in fact, they succeeded in that and Jesus was beaten, tortured and crucified.

Did God fail Jesus? Was Jesus not under God’s protection? Was Jesus not safe in the arms of God as a weaned child in his mother’s arms?

What about Paul, the one who first understood the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus? As Paul set out on his adventure, loved by God and riding on the shoulders of God, what happened to him?
II Corinthians 11:23-27
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,  26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.  27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

Was Paul safe? Was he kept in safety?

One of the problems Christians have is that they continually try to take the promises of God and make them mean what is convenient for them. And that is the case with the two images I have shared this morning. When a child dies, who is blamed? Why did God allow this? is the cry that is heard. There are many who have grown up in a Christian church who leave behind Christian faith because they felt God let them down by allowing some tragedy to take place. I met many in my parent’s Unitarian Church who were bitter and antagonistic toward God because of their sense of betrayal that God did not protect them and the ones they loved as they understood he had promised.

Don’t hold God accountable for a promise he did not make. There are basically only two promises God makes to Christians. One is that when we die he will come to take us to be with him. Jesus made this promise to his disciples on the night he was arrested.
John 14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.  2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.  3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

I prayed with Noreen Maxwell yesterday, a 91 year old Scottish lady whose body and mind is weakening. I prayed and assured her of this promise, that Jesus, in his time, will come to take her to be with him.

The second promise is that God will never leave us or forsake us. In John 14:15-17 Jesus told his disciples:
“If you love me, you will obey what I command.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—  17 the Spirit of truth.

The promised Holy Spirit was sent on the feast of Pentecost and it is the Holy Spirit we have been given when we accept God’s gift of salvation. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence with us and the promise is that he will be with us forever.

God promised Joshua as he was about to cross over the Jordan, leading the people of Israel into the promised land:
Joshua 1:5
As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.

I will take you to be with me when you die and I will never leave you or forsake you in this life. Those are the promises of God. You may die of cancer, your children may die before you do, someone you love may be injured or beaten, a tsunami or earthquake may destroy your family and home but none of these is a break in the promises God has made to us.

When I talk about being safe in rest and safe in adventure, this is what I mean. Paul wrote in his letter to the church at Rome, Romans 8:38-39:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now to the first question I said I would address later. How is it possible that I could be safe in the arms of God?

We celebrate Communion this morning. We remember as we drink from the cup and eat the bread that Jesus died for us. It is his blood shed for us that makes possible our life as Christians.

The promise of God is that he will never leave us or forsake us but there is one time when that promise was broken.

As Jesus hung on the cross, his life pouring out of him, he cried out in his agony:
Matthew 27:46
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The physical agony Jesus experienced was enormous, but it was the weight of the judgement of God for the sin of the world that was most painful and as Jesus hung on the cross, in some mysterious way, the presence of God deserted him and he died, carrying with him the penalty for your sin and my sin.

It is because Jesus died for us, took our place on the cross, that we are able to take the promises of God with confidence. We are safe in rest and safe in adventure. We are safe because we can rest in the arms of God as a child in the arms of her mother. We are safe because we set out on adventure resting on the shoulders of God. We are safe because God has promised never to leave us or forsake us. We are safe because when we die, Jesus will come to take us to be with him in heaven. We are safe because Jesus sacrificed himself for our sakes.

So do not be afraid. Rejoice in what God has done for you. Set out boldly on the adventure to which God has called you. You ride on his shoulders. Take courage from the presence of the Holy Spirit with you.