Trinity Sunday: Sent from a Mountaintop

title slide with photo of Buffalo Mountain before sunrise

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
Matthew 28:16-20
June 4, 2023

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, June 2, 2023

Introduction Before Worship:

Last Sunday was Pentecost. Today is Trinity Sunday. If you go by the liturgical calendar, this is the last “big” Sunday until we come to the end of the Pentecost season. Then, we start the year all over with Advent. 

The Pentecost season, also called “ordinary time,” takes up the largest chunk of the church year. We’re reminded that our lives are mostly lived outside of feasts and holidays. Yes, there are times for big celebrations, but there are also normal times in which we walk in faith while doing the laundry, fixing dinner, paying the bills, or mowing the grass. God is God of all of it. Everything we do can be sacred, even the ordinary periods of life, if we are living for Christ. 

Trinity Sunday

We enter this season on Trinity Sunday. The Trinity, this great mystery, reminds us that God is relational. The Trinity is about love—the love of the three persons within the Trinity as well as their love for all creation, as we’re embraced within the family. 

We live in a world of sin and only in God can there be true love, so we need to accept the invitation to come draw close to God. As a Russian Orthodox meditation on the Trinity proposes, “outside the Trinity is hell.”[1]

The Trinity isn’t a philosophical or theological concept for us to master. It’s a mystery. We can’t fully comprehend it. Instead, we accept it along with the love God shows us. We’re to trust and live by faith. 

Before the reading of the Scripture

You know, I love a good tomato sandwich. Right now, my tomato plants are just beginning to grow. But God willing, by late next month, they’ll be ripe tomatoes on the vine. Then, I will eat a tomato sandwich every day until they run out. I peel the tomatoes and slice ‘em thick; I want them juicy and messy. I take two slices of wheat bread, cover a side of each with Miracle Whip (I know for some folks, that makes me a heretic). Then I place the tomatoes, grind some pepper over it, creating a sandwich. If I want to be uptown, I add a little celery seed. Its good eating. 

I tell you about tomato sandwiches because our passage can be envisioned as a sandwich.[2] Outside, the two pieces of bread, are about Jesus—one slice of bread being his authority and the other being his promise to be with us. Inside the sandwich, the thick tomato part, we find our marching orders. As followers of Jesus, it’s not about us. We’re not about glorifying ourselves. We’re here to do the work of the one whose authority extends over all heaven and earth, the one who also promises to be with us. Because of Christ’s power and presence, we can boldly take risks for the sake of the triune God, who calls us into a community to send us out to make disciples.

Today’s passage is the only place where Jesus uses the trinitarian formula, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This comes from the very end of Matthew’s gospel.

Read Matthew 28: 16-20

The Great Commission

“The Great Commission.” At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples to take over. We learn three important things here: Who’s the boss. What we’re called to do. What help we’ll have with our tasks at hand. We don’t learn much about the Trinity. Instead, we’re called to an active faith. It’s more about doing than knowledge, and this passage is a call to action. 

Mountaintop highlights

Many of the highlights of Matthew’s gospel occur on high places: mountains or hills. We have Jesus’ temptation in the mountains of the wilderness, the Sermon on the Mount, the transfiguration on another mountain, the great meal for 5,000 on a hill. Even the crucifixion occurred on a mountain, Mount Calvary. Now, once more, Jesus calls the eleven remaining disciples up on a mountain in Galilee. They’re back in their old haunts, where they focused their ministry, but instead of being with the crowds, they’re up high, on a mountaintop. 

Worship and doubt

Interestingly, we’re told the disciples worshipped Jesus even though some doubted. This doubting may not imply what we think. Instead of questioning their belief, the word expresses a hesitation, or wavering. It’s like taking all this in, they freeze and are unsure of what’s happening.[3]

Matthew is realistic about human emotions. We don’t always understand what is happening in the arena of faith. Instead of having to understand everything or pass a theological test, we are called to trust. This is an important insight for those of us who sometimes harbor doubts. While some of the disciples didn’t understand, they listened and obeyed and followed Jesus. Accepting everything perfectly is not as important as doing the work for which we’re called.[4]

Now there’s only 11 disciples

We’re told Jesus gathered with the eleven. Of course, he started with the twelve, but Judas is no longer with them. Twelve is often seen as a perfect number, so maybe with eleven, Jesus acknowledges that he’s working with a less than perfect group. But that’s always the case because we are mortal and sinful, whether it’s the Apostles or us. Also note that by calling them the disciples at this point, and not Apostles or leaders. Jesus reminds them that they’re always students who will have to depend upon him.[5]


With the remaining disciples gathered, Jesus tells them who’s boss. “All authority in heaven and earth have been given to me.” At the beginning of his ministry, the devil tempted Jesus on another mountain with authority over the earth, but now we learn that for the resurrected Christ, authority will extend far beyond that.[6] As the one in charge, Jesus is the one who can commission the disciples for the work at hand. And Jesus wastes no time issuing his orders. With four verbs—go, make, baptize, and teach— he sends them out to all nations. 

All nations

Let’s unpack this a bit, first by looking at the destination, “all nations.” The promise to Abraham was for land and descendants, but Jesus owns all the world, so now the call is for all people, not just for a particular family.[7]

Jesus’ new family, the church, extends beyond national boundaries. While they may be national churches, there is no such place for an only American Christian, or a British Christian, or a Ugandan Christian. We are Christians, first and foremost. This idea of all nations means our work isn’t limited to just people like us.[8] The gospel needs to be heard by everyone. Paul later captures this vision when he writes, “there is no longer Greek or Jew, for we are all one in Jesus Christ.[9]

Our divided worl

Yet, we live in a divided world. We witness this every time we tune into the news. Whether it is another mass shooting in our country, Russia lobbing missiles at hospitals and apartment buildings in Ukraine, the fighting in Sudan, the burning of churches in India, the sniping between political parties in our country, brokenness surrounds us. 

As believers in Jesus, the Prince of Peace, we must acknowledge this brokenness. But we also need to work to heal such brokenness. We’re to be instruments of God’s peace. We should cry out for justice especially for those unable to care for themselves. Let’s be honest, our present world does not represent the image of what Christ envisions in Scripture. It’s up to us to create such a representation of God’s kingdom for the world to see.[10] Sadly, like the disciples, we generally fall short. 

Making disciples

Jesus calls us to make disciples. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say make Christians. Nor does he say to make Presbyterians. Instead, we’re to make disciples, or students of Jesus Christ. Making disciples isn’t instant conversion. It requires time.[11] Such folks may even have questions and doubts, as we see with the original disciples, but at the very least they are open to learning from the Master. 

A three-fold nam

As we make disciples, we baptize them in God’s three-fold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Notice that this isn’t a baptism in three people, but in one. The name is singular (Baptized in the name of) followed by three distinct names that make up the Godhead.[12] In other words, those who sign up to learn from Jesus are connected to the Triune God. We’re part of that holy fellowship in which all followers are invited to join. And we’re to teach these people what Jesus commands. 

Being a follower of Christ means we strive to keep Jesus’ teachings. God gives commandments to help us live in a way that will be affirming of God and of our brothers and sisters. But people won’t know what those commandments are unless they are taught. 

The need for teaching

That’s right. People need to be taught. And judging a lot of what happening, it appears that before we go out into the world to teach, we need a refresher course in this country. We need to be taught that just because someone makes us uncomfortable because of the country of their birth, the color of their skin, or their political ideals, we still should respect and love them. 

Jesus’ presence

We’re living in trying times, yet there is hope in this passage. In the last verse, after telling us that it’s our responsibility to make and baptize and teach disciples, Jesus reminds us that he is be with us till history comes to an end. Jesus is going to be with us wherever we go to do the gospel’s work. That’s the hope we take with us as we tell the good news and challenge such injustice. We’re not alone. We’ll get through such difficult time by remembering two essential things Jesus taught: Love God and love your neighbor.[13]

In closing, let me suggest that the call to all nations doesn’t mean we should all head out to some foreign land. Instead, because disciple-making is a long process, we’re to start where we are at by talking about the love of God in Jesus Christ and showing that love in our lives. Yes, some are called to the mission field. Some of us, if able, are to help support those on the mission field. But all of us are called to help disciple those around us by showing the love of the triune God: Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.

[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 291. 

[2] The idea of this passage being a “sandwich comes from Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 804. 

[3] Chelsey Harmon, Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20. -22816-20-3/  

[4] I appreciate Enns insights on this theme. See Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More than Our “Correct” Beliefs. (2016, HarpersCollins Paperback, 2017). I reviewed this book here:

[5] Bruner, 806. 

[6] Matthew 4:8-10.

[7] Even Abraham’s nation was called to be a blessing to all other nations. See Isaiah 42:6.

[8] Burner, 816-820.

[9] Galatians 3:28 (edited to focus on nationality) 

[10] One of the great ends of the Presbyterian Church is to exhibit the Kingdom of God to the world. Book of Order 

[11] Bruner, 815-816. 

[12] I appreciate Scott Hoezee’s writings on this passage for this insight. See

[13] Matthew 22:34-40.

Photo of Buffalo Mountain at sunrise
Buffalo Mountain, before sunrise

The Freedom of God’s Spirit

Title slide with photo of peanut butter, bread, and a peanut butter sandwich

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
May 28, 2023
Numbers 11:16-30

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, May 26, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

It’s Pentecost, which is often cited as birthday of the church.[1]It’s also Memorial Day weekend, a time to honor those who gave their life for our country. And while it hasn’t quite felt like it lately with our cool morning temperatures, summer is right around the corner. 

Summer is a season to celebrate. Not only because of God’s Spirit, it’s a season to realize some of God’s greatest gifts: homegrown tomatoes, okra, sweet corn, and evenings to sit outside and listen to nature’s chorus as birds, bugs and frogs sing praises. During summer, we should be even more thankful! 

Before reading the scripture:

Pentecost is about the coming of God’s Spirit. We heard about it in our earlier reading from Acts. God’s Spirit descends and 3000 people are saved. For my sermon this morning, I want us to turn to the Old Testament book of Numbers. (Anyone bring a calculator?) Here we have another occasion in which God’s Spirit moves. 

The Hebrew people are in the wilderness. Having fled Egypt, they wait for the green light to go into the Promised Land. But first, they need to learn a few things. This chapter has several interwoven themes: 

  1. The Hebrews complaint about food (They’re tired of manna and demand meat). 
  2. A worn-out Moses doesn’t know how much of this complaining he can take. 
  3. And God, by all indications, also seems to be weary of complaints. God takes care of Moses while teaching these hardheaded people a lesson they’ll never forget. 

You might want to read the entire chapter later, as it all goes together. I’ll hit the main themes which are in our reading today.

READ 11:16-30

I’ve always loved peanut butter. It’s amazing I still do. 

Learning a lesson

One day, I think it was in the fall of my second-grade year, I was hungry after the academic rigors of the classroom. Coming home, I started digging in the kitchen cabinets to find food. I spotted a large jar of peanut butter, a three pounder. It’d just been opened. There was a bit taken out, but most of the top of the butter was smooth and untouched and so appealing. Seeing no one around, I dug out a finger full. I ate it off my finger and then went for another dip. That’s when my mom entered the kitchen.  

You know, Mom could have been proud of me for taking care of a basic need, hunger, but that’s not the way she operated. She maintained a clean house. In her book, sanitization went along with godliness. Seeing my finger covered with peanut butter, she grabbed the jar and asked, “What do you think you’re doing?” Then Mom the Cop became Mom the Judge. I was given hard time. I had to eat the rest of the jar of peanut butter. For the next month or two, before I could eat whatever we were having for lunch or dinner, I had to down a peanut butter sandwich. No jelly, just peanut butter. That jar of peanut butter was now mine and I had to eat it all! It’s a miracle I still like the stuff. 

Before Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and stuffing, I ate a peanut butter sandwich. Before the Christmas ham, I ate a peanut butter sandwich. By New Years, peanut butter was running out of my nostrils. I felt a special kinship to the Hebrews in the wilderness… 

Threads within the passage

As I mentioned, this passage contains several different threads. The Hebrew children are tired of eating the same thing day after day. An exhausted Moses is tired of leading the people, and a weary God, with a sense of humor, is expected to make everything right. Within these stories, we are provided, on several different levels, an understanding about leadership, human greed, and the ways of God and God’s Spirit.

God’s solution to Moses’ weariness 

God tells Moses to gather seventy elders and to bring them into the tent, the tabernacle, the place where they’re reminded of God’s presence. God wants to relieve Moses’ burdens and plans to do this by taking some of Moses spirit and placing it on the elders. We might assume this will provide them the encouragement they need to help lead.

Furthermore, God promises to help in another way. Hearing the complaints about their bland diet, God promises meat. So much meat, in fact, they’ll get sick of it (just like I got sick of peanut butter). They’ll eat meat until it runs out their noses (thankfully we do not have a potluck dinner today, for this is not a passage to preach on such an occasion). 

Moses questions God’s ability to act

Moses, however, doesn’t worry about them getting sick. Looking around the wilderness, he can’t image how God is going to give a morsel of meat to all these people. It would take a lot of herds to feed everyone, and cattle drives were unknown in the Sinai.  

“Moses,” God asks, “do you think God Almighty is limited in power?” And if you read on ahead in this chapter, you’ll find that God does have the power to work in a seemingly natural way to provide for the people’s needs. God brings forth a great wind that blows in quails and the people feast on stuff game hens and after a month, they’re sick of them.

Moses’ obeys

For now, Moses obeys God. He calls together the seventy elders into the tabernacle. While Moses and the seventy huddle in the tent, the Lord descended in a cloud and takes some of Moses spirit and sprinkles it upon the seventy. I’m not sure why God didn’t just give them some of his own Spirit. Maybe God wants to emphasize Moses’ leadership. 

Then everyone begins to spout prophesies, including two men back at the camp. These guys, it seems, were supposed to be with the rest of the men. We’re not told why they didn’t go to the tent, but they too show signs of the Spirit. People become alarmed. A kid runs to tell Moses about what’s going on. 

Before Moses has a chance to react, Joshua, his second in command, steps in and demands the men be stopped. Moses, however, refuses. Notice how Moses handles this situation. Like God had done to him, he gently rebukes Joshua with a question, “Are you jealous for my sake?”  

God’s Spirit is free

A key to understanding this passage is the truth Jesus taught Nicodemus. The Spirit of God is like the wind and will blow whenever it so desires.[2] We can’t control the wind, no better than the disciples could control the tongues of fire on Pentecost. God’s Spirit is that way. We have no control over it; we’re at God’s mercy. 

Moses’ life is a testimony of trusting God

Moses understands. The life of Moses is a testimony to the power of the Spirit, a power that changes and redirects human lives. Moses is our example. God changed him so that through him, God could offer hope to an entire nation. Moses experiences this power firsthand. While he’ll question God, he knows better than to try to control God,. He’s willing to let the two men continue prophesying.  

Joshua, a Presbyterian?

Joshua, on the other hand, wants everything to be neat and in order. He’s the good Presbyterian in the group.[3] To him, it just doesn’t seem right someone outside the assembled group in the tent would behave in such a fashion. “It’s bad for morale,” he concludes. Maybe he thinks these guys will undermine Moses’ authority. 

We should give Joshua credit, he’s loyal to Moses, but he fails to understand the powers with which they deal. God’s Spirit is beyond even Moses’ control. Ultimately, it’s not loyalty to Moses that matters. The question Joshua should have asked himself, (and we should all ask ourselves) “What is the will of God?” Are we loyal to the God who creates, redeems, and sustains all life?  

Understanding God’s freedom

When we try to control God’s spirit, we get into trouble.  God’s ways are not our ways. We don’t always understand what God is doing, even when God works through us. What’s important is for us to be open for God movement. We need to spend time studying his word and being in fellowship with him and other believers so that when God’s Spirit beckons, we will hear the call and respond. 

Be careful of what we ask

Be open to the leading of God’s Spirit, but there is a second underlying theme that I want us to briefly consider. You’ve heard, I’m sure, the old saying, “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” This might have been the occasion the proverb was first used. It would be like us praying for rain and getting a flood. Or wanting some peanut butter and having to endure a whole jar. We got to be careful of what we ask and expect from God, we might just get it…

The Hebrew litany 

The Hebrew people constantly bickered with Moses during the Exodus journey. Their litany, which they continually recited, went something like this: 

  • Why did you bring us out here? To be killed by the sword?
  • Why did you bring us out here? To die from thirst? 
  • Why did you bring us out here? To starve to death? 
  • Why did you bring us out here? To die of boredom from a bland diet? 

These people had a hard time trusting the Lord, even though the Lord always came through. God saved them from Pharaoh’s army. God provided water when their lips were parched, and manna when their stomachs growled. But it was never enough! Instead of taking stock with what they had and giving thanks, they always wanted more. And when they had enough, they wanted something better. 

Before demanding more, be thankful

Now, I don’t think it is wrong, in and of itself, to desire better things. Hard work is a good. It’s the foundation of free enterprise capitalism and helps improve our world. But we must be careful! It’s wrong to want more without giving thanks for what we already have. As believers, we must bring our desires into alignment with God’s will. Otherwise, like the Hebrews in the wilderness, we’ll be miserable. Only when we are content with what God supplies, will we find contentment. 

Who should we emulate?

My advice, after considering this passage: 

  • We shouldn’t be like the people of Israel, only looking out for ourselves and wanting more.
  • We also should not be like Joshua, jealous of others with God’s power.
  • Instead, we should strive to be like Moses, open to God’s leading!  
Be ready for the Spirit to act

If we are open to what the Spirit is doing, we too can be good leaders. But we should never forget that it takes more than just us. It takes God’s Spirit working in our lives and in the lives of others. Like Moses, we can never be a leader in a vacuum. We depend on others, and we depend on God’s Spirit if we want to be of use in building up the kingdom. This is what Pentecost is all about: God empowering us to further God’s kingdom. 

We have a God of power who can enable us to do wondrous things. Do you believe it? Are you open to God’s spirit in our lives, in the life of our church, our community and our world?  If so, hang on! God might surprise us still. Amen.

Commentary consulted

Philip J. Budd, Word Biblical Commentary: Numbers (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1984), 122-131.

[1] Pentecost is fifty days after Easter and is also known as Whitsunday. It was also a Jewish celebration and pilgrimage following the wheat harvest. In time it became known as when the giving of the law occurred on Sinai. It was on this day, according to Acts 2, that the faithful had gathered and the Holy Spirit descended upon them, sending the disciples out preaching. This is why some see it as the “birthday” of the church, but that date could also be the date Jesus says that he would build his church upon Peter the Rock (Matthew 16:18), or in the sending out the disciples (Matthew 10:1), or the 70 to do mission (Luke 10:1-10).

[2] John 3:8.

[3] We Presbyterians take seriously what Paul says about “decently and in order.” See 1 Corinthians 14:40.

It seems the old 3 pound jars of peanut butter are now 2 pounds and 8 ounces.

God keeps an eye on those with power

title slide for sermon on Psalm 21 featuring photo of Forbidden City with a temple on a hill overlooking it

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 21, 2023
Psalm 21

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, May 19, 2023

During this season of Easter, we’ve explored upbeat Psalms. After all, this is the season of hope. The resurrection of Jesus provides hope. And today, as we look at Psalm 21, it won’t be any different. We have hope because we’re in God’s hands.

But I’ve only scratched the surface of the Psalms. There wonderful thing about this book is that you find all kinds of emotions on display. The Psalmists don’t mind getting angry with God when things do not go their way. And that’s okay. Because even in the harsh Psalms of lament,[1] where the Psalmist expresses anger to God, he continues to engage God. The Psalmists even moves toward God where there is no evidence of God.[2] Such is his trust. Can we so trust God?

Before the reading of scripture:

Psalm 21, which we’re considering today, is one of a sequence of Psalms reminding the Hebrew people of their king’s dependence on God.[3] The king derives his strength from the Lord, which is also a reminder that human kings are always subordinate to Almighty God. When those in power think they earned it or have no one to which they’re to be accountable, we find ourselves heading down the wrong path. That’s more of a dictatorial or totalitarian system of government. According to this passage, the king is reminded not to get too big for his britches. He might have power, but there’s a limit to it, for he is not the source of his power. That comes from God. And God keeps his eyes on those with power.

Read Psalm 21:

Who here got up early on Saturday a few weeks ago to watch the coronation of Charles III?  I couldn’t watch it because I had a presbytery meeting that Saturday, north of Roanoke. I was up early, but on the road… However, I’ve seen the photos. Did you see the one of Charles all decked out on the throne, wearing the crown, and holding the scepter. Beside him was Prince William, the heir apparent, and his son, whom I assume is third in line to the throne. It’s quite a sight to see. They must have worn 25 pounds of metals each, and their clothes and robes must weigh almost as much as they do.  

I’m not sure what to make of Americans who seem to be more interested in the royal family that my friends in the UK. We declared our freedom from kings in the Revolutionary War. While their ceremonies are colorful and can be a pleasure to watch, I prefer our presidential inaugurations. There, everyone wears a dark suit and there are no crowns to be seen unless there happens to be a kid in the crowd who’d just came from Burger King. 

But I do like the fact that the British coronation includes a worship service. The leaders of the Church of England preach before and pray over the new king. However, in a parliamentary monarchy like the United Kingdom, the king or queen have little power. 

Some ancient cultures understood the limit of human power. I’ve shared with you before how, on a hill behind the Forbidden City in Beijing, is a temple. There, where the emperor and family lived for centuries, one of the more elaborate estates ever built for a royalty, is a temple. While we may understand God differently than those in Buddhist tradition, the idea is the same. The emperor needed to be reminded when he looked up on the hill that there was a higher authority. 

The same is true for the building of steeples in small towns and even large cities in North America and Europe. As such structures rose into the sky, they reminded people of a higher power. Throughout the nineteenth century, this was true for most cities in America. But with the development of steel technology and elevators, buildings started rising higher and higher. 

In cities like New York and Chicago commercial buildings began to cast a shadow on the church steeples. In Pittsburgh, you even have the Cathedral of Learning, which rises high above any church. And later someone had the idea to build a Cathedral of Glass, the headquarters of PPG. This building resembles a medieval cathedral but is covered in glass. 

I don’t think the answer to our problems is to go back to where the church steeples were the tallest thing around. Sadly, for too many Christians, competition to building the tallest or the most ornate structure was intense. This, by the way, is very un-Presbyterian (but I must confess there are even some Presbyterian Churches that strove to be the biggest or the more ornate).[4]

In this Psalm, which is written as a prayer, the people are reminded that the “splendor of the royal prom” only reflects the power and glory of God. The shouts of joy from the crowd comes, not just on the king, but on the joy which comes from knowing God.[5]

This Psalm, attributed to David, may have been used at a coronation for a new king. Maybe he wrote it for his son, Solomon. What the Psalm makes it clear that the king is totally under the authority of the divine king. Everything the earthly king is, has, and does comes from God.[6]

While we might think this Psalm doesn’t apply to us since we none of us are a king and we don’t have kings in our form of government, that’s not the case. We can apply this Psalm to ourselves whenever we find ourselves in position of authority. And we can also apply it to others who are in authority over us. This Psalm reminds us that we’re all subject to God’s authority.

But there is also a positive side to the Psalm. When we realize our dependance upon God, we open ourselves up to be blessed by the Almighty… God is gracious. The king is not just a puppet, doing God’s bidding. God blesses him beyond his prayers, giving him “his heart’s desire.” David, the king was said to have sought after the Lord’s heart, has it right.[7] He desires God’s heart and God gives him the desires of his own heart. 

But God’s blessings extend through the king to all in his kingdom. Their enemies, who are also God’s enemies, are kept at bay. With a king who trust the Lord, the kingdom can enjoy peace. Much of this Psalm has aspects that sound like a prayer given when a new king is crowned, during a coronation, or at a royal feast. 

There are two items here that I’d like to explore further. At such a time, those in presence of the king would have asked his life to be extended. The forever and ever in verse 4 doesn’t imply eternal life as we’d think.[8] Instead, it’s a way of saying “we want our king around a long time.” 

The second item deals with the king’s enemies. Verses 8 through 12 all deal with our enemies being subdued. Here we learn that within the covenant God created with Israel, the king’s enemies are God’s enemies.[9] Those who oppose God’s king will experience God’s wrath. To our ears, this sounds harsh. But then, as Americans, we’re a superpower. We think of ourselves as powerful. 

Israel was always just a small country with the superpowers of its day on the opposite ends of the Fertile Crescent: the Nile to their south, and the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers to the east. Israel never had the military might of her distant neighbors. She lived in fear and depended on alliances. In some way, we can think about Israel as the Ukraine of the ancient world, living in no-man’s land between superpowers. But according to the Psalm, if the king trusted God (which not all the kings did), then things would be okay.

Now let us go back to the idea of how we might apply this text to our lives. While we don’t have kings, we do have people in authority and at times, we find ourselves in positions of authority. This Psalm teaches us the need to trust God and to strive to live under God’s authority.  Such a life means we’re to be humble, for we know that we are not the source of our blessings. 

And while we don’t have an earthly king, we do have a King, Jesus Christ, to whom we belong and to whom we depend. We are called to trust his loving-kindness in this life and in the life to come.[10] A life of faith is a life of trust in the man from Galilee, who died at the hands of Roman soldiers, but rose from the grave and lives and rules for us. As the Israelites were called to trust their king, we’re called to trust ours. And unlike their kings, who were often sinful and made bad decisions, Jesus is sinless and deserving of our trust. Amen. 

[1] There are two types of Psalms of Lament: Personal and Communal. Personal lament examples: 13, 22, 35, 44, 86. Communal lament Psalms examples: 12, 74, 79, 88, 137. 

[2] Peter Ennis, The Sin of Certainty (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 70. 

[3] See Psalm 18 and 20.  James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 104. 

[4] Bullinger, in the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XXII (Book of Confession, 5.216), encourages churches to avoid “luxurious attire, all pride, and everything unbecoming to Christian humility, discipline and modesty” to be “banished for the sanctuaries and places of prayer for Christians.” An example of an antithetical Presbyterian Church architecture is East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

[5] Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, translated by Herbert Hartwell (1958 (German publication), Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 213.

[6] Mays, 103.

[7] 1 Samuel 13:14. 

[8] The Old Testament, in general, doesn’t speak of immortality or eternal life like the New Testament.  See Weiser, 213.

[9] Weiser, 216.

[10] May, 104. 

The Forbidden City with the temple on a hill behind it.
The Forbidden City in Beijing with a temple on the hill behind it.

Psalm 66: Praising God Together and Individually

Title Slide: Psalm 66: Praising God together and individually

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 14, 2023
Psalm 66

At the beginning of worship:

We’re family here. Jesus calls us into the church, where we are adopted as children of God and given an inheritance. Doesn’t that sound good? While we may have different abilities, we all receive an eternal inheritance. We are blessed by God. 

But as it is in our earthly families, there are things we do together and things we do by ourselves. It’s no different in the church. We’re to experience God corporately and individually. We can’t just experience God one way or the other. Both are necessary for us to have abundant life. Never think that you can be a Christian without church, but always remember that a life of faith also requires individual time alone with God. Even Jesus had to get away on his own to pray.[1] Our Psalm this morning will show both sides of a life of faith. 

Before reading of Scripture:

Today we’re looking at the 66th Psalm, one that begins with a processional call to worship followed by an individual’s response. In the initial call, we’re reminded of what God has done in history. In response, the shift is from the community’s praise to an individual’s act of praise for something personal. God answered the Psalmist prayer. We’re not told what problems he faced, only that God helped him get through the difficult. Therefore, like Psalm 116 which we looked at a few weeks ago, he responds to God by paying his vow.[2] He offers sacrifices and praise to the Lord.

Two parts of the Psalm

There are some who want to separate this Psalm into two parts. You kind of see this division in the lectionary, which only uses the second half of the Psalm.[3] However, I don’t agree. Yes, there are two main parts to the Psalm, but they go together.

Our faith has a community aspect to it, as well as a personal one. We see both in this passage. With the community, the Psalmist and us are called into worship. Then, our faith should be such that we not only give God thanks for blessings in history, but also for the blessings we’ve personally experienced.[4]

As you listen to the Psalm, feel how the people are called into God’s presence and then how, as an individual, the Psalmist steps forward to offer thanks.  

Read Psalm 66

Growing up, my mother managed Sunday morning. She’d get up early, I think even before my dad, unless he had to be away for work. She’d fix a big breakfast: eggs, grits, bacon, toast, and coffee. Or maybe it would be pancakes stuffed with bananas or blue berries, although dad generally cooked them. 

I can assure you, there no better way to wake up than to the smell of frying bacon and perking coffee. When breakfast was almost ready, she woke us kids and started countdown for when we had to be ready to leave. We’d eat breakfast generally while watching some off-key gospel singers who seemed to be ubiquitous on Sunday morning TV in the South of my childhood. At least, after listening to them, I could never complain about the music in church. After breakfast, we dressed, grabbed our Bibles, and ran out the door to make it to Sunday School on time. 

Did our mom’s introduce us to Jesus?

I’m sure many of us credit our moms for making sure we attended church growing up. Of course, my dad was also there, but there were Sundays he had to work because that was when he could inspect boilers which had cooled down for the weekend. On those Sundays, my mom was totally in charge. And she got us to church on time (or close to it).  Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms who stepped up to help their children grow in the faith. We’re in debt to moms and for those women who stepped in to help other children grow in their faith. We need such people in our world to makes sure that everyone has a chance to learn about Jesus.

A Procession

Psalm 66 begins with a procession. As we saw in our Call to Worship this morning, there are three parts to the gathering of people.[5] As in Psalm 100, we’re called to join in the “joyful noise,” praising God as we’re led to the temple for worship. The first four verses are all focused on this praise of God. Such praise exists not just in the people’s cries, but in all the world. I’m reminded of Jesus telling those who complained of the ruckus his followers made as they entered Jerusalem, that if they weren’t praising God, the stones would cry out.[6] God created the world to reflect his creativity and to praise his glory. 


If you followed along with the Bible, you may have noticed a Selah (that I didn’t read), in the margin after the fourth verse. No one is really sure what this word means. Some think it is a symbol for music, like a clamp of a cymbal. That maybe. But here, it also marks the end of the first part of the gathering. 

First invitation: “Come and See”

After praising God, it’s time to invite others to join the crowd. In verse 5, we have the first of two invitations. “Come and See what God has done.” 

The Psalm then recalls the great events of the Exodus, the parting of the sea, and the Conquest, the crossing the Jordan. These were events of which the Hebrew people were familiar. But God is not just a God of the Hebrew people. God rules the nations and, as the end of verse 7 reminds us, won’t let the proud get too big for their britches by not letting the rebellious exalt themselves. 

Praising God even for the hard times

Then we come upon another Selah in the margins, as we move into the third section of the opening. This third section again issues a call for praise for God has kept us among the living. Ever thought of that? Without God, there would be no life. And then we’re reminded that God keeps our feet from slipping. God is our lamp for our feet and a light to our path, as the 119th Psalm proclaims.[7] But this third section also acknowledges that life is not always rosy. God places burdens on us. We are tested. People take advantage of us. Yet, God brings us through such troubles. 

Part 2: the personal praise

The second major section of the Psalm begins with verse 12 and is seen with the change of language. No longer is the focus on the plural, the community. Now an individual takes centered stage. The Psalmist comes into God’s house to pay his vows which he made when he was in trouble. 


Let me say a bit about vows. We must be careful with vows. We should not make them to manipulate God. There is a horrible story in the Book of Judges about a Jephthah, an Israelite warrior who vowed that if God would give him victory, he’d sacrifice the first thing that came out of his door to greet him. It was his own daughter.[8]

Vows made for the wrong reasons can be dangerous. John Calvin taught that the only purpose of a vow is to show gratitude to God. That appears to be the intent here and is the result of the Psalmists actions.[9] A mini lesson here: don’t try to force God to act to your benefit. God is not solely on our side. Instead, to be safe, we must be on God’s side.

Second call: Come and See

After testifying to how his actions show gratitude to God, the Psalm issues his own call. The community call people to “come and see.” The individual now calls them to “come and hear.” He tells his story of how he cried out in need to God and God listened. Because of God hearing and action, he now praises the Almighty. He blesses God for God’s faithfulness.

Movement from community to personal

This Psalm shows a movement from the community to the personal. It could also go the other way, from the individual to the community, for both aspects of our faith are important. The community helps us to know God’s work in the past, but when we experience such events firsthand, it’s often in our lives. 

What this Psalm also demonstrates is that for the individual and the community, the call needs to be issued for people to witness what God has done and is doing. If we don’t witness to the God of the Bible, who is also active in our lives, how will people know what God is capable of? 

MOther’s sharing the good news

Thankfully, many of us have had mothers that guided us. Others of us have been blessed in sharing the good news with friends and business associates and others who cross our lives. As it is with the Psalm, we should be praising God and giving thanks for the blessings we have received, today and always. Amen. 

[1] Matthew 23:36; Mark 14:32; Luke 6:12, 9:18, 22:39.


[3] The lectionary doesn’t cleanly separate the Psalm, it only covers the second part, verses 8-20.

[4] The following commentaries support my thesis: James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 221; Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, translated by Herbert Hartwell (1958 (German publication), Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 468; Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, J. R. Porter, translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 186-187,

[5] I adapted parts of Psalm 66 for today’s Call to Worship:
Pastor: Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; 
People: sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!
Pastor: Come and see what God has done;
People: he his awesome in his deeds among mortals.
Pastor: Bless our God, O peoples,
People: let the sound of his praise be heard!

[6] Luke 19:39-40.

[7] Psalm 119:105.

[8] Judges 11:29-40. 

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.13.1-7. See also Stan Mast’s commentary on this passage:

Rainbow over green trees
Rainbow over Laurel Fork, May 13, 2023

Psalm 119:9-32 In Praise of God’s Boundaries

Title slide with photo of hill in spring

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 7, 2023
Psalm 119:9-32

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, May 5, 2023

Before the beginning of worship:

What do you think about the law? Most of us, I’m sure, think some laws are silly. I, for one, am troubled by states who forbid driving barefooted. Yet, there are also good reasons for some laws. If we don’t stop at a stop sign, we risk our life and lives of others. If we think the speed limit is only a suggestion, we become a hazard on the highway. Laws protect us and within such a framework, we can enjoy life. 

Of course, if everyone thought about how our actions impact others before we act, we wouldn’t need laws. There would be no need for laws against littering, stealing, assault, or slander…. But since none of us live up to such high ideals, laws are needed. They set boundaries. 

Freedom without law is chaos

We’re freedom loving people, but freedom without law isn’t more freedom, its chaos. Its anarchy. We need boundaries to protect us and our neighbors. 

Today, we’re going to consider why a Psalmist felt such love the law that he wrote the longest Psalm in scripture.  

Before the reading of scripture:

Psalm 119 is an epic poem. It would have found a good home in the 19th Century, when epic poems by the likes of Longfellow and Tennyson were celebrated. Today, few poets attempt to write poems that go beyond two pages. But it has not always been that way. 

An acrostic poem

The 119 Psalm is an acrostic poem. You may know of these, if stayed awaked when they talked about poetry in English classes. An acrostic poem runs through the alphabet. Each new line starts with a word that begins with the next letter of the alphabet. There are eight or nine (depending on one’s definition) acrostic Psalms in the Bible.[1]

Unfortunately, it is impossible to capture the full meaning of an acrostic poem when translating it into another language. Part of the reason is that we have different alphabets. Hebrew only had 22 letters, all consonants. Even if we had the same alphabet, having a similar word that begins with the same letter would be nearly impossible. 

The longest Psalm in scripture

Psalm 119 strays from the other acrostic Psalms by its length. Instead of only having 22 verses, each beginning with the next letter in the alphabet, it consists of 8 lines for each letter. If it was in English, it would be like having 8 lines beginning with “A” words, then 8 lines of “B” words, down through the alphabet. This makes a very long poem, 176 verses. 

Interestingly, despite its size, Psalm 119 maintains focus on one theme: God’s law. But don’t think of the law as just ordnances, such as the general statues of the Commonwealth. God’s law is “The Torah,” which are also the first five books of the Bible. While they contain laws and the Ten Commandments, they’re also the essential Jewish teachings as to how we are to live together. Through the law, the Torah, God instructs God’s people.  

I’m sure it’s to your delight that I will only read a small section of Psalm 119, for the poem often repeats itself. Essentially, if this poem had been constructed in English, I’d be reading the B-C-D sections. Since it was written in Hebrew, I’ll be reading the Beth, Gimel and Daleth sections. 

Read Psalm 119:9

It is amazing to me the author of this Psalm didn’t have a thesaurus. I don’t think they’d yet been invented.[2] But like a good writer, he doesn’t repeatedly use the same word. In this section, instead of just using the word “law,” he also uses: your word, commandment, statutes, ordinances, decrees, precepts, and your works. And he mixes these words up, but they all refer to the word or law that comes from God. What can we learn from this “writing exercise” by the Psalmist?

The Psalmist desires more than knowledge

I suggest the Psalmist demonstrates to us that while knowing God’s word and law is important, we also need to mediation upon it. It’s not just enough to know the Bible, or believe the Bible, we must consider how Scripture should be understood and applied to our lives. 

That said, the process of taking the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and writing 8 verses for each letter while reflecting on God’s word to us is an example of extreme mediation. I don’t know too many people who have that kind of patience. I know I don’t. However, I bet after the Psalmist compiled this poem, understood well what it meant to follow God’s way.  After all, he’d considered it from every angle.

Purpose behind the Psalm

Now let me ask another question. What is the purpose behind this Psalm? Walter Brueggemann, in his theological commentary on it suggests the author had three things in mind: 

  1. The first purpose is didactic. The Psalm instructs the young on the ABC’s of torah obedience. By using the acrostic method, the Psalmist created a memory device for young students to see the importance of God’s word and law. 
  2. The second reason for this Psalm is to make comprehensive statement of the adequacy of a torah-oriented life. In these 176 verses, the Psalmist seemingly covers all there is about why we should follow the torah or God’s law.
  3. And finally, Brueggemann suggests that Psalm shows us there can be a sense of reliability and order when we honor the torah, or God’s law.[3]
God’s law creates a boundary 

I have always suggested that we, as Christians, should see God’s law as a boundary instead of a list of things to do and not to do. As a boundary, God says that if we just stay within these lines, we can have wonderful freedom and enjoy life. 

Think of the Ten Commandments. Traditionally, we have understood the commandments as having two tables. The first table deals with how we relate to God. We are to have no other gods and we honor God by not creating images. We refuse to vainly use God’s name and keep the Sabbath. 

The later six commandments deal with our relationship with one another. We keep family relationships in tack by honoring our parents. We respect the lives, property, and spouses of others, we tell the truth especially in legal matters, and we don’t want what is not ours. 

The Ten Commandments provide us with boundaries. If we are content, we can have a good life.  Of course, we know that not everyone will obey them. That’s why we have governments who maintain laws. We see this in the middle part of our reading this morning. 

Psalmist as an alien

In verse 19, the Psalmist admits to being an alien in the land. I don’t think this means he’s from another country. Instead, he lives differently from others for he strives to keep God’s decrees while others have wandered away. He’s the odd-ball, for God’s word comes first in his life.

Let’s briefly consider the passages I read this morning. 

The “Beth” section of the poem

Verses 9 to 16 focus on praise and supplication. He begins by offering God’s word as a way the young can strive for purity. Then he focuses on his own life and asks God to supply him with what he needs to keep from straying. Look at the verbs he uses to describe his focus on what God has taught: seek, treasure, declare, meditate, and delight (which he uses twice). The Psalmist emphasizes his devotion to the Torah, for he knows that it’s from God who gives us life.

The “gimel” section of the poem

The second set of verses, 17 to 24, concentrates on intercession and devotion. Not everyone is like the Psalmist. There are many who ignore God’s word, and he (and we) must live with such people in our world. So, the Psalmist prays that God will open his eyes, won’t hid his commandments, and will keep him free of the scorn and contempt others bring onto themselves. Finally, he pledges to continue to meditate on God’s statues even when princes, the political leaders of his day, plot against him. He’s all in with God. 

The “Daleth” section of the poem

The final set of verses, 25-32, centers on his need of understanding God’s precepts. While this Psalm is not attributed to David, the Psalmist, whoever he was, like David, seeks God’s heart.[4] He desires God to help him understand his precepts, to strengthen him by the word, to teach him the law, to set God’s ordnances in front of him, and enlarge his understandings. The Psalmist knows life comes from God, and we can enjoy it fully only when we strive to listen to the Almighty. 

How we relate to God’s word

Our passage calls us to seek out God’s word and will for our lives. We are not to approach God’s law from a legalist perspective, nor should we see following God’s word as required work to obtain entrance into heaven. Instead, like the Psalmist, we need to meditate upon God’s word, seeking God and allowing God to draw us closer. 

In the Centered and Soaring Workshop held at Mayberry two Saturdays ago, Stan Ott discussed our need to dig into Scripture. We must be the people of God before we can do the work of God. We become the people of God by reading the Bible, but more importantly, by meditating upon what we read. We also pray for understanding. Finally, we discuss Scripture with others who are also on this journey so we might both be drawn closer to God. We can see the Psalmist fulfilling such efforts in this passage.  

Conclusion: Spending time with the Word

I encourage you to regularly spend time in God’s word and prayer, so that you might also grow closer to our Lord. Take time to read a chapter or two each day out of the Old and New Testaments. Spend time in examen, reflecting on your day before falling asleep, giving God thanks for blessings received. If you have any questions or need help growing deeper, let’s talk. Amen. 

For a sermon on the first 8 verses of Psalm 119, click here.

[1] See Psalms 9 & 10, 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145. Acrostic structures also appear in Proverbs and Lamentations. 

[2] The first Thesaurus is credited to Philo who published On Synonyms in the late first or early second century A.D. The first modern thesaurus was published by Peter Mark Roget in the mid-19th Century.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1984), 40. 

[4] 1 Samuel 13:14.

Hillside in spring,  covered with various shades of light green trees

Psalm 23: A Declaration of Confidence

Titled Slide "Psalm 23: A Declaration of Confidence" with a picture of the sunrise

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Church
April 30, 2023
Psalm 23

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, April 28, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

What do we really need? As you know, when Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he didn’t teach them to pray for abundance. Instead, as I talked about in the fall when I preached on the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus had them to pray for their daily bread.[1]Life, at least the abundant life we can have in Jesus, is not about accumulation but about trusting God. We need God in our lives more than anything else.

Before reading the Scriptures:

The 23rd Psalm is the best known of all the Psalms, at least for Christians. While it’s also in the Jewish Scriptures, it doesn’t have the same meaning. This is probably because of Jesus’ use of the image of the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John. 

However, we must be careful with the idyll feelings we bring to this passage. As one commentator on the passage notes, the Psalm is often seen as a picture of a cheerful, ideal relationship to God, but that’s not entirely accurate. Certainly, this doesn’t fit with other images of a shepherd’s work in the scriptures. He goes on to note that the aim of the Psalm is not to create a picture of a shepherd or even a little lamb. Instead, it places these actions side by side: the provisions a shepherd provides his flock, and the provisions God makes for those who trusts Him.” 

The shepherd is an example or a metaphor for God. It’s because the David has such trust in God that he can make this “declaration of confidence,” which makes it possible for him to compare a shepherd to God.[2]

This is such a familiar Psalm. Close your eyes and try to listen to it as I read the Psalm once again. 

Read Psalm 23

Augustine of Hippo, the great fourth century Christian theologian, answered the question I asked at the beginning of worship while reflecting on the 23rd Psalm. “Since my shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ, I shall not lack anything.”[3]

I think he’s right. After all, this Psalm has something for us all. Whatever we need, we can find it here. When things go well for us, we appreciate the nurturing implied by the green grass and still waters. When things are not going so well, it’s nice to be comforted and not left alone when traveling through dangerous and deadly valleys. Augustine relates the waters in Psalm 23, to baptism, a place where the broken and weak gain new life.[4]

3 parts to the Psalm

I am going to parse this Psalm into three sections. The first deals with that which we need in this life. We need food and water. We also need protection, guidance, and when we’re beat, restoration. 

The Lord as shepherd provides this to his sheep. He leads them to places where they can get a drink of water. He takes them to new pastures. Sheep will eat the grass down to the nub and sooner or later they will not be anything to eat. So, they must move on to new pastures. This allows the sheep to continue to eat while the grass in the previous pasture is restored. And in their travels, the shepherd gives the sheep time to rest and to restore their bodies for what’s ahead. 

An individual within a herd

While this is an individual Psalm, no shepherd takes care of an individual lamb. A shepherd has charge of a herd of lambs. When I lived in Utah, where the sheep business still thrives, I once listened in on a discussion as to whether a group of sheep should be called a herd or a flock. The Bible and Christmas carols seems to be on the side of flocks.[5] But an old resident of the desert southwest ended the debate. “I’ve seen plenty of sheepherders in this country,” he said. “Now, I want you to show me as sheep flocker.”  

I have no desire to settle that debate between herds and flocks today.[6] But I want us to acknowledge that this is an individual Psalm. It is attributed to David, shepherd as a boy, he sought after God and felt cared for by the Almighty. But this does not mean he saw this close relationship exclusively between him and God. It was something all who seek out the Lord can experience. 

Perhaps, the Psalmist who wrote this Psalm as an individual knew what it was like to be the lost sheep whom the shepherd leaves the herd behind to find.[7] While we’re in a community, we are also important to God as an individual. 

Shepherds and leadership

And while the sheep business was considered a dirty business even in the ancient world, the idea of a good leader was also metaphorically understood as a shepherd. The idea of a shepherd implied royalty and the shepherd’s crook was often used as a symbol of leadership. As one commentator on this passage notes, the metaphor of the Lord as a shepherd refers to what the Lord (and kings) should do.[8] And the same should also apply to pastors and leaders in church. Of course, humans never live up to God’s ideal.

The second part of the Psalm begins with a shift in language. Now David, the Psalmist, speaks directly to God, drawing the Lord even closer.[9] “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, YOU are with me.” Those praying this psalm knows the shepherd’s presence. 

The rod and staff

We acknowledge that not all the paths we trod will be grassy or by still waters. There will be times we must be led through narrow canyons and along steep ledges, but the shepherd with his crook can guide us safely. The shepherd’s rod and staff are the same thing, it just depends on how they are used. As a staff, it can be used to catch a stray or falling animal by the neck and drag it to safety. But as a rod, it can be used beat off wolves attacking the sheep. 

Of course, the rod can also be used to chastise the sheep and keep them in line. The Hebrew scriptures speak of the rod for punishment.[10] Perhaps, because of this, Origen, another of the earlier theologians of the church, saw the rod as a warning filled with hope. “If you have sinned and see the rod of God threatening you, know that the mercy of God will not be far from you.”[11] The good shepherd wants to keep us together, less we stray and really get into trouble. 

The banquet

Then the Psalm slips from metaphor of the shepherd to one hosting a banquet. While the milk of the ewe is enough for a lamb, as they grow, they need more sustainable food. Likewise, as we mature as Christians, our diet changes. God strengthens us for what we must endure. [12]

Furthermore, the Psalm acknowledges that we have enemies in this world. There are those who would like to do us harm, but when we follow the shepherd, he watches over us. We are safe, feasting even when in danger. The oil pour out on our heads is an anointing, reminding us of God’s promises. Likewise, the cup overflowing reminds us of God’s abundance.

God in the Psalms and our enemies

An interesting insight into the Psalms is that they most often speak of weakening our enemies instead of fortifying us for battle![13] In other words, God does not prepare us to take over and be our own shepherd. We must always realize our dependence on our Lord. 

Part 3 ends the Psalm with hope, not just in the present but in the future. If God gives us life, we will experience goodness and mercy. This would have been David’s and the people of the Old Testament’s understanding of the Psalm. But because of Jesus, we have hope not just for life in this world, but in the world to come. 

For Christians reading the Psalm

For Christians, we cannot understand Psalm 23 without seeing the Lord as Jesus Christ, the good shepherd as we learn from the tenth chapter of John. There, we see that the true shepherd is one known by the sheep, unlike rustlers who attempt to drive the sheep away. If we hang close to the Good Shepherd, we’re promised everlasting life. Jesus also promises to lay his life down for those who follow him, which he did on the cross.

The Incarnation: Jesus as shepherd and sheep

Interestingly, Jesus is not just a shepherd.[14] The doctrine of the incarnation teaches us that Jesus is God and human. Likewise, Jesus is not just the Good Shepherd, he was also a faithful sheep, who came and gave his life for others. John the Baptist points this out before Jesus began his ministry, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”[15] In the book of Revelation, we find the lamb of God slain,[16] but also the resurrected lamb on the throne.[17]Having experienced both sides, Jesus knows what we endure in the world, even as he leads home to God the Father.[18]


When we pray the Psalms, the 23rd Psalm should be used regularly. In this short Psalm, we’re reminded of God’s abiding love. We are never alone in this world. That should give us courage and hope. May we always listen to and follow the Good Shepherd until that day when we are brought together under his rule in the life to come. Amen. 

[1] See

[2] Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, J. R. Porter, translator (1984, English translation: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 134.

[3] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, quote from in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII, Psalm 1-50 (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008), 178

[4] Augustine, 179.  

[5] Luke 2:8. See also Nahum Tate’s carol, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”

[6] Maybe it has to do with the number of animals. A dozen ewes could be a flock, 1000 ewes (and most herds around Cedar City, UT had even more ewes) could be a herd.

[7] Luke 15:3-7.

[8] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 117.

[9] Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, Herbert Hartwell, translator (1959 German translation, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 229.

[10] Proverbs 13:24. 

[11] Origen, “Selections from the Psalms 23:4, quote from in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII, Psalm 1-50 (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008), 180

[12] Augustine, 180.

[13] For this insight, I am indebted to a tweet by @CAHutch1990. “Has anyone done a count in the Psalms of how many verses are about God disarming the violent verses the strengthening the military might of his own people? Repeatedly, there are promises of God bringing justice, not by violence, but by the suppression of violence. 

[14] Scott Hoezee outlines this thought in his commentary on the passage. See  

[15] John 1:29, 36.

[16] Revelation 5:6, 7:17, 13:8

[17] The ending of Revelation begins with the “Marriage of the Lamb” and his rule. See Revelation 19:9; 21:22; and 22:1, 13, and 23.

[18] John 14:6.

Sunrise in the Blue Ridge Mountains, April 27, 2022
Sunrise, April 27, 2023

Psalm 116: Giving God Thanks

Title slide "Psalm 116: Giving God Thanks

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
April 23, 2023
Psalms 116

At the beginning of worship

You’ve heard it said before, I’m sure, that “no one gets out of here alive.” Sooner or later, our ride on Planet Earth ends. It’s a paradox of our faith.[1] We believe God will save us. But we also know our ultimate salvation will not be in this life but in the life to come.[2]

We must trust God. We believe that when we take our last breath on earth, there’s something more ahead. We are unable to go there by ourselves. We depend on God’s help. The hope we have in the resurrection to life everlasting isn’t anything we can prove or completely understand. We accept it on faith. Only God can call us forth from this life to the next. 

Before reading the Scripture

Our text today will be the 116th Psalm. The Psalm has often been recited at the Jewish Passover meal as well as the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Passover reminded the Jewish people of their freedom from Egyptian bondage.[3] Our Lord’s Supper reminds us of the freedom we enjoy from our sins which was purchased by Jesus’ death and the hope we have in his resurrection.[4]

This is a psalm from an individual who offers thanksgiving to God for having been saved from some predicament. We don’t know the nature of his troubles. Perhaps enemies closed in on him or maybe it was illness. Whatever his concern, the Psalmist was near death when he cries out to God and God acts. Saved from death, he now lives in God’s debt. For this reason, he comes before the people to pay the vow he made to God as he praises the Almighty. 

Read Psalm 116

“What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” The Psalmist asks in verse 12. Having just acknowledged that he cannot trust people (“they’re all liars,” he says), he knows he can trust God because of his past experiences. 

Like Psalm 16, which we looked at last week, things are going well for the one who wrote this psalm. Of course, he has had troubles. Perhaps an illness had him close to death, or maybe he was attacked and surrounded by enemies who were out for blood. “The snares of death encompass me,” he informs us. 

Bargaining with God

Whatever the actual nature of his trouble, we don’t know. But it was real; he thought he might die. But that was in the past. The Psalmist cries out to God. He may have even done some bargaining with God. Do you ever do this? “God, if you can just help me get through this, I will go to your temple and praise your name and offer all kinds of sacrifices,” might have been his prayer. “God, if you help me this one time, I’ll be in church every Sunday,” we might pray. But do we follow through?

Not every request is granted

God is gracious and, in this case, God answered his prayer. Now, we should acknowledge that not every prayer gets answered in the way we’d like or hope. There are those who become sick and never recover. There are those whose enemies slay them. And don’t think we live in a more peaceful time than the Psalmist.

We live in a violent world

Sadly, the shootings we’ve seen this past week demonstrate this. An innocent mistake as person knocks on the wrong door and a shot ring out. Or a group of kids turn up the wrong driveway and from a distance porch someone fires a rifle at the car. Or the cheerleaders who mistake someone else’s car for their own and there’s a shot.[5] Or a basketball rolls into a disgruntled neighbor’s yard, and a kid is shot.[6] Sadly, we live in a world where people often act before they think. Or, in these cases, they grab their guns before their victims had time to explain or even cry out a prayer to God. Heaven help us!

We have a problem in our nation. That’s not the subject of this Psalm, but it’s worth pointing out. We need to understand it’s not just about our individual rights, but that all of us have rights and they overlap. God has created us all and for that reason alone, we are all precious, even the most flawed among us. That’s why community is most important. We need to treat everyone in a godly manner. Now back to the Psalm. 

Trusting God first

Even with terminal sickness or in the middle of a violent situation, we’re called on to do what is right and to trust God. We hold to the truth, as proclaimed by Paul, that there is nothing, not even death, that can separate us from the love God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[7]

As I talked about earlier, for whatever reason, God saved the Psalmist. We should clarify this. God saved the Psalmist this time. This is important. Obviously, death caught up with him sooner or later. It does with all of us. Although we are not told of his death, we can assume Lazarus, who was raised by Jesus himself from the grave, returned to the world of the dead.[8] After all, no one has seen him run around Bethany since the first century. Sooner or later, this life comes to an end. But that’s getting ahead of our story.

The importance of giving thanks

Having experienced God’s grace in his (temporary) salvation, the Psalmist feels he must respond. You know, as my mother taught me, when you are given a gift, you should write a thank you note. It’s the proper thing to do. But the gift the Psalmist received was so great, a thank you note wouldn’t suffice. 

A friend notes how when someone gives us five bucks to buy a slice of pizza at a food court, we should acknowledge it. We might say, “Thanks, Dude,” and maybe even give a slap on the back. But what if you were dying of a kidney disease and that friend gave you their extra kidney? “Thanks, Dude,” doesn’t cut it. Does it? We would be indebted to this person for the rest of our lives. From that point on, every breath we take can be credited to the gift of a kidney.[9]

This is the position the Psalmist finds himself in. The grace he’s experienced is so great. He must respond in a way that’s grander than lying in bed and saying, “Thank you, God,” as he falls asleep for the night. So, he heads to God’s holy city, Jerusalem. There in the presence of all God’s people, probably in the temple even though it’s not mentioned in this Psalm, he makes his sacrifice and praises God. 

The importance of community

It’s important for him to be in community. In our faith, community is important for believers, even in prayer. Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

The assumption that prayer is what we do when we are alone—the solitary soul before God—is an egregious, and distressingly persistent, error. We imagine a lonely shepherd on the hills composing lyrics to the glory of God. We image a beleaguered soul sinking in a swamp of trouble calling for help. But our imaginations betray us. We are part of something before we are anything, and never more so that when we pray. Prayer begins in community.[10]

So, our Psalmist goes before the community of faithful. In verse 16, he humbles himself, acknowledging that he’s a servant of God. Then he points out that this isn’t something he came up on his own. His mother was also a servant. In other words, his faith was passed down to him. 

But while he learned his faith from his parents and family members, it was this experience that really sealed his faith. And for this reason, he offers thanksgiving and sacrifices to God in public. He wants others to see what God has done for him, so that they might also place their hope in the Lord. 


Psalm 116 reminds us that our prayers should not just be offered in private. We’re to witness to the world what God is doing in our lives. As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re to let our light shine.[11] May we always praise God and give God thanks for the blessings we have experienced. Amen. 

[1] I came across this term from Scott Hoezee. See

[2] See 1 Corinthians 15

[3] Psalms 115-118 are known as the “Egyptian Hallel” and associated with the fourth cup in the Passover. James L> Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 371.

[4][4] May, 372. 



[7] Romans 8:38-39.

[8] See John 11. 

[9] Scott Hoezee used this illustration. 

[10] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 84.

[11] Matthew 5:16.

Lower dam on the Dan River with fire catcher (red star-like flower) in foreground
Lower Dam below Mayberry with fire catcher in bloom

Praying when things are going well

Title slide with photo of redbuds in bloom

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
April 16, 2023
Psalm 16

Sermon taped at Bluemont on Friday, April 14, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

How do we learn to pray? How do we learn to talk to God? Last fall, I spent six weeks looking at the Lord’s Prayer, which is one way we can learn the patterns of prayer. But another tool we have from scripture to teach us to pray are the Psalms. I will spend the next sixth Sundays that make up the Easter season looking at six different Psalms. 

Eugene Peterson in his helpful book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayers, reminds us that while prayer is a human tool, it’s not a tool for “doing or getting, but for being and becoming… God uses prayer to work his will in our bodies and souls. Prayers are also the tools we use to collaborate in God’s work with us.”[1] And it’s in the Psalms, which touch on all human experiences and emotions, that we learn how to go deeper in our prayer life. 

Before reading the Scripture:

As this is the second week of Easter, I’ll begin our exploration of the Psalms with the 16th. In the early church, this was an important Psalm. Both Peter and Paul use it in their sermons as a reference to the resurrection found in the Old Testament.[2] The Psalm is attributed to David. Now I am not going into the details of whether David was the actual author, or his name was just attached to the Psalm. We can’t prove either. I will refer to the author as either David or the Psalmist. 

In the title, we’re told this Psalm is a Miktam of David.[3] The problem is that one knows what “Miktam” means. The Reformer Martin Luther suggests it may mean “a golden jewel.”[4] Whether or not Luther is right about the translation of this word, he is right about this psalm. It’s a golden jewel.”

Read Psalm 16

This Psalm can be divided into three parts, and we might use this breakdown in our prayers. 

Part 1:

First, the Psalm begins with a petition for God’s protection. Unlike many of the Psalms, we don’t know if something threatens the Psalmist. In Psalm 17, also attributed to David, informs us of the wicked who despoil him and the enemies who surround him. But here in the 16th Psalm, we’re not provided any indication David is surrounded by enemies or threatened in any way. Instead, he takes comfort in God, because of his relationship to God and what God has done for him. 

You know, we don’t have to be threatened to call out to God in prayer. Of course, God wants us to bring our concerns to him. When endangered, we may cry out, “Help me, God.” That’s okay. Jesus prayed intently in Gethsemane when troubled.[5] But we can, and should, also pray to God, confessing our trust in the Almighty. On this Sunday after Easter, we may feel like things are going well for us and instead of ignoring God, we should give thanks.

The Psalmist not only takes refuge in God, but also acknowledges a good Calvinist view of life. “I have no good apart from God.” God, as Calvin often noted, is the fountain of all goodness.[6]

The Psalmist, in verse 3, also finds hope and delight in the “holy ones” or the others who trust God in his community. He’s not like Elijah, crying out to God saying I’m the only one left.[7] He has friends. Our faith is nurtured within a community, and it appears the Psalmists has benefited from such a group of people. Verse 2 in the Message translation reads this way, “And these God-chosen lives all around—what splendid friends they make!” 

By the way, this is to be a goal of the church, to help people grow in their trust in God. We’re to encourage one another, as the Psalmist has been encouraged.

Of course, not everyone has the faith of the Psalmist. In verse 4, we learn there are those who have chosen another god (that’s god with a lower case “g”). They multiply their sorrows, and the Psalmist reaffirms his faith as he insists on avoiding their sacrifices. This Psalm comes from the Hebrew community, a people who were always surrounded by other nations that worshipped and sacrificed to other gods. But the Psalmists testifies that he will hold fast to the God of Israel and not chase after other gods who seem, at the time, to hold more promise. 

Part 2

After seeking God’s protection and declaring his faith, the Psalmist moves into the second part of this Psalm where he speaks of why he is confident of God’s trust. To put this in the vernacular, he knows who butters his toast, or the hand that feeds him. God provides his substance and the land upon which he lives. As a good steward, he credits God for all he enjoys in life. He acknowledges he has a goodly heritage. 

But God does more for the Psalmist than giving him a chuck of the Promised Land and food. He is attuned to what’s going on enough to know that God communicates with him through his conscience. For his part, the Psalmist always keeps God in front of him. Interesting, the Psalmist doesn’t mention obeying God’s law. His trust in God isn’t out of a fear of what God might do to him if he failed. Instead, he has a much more intimate connection with the Almighty. He must know that his hope isn’t in his actions, but in God’s. 

I always pray before I fall asleep for the night. And during this time of prayer, I try to think back over the day and to see where I have experienced God and where I have struggled. Doing this and bringing my thanks and concerns to God right before sleep, puts me into a frame of mind that I might more easily hear God. It is amazing how many times I have woken up, sometimes at 4 AM, with a clearer view of what’s going on. But we must be open to the Almighty for us to experience such truths, as the Psalmist does. 

Part 3

Our third section begins with verse 9. Having asked God’s protection and acknowledged God’s presence, the Psalmists rejoices in his hope discovered in a faithful life. His heart is glad, his soul rejoices, and he can rest secure. I suggest this is another reason to pray before bed. We fall asleep feeling secure in the God who neither slumber nor sleeps. God stays with us, day and night, Psalm 121 reminds us.[8]  

Eugene Peterson reminds us that the end of prayer is praise.[9]Interestingly, the Book of Psalms ends with a series of “halleluiah Psalms.” Psalm 145 through 150 all begin with “Praise the Lord.” And here, at the end of Psalm 16, we find David praising the Almighty. Knowing God hears our prayers should be reason enough to pray.

Ironically, the Psalmist even finds comfort in the face of death. For the Psalmist, death isn’t just the opposite of life. Death implies we’re totally cut off from God, which is a reason to fear it. Being tossed in the pit, being forgotten, is scary. But the Psalmists knows God won’t abandon him. His hope is found in the promised presence of God. Life and joy go together.[10] God shows the Psalmist and us the path of life. 

The God of the Psalmist

The God of the Psalmists is not the wrathful angry God we often think of from the Old Testament. No, this God is more like the shepherd leading us by the still waters and protecting us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.[11] But to experience such a God, we must try to know and to trust God. God sends Jesus to show us the way and then raised him from the grave, to give us hope, not just for joy in this life, but in the life to come. 


So, what can you take from this Psalm? A reminder that even when things are going well, we should acknowledge that we trust, not ourselves, but God. Secondly, like the Psalmist, we should all strive to improve our communication with God. And finally, we should delight in God so that even at the grave we can sing “Alleluia.”[12]  May it be so. Amen. 

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God; The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 2.

[2] Acts 2:31(25-31) and 13:35. 

[3] Miktam psalms are all related to David. See Psalms 56-59. Leonard VanderZee, “Psalm 26 Commentary.”  

[4]  Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, translated by Herbert Hartwell (1958 (German publication), Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 172, n.1

[5] Matthew 26:36ff.

[6] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.2.1.

[7] I Kings 19:10.

[8] Psalm 121:4-5.

[9] Peterson, 121.

[10] James Luther Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 88. 

[11] Psalm 23:3-4.

[12] One of the sayings that I use in the commendation in a funeral or at the grave uses this line, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” See Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Common Worship, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2018), 793

Redbuds in bloom

Palm Sunday, 2023

title slide, photo of trees blowing in wind

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
April 2, 2023
Matthew 21:1-12

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on March 31, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

Who is Jesus? And what does it mean to follow him? How would you answer these questions? What difference does the first question, who’s Jesus, make in our lives? How does it guide our attempts at following him? Ponder these questions as we worship. They were questions that was being asked the first Palm Sunday, too. 

Before the reading of Scripture

Last week, we’ve finished working through Peter’s first epistle. This week, as today is Palm Sunday, we’re looking into the gospel of Matthew. In the 19th Chapter, we’re told that Jesus leaves Galilee, heading to Jerusalem. A large crowd follows him.[1] He now arrives. All four of the gospels tell of Jesus’ entry into the city and each provides different insights. We refer to this day as Palm Sunday, but only one of the gospels, John’s, tells us the crowd waved palm branches.[2] Matthew just says they cut branches and spread them on the road. It appears to have been a joyful party, but as we know the joy of the day will quickly fade as the week wears on. 

Read Matthew 21:1-11

One Summer: America 1927

I have been listening to a book by Bill Bryson, titled One Summer: America 1927. It was an amazing summer in our nation. Babe Ruth was knocking the ball out of the park. He set a home run record for a season that stood until Roger Maris came along. President Calvin Coolidge, not known as a man of many words, made a sparse announcement when on vacation in South Dakota. He would not seek his party’s nomination for the Presidency in 1928. Also in South Dakota, workers were carving out the faces of Presidents on Mount Rushmore. Ford Motor Company shut down the manufacturing of Model Ts and retooled for the Model A. 

But probably the most exciting thing to happen in the summer of 1927 was the race to fly a plane from New York to Paris. The excitement focused on large planes with crews, but in came a lone pilot with backing from some businesses in St. Louis. Charles Lindberg, flying the Spirit of St. Louis, he won the prize. When he returned to America, he received, up to this point in history, the largest ticket-tape parade in New York City. Tons of paper was thrown out the windows along the parade route.[3]

Of course, looking back at 1927, it seemed so idyllic. As a nation, America was on the top of the world. Few people were aware that just around the corner the Great Depression would descend. And after that, there would be war unlike the world had ever seen.[4]We might draw a similar analogy to this day in Jerusalem in roughly 30 AD. Excited people shouted “Hosanna.” Everyone was excited. But darkness would descend and a few days later some of those same people would shout, “Crucify.”

Our text begins with Jesus and the crowd approaching the Holy City. Around the Mount of Olives, Jesus sends a couple of his disciples into a village ahead to procure an animal for him to ride into the city. We’re not told Jesus had all this worked out in advance. There’s a mystery here. How did Jesus know that there would be a donkey and a colt waiting? Was he somehow able to work it out in advance, without anyone knowing? In the days of walking, that seems unlikely. After all, he couldn’t call ahead. 

Or did Jesus employ his divine powers? We’re not told. The same goes with the response Jesus gives the disciples if they’re challenged for taking the animals. Tell them the master needs it. What farmer would lend out their beasts of burdens without collateral and with just the promise that this unseen master would return it?

If I’d been one of the disciples, I might have resisted. Why go into the unknown when you could return to a place you already been? Why take part in what feels like petty larceny? Of course, there were no Avis donkey rentals back then. But still, it seems strange. I’d prefer Jesus to tell me to go back to that place where we saw a donkey waiting by the road and where they knew the owner. But Jesus always calls us into an unknown future.[5]

I had this conversation with a parishioner this week about no knowing what’s next in our lives. It’s often scary if we pause long enough to think about our situations. We’re called to go forward, into new territory, trusting that Jesus, the good shepherd, travels with us. 

Matthew tells us that what happened fulfilled prophecy and then quotes from the Prophet Zechariah a passage about our king coming, humbled, and riding on a donkey.[6] The disciples are told in Matthew to bring two animals, a donkey and a colt. This has created some confusion. Did Jesus ride both animals, balancing up on the backs of each like some kind of circus performance? Maybe he even held the reigns in his teeth as he waved to the crowd? Probably not. Matthew also emphasizes the humility of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and that would be showing off.[7] More likely, Jesus rode the donkey while the colt, perhaps not even weaned, tailed behind, staying close to his mom.[8]

We’re told the disciples put their cloaks on the donkey for Jesus to ride it. Donkeys are not normally ridden straddled, like a horse. Instead, the rider sits to the side of the beast. Other cloaks were spread on the path, along with tree branches. The crowd began together as they approached the city walls. As they are pilgrims coming for the Passover, they cry out the words from Psalm 118, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest.”

Psalm 118 celebrates victory. God has given victory to the one coming into the city who then returns thanks for God’s steadfast love. God has taken the stone discarded by the builders and made it the cornerstone.[9] The Psalm captures the hope of the people that there be a new king on David’s throne, but in a way this Psalm seems out of place. While the Psalm celebrates victory,[10] Jesus heads to his death. And while his followers at this point don’t understand, Jesus knows.[11] The weight of this knowledge must have weighed heavy on his heart. They cheer Jesus on, a truth that should hang over us on Palm Sunday, for the crowd will soon turn on Jesus and demand he be crucified. 

But before that, they wonder, “Who is this?” This little parade seems to have really shaken Jerusalem. Our translation, in verse 10, said the whole city was in turmoil, but the word used in Greek for turmoil, is the Greek word from where get the word seismic. In other words, the city was shaken to the core, as if in an earthquake.[12]

This word is used only in three places in Matthew’s gospel. The first is when the Magi come to Jerusalem asking about the birth of the Messiah.[13] The people in the city were bothered. Why did they need a king when they had Herod. The second time is here. The word will be used once more, on the day we recall this Friday, during the crucifixion. That was when a real, not metaphorical seismic event happened. There was a real earthquake. At that time the temple curtain ripped into two halves while graves opened.[14]

So, the crowds ask who this Jesus is. I assume those with Jesus pointed out that he is a prophet from Nazareth. But, of course, Jesus is more than a prophet. In the week ahead, we’ll see that he’s also the Chief Priest, and the sacrifice. And then, we’ll learn of his defeat of death and that he is a king that is above all kings. But that’s to come. 

We’re left this Sunday with the question of the crowd. Who is this man we call Jesus? And if we believe he is the King as well as the Prophet and Priest, then how do we respond to him? Are we willing to go into the future where we have no control but can only trust him. For that’s what we’re called to do. Amen.  

[1] Matthew 19:1-2.

[2] John 12:13.

[3] Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 (Random House, 2013).

[4] Bryson discusses a secret meeting by the head of the Federal Reserve along with banks in Great Britain, France, and Germany, whose decisions have been partly to blame for the worldwide Depression. 

[5] This idea came from MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s sermon on this passage on the website, “A Sermon for Every Sunday.   

[6] Zechariah 9:9.

[7] Mathew leaves out a piece of what Zechariah said. The prophet said, “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…” The “triumphant” part is missing in Matthew, as he emphasizes the humility of Jesus. See Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 355.

[8]See Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 238-239. 

[9] Psalm 118:22.

[10] Everything said in the Psalm “portrays the celebrant’s deliverance as the work of the Lord.” James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 377. 

[11] According to Matthew, at this point, Jesus has referred to his upcoming death three times, the last being in Matthew 20:17-19.

[12] Chelsey Harmon, “Matthew 21:1-11 Commentary. See  See also Bruner, 357. 

[13] Matthew 2:4.

[14] Matthew 27:51-52.

trees lining a road
The wind has blown hard for the past 24 hours.
Yesterday, the branches were waving as if they lined the parade route.

1 Peter: The Need for Humble Leaders

Title slide, "Humble leaders needed for a changing world" Background photo shows a budding tree in front of a new moon.

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
March 26, 2023
1 Peter 5

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Thursday, March 23, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

Eric Hoffer once said: “In times of great change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.”[1]

Certainly, the church (and our world) is in flux and change is all around us. We need leaders willing to learn and to risk and to depend on God, not those who consider themselves already learned. Peter, I believe, has something to say about such leaders in today’s text.

Before reading Scripture:

We’re at the end of Peter’s first epistle. In this section he encourages his readers to do four things. We’re

  • to be humble,
  • to cast our anxieties upon God,
  • to be disciplined in our lives, 
  • and to resist evil. 

And he reminds us that God has made a four-fold promise to us. God will 

  • restore us, 
  • support us, 
  • strengthen us, 
  • and establish us (within his kingdom). 

Read 1 Peter 5

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of a privately published book by a friend, Dr. Jim Spindler.[2] Jim was my parish associate when I served First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Michigan. After a career in medicine, he returned to school to prepare himself for ministry. But in truth, he’d been doing ministry for years which should remind us that you don’t have to go to seminary to minister to others. 

Doing ministry before being trained 

Early in his life, Jim thought he might become a missionary, but he soon had children and was involved in practicing medicine and running pharmaceutical medical trials. By the way, this included Rogaine. As my head attests, they were not always successful. But that’s another story. However, he once gave me a Rogaine t-shirt and told me, I should tell people I received the placebo.   

Long before I met Jim, he started participating with mission trips with the Luke’s Society that took him to Eastern Europe and Africa. He also ran mission trips to Honduras and into the interior of the Yucatan. When I accepted the call to Hastings, I joined him on many of these mission trips and learned from him much about compassion and leadership.[3]

Leaders should lead by example

Jim is a wonderful yet humble leader. He’s slowing down, but then age catches up with all of us. He now spends much of his time taking care of his wife. In a way, he’s still leading by example. When he led trips, it wasn’t about Jim. The focus was always on the needs of people we could help. He casted a godly vision. He always worked hard, and he encouraged others. Not only was he open to advice, but he also sought it out so that he could improve the experience of the mission workers and the patients. 

In thirty years of leading short-term mission trips, he took hundreds of people along with scores of physicians, including many residents, into parts of the world beyond the tourist. We not only saw poverty in a new way but were encouraged to meet and engage with the people as valuable children of God. 

Peter speaking on leadership

As Peter wraps up his first epistle, he speaks to the leadership of the churches. I think Spindler meets Peter’s expectations of a Christian leader. 

We often think of leaders as people who are powerful and rule with an iron fist to get things done. But that’s not a Biblical example. Jesus is the antithesis to such leadership. He shoots it down with sayings like the last will be first, and if you want to be great you must be willing to humble yourself in service.[4]

Humility needed in Christian leadership

As one author notes, “Jesus teaches that the church’s leadership should be the polar opposite from those in the world. Authority is always to be that of service.”[5]

Leading God’s flock

In Peter’s last conversation with Jesus as recorded in the gospel of John, Jesus insist that Peter take seriously the feeding of his (Jesus’) flock. Peter got the message and passes it on in this letter, reminding the leaders of the churches to whom the letter was sent to tend the flock of God. 

Review of the text

Interestingly, at this last chapter of the letter, Peter changes voices and writes in the first person, as he reminds his readers that he was a witness to Jesus’ suffering and his glory. Much of this epistle, as I pointed out, is Peter reworking the Roman idea of a household code; that is, how are we to act considering our place in society. But like he’s done elsewhere, Peter turns these codes on their head. Instead of starting with those on the lower stratum of society and working up, he starts at the top, with the church’s leadership.[6]

Elders and shepherds
needlepoint of "The Lord is my Shepherd" done by my grandmother

Peter uses the word “elder” here, from which we obtain the word “Presbyterian.” But it’s clear he’s not talking about old folks, but leaders within the church. Like Jesus had advised him, he advises the leaders among his readers to “tend God’s flock.” The idea of God’s people being sheep is nothing new. In the Old Testament, God was seen as a shepherd guiding Israel. The 23rdPsalm emphasizes this role with the opening line, “The Lord is my shepherd.” In the gospel of John, Jesus is identified as the “good shepherd.”[7] In my living room, there is a needlepoint done by my grandmother when she was a young woman depicting Jesus in this manner. 

Peter takes this a step further and reminds his readers of the earthly role for shepherding leaders. But he also reminds us—pastors and elders—that the sheep we oversee are not ours. (You are not my flock.) We all belong to God and those of us who find ourselves in leadership roles are to tend God’s flock for God, not for our own benefit. 

Furthermore, we are to do this without a desire to gain recognition or reward, but willingly because we have experienced God’s care in our lives. Finally, we carry out such work faithfully, knowing that we are always under the chief shepherd and in the hope that our blessings will come when the Good Shepherd returns.


Regardless of whether we’re a leader, Peter reminds us that we’re all called to a humble life. Recalling a Proverb, writes, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”[8] Again, Peter challenges the Roman structure here, where some were to be honored and everyone else humbled. Within the Christian fellowship, everyone is to be equally humbled because we are all dependent upon the same grace. In time, we’ll be exalted, but until then, we need to be content and trust that God is in control, which is a statement of hope for many in the early church as they were persecuted for their faith in Jesus. 

Our adversary

In verse 8, Peter reminds us of our adversary, a roaring lion, is out to get us. The Message translates this verse as “the Devil is poised to pounce and would like nothing better than to catch you napping.” Evil is a reality, as Peter’s readers know. The reference to a lion on the prowl goes well with the idea of the church made up by sheep. Sheep must stay together, lest they stray and become easy prey for a lion. Likewise, shepherds must remain alert to protect the flock. Evil, as it is represented here as a lion, doesn’t threaten God’s sovereign rule. 

Bringing up the image of a lion encourages his reader to do what’s right. Peter reminds us that God is in control and can be trusted. We just need to stay with the flock. The devil out prowling reminds us of the dangers when we insist on doing things our own way and without Christ. 

 A second reason Peter may place the blame on the Devil at this point is to take the blame off those who are carrying out the persecutions. After all, Peter’s readers could name their adversaries who have persecuted the Christians who lived on the margins of society and with little control.[9] Peter doesn’t want people to seek revenge or to look upon their persecutors with disdain. Instead, the evil one uses these persecutors to carry out his devious deeds. Their complaints aren’t with the individuals who committed such acts, but with a system that that encourages such behavior.[10]

We all face danger and persecution

Peter concludes his remarks with a reminder that Christians all over the world are in danger, but that the suffering won’t be forever. “God will bestow glory upon us,” he promises. It may not sound good to know that you’re suffering with everyone else—that sounds more like misery loves company—but the hope here is that there is a new world coming. Hang on, hold fast to your beliefs, and trust the Lord. 


Peter provides an “eschatological perspective” to suffering. In other words, he points to God’s grace to encourage us to trust in God, even when things are not looking up.[11] In this closing chapter of the epistle, he writes to the leaders, but also to those who are younger (or maturing Christians) who may become leaders. During tough times, we need the church, and the church needs those who can lead and needs to be preparing others who can take their place. We all need to be growing in our faith. What are you doing to help yourself grow as a disciple and as a valuable member of our fellowship. 

Centered and Soaring

Last fall, some 15 people from Mayberry and Bluemont Churches attended a program titled, “Centered and Soaring.” Since then, many of us have been a part of micro-groups that have met for study, sharing and prayer. 

There is another opportunity to learn more about being centered in Christ and soaring within the church on Saturday, April 29. Those who attended the program in the fall should come back to be strengthened in their faith Those who didn’t attend can still come along and learn more about how we can share our faith and do God’s work in the world. I hope you pray about this opportunity and pencil the date in on your calendar, so you’ll have no excuse!  

In all we do, to God be the glory. Amen. 

[1] Tod Bolsinger used this quote in a talk given at the Calvary Partner Network. See

[2] James R. Spindler, MD, Blessed to Be a Blessing (privately published, 2023). 

[3] I recently wrote posted in my blog an article I’d written in 2007 about one such trip to Honduras. Click here to read this post:  

[4] Matthew 18:1-4, Mark 10:42-45, and Luke 22:22-30. 

[5] Christopher A. Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up is Down (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 146.

[6] Joel B. Green, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 164. 

[7] John 10:1-18. 

[8] Proverbs 3:34. Peter actually quotes from the Greek Old Testament here, and not from the Hebrew text which is slightly different but with the same meaning. See J. N. D. Kelly, Commentary on the Epistle of Peter and of Jude, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1969), 194. 

[9] Green, 180. 

[10] It has often been pointed out that an unjust system will be problematic for both those in power and those who are denied power. Those denied power feel shame and hate toward the powerful, while those who are in power feel threatened and therefore hate toward those who are denied power. Martin Luther King used this kind of logic and is why he encouraged his followers to love and not hate those in power. See Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 237-242. 

[11] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 200.

Title Slide.  "New Leaders needed for a changing world.  Photo of the new moon behind budding trees.
New moon and budding trees, photo taken no March 23, 2023