Sunday, 8 November 2015

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Psalm 127

Psalm 127

A Song of Ascents. Of Solomon.

1 Unless the Lord builds the house,
     those who build it labour in vain.
   Unless the Lord guards the city,
     the guard keeps watch in vain.

2 It is in vain that you rise up early
   and go late to rest,
   eating the bread of anxious toil;
   for he gives sleep to his beloved.

3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
   the fruit of the womb a reward.

4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
   are the sons of one’s youth.
5 Happy is the man who has
   his quiver full of them.
   He shall not be put to shame
   when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Today I want to look at Psalm 127. It is a short Psalm, but it holds a profound truth. Psalm 127 is one of only two Psalms that are connected to the name “Solomon”. Solomon, you might remember, was the Son of King David. When David died and Solomon took his father’s throne He asked God for wisdom (1 Kings 3:9). Solomon’s name is also connected to the Book of Proverbs, which are short teachings about living life well. They are generalized wisdom about life. So this Psalm should be read as a kind of wisdom Psalm. It contains a profound truth about life.

The first half of the Psalm speaks about building a house, guarding a city, and daily work. It is the daily life of human beings. … We build houses, but we also build many other things. We make plans for something we want to happen and we put those plans into action. We build businesses. We build churches. We build families. We build charities. We build governments, and empires.

We build them, but then we maintain them. We protect what we build from what might want to destroy them. We guard them from damage and threats. We make sure our homes are protected against the weather. … We had our home broken into once, and I was very on guard after that- wanting to protect the safety of my family. … We protect our businesses through policies and procedures, and making sure the right staff are in the right place and that toxic staff are removed from doing harm. We do a lot to protect the things we build.

We can spend a lot of energy on the things we build. We can put an incredible amount of effort and anxiety into our jobs- working at all hours of the day and never taking a day off. We can put a lot of work into our families- We can be up at 5:00am to bring kids to hockey practice, and help them with homework late into the night. We can put an incredible amount of time into our churches. We can pour a lot of resources into government programs, and spend hours and hours planning.

I once heard a story told by Steven Covey (who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). He imagines building a road through a dense forest. Building the road is a lot of work. You need a number of people cutting down trees, … but you also need someone looking towards the destination at the top of the trees to guide those who are doing the cutting. You can be very busy cutting trees, but if you aren’t being directed by the one at the top, you are cutting trees for nothing. All your efforts are in vain if you are cutting trees in the wrong direction. I think that is an important image for understanding this Psalm.

In Psalm 127 we read, 
“Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil”. 
The original context might have referred to the building of the Temple and the protection of the city of Jerusalem. But, the principle in the Psalm is broader than that. The Psalm doesn’t mention the Temple or Jerusalem, which implies a broader reading. This is daily life. The Psalmist is speaking about everyday efforts- building, preserving, and working- which are done by everyday people. The Psalmist is also implying God’s involvement in all those things. The Psalmist is also saying all these things are empty without God.

The Psalmist is telling us that God is present and has a desire to guide His people. It is important for us to acknowledge God and to take time to align ourselves with God’s will. We shouldn’t ignore God’s desires in our daily life as if God only cares about presidents and prime ministers, or wars, and cancer research. God has a desire to guide us here and now in whatever we are doing.

We can do many things while ignoring God. We can even do churchy things while ignoring God. The Pharisees tried very hard to do all the right things, but at their center they were filled with their own self-importance. Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 when speaking about the Pharisees (Mk 7:6-7)- 
“these people draw near with their mouths and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…”. 
We can act the part, but if we are not seeking God at the center of it all, then it is in vain. If we are not seeking God’s direction, then we are cutting trees in the wrong direction. … I suspect we have all met very religious people who are actually quite mean. They might act the part, but it soon becomes obvious that the Fruit of the Spirit is not present- 
“joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

I fear there will be those who enter into eternity and realize they wasted their lives. Their lives were lived in vain. They spent their life struggling and toiling and full of anxiety, ultimately for nothing. I fear this especially in our culture where relationships constantly take a back seat to the pursuit of success and wealth.

Jesus says that everyone who acts according to his directions 
“will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matt 7:24-27).

We can have great plans, we can put in an incredible amount of effort and anxiety, but if God isn’t directing us then is it empty- it’s vain- we are cutting trees in the wrong direction.

The good news is that the opposite is also true. If God is with our building, nothing can stop us. If God is guarding what we are doing, nothing can destroy it. If God is with our working, it will be fruitful beyond the effort we put in.

In the Book of Acts the Church is just getting started after Jesus has been resurrected. In Acts 5 the Jewish Council is trying to decide what to do with this group of Jesus followers who won’t shut up about Jesus. A very wise man speaks. His name is Gamaliel and he says this to the council, 
“Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’ (Acts 5:34-39).
 Gamaliel is speaking about exactly this principle we are reading about in Psalm 127. If God is not with it- like the false messiahs- then it will come to nothing. But if God is with it, then you will not be able to stop it. As Paul says, 
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31).

This is not necessarily a guarantee against bad things happening. Jesus was acting completely according to the will of God, but he was killed. |Though, God used that death to bring about resurrection and salvation. Stephen was stoned to death. Peter was crucified upside down. There is a long line of martyrs through the centuries, right up to today, who listened to God’s direction but still had to deal with disaster and death, but that does not mean that their efforts were in vain. Quite the contrary. If we are being directed by God, what we do will have an eternal value. We will be a part of what God is building, and nothing can stop it- nothing can destroy it. If we align ourselves with God’s plan for the world then we will be part of an eternal project. The Psalm says that rather than anxious toil and endless hours, 
“he gives to his beloved sleep”. 
We will be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It will continue even while we sleep (Mk 4:27). It will be a project that will have fruit that vastly outweighs the effort we put in. And it will be a life marked by relationships more than things, which is what the second half of our Psalm is about (127:3-5).

This might leave us asking how we know we are aligned with God’s will. If we immerse our lives in the Bible we will see general principles that act as direction for our life. As we read Genesis we learn to see other people as created in the image of God and we treat them accordingly (Gen 1:27). We will compare our lives to the Ten Commandments (Ex 20). We will take seriously the call to love God and our neighbour (Mk 12:29-31). We will hear the teaching of Jesus to take seriously the state of our heart and name the anger within it as the seed of murder and deal with it seriously (Mt 5:21-22).  
But there will also be moments in life when we have to make decisions and there isn’t a clear principle in the Bible to draw from. Should you apply for a new job, or go back to school? There isn’t necessarily a biblical principle that will help you with that question. Both might be equally valid choices. This is where we need to have a solid prayer life where we can ask for God’s guidance and learn to hear God speaking to us. (sometimes he wants us to be the ones to decide). That is a bigger topic than we have time for, but it is a biblical belief that God will communicate with His people (see Hearing God by Dallas Willard). He has spoken to his people through a burning bush, through dreams and visions, using other human beings, but primarily God will speak to us through the still small voice, which we hear in our inner thoughts. This direction will never contradict the general principles of the Bible.

If we align ourselves and our work with God we will be a part of building God’s plans and our efforts will have an eternal value. Rather than toiling and having very little to show for it, our efforts will have results that seem to drastically outweigh the efforts we put in. We will be cutting trees in the right direction for an eternal road. AMEN.

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