Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Psalm 65



Some scholars think that our psalm might have been a psalm sung during a harvest festival. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the things God has done, and the benefits the people enjoy as a result of God’s actions. Here we see a compassionate God who works to make life flourish. As in other psalms, there is a strong connection between joy and gratitude.

The psalm begins with a description of God’s kindness (v1-4).

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed. 2 O you who hear prayer, to you shall all flesh come. 3 When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions. 4 Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple!
God is described as one who hears prayers. Thinking about God as hearing prayer might not seem that astonishing or surprising, but when was the last time you stopped to consider your relationship to an ant on the sidewalk? Surely, the distance between us and God is greater than the distance between us and the ant. We are more like the ant than we are like God in many ways. If we don’t stop to consider the ant, doesn’t it make you wonder why God would be concerned with our prayers? Isn’t that, in itself, an amazing thing? God listens to your prayers. … God draws all living things to Himself. God cares for all living things- “all flesh”. God is not distant, but attentive and compassionate.

The psalmist also describes being attacked by sin- he says “when iniquities prevail against me” as if it was an animal that attacks him. In Genesis 4:7 God says to Cain, who is contemplating murdering his brother, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Sin is seen as a power external to Cain and the psalmist. … Sometimes we feel that, don’t we? As if our temptations and sin are outside ourselves, even sometimes outside our control? Sometimes we can’t even want to resist. … St. Paul tends to see Sin this way as well. He sees it as a power that has enslaved humanity. God, in Christ, rescues us from that power. …

This is right in line with our psalm. He speaks about atonement. Which is the process of being brought back into relationship with God after having that relationship broken by sin. This atonement isn’t considered something the people do through their sacrifices, which is often the stereotype of how Israel dealt with their sin. It is seen as an action of God. God heals the broken relationship between the psalmist and God that is a result of sin. That is right in line with the Christian understanding of what God did through Christ.

The end goal of that atonement is that people are drawn into a relationship with God- In the Psalm that means being brought to the temple. In Christian terms, Jesus replaces the temple as the place where heaven and earth meet, so we could say we are drawn into relationship to God in Christ (see John 2:18-22). … The end goal is establishing a healed relationship between God and human beings. … The psalm also says that this is God’s doing. God chooses. If you are here it is because God has drawn you here. You have responded to something God has done in you- a conversation God started. God is the one who initiates. … Next, to be satisfied with the goodness of God’s house is to realize that there is no lasting pleasure outside God’s presence (see the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis where demons ). God is the creator of joy and peace. All true lasting joys are to be found in God’s presence. It is spiritual maturity. We are not drawn away from God to seek some good that God can’t give us.

The next part of the Psalm describes God’s deeds (v5-8).

5 By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness [/deliverance], O God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas; 6 the one who by his strength established the mountains, being girded with might; 7 who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples, 8 so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs. You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.

Verse 5 reads “By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness” or it can also be translated, “with deliverance”. Deliverance and righteousness are pretty religious sounding words, so they can be a bit hard to see in our lives. … But, there's another problem. 

The problem is that, for some reason, when many of us think of God as “righteous” or as giving out “justice” many of us imagine ourselves as the ones being punished or judged. That probably comes from a sensitivity regarding our own sinfulness. … But, when Israel talked about God bringing righteousness it was in the sense of God rescuing them. When they called out for God to give justice it was against an oppressor who was doing them harm.

Imagine you are a child on the playground and you are constantly bullied. The bullies make you hate going to school. They tease you. They kick sand in your eyes. They laugh at you. Occasionally, they actually beat you up. … One day a child in an older grade decides to take you under their wing. All the bullies are afraid of this person. This saviour defends you and the bullies stop bothering you. That person has enacted “righteousness”, and you have been delivered from the hands of your bullies. … That is the sense that Israel would have when they used words like “deliverance” or “righteousness”. …

God is described as “God of our salvation”. “Salvation” is another very religious word. It means to be safe, saved, rescued, and victorious. … You are in the position of having been rescued from the bullies. … The idea here is that God acts in the world for our benefit. He brings salvation. … Twice the psalm mentions the “ends of the earth”. While It might seem like God is the God of Israel alone, this psalm makes it plain that God is for the world- He is the “hope of all the ends of the earth” and “to [him] all flesh will come”. … The natural next step is that he is the one who brings salvation to the world. ... The ancient church often called the psalmist "the prophet", and here we can see why.

In the ancient world the waters could be seen as a manifestation of chaos. Chaos was an unpredictable evil. In ancient thinking the world was made out of the ordering of chaos, and pushing it back made space for civilization. But that chaos still existed in the depths of the seas and lakes and they could rise up and crash against the people at any moment (Think of a tsunami). God, in his grace, pushed it back and calmed it.

No doubt, Ancient Christians would read verse 7, God “stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves”, and think about Jesus in Mark 4, who was sleeping in the boat when the chaotic waters rose up to destroy them “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mk 4:39). Keep in mind that it was common to have these psalms memorized. So, when the disciples see Jesus calm the waters, or when the first readers would have read this, it is likely that this psalm came to mind. God is the one who calms the waters, but here Jesus is calming the waters. It is a subtle way of showing that in some mysterious way Jesus does what God does.

And in the final section (V9-13) we see that the sea of chaos is tamed and its waters are made useful.

9 You visit the earth and water it;
you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their corn, for so you have prepared it. 10 You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. 11 You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance. 12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, 13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with corn, they shout and sing together for joy.
The waters of chaos are tamed by God and used to water the fields, like God is a gardener. This was a powerful image of blessings for an agricultural community that relied on the rain. The watered fields produce bountiful crops to sustain the lives of the people. The earth reaches the peak of its fruitfulness. The image we are left with is that of an earth made vigorously alive- green, lush, and adorned with beauty. As Jesus says, “Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these [lilies]” (Lk 12:27). And the ground is producing this beauty abundantly. The ground is producing abundant crops and flocks of animals. The overall effect on the earth is joy- Joy in the morning and joy in the evening- Joy in the hills, and joy in the meadows and valleys.

We can see why this psalm would have been used for a harvest festival. It gives thanks for God who gives us so much. God initiates the healing of our sin, and draws us into deeper relationship with Him. But it is also surprising in that it extends God’s reach beyond Israel to the rest of the world. He is the hope of the ends of the earth. He calms the chaotic waters. And he causes abundant life to grow from the ground. The end result is relationship with God, enjoying the bounty He has produced, and Joy. AMEN

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Psalm 119- God's guidance for your life



Psalm 119:97-104

This morning we are continuing with our series looking at the Psalms. Our Psalm this morning is a portion of Psalm 119. We are only looking at a portion of it because it is 176 verses long. It is famous for being very long. 

 It is an acrostic poem, so each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, if it was in English the first section would be made up of lines that start with A. The next section would be made up of lines that start with B and so on. Today’s section starts with the letter ‘mem’. So all the lines we will be dealing with start with the same letter. (It's a bit of a Sesame Street vibe.)

Even though Psalm 119 is very long it does have a consistent theme: God’s Torah. We usually translate the word “torah” as “law”, but the word is a bit more full than that. It doesn’t just mean ‘legal rules’. It can also refer to the first 5 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In its most full definition, however, “torah” means something like “God’s teaching” or “God’s instruction”. Torah is our guidance to live as children of God. It is something precious. It is guidance to live a good life. … We see it in a condensed form in the 10 Commandments, and even more condensed form in Jesus’ summary of the law- “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ … And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:37-40).

Sometimes we think about Jesus’ summary of the law as a way to not have to pay attention to the rest of the Law. As if we have the Cole's Notes version of the law so we don't have to look at it.  The Early Christians didn’t think that way. Jesus Says he came to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17-18). In Paul’s Second letter to Timothy he says,

 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness …” (2 Timothy 3:16).
In the Early Church, Scripture referred to the Old Testament and the New Testament didn’t really exist yet. What became the New Testament was still in the form of letters that were being shared between the churches. There was a lot of respect for what we call the Old Testament and Christians constantly turned to it seeking wisdom from God. Though, they always looked back on Scripture with Christ in their minds.

For example, Maximus of Turin (a bishop who lived from the late 300’s to early 400’s) said this:

“[The] children of Israel, arriving at Marah and being unable to draw the water because of its bitterness (for the well had water but no sweetness and it was pleasing to the eye but polluted to the taste), drank water that became sweet and mild as soon as wood was thrown into it by Moses [Exodus 15:22-27].”
Maximus is referring to an Old Testament story in Exodus when the people have been rescued from Egypt and are brought into the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. They were looking for water and when they finally found it, it was too bitter to drink. When Moses cried out to God he was shown a particular log. When he threw the log into the water it became good and drinkable.

Maximus goes on to say,
“The sacrament of the wood removed the harshness that the noxious water bore. I believe that this happened as a sign, for I think that the bitter water of Marah is the Old Testament law, which was harsh before it was tempered by the Lord's cross. For it used to command ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and, austere as it was, it offered none of mercy’s consolation. But, when it had been tempered by the wood of gospel suffering, at once it changed its bitterness into mildness and presented itself as a sweet drink to as the prophet says: ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, more than honey and the honeycomb to my mouth!’ [Ps 119:103] For sweet are the words that command, ‘If anyone strikes you on your cheek, offer him the other as well; if anyone takes your tunic from you, leave him your cloak too.’ This, then, is the bitterness that has been changed into sweetness: the austerity of the law has been tempered by the grace of the gospel. For the letter of the law is bitter without the mystery of the cross; about this the apostle says, ‘The letter kills.’ But when the sacraments of the passion are joined to it, all its bitterness is spiritually buried, and about that the apostle says, ‘But the Spirit gives life.’” (SERMON 67-4).
Again, we find this principle of the Ancient Church to constantly turn to Christ as the way of understanding the Old Testament.

Our portion of the psalm begins, 

“Oh how I love your [Torah]!”
 Most of us don’t have an attitude towards the law that would cause us to say such a thing. If we just think about the Torah as a bunch of rules imposed on us, then we are likely to resist and even feel resentful about this. But, if we see the Torah as God’s instruction for how to live life as children of God, then we might start to see how we might start loving the Torah. Maximus would say that this is especially true when we read it with Christ in our mind, who said that he came to fulfill the Torah. He brings out its deeper meaning and purpose.

If we are going to learn to love the Torah we should do what the psalmist does in the next line- 

“It is my meditation all the day”.
 We should consider the instructions deeply, meditatively. We should consider that it might have something to teach us, so we shouldn’t dismiss it as just a bunch of ancient rules that have nothing to say to us. If we meditate deeply on this Torah we will hear God speaking to us about our life. We sit at God’s feet and ask what the meaning is for this law- What principle rests behind it? What wisdom does it have for today? What does the Torah have to say about our politics, our bioethics, our treatment of the environment and the vulnerable, or our business decisions? We have to wrestle with the Torah- Like Jacob wrestling the angel, we have to wrestle with it all night and not let it go until it gives us its blessing. (This is what the practice of Lectio Divina is all about). Is it wise to ignore thousands of years of accumulated wisdom as a result of such wrestling?

Verses 98-100 can make the psalmist look a bit arrogant. He says,

“98 Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 100 I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.” (119:98-100)
What is being compared isn’t necessarily the psalmist and his enemies, teachers, and elders. What is being compared is human wisdom as compared to the wisdom of God expressed through the Torah. Human wisdom has its limitations. …

We sometimes talk about “standing on the shoulders of giants” as a way of saying that we build on the discoveries and wisdom of the past. No matter how smart you are. No matter how long you live. You will be much more knowledgeable if you learn from those who went before you. That’s true of physics, astronomy, and engineering. You might be very smart, but you’re only going to go so far as an astronomer laying on your back in the dark at night and staring into the sky, never learning about telescopes or reading about Copernicus, Galileo, and Stephen Hawking. ... How much more is it true if we consider the source of the Torah as inspiration through human beings who wrestled with God?

What is the result of this meditation on the Torah? Our psalmist says,
“101 I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. 102 I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me.” (Ps 119:101-102)
The Psalmist says he is able to live a good life. Isn’t that the desire for all of us? To live a good, wise, fulfilled, and meaningful life? To avoid doing evil. To not hurt the people around us, and not leave the world worse than we found it. To live a life where our relationship are made healthier because we wisely know how to interact lovingly and wisely with people. To know how to spend money wisely so that you can use it to bless people. To have those younger than you seek your advice because you seem to know how to live life well. To have such a trusting relationship with God that you have a radiant life, and will have a radiant death. … When we see God’s instruction as leading us to this place we can say with the psalmist,
“103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!"

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Psalm 100- Thanksgiving



A.J. Jacob’s wrote a book called “A Year of Living Biblically”. The book is about an experiment he did over the course of a year. What he tried to do was to live according the Bible for a year, as literally as possible. Specifically, the Old Testament. He did things like grew a long beard, and refused to wear clothing made of mixed fibers. … He describes some interesting encounters with people. He described what he was doing to one man, who then responded “Well, I’m an adulterer. Are you going to stone me?” to which Jacobs responded, “That would be great!” He then pulled out some small pebbles from his pocket and began throwing them at the man. Apparently, the Bible didn’t say the size of the stones that were to be used. …. He made it very much about following the rules and prohibitions- the 613 mitzvot.

Jacobs was an agnostic, though he was Jewish by family background, but he grew up in a very secular family. He says one reason for the project was to poke fun at “fundamentalists”. After the year was over, he did say he learned a few good lessons. He definitely came away with more respect for the Bible than he had at the beginning. While he didn’t become a believer, he did begin labeling himself as a “reverent agnostic”, which he defines as an agnostic that is very open to the “Holy” even though he still was quite unsure about God. He also said that his time living Biblically made him more thankful, and part of the reason for that is that the Bible is constantly calling the people to give thanks.

Our Psalm today is an example for this call to thanksgiving. Some scholars think it had a liturgical role in the temple. They think it was used during a procession through the temple gates and courts. Temple priests and musicians would have been leading the people in singing and calling the people into worship-

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord”.

What lights up a father’s heart most? Isn’t it when his child sees him and they make a joyful noise as they yell “Daddy!” and run into his arms? The priests are encouraging the people to do that with God. Make a joyful noise to gladden the heart of God. Serve with gladness- sing! God made you and you belong to Him. You are his sheep, and He is your shepherd. Everything in your life is because of God. Every heartbeat- The air in your lungs- your friends- your family- every joy- the time in history you live in- all of it is because of God. And it is given out of a dedicated love to God’s people.

And so, as we enter into worship- as the ancient Hebrews entered into the gates of the temple- as they worked their way through the open courts- they were encouraged to enter with joyful thanksgiving.

It is a necessary correction to the human heart. It is easy for human beings to become ungrateful. We see this throughout the Bible. We read about God rescuing the people from slavery in Egypt because God hears their cries and suffering. Then, as soon as they are miraculously rescued through the parted sea they start complaining and wishing they were back in slavery. They complain about being hungry … and God provides them with manna to eat. They complain about not having meat… and God rains quail on them. He brings them into the Promised Land … and they complain that they don’t have a king. When they are in the Promised Land they even turn and worship other gods, basically rejecting the God who rescued their ancestors from slavery and brought them to a land of abundance. The Bible is not always about heroes who should be imitated. It is mostly about God interacting with a group of people who are very very human.

I think ingratitude is something we all face. When we get new sneakers, or a new car, or a new house, we are filled with gratitude, but that soon passes. What once inspired thankfulness in us becomes the expected, normal, and usual. … We begin to feel like we deserve it, and to be denied it is an injustice.

For some reason it can be easier to focus on the bad events in our day. We take our spouse for granted and, instead, focus on an upsetting email. We take our blessings for granted and instead are consumed by a rude comment spoken by someone in the street we don’t even know. We watch the news and we are overwhelmed by everything wrong with the world, not with all the good in the world.

We live in an incredible age- cell phones that connect us to people all over the world, cars that enable us to travel without having to be outside in the cold, clean water that comes right into a sink in our house, grocery stores that have bananas in the middle of winter, electricity that gives us light on demand, televisions that facilitate more entertainment than we an possibly consume. We live in an age where we have available to us what would have been science fiction not very long ago.

We tend to applaud individual accomplishment and so we are tempted to pat ourselves on the back for what we have in our life, but we couldn’t accomplish what we do without the benefit of the society we live in. … We are in a country that provides universities where we can be trained. We have hospitals without which many of us would not have made it into adulthood. We have a strong economy that allows us to be employed and to make more money than we could make elsewhere in the world. … Even what seems like our own accomplishment turns out to be largely a gift of the place and time we are born into. … The book of Deuteronomy teaches, 
“You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (Deut 8:17-18).
 … If we aren’t thankful… well, that usually says more about the human heart than about our lives and the lack of things to be grateful for.

Living in gratitude, is to live a life of joy. In our Psalm Joy and gratitude are linked. If you are truly thankful to God then there will be joy. We all know when we see true gratitude, … and joy is part of genuine gratitude.

St. Augustine taught that 
“the Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot!”.
 … In John 15 Jesus said, 
“These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
 Paul says that evidence of God’s Spirit dwelling in you is a character marked by joy (see the fruit of the Spirit- Gal 5:22). … The Eastern Orthodox Theologian Alexander Schmemann said, 
“… from its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of Joy… all-embracing joy”. “Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy”.
 … If we are to embody that joy we should seek to be thankful. 

How can we become more thankful? One way is to follow St. Paul’s advice when he calls us to choose to think certain thoughts. He tells us to set our minds on what is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious (Phil 4:8). These things hint towards the goodness of creation. As we turn to God in thanksgiving for the goodness of creation we shape our minds and become who human beings were meant to be. The theologian Alexander Schmemann said, 
“When man stands before the throne of God when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. … Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.”
 The word “Eucharisto” means “thanks” in Greek. If we cultivate a thankful spirit by focusing on the goodness all around us, joy will be a result.

This has even been shown by those researching in the field of Positive Psychology. They have 
“shown that people who are habitually grateful are happier than those who are habitually ungrateful; they are less depressed, more satisfied with their lives, have more self-acceptance and have a greater sense of purpose in life. They are also more generous.” (Rupert Sheldrake, “Science and Spiritual Practices”).

A big part of becoming a more thankful person has to do with what you feed your mind. What do you allow your mind to focus on? … Do you allow your mind to gravitate to the negative, or to the positive. … Many of the practices of the people of God have been designed to help us focus our minds on the goodness of God and creation. You might want to read through the psalms with a highlighter and mark any place that calls us to be thankful. You might want to keep a gratitude journal so when you find yourself getting negative you can turn to the journal and see all the things you are thankful for. You can say grace before meals to remind yourself to be thankful to God and to all those involved in getting the food to your plate. … Find ways to celebrate the abundance of life with your family, friends, and community. Find reasons to gather like, thanksgiving, birthdays, marriages, anniversaries, a new job, or reaching a goal. Don’t let them sneak up on you so you celebrate them half-heartedly. Really allow them to be times where you can focus on being together and focusing on gratitude for the people you have in your life and the blessings of community.

Gratitude is a call to believe that God’s goodness is greater than the pain of the world. Resurrection will overcome the cross. The Kingdom of God will overtake the Empire of Darkness. … We celebrate to express our faith that God is good and created a good world, and in the end joy is eternal and suffering is not. So we need more practice in joy than we do in suffering.

So make a joyful noise to the Lord,
serve Him with gladness,
enter the gates with thanksgiving,
give thanks to Him,
for the Lord is good,
His steadfast love endures forever.

AMEN

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Psalm 137- How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?



Today we are looking at Psalm 137. If you were here a few weeks ago, we were dealing with the Imprecatory Psalms and we mentioned the last line of today’s psalm as an example. 
“Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
 For those who weren’t here, it might help to give a brief overview of what we said that day. The Imprecatory Psalms are a group of psalms that invoke judgement, or curses on enemies. They are really uncomfortable parts of the Bible.

We have been taught to be polite in our speech. We have been taught to love our enemies. We have been taught to at least not say nasty things about our enemies. We have especially been taught not to threaten our enemies with violence. … We also think as individuals, not in terms of tribes, so we would never threaten the children of an enemy.

So, these parts of the Bible are very uncomfortable and difficult to deal with.

First, we will look at the historical context that this prayer is coming out of.

This Psalm is talking about two cities- Babylon and Jerusalem. It is about resistance to Babylon and devotion to Jerusalem. The Psalm is written from the point of view of a temple musician. The temple musicians were those who sang psalms as a part of temple worship in Jerusalem. One day the Babylonian Empire devastated Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

It’s very difficult to overstate how devastating that would be to the Jewish people at the time. For them the temple is the only place that sacrifices are allowed, and sacrifice was a necessary part of Jewish worship. Sacrifice was how you dealt with sin, but it was more than that too. The temple was the place where heaven and earth overlapped. It was the place that housed the Ark of the Covenant. Looking at the Ark reminded them of their history- God through Moses rescuing them from slavery- the tablets of the Law- the entrance into a land of their own- King David and his son Solomon, who built the temple. The Temple was the heart of the Promised Land. It unified the people. It was the heart of their faith. To destroy the temple is to rip out the heart of their faith.

Now they are in a foreign land, essentially in slavery, and many of their people were massacred. They are in a land where they are surrounded by images of foreign gods. The gods of the armies that destroyed the temple. How were they to interpret that? Was God punishing them? Was this the defeat of God by these Babylonian gods?

This is the context for our Psalm that starts,
137:1 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion [Jerusalem]. 2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres. 3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?

So, these temple musicians are weeping over the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of what gave their lives meaning. Their whole purpose is gone and they don’t know what their future is. Their whole worldview has fallen apart. … They hung up their lyres in the trees because their songs were supposed to be about leading worship in the temple, which has been destroyed. … Their Babylonian captors mockingly ask them to play them a song for their amusement- songs, written and played for God in the temple, to amuse and entertain those who destroyed it.

They vow to not forget, even invoking curses on themselves that would impede their music-
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! 6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
Imagine yourself in that situation. How would you feel? Imagine you are in a Nazi concentration camp. Your family was killed in a gas chamber. Then bored Nazi guards ask you to sing a Jewish worship song for their entertainment. … How would you feel?
8 O daughter of [Berlin], doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! 9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and [gasses them until they breathe no more]!

I hope you remember Pastor Eugene Peterson’s saying, 
“Psalms don’t pray as we should, they pray as we are”.
 The psalms are honest- they are dark when we are dark, they are joyful when we are joyful. The Psalms reflect every high and low in our soul. John Calvin called the Psalms 
"an anatomy of all the parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror".
 …. A good definition of prayer is “honesty before God”. So, the Psalms do well in approaching God with the full reality of the human heart. As we see in today’s psalm, even if we are feeling vengeance the psalms will meet us there and invite us into prayer.

That is the historical context for our Psalm, but what do we do with it in Red Deer in the 21st century? … You might remember that I spoke about two early Christians and what they did with this psalm. Origen said 
“…give up to destruction all their enemies, which are the vices, so that they do not spare even the children, that is, the early beginnings and promptings of evil. … for ‘the little ones’ of Babylon … are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking , as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who ‘dashes the little ones against the stones’; and he is therefore truly blessed.”
 Ambrose ads to the image of the rock saying “…dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ…”.

That is what we do as Christians. We read Scripture through the person of Jesus. And we allow the Holy Spirit to help us read. … We don’t have a Babylon, but we are sometimes in places where we feel like we have lost all hope- where we have lost our purpose- places where we aren’t sure what God is up to- or if it’s worth believing in God- Places where there are mocking voices. Sometimes those voices are our own inner voices. Where is the place where you feel praising God is impossible? That is your Babylon. … That’s why we sometimes need songs that reflect our own sadness and lamentation. Sometimes we feel like we are in Babylon and it is not good to sing glad songs to a heavy heart (Prov 25:20). …

We yearn for Jerusalem, not the literal Jerusalem, but the sweet spot where life makes sense, we have purpose. Where the one who said, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it again” (Jn 2:19) feels close to us. Jesus, who replaces the temple as the place where heaven and earth unite, feels near. … All the children of Babylon, all the sin that would draw us from the presence of God, is destroyed before it can grow up and be a danger. What causes you to be drawn away from “Jerusalem”, destroy that while it is still young.

Sometimes I’m asked if I read the Bible literally. It’s really not a great question because of the complexity of the Bible. It is not just a book. It is a library of a variety of different kinds of books written over a few thousand years. When we read, we take all that into account. Some parts are important to take literally. Other parts are important for us to look at metaphorically or through typology. And we get clues about how to do that as we look at how the Church has read the Bible in the past, and also by reading the passage according to the person of Jesus.

Within the Psalms we will find some very dark stuff. But that’s life. Life has some very dark moments and we need the Bible to speak to that darkness. Not just to tells us it’s dark. We usually know that, but sometimes we need permission to bring that darkness into the open. When we read a Psalm like Psalm 137 we realize how honest we can be with God. Sometimes we aren’t even that honest with ourselves. We don’t want to admit that we feel this way, but a psalm like this can help us access how we are honestly feeling, so that we can bring that to God (who is very happen to meet us in that place of honesty before Him). AMEN

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Psalm 91- God's protection


Psalm 91 is one of the more famous Psalms. It is one of the recommended Psalms to use for the Compline service in the Book of Common Prayer, which is the service prayed just before bed. Going to sleep at night in the Book of Common Prayer is a bit like practicing for death. It is a time to trust yourself to God in the midst of darkness and the loss of consciousness. Psalm 91 is a call to trust in God as your protector-
“I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’. For he will deliver you…”.
The Psalm goes on to describe this protection-
“3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence”.
These are both hidden dangers. A fowler is someone who catches birds. The fowler’s snare is a trap that is hidden to the birds that are caught by it. Likewise, you don’t see a disease coming until people start getting sick.

There are a lot of images used-
“4 He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.”
Pinions are the outer parts of a birds wing, which includes the strong outer feathers. The image is of God stretching His wings out over you. I’ve heard of a story where a barn catches fire and a hen gathered her chicks under her wings. She died being exposed to the fire, but the chicks survived by being under her wings. … The next image that is used is the shield and buckler. A shield covered a good portion of your body, and a buckler is like a small shield that is mostly used for deflecting so you don’t harm your hand. Both might be used because in Hebrew poetry repetition is a way of emphasizing. …

The Psalm shows the protection of God extending from all that might sneak up on us at night, to the enemy archers of the day. It says you will have the ability to step on lions and poisonous snakes. … The Psalm is dramatic in its declaration of protection. It imagines you in a crowd with thousands and thousands of people, maybe in a war, or maybe during a plague. You stand with thousands falling all around you, but you are untouched. It’s like a scene from an action movie and you are the invincible hero standing while the bad guys have all been smashed into oblivion.

It is a pretty all-encompassing image of divine protection. It might leave us feeling invincible. All we have to do is trust God then nothing can harm us. … Sometimes we do feel this kind of supernatural protection. We receive healing when the doctor said we were terminal. We feel a hand hold us from stepping off the curb as a car whizzes by us, nearly hitting us. There are times when everything seems to fall into place- all the right doors are opened. We are surrounded by helpful “coincidences”.

These images might remind us of when Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake while gathering firewood and is completely unaffected to the amazement of everyone (Acts 28). We might think of Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego, who were thrown into the furnace and survived (Daniel 3). Or, maybe we think of Daniel who was thrown into the lion’s den (Daniel 6). We might think of Peter who was miraculously released from prison in the middle of the night (Acts 12).

This way of thinking about this Psalm (that God will offer unlimited protection from the pains of life) was used by Satan when tempting Jesus. In Matthew 4 we read,
“5 Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’, and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ 7 Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matt 4:5-7).
Satan wants Jesus to use this psalm in a way that tests God, not in a way that trusts God.

This whole Psalm is ultimately about trusting God. It is about trusting God even though there is disease, enemy archers, terrorism, war, poverty, and environmental disaster. Like Psalm 23 that speaks of God’s faithful presence in the midst of enemies and the valley of the shadow of death.

We should be careful to read this Psalm in tension with the rest of the Psalms. Some Psalms lament that the wicked seem to get ahead while the righteous seem to receive constant pain. If we read this Psalm out of the context of the rest of the Psalms we might be left wondering what we have done wrong when something bad happens to us- Did we not have enough faith? Did god forget about us? ... John Calvin and Martin Luther both offer a corrective comment on this psalm saying that we are never promised a life of ease and luxury. We may have moments where everything seems to go well and we might even be aware of supernatural intervention in our life. … But, we should also remember that both Peter and Paul were imprisoned and executed while trusting God and serving Him faithfully. We should remember the powerful story of Job, who deserved none of what happened to him. And above all, we should keep in mind the example of Christ who, having done nothing but love and speak truth, was opposed by the authorities and crucified. He also told us to pick up our cross and follow him- and called that faithfulness.

This Psalm is a beautiful declaration of God’s protection. And it is important that we don’t fall into the temptation that Satan sets for Jesus. Thinking that faithfulness means things will always go well with us. … Things will go well for us, ultimately. In Romans 8, Paul says,
“16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:16-18).
We might face storms, but we will get through them. Even if we die, we will get through them. In our Psalm God says,
“14Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 15 When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honour him. 16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation”.
Ultimately, regardless of what we face and what we suffer, he is holding us and will bring us through it. Trust Him. He is your refuge. He is your fortress. AMEN
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