‘Teach Us to Pray’ (a sermon on Luke 11.1-13)

When I was a teenager and a fairly new Christian, a man called Vijay Menon came to our church to lead an evangelistic mission. During the few days he was at our church he stayed at the rectory, where I lived, and I quickly became aware of his prayer life. Vijay was an early riser; he got up every morning at 5 o’clock, made himself a cup of tea, and then spent the first couple of hours of the day in Bible reading and prayer.

This made a big impression on me. I’d already been having prayer times in the mornings, but they tended to be rather rushed. Vijay’s example challenged me to be more intentional about those prayer times, and to get up a bit earlier to give myself more time. He never gave me any verbal instruction about prayer, but his personal prayer practice was a real inspiration to me.

I expect something like that happened in today’s gospel. In those days, what we now call ‘private life’ was non-existent. Very few people had private bedrooms unless they were very rich. Jesus and his disciples would have lived in very close quarters with each other, and I expect they would have shared prayer times together. We know from the gospels that Jesus was also in the habit of praying alone, but when he did it, he had to go off by himself into the country and find a lonely place.

Our gospel begins by telling us that ‘Jesus was praying in a certain place’ (Luke 11.1).I tend to imagine this happening in the open country, with Jesus taking himself off to the edge of the group, closing his eyes and raising his hands and focussing on his Father. Perhaps he took a substantial period of time doing it. Maybe his disciples noted his intensity, the sense that he was in conscious contact with God, the sense that something supernatural was going on. Something about it got their attention and aroused their curiosity. And so, when he was done, one of them said, “Lord, teach us to do that!” The result was what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.

So what does Jesus teach here about prayer? I’m not going to make this easy for you this morning; I’m going to point out six things in these verses. Maybe you should write them down!

First, he teaches us that it matters who is praying.This is a prayer for disciples. Disciples are people who are following Jesus, learning to see life as he sees it and live life as he taught. And this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.

What do I mean by that? Well, Jesus experiences God as his loving heavenly Father. Jesus lives his life to bring honour to God’s name and to spread God’s kingdom by his words and actions, by his life and death and resurrection. Jesus speaks words of forgiveness, gives bread to the hungry, and wins the victory over the tests and temptations of the devil. Do you see the connections with the Lord’s Prayer? As I said, this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.

We disciples of Jesus are called to follow him and imitate him. So he teaches us to relate to God as a loving parent. He teaches us to seek first the kingdom of God and value it ahead of riches or success or anything else in life we might long for. He teaches us to share our bread with the hungry. He teaches us to forgive one another and even love our enemies, and to stand fast when we’re tested and tempted by the forces of evil. This is the life we’re learning to live as disciples, and it’s the life we’re learning to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. If we’re consistent disciples, our prayers and our lives will agree with each other. Living the life of a disciple will help us pray this prayer, and praying this prayer will help us live the life of a disciple.

So it matters who is praying: disciples of Jesus. Second, it matters that you pray with others. Nowadays many people think of prayer as something we do by ourselves. ‘You don’t have to come to church to pray’, people say, and we get the sense that what they mean by prayer is a person sitting quietly at home with a cup of herbal tea, hands spread out, eyes closed, praying to God in the individuality of their own head.

But true Christian prayer is not individual. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray alone—of course we should! But even when we pray alone, we’re not really praying alone. Every pronoun in the Lord’s Prayer is a plural pronoun. ‘Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (Luke 11.3-4). This is the prayer of a community. When we pray it, we’re joining a community of disciples all over the world, addressing our heavenly Father together.

Prayer together is the fundamental Christian prayer. Prayer alone is an extension of our prayers together. But whenever it’s possible for us to gather to pray, we should do that. That’s why Sunday worship is meant to be a priority for Christians. It’s not something we should relegate to the ‘if I’ve got nothing better to do’ part of our schedule. The letter to the Hebrews says ‘Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some’ (Hebrews 10.25). We are a community of disciples, gathering together around the Lord’s Table, like a family coming together for a weekly meal—not just to enjoy each other’s company but also to join together in prayer to the God we have in common.

Prayer together keeps us steady. If the only prayer we have is individual prayer, it’ll be easy to neglect it. We’ll find all kinds of excuses why we can’t do it. Too busy. Too tired. Too discouraged. Too stressed. But if we have a commitment to meet together and pray, the commitment will carry us.

So it matters who is praying, and it matters that you pray with others. Thirdly, it matters who you pray to.“What on earth do you mean?” you ask. “Surely God is God? Who else would you pray to?” Yes—but it matters what you think about the God you’re praying to. Some people think the God they’re praying to needs humans to fight and kill each other so as to bring him honour. Others think God doesn’t really care about us. I heard of a Christian who once asked a friend what he thought about God. The reply surprised him: “The way I see it, God’s got a lot on his mind. World hunger, global warming, wars in the Middle East, AIDS and all that. So the best thing I can do for God is to stay out of his way.”

It makes a difference if you think you’re praying to a God who only has so much time and attention to give, doesn’t it? If you’re in competition with everyone else’s needs, who’s to say whether or not the answer to your prayer is going to be made on a Friday? That’s not a very encouraging thought, is it?

But Jesus encourages us to think of God as the best and wisest of parents or friends. He uses two parables to bring this message home. First, if your friend suddenly finds herself in need of some extra food because of unexpected company, you’ll help out without question, because she matters to you. Second, if your child comes to you and asks for some food, you’re not going to give them a scorpion instead of an egg, are you? We’re sinners, but even sinners like us know how to care for our friends and our kids! How much more will the heavenly Father care for us, his beloved children?

God is like the best and wisest and most selfless father or mother we could ever imagine. God provides for our needs. God guides us and helps us grow in wisdom. If that’s what you believe about God, you’re going to have no hesitation going to God in times of need and asking for help. And especially when you’re seeking first the Kingdom of God, so that the things you’re praying for are also the things Godis longing for—if you feel that way, you’re going to be quick to turn to God for help.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, and it matters who you pray to. Fourthly, it matters what you pray for.

The Lord’s Prayer is divided into two simple sections: God’s priorities, and our necessities. God’s priorities come first. We don’t come charging into God’s presence and immediately present our prayer shopping list. First we think about who we’re praying to, and we pray about the things that are important to God.

So we pray that God’s name will be hallowed. If we love God, then God’s good name matters to us. To slander someone’s good name is to smear their reputation in the world. So this is a prayer that God’s name would be known and loved and honoured in the world.

Obviously more than just the name is at stake here. Before I met Marci I had never known anyone by that name. Now, it’s the most precious name in the world to me—because I love the one who bears it. So for us to say ‘Hallowed be your name’ is a form of praise and an expression of love. John Newton wrote, ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear!’ Obviously in this hymn, the name of Jesus is sweet because the person of Jesus is loved so much.

So we pray that God’s name will be loved and honoured, and we also pray that God’s kingdom will come. Matthew’s longer version of the Lord’s Prayer explains this: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ So we are praying that God’s perfect rule of love and compassion, justice and peace will be established on earth. This is a prayer that everyone in the world will have enough and no one too much—that the good earth God has created will be respected and cherished—that people will treat each other as friends and not enemies—and that all over the world people will love and honour God above everything else.

So we focus on God’s priorities first of all. But then we turn to our necessities. Jesus mentions three things: food, forgiveness, and deliverance from times of testing and temptation.

‘Give us each day our daily bread’ (v.3). This is a very simple prayer. It’s not a prayer for lottery wins or plane tickets or expensive holidays or success in business. It’s a prayer that we will know where tomorrow’s meal is coming from. In other words, it’s a prayer that we will enjoy the necessities of life. Note: that we will enjoy the necessities of life—not I, but we. So to pray the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer that will have the necessities of life, but that everyone on earth will enjoy them too. And of course, we can’t pray that if we aren’t prepared to change our lifestyle to help make it happen.

‘And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’ (v.4). We are in need not only of food but also of forgiveness, because we all stand before God as sinners. The language of debt is used here, because love is a debt we owe to God and our neighbour. The great commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. How are we doing with that? The truth is, of course, that every day we fall short, and so every day we need to come to God for forgiveness. And we also commit ourselves to being people who extend forgiveness to others as well. Jesus is very clear about this: the people who can come to God and ask for forgiveness are the people who are willing to at least try to forgive those who have sinned against them.

‘And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (v.4). The Greek word can mean both times of testing and temptation; you have to decide from the context what the meaning is. I suspect that in this prayer it means ‘Don’t bring us to trials too hard for us, and when we’re in the middle of them, help us get through them.’

So it matters that we pray for the right things. We can pray that God’s name will be honoured and God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. We can pray for the necessities of life for ourselves and others, for the forgiveness of our sins and for God’s help in times of difficulty. And we can also pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says at the end of the passage: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (v.13). These are the prayers that Jesus promises God will hear.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, it matters who you pray to, and it matters what you pray for. Fifthly—and this breaks the pattern a bit—it doesn’t matter that your prayers are long or exactly worded!

The Lord’s Prayer is short. Yes, it’s more of a pattern than a prayer, and we’re expected to add to it when we use it—to fill out each petition with our own particular concerns. But it’s not a long prayer, and it would seem to indicate there’s no particular virtue in praying long prayers.

Also, there are two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer. The one we use in church is based on Matthew’s version, which is a little longer. Luke’s version misses out some of the familiar petitions. Interestingly enough, some time in the early Christian centuries someone was so bothered by this that they changed Luke’s version and added the extra words from Matthew. When the King James Version was translated in 1611 those changed manuscripts of Luke were all the translators had, so in the King James the Lord’s Prayer is basically identical between Matthew and Luke. But in the centuries since then archeologists have discovered older copies of Luke, without the additional words. So most modern translations use those older manuscripts and give us the shorter version in Luke.

What does this tell us? It tells us that Jesus didn’t always teach this prayer in exactly the same way! He didn’t see himself primarily as giving a fixed, rote prayer for his followers to pray for the next two thousand years, although there’s nothing wrong with us praying it together. But Jesus saw it primarily as an outline of things we should pray about. When we pray by ourselves or in small groups, we should feel free to fill out the outline.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that we pray with others, it matters who we pray to, it matters what we pray for, but it doesn’t matter that our prayers are long or exactly worded.

One last thing and then I’m done. This has all been fascinating, but if all you do is listen to it and then do nothing, it’s not accomplishing very much. So the last thing is simply to say it matters that you pray. You learn to talk by talking. You learn to ride a bike by riding a bike. And you learn to pray by praying.

If you already pray every day, this prayer can help you focus on the things that really matter. But if you don’t already have a prayer discipline, the most important thing you can do is to go home, look at your schedule, write yourself in a daily prayer appointment, and then keep it. And keep on keeping it. The things we do every day have a transformational effect on us, far more than the things we do occasionally.

We have asked the Lord to teach us to pray. He’s done as we asked. The next step is up to us.

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Getting insomnia working for you

‘In the night I remember your name, LORD,
and dwell upon your instruction’ (Psalm 119.55 REB).

I remember reading that Dom Helder Camara had trouble sleeping through the night. So he would get up, spend some time in prayer and meditation, and then write some of the devotional poetry for which he became well known. As he put it, he ‘got insomnia working for him’!

Like him, I have difficulty sleeping through the night. I fall asleep very quickly, but wake up at least twice during the night, and sometimes I can’t get back to sleep. But I tend to waste that time in browsing Facebook or other not-so-edifying stuff.

This morning I sensed God speaking to me through this verse, saying ‘Is it time to get insomnia working for you?’ Could I be more intentional about how I use those sleepless times to draw closer to God?

‘The Image of God’ (a sermon on Colossians 1.15)

Today is a joyful celebration of new life in Christ. Today, in a few minutes, Holly is going to commit herself to Christ in faith and baptism, and then she and Craig are going to offer their son Henry to receive baptism as well. I think the last time we celebrated the baptism of a mother and her child at the same service at St. Margaret’s was nineteen years ago, so it’s not something we see very often! But it’s a beautiful witness to the decision of a family to put God at the centre of their lives and follow the way of Jesus together, and so we rejoice with them here today.

Baptism in the New Testament is like a beautiful diamond with many facets. We turn it around and examine it closely, and the light falls on a different facet each time. Sometimes baptism is about being born again into the family of God. Sometimes it’s about dying with Christ on his cross and being raised with him in his resurrection—that symbolism was very powerful when adults were baptized by total immersion, going down into the water and coming up again. Sometimes it’s about God making a covenant with the person being baptized, and baptism being the sign and seal of that covenant. Sometimes it’s about repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Most of the language used about baptism in the New Testament works better when it’s an adult being baptized, as Holly will be baptized today. That shouldn’t surprise us; after all, most of the New Testament books were written by the first generation of Christians. They remembered what it was like to be without Christ in their lives. They remembered how they came to believe in Christ, and how they were baptized into his family. So they loved using the language of dying and rising again, or being washed from your sins. That language really resonated with their experience. They looked back on their conversion to Christ using the sort of imagery Paul uses in the two verses immediately before our reading from Colossians today, where he says,

‘For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.’ (Colossians 1.13-14 NLT)

But what does baptism mean for a person who experiences it the way Henry is going to experience it today, right at the beginning of his life? I think the New Testament text that best fits Henry’s experience is the one from the end of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations. Let me remind you of what he says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a NRSV).

A disciple is a learner—we might even say, an apprentice—someone who is intent on putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their daily life. Adults can decide to do this, of course, but parents can also decide to make this the centre of their lives with their children. We love Jesus and we want to learn to follow him, and as we’re learning day by day, we’re also passing on what we learn to our children and grandchildren, by our words and by our example. So a family that brings a child for baptism is a family that has decided to follow Jesus together.

But why would we want to do that? Why would we specifically want to follow Jesus? After all, there are many different religions out there in the world today. We have many different options to choose from. What makes Jesus so special? Is it just because we live in Canada, and historically Canada has had a Christian tradition? Or is it something more than that?

I want to focus with you on one verse from our reading from Colossians this morning: the first verse of the passage, Colossians 1.15. Here it is:

‘He (that is, Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’.

That’s how the New Revised Standard Version translates it, rather literally, from the original Greek. The Common English Bible gives what I think is a good paraphrase of it:

‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’

This is amazing language for our author to use! We’re not exactly sure when the letter to the Colossians was written. Many scholars think it was written by Paul the apostle, as it claims, which means it would have had to be written before the mid-sixties A.D., since Paul was probably executed by the Roman Emperor Nero about that time. But other scholars think it was written at a later date, by a disciple of Paul, perhaps a decade or so after Paul died. Even so, we’re talking about no more than forty-five years after the death of Jesus—and likely quite a bit earlier than that—and someone is already using astonishing language to describe the carpenter from Nazareth who’d been executed as a rebel against Rome by Pontius Pilate.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean. C.S. Lewis died on November 22nd1963, so that will be fifty-six years ago this coming November. Lewis continues to be a very popular Christian writer. His Narnia stories have been made into movies several times over the years. His books still sell in the millions. Many people have been inspired by him and some have become Christians because of his writings. There have been dozens of biographies and studies about his life, to the point that you’d think there would be nothing left to say, but no, people are still writing them! So it’s safe to say that Lewis was an impressive man and a great religious leader and teacher.

But no one has ever said of C.S. Lewis the sort of thing that we read in Colossians:

‘C.S. Lewis is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him.’

It would be unthinkable that anyone would talk about Lewis like that. After all there are still people alive who knew him! His character flaws are well documented, and if anyone tried to teach that Lewis’ life was some sort of special revelation of God, Lewis and his friends would have been the first ones to protest. “I’m just a man,” he would have said, “and a sinner too. Please pray for me!”

When these verses from Colossians were written there were certainly people still alive who had known Jesus well. Many of them were Jewish people, and Jewish people were very strict about not worshipping anyone but the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth. They were also very strict about not making images or idols. How could you possibly make an image that would sum up everything that God is? The whole universe can’t contain the likeness of God, so what hope does an image have of doing it? And so Jewish people were told quite clearly in the Ten Commandments not to make any sort of image to bow down and worship.

But now here is Paul, using that image language about Jesus, calling him the Son of God, and going on to say, ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’ And none of Jesus’ early followers protested that, despite the fact that it cut right across their Jewish sensitivities. Why is that? Surely it’s because, the more they thought about their experience of Jesus, the more they realized that this was the only sort of language that was adequate for him.

The Anglican bishop of Toronto is called Andrew Asbil. Andrew’s father Walter was also an Anglican bishop in the Diocese of Niagara in Ontario. About twenty years ago, long before Andrew became a bishop, I was at a national church meeting in Toronto where he was one of the speakers. The person introducing him said, “I want to introduce Andrew Asbil to you today. Some of you know his father Walter, and you’ll agree with me that you now know exactly what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’!” And it’s true! If you put photographs of Andrew and Walter beside each other, the likeness is uncanny!

But of course most children bear the likeness of their parents to some degree. And children also inherit some of their characteristics from their parents. The older I get, the more I realize that some of my deepest convictions about what it means to be a Christian priest come from my dad, who was a priest before me. And I chuckle sometimes when I hear some of the things my daughter says to her children, and I realize that she heard the very same words coming out of my mouth when she was growing up!

“Like father, like son.” “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Many of you have heard me tell the joke about the little girl in Sunday School who was trying to draw a picture of God. Her teacher was surprised. “But no one knows what God looks like!” he said. She replied, “They will when I’m done!” And when Jesus was done living his life of love for God and others—even going so far as to love his enemies and pray for those who hated him—when he was done living a simple life with few possessions, focussing only on God and the people God loves—when he was done crossing boundaries and loving people no one else had any time for—when he was done healing the sick and raising the dead and welcoming sinners and teaching us what God had in mind for us when he created us in the first place—well, when Jesus was done all that, now we know what God is like. God is like Jesus.

Let’s be clear what we mean here. We’re not saying that God hasn’t revealed any truth about himself to anyone in any other religion on the planet. That would be absurd. God hasn’t left himself without a witness anywhere. There are good and wise things taught about God in many different religious traditions. But at one point in the history of the planet, as St. John says in his Gospel, ‘The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1.14 NRSV) God has come among us in Jesus, to live and die as one of us. That’s why we follow him.

But there’s one more thing we need to remember about this verse in Colossians. Jesus doesn’t only show us what God is like; he also shows us what humans are meant to be like. ‘He is the image of the invisible God,’ says Paul. But you remember in the Book of Genesis, when God creates human beings, he says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1.26 NRSV) and the writer goes on to say,

‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1.27 NRSV)

Scholars have speculated for years about what it means to say that we humans are made in the image of God, but the simple answer was staring us in the face all the time. Five chapters later in Genesis the same language is used when Adam has a son. ‘He became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’. (Genesis 5.3). Parents have children in their image. God created humans in his image. We were meant to grow up to be like God, just as children grow up to be like their parents.

But so often we choose to disobey God, and the rest of the Bible is a sad record of that. We break our relationship with God, we’re alienated from others, we hurt the people we love, and we bring devastation to the natural world God created. This is still going on today. Yes, we’re still made in God’s image, but we struggle with evil and wickedness as well. We human beings are a mixed bag, capable of incredible love but also incredible cruelty. Our whole lives long, we struggle with this.

But Jesus shows us the way. Yes, he is God come to live among us, but he’s also a real human being. He shares our struggles. He knows what it’s like to be a refugee and have to flee from death squads with your family. He knows what it’s like to have to earn a living by the work of your hands. He knows what it’s like to have to share a small house with siblings, and later on, to be misunderstood by them, and called ‘out of his mind.’ He knows what it’s like to be hungry and thirsty, to love people and be rejected by them, to be gossiped about and slandered, and ultimately to die a painful death for a crime he didn’t commit.

Jesus wasn’t removed from our life; he lived it to the full. But somehow, when we read his story, we find ourselves drawn by him. Through all the difficulties, he seems to know God is with him all the time. He doesn’t get sidetracked from doing God’s will. He reaches out to the poor and the sick and the marginalized. He treats women and children, and lepers and Roman soldiers, and tax collectors and sinners, as if they matter to God. He inspires us, and we find ourselves wanting to be like him. That’s what being a disciple is all about: learning from Jesus what it means to be truly human, made in God’s image.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus shows us what God is like. So if someone tries to tell us that God is pleased by people who plant bombs, and force children to become soldiers, and fly airplanes into buildings to kill thousands of people, we know that’s wrong. Jesus has shown us what God is like. “God is love.” “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” If you want to know God, come to Jesus.

But Jesus is also the image of what it means to be human. He teaches us that loving God and loving your neighbour is the secret of life, and as we watch him, we realize he’s right. Jesus is truly alive, in a way we rarely see in others. He can teach us how to be truly alive.

Today, Holly and Henry are setting out on this path. As they get closer to Jesus, Jesus will teach them to know the God who loves them. And Jesus will also show them what it means to be a real live human being, the way God had in mind when he first created human beings.

But this reminder is for all of us, not just Holly and Henry. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He’s the best picture we have of what God is like. He’s also the best picture we have of what humans are meant to be like. So let’s follow him, so that we also can be transformed into his likeness.

The Fear of the Lord is Life

‘The fear of the Lord is life; he who is full of it will rest untouched by evil.’
(Proverbs 19.23 Revised English Bible).

These days a lot of people react against the phrase ‘the fear of the Lord’—motivated, I guess, by bad memories of fire and brimstone preaching. But I notice that abandoning the fear of the Lord hasn’t helped us abandon fear. We fear the bad opinion of our Facebook friends, and crave their ‘likes’ and comments. We fear the rejection of our friends, and sometimes say and do things that aren’t really true to us, in order to win their approval.

To ‘fear the Lord’ means, first, to recognize that in a relationship between the One who made and sustains everything that exists on the one hand, and little me on the other, God is definitely the senior partner. And secondly, it means that we choose whose good opinion matters most to us. In the long run, what God thinks of me is infinitely more important than anyone else’s opinion. So, to use a phrase I once heard on this subject, ‘We choose to play our life to an audience of one.’

When we do this, the psalmist says, we discover ‘life’. By this he doesn’t mean that we will receive life as a reward in the future. He means that in playing our life to an audience of one, in this life, we discover here and now that this is what life is all about. We discover a sense of freedom and joy that we never thought possible. May this be so for all of us today.

Looking Beyond Ourselves

‘We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them; and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow; similarly, when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is, our consciousness of self) will vanish. One will thus in a sense be almost nothing: a room to be filled by God and our blessed fellow creatures, who in their turn are rooms we hep to fill.’

C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3 (30 November 1954)

Shaking the Foundations (a sermon for July 14th on Psalm 82)

In November 1989, after twenty-eight years of separation between east and west, the authorities in East Germany ordered that the gates of the Berlin Wall be opened permanently. The following year this wall that had divided the city for so long was demolished. It was a huge event at the time; some would go so far as to call it earth-shaking.

When we use that word ‘earth-shaking’, we know we’re speaking metaphorically. We’re not talking about a literal earthquake! What we mean is that this event is so significant that all the things we’ve assumed for so long are no longer certain. Things are being shaken up! And of course, this might be a good change, or a bad change, or a bit of both.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall we’ve experienced a few more earth-shaking events. There was 9/11, when the people of North America experienced for the first time in almost two centuries what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a foreign attack on their own soil. A few years later there was the crash of 2008, when the world’s markets plunged into chaos and hundreds of thousands of people lost jobs and homes and livelihoods. More recently we’ve experienced the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, which has brought a huge amount of uncertainty and unpredictability into the relationships and alliances and trade agreements in the world. Over on the other side of the pond, of course, there was the Brexit vote and all the chaos that followed it. And for the last few years we’ve experienced more and more extreme weather events, including massive floods and forest fires, and I think many of us are realizing that the effects of climate change are coming a lot faster than we thought they would.

So it feels as if our country and our society, and maybe even the whole world order, is being ‘shaken up’ in a way we haven’t seen perhaps since the Second World War. And one of the frightening things about it is that for most of us, there doesn’t seem to be very much we can do about it. The power is concentrated in the hands of a few. True, we have the power to fire the government on election day, but my one little vote doesn’t count for very much, does it? Especially in a ‘first past the post’ election system! Survey after survey has shown that since the 1980s the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger and bigger all over the world, including our country. And in politics, money is power, and without money you can’t get power. And most of us feel powerless.

Into this situation comes today’s psalm, Psalm 82. The gift of the psalms is that they allow us to pray in any situation we find ourselves in. If you’re depressed, there are psalms for you. If you’re thankful and joyful, there are psalms for you. If you’re mad and you just want God to send a thunderbolt to wipe out your enemies, there are psalms for you! And if you feel powerless, and you think the people who claim to be running the world just don’t seem to know what the heck they’re doing, there’s a psalm for you: Psalm 82! Let’s look at it together, not in the Book of Alternative Services translation, but in our pew Bibles, the New Revised Standard Version (page 542 in the Old Testament).

Psalm 82 seems strange to us because it assumes a mythology we no longer believe in. The Canaanites in Old Testament times assumed there were many gods—some of them in charge of territories or nations or cities, some of them in charge of particular activities, like war or love or fertility. But every now and again, the gods got together and had a council, where they talked about what they were doing and made decisions together. This council was presided over by El, the king-god of the Canaanite pantheon.

‘El’ was also a name that the ancient Israelites used for their God, Yahweh. In the early part of the Old Testament the people still assumed that there were many gods, not just one. The Ten Commandments don’t say there is only one god; they say ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ It’s only later in the Old Testament period that people began to believe that the Creator of the world was the only god, and that others were mere human creations. But the Israelites did believe that their god was greater than all the others, so it would be natural for them to assume that he was ‘El’, the ruler of the council of the gods.

And that’s the picture we have in this psalm. Look at verses 1-2:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgement:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

This is the world as ordinary ancient Israelites experienced it: they were victims of injustice, and they saw wicked people coming out on top over and over again. And they found themselves asking, “Who’s running this world anyway? If it’s the gods, they’re doing a pretty bad job! Someone should fire them!” Which actually is what happens toward the end of the psalm, in verses 6-7, where God tells the other gods that their days are over:

I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’

We think of gods as immortal, but apparently their immortality can be taken away from them by Yahweh, and that’s what Yahweh threatens here. ‘You gods are doing such a terrible job that I’m going to remove you from your seats on this divine council, and in fact you’re going to lose your lives as well.’

So this is how the ancient Israelites would have understood this psalm. But interestingly, by the time the Gospel of John was written several hundred years later, Israelites aren’t understanding the psalm in the same way. In John chapter 10 the Jewish leaders get angry with Jesus because he’s calling God his father; he’s a mere human being, but he’s making himself equal with God. Jesus’ reply quotes from Psalm 82 and it assumes that the word ‘gods’ is used metaphorically in the psalm for human rulers:

Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” (John 10:34-36).

Jesus’ reply only makes sense if the word ‘gods’ is being used in the psalm in a metaphorical way. In other words, the psalmist is actually talking about earthly kings and rulers, who strut about and think of themselves as godlike beings—which, of course, many Roman emperors were already doing in Jesus’ time, and maybe we can think of some political leaders who are doing it today!

I would guess that what’s happened is that by the time John’s Gospel was written, most people in Israel no longer believed the old Canaanite mythology of the many gods who sat in council together. They believed there is only one God, the Creator and preserver of all that exists. And so they have reinterpreted the old psalm in the light of their current beliefs, seeing it as a rebuke from God to the tyrannical and unjust rulers of the world. And I think that interpretation works for us today, too.

So what is God’s charge to the rulers of the world—the presidents and prime ministers and dictators and provincial premiers, and the generals and the CEOs of multinational corporations and the rest of that privileged club? Nowadays we tend to think the first job of rulers is to make their people rich, but apparently that’s not God’s priority. God looks down from heaven and sees the desperate situation of the poor and needy. Look at verse 5:

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I think about people who were living securely in their homes and then found themselves in the midst of a war zone, so that they had to run away across borders and move into a refugee camp where they were totally dependent on the generosity of others. I think about people who can’t understand the complex system of the world economic order; the only thing they know is that it seems impossible for them to make a living. I think of farmers in the two-thirds world who grow cash crops like coffee and tea and make a pittance for them so that we in the privileged world can enjoy cheap coffee. I think about people whose lives have been shaped for generations by the injustices of colonialism—including, of course, the indigenous people of our own country.

So what does God want the rulers to do? Look at verses 2-4:

How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

This is God’s priority for the rulers of the earth. You can search the Bible from end to end and you will never find any instructions to rulers and leaders regarding economic prosperity or job creation. When God speaks to rulers in the Bible, his message is boringly constant: Stop preying on the weak and the helpless, and be their protector instead.

But most rulers in human history haven’t done this. They become rulers because they love power, and if they didn’t start out that way, they soon learn the ropes! As the old saying goes, all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely! True, some start out with good motives, but the system isn’t set up to reinforce those motives, and they have to fight all the time to keep their eyes on the better way. Others have never been interested in the better way: they’re in it to line their own pockets and further their own standing in the world.

What does the psalm have to say to these tin-pot dictators? Look at verses 7-8:

I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you.

These closing verses remind us that there are three things these power-hungry rulers forget. And maybe we forget them too. After all, in a democracy, we are the rulers! If we don’t like what the governments are doing, we can turf them out on election day! But how do we decide whether to turf them out or not? Are we judging them by the standard God sets: protecting the weak and the helpless? Or are we judging them by the standard of whether or not they’ve made the richest people in history even richer?

Three things not to forget:

First, don’t forget that you’re not going to live forever!

I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’ (vv.6-7).

This seems like common sense, but it’s amazing how many people seem to go through life on the assumption that they will be the first person in history never to die! I see people accumulating possessions as if there’s some sort of prize for the one who leaves behind the most toys for their descendants to fight over. I see people devoting themselves to things that aren’t going to matter one bit to them when they’re lying on their death bed.

Jesus tells a story about a man like that in Luke chapter 12. He’s a rich and prosperous farmer, and his crops do so well that he can’t find room to store them. “I know what I’ll do!” he says. “I’ll knock down my grain bins and build bigger ones, and then I’ll take life easy, I’ve got lots of stuff laid up for many years, so I can eat and drink and be merry.” But listen to the end of Jesus’ story:

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God. (Luke 12:20-21).

So this is the first thing the psalmist is saying to the rulers, and maybe to us as well: don’t forget you’re not going to live forever! The second thing is this: Don’t forget the world doesn’t belong to you—it belongs to God. In verse 8 the psalmist says to God, ‘All the nations belong to you.’ So often we’re like children, running around saying ‘Mine! Mine!’ We say it about the land we live on, despite the fact that Psalm 24 says ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.’ We say it about our possessions, despite the fact that the Bible teaches our wealth has been entrusted to us for God’s purposes, not given to us to feed our own selfishness. And the people in our lives don’t belong to us; they aren’t here for our benefit! They are the children of God, made in his image, each one precious in his sight, no matter their age or gender or skin colour, or country of origin or religion, or political opinions or sexuality or anything else. The world and everything in it belong to God, not to us.

So don’t forget you’re not going to live forever, and don’t forget that the world doesn’t belong to you—it belongs to God. And the third thing not to forget is this: don’t forget that there’s a day of judgement coming. Verse 8 says,

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

It sounds strange to us that the psalmist would pray for judgement day to come soon! Most of us nowadays are afraid of the idea of judgement. We don’t like the Old Testament God of anger and punishment! We prefer the New Testament God of love and forgiveness and mercy! Although in fact there’s lots of love and forgiveness in the Old Testament too, and Jesus has a lot of things to say about judgement! Let’s not forget who told the parable of the Sheep and the Goats—a story in which those who have refused to care for the needy don’t end up in a very good place!

Most ancient Israelites saw themselves as the victims of the world system. They were the ones who were oppressed and exploited by foreign armies and unjust Israelite kings and rulers. Their prayer was that God would change this horrible wold system and bring down his judgement on the rulers and oppressors. So judgement day wasn’t something they feared: it was something they prayed for.

Let me suggest to you that we should pray for it too. Yes, of course, we need to be aware of our own sins and failures, and our need for forgiveness. But let’s also remember that if there’s no day of judgement, then oppressors and dictators and child molesters, and greedy people who care only for themselves and not the poor and needy—all those folks get the last word, and nothing ever changes. Is this what the kingdom of God looks like? Of course not. There has to be judgement, so that there can be a change in the situation. That’s one of the things we’re praying for when we use the prayer Jesus taught us: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So let me suggest to you that this is a powerful psalm for us to use today when we look around at all the evil things that are happening in the world. Yes, there are more than enough powerful people strutting around like little gods, throwing their weight around and lining their own pockets. If we’re angry about them, this psalm can give us words to pray. But let’s not forget that, at least in our country, we elect them! So what we pray for them, we pray for ourselves too. Don’t forget you’re not going to live forever, so make sure you spend time and energy on what really matters. Don’t forget that the world belongs to God, not you. And don’t forget that no matter how powerful we think we are, God is going to have the last word—and that is actually good news.