Why Have You Forsaken Me? (a sermon on Psalm 22)

The great writer C.S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer when he was sixty years old, after only three years of marriage. It was natural for him to turn to writing to help him through the grieving process, and the journal he kept after Joy’s death was eventually published; he called it A Grief Observed. At one point in the book he talks about how he had been taught as a Christian that if he needed God’s help all he had to do was ask and God would be right there. But now, when he desperately needed it, no help seemed to be coming. Rather, it was as if the door had been locked and bolted in his face. At the time of his greatest need he felt completely alone.

I think every honest Christian can identify with Lewis here. It’s true that some of us have stories of going through difficult times and how God gave us a special sense of his presence to help us. Perhaps he even delivered us in some miraculous and unexpected way. Those are wonderful stories and a great strength to our faith as we look back and remember them. But sooner or later most of us experience what Lewis went through: we’re in a time of great need and it seems as if God’s nowhere to be found. Our prayers are hitting the ceiling and bouncing back down at us. The skies are empty and barren. God, if there is a God, seems to be a million miles away.

That’s where our psalm for today starts. If anyone tells you Christians never have those kinds of experiences, ask yourself why God inspired Psalm 22 and gave it to his Church as a prayer for us to pray. The opening words are:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).

This is a psalm in which the experience of godforsakenness is explored thoroughly – and as you may remember, this was the psalm Jesus used when he hung on the Cross. So let’s look a little more closely at it together. It might help you to have it open in front of you as I speak; it’s on page 728 of the B.A.S.

Many of you know I hang around with songwriters a lot, and I hear quite a few hard luck songs. Some of them are carefully constructed but some are not: they sound like they’ve been scribbled down exactly as the words tumbled out of the songwriter’s brain, with no attempt to arrange them in an artful way.

Psalm 22 falls into the first category; It’s carefully arranged, with a real order to it. Let me point it out to you.

The psalm falls easily into two parts; verses 1-20 are the complaint, and verses 21-30 are the thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. The first section also falls into two parts; the first half, verses 1-10, is a sort of ‘A-B-A-B’ structure, in which complaints about God’s absence are followed by remembrances of how it wasn’t like that in years gone by. Look at the structure: verses 1-2 are the complaint, verses 3-5 the remembrance, verses 6-8 the second complaint, and verses 9-10 the second remembrance. Then in 11-20 the psalmist uses animal symbolism to talk about how his enemies are gathering around to gloat over him and destroy him.

Let’s think about this a little more closely. In the passage I read a moment ago, verses 1-2, the psalmist complains that God has forsaken him, and no matter how much he prays and groans and cries out for help there seems to be no answer. But then in verses 3-5 he goes on to say:

Yet you are the Holy One,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
Our forefathers put their trust in you;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
They cried out to you and were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.

Do you understand what the writer’s doing here? At first glance it seems as if he’s turning from the black mood of verses 1-2 and putting his trust in the God of Israel. But when you look more closely you can see that’s not the point. What he’s actually saying is, ‘There are all those stories of how you worked mighty miracles to help our ancestors in the past; they trusted you and you saved them. So what’s the matter with me? Am I a worse sinner than them? Am I not really one of your people after all? Or are those stories just not true?’

The same thing happens a few verses later. After the psalmist complains about the fact that God’s treating him like an insignificant worm, he goes on to recount how people mock him and throw his faith in his face:

All who see me laugh me to scorn;
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, if he delights in him”.(vv.7-8)

The implication is, ‘He hasn’t rescued you, so obviously he doesn’t delight in you after all, does he? You thought you were some sort of special Christian, did you? Well, think again!’

‘And what have I done to deserve this?’ the psalmist asks. In verses 9-10 he talks about how he has been dedicated to God since before he was born; ‘You were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb’ (v.10). He looks back on a life dedicated to the service of God, and he asks himself if this is all the reward he gets. Why did he bother, if he was just going to be abandoned like this?

Note that this isn’t a private grief; it’s public. His enemies taunt him; they gather around and threaten him, like a herd of wild bulls or a pack of rabid dogs. Whatever this trouble is – and it isn’t spelled out anywhere in the psalm – whatever it is, he’s in mortal danger and it seems as if there’s no one to rescue him.

Well, which of us hasn’t felt like this from time to time? Think of people living with long-term, chronic pain who just don’t seem to be able to get any relief. They pray over and over again; they lie awake at night, unable to sleep, doing their best to hold back the tears so as not to wake their spouse. They read stories about how God miraculously heals people and they think, ‘Why doesn’t he heal me, then? Am I some particularly vile sort of sinner, that he refuses to help me? I always thought I was a child of God, but perhaps I was wrong after all – perhaps I’m really nothing to God. Or maybe God’s just some sort of cosmic monster doing experiments on us, not the loving Father we thought he was’. You see, for some people the worst thing this sort of suffering does isn’t to stop them believing in God but to stop them believing in God’s love for them.

Psalm 22 is a prayer for people who feel like that. It doesn’t try to give rational answers; it simply enables us to pray our experience, honestly and openly, before God. This is the prayer of the person who suffers chronic pain day and night. This is the prayer of the person who’s suffered some public disgrace and is afraid to even show their face in public for fear of the ridicule they’ll encounter. This is the prayer of the bereaved person who longs for some sort of sense of God’s companionship in their loneliness, but finds only empty skies above.

And this is the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. We read that as he hung there, ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’(Mark 15:34). As Jesus was growing up he would have learned the psalms by heart. Now in his hour of greatest need the psalms gave him the words he needed to pour out his heart to the God he felt had abandoned him.

You see, the early Christians developed a new way of reading what we call the Old Testament. They came to believe Jesus was the climax of the Old Testament story; he was the one the story had been leading up to all along. And because of that, they loved to look for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament passages. Some of the hints they point to seem fanciful to us, but it was all part of their belief that Jesus was the highest revelation of God’s love and God’s will, and that the whole story up ‘til then had been pointing to him.

So they took their cue from Jesus praying the first verse of this psalm on the cross and they looked for other hints of his story in there. When they read the psalmist saying, ‘O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest’ (v.2), they thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God would take this cup of suffering away from him – and not getting what he prayed for. When they read, ‘All who see me laugh me to scorn; they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying, “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him”’ (vv.7-8), they thought of the soldiers mocking Jesus, putting the crown of thorns on his head and dressing him in a purple robe to taunt him. They thought of Jesus hanging on the cross and the chief priests mocking him, ‘saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God, let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’”’ (Matthew 27:42-43). They read verse 16, ‘They pierce my hands and my feet’, and thought of Jesus on the cross with the nails through his hands and feet. And they remembered how the soldiers divided his clothes between them and threw dice for his seamless outer robe, and they read, ‘they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing’ (v.17).

Maybe you think this is a little fanciful; yes, we can see there are some similarities, but the writer of the psalm wasn’t really writing about Jesus, was he, hundreds of years before? Surely he was writing about some suffering he was going through himself. All these connections are co-incidences, aren’t they?

You can think that way until you get to the last part of the psalm. In this part, the psalmist thanks God for the deliverance he has experienced, and then he promises to tell all his brothers and sisters in the congregation about it. He says he’s going to encourage everyone who fears the Lord to praise him and all the Israelites to stand in awe of God. Furthermore, he’d obviously made a vow that if God delivered him, he would show his gratitude by caring for the poor, and he’s determined to do that.

So far so good, but now look on. He says in verses 26-27, ‘All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him. For kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations’.And then, even more extravagantly, he says in verse 28, ‘To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before him’ – that’s the dead, of course! So he’s saying, ‘Because of what God has done for me all the Gentiles from far away will start worshipping Israel’s God, and even those who have died will bow down to him’. This is some spectacular sort of deliverance, don’t you think, if it’s going to have this sort of dramatic effect? It’s certainly more than ‘Thank you, God, for helping me get over my feelings of low self-esteem!’

Jesus cried out to God on the Cross, and God delivered him – not from the suffering, but through the suffering and death to the bright new morning of the resurrection. And because of his death and resurrection the Gospel message went out beyond the borders of Israel to the ends of the earth, and people from every nation have come to believe Jesus is God’s anointed King. Those who would have been lost in death have found their hope in him because of his promise of resurrection and eternal life. And ‘The poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the Lord shall praise him’ (v.25). ‘My descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done’ (vv.29-30).

So this psalm speaks to us of Jesus, who went through the terrible experience of Godforsakenness on the cross. He cried out to his Father for help and it seemed there was no answer. So when it seems to you as if there’s no answer for your prayer – when it seems as if the skies are barren and there’s no God there to help – this psalm assures you that you’re not alone. God himself has experienced Godforsakenness. God the Son looked for help from God the Father, and, from that time in the Garden of Gethsemane Thursday night until the resurrection morning on Sunday, it seemed as if there was no answer. He carried the burden of human sin and evil on his own shoulders, alone, with no one to help him. So we can pray the words of this psalm with him, confident that he knows the worst of what we’re experiencing, and more besides. As Hebrews 2:16 says, ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested’.

One more thing. The suffering on the cross made no sense when Jesus was going through it, but looking back on it now we know it was taken up into God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world. And I believe one day we too will see that not one second of our suffering has been wasted. That may be an incomprehensible thought to us right now – I have no idea how it can possibly be true – but God is infinitely bigger than my ideas, and one thing we know about the God of the Bible is that he specializes in bringing good out of evil. Evil won’t have the last word. Love will have the last word, and when we finally see God face to face all our pain and all our questions will be swallowed up forever in love.

Note: quotations from Psalm 22 are from the version found in the Book of Alternative Services and are versified according to this translation. All other biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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Thanksgiving sermon 2018

When I was a little boy growing up in England, hedgehogs were a familiar feature of the countryside. They aren’t very spectacular creatures. They’re small and prickly, they tend to go out at night and sleep during the day, and they aren’t especially smart. They’ve never handled traffic very well; I’m pretty sure I saw more of them dead on the road than living in the grass. But they were everywhere, and they were loved.

And now they’re dying out. Numbers are hard to estimate, but a 2006 study suggested that the population might have dropped by 50% since the 1990s, and by 2025, they may well be extinct. It’s hard to pin down a single cause for this: removal of hedges, paving over of gardens, use of chemicals have all been suggested, and it’s likely that a combination of factors is behind it all. But one thing is clear: all of these factors are to do with human activity.

Closer to home, let’s think about the woodland caribou in Jasper National Park. This is also a population in decline. There are four separate herds, three of them quite close together in the southern part of the park. Two years ago, numbers for these three herds were estimated at just over fifty animals. One of them, the Maligne range herd, was down to three animals. Two of the biggest factors were road collisions and packed snow trails – both of them related to human activity. And yet, people routinely ignore speed limits designed to protect these animals. I’ve driven on the Miette Hot Springs road at 50 kilometres per hour and seen cars speed past me doing at least 80.

Why am I talking about these things today? Why is it important to us, as people of faith?

Today is Thanksgiving, possibly the one festival in our church year that is firmly connected to the natural creation around us. In many countries Thanksgiving is actually called ‘Harvest Festival’, a time to give thanks to God for the fruits of the earth and the goodness of the Creator who provides for our needs. And given the speed with which we humans are wiping out other species and destroying the natural environment around us, developing a good theology of creation isn’t a luxury for us; it’s vital for our survival. To be blunt: we need Thanksgiving just as much as we need Christmas and Easter. ‘In the beginning…God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1.1). Before God was our Saviour or our Redeemer, God was first of all our Creator. And that mattersto us as Christians. It matters a lot.

This morning, let me suggest to you five biblical virtues of people who know themselves to be created by God and placed in a world created by God.

The first virtue is humility, and it’s especially important to our concept of ownership. Listen to the words of Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers. (Psalm 24:1-2).

If I create a work of art, it belongs to me unless I sell it or give it away. The same applies if I’m a developer or builder and I build a house. This principle is universally acknowledged: if you create something using your own resources, what you have created is your property.

And yet we human beings refuse to recognize this principle when it comes to the Creation itself. We talk about owning land. Premiers of Alberta have been known to announce that the oil under our feet ‘belongs to the people of Alberta’, as if we created the dinosaurs and the process by which they died and were fossilized. We assume that we have the right to decide the fate of animals and birds, as if we designed and created them and have kept them alive by our own skill.

A biblical theology of creation starts here. The earth does not belong to us. Buy and sell land all you like, that doesn’t make you its owner. God has never sold it or given it away. Genesis teaches us that God has entrustedthe earth to our care, but that’s a different thing altogether, something we’ll come to in a minute when we think about the meaning of stewardship. But the caribou belong to God. The hedgehogs belong to God. God took a lot of care in designing them, and they matter to him. What does that mean for how we approach them? Does it make a difference? If not, why not?

So the first virtue is humility.The second one is attentiveness.

 

In our gospel reading for today Jesus says “Look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26). I’m a casual bird watcher myself, so I’m delighted to find Jesus recommending my hobby to his disciples! Seriously, I know that’s not the point Jesus is making: he’s wanting us to learn trust in God from the creatures around us. But I note that he assumes his followers will noticethe birds around them. Nowadays, I don’t think that’s necessarily a sure thing.

We are the most connected generation in the history of humanity – in one sense. Through the wonders of Facebook I’m connected to friends and relatives all over the world; I can see their family photos, read what they’re up to and join in their political arguments to my heart’s content! But in another sense, we’re the mostdisconnected generation. Few of us grow our own food anymore, so we’re disconnected from the natural processes of life. Few go out in the country for walks. And even in the city, I’ve been amazed how many people just don’t look around them. The path that leads down from the LRT station near my house goes past some beautiful trees and shrubs, and in the Fall the colours are spectacular. But most people seem far more interested in their cell phones than the colour of the oak leaves!

God is the Creator. If we love God, shouldn’t we take an interest in what God has made?

There was a time when theologians used to talk about the two books of revelation God has given us: the book of scriptureand the book ofcreation. Yes, we learn about God from the words of the Bible, but we also learn about God from the colours of a sunset, or the vast distances of space, or the amazing creatures that live at the bottom of the sea. If we’re just not interestedin these things, surely there’s something missing in our spirituality?

So let me encourage you to be attentive to God’s creation. Enjoy the colours of Fall. Learn the different species of birds. Delve into the amazing mysteries of DNA and how it works. Walk a woodland trail in the river valley. Smell the smells of the outdoors.Pay attentionto what’s going on in the natural world around you. After all, our lives literally depend on it.

So the first virtue is humility, and the second is attentiveness. The third, of course, is gratitude.

 

And surely we Albertans have more cause to be grateful than almost everyone else on the face of the planet! Our province contains some of the most amazing scenery in Canada. And I’m not just talking about the mountain parks, although they’re spectacular enough. I’m talking about the amazing sunsets we get on the prairies. I’m talking about all the places in our province where you can go canoeing or swimming, or cross-country skiing, or sailing, or hiking through the bush. Last week Marci and I went to visit Elk Island National Park with my aunt and uncle from Ontario: they were wowed by the sight of a whole herd of bison, which they described as ‘magnificent creatures’.

We can see all this. We can also enjoy the benefits of oil and gas reserves buried beneath our feet, reserves that have given us the highest standard of living in Canada. Children growing up in our province today live in luxury that would have been unimaginable to children three generations ago, and we take it for granted. And, of course, we enjoy a level of safety and security billions of people around the world can only dream about. Few of us expect to be caught up in a civil war or an incident of ethnic cleansing.

In 1 Thessalonians 5.18 Paul says ‘Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’. Notice that he says nothing at all about our feelings. He doesn’t command us to feelgrateful. He commands us to dosomething: to say thank you. He knows that the act of saying thank you, and making a habit of it, has a transformational effect on us. Yes, our words often reflect what’s in our hearts, but they also have power to changewhat’s in our hearts. If we build thanksgiving into our daily prayer time, whether we feel like it or not – If we make it a daily habit to think of things we’ve received and to thank God for them – in the end we’ll feel more thankful and more positive.

By the way, this doesn’t only apply to saying thank you to God. To give a smile to a waiter in a restaurant and say “Thank you for looking after us so well” can make that person’s day – but it can also transform ourmood as well. I can tell you from experience that when I say that word of gratitude, it makes mefeel better, not just the other person.

We’re talking about the biblical virtues of people who know themselves to be created by God and place in a world created by God. We’ve talked about the humilitythat acknowledges that the world belongs to God, not us. We’ve talked about the attentivenesswe cultivate as we open our eyes to see God’s gifts all around us. We’ve talked about developing the habit of gratitudeand the effect it can have on other people and on ourselves.

The fourth habit is care. Genesis 2.15 says ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’ (NRSV). The word translated ‘keep’ has the sense of ‘take care of’, ‘guard’, ‘protect’. The Revised English Bible translates it ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and look after it’.

There’s a word in common use in churchland today that’s intimately connected to that word ‘care’: ‘Stewardship’. Simply put, a steward is someone who looks after someone else’s property for them and runs it on their behalf. So, in the middle ages, if the lord of the manor was away for a while, his estate would be entrusted to the steward who would run it in his master’s name and on his behalf. He had all the authority of the lord of the manor, but the estate didn’t belong to him: he was entrusted with it, and was responsible to the Lord of the Manor for how he took care of it.

So the symbolic language of the book of Genesis says ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and look after it’ (Gen. 2.15 REB). In other words, our first call as humans made in God’s image is to look after Gods earth on God’s behalf. Before our call to love one another or care for the poor or share the gospel, the first call given to humans is the call to be good stewards of God’s creation.

So you see, what we refer to today as ‘green’ issues aren’t something peripheral to our call as Christians. God has taken great care to fashion this earth and everything in it. For millions of years it got along without humans, but then the time came when God decided to fashion us in his image and entrust us with some of his authority. I expect this was a bit like parents asking their small children to help them with some project; God knew he could do it better, but he wanted us to grow and learn, so he entrusted it to us. And so as we make decisions today about our carbon footprint, about the sort of cars we drive and the number of flights we take, about how we look after animal habitat and whether or not our actions are helping drive wildlife species to extinction – well, these are spiritual issues. These are discipleship issues. When we see the Lord face to face, this is one of the things we’re going to be asked about: ‘How well did you do in taking care of the earth I entrusted to you?’

So we’ve talked about the humilitythat acknowledges that the world belongs to God, not us. We’ve talked about the attentivenesswe cultivate as we open our eyes to see God’s gifts all around us. We’ve talked about developing the habit of gratitudeand the effect that can have on other people and on ourselves. We’ve talked about learning to be responsible stewards, to take goodcareof this good earth that God has entrusted to us.

The fifth habit is generosity, and it surely needs very little explanation to people in this congregation, because you are amazingly generous! Perhaps, though, the connection with thanksgiving needs to be explored.

We give thanks for something we receive as a gift. We give thanks for our food because we know so many factors in its production weren’t under human control, beginning with the existence of life itself, the gift of a breathable atmosphere, the fruitfulness of the earth, the gift of abundant harvests and so on. Yes, human energy and expertise were involved, but in the last analysis, our food comes from God.

This weekend many of us will enjoy family feasts with tables piled high with delicious food. We do this to celebrate Thanksgiving, and we thank God for all these blessings. Well, if we thank God for them, we surely can’t ignore the loud and clear teaching of the Bible that God is especially the God of the poor and needy, and he calls those who have much to take care of those who have little. This was a major element of the teaching of Jesus. He even went so far as to say that when we refuse to help those in need, it’s really him we’re refusing to help.

So we can express our gratitude to God this Thanksgiving not just in showering our love on our families but also in looking for ways to help those in need. Once again, this isn’t a peripheral activity for those who like that kind of thing. In Matthew chapter six Jesus lists three basic disciplines of people of faith: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. It never occurred to him that anyone would embark on a journey of faith without practising those three disciplines.

Let’s go around this one last time. We Christians are human beings who know ourselves to be created by God and placed in a world created by God. Therefore it’s appropriate for us to cultivate an attitude of humility, reminding ourselves that the world belongs to God, not us. We cultivate the habit of attentivenessas we open our eyes to see God’s gifts all around us. We cultivate the habit of gratitudeas we practice saying ‘thank you’ to God and to the people around us. We cultivate the habit of responsible stewardship, taking good care of this good earth that God has entrusted to us. And finally, we who have been given so many good gifts by a generous God also learn from God the habit of generosity, learning to find joy in giving to those in need and seeing it as a way of serving Jesus himself.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s think of these things and resolve to put them into practice. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bible translations I have read cover to cover

My usual way of reading the Bible is to follow a ‘lectionary’, or system of daily readings (here is an example). Although lectionaries have the advantage of presenting bite-sized portions that are easily readable in a few minutes, they rarely cover the entire Bible.

However, a few times in my life I have read a particular translation all the way through from cover to cover.

The-Living-Bible-Paraphrased-by-Kenneth-Taylor-0340152044In the 1970s I read the original Living Bible, paraphrased by Ken Taylor. Nowadays I don’t recommend this version because it has many inaccuracies, but it was easy to understand and really got me started as a Bible reader.

 

In the late 1990s I read the entire New Revised Standard Versionholy-bible-with-apocrypha-slika-97655151, including the Apocrypha. This was the first time I’d read a reputable modern translation cover to cover. My big takeaway: some of the passages we’re very familiar with (for example Isaiah 9.2-7 at Christmas) make way more sense when they’re read in context and you can see the whole sweep of the story.

 

1_5In 2011, in honour of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version, or Authorized Version, I read it cover to cover, including the Apocrypha. My big takeaway: it was far easier to read the KJV than I thought it would be, and some of the renderings were simply delicious.

In 2016 I used the One Year Bible to read the entire New InternationalP3120015 Version (2011 revision). The OYB gives you a daily portion from Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs; through the course of the year you read the whole Bible once and the book of Psalms twice. I find it takes me about fifteen to twenty minutes to read each day’s selections, depending on whether or not I stop and think about them. I really enjoyed this read.

9780521509404_p0_v2_s550x406I’m beginning to think I’d like to read all the way through the Bible again, in a translation I’m not so familiar with. Possible candidates might be the New Living Translation, the Common English Bible, or the Revised English Bible. I enjoy the One Year Bible method but it doesn’t include the apocrypha, so if I read the REB I’d have to supplement the daily readings, or maybe replace the second time through the book of Psalms with a reading of the Apocrypha.

I really recommend the discipline of reading the whole Bible cover to cover. There’s nothing to compare with the experience of getting the whole sweep of the Bible story from beginning to end. And nowadays we have so many good English translations that you could read a different one each year for twenty years and still not run out of options!

‘Is God On Our Side?’ (a sermon for Sept. 30th on Psalm 124)

Have any of you read Tom Clancy’s novel ‘Patriot Games’? Or maybe seen the 1992 Harrison Ford movie based on the book?

Tom Clancy took the title of his book from a song by an Irish singer-songwriter and political activist called Dominic Behan. It was called ‘The Patriot Game’, and it tells the story of the death of a man called Fergal O’Hanlon in an IRA raid on a police barracks on January 1st1957. A few years later Bob Dylan ripped off the tune, stole the theme, and wrote his own song around it, ‘With God on our Side’. It highlights how in wartime we always assume that our cause is just and that God – if there is a God – is our ally. It goes through the Indian wars, the American civil war, the Spanish-American war, and the two great world wars of the twentieth century, and it ends up in 1963:

I’ve learned to hate Russians all through my whole life
If another war starts it’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them to run and to hide
And accept it all bravely with God on my side

But now we got weapons of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to, then fire them we must
One push of the button and a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions when God’s on your side

I couldn’t help thinking of this song as I read the first three verses of our psalm for today, Psalm 124. In our BAS version they read as follows:

      If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us up alive,
in their fierce anger toward us.

Words like these sound alarm bells in our minds. We live in a time when religious fanatics fly aircraft into tall buildings, killing thousands of innocent people, in the assurance that they’re doing God’s will and carrying out his judgement on the Great Satan. In response, we’ve seen soldiers sent off to fight wars in foreign lands with the speeches of politicians ringing in their ears, assuring them that right was on their side and God’s blessing was on them. Going back a little further, I’ve visited many churches in the country of my birth and seen war memorials up on the walls, with the names of those killed in the Great War and the Second World War, under the heading ‘For God and for Country’.

But that phrase wears a little thin after a while. I know my country sent off its young men in the hundreds of thousands, and at home their moms and dads and wives and children were all praying desperately that God would save their loved ones from death and bring them safely home. But of course, on the other side moms and dads and wives and children were praying exactly the same prayers for their own precious loved ones. How would God sort out those prayers?

With these questions in our minds, it can be a shock to us to come to the words of our psalm for today, claiming that ‘the Lord was on our side’. It reminds us of the many, many times when armies have gone on wars of conquest in the name of God. Can we still use this psalm today? After all, we claim to follow Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. So is this psalm still relevant for us, and can it somehow help us in our prayers?

Let’s step back for a minute and remind ourselves of what exactly the book of Psalms is all about. My Old Testament professor in college used to say, ‘The rest of the Bible speaks tous, but the psalms speak forus’. The rest of the Bible gives us stories and sermons, laws and prophecies, gospels and visions, all addressed to us in the name of God. But the Psalter is different; it’s a hymn book, a book of prayers. We can use those prayers in one of two ways; we can pray them ‘as is’ – as we do in church every week – or we can use them as a model for our own prayers.

If you read the psalms you’ll see they really do cover every situation of life. If you’re rejoicing over the birth of a child or celebrating a royal wedding, there’s a psalm for that. If you’re full of bitterness because a friend has let you down, or you’re blind with rage because your city has just been destroyed by a foreign army, there’s a psalm for that too. If you’re full of wonder at the night sky or the variety of God’s natural creation – if you’re desperate with fear at impending danger, or delirious with joy at a miraculous deliverance – if you’re old and close to death – if you feel guilty for your sins – in all these situations and many more, you can find a prayer in the book of Psalms that speaks for you.

But it’s important to remember this: the psalms aren’t meant to teach us accurate theology or Christian moral principles. That’s not what they are. They’re poetry, and they obey the conventions of poetic speech, not theological textbooks or lists of commandments. If we approach them looking for ethical guidance we can sometimes get into real trouble.

Let me give you an example. Psalm 137 was written by Israelites who’d been dragged away from their homeland into captivity. Fresh in their mind was the awful experience of seeing their city destroyed by the enemy army. First had come the siege and all its privations: the hunger, the thirst, the growing fear and desperation. Then the enemy army had broken through the wall, and there followed the sack of the city – houses looted and burned, soldiers killed, women raped, children slaughtered, and a remnant taken away as prisoners to a foreign land. There they sat down by the river and wept, remembering their loved ones who had been slaughtered and their beautiful city that had been destroyed. And so they said,

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered you, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up
on the trees in the midst of that land.
For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” (Psalm 137:1-3 BAS)

Did they pray that God would help them forgive their enemies? They did not. They were not afraid to pray exactly what was on their hearts, and so the end of the psalm goes like this:

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock! (vv.8-9 BAS).

As Christians we might find ourselves asking, “Why is this in the Bible?” And the answer is, it’s in the Bible to teach us to tell the truth when we pray. There’s no point praying prayers full of sweetness and light when what’s really inside us is hatred and rage. There’s no point praying prayers telling God that we love to do his will when really we’re angry with God and the last thing we want to do is the thing he’s calling us to. Why would we lie to God? What’s the point, when he knows everything about us?

Psalms like this encourage us to share every part of our life with God. Every experience, every emotion, can become part of our prayer life. And once it’s acknowledged, then we can look at it in the cool light of day – and in the light of the teachings of Jesus – and ask ourselves, “Is this something I need to grow out of? Is this something I need to repent of?” But as long as we don’t pray about it – as long as we pretend it’s not there – that growth can never happen.

So let’s go back to our psalm for today – a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of Israel from their enemies. We would love to know what the situation was that first prompted this psalm to be written, but the truth is that we just don’t know that. What isclear is that it was a time of great trouble for Israel. Israel was the underdog, in a position of weakness, and in real danger of being destroyed. The writer of the psalm is a true poet and uses no less than four poetic images to describe this. First he sees the enemy as some sort of monster who would have eaten them up: ‘Then would they have swallowed us up alive in their fierce anger toward us’ (v.3). Secondly he uses flood imagery: ‘Then would the waters have overwhelmed us and the torrent gone over us’ (v.4). Third, he sees the enemy as a wild animal with sharp teeth: ‘Blessed be the Lord! He has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth’ (v.6). Fourthly, he uses the image of a hunter setting a trap to catch birds: ‘We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we have escaped’ (v.7).

This is not an army going out in a war of conquest against its enemies. This is not a prayer prayed by terrorists about to murder innocent people. This is the prayer of the people of a small city somehow miraculously delivered from an enemy of overwhelming strength. It seemed as if their fate was sealed – burning, looting, rape, killing, captivity – but against all odds, they were delivered. And their instinctive response was to cry out to God in thanksgiving. We understand that, because we do the same thing. How many times have you heard someone say, “Someone must have been looking out for me today”? That’s not a sophisticated theological statement; it’s the natural response of a heart full of relief and gratitude.

Can we use this psalm today? I believe we can.

Who is our real enemy? Part of the genius of Jesus was that he redefined who the enemy really was. Jesus taught that our most dangerous enemies aren’t foreign armies, but the evil and sin that infect all of us. The line between good and evil isn’t black and white; there’s good and evil in all of us, and from time to time we’ve all felt the sense of failure to overcome our own inner demons. How many times have you met addicts who just can’t seem to get free from the overwhelming desire to drink or do drugs? How many people do you know who struggle to control a bad temper, or realize their greed is destroying their marriage? Every day, in a hundred different ways, my sins trip me up and hold me back from achieving God’s dream for me. Every day I see the power of evil in the world – not just in the bad guys, but in the good guys too.

Jesus knew this could only be changed by the love and power of God coming into us, bringing forgiveness and a power greater than our own. That’s why he went to the Cross to demonstrate God’s forgiveness for the whole world.  That’s why he sends the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who follow him. If the Lord had not been on our side there would have been no escape from the power of evil and sin, but now we know, because of the resurrection of Jesus, that evil won’t have the last word. And now we know, because we’ve received the Holy Spirit, that even now we have access to a power greater than our own to help us become the people we need to be.

I can’t give you three infallible steps to experiencing that help. God isn’t some sort of cosmic slot machine – put in the right coin, and out pops the desired answer! Jesus taught us that God is the Father who loves us, and good parents don’t usually require their kids to use some specific magical formula of words before they’ll help them. Rather, good parents teach their kids to trust them and not be afraid to ask for help. So if you’re facing a situation that seems too big for you to handle, this psalm encourages you to acknowledge that, but also to remember that it’s nottoo big for Godto handle. So bring it to him. Cry to him for help. Ask his guidance and direction and commit yourself to following the answers you get.

Let’s be clear: we won’t always experience dramatic deliverance. We see that in the area of physical healing; some are healed and some are not, and sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. But what we willexperience is the presence of God and the love of God supporting us in our time of need. Another psalm, 46, uses dramatic poetic imagery to describe a time of trouble and to point to the help that comes from God:

‘God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
though its waters rage and foam,
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult…

The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold (Psalm 46:1-3, 7 BAS).

Note that the writer of the psalm doesn’t claim that the help of the Lord caused the earth to stopshaking or the mountains notto fall. What he says is that even though those things happen, he won’t be afraid, because the Lord is with him as a place of refuge.

Our psalm for today, 124, ends with these words: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth’. ‘Someone is looking out for us’; someone is helping us deal with stuff we would never have been able to deal with on our own. If the Lord had not been on our side, evil and sin would have overwhelmed us, but God is rescuing us from their power day by day. So when we are in the thick of it, let’s remember these words and draw strength from them: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth’. ‘The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold.’

True Wisdom (a sermon for Sept. 23rd on James 3.13 – 4.10)

My old friend Ken Burningham spent many years working with First Nations people in northern Saskatchewan, and over the years he rubbed shoulders with a lot of folk in leadership positions in the various Cree reserves. He said something to me once that has stuck with me through the years. He said, “When I first started out I knew a lot of older chiefs who had a lot of wisdom, but not much knowledge. Now I know a lot of younger chiefs, who have a lot of knowledge, but not much wisdom”.

That really resonated with me. We know instinctively that there’s a difference, don’t we? Knowledge is not a bad thing, but by itself it’s not enough. Knowledge can be used for good or for evil. After all, Adolf Hitler had some very knowledgeable people working for him. But in order to live well in this world you need more than knowledge. You need to know the best courses of action to take when life throws things at you. You need to know what’s important and what’s not important. You need to know who created you, and what you were created for. In other words, you need true wisdom.

In our epistle for today James returns to the subject of wisdom, which he’s already mentioned earlier in his letter. He talks in verse 13 about the person who is ‘wise and understanding’, and a few verses later he contrasts ‘earthly wisdom’ with ‘the wisdom from above’.

But before we dive into these verses, let’s remind ourselves that James isn’t the first person in the Bible to think and write about wisdom. The Old Testament has a whole genre of books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – books that gather together wise sayings to guide people in the art of practical godly living. In these books there’s general agreement about where wisdom starts: Proverbs 1:7 says ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. This isn’t talking about fear in the sense of terror; it’s talking about having a proper reverence and awe for the God who made us. It’s encouraging us to remember that the relationship between us and God isn’t an equal one. God is infinitely good and holy and powerful, but we’re not; we’re God’s creations, and our understanding and wisdom are limited. True wisdom comes from the Lord, and we need to go to him in humility to learn the best path through life.

Wisdom in the Old Testament isn’t an abstract intellectual concept; it’s not something we learn in coffee shop conversations about ‘the meaning of life’. Rather, it’s about discovering the kind of life God designed us for, and learning to live it out in the midst of our ordinary daily occupations.  It’s about actions, not just words or thoughts. Think of Jesus’ well-known story of the wise and foolish builders. The wise man, who built his house on the rock, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and actson them’ (Matthew 7:24), but the foolish man, who built his house on the sand, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and does not acton them’ (v.26). So wisdom means hearing the words of Jesus and putting them into practice in our daily lives.

This godly wisdom is essentially humble.It means acknowledging that we don’t have the ability in ourselves to choose the wise path, so we need to ask God to teach us true wisdom. Christians believe that God has come to us supremely in Jesus, so we expect that in the life and teaching of Jesus we’ll find the clearest and most accurate embodiment of the wisdom of God. After all, as Christians we surely believe that Jesus was at the very least the wisest man who ever lived, so following him means looking to him for the wisdom we need in our daily lives. We listen to his voice, and we put in into practice.

But there’s another voice out there, a rebellious voice. We first run into it in the third chapter of Genesiswhere we meet the snake, who tempts the man and the woman to follow their own path rather than the one God sets out for them. The snake contradicts God’s instructions to the man and the woman. He says, ‘God knows that when you eat of (the fruit of the tree) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5). The next words are very revealing: ‘So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate’ (Genesis 3:6).

The woman saw ‘that the tree was to be desired to make one wise’. Here we have a different path to wisdom; the snake says, “There’s something good that God could have given you, but he’s chosen to hold it back from you. The only way to get it is for you to strike out on your own, reject God’s guidance and find your own path through life. If you do that, you’ll become as wise as God and you won’t need to keep asking him what to do”. This is the way of pride and arrogance, when we say to God, ‘Your way sounds interesting, but I don’t think it’ll work in the real world, will it?” As if the human race has a great track record of making things work in the real world!

So this is the biblical conversation James is stepping into in today’s reading, and he clearly spells out these two kinds of wisdom. In verse 13 he says,

‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom’.

He goes on in verses 17-18 to describe what heavenly wisdom looks like:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

But earthly wisdom is entirely different; look at verses 14-16:

But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

This is what we might call ‘worldly wisdom’, the wisdom that knows how to look out for itself and ignores everyone else. This is the person who knows how to play the game of life so that they get the best parts and everyone else gets the leftovers. The essential characteristic of this so-called wisdom is selfishness and self-centredness:a person who has this devilish wisdom is entirely absorbed in their own interests and cares nothing for the interests of others.

Is this likely to produce peace? Of course not. If we want true true peace we have to develop a genuine concern for the well-being of others. If we grow a world where everyone thinks only of themselves, this is inevitably going to bring people into conflict with each other. You want that patch of land? So do I. You want that pot of money? So do I. You want that spot in the centre of the stage? So do I.

And we all know where that leads. Look at chapter 4 verses 1-3:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and you do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Are you surprised that James addresses these words to Christians? Do we really expect Christians to murder people when they don’t get what they want? Sadly, one look around the world today will tell us that this happens more often than we’d like to believe. But even when it isn’t literallytrue, most of us have probably experienced church life that feelslike a war zone. Don’t we all want a church that caters to our own needs and desires? And when someone proposes a change, isn’t our first thought “How is this going to affect me?” When you get a whole church full of people who feel that way, it’s not surprising that there’s often conflict.

What’s the way out? James would tell us that we need to remember that God is God and we are not, so we need to step down from the throne, apologize to God for sitting on his chair, and then take our place in humility before him. We need to ask Godto guide us rather than always assuming that we know what’s good for us. In verse 6 James quotes again from the Book of Proverbs:

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”.

That reminds me of a quote from the end of The Hobbit – the book, I mean, not the movie! Gandalf the wizard is talking with Bilbo about how his actions have helped the old prophecies to be fulfilled, and Bilbo is shaking his head at this idea. Gandalf says,

“And why not? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies just because you helped them come about. You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck? Just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow in a wide world after all.”

“Thank goodness!” Bilbo replied.

I like that! I’m only a little fellow in a wide world after all, and that’s something I need to remember on a regular basis! And so, after encouraging us to repent of our sins and return to the Lord, James ends this section by saying,

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (4:10).

So where are we going with this today? What does it mean for you and me as we leave this place and go out into the world as followers of Jesus?

James has described the world we live in – a world torn by conflict and war – a world of winners and losers – a world where the winner takes all and the loser has to pay the price. And he’s asking us, as the biblical writers so often do, “Do you seriously think you can change this without changing the basic selfish orientation of the human heart?”

True wisdom starts with a recognition that God is God and I am not. My knowledge is limited, but God knows everything. I’ve seen only a tiny corner of his universe, but God has seen all of it. I’ve only seen fifty-nine years, but the whole of time and eternity is spread out before God.

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. As I said before, ‘fear’ in this passage doesn’t mean ‘terror’; it means ‘awe’ and ‘respect’. A proper awe and respect and reverence for God will lead to a desire to learn his ways and put them into practice in our daily lives. And this will mean recognizing that I’m not the lead character in God’s play; there are seven billion others on the planet as well, and every one of them is important to God. So rather than being concerned that everyone notices what an admirable person Iam, I need to be shining the spotlight on others, so that everyone gets their share of the light.

Let me close by reading you the last two verses of chapter 3 from the ‘New Living Translation’; I think it’s very helpful:

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace-loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favouritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.

Amen.

2018 England pics – Part 3

Last Saturday we had a great gathering to celebrate my mum’s 80th birthday. Here are some of the best pics.

Mum with my cousin Angela and her husband Jim.

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My brother Mike, his wife Jeanette, and their children Stephen and Ellie:

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Mum and her school friend Marg Smalley (they’ve basically been friends for 75 years!).

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Mike and I with our Auntie Carole:

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Marg Smalley, Mum, Auntie Carole, Jeanette, Uncle Alan

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Marci and me with Carole and Alan

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And here’s the birthday girl on the day of her actual birthday (Sept. 16th):

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Finally, a pic of Marci and me on the train as we began our journey home.

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