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)

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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.