Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sermon for August 21st: Psalm 124

Is God on our side?

In Tolkien’s classic fantasy book The Lord of the Rings, the young hobbits Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard, a very old tree-like person whose job is to be a kind of shepherd of trees, protecting them against danger and looking out for their well-being. Merry and Pippin have just come from a battle and they are very anxious to find out whether Treebeard is a friend or an enemy. So they ask him, ‘Whose side are you on?’ He replies, ‘I am not altogether on anyone’s side, because no one is altogether on my side’.

I thought of this quote as I read the first three verses of our psalm for today, Psalm 124. In the NRSV they read as follows:

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side

– let Israel now say –

if it had not been the LORD who was on our side,

when our enemies attacked us,

then would they have swallowed us up alive,

when their anger was kindled against us.

This phrase ‘With the Lord on our side’ sounds all sorts of alarm bells in our minds these days. After all, we live in a generation that has seen religious fanatics fly aircraft into tall buildings, killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children, in the assurance that they were 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 that God’s blessing was on them. Going back a little further, I have 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 that 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 back to them. But who can doubt that exactly the same thing was happening on the other side – moms and dads and wives and children praying the same prayer for their own precious loved ones? How would God sort out those prayers?

With these questions in our minds it can be a bit of 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? Especially as Christians, who follow a master who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us –is this psalm relevant for us, and can it somehow help us in our prayers?

It can be helpful to step back a little 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 to us, but the Psalms speak for us’. The rest of the Bible gives us stories and sermons, laws and prophecies, gospels and visions, all of them addressed to us in the name of God. But the Psalter is different; it’s a hymn book, a book of prayers, given to us either to use ‘as is’, as we do in church every week, or as an example of the way that God’s people can speak to him in every situation of life, a model for our own prayers.

The psalms really do cover every situation of life. If you’re rejoicing over the birth of a child or celebrating a royal wedding – if you’re full of bitterness because a friend has let you down or blind with rage because your city has just been destroyed by a foreign army – if you are 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 of these and many more situations, you can find a prayer in the Book of Psalms that speaks for you. As I said, you can use the prayer ‘as is’, or you can use it as an inspiration for your own prayer.

But it’s important to remember that the psalms aren’t meant to teach us accurate theology or Christian moral principles. That’s not what they are. They are poetry, and they obey the conventions of poetic speech, not theological textbooks or lists of commandments. In many cases, we make a big mistake if we approach them looking for ethical guidance about the way we live our lives.

Let me give you an example. Psalm 137 was written by Israelites who had been dragged away from their homeland into captivity in Babylon. Fresh in their mind was the awful experience of seeing their city destroyed by the Babylonian army. First had come the siege and all the privations, the hunger, the thirst, the growing fear and desperation. Then the Babylonian 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, the land of Babylon. 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 rivers of Babylon –

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”’ (Psalm 137:1-3)

Did they pray that God would help them to 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 Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back

what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones

and dash them against the rock! (vv.8-9).

As Christians, we might find ourselves asking the question, “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. You see, there’s no point in us praying prayers full of sweetness and light when what’s really inside us is hatred and rage. There’s no point in us 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? It’s a pretty hopeless strategy, given the fact that our hearts are completely open to him!

Psalms like this teach us that we can 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 of course love to know what the situation was that first prompted this psalm to be written. Our lectionary today pairs it with the story from the Book of Exodus of how the Egyptian midwives disobeyed Pharaoh and didn’t kill the little Israelite boys at birth; this is seen as God’s deliverance of those little boys, and so the psalm thanks God for that. In another year of the lectionary it’s paired with the book of Esther, the story of how God rescued the Jews from a man called Haman who tried to have them all killed in the days of the Persian empire. These may be appropriate uses of the psalm, but it’s very unlikely that it originally came out of either of these situations.

The truth is that we don’t know what the background was. What is very clear is that it was a time of great calamity. 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, when their anger was kindled against us’ (v.3). Secondly he uses flood imagery: ‘then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us’ (v.4). Third, he sees the enemy as a wild animal with sharp teeth: ‘Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as a prey to their teeth’ (v.6). Fourthly, he uses the image of a fowler setting a trap to catch birds: ‘We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; 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 who are about to murder innocent people. This is, perhaps, the prayer of the people of a small city which has somehow been 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”? This isn’t a sophisticated theological statement; it’s the natural response of a heart filled with relief and gratitude.

Can we use this psalm today? I believe we can, and not just in the sort of situation I’ve just described. You see, part of the genius of Jesus was that he redefined who the Enemy really was. As we read in our gospel reading today, Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. In Jewish expectation the Messiah was the King who God was going to send to deliver Israel from their enemies and establish God’s justice and peace. Everyone knew who those enemies were: the Roman invader, and the corrupt rulers in Israel. Everyone knew that the Messiah would be a military leader like King David who would slaughter the enemies of God and restore good and honest government to Israel.

Jesus accepted the title but not the job description, because he thought that the real enemies were not foreign armies but the evil and sin that infect all of us. In the last analysis the line between good and evil is not 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 I sat with addicts who just can’t seem to get free from the overwhelming desire to drink or do drugs? How many times have I listened to people struggling to control a bad temper, or people who realize that 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 that this could only be changed by the love and power of God coming into us, bringing us forgiveness and a strength beyond our own. That’s why he chose to offer his life on the cross for the sins of the whole world, and that’s why, after his resurrection, he sent the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who followed 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 will not have the last word. And now we know, because we have 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 this 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 a 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 to be afraid to ask for help. So if you are 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 not too big for God to handle. So bring it to him. Cry out to him for help. Ask for his guidance and direction, and commit yourself to following the answers you get.

We will not always experience dramatic deliverance; let’s be clear about that. We see that in the area of physical healing; some people are healed and some are not, and sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. But what we will experience 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 should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult…

The LORD of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge’ (Psalm 46:1-3, 7).

Note that the writer of the psalm does not claim that the help of the Lord caused the earth to stop shaking or the mountains not to fall. No, he said that even though those things happened, he would not be afraid, because the Lord was 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, who made heaven and earth’. ‘Someone is looking out for us’; someone is helping us to 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, and the resurrection of Jesus promises us that one day the victory will be complete. So when we are in the thick of it, let us remember these words and draw strength from them: ‘Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth’. ‘The LORD of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge’.

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