18 March 2018

Sermon – “The Other Side of Repentance” (Psalm 51)

In this morning’s New Testament reading we heard the story of what may be one of Jesus’ best-known miracles. Mark gives us the picture of Jesus in a house with people crowding around him on every side, jam-packed right to the door. As Jesus is teaching, noises are heard from above, then dust and little bits and pieces start falling from the ceiling, a shaft of light opens up, and last but not least, slowly a man is lowered on a mat into the middle of the room. I can only imagine that everyone was wondering what was going to happen next. But I bet no one could have predicted that Jesus would do what he did, as he turned to the man and said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Then the reaction began to set in. Not a word was uttered. It didn’t need to be. The atmosphere of shocked condemnation could be felt throughout the room as much as the dust still hanging in the air. “Why does this fellow talk like that?” “He’s blaspheming!” “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
So what did it mean for Jesus to forgive that paralyzed man? What was he doing that seemed so radical, even heretical, to some of those in the room that day? To look for an answer, I want us to turn to the Old Testament passage we also read a few minutes ago, Psalm 51.
It is recognized as the greatest expression of penitence in all of Scripture. One Bible Commentary goes so far as to say, “As an expression of a heart overwhelmed by shame, humbled and broken by guiltiness, and yet saved from despair through penitential faith in the mercy of God, this poem is unsurpassed.”[1] No doubt that is why it forms the core of the Ash Wednesday service in many churches, including our own.
Of the 150 psalms in the Old Testament, half are attributed to King David. But of those seventy-five, only three contain a precise reference to the circumstances that gave rise to them. And curiously each of these arises out of a low point in David’s life. Two of them were composed during the uprising fomented by his rebellious son Absalom, when David was forced to flee for his life into the wilderness. The psalm we are looking at this morning, however, is the expression of what was undoubtedly the lowest point in David’s life—and unlike the others, it was a low point entirely of his own making.
Many of us will be familiar with the story of David’s infatuation with Bathsheba, the wife of his most loyal general, Uriah the Hittite; of how that infatuation led to adultery; of Bathsheba’s resulting pregnancy; and finally of how David cunningly engineered Uriah’s death in the field of battle. Had it not been for the courage of one man, the prophet Nathan, David’s treachery might never have been found out. Now we find David with his face to the ground, crying out through his tears, “Have mercy on me, O God…”
The psalm is a study in repentance. But that repentance would have been meaningless, were it not for a far greater fact—the fact of God’s forgiveness. The conviction that our God is a God who forgives is one that runs from one end of the Bible to the other. Way back on Mount Sinai God had revealed himself to Moses as “the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7a). Centuries later this same truth is echoed in Nehemiah’s prayer on behalf of his wayward people: “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Nehemiah 9:17). And elsewhere in the Psalms we read, “But with you there is forgiveness…” (Psalm 130:4a).
But what does it mean for God to forgive? That is what this morning’s psalm is all about. And it comes to us in a series of verb clusters. If you have a Bible open in front of you, we’ll take a look at each of them in turn.

Wipe, wash, cleanse

You can find the first cluster in verses 1, 2, 7 and 9. It involves words that all have to do with “wiping out”, “washing away” or “cleansing”. The first of them, which our New International Version Bibles translates “blot out”, has to do with making a correction in a book, whether it was removing a stain or cancelling a debt. I am told that in the ancient world the way you erased something on a leather scroll was not by blotting, but by washing or sponging off the ink. So perhaps “wipe out” is a better translation than “blot out”—especially when you consider that the word is used elsewhere for wiping a dish clean.[2]
Later, in the writings of the prophet Isaiah we read of the Lord,
“I, even I, am he who wipes out
     your transgressions, for my own sake,
     and remembers your sins no more.” (Isaiah 43:25)
So it is, when God wipes out our sins, not a trace of them is left—and this is made clear in the two other words that David uses in his prayer: in verses 2 and 7: “wash away” and “cleanse”.
When I was a boy there was a detergent called Omo. I haven’t checked the grocery store to see if it’s still on the market and I don’t think we ever used it in our household. But what I remember about it is the ads: “Omo washes not only clean, not only white, but bright! Omo adds bright, bright, brightness.”
Now in the ancient world there was no such thing as Omo. For clothes to be washed they had to be beaten on rocks. When I visited Haiti a few years ago I remember mothers doing this in a stream that ran by a school sponsored by our church—and I’ve never seen school children in such sparkling white clothes as I did there. So to quote one author the washing we’re talking about here is “not a polite rinse but a thorough scrub”.[3] And when it comes to the stain of sin, even that is not enough. As we read from the prophet Jeremiah,
“Although you wash yourself with soap
     and use an abundance of cleansing powder,
     the stain of your guilt is still before me,”
declares the Sovereign Lord. (Jeremiah 2:22)
Yet though we may not have the power to cleanse ourselves from our sins, we have a God who does. The Bible assures us,
If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
(1 John 1:9)
Though your sins are like scarlet,
     they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
     they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

Hide your face

The next expression that David uses—and you’ll find it in verse 9—is a curious one: “Hide your face from my sins.” What does it mean for God to hide his face from my sins? Way back at the beginning of creation Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after they had sinned, and it didn’t work.
Last week our older son celebrated a significant birthday, and Karen and I presented him with an album of pictures we had taken of him over the years. Needless to say, we were careful to omit any that might be embarrassing or less than complimentary! One of the things I have said about myself more than once is that I have no desire to have to sit through the complete video of my life. There are just too many things that I have done, words that I have spoken, not to mention attitudes that I have harboured, of which I am ashamed.
So was David asking God to play pretend? I don’t believe so. In spite of the level of moral degradation to which his sin had plummeted him, David nevertheless still had a profound appreciation of the wonder of God’s forgiveness. That is, when God forgives our sins, he forgives them utterly. As we read from the prophet Micah, “You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Corrie ten Boom shed vivid light on this truth in an experience she had following the Second World War. Perhaps some of you have heard it before, but I’ll repeat it again because it is so memorable.
The year was 1947, and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. This was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombedout land, and I gave them my favourite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. And even though I cannot find a scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, NO FISHING ALLOWED.”[4]
“No fishing allowed.” When God forgives our sins, he forgives them fully, finally and forever.

Restore, rescue

We come now to our third set of words, the first of which is “restore”. If you check a concordance, you will find that the verb for “restore” is found more than a thousand times in the Old Testament. At its heart it means simply “turn around” or “return”. And so more often than not it is speaking about our human part in the process of repentance. Back in the dark ages when I was a teenager, our morning service at church would often begin with these words:
Seek ye the Lord while he may be found,
     call ye upon him while he is near:
Let the wicked forsake his way,
     and the unrighteous man his thoughts:
and let him return unto the Lord,
              and he will have mercy upon him;
     and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
(Isaiah 55:6-7)
Now you can see that these verses emphasize what is required of us in dealing with the sin in our lives. But when David uses this word it is the other way around. In verse 14, he uses exactly the same word when he calls upon God to “restore to me the joy of your salvation”. Why? Because David recognizes that without God’s sovereign intervention true restoration is not possible. The author of Psalm 126 had the same thought in mind when he sang, “Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the desert” (Psalm 126:3).
Linked with that is another word David uses, this time in verse 14: “deliver”. I prefer to translate it, “rescue”, since when most people think about “deliver” these days, what they generally have in mind is a package from Amazon arriving at their door. At its root the word has the basic sense of pulling something out. As David cries out elsewhere,
I sink in the miry depths,
     where there is no foothold …
Rescue me from the mire,
     do not let me sink… (Psalm 69:2,14)
So it is that God finds us up to our necks in a substance that I won’t mention from the pulpit, and he reaches down and lifts us up and cleans us off and sets us on our feet again: another picture of forgiveness.
Now shift back to the little house in Capernaum and to Jesus’ words, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” In those five short words are concentrated all that I have been at pains to say for the last fifteen minutes. “Your sins have been wiped out.” “You are washed, cleaner than any human effort could make you.” “Your sins have been hidden in a place where even God himself chooses not to find them.” “You have been rescued, lifted out of a pit from which you could never have escaped on your own.”
Lent is a season of repentance. And today you and I have the freedom to repent because we have a God who forgives—and because we have a Saviour who cried, “Father, forgive them…” And those words were meant not only for those who stood beneath his cross, but for you and me today.

[1]     Leslie S. M‘Caw & J.A. Motyer, “Psalms”, The New Bible Commentary Revised, 1970, page 483

[2]     See 2 Kings 21:13

[3]     John Goldingay, Songs From a Strange Land, page 162

[4]    “The Face of My Enemy”, https://www.biblegateway.com/devotionals/night-light-couples/2016/04/22

24 February 2018

Sermon – “Welcome Dave!” (1 Corinthians 1:26 – 2:5)

A sermon preached at the Installation of the Rev. David Mowers as Rector of Trinity Church, Baraboo, Wisconsin
I have to admit I was a little tickled when your new rector informed me that, because it is St Matthias’ Day in the church calendar, one of the readings for the service this morning was to be about the choosing of Matthias as the twelfth apostle to fill the space left by Judas Iscariot. In one sense it is a most appropriate reading for the present occasion. After all, this service is a celebration of your choosing a new rector to serve in your parish. However, I rather doubt that you used the same method as the apostles did in going for Matthias. And on the slim chance that you did, you’re probably not going to admit it when the bishop is present!
My own theory about the passage (for whatever it’s worth) is that both candidates, Joseph and Matthias, were equally suited, equally qualified, equally gifted for the position. The little church in Jerusalem was in an enviable position. Good rectors are not always easy to come by—and I am sure that the members of your search committee worked and searched and prayed hard before they found the young man who stands before you this morning. And let me add from my own experience over a number of years (and as I suspect you yourselves have already begun to recognize) you have found a man of excellence.
So we’ll leave Matthias aside for now, because I suspect the other passages that we have read from the Bible this morning are Dave’s choice—and if we look at them we may find some clues about the kind of ministry he is going to have among you and in which I have no doubt he will want you to become engaged.

Consider your call…

In the reading from 1 Corinthians Paul is writing to the Christian community in a busy port and commercial center on the Mediterranean Sea near the southern tip of Greece. Unlike this church, which has ministered in Baraboo for more than 160 years, the church in Corinth was still in the toddler stage. It had been founded by Paul himself during his second missionary journey, just four years or so before he wrote the letter from which we have just read. So you can imagine the level of esteem in which some of those parishioners held Paul. There were some, in fact, who were proud to claim, “I’m one of Paul’s followers.”
It was a claim that horrified Paul, for it is a constant temptation to slip into the habit of focusing the ministry of the Christian community in one person. It happened in the first century and it happens in the twenty-first. In one church where I served there were some people who still looked back longingly to the rector who had gone there in 1897! But Paul turns the tables around in the opening words of this morning’s reading: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters…”
Now I can imagine what probably went through the minds of those people as these words were first read to them. “My call?” “But I don’t have a theological degree.” “I can’t get up in a pulpit and preach.” “I wouldn’t know how to counsel anybody.” And on and on the list goes. But Paul pulls the rug out from under all of that. Look how he describes the Corinthian church: “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”
And this was nothing new. Think of Jesus’ followers. They were a ragtag group if ever there was one: a handful of fishermen, a tax collector (considered a turncoat by the locals), a radical freedom fighter, and on the list goes—including even one who would later betray him. They were constantly arguing with one another. They repeatedly missed the point of Jesus’ parables and miracles. They cowered in a locked room after he was crucified. Yet these were the ones who very soon would be turning the world upside down!
The point is that Jesus isn’t looking for superstars. He’s looking for women and men who are simply willing to live their lives in faithfulness to him.
Today, as you officially welcome Dave Mowers as your rector, you are giving recognition to the fact that you are on a journey together. The church has often been likened to a ship. It’s why we call the area where you are sitting the nave. But it’s not a luxury cruiser. It’s more like the ships that the Romans used to conquer the Mediterranean world, strenuously rowed by hundreds of men in the lower decks. (If you’ve ever seen the movie Ben Hur, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) The maneuverability of those ships depended on every oarsman pulling his weight. So too the mission of the church depends on each and every of us living in full and wholehearted response to God’s call in Jesus Christ.

When I came to you…

It is only after challenging the members of the Corinthian church to fulfill their calling that Paul goes on to write about his own. He tells them that he didn’t make any attempt to win them over by what one translator renders as “polished speeches and the latest philosophy”.[1] Perhaps Paul had learned from his experience in Athens, where that approach had been a bit of a flop only a few days before! And that in turn may also have been why he came to them “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling”.
Whatever the case, the sacred ministry is a solemn and awesome responsibility. I had that impressed on me at my ordination as a priest. We were still using the “old” Book of Common Prayer at the time, from which the bishop said to me,
Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body… Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you…[2]
I remember years later sitting down behind my desk on my first day in a new parish and dialing my predecessor on the telephone. “How are you doing?” I asked him. “Well,” he said, “probably just like you. I’m sitting here feeling utterly incompetent.” We clergy may put on a veneer of bravado, but I believe the best of us recognize deep within ourselves that we are unequal to the task that has been committed to us.
It was for that reason Paul made a resolution that in both word and action he would seek to point to Jesus Christ and to him alone—and that he would do it not by falling back on his substantial rabbinical and academic training but by surrendering completely to the Holy Spirit. Now that does not mean that Paul flew by the seat of his pants. (I’ve seen preachers that do that and it doesn’t work!) No, it meant that everything he did was bathed in prayer.
I believe that in calling David Mowers to the ministry of word and sacrament in this parish you have invited into your midst a remarkable man with remarkable gifts. He has a deep commitment to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and he has a deep love for the church. He is a preacher of extraordinary ability. He is a leader and a man of vision. He is gifted with a fine intellect and reads deeply and broadly. But none of that will come to any fruition unless it is enlivened and empowered by the Holy Spirit. And by the way, you may disagree with him about which baseball team to root for, but don’t let that stand in the way of coming alongside him and praying for the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit both upon him and upon your ministry together.

… So that your faith might rest on the power of God

Now all of this has a purpose. And that purpose, says Paul, is “that your faith might rest on the power of God”. There is always the temptation to put our faith in other things: in church programs, in budgets, in traditions, or whatever. I suspect our particular Episcopal inclination is to put our faith in thinking that we’re the only ones who know how to do it right, whether it’s our social justice agenda or just the fact that we seem to be the only ones who know better than to sing Christmas carols in Advent or Alleluias in Lent!
I remember hearing the story of a Chinese pastor visiting a group of pastors in our part of the world. He told them how in his church there were no hymnbooks, no computers, no budget, indeed not even a building. The pastors expressed their amazement that a church could function, much less thrive, without all these seemingly necessary tools. To which he replied, “And I am amazed at how your churches are able to continue without relying on the power of God!”
In this morning’s gospel reading we heard the story of those two downhearted men drearily making their way along the seven-and-half-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Their hopes, their dreams, their whole world had crashed down upon them with the sight of Jesus hanging lifeless on the cross. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they confessed to the mysterious stranger who had joined them along the journey. It was not all that much later that they were staring at each other in amazement and stuttering, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?”
They realized that they had been in the presence of Jesus. Surely that’s the kind of thing Paul is getting at in this morning’s reading when he writes about “a demonstration of the Spirit” and about a faith that rests on the power of God. By his preaching and teaching, in his ministration of the sacraments, in his daily prayer and conversation, and above all by his life and character, Dave’s job is to help you live in the power of the Holy Spirit. He is here to help you discover Jesus as a present reality—as the one who has died and yet is alive forevermore.
There is no doubt in my mind that your search committee and your bishop were led by God to bring Dave Mowers to serve in this parish. And my prayer for you as you officially embark on this journey together is that you may indeed find your hearts burning within you, that you may know the daily presence of Jesus in your lives and in your midst, and that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may be bearers of his grace and his good news to a needy world.

[1]     Eugene Peterson, The Message
[2]     The Book of Common Prayer, Canada, 1962, page 649

31 December 2017

Sermon – “The Lord our Dwelling Place” (Psalm 90)

Here we are, standing at the cusp of yet another year. It’s an annual opportunity to stop and think for a moment about the passage of time, and not just about time in general, but our time, the time that has flown past (for many of us all too quickly and for some not quickly enough) and the time that stretches ahead of us, for some filled with opportunities and new adventures, for others perhaps bringing a sense of apprehension about what may lie ahead. To help ourselves put all of that in perspective, I don’t think there are many more appropriate passages of Scripture than the psalm we have just read—Psalm 90.
We tend to think of the psalms as the work of King David. In fact, of the one hundred fifty psalms in the Old Testament, seventy-five are ascribed to him. However, the psalm we read together a few moments ago is unique in all the Old Testament in that it is attributed not to David but to Moses. If you turn to it in your Bible you will see it has the superscription, “A prayer of Moses the man of God”.
Some scholars question this attribution, but as I have read this psalm over and over and meditated upon it during the last couple of weeks, it makes a lot of sense. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations…” It is not difficult for me to imagine that these are the words of a man who has spent the better part of forty years wandering through the wilderness with his people, with no home to call their own. Yet throughout that time the Lord has been with them, visibly witnessed through the cloud that led them by day and the pillar of fire at night. But he had been with them long before that, as they toiled as slaves under the searing Egyptian sun, with Joseph and Jacob and Isaac, and going back to Abraham as he answered the call to journey from the banks of the Euphrates to the land that God had said would belong to him and his descendants.
So picture Moses, if you will, late one night lying back and looking up into the clear desert sky. My son Simon and I had the opportunity to do this in Libya on the edge of the Sahara several years ago and it was a memorable experience. Gazing into a sky uncluttered by pollution and the glow of city lights, he knew that behind all those innumerable stars that paraded across night after night, mightier than the mountains that surrounded him, reaching back past the ages beyond the dawn of time, there was God. “In the beginning, God …” And in this morning’s psalm: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” 


God’s Eternity

If you take a few moments to go online and visit the NASA website, you can see an amazing photograph with Saturn’s rings in the foreground. Not far below them you can discern a tiny, almost insignificant, softly glowing dot. That dot is our planet earth, as seen from a distance of nearly one and a half billion kilometers[1]. The image gives us a picture of the vastness of our solar system, which itself is only a tiny dot within the Milky Way, which in turn is another tiny dot in the seeming limitlessness of the created order.
Moses certainly did not have access to any of the kinds of sophisticated astronomical data that are available to us today. But he didn’t need them in order to find himself overwhelmed by the limitlessness of God. The Bible tells us that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20). And we could spend all morning just considering the wonder of God’s eternal nature. We find it sprinkled throughout the Bible, in Psalm 104, for example:
Lord my God, you are very great;
     you are clothed with splendour and majesty.
The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
     he stretches out the heavens like a tent…
He makes the clouds his chariot
     and rides on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 104:1-3)
Or again, in one of the most exalted pieces of poetry in all of Scripture, from the prophet Isaiah:
Do you not know?
     Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
     Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
     and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
     and spreads them out like a tent to live in…
‘To whom will you compare me?
     Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
     who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
     and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
     not one of them is missing. (Isaiah 40:21-22,25-26)
And how about that unforgettable catalogue of questions with which the Lord peppered poor Job?
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
     Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
     Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
     or who laid its cornerstone –
while the morning stars sang together
     and all the angels shouted for joy?
Who shut up the sea behind doors
     when it burst forth from the womb, …
when I said, “This far you may come and no farther;
     here is where your proud waves halt”?
Have you ever given orders to the morning,
     or shown the dawn its place … ?
Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
     or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?
     Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
     Tell me, if you know all this. (Job 38:4-18)
In Psalm 8 his consideration of God’s creative power and eternal majesty leads the psalmist to ask a question:
Lord, our Lord,
     how majestic is your name in all the earth! …
When I consider your heavens,
     the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
     which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
     human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:1,3-4)
And that is precisely the question that burns through the middle section of our psalm this morning.

Human Mortality

The main preoccupation of the psalm is not much with God’s eternal nature as it is with its contrast to our human mortality.
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.
But Moses was not the only one to recognize this. Poor old Job cried aloud to his friends,
My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle,
     and they come to an end without hope.
Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath… (Job 7:6-7)
And Solomon mused,
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
     and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
     that they can carry in their hands. (Ecclesiastes 5:15)
Nearing the end of his life, the apostle Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy, “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6:7). And Jesus exemplified that truth in his parable of the rich fool. Many of you will remember his story of the man who kept having to build bigger barns to store his surplus grain. But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you” (Luke 12:13-21).
Isaac Watts put poetic expression to this morning’s psalm in the hymn we’ll be singing in a few minutes’ time:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
     Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
     Dies at the opening day.
Now isn’t all this a cheerful way to look ahead to the New Year? I hope I haven’t thoroughly demoralized you! But before you sink too far into depression, there’s something else we need to see in this psalm—and that is that it recognizes, indeed it laments, that none of this is the way things should be. You know those puzzles that ask you to spot what’s wrong with this picture? This psalm has something like that in it. The hints come out in verses like these: “You turn people back to dust…” “You sweep people away in the sleep of death…” “We are consumed by your anger…” “All our days pass under your wrath…”
The psalmist is painfully aware that things don’t have to be the way they are—that the power of life and death lies in God’s hands. All of this leads to the desperate cry in verse 13: “Relent, Lord, how long will it be?” The verb in Hebrew is shub. It means to turn around. It is as though God has his back towards us.
So you see there is something deep within the psalmist’s heart—something in all our hearts—that protests, that cries out this is not the way it’s supposed to be. As we read in Ecclesiastes, “He has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). So it is that C.S. Lewis reflected,
We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the very wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed: unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal…[2]

Eternal Habitations

Turn with me now to the second-last chapter of the Bible, where the seer John gives us a picture that is so breathtaking that it cannot be compared with the sky even on the most glorious starlit night. There, John is given a vision of the new heaven and the new earth. He looks on with awe as the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, descends from the skies, “prepared,” as he describes it, “like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband”. Then a loud voice booms from God’s throne with the words, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).
Now shift the scene to the night before his crucifixion, as Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room. There he gave them the promise, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).
And now in this Christmas season we remember how the Lord of time and eternity, he who has been our dwelling place throughout all generations, the eternal Word, became flesh and made his dwelling among us. “We have seen his glory,” John declares, “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). It is in Jesus that we see life as God truly intends it to be. It is in Jesus that we find our eternal dwelling place in the heart of God.
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
     Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
     Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heav’n, stoops heav’n to earth…[3]

[2]     Reflections on the Psalms, 114,115
[3]     Richard Crashaw (1612-1649), “An Hymne of the Nativity”

22 October 2017

Sermon – “His Love Endures Forever” (Psalm 106)

I am told that there are three words known by Christians around the world: “Hallelujah”, “Amen” and “Coca-Cola”. The psalm we read this morning (Psalm 106) contains two of those words—and I’ll leave it to you to figure out which two! In fact even that is a bit of a trick question, because you aren’t likely to find “Hallelujah” either—unless you look at the footnotes in your Bible, where you’ll see that the opening and closing words of the psalm, “Praise the Lord!” are simply a translation of the Hebrew words Hallelu Yah.
So let’s take a look at this psalm. In my mind’s eye I can see an enormous gathering of people in Solomon’s magnificent Temple, its massive eighty-foot columns soaring above them. There is a sense of anticipation in the air that is almost palpable. Then a hush comes over the crowd as a cantor stands up on the dais before them and intones, “Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” Then from the choir and the congregation there comes the resounding response, “His love endures forever.”
It would have been a familiar chorus. We find it repeated more than forty times in the Old Testament—twenty-six times in Psalm 136 alone. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever.” But then the psalmist has one of those moments. Perhaps you’ve had them too (I know I do), when something in the service causes your mind to fly off on a tangent. It may be a matter as mundane as, “Did I remember to turn off the burner on the stove before we left?” Or perhaps it is a more profound reflection, something that might never have crossed your mind before. For the psalmist those opening words prompt in him a question. And the question is this: “Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord or fully declare his praise?” Who really is qualified to offer praise to God in the first place?
Over my forty-plus years of pastoral ministry I have seen an increasing trend to emphasize informality, casualness, in worship. Maybe you are familiar with the contemporary praise song that runs,
Come, just as you are to worship,
Come, just as you are before your God,
Now before I say another word, let me tell you that I love that song. I love it because it says something important: that we don’t have to clean up our act, to get our life together, before we come to the Lord. The God we worship is the one who ate and drank with outcasts and sinners. Thank God that we have largely done away with the fustiness and formality that characterized so much of what was called worship! A friend of mine once told me of how he went to preach in a church in a high-end suburb of a large American city. He dressed (as he thought was appropriate) in a blazer and tie. When he arrived at the door one of the leaders, an executive in a large multi-national corporation, recognized him as that morning’s guest preacher. He introduced himself, then discreetly took my friend aside and said to him, “Now are you going to take off that tie or do I have to rip it off?” I am tempted to call that approach “formalized informality”!


Let me say that I think that all in all the emphasis on informality has largely been a healthy influence on the church. At the same time, however, we need to remember that worship is a privilege. Frederick Faber expressed it well in his hymn:
My God, how wonderful thou art,
Thy majesty, how bright;
How beautiful thy mercy seat
In depths of burning light!
How wonderful, how beautiful,
The sight of thee must be;
Thy endless wisdom, boundless power,
And glorious purity!
That is exactly where the psalmist is coming from in this morning’s passage. For him this was an honour with which nothing could be compared: to enter the presence of the Creator of heaven and earth! Elsewhere in the psalms we read,
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked. (Psalm 84:10)
We find this sentiment expressed in Psalm 24:
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
     Who may stand in his holy place?
To which comes the reply,
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god.
Our psalmist this morning is drawn to a similar conclusion: “Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord?” he asks. “Who can fully declare his praise?” The answer: “Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.” Now that is a tall order! We might just squeak through on the first qualification. But who can claim always to do what is right? Well, there may be a few rare saints for whom that is true much of the time; for most of us the best we might be able to answer truthfully is some of the time. But all of the time? The psalmist is setting the bar considerably higher than I know I can can reach.


No wonder then that his mood turns from one of praise to one of heartfelt petition: “Remember me, Lord, when you show favour to your people; come to my aid…” This in turn leads him to take an honest look into his own heart and into the history of his people—and what he sees there is not a pretty sight. “We have sinned,” he laments, “even as our ancestors did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly.”
In the twenty-three verses that follow he leads us through a tragic catalogue of sins. We won’t go into them all in detail, but suffice it to say that they include unbelief (verses 7-12), impatience with God’s plans (verses 13-15), contempt towards their God-appointed leaders (verses 16-18), idolatry (verses 19-23), discontent with God’s gifts and promises (verses 24-27), apostasy (verses 28-31), rebellion against the Holy Spirit (verses 32-33), and finally the murder of their own children in sacrifice to false so-called gods (verses 34-39). It is all summed up in the words of verse 43: “They were bent on rebellion…”
As you look at all those misdemeanours you might be inclined to protest, “But those aren’t the psalmist’s sins! They were committed centuries before he was even born. How can he hold himself responsible for what his ancestors did?” But here’s the catch: It’s not that the psalmist actually did all those things, but that he recognized himself and his own evil inclinations in their acts.
That may be a difficult concept for some of us to get our minds around. So let me give you an illustration. In his book The Body Charles Colson recounted the chilling story of Yehiel Dinur. He was one of a number of Auschwitz survivors who were called in to testify at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1960. Here is what Colson wrote:
On his day to testify, Dinur entered the courtroom and stared at the man in the bulletproof glass booth—the man who had murdered Dinur’s friends, personally executed a number of Jews, and presided over the slaughter of millions more. As the eyes of the two men met—victim and murderous tyrant—the courtroom fell silent, filled with the tension of the confrontation. [Then] Dinur began to shout and to sob, collapsing to the floor. Was he overcome by hatred, by the horrifying memories, by the evil incarnate in Eichmann’s face?
As he later explained in a riveting 60 Minutes interview, it was because Eichmann was not the personification of evil Dinur had expected. Rather, he was just an ordinary man, just like anyone else. And in that one instant, Dinur came to the stunning realization that sin and evil are the human condition. “I was afraid about myself,” Dinur said. “I saw that I am capable to do this exactly like he.”
Dinur’s remarkable statements caused Mike Wallace to turn to the camera and ask, “How was it possible for a man to act as Eichmann acted?” Yehiel Dinur’s shocking conclusion? “Eichmann is in all of us.”[1]
When the prophet Isaiah was confronted with the full reality of God in all his holiness, he cried aloud, “Woe is me! I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). Like the psalmist and like Yehiel Dinur, Isaiah recognized his solidarity with the rest of his people and his profound need for forgiveness.


So it is that in the last two verses of this morning’s psalm we pray, “Save us, Lord our God, … that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.” These final verses are a direct quotation from an earlier incident in the Bible. And in using them as he does the psalmist shifts our thoughts from the low points in Israel’s collective history to one of its high points. The scene he is calling us to recollect is in the streets of Jerusalem, where all the people, from the lowliest peasants all the way up to the king, are to be found dancing and singing with exuberant joy. Why? Because the ark of the covenant, Israel’s most holy object, the sign and symbol of God’s holy presence, is being brought to rest in their midst.
So it seems to me that what the psalmist is saying is that in spite of all our sin and waywardness, in spite of the long history of human depravity and corruption, God remains faithful to his people. To take words from Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner, God’s steadfastness is greater than our perversity.[2]
To this great expression of faith the people are invited in the final verse of the psalm to add their own “Amen”. Yet if this psalm has taught us anything, we are tragically aware that our “Amens”, no matter how earnest or well-intentioned, will always be fickle and temporary. Far more importantly than ours, we have a God who has proclaimed his own “Amen”.
In the final book of the Bible Jesus reveals himself as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation” (Revelation 3:14). So it is that God’s “Amen” comes to us in human form—more than that, in the shape of a cross and the one who hung there for you and for me. And it comes to us in his words, “It is finished”. It was at Golgotha that our God in his unquenchable love both demonstrated the extent of his faithfulness to us and dealt the final blow to our human sin. We can stand in God’s presence because in Jesus he has stood in your place and mine, and taken all our sin and wrongdoing, all our waywardness and rebellion, and absorbed them into himself. It is because of Jesus that we can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence and glory in his praise, knowing that there we will receive mercy and grace.
So with humble and penitent hearts and with joy that no one can take from us, let us give thanks to the Lord, for he is good: His love endures forever. Hallelujah!

[1]     Charles Colson, The Body, 187-188
[2]     Psalms 73-150, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 382