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,
Come
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”!

Praise

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.

Penitence

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.

Pardon

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

20 August 2017

Sermon – “The Way of Mercy” (Psalm 67)

Ever had the feeling you’d bitten off more than you could chew? Well, that’s exactly the sense that began to come upon me as I got more and more deeply into preparing my sermon this week. It was my intention to focus on Psalm 67, a psalm I committed to memory years ago in the old-fashioned idiom of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer:
God be merciful unto us, and bless us;
     and show us the light of his countenance…
That thy way may be known upon earth,
     thy saving health among all nations.
When I looked at it a couple of weeks ago in the New International Version (the translation in our pew Bibles), I found these words:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
     and make his face shine on us…
It’s not that different, except that the word “merciful” has become “gracious”. In fact, virtually every English translation since 1952 has dome the same thing, substituted that word “gracious” in place of “merciful”. This whetted my curiosity. And so a few clicks on biblegateway.com revealed that, while the words “mercy” and “merciful” occur 310 times in the King James Version of the Bible, they are to be found only 144 times in the New International Version. Why the change?
First of all, there are half a dozen words in each of the languages of the Old and New Testaments that can be translated “mercy” and each one has a different shade of meaning. There is one that carries the notion of “faithful devotion” and is often translated “loving kindness”. “I will sing of the Lord’s mercies forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations(Psalm 89:1). The word that is used in our psalm this morning has been defined as “the gracious favour of the superior to the inferior, all undeserved”.[1] A third term in the Old Testament is related to the word for “womb” and so has the meaning of “motherly care” or “tender love”. It is the word the psalmist uses when he prays, Surround me with your tender mercies so I may live” (Psalm 119:77).
When we come to the New Testament there are again three words that are often translated “mercy”. The first simply means kindness: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). “If your gift is to show mercy, do it cheerfully” (Romans 12:8). “Mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13). There is a second word that means “compassion”. Thus Paul exhorts the Christians at Rome, “I urge you …, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,” (Romans 12:1) and James declares, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11). But the most colourful term in the New Testament really means “bowels”—suggesting that we’re talking about a powerful emotion that comes from deep within. It’s the word that the desperate father uses when he comes to Jesus imploring him on behalf of his epileptic son: “If you can do anything, have mercy on us and help us” (Mark 9:22). And on more than one occasion, when Jesus saw the crowds that gathered around him and their neediness, the gospels use that same word. Today we might easily say, “Jesus’ heart went out to them” (Mark 6:34, 14:14).

The Nature of Mercy

My suspicion is that our contemporary Bible translators have moved away from that word mercy because in today’s world it has taken on negative implications. For many people “mercy” has become one of those outmoded words like “charity”. For them it carries with it a sense of condescension, of pity. While claiming to help, in reality it demeans its recipients, who end up being beholden to the one who bestows it. But that is certainly not the mercy that we find in the Bible or in the psalm we read this morning.
One of the characteristics of Hebrew poetry is that it often takes the form of a series of parallel statements, in which one phrase amplifies or enhances the one that precedes it. And this is what we see in Psalm 67:
May God be merciful to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us.
One of the things I’ve always loved to do on a hot summer day is to go body surfing. I stand out in the water up to my waist and a little wavelet passes by. Then there’s slightly larger one that wets me a little higher. And that is followed by a great rolling wave. I plunge in front of it and it carries me right into the shore. It seems to me the same is happening in this opening verse. It’s a kind of crescendo. May God be merciful to us; may God bless us; may God smile upon us. Each phrase builds on the previous one until it carries us like a wave into the shore.
You see, mercy is not about sparingly dispensing something when people beg for it. It’s not as though God grudgingly bestows his mercy only when we plead to him long enough and desperately enough. (Do you remember the story Jesus told about the persistent widow who pleaded her case before the unjust judge? The whole point of that parable is that God is not like that.) No, we have a God who desires nothing more than to show mercy. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercy and the God of all comfort …,” writes the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 1:3). The Lord is full of compassion and mercy,” echoes James (5:11). “His mercies never come to an end,” sings Jeremiah, “they are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
And so mercy is about abundance. It is about generosity. It is about the lavishness of grace. It is about a shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine sheep in the fold to go in search of the one that is lost. It is about a father who kills the fatted calf for his errant son and runs down the road to embrace him. It is about a God who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.

The Need for Mercy

The tragedy is that that kind of mercy is a rare commodity in our world today. You can see the evidence of its disappearance in the social media on a daily basis. How quick people are to become judge, jury and executioner often on the slimmest of evidence! They hide behind the anonymity of the internet to lash out with torrents of insults and invective, with the result that whole lives have been ruined through unsubstantiated defamations. And then there is road rage, where a forgetful moment behind the wheel on the part of one driver can lead to unbridled fury on the part of another.
Lest we think that we in the church are immune, let me tell you a little story from Don Posterski, who used to be vice-president of World Vision Canada. His position often involved travel and therefore eating in restaurants. He tells of how he would occasionally ask the wait staff what were their best and worst times of the week. Almost invariably the answer would be Sunday lunch. Why? Because that was when they received the lowest tips. And who makes up a significant proportion of Sunday diners at restaurants? Churchgoers. Sadly we have gained a reputation among at least one segment of the population of being stingy and thankless. It wouldn’t take a lot of effort to turn that around when you consider that a five percent difference on a tip in most cases doesn’t amount to more than a dollar or two.
How transforming it would be if we who claim to be followers of Jesus could recapture the Bible’s vision of God’s mercy! And it seems to me the only way we can do that is to pursue it, to experience it, to cast ourselves upon it, on a daily basis ourselves. New Testament scholar Tom Wright has written, “The church is never more in danger than when it … forgets that every day it too must say, ‘Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner,’ and allow that confession to work its way into genuine humility… ”[2]
Wright is echoing one of the earliest of Christian prayers: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is known by many as “the Jesus prayer” and is prayed repeatedly by believers in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Of this prayer Franciscan writer Richard Rohr comments,
This is not a self-demeaning prayer, nor a self-defeating prayer, nor is it a disempowering prayer. Relying upon mercy, in fact, protects you from the arrogance and pride that wants to judge others, even in your mind. It situates you in freedom from any sense of your own sufficiency or superiority, and affirms a non-need to justify yourself, and thus keeps your heart open for others and for God. It is basically a prayer for detachment from the self, both mind and heart, and its endless games of self-validation. “Lord, have mercy” seeks validation only from God and not from any inner or outer attempts to be worthy, independently “good”, or not-in-need-of-mercy.[3]

The Fruit of Mercy

Before we close, there is another aspect of God’s mercy that we find in Psalm 67 and that we cannot overlook. I spoke of God’s mercy being like a wave that washes over us. One of the things about that wave is that it doesn’t stop with me. It continues to surge forward until it reaches the shore. So too, God’s mercy does not stop with us. Look at the psalm again:
May God be merciful to us and bless us
     and make his face to shine upon us—
that your ways may be known on earth,
     your saving power among all nations.
In fact apart from the first verse the focus of the entire of the psalm is not on “us” but on “them”: “Let the peoples praise you…” “Let the nations be glad…” “Let all the ends of the earth revere him.” God shows mercy to us so that we in turn may show that same mercy to others. And if we didn’t hear that message in the psalm, it certainly comes through loud and clear in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant.
Do you remember the story he told about the king who thought it was time to settle accounts with his servants? As it turned out, one of them owed him an incalculable debt, far more than he could ever hope to pay in several lifetimes, so the king ordered that he and all his family be sold into slavery. When the servant got wind of this, he threw himself face down before the king and begged, Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything.” Jesus tells us the master had mercy on him and cancelled the debt. No sooner had he left the king’s presence, however, than he sought out one of his fellow servants who owed him what was by comparison a trifling amount. He grabbed him by the throat and shook him and demanded, “Pay back what you owe me!” In response his fellow servant pleaded with him, Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything.” But he refused and had the man thrown into debtors’ prison. When the king heard about this, he was enraged and said to the servant, “You wicked servant! I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” And with that he handed him over to the jailers.
The point of the parable is that that is the way it is with God’s mercy. He does not intend it to end with us, but to flow out from us, to bring freshness, renewal, joy and hope into the lives of others.
In his remarkable little book, The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis relates the story of when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and a priest came seeking his counsel. The priest felt guilty because he feared he was too prone to offer forgiveness to the penitents who came to him in the confessional. The pope asked him what he did when he had these doubts. His reply: “I go to our chapel … and say to Jesus, ‘Lord, forgive me if I have forgiven too much. But you’re the one who gave me the bad example!’ ”[4]
Praise God that there are no limits to his mercy! And may it be our highest privilege and greatest delight to share God’s mercy in a world that desperately needs it.




[1]     “Mercy”, The New Bible Dictionary, 809
[2]     Evil and the Justice of God, 99
[3]     “Why We Need to Say, ‘Lord, have mercy!’ ”, Huffington Post, 16 Sep 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/fr-richard-rohr/why-we-need-to-say-lord-h_b_3935884.html
[4]    Page 13

09 July 2017

Sermon – “An Alphabet of Praise” (Psalm 145)

 I will exalt you, my God the King;
     I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will praise you
     and extol your name for ever and ever.
So ran the opening verses of the psalm we read together a few moments ago this morning. And did you realize it? But as we walked through those first eleven verses, we walked through half the Hebrew alphabet as well? Aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, he, waw, zayin… Psalm 145 is one of eight of what are known as acrostic psalms in the Old Testament, with the first word of each verse beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The longest and most complex of them is Psalm 119, where each line of each succeeding set of eight verses begins with the same letter of the alphabet.
The psalms encompass a rich variety of poetic forms. More importantly, they cover the entire range of human emotions, from overflowing joy and praise to deep sorrow and lament.
Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord,
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept…
How can we sing the Lord’s song while in a foreign land?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The psalms were at the core of the magnificent worship of the Temple. But they were also composed for more humble circumstances, to be used both within the context of the family home and also on an individual basis. Some of the most loved psalms are the most deeply personal ones: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…”
It is no wonder, then, that the psalms, which are so central to Jewish worship, should also have become essential to Christian worship from the very beginning. In the mediƦval period this led to the incomparable music of plainsong and Gregorian chant. Sublime as that music is, it meant that for the vast majority of congregations the psalms became something to listen to rather than to be sung. And so one of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the introduction of metrical psalms, psalms that could easily be sung to the popular tunes of the day.
The metrical psalms formed the backbone of Protestant hymnody for more than three centuries. In my mind’s eye I can picture great crowds of people gathering not only in churches, but in the marketplaces and public squares (maybe even in the taverns!) to join in singing the metrical psalms.
The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie…
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell,
Come ye before him and rejoice…
Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ…
I can only believe that the church would be greatly strengthened today by a return to the psalms. How much would we be enriched if they were to take their rightful place both within our public worship and also in our private devotions! And so, with those thoughts in mind, I’d like us to turn for the next few moments to Psalm 145, which I have entitled “An Alphabet of Praise”. (Take heart, by the way. I don’t intend to preach through all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet—but just to highlight three themes that I see more generally emerging from this psalm.)

Our Mighty Creator

As David opens, he acknowledges that he is standing in the presence of the King of all creation. Indeed, he is astounded by the sheer majesty and awesomeness of God. “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise,” he sings. “His greatness no one can fathom.” “His greatness is unsearchable,” runs the old King James Version of the Bible. “God is magnificent,” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation in The Message. “He can never be praised enough. There are no boundaries to his greatness.”
Whenever we begin to worship God, it is important to stop and to take time to recognize the one into whose presence we are coming. It is a temptation to rush into worship. Most of us lead busy lives. We have jobs. We have families. We have things to do. I remember before I retired, friends who had already retired warning me, “You’ll be so busy in retirement that you won’t know how you managed to do all the things you did before.” Frankly, I’m not sure I believed them. Well, I’ve been retired for a couple of years now—and they were right!
If we are truly going to offer God the worship he deserves, though, we need to take time to stop and to consider who he is—to be still, as another psalm instructs us, and know that he is God. We need to put behind us all the cares and busyness of life—the children that need attending to, the bills that need to be paid, the papers that are piling up on my desk at work, the emails that need to be answered, the lawn that needs to be mown and a thousand and one other preoccupations—and focus on him. To remember that we are entering the presence of the King of all creation, the Ruler of all that is. And I grant that that is not an easy exercise.
As David does this, he becomes aware that he is not alone in his praise—that his praise is just an echo of the praise of every generation and indeed of all creation. I know that I have had that sense as I have stood in some of the great cathedrals of Europe. As I gaze up at the ancient stained glass, as I see the places where the stone floor has been worn down by generations of worshippers, I become aware of the deep truth of what we say week by week in my own Anglican liturgy,
Therefore with angels and archangels
and with all the company of heaven,
we laud and magnify thy glorious name,
evermore praising thee and saying,
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.
Glory be to thee, O Lord most high!
David himself said this in his own words in Psalm 19 when he sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” And do you remember that incident in the gospels when a crowd of Jesus’ followers began to burst forth with joyful praise to God for the miracles they had been witnessing? The Pharisees wanted Jesus to tell them to stop. But Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:37-40).
So this morning here at St James’ Church in Truro, Nova Scotia, we recognize that our prayers and our songs of worship are an echo of the praise that rings down a thousand generations and throughout the world today, as we stand in the presence of the Maker of the universe, supreme over everything that exists.

Our Gracious Provider

From his contemplation of God as his mighty creator, David moves in the psalm to a more personal level. In verse 8 he declares, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” Now those words were not original to David. They are found a number of times in the Old Testament. We first meet with them in the book of Exodus, when Moses has climbed to the peak of mount Sinai to meet with the Lord. Moses has had the audacity to ask the Lord to show him his glory but God answers him no, for no one may see his face and live. However, not long afterwards he does pass in front of Moses, proclaiming these words: “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 34:6-7).
What David was doing was echoing the very words that God himself had used to describe himself. And the point is this: that our God is a god who reveals himself personally. And he wants each of us to know him on that level—not merely as the Creator of the starry skies, but as the one who loves and cares for each of his children, who calls us by name.
One of the things I didn’t take into account when we bought our house in Halifax a couple of years ago was how long it would take me to mow the lawn. It turns out that it takes more than two and a half hours. Rather than it being a nuisance, however, I’ve come to enjoy that time, as it gives me an opportunity, with the lawn mower buzzing and my ear protectors on, to shut out the rest of the world for a little while and to meditate and praise God. One song I found myself singing as I mowed this past week (and I can’t explain why, but that goes for a lot of things that pop into my head) was a hymn that I don’t think is in any of the hymnbooks any more—perhaps because it’s regarded as too sentimental. But maybe there are some of you who remember it from your childhood:
God sees the little sparrow fall,
It meets his tender view;
If God so loves the little birds,
I know he loves me too.
And then there’s the chorus:
He loves me too, he loves me, too,
I know he loves me too;
Because he loves the little things,
I know he loves me too.
So it is that David writes, “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” One of the discoveries I was delighted to make this past week as I studied this psalm is that the word “compassion” here is used elsewhere to describe the tender love of a mother. In fact, it is related to the word for “womb”. And so we find that our heavenly Father watches over us and cares for us with a mother’s love.[1] We see this further in verses 15 and 16:
The eyes of all look to you,
     and you give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand
     and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

Our Faithful Protector

In this psalm, then, we look to God as our mighty creator, supreme over every being, and our gracious provider, who looks after our every need. There is one other thought that I would like us to focus on this morning, and it’s found in the final section of the psalm:
The Lord is righteous in all his ways
     and faithful in all he does.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
     to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfils the desires of those who fear him;
     he hears their cry and saves them.
King David himself could bear personal witness to God’s faithfulness in his life: in giving him victory over the giant Goliath, in protecting him from the jealous rage of King Saul, in forgiving him for his egregious affair with Bathsheba… No doubt if David were here this morning he could share numerous other evidences of God’s faithfulness in his life. And I’m sure that many of us would not have to think too hard to do the same.
Yet as we follow that path of God’s faithfulness from whatever direction, whether forwards from King David writing in 1000 bc or backwards from today in 2017 ad, it will inevitably lead us to a homeless couple in Bethlehem gazing in awe at a tiny child, to a preacher who reached out his hand to touch a leper, to a dying man hanging naked on a cross and gasping, “Father, forgive them…,” to a woman standing outside an empty tomb and stuttering in amazement to the man who stood in front of her (who she thought was the gardener), “Rabboni!” Years later the apostle Paul would reflect, “All God’s promises find their ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Like so many of the psalms, this one will have done its work if it draws you and me into greater gratitude, into deeper amazement, and into closer fellowship with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—our mighty Creator, our gracious Provider and our faithful Protector. In the final words of our psalm,
Let every creature praise his name for ever and ever!




[1]  See note on Psalm 103:13 in the New Bible Commentary Revised, page 515.

02 July 2017

Sermon – “A Prayer for Canada” (Psalm 72)


“He shall have dominion also from sea unto sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.” So runs the King James Version of Psalm 72:8, the psalm we have just read as our Bible passage this morning. I rather doubt that the psalmist had Canada in mind when he composed this prayer for King Solomon nearly three thousand years ago. Its connection with Canada can be traced to a Nova Scotian, George Monro Grant. A native of Stellarton, Grant became the minister at what was then St Matthew’s Presbyterian Church in Halifax. Described as a “romantic evangelical”, Grant was a great admirer of the famous American evangelist of the time, Dwight L. Moody. Like Moody, Grant’s sermons “stressed the importance of personal conversion and an active engagement in the world, and were centred theologically in the mystery of the Atonement”[1], Christ’s saving death on the cross.
It was in 1872 that Grant accompanied a member of his congregation, Sandford Fleming, on a three-month, five-thousand-mile journey to Victoria. This long expedition was in preparation for the proposed railroad that was designed to link British Columbia to Canada and draw it into Confederation. The following year Grant published a travel book based on the diary he had kept. He entitled it Ocean To Ocean—a direct reference to Psalm 72:8.
Seven years later, after a journey across Canada on the newly laid railway, it would inspire another Halifax Presbyterian, Robert Murray, to pen the hymn,
From ocean unto ocean
Our land shall own thee Lord,
And, filled with true devotion,
Obey thy sovereign word.
Forty years after that, in 1921, these same words in their Latin form were proposed by Joseph Pope (a Prince Edward Islander) to be included as the motto in the newly designed Canadian coat of arms. Today I suspect that few Canadians would recognize that the phrase emblazoned across the cover of their passports is from the Bible!
Way back in my university days I had a friend who liked to say when people would quote from Scripture, “A text without a context is a pretext.” For this reason, over the next few minutes this morning I’d like us to look together at the biblical context of our nation’s motto—at the verses that surround those words, “From sea even unto sea”. As we do so, we are going to find that there are three themes that emerge, themes that I would place under the headings of peace, justice and compassion. So let’s take a look at each one in turn.

Peace

First: Peace. If you are reading from the New International Version (as I am) or almost any modern translation of the Bible, you will not find the word “peace” anywhere in the psalm. Instead you will find the word “prosperity”. It’s there in verse 3 and again in verse 7. If you were to check out some of the older versions, you would find that there the same word is rendered “peace”. Underneath them both there lies that most wonderful of Hebrew words, shalom. “Shalom”—the very word itself sounds peaceful, doesn’t it? But I think recent translators have shied away from using the word “peace” because too often “peace” just means a standoff, an absence of war, while deep-rooted hostilities may still lurk in the background. So they opted for “prosperity”.
However, the problem now is that prosperity, just as much as peace, is an equally misunderstood word—and that is thanks, not in the least, to what has become known as the “health, wealth and prosperity gospel”. That so-called gospel is the farthest thing from the good news that Jesus proclaimed. Wasn’t it Jesus who said to his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20)?
I suppose we have to leave that problem to the translators, but what does the Bible mean when it uses the word shalom—as it does in our psalm this morning? My Old Testament wordbook translates it as peace, prosperity, well-being, health, completeness, safety. One author has described it as “that full-orbed well-being of individual and society, in character and conduct, manward and Godward”[2] In fact it is all those things combined and brought together into one single, beautiful, all-embracing word.
Shalom is the picture that Zechariah gives us as he looks forward to the day when God himself will come to live and reign in the midst of his people:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there… The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew.” (Zechariah 8:4-5,12).
Again it is shalom that Isaiah wrote about in his poetic description of the new creation:
“Never again will there be in it
     an infant who lives but a few days,
     or an old man who does not live out his years…
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
     or plant and others eat…
They will not labour in vain,
     nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
     they and their descendants with them…
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
     and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
     and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,”
     says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:20-25)
It is a beautiful picture that the Bible gives us—and may it be the vision that we share for Canada: a land of peace, where people can live without fear of persecution, war, violence, discrimination or want. Certainly that has been the hope of the waves of immigrants and refugees who arrive in the hundreds of thousands every year.

Justice

However, peace cannot exist on its own. It must be accompanied by what the Bible calls justice or righteousness. So it is no coincidence that right alongside peace we meet those words half a dozen times in the first seven verses of Psalm 72. More than that, they crop up more than five hundred times over the course of the Old Testament. And why is this? Because justice is basic to any ordered society. And it is justice that makes peace possible.
Yet once again, as with “peace” and “prosperity”, those two key Bible words “justice” and “righteousness” are often skewed and misunderstood in our society today.
Many people in our day and age see justice as a matter of getting even with another person whom I perceive to have done me wrong. Yet more often than not that kind of attitude leads not to peace but to increased levels of hostility. And the public media only make this worse. They love to give us pictures of people with clenched fists and shouting so loudly you’d think their blood vessels were going to burst. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for anger. Indeed there are injustices that we would be wrong not to be angry about. But they will not be mended by getting even.
The same is true of righteousness. For many to be righteous means to regard yourself as morally better than other people—rather like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. Do you remember that man’s prayer as he stood looking down his nose at the tax collector praying next to him in the Temple? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). That is not righteousness. It’s self-righteousness, and there is a world of difference between the two. For righteousness is a matter not of being right, but of being in right relationships. What are Jesus two great commandments? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. That is what true righteousness is all about.
So what does the Bible mean when it uses the words “justice” and “righteousness”? As I have indicated already, the two unquestionably have to do with integrity, fairness and uprightness both in our individual lives and also more broadly across society as a whole. Yet even more they involve bringing people into right relationships with one another and not least with God.

Compassion

In recent years this has led to a movement towards what is called restorative justice, where victim and offender are brought together, and the offender is encouraged to see things from the victim’s perspective. But there is a whole other side to biblical justice and that is that it always has a special eye for the poor, the needy and the downtrodden. And this again is reflected in the psalmist’s vision. Take a look at verses 12 to 14, where he sings of the king,
He will deliver the needy who cry out,
      the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy
      and save the needy from death.
He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
      for precious is their blood in his sight.
So we find that in the biblical pattern peace and prosperity cannot happen without justice and righteousness. And there is no real justice where there is not compassion for the have-nots, for the powerless, for those who live on the fringes of society. Job knew this centuries ago when he declared,  
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
     justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind
     and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy;
     I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked
     and snatched the victims from their teeth. (Job 29:14-17)
If you take the Bible seriously, you cannot have a truly just society without it being a compassionate society. I remember a conversation I had over lunch with a friend some years ago. An election was coming up and I asked him which candidate he would be inclined to vote for. His answer, I thought, was both biblical and wise. “I would always vote,” he told me, “for the party I believe would most benefit the poor.” How often do you or I think that way when we cast our ballots? I know what I want: I want to see the candidate win who will do the most for me. But is that what God wants? Not according to Zechariah, who warns us, “This is what the Lord Almighty [says]: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other’ ” (Zechariah 7:9).
Ultimately as Christians we know that genuine peace, justice and compassion are to be found in one place and one place only—and that is the cross of Christ. It is by the cross that we are reconciled with God and one another and find real peace. It is through the cross that God’s justice has been finally enacted, as Jesus has absorbed into himself both the penalty and the power of our sin. It is from the cross that the mercy and compassion of God flow forth to redeem and transform both human lives and the whole of creation. And we plead for that day when Christ’s reign of perfect peace, justice and compassion will break forth, every time we pray, “Your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Yet between that time and this may we labour with all the strength that the Holy Spirit gives us to make this country into a land where those qualities of peace, justice and compassion are honoured and lived, from sea all the way to sea.




[1]     “Grant, George Monro”, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/grant_george_monro_13E.html


[2]     Psalm 72, New Bible Commentary Revised, 495