Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 137 By the rivers of Babylon

Boney M have a lot to answer for. Thanks to their hit song, the first words of our Psalm today are instantly recognisable. In fact, you maybe even began to hum the tune when Nuala began the reading. When was the song released in the UK? It’s a little older than me - 1978 when you were dancing along to it. But while the first line is fixed in the memory, the last lines of the Psalm aren’t just so popular. In fact, they may have caused a sharp intake of breath. Could this be in the Bible? It just doesn’t seem to fit. We’ll come to them in due course.

From Boney M to another little rhyme. How does this go? ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November...’. (Gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot). The rhyme urges us to remember Guy Fawkes and his failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. As I was working on Psalm 137, I realised that it could be seen as ‘Remember, remember, remember.’ Psalm 137 remembers, not a failed plot, but an actual disaster.

In verses 1-3, we see Remembering Zion- painful memories. As the opening line tells us, the people of God are far away from their home. They’re not in the city of Zion-Jerusalem rather, they are remembering it ‘by the rivers of Babylon.’ This could be the song of Daniel and his three friends - Jerusalem has been destroyed, the people of God find themselves in a strange place, in captivity. As if that isn’t bad enough, the Babylonians want them to sing the songs of Zion, as if it’s an entertaining way to pass some time.

Rather than songs, there is weeping. They hang up the harps; they are faced with what they have lost. There’s no prospect of return. They watched the city being destroyed. They’ve suffered loss, and even now, only have painful memories. Perhaps there’s even some regret over the loss. You see, God had promised David that they would live in the city, have a son of his on the throne, so long as the people kept the covenant and obeyed the Lord.

But the people were unfaithful. They turned away from God. And God has kept his promise. They’re away from the land. They remember Zion. And they weep.

As the psalm moves on, though, we come to remembering Jerusalem - by singing the songs. The question in verse 4 is at the heart of the whole psalm. It’s the question that drives the whole thing: ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’

Even in the pain, there is a desire to remember Jerusalem, to not forget the city of God. It might come with great cost, but the Psalm writer is committed to Jerusalem, even in exile. ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither (or forget its skill)! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth...’ His right hand’s skill and his tongue are the very things needful to play the harp and sing the Lord’s songs.

And what he’s saying here is that he isn’t going to forget Jerusalem. It’s going to have the place of supreme honour and devotion in his heart and life. They city of God may not be standing, and yet he is dedicated to it. Yes, there will be other joys - even in a foreign land. But Jerusalem will have highest place.

It’s as if we ask through the tears, how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? How could we keep trusting in God even though we’re far from him, even though this has happened, even though we’re not in that place of intimacy with him? The answer the psalm gives is how could we not sing the Lord’s song?

How could we not keep trusting in God? One of the hardest and yet most special parts of ministry is being with those who are coming to the end of their life. To be with them, and then with families gives an insight into how people tick. To see a believer continue to trust through the darkest of days - how could they do otherwise, they would say? Even in the tears, there is joy.

Remember, remember - with painful memories, we’ll continue to trust and find joy. But it’s when we get to the final remember that we get a little bit jittery. In fact, the compilers of the Church of Ireland lectionary readings would want us to stop at the end of verse 6. (As it happens it’s listed as the Psalm for some weekdays this week & also next Sunday morning). Here and no further, they decree.

But God, in his wisdom, has inspired all of Holy Scripture. As Paul says to Timothy, all of scripture (not just the bits we like, or are sanitised) is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteousness. So what do these last verses teach us about God and ourselves? What does the final reminder point to?

The appeal is to remember Jerusalem, a cry for justice. We hear it on the news every day - a crime has been committed, we want the criminal arrested and tried. It’s a natural desire to see justice done. And so, the writer of the Psalm cries out to God for justice.

‘Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall.’ The Edomites were (if you went back far enough), far out relations of the Jews. Esau was Jacob’s brother - their descendants were near neighbours. But when Nebuchadnezzar came against Jerusalem, the Edomites joined in. They were like the cheerleaders urging on the Babylonians: ‘how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations.”’ Fair’s fair, you might think. But what about the next bit?

‘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!’ It’s a brutal image, an almost unthinkable one. Especially if the word used to describe the attackers is ‘happy.’ Could the soldiers have a smile on their face as they attack little ones?

But the word isn’t really happy. Rather, it’s the word (in other versions) ‘blessed.’ The writer of the Psalm, inspired by God, is adding to the curse pronounced on the Babylonians in other places in scripture (e.g. Isaiah 13, Habakkuk 2:8 etc). As we’ve been learning in Daniel, God is sovereign over history and uses nations for his purposes - whether to chasten his people, or to restore his people. And after the harvest, we’ll see how even this prayer was answered with the fall of Babylon.

Our cry for justice is met by the cross of Christ, where every sin on him was laid; where God’s peace and perfect justice meet. In Christ, we are free from our sin, and called to follow his example as he prayed for his persecutors. In Christ, God the just judge reconciles us to himself. We no longer bear our own punishment; instead we are forgiven. But to reject Christ, to make yourself his enemy, to oppose the new Jerusalem, is to face his just judgement forever. In Christ, we belong to the Jerusalem that is above, our highest joy, where we will live with him forever. Remember, remember, remember, and keep going as we journey to that new Jerusalem through the pain, through the tears, to that place of sweet delight.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th September 2013.

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