Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 85 Restore us again

One of the games we used to play as children was quite simple. You took hold of the other person’s hands and started to wrestle, until eventually, the pain was too much for one person and they would cry out the name of the game - ‘Mercy!’ They asked for mercy, to be released, to be let off, because they realised they were defeated.

In our psalm today, we find a similar cry. The word mercy isn’t used, but the idea is there. This isn’t an individual, this is an entire nation, as God’s people cry out for God to ‘restore us again’ and ‘will you not revive us again?’ Perhaps you’ve found yourself crying out for mercy over the summer. Maybe you have once again fallen into that same old sin, and you’re wondering, can you really come again to God? Will he answer and forgive one more time?

Over the summer we’ve been singing the songs of the sons of Korah. They were the worship leaders in the temple. The God-inspired songs were used by God’s people as they went up to worship. As we recognise our need for God’s mercy, let’s sing along, asking God to restore us again.

Look at where the singer starts. There’s this problem, this need for mercy, but that isn’t where he starts. Rather, he goes straight to the top. First word: ‘LORD’. Capital letter LORD. This is the promise-making covenant keeping God. The one to whom we need to turn, if the covenant hasn’t been kept. You see, if you have a problem with someone it’s better to sort it out with that person, rather than running around telling the problem to everyone else! It’s just the same with the LORD - if we have failed him, it’s better to go to him in confession rather than avoiding him or going after anyone else.

So when the sons of Korah come to the LORD, how do they approach him? First, they look back at how the LORD has acted in the past. They have a reminder of what God has done. Did you notice all the past tenses? ‘you were favourable; you restored; you forgave; you covered; you withdrew; you turned.’ Here’s what the covenant LORD has done in the past. This is his past form. All those other times, the LORD has been like this.

It’s a great incentive to pray, isn’t it? To remember what God is like; to remind yourself of how God has acted in the past towards you. It’s the way that most of the Collects in the Prayer Book are structured - some reminder of what God is like before the request itself. And yet, in the psalm, the reminder of how the LORD has acted in the past makes the present more painful. It’s almost as if the singer is saying - LORD, you did all this before, so how come we’re in the mess we are now? If you were like this before, why are you not doing that now?

After the reminder comes the request. We see this in verses 4-7. ‘Restore us again, O God of our salvation.’ They are feeling the heat; they’re experiencing God’s anger. They need to be revived, restored. It may well have been that the land was failing, the crops not producing. In the old covenant there was a close bond between the people and the land - God’s blessing was seen in material things. The produce was God’s promised blessing. Perhaps they’re in a time of drought or famine. They’re crying to the Lord for his help, to give them life, to show his steadfast love. The request is marked off by the mention of salvation at the start and the end - verse 4 and verse 7. This is a request for rescue - a cry for salvation.

They know they can’t sort themselves out. They need God to act, they need God to save - just as he did before. Perhaps you’re in the same boat today. You find yourself far from God; missing the life that he provides. You need God to rescue you. Cry out to him, and not just for yourself - this is the people of God praying together.

Having reminded themselves of God’s character and past deeds; having given the request for rescue, now the voice changes. It’s all our and us up to now, but in verse 8 there’s just one voice. The inspired singer waits for God’s answer. ‘Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.’

There comes the point when speaking must give way to listening. Having asked (for the 20 millionth time) if you can go to the zoo, you have to wait for the answer. Or you pull out the ring, ask the question, and wait to hear if she’ll marry you. The singer anticipates God’s answer. There’s already a hint of reassurance. There’s already the promise of salvation for those who fear God - as the people have shown. It’s bound up in that little phrase: ‘He will speak peace to his people.’ Oh how we need peace in this world - in families, in villages and towns, in nations, and across the world. But even more precious than all those is the peace proclaimed here - peace with God. From God being angry, God will speak peace. But how does that come about?

The answer itself seems to come in verses 10 and 11. We’ve had the reminder, the request, the reassurance, and now comes the restoration. Here’s what God will do, and what it will look like. Here’s how salvation will be accomplished: ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.’

On Friday night, we have our BBQ, with a ceilidh dance after. The caller will tell us how to do the dances, to take your partner by the hand. This is a bit like a dance here. Steadfast love and faithfulness coming together, righteousness and peace as well. From our limited perspective, we can sometimes wonder how all of God’s character can fit together. How can God be loving and yet righteous? How can God at the same time forgive sins, and yet be just? It’s as if we put them all against each other - which one will triumph today? Which bit of God will he really be like today?

But our God is one. He is perfect, and all his perfections are perfect. He is perfectly love and faithfulness and righteousness and peace. All of his actions display all of his character - including the punishment of sins. Just as God was in the past, so he will continue to be, because God does not change. Those four aspects meeting together are the heart of God. They met supremely at the cross, where the sinless Son took on the sins of the world; and took upon himself all of God’s anger at all of our sins, in order to provide a full and free salvation.

It’s at the cross, where we confess our need. It’s at the cross where we see our salvation. It’s at the cross where we find the assurance that God has heard our request, even before we made it. It’s at the cross where God assures us that his anger towards us is spent, and his attitude is love and blessing.

The way we sing this psalm is changed in the light of the cross. If you are a believer, then God is not angry at you. As Paul reminds the Romans, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Rather, God disciplines us, as a loving father with his children. When we sin, God wants us to turn back to him, but it’s discipline, not wrath.

The reassurance is picked up again in the last verses. ‘Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.’ This morning, why not come and confess your need? Remind yourself of God’s character. Request his mercy. And find reassurance + restoration at the cross.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 24th August 2014.

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