Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 87 Glorious things of you are spoken

A few years ago, Elton John caused some controversy by claiming that ‘songwriters today are pretty awful, which is why everything sounds the same. Contemporary pop isn’t very inspiring.’ And it could well be that you agree with him! Lots of singers and bands seem to produce endless versions of the same song. If you’ve heard 1 One Direction song, the rest sound just the same. Or to my ears it’s the same with Daniel O’Donnell!

As we finish off our summer series in the psalms, you might notice the common thread running through them all. The sons of Korah were the worship leaders in the temple in Jerusalem, and as they begin to sing, you might think, ‘here we go again.’ They’re singing about Jerusalem - Zion, the city of God. Surely we’ve heard it all before. But don’t tune out just yet. While the song starts in a familiar place, the message of the psalm takes a new direction. This is something that affects us directly. Even though we are so far away from Jerusalem, this song is really about us.

So even if all of Daniel O’Donnell’s songs sounded the same, your ears would prick up if you realised he was singing a song about you. Here, the sons of Korah are singing about you from the city of God. But they begin in the city. ‘On the holy mount stands the city he founded; the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God.’ This is the city of God. He has founded it, it was his idea, and it stands on the holy mount. It’s not that the mountain is holy, or sacred by itself - rather, it is holy because God has set it apart. This is the place that God has chosen.

Back in Deuteronomy, Moses had told the people that God would choose the place for his dwelling when they made it into the promised land. It was King David who captured the city of Jerusalem, the city of the Jebusites, and made it into the city of God. He could have chosen anywhere in the land of Israel, but he chose Jerusalem, Zion, the city of God. He has set his love on it, the place he founded.

It’s no wonder, then, that glorious things are said of the city. You see, this is no ordinary place. This isn’t like any other capital city of any other nation. This is the city that God has chosen to set his love on. This is the place his presence is to be found. This is where you can come to meet with God. What a special place, what a special people.
And yet, the glorious things spoken of the city aren’t finished with when we get to the end of verse 3. The next verses are also glorious - in a quite unexpected way.

Most days when you pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news, you’ll find some reference to immigration. Despite coming through Europe, many people are seeking to enter the United Kingdom - some even dying in the attempt. Even when they arrive, they face challenges and difficulties. The recent attacks on homes in Belfast and beyond bear witness to the way they are viewed by a minority in our community.

In verse 4, we’re given a list of various nations and people groups surrounding Israel at the time. ‘Rahab (which is Egypt) and Babylon; Philistia and Tyre, with Cush.’ Egypt and Babylon were Israel’s greatest enemies - from first to last. Egypt had enslaved Israel after a new Pharaoh forgot about Joseph’s legacy, up until the point that Moses brought the people to freedom, through God’s Passover rescue. Babylon was the nation to take Judah into slavery when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and took Daniel and his friends into exile. Philistia was a nearer neighbour, to the west, and a constant enemy. Goliath was one of those Philistines, and they kept attacking Israel. Tyre was Israel’s neighbour to the north, a prosperous independent trading town on the coast. And Cush? It’s modern day Ethopia, and represents the ends of the earth, a far away place.

But how are these enemies all mentioned? Look back to the start of verse 4. ‘Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon...’ In verse 4, it seems as if God is speaking. To know God is to be in relationship with him. It’s the description that Jesus uses in John 10 - my sheep know me. The enemies of Israel; indeed, the enemies of God are being brought to know him. All these non-Jews are being given the privileges of the Jews. So when you read Cush, for the ends of the earth, well, we’re even further from Israel, so this is about us as well.

Now if you were stopped by the police on the way home from church and they asked for ID, you would show them your driving licence. Or you might show your passport. Both bits of ID contain a very important detail about you. It says your name, your date of birth, but it also says your place of birth. Your place of birth helps to identify you, it says where you are from, it normally gives a clue to your citizenship.

Well look what the rest of verse 4 (indeed, right through to verse 6) says. These non-Jews; these enemies; these foreigners; these strangers; ‘This one was born there.’ Born where? Born in Zion, ‘for the Most High himself will establish her.’ It’s as if the singer has moved from the earthly city of Jerusalem (which God founded on the holy mount), so that now he is talking about heavenly Zion which the Most High is establishing.

It’s made even more clear in verse 6. ‘The LORD records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’ In the Lord’s register, he records those who have been born in Zion. This isn’t an earthly birth certificate, the way births have to be registered in the Town Hall in Enniskillen. This is the heavenly birth certificate, in the Lord’s book of life.

The sons of Korah are looking forward from their day to ours. They see that Gentiles, non-Jews, are being born again spiritually from above, being registered as citizens of heaven, and welcomed into the family of God. This was the reason that the Lord Jesus came, to die for his people and bring them to be born again.

In a moment or two we’re going to sing the song that comes from verse 3: ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken.’ Most of the hymn doesn’t come from the psalm. The writer imagines what God’s city is like, drawing on other passages. But the start of his last verse is the message of the psalm applied personally. You see, the hymn writer had been far from God. He was a slave trader, a cruel man. And yet, through a near death experience when his ship was almost destroyed, he found refuge in Derry Cathedral where he was converted, and later became a Church of England minister. ‘Saviour, since of Zion’s city I through grace a member am.’ John Newton discovered for himself that it is only by God’s grace that we can be citizens of God’s city. That grace is open for us today. If you have never been born again, come to God today, accept Jesus, and find the joy of being a member of Zion’s city. It’s the joy of the singers and dancers who find their needs supplied: ‘All my springs are in you.’ Why not come today, as we hear of glorious Zion; that can be your new destiny today.

Or perhaps you are a Christian. Take some time today to marvel at these Old Testament saints singing of you, describing how you have come in from the cold; how you have been joined to God’s people. It’s no wonder that glorious things are spoken of God’s city!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 31st August 2014. Sadly it wasn't posted to the blog at the time, but here it is now!

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