Tuesday, August 28, 2018

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. I wonder if you can remember all the words? Whether you’ve remembered them or not, you might just be able to hum the tune - something that has been going round and round in my head this week as I’ve been preparing!

The song is a little older than me - 1978 when you were first 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 maybe caused you to have a sharp intake of breath. Could this be in the Bible? It just doesn’t seem to fit. We’ll come to those verses 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 the outline of the Psalm could be seen as ‘Remember, remember, remember.’ Psalm 137 remembers, not a failed plot, but an actual disaster.

So what are we remembering, what are we calling to mind? And how does that remembering express our faith in God, even in troubled times? Let’s see what Psalm 137 tells us, and store it up in our minds for when we need it for ourselves.

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, or Jerusalem, they are remembering it ‘by the rivers of Babylon.’ They’re far from home, having been captured and taken away to strange Babylon (in modern day Iraq). 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, songs of joy, as if it’s an entertaining way to pass some time.

But 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 - the aftermath of which we hear in Lamentations 1. 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.

Sometimes we don’t know what to do when someone starts crying. We don’t know what to say, or what to do. Maybe we feel awkward. Do you see how the Bible and the Psalms in particular tune in to every emotion. We had a praise-filled call to worship Psalm this morning, but this is darker, harder, more of a lament. Yet God can handle all of our days and all of our feelings. His word comes to us in every season. Even when we’re remembering Zion with painful memories.

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 can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?’

Do you recognise the pain here? The songs of Zion speak of God’s promises and purposes all centred on Zion - the temple, the king, and the people of God, in God’s place under his blessing. And they’re far from there, in exile. They’re far from home. And it seems as if they think that they’re far from God as well.

But 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, may my right hand forget its skill. May 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.

We sometimes see on the news the images of people being driven into exile, finding themselves in refugee camps, fearful, in danger, never knowing what is going to happen to them. But the truth is that we too are in exile. We may not realise it all the time, but the Christian is an exile and a stranger in this world. We’re not at home, we don’t really belong.

It’s the apostle Peter who writes ‘To God’s elect, strangers in the world...’ (1 Pet 1:1, also 1:17, 2:11) And that’s what we are. We don’t always fit in.

It’s as if we ask through the tears, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? When we go through troubling times, when the weight of the world is weighing heavily on us, how can we keep going, keep trusting, keep joyful? 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 their families gives an insight into how people tick, and what matters most to them. 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. 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, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.’ 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 of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us - he who seizes your infants and dashes 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). And in looking to God for justice, asking God to remember the Edomites and the Babylonians, the author is trusting in God’s perfect justice.

And it’s natural that we seek justice when we have suffered. But we need to be careful in pointing fingers at others, that three fingers aren’t pointing back at us. We cry for justice when we have been wronged, but could we stand under God’s just judgement by ourselves? Rather than justice, or (as seems to be popular on Facebook these days, karma), what we actually need is... mercy and grace.

It is in the cross that we see the just punishment that our sins deserved. God’s wrath has been satisfied. God’s peace and perfect justice have met, and given us mercy and grace. And so, it is in Christ that 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, and sent to forgive.

But to reject Christ, to make yourself his enemy, to oppose the new Jerusalem, is to make yourself his enemy, to oppose the new Jerusalem, is, in the end, to side with Babylon, and to face his just judgement forever. It is only in Christ that we belong to the new Jerusalem, and find there our highest joy - the promise of eternal life with him.

Remember, remember, remember, and keep trusting as you find yourself an exile and stranger in this world, but 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 St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 26th August 2018.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Sermon: Psalm 47 Directions for Worship

We’re coming towards the end of the summer holidays. Hopefully you’ve been able to have some kind of a holiday, to get away somewhere even for a wee while. And if you have been away, you might have gone along to a local church. Now, when you go to a different church, you notice all the things that are different - whether they stand or sit to sing or pray; and how they get on during the singing of the psalms or hymns or spiritual songs - whether everyone has hands in pockets, or holding books or hands in the air, or a combination of them all.

And, if you’re used to coming along to a Church of Ireland church, you know how we do things. Already we’ve stood, sat, and knelt; we’ve sung, and prayed, and listened. Now, this morning, the service is on a sheet, but all the standing up and sitting down bits are written down in the Book of Common Prayer - it tells us what to do and when to do it. (Anglican Aerobics, as my Presbyterian friends call it!).

In our Psalm this morning, Psalm 47, we find even more directions for worship. But these may not be ones that we are as used to doing, at least, not in worship. They might take us by surprise, or at least, out of our comfort zone. Look at verse 1: ‘Clap your hands, all you nations.’

We might be used to a round of applause coming at the end of a song, or in a theatre, or when the plane has landed safely, but here, the applause is coming at the start, at the outset. And the call to worship, to clap your hands, goes out from the temple. And it’s not just to the people of Israel gathered at the temple, it’s a call to ‘all you nations.’

It’s a bit like the mobile phone network - EE. Does anyone know what it stands for? Everything Everywhere. Psalm 47 calls on Everyone Everywhere to clap your hands, to worship God.

Now, when you hear the command to clap your hands, maybe you think it’s wanting a nice, polite round of applause. But no, it’s more a long, loud, sustained clapping - especially when it’s combined with the next line: ‘Shout to God with cries of joy.’ This is the roar of a crowd at a sporting event. It’s going to be loud! Don’t hold back!

Now that might be beyond what we’re used to here in church. But that’s the first call to worship in the Psalm. Loud, passionate, energetic worship. We might be more used to the second call to worship, found in verse 6: ‘Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.’ {Sometimes modern songwriters get a bit of stick for being repetitive, but the sons of Korah were at it a long time ago!]

The call to worship goes out from Jerusalem to all peoples. The directions are clear. It’s going to involved clapping, shouting, and singing. Lots of singing. But why? Well, we see the reason in each of the verses after the call to worship. So, after the call to clap and shout in verse 1, we get this reason in verse 2: ‘How awesome is the LORD Most High, the great King over all the earth!’

And after the call to do lots of singing in verse 6, we get this reason in verse 7: ‘For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise.’

The same truth is brought out each time. God is the (great) King over/of all the earth. God is the King, not just in Jerusalem, not just in Israel, not just somewhere else, but everywhere, even Richhill. Wherever you went on holiday, whether you were climbing mountains or lying on a sun lounger - God is King even there. Wherever your work will take you tomorrow - God is King there.

And if God rules over all the earth, then every person should worship their true King. That’s why the call to worship goes out to all nations, to everyone everywhere. Just knowing that God is King should be reason enough, but the Psalm continues to show us even more reasons why we should worship, clap, shout and sing.

In verses 3-5, we see that God was king in the past. This is what God has already done: ‘He subdued nations under us, peoples under our feet. He chose our inheritance for us, the pride of Jacob, whom he loved. God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the LORD amid the sounding of trumpets.’

As the sons of Korah lead worship in the temple, they look back to their history, to see what God has already done. They remember that God gave them the victory as he subdued the nations who lived in the land. God gave them the promised land by defeating the nations who lived there. Nations who made the people of Israel look like grasshoppers next to them. They couldn’t have done it by themselves, but God gave them the victory, because God is the king.

And do you see how verse 6 says that God has ascended? If God has gone up, it must have meant that he had come down - come down to help his people. Does that remind you of anything?

Isn’t it pointing us to the Lord Jesus, who came down from heaven, became one of us, and fought to free us from our enemies? Jesus lived the perfect life. He died on the cross to take away our sins, to give us freedom, to give us an inheritance of eternal life with him. He rose again from the dead, and then ascended into heaven. And why did he do it all? Because he loved us, and loves us still.

It’s because God has done all this in the past, that now the call to worship goes out to all peoples to sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. God is the king of all the earth, and we see all the trappings of royalty in verse 8. ‘God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne.’

And here’s the present tense evidence of God’s kingly reign. Here’s the reason for everyone to praise him. Look at verse 9: ‘The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.’

Here we get a glimpse of what God is doing, and continues to do more and more since Jesus the King reigns. Whenever school starts back this week (or next), there will be assembly. That’s when the classes or year groups or whole school joins together in the assembly hall. And that’s what God is doing - bringing people together, from every nation.

It’s like the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games when, if you watch long enough, you see people coming into the stadium behind their flag - all gathering together for sporting competition. But it’s just a glimpse of people from every nation coming together as the people of the King.

You see, this ingathering of the nations has been God’s plan from the very beginning. God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 12, called him to walk with him, and promised him descendants, land and blessing. In the Psalm writer’s day, they had seen some signs of this happening, as people like Rahab of Jericho and Ruth of Moab had heard the call to worship the one true God, and had become God’s people.

But now, in our day, God is doing this more and more, as people from every nation hear God’s word, hear the call to worship, and surrender to him. And it’s our prayer today that Carter will grow up to know and love the Lord Jesus.

Kings and presidents and prime ministers may seem to be impressive, and important and powerful, but they all belong to God. They’re under his control and his reign. We are called to worship the real ruler - God, who is greatly exalted. So as you hear the call to worship going out - have you heard it and heeded it? Are you worshipping God, the King of all the earth? Not just on a Sunday as you clap and shout and sing, but in every moment of your life? If you aren’t already, in heart and voice, then join the chorus, and give your praise to the one who is worthy.

but if you have heard, and you are worshipping, then it’s up to us to also join with the sons of Korah - not just in worshipping, but also in calling others to worship. So how can you get involved in sharing the call to worship? Perhaps you could bring your friend along to the Cafe Church evenings when we’ll be looking at the big questions - how can I believe that God exists? how can I believe that God is good? How can I believe that Jesus is the only way to God? Or bring your friend along to the Men’s Breakfast - a good feed, plenty of craic, and a short talk. Or partner with someone to go along to one of the new Growth Groups running this autumn.

Could we organise a mission trip to take the call to worship somewhere else? Or call our neighbours and friends and family to worship? Or, as the world comes to us, invite our new neighbours and colleagues and friends to come along with us to church?

The call is going out - let’s join in with our worship, and call others to join with us - as we clap, and shout, and sing for God our King. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 26th August 2018.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Sermon: Psalm 136 His love endures for ever

Psalm 136 stands apart from all the rest of the Psalms. And even as you flick through the Psalms, you notice its distinctive feature straight away. The feature that makes its main point, over, and over, and over again. There’s no getting away from what the Psalm is telling us, reminding us again and again that ‘His love endures for ever.’

If you remember nothing else from our Psalm this evening, at least, you’ll remember this. ‘His love endures for ever.’ That chorus comes at the end of every verse, at the end of every sentence, and sometimes even in the middle of the sentence, driving home that His love endures for ever. One of the commentaries suggested that we’re so unfamiliar with this repetition that it might feel as if the Psalm itself was going to endure for ever. But the Psalm makes its point. His love endures for ever.

When I was writing the sermon, I wondered if I should take my lead from the Psalm, and repeat that phrase after every sentence, but I decided against it. It might have been a bit much to have it in the Psalm and in the sermon. But let’s think about that sentence for a moment. Let’s break it down, to see what it is actually telling us.

HIS love endures for ever - the focus is on the ‘him’ behind ‘his’. And who is the he? Verses 1-3 shows us who ‘he’ is. ‘Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good... Give thanks to the God of gods... Give thanks to the Lord of lords...’

It’s the love of the LORD, capital letters LORD, that we’re focusing on in this Psalm. When you see the word LORD in capital letters, it’s the covenant-making, promise-keeping Lord who is in view. Jehovah (or Yahweh). The LORD is good, so we are to give him thanks. More than that, he is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the ruler of the rulers - high over all, no one compares to him.

And the quality that sets him apart, besides his goodness, is his love. His enduring love. In fact, 1 John goes even further, to say that God is love. This is who he is.

We see just what the LORD has done, as last week, in terms of creation and then redemption. It’s creation, first, in verses 4-9. And here we find echoes and allusions to Genesis 1, to the story of God’s creating the world.

‘To him who alone does great wonders... who by his understanding made the heavens... who spread out the earth upon the waters... who made the great lights... the sun to govern the day... the moon and stars to govern the night...’

The LORD is the one who did all this. And he did it all because of his enduring love. When you look at the world, when you’re struck by a sunset, or when you marvel at the stars in the night sky - whatever you see is by God’s grand design. It was his idea, his understanding, his wisdom to form it and fashion it, to display his glory.

Some people may look at it all and think there’s no evidence of God, but another Psalm (19) tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God... And every feature - is a sign of God’s love. In front of me, there’s a phone, which has an app that can tell you when the sun will rise and set tomorrow. Another to tell you when high tide and low tide will take place next Tuesday. Another to say the phases of the moon, because it’s all perfectly designed and shows God’s love and care for us. Why? Because his love endures for ever.

If you were with us last week, you might recognise some of the next section. You see, in verses 10-22, the main focus is on God’s redemption of his people Israel. And there are some lines that are shared with Psalm 135. But there is a bit more detail here. Here’s what’s new in Psalm 136:

‘With a mighty hand and outstretched arm (12)... to him who divided the Red Sea asunder... and brought Israel through the midst of it, but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea... to him who led his people through the desert.’ (13-16).

There’s a greater focus on the escape here - how it was God who worked to rescue his people, with his mighty hand and outstretched arm. It was through the Red Sea that God brought his people to safety, and led them through the desert. And then, in words we heard last week, the kings that were killed, including Sihon and Og.

And why did God do all this? Because of his love for his people. Over in Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the people before he dies, and they go over into the promised land. And he deals with the question of why God chose them, why God set his love on them. Was it because they were a big nation? Populous? Mighty? Strong? No, it was simply because he loved them. ‘It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand...’ (Deut 7:8). He loved them because he loved them.

They hadn’t done anything to impress him. They hadn’t done anything to deserve his love. They had no merit, nothing going in their favour, except that God loved them. And isn’t that the same for us? We might try to think that God has chosen us and loves us because, well, how could he not? But we had nothing going for us. We were still his enemies, but God shows his love for us in this - Christ died for us.

We see his love in the events of the Exodus. But we also see his love in the events of the cross. That the perfect, holy, Son of God should stoop to live and die for sinners like us. That he should take our place, and bear our sin, so that we might go free, forgiven, and saved.

This is ‘His love’ - a love that we will never tire of singing about; throughout all eternity, this will be our song. And just as our song will endure through all eternity, it’s only because his love also endures for ever. There’s no best before date; no expiry date; no time-limited guarantee. His love endures for ever. And just as he continued to bear with the Israelites as they messed up again and again, so his love endures for us as well.

It’s why, after whatever sort of week you’ve had, you can come before him tonight. It’s why, whatever sort of week you’re about to have, you can come to the table. And in the little bit of bread, and the little sip of wine, you taste the tokens of his love, the ongoing pledge of his never-ending love for you.

You see, we are drawn into Psalm 136. We’re drawn into the opening verses, calling on us to give thanks. But we’re also drawn into the closing verses. You see, the main sections, creation and redemption are all past tense - they look back to what God did in the past. But verses 23 -25 are different. They gather the present day people of God into the story. They use, for the first time, ‘us’. ‘To the one who remembered us in our low estate... and freed us from our enemies... and who gives food to every creature...’

Those verses bring the Psalm into our experience, the way that he remembered us in our low estate, and freed us from our enemies. They way God continues to give food to every creature. The ways that we continue to experience his enduring for ever love.

So what do we do with this Psalm tonight? Do we remember it as the slightly odd and repetitive Psalm? Or do we hear the chorus, and take it up as our own - knowing, for sure, in our mind and our experience, that his love endures for ever.

You see, sometimes it can be hard to know that. Or hard to remember that, when you’re going through difficult circumstances. But if Psalm 136 is telling us anything, it is telling us that his love really does endure for ever. And because it does; because he does love us; it calls us to give thanks to the God of heaven.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 19th August 2018.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sermon: Psalm 46 Be still, and know that I am God

This morning, we’re going to think about some holiday foods for a moment or two. What is your favourite ice cream flavour? Maybe you like bubblegum. Or raspberry ripple. Or my favourite, honeycomb. Sometimes, you might get a cone with two scoops of ice cream - and you can mix and match the flavours. That way you don’t have to choose just one flavour, you can have the two that you like the best. One scoop honeycomb, and one scoop mint choc chip - that’s my order. Yum yum!

Now, if it was a very hot day, and you really needed to cool down, then you would want a cone with three scoops of ice cream! So what would you choose for your three scoops? Three different flavours? Two scoops of one and one of the other? Or all three scoops of the same flavour?

Psalm 46 is a bit like a three scoop ice cream cone. From the way it’s printed in the Bibles (p570), you can see that it comes in three sections, three scoops. There’s also the little word ‘Selah’ at the end of each section - a word that calls for a pause, to stop and think about what you’ve heard, read or sung.

And the three scoops of Psalm 46 are all of the same flavour. If it was ice cream, it would be honeycomb, honeycomb and honeycomb. The three scoops all say the same thing. The three parts all have the same message.

It’s a bit like that other holiday food that you might have got when you were at the seaside. It’s really bad for your teeth - the stick of rock. And there’s something special about Blackpool rock - does anyone know what it is? Here’s a picture to help you - it says Blackpool rock on the inside of it. And it goes right through the whole stick. Wherever you bite it or break it; it says the same thing the whole way through. And that’s like Psalm 46. Whatever verse you look at, whatever part of it you’re in, it all says the same thing. It all has the one message.

And what is the message? What is Psalm 46 telling us? Well, it tells us in verse 1. Look at it with me. Say it with me: ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.’ (perhaps you’ll be ready to say that!)

Psalm 46 is telling us something about God. And what is it telling us? First of all, that God is our refuge. So what’s a refuge? It’s a place of safety, a place where you can take refuge. So if you’re walking in the mountains, you might find a refuge, somewhere you can sit and be warm, and be sheltered from the weather. And God is like for us. We can take refuge in him.

Secondly, God is our strength. Whenever we feel weak, or helpless, and wonder how we’re going to be able to do whatever it is that we need to do, God gives us strength. More than that, God IS our strength.

And thirdly, God is our ever-present help in trouble. Whenever you’re in trouble, whatever time it is, wherever you are, God is with you to help you. He’s always with you. He’s always present. You’re never on your own. You can never be alone when you’re a Christian, because God is with you. Always. Helping in times of trouble.

Now, put those all together, and we see what God is like: ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.’

Can you say that today? Is that true of you? Is God your refuge and strength? Your ever-present help in trouble? Because when you can say that, when you know that in your own life, then you don’t need to be afraid, no matter what might be happening. Even if your whole world comes crashing down around you, you don’t need to fear, if God is your refuge and strength, your ever-present help in trouble.

That’s what verses 2-3 tell us. ‘Therefore (in light of the truth about God - because he is who is he and does what he does, therefore:) we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their shaking.’

A long time ago now, Kevin Costner starred in a movie called Waterworld. Now, it wasn’t about the swimming pool in Portrush, but it was about imagining what the world would be like with global warming, so that there was no land, only water covering the whole world. Imagine that!

If you’ve been in Newcastle, then you’ve seen where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea (as Percy French put it). But imagine if the mountains of Mourne fell into the sea! And imagine you were in Newcastle watching as it all happened. It might be scary to see, but we wouldn’t need to be afraid, not if God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help in trouble.

So the first section, the first scoop is telling us that God is what? Our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

Now, the second scoop (v4-7) tells us the same thing in a slightly different way. It puts the two parts back to front or upside down. So, if God us an ever-present help in trouble, that means that (v7a) The LORD Almighty is with us. He’s always with us. With us even when we find ourselves in trouble. And if God is our refuge and strength, then it also means that (v7b) ‘the God of Jacob is our fortress.’

The two scoops are saying the same thing, using different words. It’s the same flavour, the same message. But here, the context has changed. In the first section, the danger was geological - all to do with the earth giving way. In this second section, the danger is political.

The city of Jerusalem is under siege. And when that happens, the enemy army comes up to the city and surrounds it. The people of God find themselves inside, and what might they need when they’re under siege? They need water to be able to survive. ‘There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.’ (4) If you have water, then you can wait out the siege.

But even more important than water, there’s something else that means that Jerusalem will win the battle. ‘God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.’ (5) Do you see how that fits with the Psalm? God is with his people and will help them - he’s an ever-present help in trouble; and he is also their refuge and strength.

In verse 3 the waters were roaring; in verse 6 it’s the nations that are in uproar, and kingdoms fall. God is able to help his people, no matter what the danger, or how fierce the opposition. And when God lifts his voice, the earth melts. No one can stand against God.

So, as the chorus goes, ‘The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is with us.’

In 2 Kings, we find a story which might well go with Psalm 46. In 2 Kings 18, Jerusalem is under siege. Sennacherib, the king of Assyria comes and surrounds the city. He has a huge army, and Jerusalem is in great danger. King Hezekiah receives a letter threatening the city, and he spreads it out in the temple before the Lord. And he prays, asking that God would help him, and deliver the city from Sennacherib’s hand.

The prophet Isaiah comes, and gives God’s answer - that God will help them. And that very night, 185,000 Assyrians all died, and Sennacherib withdrew from the city and returned home.

We get a picture of the scene in verses 8-9. ‘Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.’

God is the one who brings wars to an end. It’s simply impossible to fight against God, or to try to defeat God. To quote the Borg from Star Trek, ‘Resistance is futile.’

We see God’s works in verses 8-9, and we hear God’s words in verse 10. ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’

Sometimes, we hear that verse in the comforting, quieting, devotional sense - take a few moments during the day, be still, and know God. I have a picture above my desk reminding me to do that. It’s good to do. Maybe God is saying this to you today. In the midst of your busy-ness, be still, and remember that God is God and you are not.

But it seems that God is also speaking to his enemies here. If they’ve been trying to fight against him, trying to get rid of him, trying to forget him, he speaks, and invites them to stop their fighting. To be still, and know that God is God (and they are not.). Because God will be exalted among the nations, and exalted in the earth.

So where do you find yourself today? Are you on the opposition lines? Are you fighting against God? He invites you today to stop, to be still, to recognise who God is. He wants you to lay down your weapons, and surrender to him.

If you are a Christian, if you’ve already surrendered your life to him, then take heart! Remind yourself daily, when you be still, and when you be active, that God is your refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. That the LORD Almighty is with you; the God of Jacob is your fortress.

That’s the message of Psalm 46. It’s written right through it, like Blackpool rock. It’s three scoops of the same flavour. God is with you; and God is for you.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 19th August 2018.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Sermon: Psalm 135 Why Worship?

Why do you come to church? What’s the reason that you get up out of your chair to come along on a Sunday evening? There could be any number of reasons why you’re here - habit, or duty, or desire, or delight, or anything in between. So why do you come to worship? Or, in the title of our sermon, why worship?

Hopefully, tonight’s Psalm, Psalm 135, will give us some more reasons to worship. It will help us to see why we worship, and expand our vision of God, leading to even more worship of him. Now, we’ll break the Psalm down into three sections (each with 7 verses), and see just who God is, and why we should worship him.

But as we dive into the Psalm’s opening verses, we’ll see that before we get to the ‘why’ of worship, we get the ‘who’ of worship. There’s a call to worship; a call to praise the Lord. And who should praise the LORD?

‘You servants of the LORD, you who minister in the house of the LORD, in the courts of the house of our God.’ (1-2)

This is a call to the servants of the Lord - to those who serve him; those who obey him. And as verse 2 focuses in, it’s those who minister in the house of the Lord. We’re in Jerusalem, in the temple. And the people who are there, in the temple, are urged to praise the Lord!

Why would that be? Why would the people who are working for the Lord, who are serving in the temple - why would they need to be reminded to praise the Lord? Could it be that we sometimes get used to the way things are? That we are so used to the fact that we come along to church, that it’s just normal, regular, and we almost take it for granted?

You see, just because we’re in church, doesn’t necessarily mean that we are here to worship. But even if that’s the case, we get these gentle reminders, these little prompts and encouragements to really worship; to actually worship God. So why should we worship God?

The first reason comes in verse 3. ‘Praise the LORD, for the LORD is good.‘ The Lord is good, and it is pleasant to sing praise to his name. We see how the Lord is good in verse 4: ‘For the LORD has chosen Jacob to be his own, Israel to be his treasured possession.’

The Lord is good, and it’s seen in his choosing the children of Israel. You see, it’s not that we choose to worship God - he has already chosen us. And so our worship and praise is a response to God’s goodness, and his choosing us. Now, those two names, Jacob and Israel, they both refer to the same person, Jacob the grandson of Abraham, and the father of the twelve sons of Israel, the twelve tribes. It’s a way of referring to the whole nation of Israel.

And God chose them to be his own people, to be his treasured possession. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were God’s special people, but now, we are included in the church, and the things said of Israel are now said of the church (e.g. 1 Peter 2:9 - ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God...’)

God is good - as seen in his choosing. But then verses 5-7 show that God isn’t just good; he’s also great. And that’s in particular in comparison to any other small-g gods; whatever or whoever anyone else may worship. And how do we know he is great? Because he can do whatever pleases him, wherever he pleases - in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. Everywhere is within his control, and under his rule. Whether the weather is good or bad, God is in control of it all. So we see the clouds and lightning with rain and wind. And it’s God who makes it all.

Why should we worship the Lord? He is the God of creation. But that’s not all. You see, as verses 8-14 go on to tell us, he is also the God of salvation.

These verses are a mini-history of the people of Israel. We see just what God has done for his people - how he has acted in creation to save his people. One commentator suggested these verses are how God vanquishes his enemies and vindicates his servants. So what did God do?

‘He struck down the firstborn of Egypt, the firstborn of men and animals. He sent his signs and wonders into your midst, O Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants.’

That’s all about the Passover - how God brought his people out of Egypt, out from their slavery, saved from Pharaoh and his servants. When they got across the Red Sea, they then spent some time in the wilderness, forty years in fact, before they started to receive their promised land. But it wasn’t the Israelites doing it. No, it was God;

‘He struck down many nations and killed mighty kings... all the kings of the Canaan - and he gave their land as an inheritance, an inheritance to his people Israel.’ (10-12)

Sihon and Og - they were both defeated in Numbers 21. And the kings of Canaan, they were defeated in the time of Joshua. The people came in, and God gave them the land, to be their inheritance. God is active in salvation. And verses 13-14 provide a summary of this section:

‘Your name, O LORD, endures for ever, your renown, O LORD, through all generations. For the LORD will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants.’ (13-14)

The LORD vindicates his servants by vanquishing his enemies. He is the God of compassion, for all his servants. Do you see the contrast? You have Pharaoh and his servants in verse 9, and the servants of the Lord in verse 14. To serve Pharaoh is to stand against God; to serve God is to know his compassion and salvation.

And we who are New Testament believers can see this point even more vividly. It’s in the cross of Jesus that we experience the rescue of God, and it’s through the cross that we are given our promised inheritance, as we look forward to the new heaven and the new earth, where righteousness is at home.

So why worship? God is good and great - seen in his choosing and creating. Further, God is in control, seen in his salvation. As we come to the final section, we have another comparison running. So as you look at verse 15, think - how is God in comparison to this?

‘The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths.’ (15-17)

The writer looks at the idols that other people worship. They’re made of something - silver or gold; and they’re made by someone - by the hands of men. In comparison, what is God like? God is the maker, he wasn’t made. He made us, and everything else. Whereas these idols are made by someone. not very worthy of worship, are they?

And even if these idols look impressive, they’re not actually very impressive. They might look the real deal, but they’re not. They have all the features, just no ability. They can’t speak, or see, or hear, or breathe. They just kind of sit there. Unable to ‘do’ anything. Do we even need to compare them with our God? There’s no comparison! our God speaks, sees, hears, is alive and in control.

Now, even at this point, it’s clear that you would rather worship the living God rather than these useless idols. But verse 19 shows that we become like the thing we behold; that we become like the thing we look to and worship:

‘Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.’

You see, if you trust something that is useless and worthless and dead, then you will become the same. It’s a dead end, literally, to worship an idol. It can’t save you. It will only lead you to be like it.

But the same is true of the living God. We who trust in him will become like him. As we look to the Lord, as we trust in him, so we become more like him.

With these reasons, with even more ‘why’ to worship, the call comes again to praise the Lord - whoever you are, in whichever category you find yourself - to praise the Lord. Why? He is the God of creation - he made us and chose us. He is the God of salvation - saving the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and saving us from slavery to sin. And he is the living God, who is re-making us in his image.

Those are great reasons to praise. So let’s do it. Let’s praise him, because he is worthy.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 12th August 2018.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sermon: Psalm 45 The Wedding Singer

This morning, you are invited to a wedding. Now, don’t worry if you haven’t had your fake tan done; or if you haven’t worn your big hat or fascinator; you can come as you are. You see, the summer Psalm that we’re looking at this morning is all about a wedding. We see that in the very tiny writing just under where it says Psalm 45 on p569. ‘For the director of music. To the tune of Lilies. Of the Sons of Korah. A maskil. A wedding song.’

This is a song for a wedding, but it’s also a song about a wedding. Whenever you’re organising a wedding, there’s so much to think of - invitations, gifts, venue, reception, honeymoon, and... music. And when it comes to music, there’s the entrance music, the hymns, the going out music, and what you’ll have at the reception - band, or DJ, or both!

Our Psalm today is from the Sons of Korah, the praise leaders of the temple. And one of them has been commissioned to write and sing this wedding song. We’re introduced to the wedding singer in verse 1: ‘My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skilful writer.’

His heart has been stirred by a noble theme. He sings about the wedding, but as you see, it’s no ordinary wedding. This is a royal wedding. Now, we’ve had a couple of these in recent years - William and Kate, Harry and Meghan. But this one is the wedding of the king himself. And the wedding singer is on hand to capture the event, to sing about it and write about it with skill.

Now, for a wedding to take place, you need a man and a woman. That’s the pattern that God established in Genesis 1&2, and affirmed by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 19. And that’s what we see here at this royal wedding.

Now, whenever we have a wedding in church, the groom is here first, waiting around, hoping that the bride won’t be too late. And that’s what we see here in the Psalm, in verses 2-9. We see the king.

And the wedding singer is singing directly to the king. As you can see, it’s all ‘you’ and ‘your’. So what is the king like, on this his wedding day?

‘You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you for ever.’ (2) The focus isn’t on his clothing as much as his character - who he is, what he is like. And the reason he is so excellent, the most excellent of men, is that God has blessed him. This is a man who is living under the blessing of God - to do the right thing and say the right thing (out of lips anointed with grace).

Now, when William and Harry were married, they did so in uniform. So here, the king is girding his sword on his side, clothing himself with splendour and majesty - because he has a job to do. He is to act for truth, humility and righteousness; displaying awesome deeds; defeating his enemies and conquering nations.

In a world of pain and fear and injustice, how we need a king like this! With all sorts of fake news and downright lies, we need someone to act on behalf of truth. In a world of social media which is obsessed with self-promotion and pride and self-importance, this king stands up for humility. And as for unrighteousness and wickedness - that’s what fills our newspapers and TV news, and courtrooms. But this king rides forth on behalf of righteousness.

This is the sort of king that we need. And this is the sort of king that is celebrated by the wedding singer. Now, maybe you think to yourself, this king sounds too good to be true. Maybe the wedding singer is only saying these things because he’s paid by the king. You know the saying - he who pays the piper calls the tune. And so it must be the wedding singer’s job to make the king look good. Is this just a bit of spin, some positive PR, at the heart of the government?

You would think so, especially with the way that he continues in verse 6. Remember, he’s speaking to the king, and then he says this: ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom.’ Did you get that? He’s singing to the king, and then he calls him God. Is that right?

Well, look at how verse 7 continues. ‘You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.’

Put those two verses together, and what do you get? ‘Your throne, O God... Therefore God, your God...’ The king is described as God; who has a ‘God, your God’ So what’s going on here? As the singer sings of the royal wedding happening in front of him, it’s as if he is also seeing beyond those events to their fulfilment.

You sometimes hear of childhood sweethearts who met on the first day of P1, and when children, played at weddings. Then twenty years later, they are getting married for real. And so here, it’s as if the royal wedding he’s attending is just the playing at weddings compared to the real royal wedding - the wedding to end all weddings - the wedding at the end of time; the wedding between the king who is God and his bride.

Here in Psalm 45, as a royal wedding is happening, the wedding singer gets a glimpse of the real royal wedding, the same royal wedding that John is shown in Revelation 20-21. The groom is the king who is God - the Lord Jesus, who is the Messiah (the Christ), the anointed one.

Now, just in case you’re not sure of what I’ve been saying, just in case you think I’ve gone down the garden path, just think of how the New Testament uses Psalm 45. We heard it in our second reading, from Hebrews 1. The whole letter to the Hebrews is about convincing Jewish Christians to not go back to the temple religion; to instead stick with Jesus. And through the letter there are a number of comparisons, showing that Jesus is better than, for example, Moses, or the priesthood, or the sacrificial system.

And in Hebrews 1, Jesus is shown to be better than the angels. And one of the quotations from the Old Testament are these very verses from Psalm 45. And how are they introduced? ‘But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever...”’ (Heb 1:8-9)

Jesus is the conquering king; the one who rides on behalf of truth and humility and righteousness; the one whose throne is for ever and ever. And Jesus, the king, the royal bridegroom stands to receive his bride.

Now, whenever there’s a wedding, there’s always great interest in what the bride is wearing. And if I’ve been to a wedding on my own, I always have to take pictures , because ‘a white dress’ just doesn’t cut it as a description! Here, the bride is in gold of Ophir (9); her gown interwoven with gold (13); in embroidered garments (14).

In verse 10, the wedding singer speaks to the bride, the new queen. Here is the way to come to the king. ‘Listen, O daughter, consider and give ear: Forget your people and your father’s house. The king is enthralled by your beauty; honour him for he is your lord.’

Forget what lies behind; forget your past and focus on your relationship with him. Honour him, or bow to him, as other versions put it. There is joy and gladness at the celebrations, as she enters the palace of the king. He brings her in, and she finds her place beside him. The marriage has begun.

In the last two verses, the focus is back on the king himself. And it’s a future focus - your sons taking the place of your fathers, them becoming princes. But even more than that, the king will be remembered:

‘I will perpetuate your memory through all generations; therefore the nations will praise you for ever and ever.’ (17)

A few years ago, when we were clearing out my granny’s house, we discovered her old wedding photo in a cupboard. None of us knew it was there. To be able to see granny and granda McMurray on their wedding day in .... was great. Their photo has lasted a long time, recording that special day. But even longer lasting is this psalm. Here is a record of a royal wedding so that thousands of years later we can see what he saw that day.

So how much more, then, the fulfilment of that day? The real royal wedding that that day pointed to; the real royal wedding that EVERY wedding points towards - the royal wedding when Jesus is united fully and finally with his bride, the church.

This best wedding is still to come. And you can be involved in it - not just as a wedding singer; nor even as a guest. You can be involved as the bride, the people of God, the church. The praise of Jesus, our king and our God, will resound for ever and ever. So why not come today, rsvp to the invitation; turn from all that’s past. Forget what’s behind, and bow to Jesus the king.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 12th August 2018.