Monday, September 16, 2019

Psalm 3 'the Glory and the lifter of my head" (Psalms in the Key of Life: Song of Hope amidst real life).Psalm 3, Romans 8:38-39

Have you ever had a night when your troubles and woes have kept you awake?  Something big and daunting, that has got you in its grip and it is shaking you and won’t let go, or a whole lot of little things that have somehow come together… like a pack of small yapping dogs nipping at your heels, that won’t give you rest. You find yourself tossing and turning in the dark, time seeming to slow down so there is no end to the darkness. Your usually comfortable bed seems to have turned into a bed of rocks and your pillow into a stone.  No this is not an infomercial for a bamboo pillow or a new mattress topper… rather on night like that there just does not seem to be an answer and a way forward, and exhaustion and tiredness compound the problem.

Psalm 3 has the feel of being from the midst of one of those nights… in fact we know that it is from one of those nights, we are told which night the psalmist has in mind… It’s the first psalm to have a superscript introduction that tells us it is a psalm of David, it’s one of only thirteen psalms in which that introduction places it in a specific occasion in David’s life. This one tells us that is from ‘when David had to flee from his son Absalom’. The story of which is told in 2 Samuel chapter 15-17. David is old and Absalom plots to become king, gathers an army and comes to Jerusalem to kill him, so David has to flee, become a refugee once again. It’s as if all his problems are now compounded. Some of his advisers go over to Absalom’s side, Mephibosheth, Saul’s nearest living relative whom David had looked after, stays in Jerusalem hoping that now the people will give him the throne. AS David flees he is cursed  Shimei one of Saul’s relatives, telling him that the LORD is not going to help him, that this in fact may be God’s judgement on David. After a day like that you could imagine that David would find it hard to sleep. But David turns to the LORD… I wonder if this isn’t part of 2 Samuel 16:14 where it says after he had reached his destination David refreshed himself… in prayer and in faith as well as with food and drink and rest. While this prayer may come from there its beauty is that it speaks for all God’s people facing trouble and difficulty. It is a prayer of finding hope in the character of God, the LORD’s faithful love, power and presence.

This spring we looking at selected psalms in a series we are calling ‘Psalms in the key of life: songs of hope amidst real life”.  Psalm 1 and 2 form the  introduction to the collection of psalms, focusing on God’s blessing, they speak of God’s blessing for those who build their life on God’s word, and God’s blessing on the those who put their trust in God’s anointed king and son. Then it’s interesting because right after that upbeat introduction Psalm 3 starts a series of five laments and prayers for help amidst trouble. As Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggermann says "its gives voice to the note of realism that is prevalent in the psalms”, that attest to the historical vagrancies, the trials and troubles, that assail even the king who is under divide promise”… “But they also attest that in such a world of trouble, where neither scriptural assurance nor divine promise makes one immune from threats, that there is a God to whom one may turn in Hope...The reality of God is as real as the reality of pain and suffering”. Songs of hope amidst real life… My Daughter Bethany’s favorite verse John 16:33 sums it up well for us when Jesus says “in this world there will be trouble, but do not be afraid, for I have overcome the world.”

Psalm 3 is broken into three sections, each ended by the  Jewish term, ‘selah’ which acts like musical direction and appears 71 times in the psalms.

Verse 1-2, focus us on the psalmist’s troubles. Like all three sections its starts with the psalmist proclaiming the name of the Lord. Here the Psalmist begins to pour out his woes. The word ‘many is used three times, to denote that the psalmist is being assailed by many people from ever side. The imagery used is one of being embattled surrounded by your foes who are pressing in for the kill. I like watching rugby, if the psalmist was a kiwi he might have talked of being passed the ball and as he started to move forward being meet by the opposition forward pack and finding himself at the bottom of a ruck.

But at the heart of the psalmist woes is the fact that he is being told that “God will not deliver him”, it is an attack on the very nature and character of God, on all the psalmist know of God and God’s goodness. It is as if the psalmist enemies want to strip him of any hope.
There are times when we can feel that God has forgotten us, or that God has closed up shop and gone home for the day, and fallen asleep in front of the TV. We can focus on the problems about us and loss sight of our Lord and saviour.

Then there is that selah, that rest that change of tune perhaps… and the second section v.3-6 changes the focus… with the words “but YOU, LORD” the psalmists gaze changes from his problems to who God is. He makes four assertions about God, things that he has learned from God’s dealing with his people in history and also his gracious dealings with the psalmist in the past.
You are a shield around me. In the midst of being embattled and having his enemies push in for the kill, that God is his shield. The shield mentioned here is the small round shield designed to protect a soldier in a fight while they can parry and respond with their own sword. But the psalmist sees her that God as a shield surrounds him completely. Psalm 125 picks that idea up on a national scale and says “as the mountains surround Jerusalem so the lord surrounds his people”. It picks up the whole idea in Psalms of God being a refuge, not to allow us to escape from the world but to face the world, knowing God’s presence with us.

My Glory. The psalmist realises that his own strength and his own power and ability is not enough to defeat the situation he is in, but he comes to realise that in actual fact it is God whom he look to for strength and power. The psalmist comes to realise that he is dependent on God. He might look back and see how Israel had been bought of slavery in Egypt not by their own strength or Power but the LORDs. David would look back and see the LORD, helping him against the giant Goliath, and other battles and realise it is God’s strength not his own.  AS Paul says in the book of Philippians which we looked at last month “ I can do all things’…not in his own strength… but through him(Christ Jesus) who strengthens me.  

The ‘lifter of my head’. This image comes from warfare again in the ancient world. A conquering king would make the vanquished kings bow down before him and he would place his foot on their neck, acknowledging his victory over them. But also as one bows before the sovereign in humility the king could also raise a person’s head up to acknowledge they have dignity and honour. The psalmist sees his dignity and honour coming from God, not himself. It is reflected in psalm 23 where David says “you anointed my head with oil in the sight of my enemies”. For you and I from beyond the cross and resurrection we hear Jesus words I no longer call you servants but friends… The affirmation from the beginning of John’s gospel that we have been adopted as children of the Lord most high.

“I call out to the Lord, and he heard me from his Holy mountain”, the affirmation that God answers prayer. Often when we face troubles it is as we look back and see what god has done in the past that it gives us strength to trust for the present. David when facing Goliath talks of God being with him as he faced the lion and the bear who came to attack the sheep, because of that he can trust God now.

As the psalmist has realised what God actual is like and what God has done, he actually has confidence in God in the midst of the situation he is facing and so with that confidence he is able to find rest and sleep and wake refreshed in the morning because it is God who sustains him. You even get the affirmation of the confidence even if ten thousand come against him he will not fear. 

Garth Gilksen, the drummer for the worship band Rend Collective, talks of going through a deep depression. He said the root cause of that was being aware of things he didn’t have, he saw friends and others getting ahead and having the seemingly perfect life while he continued to struggle and wrestle. As a friend told him comparison is the thief of Joy. In response to that he began to focus on the blessings he had in Christ… going back to what the gospel says we have in Christ… sight for our spiritual blindness, life even in the face of death. In that God lifted his head and gave him rest.

Then there is again that word selah and the tune again changes.

In verse 7 with this renewed confidence and a good night’s sleep, the psalmist calls on the Lord to arise and intervene on his behalf. To deliver him, from his enemies. We might not be comfortable with the violent imagery used here, of striking the jaw and breaking the teeth. But they come from seeing his enemies as wild animals that have him in their death grip. When I was younger I loved reading Jack London’s books, and in white fang, white fang is stolen, brutalised and forced into dog fights. He wins all his fights until one day a bull dog Cherokee is put up against him Cherokee gets a bite on the skin round his neck and won’t let go and slowly strangles the life out of white fang. Then a saviour steps into the ring, Jack come into save the dog. He tells the owner of the bull dog to call him off or he will break his jaw and teeth to set white fang free. Jack then nurses white fang back to health and teaches him to trust and love again.  This is the image used here, the psalmist calls for God to come and break the grip of the problems and enemies that assail him.

It is the same cry and the same confidence that we can have. That God is the one who is our strength and our dignity, who will come and be involved in our situations and bring his redemption and salvation.

The psalmist finishes by asserting in direct opposition to the taunt of his enemies that God is the one who from whom deliverance comes. Not only deliverance but God can be trusted to bring wellbeing and blessing to his people. It’s as if the Psalmist turns and looks down through history to all God’s people and to you and me here today, as face the troubles and problems that would try and strangle the joy and the life and dignity out of us, that we too can trust in the Lord to be our shield, our glory and the lifter of our head, to hear our cry and to answer us from our of his holy mountain.

In fact that is our experience. The word used for deliver here is the same root of yeshua, ‘Jesus’ God has answered us from his holy hill, God has delivered us through the death of Jesus Christ, to forgive our sins and bring us into abundant life with him.

God has indeed arisen, God raised Jesus to life again and sin and death are defeated, their grip on our life is broken,  the kingdom of God has come and while we face trouble we can rest and trust in God’s unfailing love in Christ Jesus. We are going to celebrate communion today and that reminds us of that saving grace, God’s presence and the assurance that we are with and in Christ and he will come again to set all things right.

Paul brings that home in the reading we had from Romans we had today. That there is nothing in this world that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing, not death, not physical things or spiritual…nothing. We can rest assured in that, and as it says in Isaiah 40 those who wait on the lord will renew their strength. In that we have hope in that we can find rest we can put our trust in God to deliver and bless.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Psalm 2: God's soverignty, God's Son and God's Blessing (Psalms in the Key of Life: Songs of Hope amidst real life)

here is the audio of this sermon from Hope Central September 21st part 1 and part 2 

I’ve never experienced a coronation. Queen Elizabeth 2 came to the throne in 1953. I know some of you here will remember it, you may have seen it on the news reel or listened on the radio. But it was the year my parent’s got married and I wasn’t born till a decade later.

I do have this vivid almost surreal recollection of seeing the investiture of Charles as the Prince of Wales in 1969. It would have been the first thing I would ever have seen on TV. I was five and we must have gone to some ones place to watch, because we didn’t get TV till 1972, for the Munich Olympics.

I think my children will see at least two coronations in their lives, and I think that they just maybe times for the nations in the commonwealth and for our own nation of some upheaval, and change. It will seem the natural time to have the debate over whether to sever the ties with the monarch and become a republic or stay in the commonwealth. I fear it could be our messy Brexit like moment.

That gives us a glimpse into the background to Psalm 2, a royal Psalm which scholars see as being part of, or at least drawing some of its words and images from  the coronation of a Davidic king, among the nations that may have been subject to Israel thinking this was their time to break free and be independent.  It speaks of the true king in heaven, the LORD, appointing his chosen king, as his son, on the throne. It contains the words of that king acknowledging God’s true sovereignty. It finishes with a warning to the nations to accept God’s chosen king and a beatitude: a declaration of blessing for those who find their refuge in him’.

 By the time the psalms were compiled, it would have taken on a very different meaning. With the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon in 532 BC, the affirmation that the LORD was king would have spoken to the nations who thought they themselves had ultimate power, and it encapsulates the hope that Israel had of God’s sovereignty and God’s messiah, a king like David coming to set things right again… to rule over the nations of the world. A hope and a promise that  Christians from an early time, by the fact it is quoted in a prayer in Acts 4 and the reading from Acts 13 we had today, saw fufilled in the person of Jesus Christ. A hope that we too have amidst the seemingly chaotic churn and blur of history, a hope that looks forward to a future fulfillment…as it says in Revelation 11:15.A time when ”The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah and he shall reign for ever and ever”. A hope that we can find refuge in until that consummation.

We are working our way through a series called “psalms in the key of life: Songs of hope amidst real life”, looking at selected psalms. Psalms that speak of trust in, and reliance on God amidst the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, deep dark valleys and high mountain tops of life. That lead us in  giving thanks to God for his constant love and faithfulness. That proclaim our hope is in him. Last week we looked at Psalm 1, which speaks of how an individual can be blessed by mediating on the psalms, on all of God’s word. A Psalm that is seen along with Psalm 2 as the introduction to the whole collection. Today we are looking at the second part of that introduction that takes that individual blessing and looks at it on the larger scale of what happens nationally and internationally. The two are held together by starting and finishing with a beatitude of how one can find blessing, as an individual by hearing and putting into practice the word of God and in the midst of what happens around us by putting our trust in the sovereign God and his Chosen king and son. So the psalms speak to us individually and corporately as God’s people, to find our blessing and hope in the LORD.

Verse 1-3 speak of the nation’s conspiring together to throw off the rule and reign of God. We are used to seeing international summit’s where national leaders gather together to deal with this issue or that crisis, and that is what is envisaged here. The nations are plotting and planning to walk away from God. It’s a parallel on an international level of the wicked and sinners and mockers in Psalm 1 who chose to walk away from God and his word as the wisdom they need to sustain them for life. Commenting on this Psalm, Gerald Wilson says ‘In an age that glorifies independence and freedom we often find ourselves on the side of the nations…Our society would have us believe that true happiness comes through personal freedom” we think of God’s rule as heavy shackles and fetters that stop us from becoming what we want to be… However   when we come to realize as it says in Romans 8:15 that it is not slavery but adoption as God’s children, it is loving family ties not imposed oppression then we find real freedom in Christ. Gerald uses the illustration of marriage, which some call ‘the ball and chain’ and others realize is the liberation of a faithful loving relationship.

In verse 4-6, God responds to the nations rage. It is a declaration of God’s sovereignty. We see God laughing, the combined power of the nations is comic and laughable compared to the true power of God, who created the whole universe. At the time of King Solomon, when Israel was at the height of its powers, this may have been backed up with military prowess, but it still rings true even when Israel found itself subjugated to the empires that rose and fell throughout history. AS it is still today God is the one who rules and reigns in history and nations and empires rise and fall at his command and rebuke. Kings and leaders, law makers and governments need to remember they will be called to account by a higher authority.

But that sovereignty is also seen in God’s moving in history. His rule and reign was to be reflected in the king of Israel, the Davidic kings, and Israel’s mission was to show the justice and goodness of God to the nations. It was God’s purpose in sending Jesus Christ, to see his kingdom established on earth, it is what God is doing through his people, the church, now as we pray ‘thy kingdom come’ and as we meditate on God’s word, live it out and see it impact and transform the world around us. It is God’s sovereign purpose that people will know the justice and peace of God in this world.  Amidst the swirl and seeming chaos of history we know that God is working out his purposes and plans.

Then in verses 6-9, God’s chosen king, the anointed one steps into the scene. The Davidic king or the messianic figure declares, not their own right to rule, but because of their relationship with God, that they will rule.

It’s quite a significant passage because for the only time in the psalms do we get the idea of the anointed one, God’s chosen King being associated with son-ship.  In ancient times Sonship meant not only being adopted by a father into a family, but also the responsibility to reflect the values and traits of the one who adopts them. The Davidic kings were to rule in a way that reflected God’s justice and mercy, as a way of showing the world and calling the nations to come and worship the LORD. But they are words that point us to Jesus Christ as God’s only begotten son, the one in whom John’s gospel tells us ‘ no one has seen God, but the one and only son, who is himself God and is in close relationship with God has made him known”.  God’s kingdom has been inaugurated, or begun, by the coming of Jesus Christ, and we are to be ambassadors of that rule in how we live and as a church so that people will see the goodness of God and come to worship and serve him, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

v10-12 serve as a warning and a call to the nations to serve the Lord. To be wise and see the rule and reign of God and his messiah as a positive, the same way as the Individual in psalm 1 sees the word of God as a reliable life giving water source. The same warning and blessing is in this psalm as in psalm 1 that the way leading away from God leads to disaster and destruction, but leaning into kiss the king and finding our refuge or putting our trust in God is the way to know blessings.
The picture of kissing the son, is like nobles and kings coming to acknowledge a new king. To kiss his feet was a way to acknowledge his power over them. To lean forward and kiss is also the root of the word in psalms we have for worship. In Matthew’s narrative of Jesus birth we see the wise men from the east doing just this, it is a foreshadow of the gentile nations coming to a saving knowledge of and worshiping Jesus Christ as Lord and king.

How does this psalm then speak to us, as God’s people today.

Psalm 2 serves as an introduction to the Psalms, the two Psalms together remind of that God speaks and acts and blesses both the individual and us corporately as God’s people. It speaks to us as Christians from beyond the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God’s word and the focal point of God’s moving and acting in human history. The psalms are like those road signs on the way north counting down the km till you get to Whangarei, as we read and meditate on the psalms they are a sign post that point us to Jesus Christ… That source of living water, God’s chosen King (messiah) and son. 

The Psalm also reminds us of the sovereignty of God. It is easy to get concerned and confused and worried by all we see around us, nations heading in different directions, the movement of our western society away from its biblical basis, its Judeo-Christian foundations, and feel a growing anti-Christian sentiment,  but the reality from Psalm 2 is that God is in control, and sovereign. In Acts 4 the disciples face persecution and opposition for the first time from the religious authorities in Jerusalem and they respond in prayer, quoting Psalm 2 acknowledging the nations will rage and revolt against God’s rule, but also acknowledging that they serve God’s messiah Jesus Christ, and it tells us the place where they met shock and they were filled afresh by God’s Holy Spirit, his assuring presence and power. The same presence and power we know in our lives as well.

The psalm speaks to us of God’s missional nature. God’s desire to see all nations come and know his merciful rule and reign, to acknowledge his Son Jesus Christ as LORD. We saw that in our reading from Acts 13 where Paul quotes this psalm to call people to faith in Jesus Christ. It under girds for us Jesus call and commission on the church… All authority in heaven and earth is given to me, therefore go and make disciples in every nation, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you…

It also calls us to live with a different loyalty and priority because of God’s sovereignty. For the early Christians to affirm that Jesus was Lord and to declare his good news was a very political statement, it said that things should be Done Jesus way, god’s way, in the face of a society that was declaring ‘Caesar is Lord, and proclaiming the benefits of the good news of that, in roman law and culture. It is still a very political statement for us today… Shane Clairborne, who started the community ‘the simple way’ in Philadelphia's poorest neighborhood,  has written a book called “Jesus for President”. It is Claiborne declaring like Psalm 2 does that the kingdom of God is not to be confused with the western dream and consumer society, but is a call to live a radically different life. One which has lead him to be imprisoned for feeding homeless, standing on the stairs of the supreme court to oppose the death penalty and more recently a tour of the country with an anvil, beating hand guns and other weapons into garden implements. Living counter culturally, living with Jesus setting the agenda.  

Finally, like the nations and kings we too are to find our refuge and shelter in serving and worshiping God’s chosen king, Jesus Christ. That refuge is not an escape from the world, but rather a call to radical involvement trusting that God has us and is with us in all of life’s circumstances, as we will see as we look through the psalms. It is a call in the words of Jesus to put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, to kiss the son… Jesus who has been coronation was the cross, whose kingdom has broken into the realms of humanity with his resurrection, and who will come again to set all things right.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Psalms in the key of life: the key of life in the Psalms (Psalm 1)

the sermon was preached on Sunday September 1st at HopeWhangarei  and here is the audio including an introduction to sermon bingo. 

Maybe it’s hard for us in a country blessed with plentiful water and evergreen tress to understand the significance of the metaphor at the heart of psalm 1 about the person who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates or chews it over, day and night being like a tree planted by a stream.

Lynn Baab who was the lecturer in pastoral Theology at Otago University was in a similar position. She had grown up in the pacific north-west, where rain fall was reliable and frequent and water was plentiful and trees just grew everywhere. There were vast swaths of lush green forest as far as the eye could see.

She said it wasn’t until she moved to Shiraz in Iran that she discovered the significance of a tree planted by a reliable water source. Shiraz is 1500 meters above sea level and can be described as mountainous desert. She lived there for six months and in that time it only rained twice. Once for five minutes and the other for half an hour. Her impression of the place was that it was all beige brown. Beige brown houses and dusty beige brown streets surrounded by beige brown country leading off to beige brown mountains. There were no trees, only scraggly shrubs with withering leaves. When it rained it didn’t result in green plants sprouting it simply turned the beige brown dust briefly to beige brown mud.

 Friends from the church she attended there would take her and her husband on trips around the country. One day they were in the beige brown mountains and her guides stopped the car by a small stream. The blue of the water was such an amazing contrast. They walked up through a small gully and came to the place where the stream originated as a spring bubbling up out from under the mountain. There by the spring was a big healthy tree with green leaves…”totally unexpected astonishing and refreshing” said Lynne “ here was the tree of Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17. The tree planted by the reliable water source, that did not run dry” She took a photo of it and it reminds her to meditate and dwell in the scriptures as that source of living water in her every day busy and messy  life. The same encouragement we get from the reading this morning.

We are starting a series today looking at selected Psalms. The series is called “Psalms in the key of life: songs of hope amidst real life”. The book of Psalms presents us with a picture of real life, a messy picture of ups and downs, great joys and deep dark sorrows, faithfulness and failings, challenges and obstacles, broken promises and broken hearts and bodies, self-doubts and darkness, for Israel as individuals and as a nation, amidst that the presence and the guidance and the goodness of God, a source of living water, nourishment, encouragement and hope. Reason to worship and praise and persevere and put ones trust in God’s unfailing love.  These songs, these prayers have been a source of comfort and hope for over two and a half thousand years. They were the sound track of the Jewish people, the sound track of Jesus life and they are lyrics that speak to us still. They are for us now, they draw us to God.

The book of Psalms surprisingly starts with a beatitude. A way in which a person can be blessed by God. You could say that the psalms in the key of life start with the key to life in the psalms. Jewish poetry is not about rhyming words or metered lines, rather it is about metering out wisdom in rhyming ideas. Coupling together different ways of looking at the same thing. And the blessing in Psalm one is given through two contrasting examples, two contradicting ways in which we could live.
A negative, a way we should not live to receive God’s blessing, which is walking and sitting and going in the way of the wicked, the sinner and the mocker. Not that we avoid them but that we don’t allow them to influence us. This is contrasted with the positive of delighting in the law or torah, and meditating on it day and night.  Meditating means to chew over, and extract all the goodness for our sustenance. Like a cow chewing its cud.

One way which while looking like it may yield a great harvest, but is in the end hollow and has no roots. That is like chaff blown away by the wind. An image drawn from the agricultural practices of winnowing wheat. Throwing it in the air on the threshing floor so the wind will blow away the chaff, the husks of the wheat seed, the rubbish, and only leave you with the good seed to be ground into flour.

One way which is likened to that tree by a stream, even in the hot desert sun, the strong dry wind, it will put down roots find sustenance, grow, remain green and bear fruit. Fruit which Paul talks of in Galatians 5 as the result of walking with our live attune to the Holy Spirit… Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

One way, which flourishes for a season, but which the Psalmist tells us lead to destruction. That does not provide wisdom to make right decisions, sound judgments and discern what is best in life…  
The other way which is a safe path, even though the desert land, even in treacherous territory because the Lord watches over those who walk it, providing wisdom and guidance.

In this blessing the psalm asks which way will we allow to influence your life? Which way will we walk? Where will we find your delight? What is your water source for life?

Psalm 1 is also seen, along with psalm 2 as an introduction to the whole of the collection. In texts from the middle-ages it would have been written in red ink with no number given, acknowledging that it is a preamble to the Psalms. It is the compilers forward instructing us how to use the Psalms. Both liturgically, they are songs and prayers that form the basis of communal worship, in the temple they would have been recited at the hours of both day and night  offering peoples praise and prayers to God. On a personal level they are prayers and songs that as we reflect on them bring the whole of our life before God, and open us up to God to speak and minister to us.

When we think of meditating on the law of the lord, or the torah we can think it simply means the first five books of the bible. From our position post the cross and the resurrection we can find ourselves wrestling with that as we wonder where grace and gospel fit in. But In the Psalms themselves, and in particular, psalm 119 which many scholars see as written by the same person who wrote psalm 1, there is a series of five different words that are used interchangeably, including law, to speak of the whole scripture. Maybe this is reinforced by the fact that what we know as the book of Psalms, is actually presented as five books, given to us like the five books that make up the law. Scholars also see in Matthew’s gospel written primarily to Jewish people that Jesus teaching is presented in five groupings, Matthew’s way of equating Jesus teaching as torah, to be read meditated on and put into practice.

The other thing Psalm 1 says about the Psalms is that there is value in the study of them systematically, there is much to be gained from reading through them as a collection, studying them and allowing them to speak to us.  

I want to simply bring out two of those benefits today. 

One is that as I’ve been saying the whole of our life is bought before Godin he psalms. Even in the psalms we find difficult, like psalm 88, which is known as the dark heart of the psalms and finishes not with praise to God, but by saying ‘darkness is my only friend’ sums up moments and seasons, where we wrestle with tragedy and  grief and wrestle with the spectre of seemingly unanswered prayer. Or Psalm 109, where the psalmist filled with anger, calls curses down on his enemies, but somehow is able to leave judgment in the hands of God, the God who answers all human darkness and sin through the cross of Christ, not in vengeful spite. Psalm 51 where the pain of knowing we have sinned is bought to God, Psalm 31 which speaks of trusting in God as our refuge, while sometimes we simply feel like broken pottery or refuse. Then there is the comfort and assurance of God’s life-long love and goodness in Psalm 23. The times when we just want to jump and rejoice and celebrate the Goodness of God, in psalm 150, where we are told to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and like in Psalm 42 when we have to speak to that spirit of heaviness and depression that tries and hold us captive and say why are you so downcast O my Soul… I will yet praise him my Lord and my king… All that is lifted up to God in the Psalms, as a gift for us.

Secondly, as we focus and mediate on the Psalms, like all scripture they point us to Jesus Christ, God’s word made flesh, the fulfillment of the law. They foretell of his coming, and point us to the ultimate victory of the Kingdom of God. Psalm 2, amidst the rage of nations and kings, God speaks of establishing his son as king. The psalms that speak of the David pointing us forward to the hope of that just and righteous king, Jesus. Psalm 22, which Jesus himself quotes on the cross, that starts with the lament “my god my god why have you forsaken me and finishes with salvation in the line “God has done this”…”it is Finished”. It is as we meet and mediate and focus on Jesus that we find the living water we need for life, abundant life, and eternal life.

I want to finish with our New Testament reading from this morning, from the end of the sermon on the mount, because Jesus, who had started his sermon with beatitudes, how to live the life blessed by God, finishes as well with wisdom that there are two ways to live. And also brings a metaphor from the desert land to illustrate that. Jesus is speaking to people who had meditated and reflected on God’s word all their lives, but somehow for many it had not impacted on the way they lived. He says that there are two ways to build one’s life. Either on sand or on a solid rock, the solid foundation of hearing his words and obeying them.

One of the things with living by a stream in the middle-east is that they often in a wadi a steep sided valley. When storms come and the rains fall the wadi will begin to fill and flash floods will happen and sweep anything in its path away as surely as the wind blows the chaff away, anything that does not have a solid foundation.

It is not just enough to have the psalms or have Jesus word’s it is as we allow them to be the foundation for the life we build that we will find them enough to weather the storms of life, that we will find them and him a life giving source of water.

Lets Pray

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

partners in the gospel: The secret of contentment (partners in generosity) Philippians 4:10-23

This is a message preached at Hope Whangarei and was recorded in two parts   part A and part B It was originally preached back in 2017 at St Peter's Church. 

I don’t buy newspapers, like an ever growing number of people these days I get my news via the internet and its various news feeds and websites. One of things I’ve noticed is the way adverts are more and more interwoven and packaged as articles on these news feeds or placed as links to similar stories at the bottom of news articles. They usually have headlines that say something like “this celebrity or that well known person shares their secrets to beauty”, or “this is a secret that the rich don’t want you to know of how they are able to accumulate wealth and so can you.” Or “the secret to having great hair”… Adverts that offer secrets of how we can get or maintain the western dream of being wealthy, healthy and attractive.

In the reading we had today Paul also offers us a secret he has discovered for life. Not a secret hidden as a link to another web address, or added on as a teaser at the end but freely and openly shared in the body of his letter.   A Secret which has been hijacked in some quarters to reflect and fit in with our western worldview, but which goes totally against the grain. As he thanks the church at Philippi for their generous gift to him he tells them the secret he has that enables him to face, keep faithful and have joy in times of plenty or in want, when he is well feed or hungry. It is the secret to being content in all situations. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me…

Over the last couple of months we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter written to thank that church for its generous support for Paul while he is in prison. A letter written to encourage the Church at Philippi to stand firm as partners in the gospel, in the face of persecution from outside and trouble within.  A letter written to exhort the church to Live worthy of the gospel, being unified, having the mind of Christ where they put each other’s needs above their own, where they guard against teaching that would try and add human endeavour to the cross of Jesus Christ for salvation. A letter where Paul assures them that the God of peace will guard their hearts and minds if they keep focused on him.  A letter in which Paul encourages the church to know joy, a joy that transcends situations, that is not tied to emotion or circumstance, but is founded in being known by and knowing Jesus Christ.  A letter that speaks that same profound truth to the church here and now as it did to the church then and there.

Today we are going to finish this series by looking at Paul’s final words of thanks to the church(v10-19), a doxology or giving glory of God, his final greetings (21-22) and his benediction or blessing (23). They all have something to say to us of significance. It does seem that the letter formally finishes with the doxology in verse 20, and it may be that Paul had dictated the letter to someone and then he writes the last greetings and blessing in his own hand writing.  The personal touch. Like with Paul’s letter we will focus most of our time on what he has to say as he gives thanks to the Church for their gracious gift and deal with the other two in passing.

Paul thanks the church at Philippi for their concern for him and the gracious and generous gift which was sent by the church with Epaphroditus. It was a gift of support which we assume was money. So he thankful for the gift but is also concerned that there is no misunderstanding about the gift as well.
Firstly, no misunderstanding about the nature of Paul’s ministry. In the first century, there were travelling philosophers and teachers who would make their living from their teaching. They would establish a group of followers and there was the expectation that that group would then support them and their work. A second century satirist Lucian speaks of them going house to house to receive a payment, or as they call it ‘sharing the sheep’ and people would give money out of respect for these travelling teachers or out of fear of their harsh words if they didn’t.

Paul is not like that… In Paul’s mission journey, he had supplemented his travel and preaching in long stays like in Athens by plying his trade as a tentmaker. A term that is used by missions today for people who go to countries for the sake of the gospel but work in those countries, usually they are countries that do not allow people to come as missionaries. But as they are there to work in their particular field they can witness to people around them and encourage the local church. In fact is scrupulous about handling money…when collecting for the poor in Jerusalem as well, making sure that representatives from the donating churches went with him and the appeal money to Jerusalem. Sadly today money is one of the things that can damage or lead Christian ministries off the rails. We see TV evangelists demanding money for extravagances, heavy handed methods for squeezing out so called “love offerings’ for speakers. Paul wants to distance himself from that. In the Presbyterian Church I actually like the way in which the minister’s stipend is linked to the average wage in New Zealand. 

Secondly. Paul wants the church to know that while he is filled with joy at the Churches show of concern for him. It’s not because of the money in his account but rather it is on account of what it says about the church at Philippi. Their generosity is a sign that they are growing and mature in their Christian love and desire to see the gospel shared and spread. Their generosity is an expression of the generous love they have received from God in Jesus Christ. They are generous partners in the gospel. That is full payment says Paul, that is credit to your account, then turning from economic language to the language of the old testament he likens it to a sacrifice given to God, which is pleasing, fragrant and acceptable.

In scripture wealth is not seen in the same way as it is often seen in our society, or even the church. It is seen as a blessing but also coming with a warning, wealth itself can assume divine status in a person’s life. Its pursuit can consume us, push out other important parts of life: to keep the standard of living we desperately seek in the west today actually demands a couple to work furiously, and to be exhausted at the end of ever longer and pressured work weeks with little time left for family and less for worship and witness and mission. The status and lifestyle that it provides can push aside Christian discipleship, and it can lead us to not depending on God. Proverbs 30:8 and 9 is not often quoted as a promise from scripture, but it forms the basis of a prayer we say in church a prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, and it sums up the situation very well “Give me neither poverty or wealth but give me rather my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say ‘who is the LORD?’ But it also acknowledges the depravations and temptations of poverty, “Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.”

Paul is pleased for the gift but what pleases him more is that the church at Philippi have not fallen into the trap of worshipping wealth. Jacques Ellul, a noted Christian anarchist, refelects ““There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.” Generosity…

Paul is not a conman or consumed by money he is content. So what is Paul’s secret of being content in all situations, in plenty or with naught, a full stomach or amidst the growling pangs of hunger. It is says Paul… Christ. The word content come from stoic philosophy and it means self-sufficiency , not dependant on the things of the world around you for pleasure or joy and Paul borrows it here to say that he is able to face all these different and difficult situations through Christ who strengthens him. He is content because it is Christ who is sufficient for him. We can be content because Christ is sufficient for us.

On one level it is that Paul sees and focuses in his life on a higher good, that allows him to put what is going on around him in to perspective. Our focus can be on what we do or do not have but Paul has learned to find his joy and his peace and his wellbeing in knowing and serving Christ.  There are times when God provides in the midst of his life, the gift from Philippi is one of those times. Just as God was able to provide for Paul as he plied his trade as a tentmaker. But he’s also aware that to follow Christ is the road of the cross, that pain and suffering are not signs of the absence of God’s presence, or blessing but the reality of living out Christ like love and sacrifice.

On another level it is that Paul knows God has provided for far more than simply his physical needs. The greater need of humanity salvation, forgiveness of sin and relationship with God are met in Jesus Christ. meaning and purpose in life are met in following Jesus Christ.

Being content does not mean you can’t work to change your circumstances, when people come to Christ there is often what is called a redemptive lift. That as people’s priorities change and their lives become more straightened out their finances benefit from that.

Paul’s secret is then able to be handed on to the church at Philippi and to us. That just as Paul can do all things in Christ who strengthens him so he says ‘God is able to meet all our needs according to his riches in glory.’  We too can find contentment in knowing our God is for us and able to meet our needs, our spiritual needs and grant us our daily bread. So Paul finishes his exhortation to the church at Philippi the way he started it by assuring them that God is able to bring to completion the work that he had begun in them by assuring them that God is able to meet all their needs. The same assurance that we have regardless of our situation or circumstance.

Paul then moves to bring greeting to the church at Philippi. He had started his letter by greeting the saints and now he expands that to be all God’s people. The unity they have the joy they have the assurance that God has is not just for them but for all God’s people.  That includes us as well as God’s timeless word speaks into our world as much as it did to the church at Philippi. Paul reinforces the idea of the universal family of God.

It's interesting that while the church at Philippi was suffering for the gospel in a roman colony that Paul should also take the opportunity to encourage them by sharing greetings from believers within Caesar’s household. The gospel was having an impact at the very heart of the powers that were opposing them. It speaks to us of the world wide family of God being a source of comfort and help and support for those struggling under persecution and pressure. That in the west where we find ourselves feeling like the world is becoming more and more post Christian and resilient to the gospel that we can be encouraged by hearing and seeing that the Spirit of God is at work all over the world. I found myself in tears as I watched a video of the 25th anniversary of the Harvest evangelism crusade by Greg Laurie (whom I’d never heard of before) in Southern California. I was amazed at the cost and the technology and effort that went into this event, but the thing that got to me was the testimonies of so many people who had had their lives transformed by meeting Jesus Christ, from alcoholism, dysfunctional families, drug addiction, abusive situations, despair and depression, atheism and nomalism to a saving new life in Jesus Christ, we don’t always see it in our little corner but the gospel is unchained and Christ is alive and moving in people’s lives by the holy spirit.  Recently I’ve found myself in tears as I hear the stories of Christian aid workers in refugee camps in the middle-east who at the risk of their lives share their faith and see lives changed. Even in the face of tragedy the willingness to forgive of a small Coptic village in Egypt whose twelve men were beheaded by IsIs fighters,  a couple of years ago, in a video put up on the internet, but the grieving widows, mothers, fathers and families chose to forgive. The power of the gospel in the face of hatred and persecution.

Finally Paul’s blessing on his readers is that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ might be with your Spirit. Here is the thing that is the centre of Paul’s Joy, here is the foundation of Paul’s hope, the strength of his assurance that he who has started a good work in you will bring it to completion in Christ Jesus. Here is the secret of his contentment, that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Here is the reason for Christian unity and the means to preserve it, that we have the mind of Christ. Here is the greatest Blessing. That we might know the grace of Jesus Christ in our lives. In the end it’s no secret, it is the person, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, present in our lives by the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Partners in the Gospel: Being Christ-like in a Catfight (Philippians 4:1-3)

This is a message I preached a couple of years ago and have reworked for a new setting.... However it is also one that there is now an audio recording of... here is the link if you wish to hear as well as read... partners in the gospel being Christ like in a cat fight

How you deal with conflict has really stepped to the fore on the world stage. Trade wars between the US and China, the gulf between left and right, progressive and conservative, widening and becoming more vociferous, ongoing racial tensions in our increasingly multi-cultural context, trolling on the internet… trying to have dissenting voices disenfranchised, silenced or written off as hate speech… people struggle to deal with and resolve conflict.

The Church is a very human institution and has been full of all these kinds of conflict as well. Big conflict and even conflict over the most trivial of things… (the perfect worship service)… The challenge is that our witness to Jesus Christ in the world around us really suffers if we can’t resolve our conflicts peaceably. It is part of the hope we can bring to our hurting world, it is part of our ministry of reconciliation that Paul talks of in 2 Corinthians 5. In the passage, we had read today, Paul deals with a conflict between two people in the church at Philippi, two church leaders whose falling out is having an adverse effect on church unity. Paul’s response gives us some helpful insights on conflict resolution: The hope for peace by being Christ like in the midst of a catfight.

We are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, a letter he has written to thank them for support and financial assistance while he is in prison. A letter where he takes the opportunity to encourage his readers to stand firm, kia kaha, in the face of opposition from without and trouble within, to stand firm as partners in the gospel,. For Paul this standing firm is not teeth gritted, white knuckle hanging on for dear life rather it is knowing the fullness of Joy, rejoicing… a word he uses sixteen times in this epistle, fullness of Joy in Jesus Christ. Encouragement not just for his readers then and there but also for us here and now.

This section starts with a therefore, which connects it back to what has gone before but also signals a change. Paul now applies all he has said in this letter so far to a very specific situation. A conflict between two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, that is really starting to rachet up and putting the church under some strain. 

We don’t know what the conflict between these two women is, it could be theological as Paul had  talked of the false teaching of the Judaisers,  maybe one of them was starting to be prone to this ‘Christ Plus” teaching. Way back at the beginning of his letter he had talked of people having different reasons and motives for sharing the gospel, they may have had a conflict over how the gospel was to be done in Philippi. It could have been personal we don’t know. But it was effecting the Church, because these women were in leadership roles. Paul addresses them as co-workers who had contended at his side for the gospel, along with a person named Clement who we only meet in passing here. We know that they have suffered for the gospel because Paul tells us their names are written in the book of life, which in scripture is used to talk of people who have faced persecution.
Before we look at conflict resolution it is important to look at Euodia and Syntyche, because they are part of what Gordon Fee calls the “mute” evidence of women in leadership in the New Testament. It’s important that we hear their story.

Firstly, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Women in leadership in the church at Philippi. Macedonia was one of the only places in the ancient world where women were accepted into the public realm, they owned property and contributed to public life and the economy. Statues in Macedonia have been found honouring women for their contribution. The Church at Philippi started with Lydia, a women of great means who was a saler of purple cloth. Lydia becomes a believer and leader in the Church, at least its patron, as a rich woman she would have had a house where a large group could gather and meet.  The next story of Paul’s time in Philippi recorded in acts is where Paul delivers a women who is being exploited for money as a fortune teller. The church at Philippi starts as a women’s story.  

We don’t know the details of Eoudia and Syntyche’s story but we do know they were involved in evangelism with Paul.  Sadly with the church becoming more and more an institution after the first two centuries, it become male dominated and their stories got lost. In fact early translations of Paul’s letter from the Greek actually put a masculine ending on these Greek names. The translators were not comfortable with women in leadership roles in the church. It’s the same as in Romans 16 where many women are mentioned and for centuries Junia which is a women’s name and who is said to be outstanding amongst the apostles had her name changed to have a masculine ending. It is a great blight on the Church that they moved away from this acceptance of women in leadership, that they came to reflect the culture around them rather than the gospel and the example of people like Paul and the Church at Philippi. It is only recently that we have begun to change, it’s a continuing blemish that there is still a long way to go.

Paul didn’t have these issues, yes there are texts that need to be wrestled with like Timothy 2:11-15 which has been used to deny Women the ability to teach and lead in Church, but from Philippians and Romans and Acts we see Paul valued and loved his women co-workers. In the passage we are looking at today it seems the church leadership was a balance of men and women. The way he deals with the conflict that they are having reflects the high regard he has for them. He does not put them down for their conflict, suggest it’s because they are women, in fact we know from Acts that Paul himself had had a conflict with his co-worker and his mentor Barnabas over the suitability of John Mark to go with them on the missionary trip that lead to Paul going to Philippi, we have evidence that while he was in prison that conflict was resolved as in 2 Timothy 2, he asks Timothy to bring John Mark with him when he comes as he is useful to me. We know from Ephesians 2 that Paul had had a conflict with Peter as well that had threatened the Christian witness and had to be resolved. Paul knows from painful personal experience about the impact that conflict can have on the witness of the Gospel.

That leads us back to conflict resolution.

The first thing to note is that Paul’s motivation for the resolution for this conflict is his love for those involved and his commitment to a higher common good. We saw it in the way he addresses the church at the start of this passage. He Calls them brothers and sisters, the basis of their unity is that they we are family through the life and death of Jesus Christ. He calls them beloved; in the NIV it’s translated “you whom I love and long for”, unity is not just based on a theology reality but personal affection. Both of which combine when Paul says he sees them as his ‘Joy and crown’, they are the proof of the gospel’s effectiveness through him. Having a common higher good, the gospel and unity in Christ, and a commitment to the good of those involved, that we love one another as Christ has loved us, provide the motivation for us to resolve our conflicts.

Paul deals with the problem in a timely manner, it’s not left to get worse and worse. The breakdown of their relationship hasn’t got to the point where Paul has had to speak to the church about factions as he had to the church in Corinth, where they were even taking each other before civil courts. Paul’s teaching in chapter 2 on grumbling and arguing may have been a reference to the effect this conflict was starting to have and that it was bubbling away under the surface.

To the Church at Ephesus Paul had given the command not to let the sun go down on their anger, but to seek to be reconciled. Athletes will talk about muscle memory, that by continually repeating actions that the body then does them automatically, by reflex. The heart is a muscle as well and if we keep turning away from someone we are in conflict with that action can become instinctive. In Exodus it talks of pharaoh hardening his heart, over and over again refusing to let the people of Israel go. Then finally it says God hardened his heart. That hardening of heart leads to greater and greater disaster for pharaoh and his people. We need to deal with conflict in a timely manner.

Paul does not take sides or associate blame in this conflict. He treats each women the same. He address the two women individually and identically. I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche. There is an impartiality which hopefully enables them to hear what he has to say. In conflict resolution that impartiality is important. People will remember the all blacks touring South Africa back in the bad old days when there was always a  South African ref, it was said they were up against sixteen people on the field. When dealing with conflicts maintaining impartiality, and love and respect for each party is important.

Paul’s plea to them is that they might have the mind of Christ. He had articulated what he meant by that, that Christ while being equal with God, did not deem it something to be held onto, but emptied himself and took on the nature of a human being, became a servant, obedient even unto death, death on a cross. In conflict resolution Paul is not giving them an answer rather he is pleading with them to adopt an attitude or posture where the issue can be resolved and the relationship mended. In a marriage, even a good marriage, there is that uncomfortable silence after an argument, which ironically seems just so loud, and no-body is prepared to start the healing process. “I’m right! I’m not going to say sorry, I’ve done nothing wrong…” where it needs someone to go first for the sake of the relationship. Not to always simply give in but start the process of talking again and getting it sorted. I love the illustration from the marriage course of sitting together on the couch and getting the issue out on the table in front of you, not between you.

The other thing that Paul does in this situation is he asks a person, whom we simply know as the true companion, to help these women be reconciled. When we are in conflict it’s hard to see the way forward and it is often in those situations that we need a third party to facilitate, mediate. It is easy to want to come in with an answer and a solution, but that probably has more to do with our personality rather than what is needed. The picture from scripture that fits here is what Jesus calls the Holy Spirit… the councillor, the advocate, the friend with legal training who comes alongside. We need people who are willing to train in mediation and reconciliation. The blessed peacemakers of the beatitudes. The ultimate example of a mediator for us is Jesus Christ… who reconciled us with God. 

One of the most frustrating things about biblical scholarship is we only get a glimpse into the life of the early Church, we are left wondering about the outcome of this conflict, just as we are unaware of the substance of this conflict or the name of the person who is asked to help out. But that leaves the story open for our story. We can find ourselves in this story. Alongside Euodia and Syntyche in conflict with relationships tearing or broken, we can hear Paul's Plea to adopt the mind of Christ. But all of us can hear Paul’s plea to be a true companion, to be the Holy Spirit’s agent to come alongside and help, to be a peacemaker. Our witness is not to be perfect but to stand firm in our faith, which does not mean an absence of conflict but that we cope with it, not just in a peaceful way but a Christlike way.  That is a witness that can then speak to the wider issues of this world.