Monday, September 13, 2010

Hearing God's Voice In The Midst Of Life's Storms (reflections on Psalm 29)

Psalm 29

A psalm of David.

1 Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones,

ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;

worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.

3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters;

the God of glory thunders,

the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.

4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;

the voice of the LORD is majestic.

5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;

the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.

6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,

Sirion like a young wild ox.

7 The voice of the LORD strikes

with flashes of lightning.

8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert;

the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh.

9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaks

and strips the forests bare.

And in his temple all cry, "Glory!"

10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;

the LORD is enthroned as King forever.

11 The LORD gives strength to his people;

the LORD blesses his people with peace

Some storms are memorable. Like the one in which the Inter Island ferry ‘The Wahine’ sunk after striking Barrett’s reef in the mouth of Wellington Harbour. Which has been bought to our attention again recently as we’ve been marking 50 years of TV in New Zealand. It was for an older generation the first major New Zealand event they remember being reported on the tube.

Cyclone Bola struck new Zealand’s east Coast the year Kris and I were first married and we were in Tauranga. I was working at a hot house complex in Te Puke and as the wind began to rise and the clouds began to build on the horizon I was a five or six meters off the ground standing on a thin metal beam holding a corner of the plastic roof that needed to be fixed before the storm struck. We were also on the first plane out of Tauranga after the cyclone and remember that we went up and down in the turbulence as much as we travelled along as we went over the hills to Rotorua. I also remember a day or two later going out to surf in six to eight foot waves on the “sheltered side” of Leisure Island at the Mount Maunganui beach. Maybe as you read Psalm 29 you too had memories of the storms you have experienced in your life, either real weather storms or times when circumstances and events have felt storm like.

You see Psalm 29 is a nature psalm. It uses imagery from creation to invite its reader to worship the creator. In this instant the Psalmist uses the experience of a powerful storm to invite us to praise God for his power and Glory.

The storm front sweeps along the Mediterranean Sea, There is lightning and thunder and wind and rain, it rages over the cedar clad hills of Lebanon, Trees are uprooted, or struck by lightning, across the wilderness and desert to the north of Jerusalem, you could imagine dust and sand being added to the dark towering clouds, Finally it descends on the city of Jerusalem itself... In response to that God’s people, safe in his temple, can do nothing else but cry Glory to God. But it does not leave us in the midst of the storm there is the wonderful assurance that like a still morning after a stormy night that this powerful God of ours gives both strength and peace to his people.

It’s a polemic, a psalm written in response to the worldview of Israel’s neighbours who worshipped nature gods, creation as divine, rather than worshipping the creator. The Psalm starts by calling ‘heavenly beings’ to worship Israel’s God YHWH. In the Ancient Near East the sun and moon and stars even storms themselves were worshipped as gods. The Psalmist Calls these mere objects to acknowledge the almighty power of God their creator. The cedars of Lebanon were seen as being the material that these deities made their dwellings from ,but the psalmist says that the real God, the one true God, when he speaks like thunder and lightning well these mighty trees as nothing more than match sticks. The psalm calls us all to acknowledge that God is enthroned and sovereign over all his creation even the worst winter storm.

It’s a polemic that is still relevant for us today as we have by scientific reason simply written off weather, and other things as mere physical objects and naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s a polemic not to lose the wow factor. The awe and praise for the One whom scripture tells us made it all. That tells us nature reflects the very one who made it. In an age when we are starting to realise that human beings just may have changed things enough to alter the weather it is important to again have a sense of awe and respect for the earth and the one who made it and us.

Today from this Psalm I want to draw three things that I believe are very relevant for us as we face life’s storms, both the weather ones and storms as a metaphor for the circumstances and issues that can buffet and rock us.

The first is I wonder if we haven’t domesticated God, That we emphasis the immanence of God his closeness and love, Jesus as friend or buddy to the extent that we lose something of the power and majesty and awesomeness of God. Maybe that is in response to one of the misconceptions that JB Phillips in his book ‘Your God is Too Small’, says we can have of God. He says that people see God as a cosmic policeman, a vengeful God waiting for us to muck up so he can turn us all into instant sinner burgers. We see lightning bolts as signs of God’s displeasure not his grandeur. So in response our God might have got too thin, as JB Phillips says, we can turn God into a cosmic credit card, someone we look to fulfil not only our needs but our wants as well. Our Jesus becomes plastic, simply there at our beck and call when needed to bail us out.

This Psalm invites us again to see God as not only the God who can calm the storms of life but who is God even in the midst of the storms of life. Who is in control and sovereign, who is enthroned even when it seems no one is in control, when its totally out of control. God who is still in control and working out his purposes in times like today which Author Leonard Sweet says we are living through such drastic changes that it’s like being in a cultural tsunami.We have a God who is able to speak in and through such times.

Aslam is the Christ figure in CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, in ‘the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’. The children wonder if they will be scared when they meet Aslam who is a lion and Mr Beaver, a talking animal replies “Aslam is not a tame Lion”. He’s good but he’s not tame. This Psalm invites us to remember this as well. God is not tame, but he is good.

The second thing from this Psalm is that God is able to speak to us through the Storms. Over and over again in this psalm there is the repetition of the phrase the voice of the Lord. It’s in the thunder over the sea, over the hills and the wilderness and the city. It’s in the thunder and the psalmist says God speaks and makes the lightning flash. It’s often in life’s storms that God speaks to us.

Jonah; ‘The Great storm”

In the book of Jonah, God uses the great storm and the great fish to turn the prophet round, from going his own way to doing what God has called him to do.

Skate board legend Christian Hosoi, talks of becoming the US amateur champion at twelve, a professional skateboarder with his own company earning hundreds of thousands a year by the time he was twenty, and in jail at thirty for smuggling drugs into Hawaii. He says it was only as his life was in the midst of the storm of prison that he heard God’s voice and came to know the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It was ironically in prison he found freedom. God’s voice wasn’t audible in the fame, the popularity and all its trappings only in the storm. At 42 Christian is now a pastor as well as a skater and tours the world with Evangelist Luis Palau.

In Acts 27-28 we see how God used the storm to take another prisoner Paul on an exciting mission to the Island of Malta, where not only were all onboard the ship kept safe through the storm, but many people on Malta became followers of Jesus Christ. Maybe the storms in our lives and society are the times when we can be shaken out of our comfort zones and moved to new opportunities. The writer Paula Ripple in her book Growing Strong in Broken places says.

"Tension is God’s gift to us, a gift that sometimes will not permit us to escape its presence. I believe that our creative energies are activated by just that kind of upsetting tension. It is in responding to this gnawing discomfort that we have the possibility of giving shape to dreams that are at once faithful to who we are and who we can become."

Can I just add that great amounts of pressure are the only difference between coal and diamonds.

Elijah encountered God in the eye of a storm at Mt Horeb. Even after his great victory against the prophets of Baal at Mt Camel, he was despondent and felt isolated and abandoned, while he saw the glory of the Lord in the lighting and thunder the earth quake and the fire, he needed to know the imminence of God who in the stillness where God spoke to him in a small still voice. Giving him assurance of God’s presence and that he was not alone. I don’t know about you but often in the midst of the turmoil and spinning of life when it feels like you’ve out at an ocean surf beach and been picked up by a wave and spun round and round over and over, there is a gap a lull in which God whispers that he hasn’t abandoned us but is with and for us. It gives the chance to grab our breath and hold on as the next set comes through.

The disciples of course found themselves in the same place as the worshippers in the temple as they encountered Jesus in the midst of a storm and he spoke to the wind and the waves and they were stilled. We can also be amazed as God speaks his salvation and peace into our storms.

Amidst the storm of conflict between roman occupier and Jewish politics, a man finds himself sacrificed to political expediency. In the storm of being nailed to the cross, being buffeted by the worst of man’s inhumanity and violence, in Jesus god speaks peace, forgiveness and new life. He speaks his salvation and bring new creation into the world.

The third and final thing from this psalm is the peace and strength that we can receive from knowing that God is enthroned above the flood waters. Storm fronts can sweep in over our horizons, they can linger. We lived in Rotorua for many years. Which is in a basin surrounded by hills and sometimes it would start raining and the clouds would blanket the hills for days on end and you’d never see the sky or the sun and it could get you down. It was like living in angry Tupperware container. Then the sun would break through.

One of New Zealand’s most respected biblical scholars Professor EM Blaiklock puts it like this

‘The tempests of the heart, the tumults of the world, roll and pass. God remains. It is well, under the dark nimbus, to remember that above is tranquil blue.’

And I want to finis with the example of Hymn Writer Horatio Spafford who through the toughest of life storms learned to trust and find peace, hope and even Joy in knowing Jesus Christ.

In 1871, tragedy struck Chicago as fire ravaged the city. When it was all over, 300 people were dead and 100,000 were homeless. Horatio Spafford was one of those who tried to help the people of the city get back on their feet. A lawyer who had invested much of his money into downtown Chicago real estate, he'd lost a great deal to the fire. And his one son (he had four daughters) had died about the same time of scarlet fever. Still, for two years Spafford--who was a friend of evangelist Dwight Moody--assisted the homeless, impoverished, and grief-stricken ruined by the fire. After two years of such work, Spafford and his family decided to take a vacation. They were to go to England to join Moody and Ira Sankey on one of their evangelistic crusades, then travel in Europe.

Horatio Spafford was delayed by some business, but sent his family on ahead. Their ship never made it. Off Newfoundland, it collided with an English sailing ship, and sank. Though Horatio's wife, Anna, was able to cling to a piece of floating wreckage, their four daughters were killed.

Horatio received a horrible telegram from his wife, only two words long: "saved alone." Spafford boarded the next available ship to be with his grieving wife. As they passed over the place where his daughters had drowned he went down into his cabin and penned these words

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

when sorrows like sea billows roll;

whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

Spafford life was marked with grief and loss, he would lose a further child to scarlet fever, and he struggled with sorrow and depression. Spafford and his wife Anne eventually turned their grief into mercy ministry and founded a community in Jerusalem to care for the poor and displaced at the start of the first world war. His words which declare a trust in the sovereignty of God even in the face of over whelming loss and the worst that storms can bring have become one of the most loved hymns in the English language and call us to find our peace and comfort not in situations but in the God we come to know through Jesus Christ.

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