Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Sky Is Cracking

I haven't been keeping my spiritual practises as well as I should. One I have initiated  this year in response to reading Leonard Sweet's book nudge was taking a time each day just to admire and  observe the created world God had made. Today I was surprised as I walked through the University by the beauty of the creation that God has made and God's ability to speak to me through it. Even in the barren trees of winter (note most native trees in New Zealand are evergreen but in urban spaces the trees planted reflect a colonial past).  I looked up and saw the stark winter leafless branches of an oak tree silhouetted against a blue sky (always good to see a blue sky in winter as opposed to storm clouds and rain). They fanned out in a fractal like pattern and then I thought, in a dazed early Monday morning kind of way, it looks like the sky is cracking.

It looks like the sky is cracking and if I'm honest it feels like the sky of my world is cracking. On my facebook page I wrote a new status today that said 'World Imploding' and it feels like that as the funding for the church planting project I am involved in finishes and it looks like I'll have to move on. Looking for a job for next year. Not wanting to move my family from where they are. Having encounters with people recently that has really rocked my sense of call and vision (if it wasn't knocked enough). I have a sense that I'm cracking up under the anxiety etc. Yup it really feels like the limits of my well constructed world are starting to crack...

Then in one of those stream of consciousness moments I started to remember a sermon I had written about the angels appearing to the shepherds in Luke's gospel. I had talked about it being like the sky being folded back like the curtains at a theatre for the grand show number of all show numbers. I began to think again about the incarnation, God stepped into our world became a human being "one of us". The hope is that if the sky is cracking then its not my world imploding but rather the promise of a God who is sovereign and whose love never comes to an end, assuring me that in this winter like place that there is the hope of Christ's presence.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

psalm 119: An Alphabetical Love Song To God For God's Self-Revelation In Scripture.(Psalm 119:73-80)

I tried to find an equivalent to Palm 119 in popular culture, to try and help us understand this long and complex psalm,  and all I could come up with was  (if you'd been in the church where I preached this mesage on Sunday you would have seen me serenade my wife with this wee song)

"A," you're adorable, "B," you're so beautiful,
"C," you're a cutie full of charms.
"D," you're a darling and "E," you're exciting
And "F," you're a feather in my arms.

Of course it goes on and it is one of those silly love songs Paul McCartney says we’ve had enough of …It’s called the alphabet love song or A you’re adorable, and Psalm 119 could be (click for words to appear on screen) called an Alphabetical Love Song To God For God's Self-Revelation In The Scriptures. You see Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem or prayer, drawing together a group of twenty two  stropes (verses of different lengths), or even a whole selection of similar poems and prayers from different writers, and structures them to start with each letter from the Hebrew alphabet. In some translations it’s hard to get a grasp of the structure of the Psalm, but recently bibles have the Hebrew letters printed to help us understand it.

It’s one of only a few Psalms in the collection that does not have a title that attributes it to a certain author. Its theme of true happiness in life coming from studying and keeping God word reflects that of Psalm 1, another unattributed psalm, which is placed as an introduction at the beginning of the collection.  This has led scholars to believe that it is the work of the person or people who put the psalms together in the form we have them now.
It also means it comes from a time close to the exile in Babylon or just afterwards, where the Jews striped of the temple and its rituals and rhythms, sacrifices and priests have found that they encounter God in a way that they can maintain their identity as God’s people in the scriptures, the written scriptures that were available to them.
It seems appropriate to give praise to God for that by using both the alphabet used to write the scriptures and in such a long psalm a whole raft of different literary forms, like lament, hymns, and wisdom sayings that make up the rest of the Psalms to praise God for the scriptures and to express a desire to live a life of conformity to the Torah’s expression of the will of God for human life. It’s an expression we can share as well when we hear Jesus words at the end of the sermon on the mount that the solid foundation for life is to hear his words and put them into action and also Paul's encouragement to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16-17) to keep reading the scriptures because they are spirit breathed and good for instruction and correction so that we may be equipped for every good deed.

Now some have said that in this psalm they see the beginning of pharaseeism in Jewish religious life. That the way to be holy is to rigidly keep the law of Moses, the binding chains of legalism, which of course is a trap that we can easily fall into, and evangelicals are often accused of worshipping the bible rather than God, but as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman says this is not the case “ It is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker , not the Torah nor one’s keeping of it” In verse 57 the psalmist clearly states " The LORD is my portion". We read scripture to encounter and know the God who has revealed himself in his dealing with his people. We read the New Testament to encounter by the spirit of God, God’s ultimate  self- revelation in becoming one of us in Christ Jesus.

Psalm 119: 73-80 starts with the Jewish letter ‘Yod’ and in it we capture something of the whole of the Psalm. Firstly, this portion is one of only two in the psalm that uses the eight synonyms, or words with similar meanings that are used to describe the ‘torah’ or scriptures. Although the NIV translation does not bring this out as much. 
 In verse 73 it starts with creation: that we were fashioned for a relationship with God,  that the human intellect is a gift from God and the prayer is that God might grant understanding so the psalmist may learn God’s commandments. In John’s Gospel  Jesus tells us at that last supper that  he won’t leave us as orphans but will send a helper like himself, the Holy Spirit who will lead and guide us into all truth, convict us of our need for God. It is the spirit who opens and interprets the scriptures to us. Yes we need to engage our brains and use our God given intellects, we need the gifts of people who study and understand the scriptures, but in the midst of that it is the spirit at work, that makes them living words.

    Then we see that the psalmists hope is that people might be encouraged as they see that He has put his trust in God and tries to live his life out of that. He understands God’s vision and God’s purpose is that we all reflect God’s character to the world around us; we do not keep God’s word in a vain attempt to appease and earn the love of an angry or distant, disinterested deity. Rather to reflect the grace and love we are shown in God's covenant faithfulness, to those around us. The psalmist is also aware that he is living in an environment where there is opposition to his faith. The arrogant try and lead him away from his trust in Yahweh. If the setting is the exile he is in Babylon where the Jews had been taken into captivity, as a result of their not keeping the covenant relationship with Yahweh, they have been humbled. But in his reading and applying the scriptures he has found hope, he had found something of worth and delight, in the face of that oppression. In verse 79 and 80 there is a hope that people might be able to look to him to then find someone to help them find the same hope. In this psalm we see that the reason that the psalmist prays for understanding of the scripture is that he might live a life trusting in God and that through that be able to show an alternative way of life to the world around him and be of service and help to others pointing them to the source of true happiness and fulfilment in life, a covenant relationship with God.

Well what for us today, what new life from this old song? How do we meet God in the melody of this complex psalm?

Firstly there is the encouragement that it brings to us to read and study the scriptures. To understand them for ourselves and with the spirits help apply them to the way we live. I remember  when I was growing up on a regular basis we would have talks in church or at Youth group that was all about what I started calling evangelical Guilt… You know “have you had your quite time today?” I do believe its important for us to regularly read and study and pray through the scriptures but  I don’t want to do that to you ? Firstly, because psalm 119 does not do that and  secondly if I’m honest I struggle to keep and maintain a regular daily bible reading regime. Psalm 119 encouraged its reader about the positive value of the scriptures in keeping and growing our relationship with the God who chooses to reveal himself to us in this way. We should read it because well  there are so many reasons like ABC… So I want to encourage us to capture the sort of wonder the psalmist has for the scriptures and share with you a story which I hope will help us recapture the wonder of having the scriptures readily available.

I wonder if we don’t take access to the scriptures in own language for granted these days. We can buy so many different translations and bibles, I even went on line a while back and came across a website where they were advertising bibles with different colour schemes on their cover, I think they even had interchangeable covers so that people could have a bible that would match the outfit they were wearing to church. The bible had become a Christian fashion accessory. You could even get a camouflage bible for when you went out hunting… mind you I couldn’t see the sense in that as you wouldn’t want to put it down out in the bush would you… if the camouflage  was any good you wouldn’t be able to find it again. You can have a bible with devotional notes for men and women, kids and teens, by your favourite tele-evangelist and mega church pastor. Can I also suggest that part of it is that it is a money spinner for most major publishing houses as it is the top selling book of all times. But we forget that having the scriptures readily available is a modern phenomenon, in our western world.  It’s something precious we have taken for granted.
This year is the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible in 1611. Part of the revolution of the reformation as  the scriptures to that point had been only available in Latin, the language of the scholars in the middle ages, and the bibles were so valuable and rear that they were chained to the front of the church. But as people like Martin Luther in Germany and the reformers in England realised  it was important that people have the bible in their own language. John Wycliffe who had provided an earlier translation of the bible into English and had paid the ultimate price for it, said that just like those early Christians were taught in their own common language so it is we too should have that opportunity. He didn’t think that as we are a priesthood of all believers that we should only have the scriptures mediated by clergy, we needed to read it for ourselves.  Of course down through those 400 years the King James Bible has become known as the book that changed the world, and there is an on-going process of translating the scriptures into an ever changing language, the language of today, to sit alongside what is such a great expression of the classical English language.  Down through the ages men and women have worked tirelessly to see that the Bible and the truth it reveals about God be available to all. The Clapham sect, people like William Wilberforce and evangelicals in 17th and 18th century England pushed through child labour reform  and education reforms because it was important that all people could read… why? Primarily it wasn’t so they could get a head in life… no it was so they could read the bible for themselves. People have gone and lived and worked in many places round the world to learn languages and translate the bible into those languages. Others have been persecuted and killed to bring scripture to people in countries where it is a banned book.

I was able to catch a glimpse of the preciousness of having the scriptures in your own language when I was in the youth pastor at St John’s Rotorua. Rotorua you may be surprised to find is one of the places round the country when there was a migration of people from the Tokelauan Islands. They came to work in the mills and forestry in the 1960’s. The Tokelau’s  is a collection of three atolls in the pacific. One Tokelauan man said to find them you go north to Samoa and turn left for 400 kms. But don’t blink you might miss them. They are one of the nations that is most effected by the spectre of climate change as there is no place more than 3 meters above sea level.  The gospel was bought to the Tokelau’s by Samoan missionaries and as the languages are quite similar, the Tokelauan Christians sung Samoan hymns and used the Samoan bible.  Just recently the Bible Society agreed to help with the translation of the bible into the Tokelauan  language. It was never going to be a financial success because there are not huge numbers of Tokelauans. So if you went down to St Johns in 2007-2009 on a Monday night you would encounter the Tokelauan elders from the Presbyterian, catholic and Pentecostal churches deep in discussion and study as the verses that had been translated were sent to the elders in various communities round the country to be proof read. On the white board would be conjugations of verbs and tenses. Discussions over syntax and meanings and other possibilities were had. I did wonder, almost cheekily,  about things like what was Tokelauan for camel.

Then the Tokelauan congregation arranged an outreach weekend where they invited the minister in charge of the translation project in Wellington to come and be the speaker. We attended the service as well… It was amazing to watch the reaction as for the first time these people heard the gospel portion and a psalm read out in their native language in the language of their heart. For the first time they had it written for them.  It was simply a photocopied piece of paper with the words on it. But you could see how much it meant to these people, it was something precious in their hands. They didn’t want to fold them but every person there that day took the portion of scripture and reverently put it in pockets or hand bags to take home. As you can see by the postage stamps it was a big thing for the whole Tokelau people. What a gift, what a gift we have.

Just as Psalm 119 gives praise to God for the written word that we can encounter God self-revelation and will for our lives and we need to realise what a precious gift we have in the scriptures. Not so precious that we chain them up or lock them away on a shelf somewhere like a family heirloom but that we allow them to do the work God has for them in our lives to be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path: To read and study them and with the spirit opening our eyes apply them, to glory of God.