Sunday, May 27, 2012

Psalm 127 Human work and the will of God (songs from the Road: The Psalms of ascent: part 3)

A man once asked workers on a building site what they were doing. One said that he was engaged in the monotonous task, putting one brick on top of another, another man said he was trying to earn a living, the third man said that he was helping Sir Christopher Wren to build a great cathedral that future generations would use to worship God in.  The third man had the right perspective, says Malcolm McLean because while he was also doing a monotonous task to earn a living, he also realised that his small role was a contribution to a great purpose. Psalm 127 reminds us similarly that our small roles, our work is all part of God’s great purpose. 

Psalm 127 takes the dog eared song book of the Jews journey back from exile and the songs from people’s pilgrimage each year to the great festivals in Jerusalem, and grounds it in the reality of everyday life. Not a romanticised desert journey or looking back to dangers and history to see God’s protection and provision, it brings that into the everyday ordinary experience of people then and now. It deals with work and family. We may have a holy discontent with the way things are and look off into the distance and have a vision of God’s preferred future but change and growth need to be worked out in the midst of everyday life, the unavoidable life of work.

The Psalm is ascribed to Solomon either as the writer or the recipient; it is what is called a wisdom psalm, a series of proverbs. Structurally it’s in two parts. The first, verse 1 and 2 are sayings that are cautionary. The main motif is the word in vein, it reflects the book of Ecclesiastes where the preacher again seen as King Solomon, wrestles with the futility of life. In these two verses  its used three times,  unless God is at the centre of what we do:  the builder labours in vein, the cities searches for security in vein, we can work our fingers to the bone and exhaust ourselves with long hours it’s in vein … unless… unless God is at the centre.

The second part of the psalm is a series of sayings that encourage; they focus on the family as the positive example of what happens when humans and God work together. Children it says are a gift from God. Yes we do our part, in having them, in our modern times, we have a better understanding of human biology than the psalmist, and bringing them up and nurture them, but ultimately they are a blessing from God, and not only when they are asleep. In the mainly agrarian society of the Ancient Middle East Work and family were tied together; it’s a modern thing that they are separated. Having a lot of children, and particularly sons, was a good thing.  Sons were a source of labour, like a soldier with his arrows they were able to defend you, both against physical attack and also able to defend you at the city gates in legal disputes.  They worked in the family business, they inherited the family land, looked after you in your old age. I’m obviously moving into a new life stage, as I used to have my kids with me when I was looking after them, now they accompany me to look after me. 

It’s a psalm that has been used in many different ways, applied to many different situations and I want to pick up a few of those today to help us on our upward journey following Jesus.

It invites us to review how we see work. Be it paid work or the unpaid but equally valuable work in the family and volunteer settings.  There is a tendency to have this departmentalised view of life, work life, family life, social life and church life. Our suburban lifestyle accentuates that, its based on easy mobility, most of us live away from where we work,  church attendance is based on choice not just location, friendship clusters are not always focused on our neighbourhoods, I would hazard a guess that a lot of us are part of globalized families. This Psalm breaks that down and says all of life is lived with the sovereignty of God. All of life is the providence of God. It reminds us that we forget the will of God at our peril, that there is no such thing as self-sufficiency, we are dependent on God. The pilgrim comes to worship God with that realisation, on a macro level, with the rise and fall of nations round the world, and a mico level, in the provision of family and work we are dependent on God and should give him praise.

 It’s good for us to stop and acknowledge God’s sovereignty and provision in all these areas of our lives.  Scripture values work. Proverbs 5:10 says ‘in all labour there is profit’.  We are reminded that God works, which means that work, is valuable its part of God’s purpose for us as human beings, it because a trial mainly as part of the fall. Work has its value in God. God worked first, God created the world and all that is in it. God is still at work; God is working his plans and purposes out in human history. Christ worked out God’s salvation plans, it is Pentecost and this psalm reminds us that God is at work in us by his spirit, to witness to Christ.  We don’t build God’s house God works through us. “Our work goes wrong’ says Eugene Peterson, ‘when we lose contact with the God who works.”

There are two extremes when it comes to seeing this balance between our work and God’s. One is that we can be over anxious and become a workaholic thinking it all depends on our efforts. It can take over our lives.  We can see it as the end goal in itself or our focus for life can be what we can obtain. We live in a society where it can feel like you simply work to live and you have to live to work. We call it the rat race, like going round and round on a wheel in a cage. “Relentless, compulsive work habits, which our society rewards and admires” says Eugene Peterson, are seen by the psalmist as a sign of weak faith and assertive pride, as if God could not be trusted to accomplish his will.”

 Let’s face it we live in a society where to simply keep this standard of living we have become accompanied to, both partners in a marriage often have to work, and work long hours. I am, by the way right behind this call for a living wage, as some work is undervalued in our society. AS Christians we should be hard workers what we do should be done to the glory of God, but we should also have different priorities in what we do and seek to achieve; the fact that it is in the psalms of ascent points to time for God, time for growing spiritually, Sabbath, a day of rest, set aside for worship is God’s idea. It comes from creation where God rested, it comes from Israel’s captivity in Egypt where they received no rest. Keeping the Sabbath is a good way we can resist our captivity to the almighty dollar.  The focus on family in the second half of the passage is a good example that we should see family as important work as well, possibly our most important work. In fact I often hear this passage quoted in terms of family values, and psalm 128 that follow straight on from this one and is linked to it, celebrates family life.

The second extreme is that it’s all God’s work that we sit back and God provides. This is not a biblical understanding of work. In the church of Thessalonica Paul had to address this. A group within the church had though that as Christ was coming soon that they didn’t need to work that God would provide for them, they hadn’t seen work as part of God’s provision. They really became dependant on their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul has to remind them of his own example amongst them that he worked day and night not to be a burden on them.  In  Ephesians 4 Paul reminded people that we work not only for our own gain but for the common good, so we have things to share with those in need. In our society there are people who cannot find work because of circumstances beyond their control, they are to be cared for and helped, but scripture says that we are not to simply to be lazy.

The psalm also points to how we work as well and what work we should be about. In all we do we are to be about God’s work, God’s will. “As Christians do the jobs and tasks assigned to them in what the world calls work” Peterson says, “ We learn to pay attention to and practise what God is doing in love and justice, in helping and healing, in liberating and cheering.” We bring the presence of Christ and the kingdom of God to bear on all we do. I mentioned that the psalm points to the example of the work we can do with God is to have a family; this shapes our priorities in our work. People are the centre of our vocation as followers of Jesus. In the example of Jesus who was never married, his work had its ultimate fulfilment in producing sons and daughter of the most high God. The character of our work is not to be measured in accomplishment or possession but in the birth of relationships.  In how Christ in us is able to reach out to the situations we work in and the people we work with. I value seeing the care and support that goes on in our mainly music group and the play group and sporty 4 kidz here at the church, it’s an example of that being nurtured by mothers with small kids. When I left school I went and worked in a bank, when I left they gave me a small gift, it was a night light and the person that gave it to me said, and we know you’ll be a light wherever you go. I didn’t think that they were a Christian, and I’m not sure I had always been a light at work, but it epitomises that being about God’s will. We need Christians in all areas of life and work, who see what they do and how they do it as being about God’s will. By the way when I use the word God’s some people would see this as some sort of hidden specific will for their lives, part of that is true, God calls us and gives us gifts to use, but we also know his will through the scripture. We know what it is because God has revealed it too us.

Today is Pentecost, when we remember that God poured his Holy Spirit out upon those first believers gathered in Jerusalem and on all who come to believe in Christ. Psalm 127 helps us to focus on that.  The psalm being of Solomon and a psalm of ascent, can also be seen to focus on the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Solomon was known as a great builder and for building the temple; the house of God. It was important for him and the exiles returning and rebuilding and the pilgrims coming to worship, that the work of establishing and re-establishing the temple and Jerusalem, Israel as nation was not seen as their own it was God’s works.  Likewise with the church it’s important for us to remember that unless the Lord builds the church the labourers labour in vein. By his life and death and resurrection Jesus established it. It’s Pentecost and it’s good for us to remember again that it is God’s spirit at work in us that enables us to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. AS we read in Acts it was only as the Holy Spirit came on the apostles that they were able to stand up and proclaim Christ and people responded. It is God who gives us gifts by the Holy Spirit that enables the church to function and grow. It’s as we walk by the Holy Spirit and are filled and refilled by the Holy Spirit that we mature in Christ, that Christ like fruit mature in our lives.  As in the rest of life that does not mean we sit back and don’t do anything, we are called to use our gifts and talents. In the first letter to the Corinthians Paul says some plant and some water but it is God who makes things grow. We read the little summary of what things were like in that first church after Pentecost and you see the people about the work of God with God. They committed themselves to prayer, to worship to the teaching of the apostles, the gospel. They developed community, they were generous with each other and shared fellowship, not only in public worship but in each other’s homes, and as they did that God did miracles in their midst in all those ways they witnessed to Christ and God added to their number daily those who were being saved. Again this example of the work of humans and the work of God together is best described as it is in Psalm 127 as family.

Our hope as we go on our journey as a pilgrim following Christ, as we go about the work of life, the work of journeying closer to God, of building family and church,  is that it is not in our own abilities and strength, rather as pilgrims we trust in God’s provision for us , that God cares, that in and through Christ, God forgives and restores us to himself and puts his Holy Spirit upon us that we maybe enabled to witness and live to the glory of God.

No comments:

Post a Comment