Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A reslient Faith: Knocked down but never out (Psalm 129)

In the recent News Hub leaders debate Bill English was asked a question about the last time he was leader and lead the national party to its worst election defeat ever. Surely that was a fatal blow for him as a political leader? What is different now?  “well” said Bill “I got back up.”  His vision for serving New Zealand meant he wasn’t going to give up, He is going to keep going. Psalm 129 presents a faith like that a resilient faith that has often been knocked down but never out.

Psalm 129 is a song of confidence: resplendent with images from agriculture and rural life. That confidence says Bible commentator Leslie Allen.  “is not a trite statement of easy faith or shallow optimism.”  it comes from suffering and lament tearfully bought before God. It is a confidence that is “painfully aware of past ordeals and of present threats”, that has “learned that the light of salvation lies at the end of a dark tunnel of suffering.” It is a confidence in the righteousness of God.

The Psalm is introduced by a personal statement of suffering “they have greatly oppressed me from my Youth”. It is probably written in the post exilic period, when the psalmist recalls his own experience of captivity, displacement and persecution. At least it as written in a time when scars and wounds of that time still very raw and real.  He then identifies his personal suffering with that of His fellow Jews. Let Israel say “they have greatly oppressed me from my youth”. This is a psalm of ascent and the pilgrims coming to worship in the temple in Jerusalem are invited to see their own stories of struggle and sorrow, pain and persecution, as part of a wider and bigger story of the people of God. In that identifying with all of God’s people is both comfort and hope.

It invites the pilgrim to look back at Israel’s history, and that of Jerusalem and see that from the exodus onwards there have been times when the people and the city has been threatened, laid siege to, overrun and finally conquered by the Babylonians, but here it is now flourishing again. It has been oppressed but they have not gained victory over it. It has been knocked down but never out. The Psalmist uses the language of the field to talk of the suffering involved. Ploughing and making long furrows the metaphor he uses for the bite of whip and scourge on a back.

The first half od the psalm however finishes with an affirmation of God’s righteous intervention on behalf of his people. God has cut free the cords of the wicked. Not only did the people of Israel feel the  oppressors whip but the image here is of being tied to the plough made to bear the yoke of oppression, but God has come to their aid and set them free. This is the hope that gives the psalmist confidence that in the past God has intervened, God has moved and bought freedom. Here even after seventy years in Babylonian captivity when the temple was destroyed and the city walls knocked down is Jerusalem once again a city, once again the centre of worship. The psalmist and the pilgrim both are back in the land, back in the city and back to the temple.

For the psalmist and for the pilgrim and for us. As we connect our suffering and sorrow with God’s people, down through the ages we can have the same confidence in God’s righteousness. That God can set us free from the things that would bind us and oppress us. We may not see the way forward now but we can have confidence in God’s righteousness. From beyond the cross and the empty tomb we see how that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Not just the foes of Israel as a nation but the very oppressive forces of sin and death, are overcome, and await their final ultimate defeat in Christ return. WE look back at the saints and martyrs who have followed Jesus Christ and suffered the scourge and captivity, pain and sorrow, hardship and suffering and see the perseverance of their faith and the perseverance of the gospel. Their trust in the ultimate victory of God’s righteousness. Mahatma Ghandi puts it on the world scale like this “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.”.

In this psalm, I also couldn’t help but hear the words of Jesus in juxtaposition with the oppressor’s plough. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Not a demand but an invitation, not placing unbearable hardship on a person, but rather an invite to carry the load together.

That’s a good way to turn to look at the second strope in the Psalm, which deals with the present threats that Israel and the pilgrim face. If you read through Nehemiah and Ezra, we see that there were forces that did not want to see Jerusalem rebuilt or prospering, that planned to see it turned back to shame. With the assurance of God’s past intervention, the psalmist now knows that their schemes and plans will come to very little.

I was waiting down on princes wharf for my wife to finish showing her family through the maritime museum and I looked down and out of the wooden beams that made the original wharf I saw these plants growing. Several different types. They were flowering and looked quite nice and healthy against the blue of the harbour, they may have even been stowaways from boats that had docked there from overseas, but despite their best efforts there future was bleak, they were not going to flourish or develop here, there was nowhere for them to grow and I’m sure they would soon be spotted by the city council and disposed of.  This is the picture that the psalmist uses for those who plot against Israel.

In the ancient near east houses had flat roofs and people would spend time on these outside roof spaces in the hot weather. The Psalmist uses the metaphor of grass that grows in the dirt that would be blown or swept to the corners and sides of that roof to talk of people opposed to Jerusalem. Weeds that try and spring up between the pavers on our patios or tiles on the balcony The current threats that he and the pilgrims who would use this psalm faced. The Psalm is a prayer that such things would produce a harvest that could even be held in the hand of the harvester.  With the memory of God’s saving acts in the past he can have such a confidence.

In the Old Testament at harvest time, the greeting to the harvester from those walking pasts would be “the blessing of the Lord be on you” you can see it in the book of Ruth as Boaz greets the workers in his field in Ruth 2:4. But here the image is that they will not be greeted in such a way as their fields and endeavours and plans have been thwarted. Rather the Psalm finishes with a priestly benediction on those whom God has showing his salvation to “We bless you in the name of the LORD” the psalm finishes with an affirmation of God’s blessing despite current threats. What started with memories of Oppression and suffering now finish with the assurance of God’s blessing and presence.
My prayer for you today is that you may know God’s blessing. In our New testament reading today from John16, the night on which Jesus was betrayed and right before his death on the cross Jesus summed up the faith and the confidence of Psalm 129 for his disciples and for us who follow in their footsteps just as the pilgrims did the psalmist. After he had finished talking of his crucifixion and a time when because of it we can ask thing in Jesus Name he finished “I have told you these things that you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But Take heart! I have overcome the world.”  We have the confidence in weather we face personal battles and hardships or we join with our persecuted brothers and sisters round the world of God’s goodness and his justice and its final victory in Jesus Christ. May prayer is that you may have that confidence and trust in our good God.

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