Monday, September 18, 2017

Wilderness Renewal: from the Ends of the Earth to the ends of the earth... (Psalm 67)

I love the rugged west coast of Auckland, places like Piha, when it’s not crowded, Karekare, Muriwai and Whatipu. If I may be a little poetic…The drive out through the Waitakeres, separating you from the city streets and sights,  with the evergreen of native tree. The cliffs and bush clad hills sweeping down sharply to the iron sand beaches, that resound to the crash and boom of pounding surf.  Walking along the beach being accompanied by foam flurries and those little tumbling seed heads which bounce and skid past in the wind. There is a kind of awe that comes into my soul in those places, you feel on the very edge of the world, and I feel close to God.

It’s the same sort of thing that you can experience as you go along the desert road and after navigating the twists and turns of creeks flowing through that rather desolate landscape you come up to the plateau and there off to your right (if you’re going south) are the awe inspiring mountains Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. They take your breath away. Maybe you’ve been more off the beaten track than I have and its tramping through bush clad hills or deep southern beech forest, or you’ve been overseas and there are wilderness places that stick in your memory: Glaciers and snowy peaks, jungle greenery, desert dunes, places that feel like the ends of the earth, that inspired awe and praise. The proclaim the greatness of the creator.

In this season of creation, we are working our way through a series of four psalms that speak of God’s awesome deeds and calls all of creation to give praise to God for what he has done and is doing: for Creation, for his sovereignty in the world, for his providence and as we saw last week for his saving acts for Israel. In Psalm 65 it was cause for a praise party, agricultural and pastoral fields, alive with rejoicing. In Psalm 67 that invitation is extended to the ends of the earth, not just the land we inhabit and use but the wild and wilderness places, as well. Not just Israel or the church but  all people and all of creation to come and praise God for his awesome deeds.

The Psalm we are looking at today builds on the previous one, it extends God’s saving grace and acts to a universal level. No longer just Israel but the whole of the earth, all nations and all people groups, all tribes and tongues are to come and know God’s salvation and God’s Kingdom. It starts and finishes with a benediction a blessing, and in between there is a prayer that all peoples would know God’s righteous rule and his guiding presence.

I remember one day going out to the beach and in front of the sun was a large storm cloud. There were rays of light coming through breaks in the cloud and shining down like spotlights on the water. The patches where it hit looked like sparkling jewels on what was otherwise a grey and foreboding sea.  As I continued to walk along the beach suddenly the clouds moved further offshore and the sun came out, the sky and the sea turned blue and the whole place was filled with light. The opening benediction of this psalm is like that. It takes the words of the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6 “the Lord Bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, the lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace”, which was a blessing specifically for Israel, like they are in that beam of God’s light and presence and peace and takes it over the border to include all nations. It’s a radical Psalm for Israel that includes all the pagan nations around them as objects of God’s love and his blessing. 

 It looks back to the blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12, where Abraham is blessed to be a blessing to the nations. It reminds Israel that their mission is to show God’s goodness and justice to the world.  It looks forward to the coming of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross and his resurrection and the amazing truth that this new life in relationship with God, is not just for the Jews but for the gentiles as well. It’s for all people. The sun has come out and shines on all.   EM Blaiklock sums it up like this…

“God’s rich benevolence, bathing humanity and the world like the life giving and comforting sun. In order that those who are blessed may pass the blessing to others…”

The central section of Psalm 67 is a prayer that that blessing might become a reality. It starts and finishes with the petition  “may the people praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you.” And is a hope that all people may experience the joy that Israel knows because of their relationship with God. In verse 3 & 5 the psalmist had used the Hebrew word for nations but in this repeated refrain it is extended to be more universal, it is a call to all people groups and tribes. God’s love and grace is for all. God’s love is for all humanity fulfilled in Jesus Christ: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Just like the sun shines over all the earth and gives it light and warmth so God’s love is for all people.

Rules with equity and guides the nations look forward to what we know as the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Christ. It looks forward to the reality of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit poured out on all who believe to lead us and to guide us in God’s ways. The picture is of God as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock and leading them to good pasture and plenty.

The psalm is a mission prayer, it’s a prayer that is answered in Jesus commission to his disciples, to you and I as those whom he has blessed, to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them everything I have commanded you, and I am with you even to the end of the age.  We fit into this psalm not only as those from outside Israel, from the ends of the earth,  who have come to know God’s blessing and ways in Christ, but as embodiment of its central prayer.

The final benediction is a statement of confidence in God’s blessing. Israel has experienced God’s blessing in the plentiful harvest as we saw in Psalm 65 and here God’s care and love for all peoples is seen as resulting in that same bounty in all lands.  Now we know that that is not a present reality, there is famine and drought and starvation and malnutrition. This benediction looks forward in hope to what God is going to do. Gerald H Wilson comments “ there is an apocalyptic expectation that as the fractured and corrupted earth is restored to its originally intended productivity so fractured and divided humanity will be restored to its originally intended unity and reliance on God.” It is the whole of nature groaning waiting for the sons of God to be revealed that Paul talks about in Romans.

This is not just some distant future hope, in the opening benediction God’s blessing was to cause the nations to know God’s ways. Abraham was blessed so he could be a blessing on others. In James 2 it says what good does it do to say to your brother or sister bless you and send them away empty handed. God’s provision is to be shared with those in need and through that people will see his goodness and come to acknowledge him.

It's wilderness Sunday, and it would be easy to simply talk about care and preservation of the wild and wonderful places in this world. Places that do need our protection and care. When we thing of the land producing its harvest you can think of land only in terms of its usefulness to humans. We can forget about how the various wilderness environments contribute to the whole ecosystem. How these different places are God’s provision of various habitats for God’s amazing creatures, it is God’s blessing that they produce the harvest needed to sustain that life.  On a spiritual level as the Psalms say they proclaim the wonder of God’s awesome deeds.  National Parks and world wilderness heritage sites marine reserves, and other conservation efforts are wonderful.

But I want to finish however by going off the deep end a bit and talk about the place of the wilderness in spiritual renewal and revitalizing the faith. In scripture and church history the wilderness has often been the place where people’s faith and in fact God’s people, both Israel and the Church have found renewal of faith and zeal for sharing God’s blessing with the world.

Israel’s journey to learn how to be God’s people was in the wilderness, in scripture Israel looks back to that time, as pivotal and formative.  They learned to rely on God, the lessons were not always easy, they didn’t always get it. But it was the preparation they needed to move into the promised land.

In the passage from Matthews gospel we had read today, John the Baptist was out in the wilderness calling people to repentance and to spiritual renewal. There is sometime important about stepping out of the everyday into the wild places and the edge that allows for that renewal to happen. It’s in the wilderness that Jesus comes and starts his ministry, he is baptized by John and goes out into the wilderness and is tempted for forty days, in preparation for his ministry. During his ministry Jesus would regularly go away from the crowd out in the wilderness and the lonely places and pray. There is something about it that renews the soul.

Under emperor Constantine Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and one of the big question in church history is was that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s the start of Christendom, one of the responses to that was the desert Fathers. People who went out and sort for spiritual renewal in the wilderness. Some of them went to great extremes and we have stories of crazed hermits, but for many of them there came a renewal of the Christian faith, a renewal of discipleship and passion for the gospel.

The Celtic monks followed in that line as well instead of going to the desert they held on to the craggy seashore of Ireland and were willing to travel and wander in the wilderness.  They would go to seek a place where they could focus on developing their relationship with God. What would happen is they would set up their community and they would become a place of healing and learning, on many levels and become places of plenty as there agricultural practises tended to be better. People would come and join them and there are many towns and cities in Scotland and England that grew round them. They Christianize Ireland, Scotland and helped re-Christianize much of Europe in the dark ages. Where ever they went they shared the good news along the way. It just flowed out of them. I ’ve mentioned it before but there is a great book called “the day that the Irish saved civilization’ that talks of the impact the Celtic monks had on the world.

Francis of Assisi, is another who sort spiritual renewal and revival by going out into the wilderness.

While it wasn’t exactly the wilderness, john Wesley and later movements like the   salvation army responded to the industrial revolution by going to the edge and into the urban wastelands that sprung up, and preaching and serving there.

Now I’m not saying we need to all move out to through the  Waitakere’s and go live in a cave out on the west coast, or find a craggy outcrop on the side of the mountain somewhere to spend years meditating and praying. But there is a lesson for us from those west coast beaches. In New Zealand for water safety reasons we are always told to swim between the flags, as a parent with the kids we will always try and swim between the flags. But at the same time as a body boarder my eyes would wander to the wild waves, where maybe it wasn’t so safe, but the waves were better. We’ve allowed that water safety message to apply to our faith as well. We’ll only go in between the flags, in a well defined safe environment. But our faith needs a bit of wilderness, its needs a bit of wild, not just tame and safe. God’s inviting us to meet him in the wild waves, in the wilderness places, on the edge, where it’s not safe, off the beaten path. That might be going on a retreat, or as Leonard Sweet calls them Wilderness spiritual advances, it maybe willing to step out of our comfort zones to do something we’ve never done before… But just like when we find ourselves awestruck by a ocean coast vista or mountain range or forest or desert landscape, it’s in those more wild places we will experience God’s presence, provision and glory. It is as we are prepared to step into the wild that we will renew our sense of God’s love for all the world and his call for us to go and share, and be, the good news of God’s kingdom.

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