Monday, October 16, 2017

I don't feel alive till I've had my... Psalm 113 and the discipline of sacred time (Psalm 113, Acts 3:1-10)

There is an image of God in Psalm 11 as both seated on high and stooping down to see and lift up. It reminded me of pictures of the royal family on walk about stopping and getting down to talk with a child. It reminded me of all the photo opportunities that disasters afford world leaders to go and be seen as comforting their people. like the well posed pictures of a US president hugging grieving people in the wake of natural disaster. But there is more here in God going to see which gives us hope and confidence in a God who cares, who isn't just breezing in to see or hug one or two or even toss some paper towels out as a dramatic gesture, but who makes a real difference. 
Psalm 113 is a communal call to worship. In verses 1-3 it calls God’s people to come and praise the name of the Lord. Then the next six verses it give us reason to praise God and content for praising  God. In verse 4-6 we have the big picture stuff, because of God’s glory and his grace and then in verse 7-9 it zeroes into two specific cases of God’s grace.

The Psalm is the first of what is known as the Egyptian hallell. A series of Psalms that start and finish with “praise the Lord” alleluia… and go on to encourage people to do just that. They came to be used at the three main festivals in the Jewish calendar, Passover, Pentecost and tabernacles. Psalm 113 and 114 were used at the start of the Passover meal to call those gathered for the meal to give thanks to God. This would have been the psalm that Jesus and his disciples would have started the last supper together with. That’s enough about the Psalm lets now turn to look at the Psalm itself.

AS I said it’s a communal call to worship God, to alleluia. It calls God’s people to give him praise. In fact it used the word his servants, and looks to us corporately and individually to carry out this wonderful task of Giving God praise, of reverently coming into God’s presence and acknowledging his goodness and greatness and the good things he has done. It’s a duty but also an honour. In 1 Peter 2:9 Peter picks up this idea and applies it to us as followers of Jesus when he says that we are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people that we may declare the praises of him who bought us out of darkness into his wonderful light”.

This does not simply mean in prayer or in worship but also as we sang in the hymn before the sermon Ye servants of God your master proclaims, it is a telling forth of the good things God has done the good news of Jesus Christ. The apostles were called to be witnesses to Jesus Christ risen from the dead to go and tell people of that and teach them what it meant. We often think evangelism or witnessing is something you wouldn’t do to your worst enemy, but in the end it is simply letting people know about the goodness of who God is and what he has done in Jesus Christ. Likewise speaking God’s truth in the face of evil and injustice is letting people know about the goodness and grace of God.

The call for God’s servants to praise the name of the Lord, then steps into the realms of time and space. This is such an amazing and wonderful task that it will take up eternity ‘now and forevermore’, to know God and experience all his goodness and to then give its due attention and acknowledgement is a task that will take forever. It’s will fill our days from the rising of the sun to the going down”. But not in that this is being drawn out, when is it going to finish, is this going to take all day, I’ve got better things to do kind of way, but in a way that we are filled with awe and amazement as we see God’s faithful love being new every morning.

The Psalmist then goes on to give us reason to praise the Name of the Lord. In verse 4 we see it is because of God’s sovereignty and glory. Then in a rhetorical question the psalmist presents us with the view of God seated on high but also the God who humbly stoops down to look on both the heavens and the earth.  For little Israel who is concerned about the powerful nations around them, the rise of empires God as being the one on the throne is of great importance. No matter which world power seeks to move against them there is the acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty, God’s rule and reign. When we face difficult issues and overwhelming situations, there is hope and assurance in the fact that God is sovereign. To praise him and acknowledge his as such in those hard times is both an affirmation of hope and trust in God’s ability to act and move.

The picture here of God stooping down to look, shows God’s grace. It is a posture of humility to get up off the throne and to see what is happening. This isn’t a glimpse from a far off distance, a cursory exploration so the ruler can simply shake his head and go back to the life of luxury, it is an engagement. In quantum mechanics there is a principle that by simply observing something that it changes it. The example that is often used is in checking the pressure of a tyre, you will let some air out and that changes the pressure, very slightly on that level but at a quantum level, it is enough to change what you are looking at. Now I can’t get my head round quantum mechanics, I struggle enough with basic car mechanics, But when God looks and sees, it talks of God acting and moving. At the burning bush, Moses is told that God has heard the cry of his people and that God sees their oppression, and so God sends a messiah and God goes with. The Aaronic blessing is that God might look upon his people… the Lord Bless you and keep you… the Lord make his face to shine on you… the lord lift up his continence upon you and give you peace.”

We see that stooping to look, which show God’s grace even more in Jesus. Humbling himself, stooping down, as it says in Philippians, to become one us, even a servant, obedient unto death, death on a cross.’ Almighty God, stooping down to be one of us, enthroned on high, king of creation, with a crown of thorns, because God has seen the pain and suffering of our sinful and broken world and wants to bring the great reversal of the kingdom of God to that.

The Psalm then applies God’s glory and grace to two  cases. God stoops down to raise up and lift up the poor and the needy where they have been tossed to the side line of society. Th dusty beggar on the side of the road, the image of sitting in the ash heap echoes the lot of Job, as his whole world has come crashing down around him his wealth, his family his health all gone and there he is sitting in the ashes. But as this psalm says the one who stoops down is the one who lifts up as well. We have this great reversal, those who are bought low and marginalised will be lifted up and given the place of honour at the royal table.

The Psalm follows closely the wording of Hannah’s prayer at the beginning of Samuel as well, Hannah was a woman who was unable to have children and came to plead with God even to the point of trying to make a deal with God. She was Samuel’s mother…and the Psalmist turns to address the issue of a women unable to have children. He may have even had Hannah in mind. In our day it is a matter of great pain and sorrow for many women and couples as they wrestle with fertility, in the psalmist’s day when the status of women was in their ability to produce children and sons in particular to carry on their husband’s family name. Their status in society, the love and care of their husbands and their ability to look after themselves or be looked after in later life depended on it. Here God’s grace is shown in his care for a childless woman in allowing her to bear children. 

In both these instances Israel and later we can identify with God’s sovereign power and his grace.

We’ll at St peter’s October is the season of prayer and what does this Psalm have to say to us.

I want to just focus on two things. The first is that while the psalm focuses on praising the name of the Lord. It provides us with a picture of God that encourages us to bring our prayers for other and for ourselves to God. The Psalm calls us to praise God for his sovereignty and for his grace. We have confidence because we have a God who is both almighty but also who stoops down to see. We have a God who sees and hears and cares and moves and responds… not just a disinterest observer but whose seeing leads to his lifting up and placing on high those.  The Psalm talks of God’s universal sovereignty over all the nations, big enough to hear and see our prayers for the big things that happen round the world. But also the God who acts in the lives of the marginalised and those considered the least.

Part of praising God is that it speaks to our hearts and tells us the very nature of God. Yes it praises him but it also gives us confidence and assurance of who it is we are serving. We praise God for what God is like and what God has done and not only is that proclaiming it in the world who needs to hear it… It is also inspiration for us who know this God to become like him. We are his servants and friends and as we see more the goodness of God we want to put it into action in our own lives. The more we see the power of god the more we are willing to facedown the evil and injustice in this world.

The second thing is that this psalm speaks of the sacredness of Time. We are given the great honour of praising the name of the Lord, from the rising of the sun to it’s going down. We are invited to boldly approach the throne of grace and cast all our cares on him for he cares for us.  Now it is not practical to spend all our day in prayer, although we shouldn’t separate things into sacred and secular. Work is a way of praising God as we use our god given skills and abilities to provide for ourselves and our family, when we enjoy the world around us it is using it for what God intended it, and in a way giving praise to its creator, when we care and show love for others or serve we are expressing the very nature of who God is and his love for us. We do all things unto the Lord.

Historically it has meant that people will regulate their lives and time around setting aside time for prayer and worship and devotions. We are used to seeing this in Islam with its insistence on five times praying a day, and a month of Ramadan for fasting and praying. The Jews had set times during the day for prayer, we see that in our New testament reading where peter and john go to the temple to pray and the time of prayer. Monks and monastic orders, order their day and week and months and years round a rhythm and practise of prayers. The modern monastic movements build not so much on people living in the same place and keeping these hours of prayer but living close to each other and keeping the same rhythms and rituals of prayer and service and life, that bind them together as a community.  Of course you look in various hymns books and prayer books are set up for people to have morning and evening prayers.

When I was in youth group one of the questions that used to come up again and again was ‘have you had your daily quite time? Have you started the day in prayer and bible reading. This was the evangelical equivalent. In fact, it got pushed so much when I was growing up I called it evangelical guilt.

There was also a move against this rigidness of setting time aside for prayer, as Christians we can pray anytime and anywhere, we don’t need these set times, they stifle the spirit and spontaneity.  There is truth in that that we have this wonderful ability to spend time with God all the time, I love Juan carols Ortiz’s comment when he was asked about how did he find time to be alone with god and he replied, when you leave then I’ll be alone with God. However anytime can easily become I don’t have anytime to spare, and anywhere can become I can’t fit it anywhere in my busy calendar.

In our reading from Acts the amazing thing was that God showed up by his Holy Spirit and did a miracle in healing the man born lame at the regular hour of prayer. During establishing a routine and rhythm a spiritual habit of regular prayer we may be surprised how much God actually turns up, stoops down, sees and lifts up as we praise him and bring his world to him in prayer.

There used to be this old TV ad for bell tea that said “ I don’ feel alive till have had my cup of bell tea”, if you’re younger than me you might not remember it. And you may have added to the end of the sentence I don’t feel alive till I’ve had my…’ with a cup of coffee. But apart from being a declaration of chemical dependency, the challenge today is to find a routine and rhythm where you can come alive as you encounter and praise and pray to the God who loves us: Who is seated on High, but who stoops down to see and who lifts up on high. 

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