Monday, March 24, 2014

A lesson in despair...

3rd Sunday in Lent 2014
Psalm 89    Ephesians 5:1-14    Luke 11:14-28
The Demise of the King
Have you ever been in a situation where you are suddenly struck with the realization that there is absolutely nothing you can do or say to change anything or anyone? As a child, I was once locked in a wooden chest my mum used for storing blankets and tablecloths – a prank I did not think was very funny at the time. Regardless of how much I struggled, how loudly I screamed, or how hard I kicked and pounded on the heavy lid, I could not get out of there.

In the light of this rather claustrophobic image, I want you to imagine the despair of the defeated and exiled Jews living in Babylon. In 587 BC Jerusalem was destroyed and the Davidic monarchy seemed to have become little more than a fond memory and any thought of restoration a hopeless dream. The demise of the Davidic king and his kingdom appeared to many, to indicate the demise of Israel as a people, and, in their moments of dark despair and depression, the demise of the God of Israel himself.

Book III of the Psalms seems to have been edited and compiled to reflect this theological crisis of Israel in captivity, anticipating an answer to their many questions and a solution to their dilemma in Books IV and V. In the closing Psalm of this third section, we can clearly hear the anguished cry of someone who has found themselves locked in an impossible situation – they had lost it all, their land, their king, and, for all they knew, their God – and there was absolutely nothing they could do to change a thing.

But rather than lose hope or lose faith, the Psalmist explored and reevaluated the covenant promises of God regarding the monarchy. Ever since creation, God exercised authority over his world through a human agent. Indeed, humanity was made in the image and likeness of God expressly for this purpose – to exercise dominion over all that God had made. The Davidic monarchy was simply an extension of the original divine intention, but the Davidic monarchy failed because, together with all humanity, it was fundamentally flawed in that sin was part and parcel of their nature as fallen, broken creatures living in a fallen, broken world. So, in spite of God’s promises made to David concerning the eternality of his throne, the monarchy appeared to be doomed to fail and the Babylonian exile appeared to all but closed the case.

For this reason the author of Psalm 89 reviewed, not only the Davidic covenant, but also the character of the one who made that covenant with David. Indeed, he began with a statement of praise with regard to the unchanging faithfulness of the Lord. “I will sing,” he wrote, “of the mercies of the Lord forever; with my mouth will I make known your faithfulness to all generations.” It is upon this foundational remark that the Psalmist sought to rebuild the case for God’s eternal oath to establish David’s throne.

Herein lies the lesson for the reader. Whenever we are in a jam and we are tempted to wonder whether or not we will ever get out of our dilemma, we should stop and remind ourselves of who God is and what his promises are toward us. As he never changes, his promises can never fail, and thus once we have laid this firm foundation, only then are we ready to ask the really tough questions and to seek possible solutions…or perhaps even to face the fact that there may not be any immediate solution…at least not on this side of eternity.

But it is not only the Psalmist who is compelled to sing God’s praises. Remember, when the Pharisees told Jesus to stop the crowd from proclaiming, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord”, he replied, “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.” Here in Psalm 89, the heavens themselves declare the incomparable greatness of God. The series of rhetorical questions that the Psalmist then asked are designed to lead the reader to the conclusion that there really is no other god out there besides the Lord. Therefore he alone is to be feared and he alone is to be revered. He alone can calm the raging seas (usually an image of chaos – something beyond our control) and he alone can scatter his enemies. These latter statements, no doubt intentionally, conjure up images of the Exodus where Moses and the people of Israel were stuck between the advancing army of Pharaoh and the Red Sea. But God opened the Red Sea and that which had appeared to be a dead end vanished like a vapor before the almighty power of God. God’s power over the raging sea also reminds us of an incident in the New Testament, when the experienced fishermen-come-disciples were dumfounded when the Lord stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee. These images are meant to make us consider the question: “Who is this whom even the wind and seas obey?”

If they obey him…if he controls them…then he indeed is God. And if he is God, then why do we fear that which seems impossible to us?

Everything belongs to the Lord by virtue of the fact that he created it all. “The heavens are yours,” the Psalmist wrote, “the earth also is yours; the world and all its fullness. You have founded them.” The logical conclusion is that nothing in all of creation is more powerful than him because everything has been made by him…indeed, everything is sustained by him. Consequently, when faced with danger in this world, the believer ought to bring to mind the fact that God is above and beyond even the greatest problem we may ever face. When threatened by the very men who had executed their Lord as a common criminal, the disciples employed this same emboldening technique in their prayer. “Lord,” they prayed, “You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them.” In fact, as far as they were concerned, even the apparent triumph of their enemies in the crucifixion was to be evaluated in the light of God’s sovereign pre-ordained purpose – the wickedness of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Jews, and the Gentiles simply accomplished all that God has determined before to be done. “Now, Lord,” they concluded – now that they had regained perspective – “look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your Word.” In other words, if God is God…if he is the sovereign creator of all…if he rules over everything in existence and controls even the so-called bad things in life…then what are threats from a few of his creatures? When one contemplates the enormity of the person of God, things suddenly fall back into place. God will deliver us from the hands of our enemies, no matter how powerful their hands appear to be.

Yes, it is true, that one is not always delivered immediately. In one sense, many are not delivered at all in this world. The exiles knew this all too well. It was nearly two generations later before they returned to the Promised Land. But the lack of an immediate deliverance does not change the fact that God alone is God. When the arrogant king Nebuchadnezzar threatened to cast Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace should they refuse to bow down before his image, they boldly replied; “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us from you hand, O king. But (and this is the most amazing part of this story), if not (if he does not deliver us and we perish in the furnace), let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you set up.” In other words, even if God would not deliver them, they would not bow down to something that simply was not God. They seemed to understand that while God was well able to do the impossible, He is God and He is not obliged to any one of his creatures. Thus there can be no bargaining with God. “Lord, if you help me then I will do this, that, or the next thing.” “Lord, if you really are God, then please give me what I want.” No, God is God whether he give us what we want or not – whether he answers our prayers in the affirmative or not – whether he delivers us or not. He is God and that is sufficient reason for us to serve him wholeheartedly and unquestioningly. When the teaching of Jesus caused many to leave him, he turned to the twelve and asked if they too wished to go away. In spite of the fact that we are told in the Gospels that they too did not understand his teaching, Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

I have been faced with many an impossible situation before, as I am sure you have too. At times, as I cried out to the Lord from the very depths of my soul, I had to consider the possibility that he might not deliver me…that he might not vindicate me…that he might expect me to face what I could not change and what might never change for all I knew. But none of that changes the fact that He is God and that he is a good God…that he is the God who made all things and sustains all things…that he is a God who always does what is right…that he alone is worth following…that there really is no other god out there besides him. And so I got up off my knees knowing afresh that regardless of my circumstances, God is still God. He still rules over that which he has made and righteousness and justice are still the foundation of his throne.

The appropriate response to such an understanding is captured in the Psalmist’s words in verse 15-18. “Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! They walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance. In your name they rejoice all day long, and in your righteousness they are exalted. For you are the glory of their strength, and in your favor our horn is exalted. For our shield belongs to the Lord, and our king to the Holy One of Israel.” Tue happiness is not based on circumstance…true happiness is founded upon the unchanging character of our God.

But what do we do when things go so wrong that we feel we are trapped in a dark, heavy wooden chest? What about God’s promises to never leave us nor forsake us; to grant us the desires of our heart; to hear and answer our prayers; to keep us from stumbling; to be our refuge and strength, our shield and our defender; to be our very present help in times of trouble? This was the dilemma the Psalmist faced as he sat in Babylon, far from the Promised Land, reviewing God’s promises to David while David’s kingdom had all but crumbled to dust. “But you have cast us off,” he cried, “and abhorred, you have been furious with your anointed. You have renounced the covenant of your servant; you have profaned his crown by casting it to the ground. You have broken down all his hedges; you have brought his strongholds to ruin.” In other words, is there any hope left when one apparently has been forsaken by the only God there is?

Yes, yes, and yes, again…God’s former loving kindnesses are still present realities and the Psalmist, in spite of his cry of apparent hopelessness, bases his plea for mercy upon them. “How long, O Lord?” he weeps, “Will you hide yourself forever? Will your wrath burn like fire?” The purpose of these questions is not to cause despair, but rather to kindle the flame of hope in the reader…to remind them that though weeping may endure for the night, joy does come in the morning. And the Scriptures clearly teach us, through the lives of men and women just like us, who faced similar fears with similar anxious thoughts, that with our God, the God who made all thing and controls all things, nothing is impossible and even when he chastens us, his children, for walking in the darkness of sin rather than in the light of faith and love, his mercy will yet win the day. 

The exiles found themselves trapped in a tight spot. Theirs was no heavy wooden chest, but the sense of panic was similar. How on earth would they ever get out of this? The demise of the king of Israel brought with it an uncertainty for the future and a crisis of identity. Without the king and the kingdom, who were they supposed to be? What were they supposed to do? Where were they supposed to go? Even after the exile and way into the period of the restoration, Israel continued to be an occupied, defeated nation of serfs – not a kingdom.

But the God, who promised an eternal throne to David, burst into their history and took upon himself the form of a lowly descendent of the largely defunct royal house. And even though his enemies seemingly triumphed over him, their very deed of wickedness brought about the purposes of God in his plan to enthrone his King upon his holy hill of Zion, so that he might deliver his people from sin, death, and the devil.

The disciples, of course, did not know this. And so, we see that same despair of the exiled Psalmist in the latter chapters of the Gospels as the disciples struggled to come to grips with the dead end they apparently faced. “We were hoping,” the disciples on the road to Emmaus said to their as yet unknown companion, “that it was (Jesus) who was going to redeem Israel.” In other words, that Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel as the rightful heir to the Davidic throne (cf. Acts 1:6) But rather than commiserate with them, their unknown companion (whom we are told was Jesus Himself) rebuked them and said, “‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24)

Like the Psalmist…like our Lord…we too must start with Moses and all the Prophets and find in them the strength to stand even when all seems lost…even when it appears that we are trapped in a hopeless situation…because the God who has chosen to reveal himself in the Scriptures is the Lord of all. Nothing is impossible for him…nothing is more powerful than Him…nothing can ever thwart his plans…not even a crucifixion.

The exiles despaired in the demise of their king…the disciples despaired in the demise of their Lord…what is it that is causing you to despair right now?

As you return to our Lord’s Table to partake of the symbols of his body and his blood, consider the fact that these symbols were once realities…his body truly was broken and his blood truly was shed for you and for me and for as many as call upon the name of the Lord. As we read our Lord’s prayers in the garden of Gethsemane, we hear the same cry of one seemingly trapped, struggling to pass by the bitter cup, and yet submitting to the one whose faithful covenantal promise would carry him through his darkest hour into the glory of the resurrection. Ask your King who walked the Valley of the shadow of death before you so that he might be seated upon the eternal throne of David, to take your hand and to lead you through your impossibilities so that his strength may indeed be made perfect in your weakness.

© Johann w. Vanderbijl III Lent 2014

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