Sunday, March 30, 2014

Refuge even in the midst of apparent hopelessness

4th Sunday in Lent 2014
Psalm 90    Galatians 4:21-31    John 6:1-14
The Hope of the King

The south-western African country of Angola was once a very wealthy and prosperous Portuguese colony. It was (and still is) rich in minerals such as gold, copper, tin, diamonds…and oil. Consequently, when the cry for freedom from colonial oppressors reached her borders, there were many foreign entities willing to help her gain her “independence”…the Soviet Union, Cuba, the United States, and others. Soon Angola became a pawn in the cold War. As the three rival nationalist factions competed for power, the colonial war turned into a civil war, displacing hundreds of people as they fled for their lives.  Those who were Portuguese nationals escaped to Portugal, but many had married into the indigenous population and had to leave their wives and children behind.

These ‘war widows’ and ‘orphans’ fled south to Namibia (then South West Africa), often with little more than what they could carry. Any valuables were used for bribes to ensure safe passage along the way. One such ‘war widow’ settled in a make-shift refugee camp outside the small town of Opuwo in north-western Namibia. In spite of the fact that she was poverty-stricken herself, she volunteered to help us in our efforts to feed the refugees. Her home was a corrugated iron sheet shack, with a few wooden boards for windows and doors held together with bits of wire and rope. One evening, as we sat around her tiny table, she pulled out a precious memory – a well-worn photograph of her house on her farm in Angola. It was a large, spacious, beautiful home, with a gorgeous garden and large shade trees all around. As we stared at the photograph in shock and sadness, she spoke about her hope to return one day. She never did…

In Book I, Psalm 1, we saw the standard set for the ideal king – a man meditating on God’s Law day and night so that he might exercise dominion over creation as God had originally intended for humanity to do prior to sin’s entry into his perfect world. And then, in Psalm 2, the spotlight was turned onto the eternal covenant the Lord had made with the Davidic Monarchy. God had set his king upon his holy hill in Zion to rule over the nations.

But in Book II, we saw that this Monarchy shared the same basic flaw with the rest of humanity. We watched David the king – a man described almost in terms of the ideal in Psalm 1, as a man after God’s own heart - not only commit adultery, but also heap deception upon deception until plans to cover up his sin turned into murder. From this point on, the Monarchy began to crumble and, in Book III, we saw the eventual demise of the king as he and his people were led into exile by the Babylonians. In Psalm 89 we heard the anguished cry of a nation without a future – they had lost it all – their land, their king, and, some may have thought, even their God. And now those who had once been delivered from bondage in Egypt found themselves in bondage once again in Babylon.

If the Book of Psalms was compiled some time during or after the Babylonian Exile to reflect the history of the nation of Israel, it is no surprise then to see that Book IV starts with a Psalm of Moses…the great leader used in God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt in the Exodus. I believe that this Psalm introduces the theme for Book IV – the theme of hope that one day the Davidic Monarchy would be restored and with it the kingdom of Israel.

The theme of Psalm 90 itself is basically a call for the reader to consider the fragility and brevity of this life in the light of God’s sovereignty and of eternity. Moses, the author of this Psalm, was a great man, chosen by God to lead his people out of Egypt into the Promised Land. And yet he never did cross over the Jordan. Those who left Egypt were miraculously delivered through the Red Sea, and miraculously sustained in the desert, and yet all but three of the original adults died in the wilderness. The Davidic Monarchy was established for eternity and yet Israel had been sent into exile and the king’s house was incarcerated and thus effectively defunct. But although God had disciplined Moses and those of the Exodus period, his promises to the Patriarchs were fulfilled through their descendants who did cross over the Jordan, together with Joshua, Caleb, and Eleazar the High Priest.

Thus, I believe, those who edited and compiled the Book of the Psalms deliberately placed this Psalm here at the beginning of the section dealing with hope in spite of discipline and disaster. One generation or two might never see the return of the "kingdom" (in fact this was the very question the disciples asked Jesus), but a remnant would return to the Land and God’s promises would yet be fulfilled...almost a mirror image of the Exodus and the Conquest. As such, this Psalm served as an old faded photograph of the home to which they longed to return.

Shortly before his death on Mount Nebo, Moses pronounced a final blessing upon Israel. Echoes of some of the words in that blessing can be found in the Psalm. “The eternal God,” he said, ‘is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms; he will thrust out the enemy from before you, and will say, ‘Destroy!’” No doubt, the intention was for the reader of the Psalm to recall the words of that final blessing so that the connection between God’s promise to Israel then and God’s promise to Israel in their present day was the same.  He thrust out their enemies once before…he would thrust them out once more. As always, their hope was not to be found in humanity – their hope was not in their own strength, as they had failed – their kings had failed, even the best of them. No, their hope and security was in God Almighty.

The Psalmist portrayed humanity as creatures of dust…no doubt an image taken from the opening chapters of Genesis…he was formed out of the dust of the ground and he will one day return to the dust of the ground. The lesson seems clear. We often take ourselves far too seriously – we think more of ourselves and of our fellow creatures than we should – we fear humankind when we should really fear God.

Think on this. Where are some of the greatest men and women of the past? Where is Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Nero, Elizabeth I, Lenin, Hitler, or Stalin? They were all greatly feared in their day, but where are they now? In years to come our children and grandchildren will ask the same questions of those world leaders who are greatly feared in our day. The Psalmist likens humanity to a sleep that is over in a night…to grass that is cut down and withers in an evening. We think we will live forever on this earth, but we are just one solitary breath away from eternity. But to God, even a millennium is like a day or one of the watches of the night.

In verses 7 through 11, the Psalmist explored our mortality against the backdrop of God’s judgment on sin. Because of sin, our forebears were driven from the Garden of Eden…because of sin, Israel was expelled from the Promised Land…because of sin, we were cut off from our only source of life…and thus we are all subject to death and decay. Our days are filled with toil and trouble because of God’s penalty for sin. Our sins are ever before him as he knows all and sees all…even into the very depths of our souls. But the words of the Psalmist are not bitter…rather they express a calm and sober realism. We are all destined to die – our lifespan is brief because we live as those under judgment.

So, there is no hope in humanity as humanity is sinful – humanity is dead – humanity is fragile and untrustworthy. No, our hope, like the hope of Moses, of David, of Israel, is firmly founded upon God and his mercy. And therefore the Psalmist ended with a threefold petition:

1. Teach us to number our days, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom. In other words, help us to realize that our time here is short...and there are so many better things to do than what we are doing at present.

2. Have compassion on your servants (remember that we are but dust)…satisfy us early with your mercy…make us glad according to the days you have afflicted us, the years in which we have seen evil.

3. Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands, so that when we pass on, others might be able to build upon what we began.

Life is too short. We have hardly begun our journey when death interrupts our plans. Thus, if we are to use our time wisely, we must be aware of our own limitations…limitations of time and limitations of strength. But these limitations must be seen in the light of God’s lack of limitations, especially when it comes to his mercy and grace, without which nothing we do will ever prosper or be established.

So, as the editors of the Psalms struggled to come to grips with their own dilemma as they sat exiled in Babylon, they found hope in looking back to the wisdom of Moses, a man chosen by God to be the instrument through whom he delivered his people from bondage and slavery in Egypt to bring them to the Promised Land. As he had been a help to those in the Exodus, so he would be a help to those in the Exile,  and so he still will be a help to us who yet wander as pilgrims in the world.

Yes, life may be short…our days may be filled with toil and trouble…they may seem hopeless and futile from time to time…we may feel trapped in our powerlessness and inability to change the cruel circumstances of life. But if we consider this seeming futility in the light of our only true stability…if we consider that God alone is from eternity to eternity…if we consider that his character is always to have mercy…then we will find him to be our refuge even in the midst of apparent hopelessness.

Humanity is but dust…from dust we were taken and to dust we will return. If one stops there, all hope is indeed gone. Moses failed because he was dust. David failed because he was dust. Israel failed because they were dust. We fail because we are dust. But there is one Man who did not fail and that is the Man Christ Jesus. Thus the hope for the restoration of the Monarchy rests on him…the hope of the restoration of the kingdom rests on him…the hope of our return to Paradise rests on him…because he took our penalty for sin upon himself…that which separated us from God…that which caused the ultimate exile from God. He took the handwriting that was against us and removed it by dying in our place so that we might be reconciled to God and that we might anticipate our entrance into eternity with great assurance.

And it is at his table that he reminds us again and again of the hope that rests on him…of our deliverance from bondage to sin. It is here where he sustains us throughout the wilderness of this life. And it is here that we enter boldly into Paradise to sup with him at his banqueting table in the presence of angels and archangels, so that we might be strengthened with his body and be cleansed by his blood. Yes, our bodies will return to the dust from which they were once taken, but because of the hope we have in the finished work of Christ, we know that those bodies will rise transformed from corruptibility to incorruptibility on the last day. The same God, who has helped us in ages past, is still our hope for years to come…he is our shelter from the stormy blasts of life in a sin-sick and broken world…and he is our eternal home.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl III 2014

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