When God is on your side, one is a majority - Psalm 124
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I wonder if some of the ladies here this morning could tell me on what Sunday are Christmas puddings made. For the ecclesiastically minded it is the last Sunday before Advent and is actually called ‘stir up Sunday’. For a while I thought it was simply called this because this was the Sunday you stirred up in the mixing bowl the ingredients for the Christmas pudding. Well, that may in part be why it is called that, but it is primarily called stir up Sunday because of the short prayer or ‘collect’ used in the Book of Common Prayer for that day which goes like this: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’ Can you see what the minister who is leading public worship on that day is asking for? He wants God to stir up his people, and to be frank many of us do need stirring up spiritually speaking- good and proper. And that is always one of the main challenges facing anyone who is called to lead God’s people in worship; to enable people to get into the right frame of mind. The fact is we come to a place like this from all sorts of different circumstances and in all sorts of differing moods. The children may have just been sick and you have had to mop up the mess; the car has refused to start; the week at work has been stressful; relatives are due to come and stay and so your mind is full of a hundred and one things with the thought of worshipping God being just one of them whirling around your brain. And it may be, to put it bluntly, that you don’t feel like worshipping God. That is especially when, as God’s people, we need stirring up.
And that is precisely what our Psalmist wants to do, hence him writing this song, Psalm 124. This is a ‘stir up song’. And any people on the move who have a mission to accomplish often sing songs to rouse them don’t they? Soldier’s setting out for battle will have their marching songs- ‘When Johnny Comes marching home’- Liverpool Club football fans will be found chanting ‘You’ll never walk alone’- it helps create a group solidarity, it reminds them that they are in this together and stand within a tradition which extends back over many years- the regiment or the club. Well, God’s people are to have such stir up songs too in order to give them that extra ‘something’ to keep on going. So let’s turn to this psalm to see what God has to teach us about being stirred up.
First, David in effect says, get on with praise, vv1-5: ‘If the LORD had not been on our side--
let Israel say-- 2if the LORD had not been on our side when men attacked us, 3when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; 4the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, 5the raging waters would have swept us away.’
Do you see what David is doing? For him the springboard which launches our praises is the act of remembering what God has done, and what God has done is to be recited collectively by God’s people- what he has done for us, ‘If the LORD had not been on our side-- let Israel say-- 2if the LORD had not been on our side…’ He is getting his people to ask the question: What would have happened had the Lord not been on our side? Disaster that is what, hence the long list of calamities which God’s people would have suffered had God not been there. He is trying to get God’s people to be totally amazed, or as some would say ‘gobsmacked’ that we are still here. Inspite of all the opposition from the world, the flesh and the devil, inspite of all the antagonism from without and the deceits from within, God’s church still exists- that IS a miracle and we are not to forget it. Do you remember how the Book of Revelation describes what will happen to the church the moment Christ ascends into heaven? This is the way Revelation 12 puts it: ‘When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent's reach. 15Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring--those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.’ In graphic figurative language it is made plain that Satan, the enemy of God and his people is so incensed that he has failed to finish of Jesus that in a blind fit of range he turns of Jesus’ people instead. And, miracle of miracles, 2,000 years later we are still here and the church continues to grow throughout the world.
A few weeks ago when we were looking at Psalm 120 I mentioned there the need to have a faith which develops the healthy habit of looking back to remember what God has done as we all have a tendency to be forgetful and overwhelmed by present circumstances and so often forgetting that we have been here before and so has God and since he saw us through things then why should he change now. Well, that is the same sort of thing the psalmist is urging upon us again. The sad fact is failure to remember the past with gratitude leads to pride in the present which when you think about it is a basic human failing. Martin Luther used to lay great stress on the Latin proverb; ‘Nothing ages more quickly than gratitude.’ Abraham Lincoln warned his fellow countrymen back in 1863, ‘We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God.’ And that is a failing God’s people can so easily slip into. Notionally they think of God, but in practice they carry on pretty much as if he weren’t there, it is called ‘Laodicean Christianity’. As time goes by and a church becomes ‘successful’ the children’s work seems to be going along just fine, the building is in good condition, the services are well oiled-that is when we are getting on well, but without God. He has been left outside, hence Jesus having to say to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3, ‘Behold I stand outside the door and knock’ – Jesus has been left outside the church and no one had even noticed! Now, to prevent such a dreadful thing happening we need to remember the sort of things God has delivered us from which if he had not we simply wouldn’t be here today.
The first thing David is saying is that the reality is that God’s people are a hated people, that opposition is discipleship territory, so in verse 2 he speaks of ‘when men attacked us’, ‘when their anger flared up’ or ‘burned towards us.’ It really is surprising when Christians are surprised that they are not liked for what they believe. What else are you to expect? Those who were with the French Resistance during the Second World War were hated by the Vichy French and the collaborators with the Nazis. Traitors will always despise the loyal subjects of the King. That is the Biblical understanding of the way the world is ordered. Traitors are made into Loyalists by the Gospel- we are born into this world with treachery written in our hearts towards our Maker. It is sad but true. And as the world is under enemy occupation, ‘the Prince of this World’ as Jesus describes him, then from time to time he will stir up his subjects to oppose the King’s subjects. His goal is always the same- to drive God’s people into extinction. It is there in the Old Testament and the story of Haman and Esther. It is there in the New Testament and the Book of Acts. And it is there throughout church history. Jesus said it would be so. How did he put it: ‘If the world hates you (those are Jesus words) remember that it hated me first.’ (John 15:18). The world is not a neutral place to be in, it is a war zone, enemy occupied territory, but the King has come and he is reclaiming it back as the Gospel message is proclaimed, and he is calling rebels to lay down their arms and surrender. In short he is offering an amnesty. And that is exactly what he is extending to you this morning if you are not yet a Christian believer- amnesty, inviting you to switch sides before it is too late.
Now if you are a Christian you may say, ‘Sure, I might get the occasional slight from people, but ‘hate’ is a pretty strong word to describe non-Christians attitude towards me.’ That may well be true- of you. But you can’t say that to many of our brothers and sister around the world. Think of the Iraqi Christian mother who a few years ago had her three year old child kidnapped and because she couldn’t pay the ransom, they severed its head and returned the body to her roasted served on a platter of rice. I think she would be in full agreement with the psalmist when he speaks of men attacking us don’t you? If we are at present enjoying a period of peace and relative freedom from persecution that is the exception and is a mark of God’s incredible kindness to us- but it is not the norm- that is reserved for opposition and oppression.
But this leads on to the second feature of the first five verses, namely what it is God’s people have not had to suffer because of God’s mercy: ‘if the LORD had not been on our side when men attacked us, 3when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; 4the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, 5the raging waters would have swept us away.’ They would have but they didn’t and for that may the Lord make us truly thankful. And just look at the descriptions he gives of the kinds of things God has saved us from, they are really quite dreadful – ‘being swallowed alive’; ‘engulfed by a flood’- being drowned, ‘ being swept away by raging waters’- the picture of being submerged by a mud slide, just covering the houses and bodies. These are pictures which are meant to make us go ‘Wow, God prevented that happening to us?’ Sure, some of us may bear the teeth marks of some particular difficulty, but we haven’t been swallowed. Certainly, some of us might feel rather wet after a drenching for our faith, but we haven’t been drowned. And God is meant to receive the credit for that in the form of praise!
As Christians we can sometimes be thrown off balance because of what God does allow to happen to us in his mystery, and we ask ‘Why has God done this?’ But what we need to do is to offer a bit more praise for what God has not allowed to happen to us because of his mercy. Of course that is the difficulty. To point to something and say ‘God rescued me from that- an unwise relationship, an addiction, a tough job situation’ is one thing, but to say, ‘I don’t know what they are but the Bible tells me that there were many things that would have happened to me had God not acted and because of him acting I will never know what they were-but I will praise him anyway.’ Sometimes we do discover later on in life how God to rescue us acted while we were unawares. A lovely example of this comes from the American Civil War. Levi Hefner, a Confederate courier, was sent one night by his commanding officer, Gen. Robert E. Lee, to take a message through an area partially occupied by Union troops. As he approached a bridge, his horse balked & reared nervously. Hefner dismounted & attempted to calm him. In the darkness Hefner began singing softly an old familiar hymn, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." In a few minutes the horse became quiet. Hefner mounted him, crossed the bridge without incident, & completed his mission. A number of years after the war, Hefner attended a reunion of soldiers from both sides. They gathered in small groups to share experiences they remembered from the war. A Union soldier from Ohio remembered standing guard one dark night at a bridge. He had been ordered to shoot anyone approaching from the other side. During the night only one rider came his way, and he raised his rifle to shoot as soon as he could see the form in the darkness. The horse balked, however, and the rider dismounted. To calm the horse, the rider began singing softly an old hymn, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." The Union soldier told the circle of old soldiers that the sound of the hymn so touched him that he lowered his rifle & quietly turned away. He said, "I could not shoot him." Levi Hefner jumped up & embraced the Union soldier, saying, "That was me!" He realized for the first time that his singing that dark night had saved his life. Or more to the point, I guess, God had. ‘If the Lord had not been on our side….’
Secondly, we are to get the picture vv6-7, ‘Praise be to the LORD, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. 7We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler's snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped.’ Here the Psalmist gives us a couple of pictures to capture our imagination to underscore the perilous conditions from which the Lord delivers his people. Its as if he can’t stress enough how dangerous it is to be a pilgrim travelling through this world, there are troubles and snares on every side and we are always a hairsbreadth away from falling into them- and we would if it were not for the preserving grace of God, and this in turn is meant to drive us to praise-v6, literally ‘Blessed be Yahweh who has not given us as prey to their teeth.’ He is saying that God is to be adored because he has not given us over to enemies who would simply tear us apart. It is the picture of a wild animal devouring its prey as you see sometimes on the nature programmes on TV with lions ripping into wildebeests and the like. That is what would have happened to us had God not been watching over us.
The second picture is of a bird which seems to have been caught in a trap only to find that the trap has broken and so can fly away and enjoy its freedom. This is akin to the situation in which God’s people can find themselves says the psalmist. All looks lost, you seem trapped, but before you know it- lo and behold the trap is not as secure as those who laid it thought, it is a faulty trap and does not have the power to ensnare you because God has ensured it didn’t. We are not talking about a fluke here- but a miracle. Let me tell you something. In 1928 missionaries went to Ethiopia with the Gospel and worked away establishing three mission stations. In 1936 in came the Italians. Mussolini and his crowd wanted a show piece to demonstrate the might of the Italian army and so they picked on poor defenceless Ethiopia to show just how big and strong they were! By 1938 the missionaries were forced to leave and, on the face of it, all that they had laboured for seemed under threat, in their absence the whole Gospel enterprise looked as if it would fold. There were only about 150 believers left at the time spread between three churches- not much to look at you might think and hanging by a very slender thread. So the missionaries left as the Italians came. But listen to this: in one of these areas the Italian army commander decided that the Ethiopians needed to be impressed by Italian military might and so he arranged for a big display to be held with parade of tanks, artillery and infantry and people from miles around were compelled to come in order to see this spectacle. And these were people travelling in from the unevangelised areas into Sardu. And here’s the thing, these people stayed overnight in the homes of Christian believers and they got talking about the Christian faith; of who Jesus is and what he had done in revealing God to us and saving us from our sin. And after the Mussolini parade was over they returned to their towns and villages and as they did so they took back with them the Gospel. In 1941 the British come back to retake Ethiopia and following them, of course, were the missionaries who, to be frank, were expecting to find nothing and were psyching themselves up to start all over again. But to their utter amazement they found something else. They found 70 well established churches with evangelists working away and an estimated 10,000 Christian believers. Isn’t that uncanny? Isn’t that something of a miracle? That is the way the LORD preserves his people. In 1938 it looked as if the trap had been sprung and the bird had been caught. In 1941 it is obvious that God had broken the trap and allowed the dove of the Gospel of peace to fly free and do its work with the result that 10,000 people were born again. That is what God does!
But thirdly, David calls us to make the profession-v8, ‘Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.’ The psalmist continues his stirring up by pointing us to the future. He knows that when things are going along alright we can take a glance back at what God has done and mouth the words, ‘Praise the Lord’, but still be anxious about what is to come. We might be tormented by the thought, ‘Yes, but that was yesterday, but what about tomorrow?’ Well the Psalmist wants us to walk away from the song and this place into that tomorrow really, really believing this profession of faith-‘Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.’ The name of Yahweh means everything that God is and does. For us it is the name ‘Jesus’. And as we look at his life, as we listen to his words are we not bolstered up that we have such a God on our side and with God one your side one is a majority? Did he ever fail his disciples? Did he ever turn away an honest seeker? Did he ever lead people so far and then abandon them? Of course not. So why should he start now with you or me? ‘Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.’
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