Strength for the future - Psalm 86

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 8th September 2002.

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Well, for most people the holidays are over and so it begins. Not so much work but that which tends to accompany it - stress. There are deadlines to meet, there are students to teach, there are exams to sit and to cap it all there are the people you have to deal with. And if none of these is your particular source of stress, then there will be plenty of others crouching at your door - unemployment perhaps, change of house, ill health, tensions in the family and the list goes on and on. So little wonder that we have become the Prosac society, desperate to find a way of sleeping off our insomnia. And of course Christians are not immune from any of this either and they may add their own list of pressures: unsympathetic work colleagues and family members, backsliding into sin, the pressure of feeling the need to keep on smiling to your Christian friends when inside your heart is simply breaking. And neither is anxiety a peculiarly 21st century phenomena - although we seem to have turned it into something of an art form, but the Bible itself is full of examples of people under pressure. The question is how might we go about coping with it? Well, one book on stress management says this and I quote: ‘I am now going to give you a most important tip - everyone needs an unconditional listener to unload on. Unfortunately there is no human being who is an unconditional listener. So this is what I recommend - talk to your pet.’ So if you see me wondering around the Vicarage garden talking to a gerbil you will know what is happening.

Well we know that while there may not be any human being who can ever be the unconditional listener we need, there is a God. And one person who knew this and proved this in his own experience was King David. And what we have in Psalm 86 is a model of prayer under pressure. And the pressure that David is facing isn’t that of unruly kids or cantankerous family members, it was the very real threat to his own life - this is the situation like someone being stalked by a psychopath- v 2 ‘Guard my life’ and again in v 14 ‘ The arrogant are attacking me, O God, a band of ruthless men seeks my life.’ Now that is what I call real pressure.

But what is especially instructive about this prayer is that David sees his real need to be internal rather than external; not so much the circumstances but being enabled by God to respond properly to those circumstances ,and that we see in v11 which is the turning point of the whole of David's prayer: ‘Teach me your way O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name.’ When that is sorted then the pressures will begin to look very different indeed. So let's see how that happens.

Now the psalm divides naturally into three parts, the prayer and the pressure- vv 1-7; the praise and the perspective, vv 8-13 and finally the petition and the perseverance, vv 14- end. And each section is shaped by the overwhelming belief in the sovereignty of God. Seven times he speaks of the Lord- appearing in lower case letters- adonai, master, a word which means ruler and so can be translated ‘sovereign’, we see it in vv 8 and 15 for example, ‘Among the gods there is none like you O Sovereign ‘ ‘ But you O Sovereign; are a compassionate and gracious God.’ So what does the King do when he is desperate? Well, he petitions the King.

So first of all, the prayer and the pressure vv 1- 7. Now there is nothing like a good dose of pressure to propel us into prayer is there? That is the case here-vv 1 and 2 ‘ Hear O Yahweh and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Guard my life, for I am devoted to you. You are my God; save your servant who trusts in you.’ And in this sense pressure believe it or not is a blessing in disguise in that it draws us to the One who is the fount of all goodness and love. I don’t know about you but I find that when things are going along swimmingly, when life seems well ordered and undisturbed-prayer can often take a back seat, it becomes routine and we become blasBut when hit by pressure, prayer suddenly shifts gear taking on an urgency and a new sense of realism. And that is not wrong. Even in the life of Jesus we read in Luke 5:15, that when news about him spread so that crowds of people came to hear him and were bringing people to be healed by him- pressure- Jesus would withdraw into lonely places in order to pray. Pressure leads to prayer.

But then we encounter a problem because in my experience at least, there is a sense of shame and even reluctance to come to God in prayer when the going gets tough because what tends to hold us back is the feeling that our track record hasn’t been good enough. It somehow seems a bit rich to expect God to listen to my prayers now when I am up against it when I have perhaps been neglecting my walk with him until the moment of crisis. So we think, God is going to be reluctant to answer us , he will wait until we have got ourselves sorted or improved in the quality of our praying. But that is not what we see here. That in fact is a pagan view of God whose arm has to be twisted or has to be bribed before he will hear us. No, there are only two things which David sees as the basis for coming to God in prayer, with the conviction that he will hear us straight away. The first is the recognition of our relationship with him. David addresses God as Yahweh, he is the covenant God who has unreservedly committed himself to his people so that their concerns become his concerns, their pressures if you will become his pressures. Covenant is the language of marriage - ‘I pledge to take you as my own, for better for worse, for richer for poorer’. That is what God promised Israel in Exodus 20, that is what he promised David in 2 Samuel 7 and that is what he has promised you and me on Golgotha- a promise sealed in his own Son’s blood. That means God will not be deaf to our cries. Also David describes himself as a servant, who is devoted and who trusts. In short he is a believer. He has a personal relationship with God. But secondly, his confidence that God will hear and answer his prayer is grounded in just who God is, the type of God he has revealed himself to be- v5 ‘ You are forgiving and good, O Sovereign, abounding in love to all who call on you.’ Now notice that. He doesn’t say ‘Abounding in love to all who happen to enjoy a 40 minute quiet time every day and are good to their mother in law.’ It is simply to anyone who having entered into a relationship with this God can talk to him and he will be eager to listen and act because that is his nature. You see we may stand on our dignity and smart when folk only turn to us when in trouble, but not this God-he is forgiving and he is good.

Well, you say, he may be forgiving and good. He may lend a sympathetic ear- v 6 literally reads ‘bow down your ear.’ But that is not enough when I am going under, when my life is under threat . Unless God is able to do something, then I might as well talk to my pet. So as well as God being all loving , he must also be all powerful. And that is precisely what see in the next section-vv 8-13, the praise and the perspective.

Now in these verses it is not the circumstances and David that takes centre place but God, he is the one who fills the whole horizon, who provides the perspective which changes David’s outlook and which leads to praise. And there are two things about the Sovereign God which we must grasp and allow to shape our prayers. The first is that he is the God of universal authority and the second is that he is the God of personal care.

That all things lie within his power, with God moving in every twist and turn of human existence and history is spelt in in vv 8-10: ‘ Among the gods there is none like you O Sovereign: no deeds can compare with yours. All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, O Sovereign; they will bring glory to your name. For you are great and do marvellous deeds; you alone are God.’ Do you see what David is doing? Into the chaos and turmoil of the present, he is bringing a vision of the great God who rules the past, present and future. He is allowing evangelical thinking- Bible thinking, to correct and reign in emotional thinking. Quiet naturally when we feel under pressure we act like Peter walking on the water. There is the storm raging around him, the waves threatening to overpower him and the moment he takes his eyes off Jesus who is there with him in the storm and begins to focus on the waves, he starts to sink, until he cries out ,’Master, save me’. That is, in an act of desperate faith he calls out to the one who is sovereign, who speaks and even the winds and waves obey him. You see, when we are under pressure we think someone else is in charge and we are busy reacting to other people’s agendas. This passage tells us something quite different-that God is in charge. It may seem that it is the gods of the nations which are calling the shots- and today for ‘gods’ read- Wall Street, the media, Washington, Baghdad, Downing Street. It was amusing when I was in America that someone working behind the counter at a bank told me how much he admired our President Blair- I did remind him that we did have a monarchy. But this is the way it appears to us doesn’t it? that we are mere pawns in some global power game. Not so. The true God is incomparable and he rules. If nothing else September 11th exposed it was how vulnerable even the mightiest nation is-no one saw that coming-it was devastating. Now do you honestly think that God is going to be caught out at any point like that and say ‘Oops I missed that one.’? Of course not. One day all of these powers which oppress God’s servants, are going to bow before him and give an account to him and so bring glory to him. They are the pawns if you like, not us and we need to keep reminding ourselves of this fact, because events might have us believe otherwise. That is why we need to have passages like this opened to us and why we need to keep encouraging each other on with this view of reality because no one else is going to. And this is what true prayer always does, it shifts our gaze away from the problems and brings us face to face with the Lord. Our difficulty is that we try to sort things out all by ourselves don’t we? We have a problem and we keep going back to it, analysing it and going round and round and down and down. But like David we have to admit that the problem is simply too much for us, that we are at a loss and only a sovereign God can handle it- ‘working everything for the good to those who love him.’

How do we know he can do that? because of v10 he does ‘marvellous deeds’. It is a very powerful phrase -literally ‘You are a worker of wonders.’ or even ‘You are a worker of wonderful impossibilities.’ In other words the characteristic of the one true God is that he is always doing the unexpected and seemingly impossible - he comes up with things that we would never have thought of in a millions years- that is the kind of God he is. England is spiritual dead and decaying in the 18th century, so he raises up a 21 year old son of an innkeeper to lead a revival-George Whitefield. There is no way a mission board is going to accept an east end parlour maid like Gladys Aylwood to go to China, but he gets her there anyway. He is the God who specialises in the impossible and so demonstrates the he is beholden to no one and so he alone is God. My problem, and I suspect yours to, is that when I pray I think that I have to provide the solution . ‘Well, Lord perhaps if you did this it would be rather nice, or maybe you might think of doing it that way.’ But God’s freedom cuts through all of that and he will find the best way. That is the Bible’s God. Now have we cut him down to size? So that instead of being the God of wonderful impossibilities he has become the God of the boringly predictable-tired and tame. If so then we need to repent of that and get our thinking in line with the Bible.

Secondly he is the God of personal care and we come to the key verse of the whole passage -v11: ‘Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth, give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name.’ This great God, you see, is intimately concerned with the details of our lives. He is able to show us the right way. He leads us in paths of truth. And the praying individual begins to see that this is more important than solving all the problems, not that the problems necessarily go away immediately-the arrogant men still attack in v14, but rather that God uses the problems to bestow upon us the greatest gift of all- an undivided heart. Now by ‘heart’ the Bible doesn’t mean our emotions, it refers to the centre of our being, the control centre of our lives, what we are living for, what motivates us and matters to us. And that is meant to be God. David is not so much asking that he will be able to make the right moves, but rather that he will form the right habits and so become the right sort of person who will have God uppermost in his thoughts. Only God is big enough and able enough to fill all our deepest longings and desires. And what pressures often reveal to us is just how divided our hearts really are. Why do we get anxious about other people? It is because we are so concerned with what they think of us or might do to us. We strive to be well thought of, have a certain standing, get that promotion, that bigger house and for all the rationalisation we bring to it- ‘Oh I am doing it all for my family ’, at root it is concern for self rather than God and his kingdom which dominates. David says, no. I don’t want that. I want an undivided heart which in the end will take the pressure off because some things will simply not matter so much then -only God and his praise -v12.

Let me give you an example of the effects of an undivided heart forged in the crucible of pressure .It is the great 19th century Christian, General Gordon. This is what he once wrote of himself: ‘ The more one sees of life, the more one feels, in order to keep it from shipwreck, the necessity of steering by the Polar star- in a word leave to God alone, and never pay attention to the favours or smile of man; if He smiles on you, neither the smile or frown of man can affect you.’ Eventually of course, he was left to die in the siege of Khartoum, but what enabled him to do so with calm and dignity was the undivided heart he had cultivated throughout his life. So in an earlier incident the cruel King John of Abyssinia brought Gordon before him and said: ‘Do you know that I could kill you on the spot if I liked?’ ‘I am perfectly well aware of it your majesty’ Gordon replied. ‘Do so at once if it is your royal pleasure. I am ready.’ ‘What, ready to be killed?’ said the King. ‘Certainly, I am always ready to die..’ countered Gordon. ‘Then my power has no terrors for you?’ the King gasped. ‘None whatever!’ Gordon answered, and the king left him, amazed. After Gordon’s death John Bonner a Scottish friend wrote to Gordon’s brother and said this: ‘What at once and always struck me was the way in which his oneness with God ruled all his actions, and his mode of seeing things. I never knew one who seemed to live with God and for God.’ How do you think that happened? By praying as David prayed. Gordon knew of the great love God had for him, because he knew Jesus who had delivered him from the grave, v 13 that is why he wasn’t afraid of death. he saw things differently ,living with God and for God.

The result? The petition and the perseverance- vv 14-17. Now the circumstances may not have changed but then again neither had God and with this renewed vision of God before him who is compassionate and gracious ,who is slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness, David is enabled to persevere and go on, not giving up. He asks for strength and mercy in v16- not for a way out of the troubles but for grace to endure a way through them.

But he also asks for something else. Did you notice it in v17? ‘Give me a sign of our goodness that my enemies may see it and be put to shame, for you O LORD, have helped me and comforted me.’ Now a sign in the Bible is an occurrence which the believer observes and which affirms the reality of God. He is asking for a sign of God’s activity which shows his goodness. Now lets not misunderstand this. True, Jesus said that a wicked and adulterous generation seeks a sign. But that is out of unbelief. Jesus had been giving the Jews sign after sign after sign in the most amazing miracles-but they wanted more-the would not believe This is a sign sought out of faith- a sign of God’s goodness. When the sign is given it will take the wind out of the enemies sails- v17, and becomes a mark of the believer’s help and strengthening as he puts his trust in God. And in many ways you know, one of the greatest signs of God’s goodness is the fact that through the pressure we are brought to God in prayer. That will always amaze the unbeliever. For instead of giving up on God as they might expect yelling ‘why me?’ We come to God humbly and say ‘why not?’ Keeping on believing in the midst of pressure is one of the most amazing signs of God’s goodness. The fact that you are here tonight is a sign of God’s love for you.

But we have an even more reassuring sign than that don’t we? Which we are celebrating tonight. For there was another King descended from David who was a servant, devoted and trusting, poor and needy. This man gave over the whole of his life to walking in God’s truth and teaching his ways, whose heart was never for a single moment divided ,who came to do his Father’s will without flinching. Arrogant and ruthless men attacked him, nailing him to a tree, this ‘son of a maid servant’. And so great was God’s love towards him that he was delivered from the grave-the tomb could not hold him. And in the bursting of the bonds of death a sign of God’s goodness was shown that left all his enemies totally dumfounded. And this man is Jesus, King David’s greater son and he is the one who says to his servants: ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ And he is the one who lovingly bends down his ear to hear us when we call to him.

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