The Lord who builds - Psalm 127
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In one of Charles Schultz's 'Peanuts' cartoons Linus is chomping on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He notices his hands and exclaims, "Hands are fascinating things! I like my handsthink I have nice hands. My hands seem to have a lot of character." Lucy now comes on to the scene and Linus continues: "These are hands which may some day do marvellous works! They may build might bridges, or heal the sick, or hit home runs, or write soul stirring novels!" In his crescendo Linus exclaims in Lucy's face, "These are hands which some day may change the course of destiny!" Lucy looks down at them and matter of factly observes: "They've got jelly on them." What a great put down! And that is a pretty good picture of the way we human beings are. We think that we are able to do all sorts of outstanding things and of course in many cases it is true. We can construct machines which travel between planets. We can make instruments which measure between atoms. We are able to produce works of art which stir the soul and write works of literature which inspire the imagination. Our hands, both literal and metaphorical, are truly amazing. But they do have jelly on them- they are tarnished and so tarnish whatever we do. The genius of Picasso which expressed itself on canvass was spoilt by the hedonistic selfishness which destroyed woman after woman in serial affairs. The comic brilliance of Charlie Chaplin had its dark side in his affinity for underage girls. The same human mind which is capable of producing the beauty of the Sistine chapel is the same mind which is capable of producing the horrors of Auschwitz.
Now the Bible is realistic about both our abilities and fragilities. It knows how easily a sense of our own brilliance can tip over into a feeling of arrogance which brings within its wake-hubris, our downfall. And no one is free from this danger, whether it is a wise King like Solomon or a witty clown like Chaplin. And that is why the Bible reminds us who we are really dependent upon for any achievements we might think we have made- namely God. And that is what we find in the psalm we are looking at together this evening- Psalm 127. It is entitled a psalm of ascents, one composed by Solomon, who was King of Israel after David. It was a hymn which would have been sung by pilgrims as they made their way up to celebrate one of the religious festivals in Jerusalem-hence it being a song of 'ascent'. And as is often the case with such psalms, they are not simply declarative- designed to express how believers feel, they are instructive designed to enable believers to think, that is to help them, and us, view God and life properly. And in this psalm we see three things: a universal feature, an unflattering failure and a unique fulfilment.
First of all there is a universal feature. All of the things mentioned in this song are the primary concerns of every human being living on this planet. Did you notice what they were? The concern for shelter and security and the one hand, and the desire for food and family on the other. Look at v 1, 'Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen guard it in vain.' shelter and security you see. Then food and family-v2, 'In vain you rise early and stay up late toiling for food' and verse 3 'Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children are a reward from him'. It was the psychologist, Abraham Maslow who pointed out that human beings have a hierarchy of needs, arranged like a pyramid. At the base you have physical needs- the requirements of food and water, the basics for sustaining life. Then on top of that there is security- which would include physical protection and shelter. Further up the scale is the need for love, emotional security, then a need for purpose and significance, and finally at the apex there is what he termed 'self-actualisation', that is the expression of the highest qualities which make us human- being creative, having a sense of inner peace and , he included, knowing God. He argued that until the basic needs of shelter, food and security were met then we would be so preoccupied with finding these that we would never give our attention over to seeking the higher needs- such as purpose and meaning. And to some extent the Bible would agree. There is nothing at all wrong in searching out these things. Yes, builders build-v1, police are deployed to protect city's inhabitants-v1, people do work hard to earn a crust of bread-v2 and the desire for children is a deep seated, basic instinct-v3. All of these things are part and parcel of what it means to be human. But there is not an automatic progression up the pyramid towards God and creativity. It is only too possible, as we see happening all around us, for people to invest purpose and significance into getting more and more physical things, trying to find satisfaction in them. So even when people have a lifestyle more lavish than Solomon with their wonderful houses, intricate labour saving devices , holidays in the sun and the like- what should be seen as gifts, and which are meant to spur us on to seek out the great Giver God, are simply seen as ends in themselves. They are not viewed as gifts of God, but rights by nature. By our own efforts, so called, we become accustomed to the routine and expected. The successes of science and technology combine to feed our pride and raise our expectations so we want more and more of the benefits they produce to make our life easier. But such satisfaction is invariably short lived, because the moment God is excluded from the picture that is when the rot sets in. This leads us to an unflattering failure.
V 1, 'Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late toiling for food to eat.' Notice how three times the word vain is used, a word which means short-lived, temporary, having that, 'here to day gone tomorrow' quality about it. The picture is that of capturing a bubble in your hand, no sooner do you have it than it pops and is gone. There is nothing which is lasting, enduring and so ultimately you are left feeling insecure and dissatisfied. That is what happens when the Maker is, to all intents and purposes, excluded from his world. And the Bible in particular as well as life in general is littered with such examples
Let us take the case of Solomon himself who, for all that he says in the psalm, failed to put it into practice. Of course it is to God's king and God's people that the psalm applies in the first instance. In fact there are a few word plays in the original which underscore this point. The word for 'house' in v1 could refer to a literal building or a household, a dynasty. This takes us back to the promise God made to King David back in 2 Samuel 7. There David said that he wanted to build a 'house' for God, a temple. God said, no he would build a house- a dynasty- for him. Sure, a temple would be built, but it would not be David who would do it, but his son Solomon. So whether it is a temple or a kingdom, ultimately it is God who does it, and he chooses who will act on his behalf. God is no man's debtor and the Bible never tires of reminding us of the fact. You cannot domesticate this God, so don't even try. Also the word for 'builders' in v1 is very similar to the word for 'sons' in v 3 'bonim' and 'banim.' This again makes the same point. If the King is to have any construction schemes which come to pass or any offspring to maintain the royal line, then both are a matter of God's gifts and not human achievements.
Sadly, Solomon forgot this. His building projects were reckless as we see in 1 Kings 9 v 10 in that he not only built a temple for God but a massive palace for himself. On top of that he gave away 20 towns to the King of Tyre which was later to rebound when his great, great whatever granddaughter Jezebel, introduced Baal worship into Israel. What is more, his kingdom was ruined. In 1 Kings 11: 9 we read: ' The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow any other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord's command. So the LORD said to Solomon, 'Since this is your attitude and you have no kept my covenant and decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your subordinates.' And all of this because his home life was a total disaster- 1 Kings 11:1 'King Solomon however, loved many foreign womenand his wives led him astray.. as Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods.' Do you see how while with your lips you can still pay homage to God and yet with your heart deny him? The result? It was all in vain. The glory of Solomon's reign which was so impressive from a superficial political viewpoint, was a passing fantasy from God's standpoint.
And we can extend the same principle to today's church and today's world.
Several years ago the Christian writer Dr Jim Packer related how he saw an advertisement in an American Christian magazine. It began, in large letters, 'DON'T PLAN A REVIVAL' and he thought, 'How remarkably right minded! But sadly the advertisement went on, in smaller type- 'until you have these FREE SAMPLES of colour advertising planned especially for the Church which ants something different but must operate on a conservative budget.' Even in the church the 'know how' mentality of marketing spawns the 'can do' mentality which effectively sidelines God. For all the talk one sometimes hears about the work of the Holy Spirit some of our church meetings in the West are simply Christianised versions of the marketing consultants dream designed to target the feelings while by-passing the mind, whipping up people's feelings by dazzling the senses. Then we have the temerity to claim it is of God. Certainly there is a place for planning, strategy and wisely using the gifts that God has given- we God's fellow workers, as Paul says, and the church is God's building'- 1 Corinthians 3:9, but when we think that we can go it alone without him, or employ methods which he forbids- psychological manipulation- then we are not doing God's work, but our own and sooner rather later our ego's will be caught up in it and become inflated. So you do hear ministers talking about 'my church' and 'my ministry' and people basking in the glory of 'our pastor'. The result? You end up with a Laodecian church which has all the appearance of life but is in fact dead, because the Lord of the church, Jesus has been left outside knocking on the door to be let in. That is always the danger of so called 'spiritual successes pride and eventual decline. Unless it is tempered by a healthy dose of humility, recognising that whatever blessings we see, whether it be a literal building going up like 552 Beverly Road- the NCC, or God's spiritual building, the church, being extended by the addition of spiritual children, that this is primarily of God then it will all be short lived. And, you know, that is why struggle in ministry is such a divine mercy. When you are finding evangelism tough, or controlling that unruly bunch of children in the youth group- does it not drive you to your knees so that your throw yourself upon God in prayer? You can't forget then that it is the Lord who builds can you?
But what happens to a nation which forgets God? Well, the same process of social disintegration follows. For any society to function and hold together properly you need the three legs of the stool- a good political order, a good economic order and a good religious and moral order. You have a problem in one, especially the last one-you have a problem in them all. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, T.S. Eliot said that 'men have lived by spiritual institutions in every society and also political institutions and by economic activities. Admittedly, they have, at different periods, tended to put their trust mainly in one of the three as the real cement of society, but at no time have they wholly excluded the others, because it is impossible to do so.' True, but every attempt is now being made to push out religion from public behaviour and restrict it to the realm of private belief. The result is a breakdown in morality because there is no agreed basis for judging what is right or wrong except by those who happen to be in power. What has increasingly happened is that society decided it did not need God and his laws to decide the best way to live. It could build its own 'Jerusalem on England's green and pleasant land.' The result is the social and moral decay which is now all too common. The paradox is that in an attempt to be free and throw off all internal restraints so we are 'free' to do our own thing, we become less and less free as more and more external restraints after to be introduced. So we now have cameras on street corners, burglar alarms in abundance to act as 'watchmen' in the city. Whereas even only 30 years ago children could go off and play in the park unsupervised no sane parent would dare allow that now. We labour in vain you see. We may not like it, but when we take this route of snubbing our Maker then every single one of us is an unflattering failure.
But the fact that we fail does not stop God from succeeding, and so we see how this psalm points us forward to a unique fulfilment.
Just listen to the promise made to King David back in 2 Samuel 7:11, 'The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you. When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish his kingdom for ever.' Notice who is doing the work? God, It is all 'I will do this'; 'I will do that'. The LORD does the building you see. But who is he speaking about when he talks about an offspring 'who will build a house in his name'? Solomon? Well, yes. But as we have seen he failed, so it must be pointing beyond him to one whose kingdom would last for ever and that someone is Jesus. That is the way the writer to the Hebrews saw it in that reading we had from chapters 2 and 3. And when we look at that we see how Christ perfectly fulfils the aspirations of this psalm. Just turn to Hebrews 3: 3 'Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honour than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful as a servant in God's house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a Son over God's house. And we are his house.' This is in line with what Jesus himself said in response to Peter's confession that he was the Christ, God's anointed prophet, priest and King- 'On this rock I will build my church and the gates of death will not prevail against it.' You see, Jesus builds God's house in two senses. First, there is the gathering of God's people together as a church, and where two or three are gathered together, Jesus is in their midst. So when Christians meet, we are God's dwelling place-his house, his temple. Secondly we are his household in the sense that we belong to his family and Jesus fulfils Psalm 127 in this way too when we read v3, 'Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward for him.' Through Jesus God has many sons, when we come to put our faith in him- again Hebrews 2:13 a prophecy which Jesus fulfilled is quoted 'Here I am, and the children God has given me.' So pulling all the different strands together we can see how Psalm 127 points us to Christ our Savour and us his church- for we are the fulfilment of Psalm 127 and as we go about Gospel work in humble dependence upon him we are still in the process of fulfilling it. It is through the proclamation of the Gospel, the Lord builds his house and as we go about that with him we do not labour in vain, for this spiritual temple is being built up now even as we meet with millions around the world coming to faith in Jesus. The Lord is the one who guards his city in that in the book of Revelation the church is described as a city which comes down from heaven. It is safe in eternity. But even on earth God looks after his church by giving pastors and teachers to watch over his people and care for them as they minister the Gospel of the Word of God-v1. He is the one who through his Word nourishes and feeds us so we can have spiritual food to eat-v2. He grants sleep to those he loves,v2- a picture of peace, which you will remember Jesus enjoyed when he was in the hull of the boat during the storm and which by His Spirit he passes on to those who put their trust in him, a 'peace which passes all understanding'. And even for those of us who may not be able to have any physical children, like the apostle Paul, we can be like the man in v 5 with a quiver full of spiritual children as we lead boys and girls, men and women to our Saviour. And they will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies at the gate, the greatest enemy being Satan who would try and accuse us of our failure and our sin, saying 'God can never accept you after what you have done'. For because of Jesus who died for us, we can point to the cross and cry, 'We are forgiven'- Hebrews 2:14, 'Since the children have flesh and blood, Jesus too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is the devil..' All of those things the world craves we Christians already enjoy shelter, security and family-that is what the church is.
Let me tell you something. In the year 410AD Augustine a Bishop in North Africa, heard the news that Rome had been sacked by the barbarians. It was the end of civilization as he knew it. In many respects it was a world uncannily like ours, with family breakdowns and escapist entertainments and obsessive sex and violence. But it was at least an ordered world. In his sermon he told his congregation that they must not lose heart. There will be an end to every earthly kingdom. This world is passing away, but do not fear. Your youth will be renewed like an eagle's, he said. He knew you see, that one day God would complete his building, his household, his city which would never pass away, for its builder is God.
So what better song to sing on our way home to heaven than Psalm 127?
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