Singing the Lord's song - Psalm 137

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 7th May 2000.

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It simply could not be happening. It was a nightmare of apocalyptic proportions. Yet they had seen it with their own eyes. They came like a swarm of locusts, murdering, looting, burning.

Twice the beloved city of Jerusalem was laid to siege. The second time was the worst - 589BC. For eighteen months the poor beleaguered inhabitants of that city were reduced to skin and bone. Mothers ate their own offspring cooked over fires fuelled by human dung. It simply could not be happening, not to them of all people, they were God’s people so they supposed, the apple of his eye Moses had told them. But now this. Herded like cattle to occupy refuge camps strung like beads along the rivers of Babylon, the pagan nation which had all but destroyed them. As they looked back over their journey of hundreds of miles they thought of Zion, God’s holy hill and his holy city - and they wept. It wasn’t so much because the walls lay in ruins, the temple a charred remains - it was because of all that Jerusalem stood for which seemed to perish in the ashes. Jerusalem - the ‘city of peace’ - symbolising the peace of God, the presence of God, the prosperity of God, in short all the promises of Yahweh were captured in that one word - Zion. Oh yes, how they wept. Now they were exiles in a strange land, amongst a strange people, with strange customs, worshipping strange gods. That is when the taunts began. ‘Come on! You Jews are renown for your singing, your dancing, your religious festivities - why don’t you sing your songs now? After all you are ‘God’s people ’, they would say with a knowing smirk on their face. But how could they sing the songs of Zion? Songs of hope, of promise when all hope is reduced to a pile of rubble, no, they will simply hang up their harps and weep.

That is the background to Psalm 137. But do you realise that Babylon still exists. Not the Babylon of King Nebuchadnezar, now modern day Iraq - that perished long ago, 70 years or so after they had been crowing about their victory over the Jews. No I’m talking about Babylon as a human system set up in defiance against God. You see, the NT uses Babylon as a symbol of a human race in arrogant rebellion against the Lord and his people. The apostle Peter begins his first letter by addressing Christians as ‘God’s elect, strangers or as the RSV translates it - exiles in the world, scattered’( 1 Peter 1: 1) - just as these Jews were scattered; and he ends by writing ‘She who is in Babylon, sends her greeting’(1 Peter 5: 13) a code for the church in the city of Rome, for then it was Rome who embodied the overweening pride which snubs God and defies his ways - Babylon. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the Book of Revelation where Babylon is mentioned time and time again as representing mankind in organised revolt against its Maker(Rev: 17 - 18). The truth is : we live in Babylon.

Now I want to put it to you this morning that as Western society move further and further away from its Christian heritage, as we have been doing so very rapidly for the last 60 years or so, we shall feel more and more like exiles living in Babylon. The question is how can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land? That is, how can we live as God’s people and witness to God’s promises which are often captured in song when those around us either do not understand or simply do not want to know? That is what we are going to be thinking about over the next few weeks.

The fact is, every area of life is being encroached upon by a new moral darkness - politics, education, law, medicine, the family, even the church. The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre refers to ‘new dark ages’ of moral decay. Alexander Solzhenitsyn warns of the West’s debilitating ‘spiritual exhaustion’. In more recent years in a best selling book, William Strauss and Neil Howe writing about the United States, maintains that "it feels like it’s unravelling. " The authors go on, ‘Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort, we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within.... we perceive no greatness in our leaders, but a new meanness in ourselves. Small wonder that each new election brings a new jolt, its aftermath a new disappointment. ’And I think that what can be said of the United States can also be said of Britain, because as someone once remarked America is the ‘lead society’, it usually gets there first and we get there in the end.

Think of the unravelling that has happened in our society during the last 50 years. Most people, even non - Christians would have agreed there were absolutes in morality - adhering to the golden rule or that ten commandments. That has largely disappeared as God has been sidelined to the edges of our society’s thinking. As someone once said, if we say goodbye to the Fatherhood of God it is only a matter of time before we say goodbye to the brotherhood of man. The family has constantly been under attack. Fifty years ago the family was seen as the basic stable unit of society, and laws were in place to support that. Much of that has now gone with no fault divorce and the promotion of alternative family life styles - including homosexual and lesbian ones. Within the church, 60 years ago William Temple delayed his consecration as Bishop because he had doubts about the historicity of the Virgin Birth and only when he came to a clear conclusion it was true did he go ahead. Now we have Bishops who would question virtually anything miraculous, resurrection and all. Life too has been cheapened. Whatever the intentions of those who legislated for the 1967Abortion Act, it would never have entered anyone’s mind that we would now find ourselves in a situation were a baby is being aborted at the rate of one every three minutes. Think too of our children’s behaviour. One local headteacher was telling me that the LEA in Hull considers a well managed primary class one in which chairs are not being thrown across the room by pupils. That is a good class! How far we have travelled in such a short space of time.

Now none of these things have happened by accident, they all flow from a significant change in the way people think and view the world. At the risk of oversimplification let me mention to you a few ‘isms’ which have shaped the way our society is now thinking and so behaving. We must understand the Babylon in which we live if we are to seek to witness effectively and not simply be swept along.

First there is materialism, that is the belief that reality only consists of that which can be seen and measured - there is no room for what might be called the spiritual, all of that can be explained away in terms of psychology or sociology. Everything, it is argued, can be understood in terms of natural causes, there is no room for God, we are all products of blind, meaningless chance. So in the preface to Stephen Hawking’s best seller ‘A Brief History of Time ‘ the atheist astronomer Carl Sagan writes: ‘The word God fills these pages. Hawking embarks on a quest to answer Einstein’s famous question about whether God had any choice in creating a universe. Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in time, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do. ’In other words, who needs God? - this scientific description rules him out. But there is a price to pay when everything is reduced to chance. Humans can’t have any significance or meaning and all we can live for is the now. Imagine some spilt milk on the kitchen floor. It is there by accident. Does it have any meaning? Suppose that by some freak of nature that spilt milk gains consciousness. Just by declaring itself to have significance does it give it any more significance than it had before? Of course not - an accident is simply that. But that is what we are left with which much of the Evolutionism taught in our schools - we are nothing but accidents. So pretty soon people will start treating each other like accidents - as we have seen children in the States walking into school with guns to blow their classmates away. We may be shocked but we should not be surprised. Eventually people will start living out what they have been taught.

Secondly, there is individualism. In 1979 the sociologist Robert Bellah conducted a survey of 200 average middle - class Americans and published his findings in a book called ‘Habits of the Heart’. His conclusion? : many had no sense of community or social obligation. They saw the world as a fragmented place for choice and freedom that produced little meaning and comfort. In short ‘I’ rule. The focus is on me, my comforts, my pleasures, my choices. Much of this goes back to the 18th century French thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau who believed that man was naturally good and all that was necessary was for people to be set free from the restraints of society and the church. The anti - authority mood of the swinging sixties captured this for many, spawning the demanding inflationary outlook of the 70’s, the ‘loadsa money’ generation of Thatcher’s eighties and now the rave culture of the Blair’s 2000. Hence, the emphasis on individual choice. To an earlier generation it mattered what we chose - do the right thing, now all that matters is that we choose - I must decide, for that alone gives me a sense of value. The bitter irony is that for all the increase in talk about freedom we seem to be less and less free as a society. How many of us as children used to walk several miles to school alone, or go and play in the woods unsupervised? How many of us would allow such freedom to our children now? We don't. That freedom has pretty well evaporated because people have been allowed to be ‘free’ to follow their own desires especially in the realm of sex and violence and so women and children, let alone young men do not feel safe.

Thirdly, there is hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure via the route of subjectivism, that is, what is real is what I feel. If this world is all there is, then it is for this world I must live and live it now. I won’t get a second chance when I die, that is the end, and who cares about future generations - they don't exist yet, so why should I feel obliged to them? - I will build up a debt and they can pay. I may not know what I think, but I know what I feel, and I want to feel good. The recent Vodka ad on the billboards said it all: with pictures of trendy young people celebrating the dawn with drinks in hand, emblazoned in bold type were the words ‘Sleep when you're dead’. In other words, there will be plenty of time to sleep after you die, now is the time to party. That is why no government is going to be able to deal with the increasing drug problem, how can they when it is that generation that has peddled the idea that pleasure rather than principles rule. If drugs do it for you, who is to say it is wrong?

Which brings us to the final ‘ism’, relativism. That is, what is true is true for me. There are no absolute truths, right or wrong, good or bad - so don’t judge, it is all relative to your culture, your upbringing. The classic showcase for this is Jerry Springer show in which any perversion can be displayed, a daughter - in - law who is now having a relationship with her mother in law to the utter distress of the husband who has just found out in front of millions of viewers, but he is told ‘Why not, they love each other, who are you to impose your morality on them? ’

This is Babylon, with its strange language where words can mean whatever you want them to mean, where right and wrong have been excluded, where the gods of pleasure and self reign supreme, and where everything is relative so keep your religion private. These are the ideas which have been disseminated with remarkable effect through the media. So whether it is a high brow programme like Question time or more low brow like Eastenders, these are the views which are being put across and in which our minds are marinating. So you can have a whole evening on channel 4 called ‘Gaynight’ - it is an alternative. Can you imagine a whole evening called ‘Christian night’? It was Groucho Marx who quipped ‘ I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book. ’He may have had a point.

So let us go back to the question of verse 4 in our Psalm ‘How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? ’Two principles.

First, don’t compromise. What is the call by the pagans to God’s people to sing anything else but a call to ‘settle down’. Come on, recognise this is your home for good, there is no point in moping, come to terms with your situation, come and join us and sing. An earlier Christian generation had a word for it - they called it ‘worldliness’. Sadly, many in the church have succumbed to just that, often without realising it. They have set the Lord’s songs to a different tune, that of the world, Christianising what is essentially alien beliefs and practises. So we have the ‘Christian materialist’ which paradoxically manifests itself in two ways. First, those who deny the miraculous, like the former Bishop of Durham dismissing the resurrection of Jesus as a ‘conjuring trick with bones’. Then on the other hand there are those who see God only in what is called the supernatural, the weird and the bizarre, they do not seem him at all in the ordinary - the sunrise, the dance of the atoms, the birth of a baby - it has all got to be entertaining thrills and so church services take on the appearance of a circus. In effect they have surrendered to the materialistic mindset and have a ‘God of the gaps’. There is also the ‘Christian hedonist’, here Christianity is portrayed as one long party, full of ups, no downs. The main thing is the ‘feel good factor’. Talk of taking up a cross is a switch off. Then we have the ‘Christian relativist’. The church at which I was a curate is now in the midst of an unholy row because the Vicar, quite rightly, considers it inappropriate for the choir master to remain in post given that he is living with a woman and not married to her. But relativism has reared its head, ‘Who is the Vicar to say what is right or wrong, as long as they are sincere what does it matter? ’And of course it is tempting to sing to the tune of the world, for if you don’t, persecution is just around the corner, as Daniel and his friends found to their own cost in Babylon - and so shall we.

More positively we can challenge by singing as loudly as possible the Lord’s song, which for us is the Gospel - the word of Christ which we are to sing according to Col 3: 16. Did you notice how these people had their priorities right - v6 (read). Having been put into exile as punishment for their sin, they were at last waking up to the fact that God and his covenant came first, as symbolised by Jerusalem. But where they made the mistake was in thinking that God was so tightly wedded to the symbol he was restricted - he was back home and they were in Babylon, whereas the message of Ezekiel, who was one of these captives was that God was with his people in exile. The temple may have been destroyed, but God wasn’t. Was it not the risen Jesus who in sending his disciples out into a hostile world said ‘I will be with you always’? Are we not the new temple being built in Babylon and Christ dwells in our midst by His Spirit. ? We can still sing because God is present. And as we sing God proclaims. You see, when we sing the Lord’s songs, as it were, we declare God’s truth and so challenge an unbelieving world which lives a lie - the lie that this life is all there is, that I am number one, that personal pleasure is to be pursued at all costs. Our songs are songs of judgement. These folk may have used language which hurt our sensitive ears, v8(read) - but they strain towards an important truth, that the judge of the earth will do what is right. Christians can say he has - the God of truth came into this world in the person of Jesus, to save this world from its headlong dash towards hell, a new darkness we are now busily constructing for ourselves and calling it enlightenment. He bore our guilt on his shoulders, showing he is a just God, he destroyed death showing this life is not the be all and end all, and he calls us to discover true pleasure, a soul which find its delight in serving him and each other. But one day the judge will come and we shall be called to give an account - we will not be able to hide then. For God, truth is not all relative, right and wrong still exists in his books, people rather than possessions do matter. But it is as God’s people start to live as people of light, showing there is another way, a better way, singing the Lord’s song, that the darkness can begin to turn to dawn.

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