Good News, Bad News, and God’s News
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 1, 2020
Reading: Psalm 9
The concept of the news is being deconstructed in our era. The notion of what constitutes news is continually changing. We hear about fake news, which is just an ad hominem idea that is thrown at anyone who has a different point of view to your own. Or how infuriating the notion of breaking news has become. It has become so ordinary that I'm expecting any day for someone to come on and say, “Breaking news, a celebrity has an ingrown toenail” or something as facile as that. Although sometimes breaking news is serious, like what’s going on in Nagorno-Karabakh. But oftentimes breaking news is ordinary. News is also becoming more about opinion than information or evidence gathering, following the rules of reporting, and knowing precisely that you can rely on something that has been researched, not an opinion with a few facts thrown in and calling it news.
I’ve been thinking about how easily news can be manipulated, particularly by those who are in power. It reminded of something I studied years ago at the Kennedy School of Government with Marvin Kalb known in the late 1960s during the Vietnam war as the Tet Offensive. It began in early 1968 when the Viet Kong and North Vietnam went on a massive attack of South Vietnam and the forces of the United States. Initially it was deemed not to be very significant. In fact, the media was bombarded with messages from political leaders that everything was going well in Vietnam. President Johnson, before the State of the Union address in January of 1968, said it would be over soon, and General Westmoreland, told everyone that everything was in hand and at most, it would take two years.
There was so much manipulation of the media and the news to send a message that things were better than they were, when, as everyone knows, the Vietnam conflict went on at great cost. There were, however, media people like Walter Cronkite and reporters, who were right there on the ground reporting back just how desperate things were. There seemed to be a conflict between those who were delivering the news and those wanting to manipulate the news for their own purposes. So, the news has always been subject to some malleability and some change.
What I love about Psalm 9, our text this morning is that it is also about news. News about those who have exercised tyranny and how they have fallen. It’s also news about how God vindicates the righteous and lifts up the oppressed. With this incredible psalm, there is an abundance of news, news that I believe we need to hear. This isn't breaking news, it’s 2500 years old! There’s nothing breaking about this news, but it’s powerful. The psalmist above all, gives good news. It is a hymn and could have been written by David, the chief of musicians, as he’s called at the beginning of the psalm. Perhaps this is about the victory over the Philistines and Goliath. Others have speculated that it is something that was written later, while reflecting on David by the return of the people from exile and their victory over the Babylonians. Regardless, it was music that was sung, and it was very important within the psalter of singing in the early reformation days, which is significant right now. Most of all, it’s about good news, and there is this wonderful line, “Let us rejoice in the Lord with our whole heart.”
The great preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, gave a sermon in Newington in 1872. In it he said, “Half a heart is no heart.” In other words, you can't have a heart for God in a half–hearted way. There is no middle ground; it’s all or nothing, complete devotion.
For the psalmist, the notion of a whole heart is based on the deeds of God. Look at what God has done, how God set the oppressed free, gave us victory over our enemies, and redeemed the broken. The whole heart that beats with love for God, is beating precisely because God has already done something wonderful. God is to be praised above all, even for defeating those who are the enemies of the people of God.
When you look at this notion of a whole heart, it implies the whole of one’s being. You can’t divide your life up into a part that is open to the power and influence of God, and another that is kept hidden; or have a greater love for something than your love for God. Then it becomes, as Spurgeon said, “half a heart” and that is no heart at all. One’s whole heart beats with the love and the praise of God, for the deeds of God and the affection one has for God.
I’ve been thinking recently about those involved in the arts. Whether it is visual arts, or musical arts, this is a difficult time for people, but art in any form can still, and profoundly, reflect the whole heart of faith. I’ve been reading some articles on Johann Sebastian Bach. There’s something about Bach that I think a lot of people forget, namely that he said: “The end and aim of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” The more I look at and I listen to Bach, I agree with Nietzsche, of all people, Frederick Nietzsche, who said, “One who has completely forgotten Christianity, truly hears it here as gospel” when talking about Bach’s music. For Bach there was no question. Three quarters of his one thousand compositions, were written for use in worship. Between his musical genius and his devotion to Christ, he’s referred to as the ‘fifth evangelist’.
Here was somebody who had this incredible musical gift who, was a bit like Rembrandt in that he wasn’t recognized until only eighty years after his death, because of Mendelsohn really, became popular again. But he gave his whole heart and all his gifts for the sake the glory and the wonder of God. It was a whole heart that rejoiced in the power of God. So, the good news that we find in this passage is that it’s the whole heart that rejoices.
It’s also good news for the oppressed. The Lord is the stronghold for the oppressed. The Lord is a refuge for the needy and for those who find themselves oppressed. Oppression can take many forms. Sometimes the oppression is political, and military in nature. Sometimes oppression is spiritual, where spiritual forces are brought to bear in a negative way upon one’s life. Sometimes oppression is psychological, and I’ve dealt with that quite a bit over the last few weeks, because I think it’s very real in this pandemic. That oppression can take many forms. It can come from within or it can come from external sources. For the psalmist there is no question; it was those in need, the poor, the oppressed, those who had been driven from their land, and subjugated by the enemy. These many forms of oppression cause those who are oppressed to wonder if they have been forgotten by God, if they no longer matter.
Of course, the psalmist said that the Lord has not forgotten the needy. They might have thought that they were forgotten, but they were not, they were remembered. In reading this passage, I thought about research I’d done years ago on the great Cardinal Silva in Santiago Chile, who was the cardinal during the Pinochet era and also beyond. He created a charitable organization called Caritas in 1955, to help the poor and the oppressed, the needy and the hungry, who lived in Chile. When that charity was shut down by Pinochet, Cardinal Silva created the Vicaria de la Solidaridad on behalf of those who were missing. In a tribute to him that was written after his death, it said, he was a voice for the voiceless. He let the oppressed know that they were not forgotten. He was a voice for God amid the challenges of his time, and it took courage to do it. So, there you are, you see, Psalm 9 is good news. It’s a reminder that God takes on the cause of the oppressed and becomes a voice to tell them that they are remembered.
It is also a psalm of bad news; bad news “for the wicked shall depart to Sheol” the psalmist says, “and the nations who forget God will be among them.” Wow, you see, God remembers the oppressed, but those nations who forget God have a problem. Have you noticed, particularly in the Old Testament, how so many of the tyrannies that arose, did so because of characters who thought that they were more important than God? The list of them is legion. Even Goliath stands as a representative, although only a soldier, that demagoguery has forgotten God and does not give comfort to their people. Throughout the ages, those who supported tyrannies, and narcissistic leaders, have done so on the basis that their hope and their trust is placed in those people.
I know that it’s probably not actually real, but apocryphal, but Louis XIV was said to have said, “l'etat c'est moi” – the state is me. Whether he said it or not, it seems immaterial, because he acted as if it was, that there was a certain syncretism between the ruler and the nation, and that the two could not be divided. The psalmist says, “Woe to wicked who do that.” You will be forgotten if you forget God. If you place yourself above God, then you have a major problem.
I have been rereading the book by Malcolm Gladwell, entitled – and this really got my attention, hey – David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. What a great read this is. In a section, he deals with entrepreneurs, with businesspeople, and he gives them some advice about things that they should hold onto. It’s not the language that one would normally expect to hear from a business guru. This is a philosopher. He said:
This book is fundamentally about the weapons of the spirit. It is about how the things that are in your heart or your soul or your imagination, are every bit the equal of material advantages. What you have are your ideas, your motivation, your perseverance, your excitement, your faith. This book is an attempt to appreciate those gifts for what they are.
Gladwell is suggesting that in this battle between David and Goliath, there is a representation of the struggle that many people have in their lives. A struggle between depending on themselves and depending on money or prestige or power, that is seen as the real gift and the real virtue. Or relying on things that are more ethereal; on motivation, our faith, our spirit, our imagination, and the things that we believe.
That’s what the psalmist is getting at, powerfully and clearly to those who are the oppressors. He’s saying it with bad news for those who crush everybody in their wake. You will be forgotten. Why? Because there’s God’s news. The psalmist speaks of God’s news: “I will rejoice”, he said, “in your mighty deeds. I will rejoice in the things that you have done.” Nations and demagogues will come and go, they will not last. In fact, he says at the very end, “Oh, you nations, may you realise that you are just human.” Put another way, do not make a god of yourself, do not make a god of one’s leaders, do not make a god even of a nation, because even a nation can cease to exist.
In reflecting on that, sitting back having a coffee, I thought, my goodness, just think of all those nations that don’t exist anymore. Where are the Canaanites? Where are the Philistines? Where are the Babylonians? Where is the USSR? Where is Austria–Hungary, Siam, Tanganyika, the Republic of Texas or Vermont (that thought they were countries once)? Where is South West Africa? Where are all these countries that used to exist?
Nations come and go. Leaders come and go. All things come and go, but as the psalmist says, “The one that endures, the one that lasts, the one that remembers us, the one who sides with the oppressed, the one who is righteous, the one whose deeds are worth rejoicing, is God Almighty.
In this world, in this time, surely that is good news. Amen.