Monday, July 16, 2018 - 12:00
For the next couple of weeks for our reflections, we’re turning to the Bible’s very own worship manual, the book of prayer and song that we all know as the book of Psalms. Personally, I’m very excited to be studying the Psalms for these couple of weeks! In the Psalms, we learn about who God is, and about how God loves us, in a very real, unique and beautiful way.
A very good question has been raised by a number of theologians – most notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and that question is “how do the words of ordinary men and women become God’s word to us?” Old Testament scholar– and one of my favourite seminary professors – the late Gerry Sheppard wrote about this question at length in one of his books that we studied in his class. He addresses the question, ‘if the Psalms are prayers and hymns written by ordinary people like you and I, then how can we consider them to be “The Word of God” in the ways we typically understand the words of the Bible to be?’
In this respect, the book of Psalms is not unlike other parts of the Bible, especially the Old Testament: God reveals His nature in a relational way; that is, we learn about God by the way that ordinary people like you and I - who love God – how they related to Him, and how they experienced God relating to them. The 150 Psalms in the Bible represent the broadest spectrum of emotions and experiences with God that we could imagine: in the Psalms we find praise and adoration, thanksgiving, and simple trust; but we also find anger, lament, pleading, heartbreak; but almost always thanksgiving and adoration have the final word.
It’s hard to find a Psalm that we can’t relate to on an emotional level, even if the events and context that are written about are very different from ours. The experiences of human emotion represented in the Psalms transcend all place and time.
Psalm 85 is an excellent example: it is a beautiful song (we know, because the rubrics at the start of the Psalm indicate it was for the music director) and the song contains words of prayer for the nation of Israel, petitioning God for their return from exile in Babylonia and a new era of peace in the promised land. Its authorship is attributed to the “sons of Korah” (so it wasn’t written by David, who we tend to think of as the Psalm writer); and the descendants of Korah were a priestly line, so it was likely not a single author who wrote it, but it represents the priesthood, and the office of priest in their tradition was to represent the people before God; so this Psalm would have been used, musically, as a part of their temple worship.
Psalm 85 is only a few verses long – relatively short compared to some of the other Psalms - but there is a lot of substance and depth to it. We find within these 13 verses most of the elements of what some of you have heard me talk to the children about as “ACTS” prayer: ACTS stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.
We see all of these in Psalm 85. It begins by remembering God’s mighty acts of love from the past and praising Him for his characteristics: “Lord, you were favourable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob (Israel). You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin.” The prayer begins with reverent acknowledgement of all that God has done for His people: He showed them favour and poured out forgiveness in abundance over them.
But it seems that over time the people had ignored or forgotten what God had done for them, so the Psalmist then moves into a section of lament for the broken relationship between them and God: “Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?” There’s an impatience to his questions, but it reminds us that ignoring or rebelling against God always has consequences – usually natural consequences rather than God actively punishing people, the way God is sometimes represented – but the Psalmist experiences these consequences as God’s anger against them.
So the priest leads the worshipping community to call out to God for restoration, to recognize how far they have wandered away from God. They are experiencing His displeasure at the way they have gone, and want to feel His love again.
So they plead with God, that despite all of their past rebellion, God will remember who He is – steadfast, righteous, loving, faithful and peaceful – and that because of who He is, He will have mercy on their nation: “Restore us again…show us your steadfast love, O Lord.”
He concludes this Psalm once again with words of adoration and of gratitude, his words expressing his trust that God has already answered his supplication, and He bases this confidence on how God has been steadfast and righteous in the past: “Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.” The Psalmist is so sure of this! Their trust is based on knowing who God is because of what God has always done for His people. Their trust is based on a relationship that God has had with the people for many generations.
Because they have a relational understanding of who God is, the Psalmist understands that a relationship goes two ways: Israel’s relationship with God is based on a covenant. The heart of that covenant as laid out in the book of Exodus was “I will be your God and you will be My people.” This was a pretty good deal for Israel, so they of course accepted the terms of this covenant immediately! For generations, the people of Israel understood themselves as God’s chosen people, although on a number of occasions they slipped up.
The Psalmist recognizes that the people of Israel were in exile because they had not been holding up their end of the covenant; they had not been living as God’s people, they had not been listening to God’s commandments, which were given to them for their protection. They had turned their backs on God’s way, and since they weren’t living within the boundaries of the covenant, they stepped out from under God’s protective wings and were taken captive by the Babylonians.
Now they recognize their error, and so the heart of this Psalm is a re-commitment of their lives to God. The centrepiece of the Psalm - right smack in the middle – are the words from a Temple prophet, who gives an oracle of peace: “I will listen to what God the Lord says; he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants – but let them not turn to folly. Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” (vv. 8-9)
“Let them not turn to folly:” to the Temple prophet, it is folly to not “listen to what God the Lord says.” It is folly to try to do things outside of God’s commandments, or to do things their own way.
Despite the covenant they had with God, the nation of Israel regularly rebelled against God, or forgot about God, and just did things their own way rather than living the way God had instructed them. And that is what the priests and prophets call the people to recommit to: “I will listen to what God the Lord says.” Listening to God – that is their end of the covenant. God will give them life, take care of all their needs, protect them, walk with them, defend them from all enemies, etc., etc.; and they will…listen to God. That’s a pretty good deal.
You know, you’d think that someone who is going to love you unconditionally and do everything for you is worth listening to! But the Old Testament contains story after story of how the people of Israel turned their backs on God over and over. That’s why it’s so worth reading – because they’re a lot like us! We do that too – we turn to God when we’re desperate or we need help, but when everything is going well we forget about God, and just do things our own way, right?
Psalm 85 is a beautiful prayer that reflects the history of the nation of Israel, but it also speaks to our lives today. Many people today don’t listen to God either, and as a result, don’t experience the peace and abundant life that comes with a life of faithful obedience to God. As with Israel, living as God’s people is a pretty good deal for us too – God gives our lives purpose and peace – but a relationship goes two ways. Our part of the relationship is to listen to God, rather than turning to our own ways – which the Psalmist calls “folly.” It is folly to try to live our lives apart from God!
Why don’t we listen to God? I think one of the reasons is that many of us just haven’t been taught that God actually does speak to us, to guide us, or correct us, or comfort us; or maybe we haven’t been taught how to listen with our hearts for the voice of God. That was certainly true for me. We think that God speaks to other “more holy” people, or that God only spoke to people in the Bible and the people who think they hear God speaking today are delusional; but all of us can learn how to listen to the Lord our God just as the Psalmist did. Jesus often said, “those who have ears to hear, hear.” We hear God usually with the ears of our hearts.
Another reason we don’t listen to God is because we think he’ll tell us something we don’t want to hear. Maybe he’ll ask us to do something – or stop doing something – that we don’t want to hear. In a book of memoirs written by 8 female Christian leaders, Margaret Gibb, the founder and executive director of Women Together, writes that she panicked when asked by a professor to pray for the missions of her Christian college because she feared God would ask her to go to Africa.
She realized, however, that if God was asking her to pray for Africa, it didn’t mean God was asking her to go to Africa! So she began to pray for Africa once a week with a group of other college students, but she closed her heart when it came to going to Africa: “God, never ever ask me to go to Africa!” she prayed. But over the years, the needs of Africa weighed on her heart more and more. She became a very successful leader for a well-known women’s ministry organization, and in 2003 World Vision asked her to join a clergy delegation to go to Africa to see the devastating effects of HIV-AIDS on women and children.
That trip changed her life, and she left her high profile position to found a brand new women’s ministry that would be international in scope, but would have a very special ministry precisely in Africa. She didn’t want to listen to God because she feared God would ask her to do something she didn’t want to do…and he did…and it turned out to be the biggest blessing of her life!
I wonder what blessings we miss out on when we resist listening to God. Maybe today you have something pressing on your heart that’s causing you to resist listening to God…and maybe that’s precisely the way that God wants to bless your life!
One other reason we don’t listen to God is that we don’t really trust that God knows what is best for our lives. We believe that God created the universe, but we’re not sure he is really able to manage our lives to our satisfaction. This is the difference between believing IN God and believing God. Believing in God – that God exists, that God created the universe, that God has all these wonderful attributes – is not that difficult or uncommon. In the Bible – and I’m thinking specifically of Jesus’ temptation in the desert – we can see that the devil himself believes IN God, believes that Jesus is the Son of God, and that God is the ruler of the universe. But believing God is different – do we believe that what God says is true, that God’s ways are the best ways, that God has authority over our lives? We might believe that God exists, but if we don’t want to give God authority over our decisions and choices, we will resist listening to Him.
But like Margaret Gibb found out, our lives are blessed the most when we listen to God, when we seek His guidance and follow His directions. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and God knows how to give us our very best lives.
The words of Psalm 85 point to this same truth. Verses 10-11 in this Psalm remind us how amazing it feels to be in right relationship with God again: “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” Such a poetic and beautiful image! When we listen to God instead of turning to our own folly, the Psalmist paints a picture of good friends being reunited. Returning to deep communion with God feels like that – feels like old friends finally being reunited. Hearing God’s voice brings peace, because we know we can trust Him to guide us according to his great love.
The Psalm writer recalls God’s faithfulness, and recommits his life to listening to what God says. That commitment is specifically to listen to God. He then prays a prayer of thanksgiving by recalling God’s former mercies. Because of who God is, the Psalmist can only foresee brighter days ahead.
It’s a good exercise for us to sit down and recall God’s faithfulness in our lives, to intentionally remember the times in our lives when God has led us faithfully, or He has protected us, or comforted us. I sometimes sit down with a journal and write out the things God has done for me. When you see with your own eyes all that God has done in the past, it’s hard to not trust in God’s wisdom to guide us in faithfulness and love in the present and future.
It’s also a good exercise to quiet our minds and learn to listen to God in prayer. It’s not always easy if we’re not used to it. I have taught a course on Hearing God – it was a course I myself took a few years ago because, like many people, I had to intentionally learn how to listen to God. In the past few years, learning to hear God’s voice guiding my life has made all the difference, and is the reason I’m standing here talking to you today!
A little over a year ago, as I was preparing to come for my interview with the TEMC search committee, I knew I was very close to being offered a call to another church. And one evening I prayed about it and I said to God that if He wanted me to go and serve the other church I would accept it; but the next day He made it very clear to me that He intended for me to come to TEMC, and that’s exactly how everything worked out!
And I am so very glad I listened to Him! As I come up to my first anniversary of the day I started at TEMC - August 1st – I feel so very blessed to be a part of this community of faith and to work with the clergy, staff and lay leaders here. And from now on, whenever I am tempted to turn back to my own folly, one of the things I will recall is how God led me here and blessed my life, and I will remember to always listen to what God the Lord says.
You can read this story at https://women-together.org/our-beginnings/