Thursday, November 1, 2007

Why God’s People Continue - sermon on Psalm 124

Why God’s People Continue

I. Introduction
In the 5th chapter of the book of Joshua, we read a remarkable story. Joshua 5:13-15, “Now it came about when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand, and Joshua went to him and said to him, "Are you for us or for our adversaries?" [14] He said, "No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the Lord." And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, "What has my lord to say to his servant?" [15] The captain of the Lord's host said to Joshua, "Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy." And Joshua did so.”
One the eve of the first step in Israel’s conquest of the promised land, Joshua, their new leader, comes to take a look at the city of Jericho and sees a man with his sword drawn. Joshua walks up to him and asks him an either-or question: “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” The answer that comes back is, “No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the Lord.” Joshua falls down and worships – an act which would have elicited a quick rebuke had this been merely a man or an angel. Joshua knows this is Yahweh, his God. And at this point in the story, it has already been made quite clear that God is “for Israel.” God had delivered them from Egypt and sustained them through their wilderness wanderings. But for the moment, Yahweh is telling Joshua, “I’m on my own side for the time being.” Joshua asks Him if He has anything to tell Him, to which Yahweh responds, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy” and Joshua obeys.
This is directly relevant to Psalm 124. God is under no obligation to take anyone’s side. While all mankind should be abandoned to eternal judgment, the greatest of miracles is that God would choose to bind Himself to a certain group of sinners and be “for them” when He has every reason to be “against them.” God is a side-taker. There is a human history in progress because God has chosen to rescue a group of undeserving sinners to glorify His graciousness. Ephesians 1:6 gives us the reason we have been chosen and predestined unto adoption as God’s sons. And that reason is: “To the praise of the glory of His grace by which He has made up accepted in the Beloved.”
Psalm 124 is divided into two sections. Verses 1-5 are What would have happened. Verses 6-8 are All Praise be to God that it didn’t happen.

II. Verses 1-5 – What would have happened
Psalm 124:1, “A Song of Ascents, of David. "Had it not been the Lord who was on our side," Let Israel now say,”
Let all who have come to know God’s grace say these words together. The thought begun in verse 1 stops midway to interject, “Let Israel now say,” and then the thought begins again in verse 2. During times of peace, we forget so quickly and easily the calamity from which we have been delivered. The statement, “Had it not been the Lord who was on our side” is repeated because of the tendency we have to forget the height from which we fell and how great God’s rescue is. Ingratitude is perhaps the chief sin believers commit. Recall that the wrath of God itself is revealed from heaven because men fail to thank God – Romans 1:21, “they neither glorified nor thanked Him…”

Our Opposition – Men
Psalm 124:2-3 "[2]Had it not been the Lord who was on our side when men rose up against us,[3] Then they would have swallowed us alive, When their anger was kindled against us;”
Verses 2 and 3 introduce us to our opposition: Men. Specifically, angry men. What is it about man that would make him such a threat to us that a Psalm would be devoted to praising God for deliverance from Him? Consider the creativity of our God. We see it all around us. The wonders of animals, planets, mountains, trees, stars, and galaxies are unspeakable. Think of the fact that God Himself is the creator of human creativity. Our ability to write music, paint, craft sermons, build things, and invent are themselves the offspring of God’s creativity.
Consider the planets in our solar system. In the early 1970s, a young scientist discovered that once every 175 years, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are aligned in such a way that something almost unthinkable would be possible. Rocket power can only get you as far as the planet Jupiter. But if you launched a probe toward Jupiter at just the right trajectory, when it ran out of fuel it would get caught in Jupiter’s gravity and would slingshot toward Saturn at just the right trajectory. Saturn’s gravity would then catch it and slingshot it toward Uranus at just the right trajectory. Uranus’ gravity would then catch it and slingshot it toward Neptune. This was the only chance we would have to see those planets up close for the next 175 years. When NASA heard of this, they quickly started work on the Voyager probe. Up to that point in time, we could only see fuzzy pictures of Jupiter, very fuzzy pictures of Saturn, a blurry blob on a screen of Uranus, and a blue pixel or two as Neptune. The interference from our atmosphere made getting a good look at any of those planets from ground-based telescopes impossible. The notion that we could have a probe right up next to them got people really excited. It took the probe 12 years to reach all the way to Neptune, but during its journey it took hundreds of beautiful pictures which people would crowd into theaters all over the world to see in the late 1970s and 1980s. Prior to the Voyager expedition, scientists believed the outer planets and their moons would be relatively simple in their composition and features. I’ve watched a number of DVDs wherein scientists were interviewed to get their reactions when they saw the crystal clear pictures being returned to earth from Voyager. One in particular said, “we all had our pet theories about what we were going to see, but the planets and their moons fooled us all… what we saw were far more complex situations than we could have ever imagined…” The scientists went on to describe how even to this day the way cloud formations work on Jupiter is not understood, how the variety of moons they found shocked them all (Io and its volcanoes, Europa and its covering of ice, and even a moon, Triton, which revolves around Neptune backwards). My reaction to the shock of the scientists was, “Of course! Think about who made all these things. Thing of the wondrous variety we see all around us in all the different types of animals, trees, mountains, clouds, stars, etc.” God is a God of wondrous variety and creativity. And the crowning glory and the greatest creative achievement of all that God made is: you and me – man. Man was created for fellowship with God. Man alone was created in the image of God. Man alone was given great gifts and talents to be used to subdue the world to God’s glory. Man is endowed with abilities given to him directly by God. As such, man is capable of amazing feats and deeds.
Think of the greatness of man. Think of the musical compositions of Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Tschaikovski, and Chopin, the works of art by Rembrant and Michelangelo. Man has cured numerous diseases, created anesthetic to alleviate pain, figured out how to transplant hearts and other organs, and on we could go. We’ve even walked on the moon. God himself recognized the danger of sinful man having only one language: Genesis 11:6, “The Lord said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.”” I’ve wondered how long ago we would have walked on the moon if God had never confused our languages. God saw that a free exchange of information would make our collective gifts able to accomplish almost anything we purposed to do.
The problem of course is that these great gifts exist in the hearts of sinful men. Perverted and corrupted evil, man is a force for great destruction. When you combine a sinful heart with a hatred with the intention to kill towards God’s people, unbelieving man is quite an adversary.
Man’s anger and rebellion stretch all the way back to infancy. In his Confessions, Augustine speaks of infants taking vengeance upon their parents by screaming and yelling when they cannot control them. I’ve seen this myself many times. Three out of my four children really preferred to have their diapers changed and were glad to lay still while you did it. But one of them was content to wallow in it all day – it didn’t bother him a bit. Tracking this one down and forcing him to lay still so you could change him was a marvelous illustration of the rebellion and anger that is inherent in sinners. He would kick and scream and yell and try to escape literally the entire time you were trying to change him. It got to the point where it was almost comical. I would hold him down with my left and work on the clean diaper with my right hand and just chuckle at him. I would watch him and think, “Wow, look at that.” As soon as a child is able to assert its own will and desires, it will do so. And even a 9 month-old thinks he has better things to do than submit to the will of someone else. That basic rebellion against authority extends toward God and will be a force to reckon with throughout the entirety of the child’s life. This rebellion will finally express itself in unbelief and hatred of God, His truth, and most relevantly to Psalm 124, His people.
Why are non-believers angry at believers? Why did Cain kill his brother, Abel. Did Abel provoke Cain? Did Abel steal something from him? Did Abel insult him? No. What made Cain so angry? God accepted Abel and his offering but rejected Cain and his offering. Cain was angry at Abel because of his right relationship with God. God looked favorably at Abel and not at him and this really bothered him. Something about seeing people at peace with God makes those who are not at peace with God very angry.
Anger is at the heart of much evil in the world. Wars begin because of anger. Murder is committed because of anger. Friendships are destroyed because of words spoken in anger. Anger brings out the worst in all men – believer and unbeliever alike.
I once wrote a letter to a friend my senior year in high-school while I was angry. Word to the wise, do not ever give anyone anything you wrote while you were angry. My friend gave the letter back to me with comments written in the margins and as I reread what I had written, I could hardly believe I actually wrote it. When you’re blood is hot with anger, it’s better not to say anything because angry words can cut and ruin people.
Anger leads to cruelty. I once read an autobiography of a Russian pastor named Haralan Popov who was arrested during the 1920s, taken away from his wife and two children, and imprisoned for 13 years. During that time he was brutally tortured and saw many fellow Christians die. At one point, after watching a man be beaten to death, he wrote, “no being is capable of sinking lower than a man – not even animals kill and torture for the thrill of it.”
Why is man this way? Because neutrality towards God is not possible. Jesus said everyone is either for or against Him. One either does conquest for Christ or for Satan. Men are born worshippers. Men’s hearts are incapable of remaining empty. They will either be filled with God or idolatry. Every man you meet has a heart filled either with God or idolatry. This religious impulse is consuming and it nags at his heart and makes him restless. Man without God is a miserable creature. God created man to long for Him. Because of sin there now exists a profound hatred of God. Man is constantly at war with Himself. He hates his greatest need and most intense inward desire.
On top of this, man’s rebellion against God is irrational. There is no shortage of evidence that God exists and that man is accountable to Him. God has also graciously given His book, the Bible, to the world – unsurpassed in its textual accuracy, historical reliability, cogency, and life-changing power – and yet many read and scoff at it. Jesus Christ lived, died, rose from the dead, and changed the entire history of the world. And men still reject Him. Man lives in unbelief of what he knows in His heart to be true. The final result of this: anger. Anger against God, against themselves, and most of all against the seed of the woman – the ones who enjoy the very peace which eludes them. The need to come to God in repentance coupled with the inability to do so haunts them.
Man hates what he is longing for.

With this arrayed against us, how long would we last without God on our side?
Psalm 124:3, “Then they would have swallowed us alive, When their anger was kindled against us;”
In verse 3 we learn of the speed with which we would be destroyed if God were not for us. “Swallowed alive” is the phrase used. Some predators must first kill their prey before they eat them. Others are designed in such a way that they swallow their prey while they are still alive. That’s how quickly the church would cease to exist if God did not protect it and restrain its enemies.

Key difference between us and them – method of conquest
Why would we be wiped out so quickly if God were not for us? The key difference between us and our enemies is the method with which we do conquest. The seed of the serpent, unbelievers, do conquest by murder. We, on the other hand, are called upon to do conquest by persuasion. We differ in the way we do warfare: 2 Cor. 10:3-5, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, [4] for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. [5] We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
Picture two armies coming against one another. One is armed with a book, arguments, sermons, and sacraments. The other has tanks, grenades, machine guns, and artillery. Psalm 124:1-3, "Had it not been the Lord who was on our side," Let Israel now say, [2] "Had it not been the Lord who was on our side When men rose up against us, [3] Then they would have swallowed us alive, When their anger was kindled against us;” That’s the situation set before us. We are in a war and a battle. We don’t aim for casualties, but want to take prisoners and make them part of our army. Brothers only God can change the human heart – only God can take one of them and make them one of us.

Application from this
The success of our preaching ministry and the survival and expansion of the church is entirely dependant upon the Lord. The day He ceases to be on our side is the day we cease to exist! Our giftedness, talents, knowledge, and persuasiveness can accomplish nothing apart from God. Without God for us, we are doom, defeated, and undone – in an instant – “swallowed alive” the text says. Why are we still here? Why haven’t the waters engulfed us, the streams swept over us, and the raging waters swept over our souls? Because God chooses to be on our side, and for no other reason.

III. Verses 6-8 – All Praise be to God it didn’t happen.
Psalm 124:6-8, “[6] Blessed be the Lord, Who has not given us to be torn by their teeth. [7] Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper; The snare is broken and we have escaped. [8] Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.”
There is no sharing of praise or glory for the life, peace, and existence we enjoy. When God gives the church great men who move it in the right direction, those men were molded, raised up, and prepared by God for the tasks He used them for. All glory be to God that we aren’t trophies on the walls of our enemies. Praise be to God that He restrains the anger of unbelievers so they don’t ransack our churches and put all of us to death. God has delivered us out of their snares and traps. Jesus dealt with men trying to trap Him constantly. We can expect the same. Only God can get us free from the snare like the bird caught in the snare of the trapper. God protects us from being torn by their teeth. Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.

Application from this
Just as the church abides to this day because God is for it and protects it, we who are Christians and justified before God have no one to praise for that great salvation but God. All of the praise for our salvation is to be directed to God. It’s fitting this time of year to quote the great Luther. In his volcanic blast of a response to Desiderius Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will, Luther wrote the following words, “If any man would ascribe even the smallest part of his salvation to his freewill, he knows nothing of grace, and has not learned Jesus Christ.” If God were not for me and did not change my heart, will, and affections, I would eventually find myself on the parapets of hell itself continuing to shout my hatred of God all the way into the pit. I love God because He first loved me. I said yes to Jesus and His gospel because God alone is the one who terrorizes the soul over its sin, God is the one who breaks the human will, God is the one who draws men to Himself, and God alone is able to make men alive in Christ. If Jesus had not come, we would be swallowed alive by sin. If Jesus had not died, the waters would have engulfed us. If Jesus had not risen again, the raging waters of sin would have swept over our soul. If Jesus did not intercede for us before the Father, we would have been torn by their teeth. If Jesus hadn’t saved us, we’d remain stuck in the snare of the trapper. Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. Why did I believe when I heard the gospel of Christ and my neighbor didn’t? Certainly not because I’m more righteous, spiritually sensitive, intelligent, or pious. God chose to be for me.
If the church’s existence, the success of our preaching, and even our salvation itself depend entirely upon God, what are we to make of relying upon our preaching and teaching gifts in our ministries in the church?
The pastor of the church my family attends was the pastor there for all 37 years of his pastoral ministry. He retired about 4 years ago. In one of his final sermons, he made a confession to the church of a sin he had committed in those last few years. He said there had been times recently when he had failed to pray adequately and seek God’s face during his sermon preparation because he knows he’s a good enough speaker for us not to know the difference. Weigh that carefully.

I titled the sermon: Why God’s People Continue. Recall the sections of the Psalm. Verses 1-5 tell us what would have happened if God were not for us. Verses 6-8 say all praise be to God that it didn’t. Remember this when you begin to feel confident and comfortable in your ministry. When thoughts of building spiritual empires come into your mind – complete with a Bible college, seminary, and school – remember that all ministry is God’s doing. We are the instruments through whom He works. Develop your gifts knowing that even your discipline to develop those gifts comes from God. You were created to bring recognition to the greatness of God, not yourself. We do not prevent the gates of hell from prevailing over the church – the Lord Jesus does. Be a man of humility and prayer. Don’t feel like everyone needs to know how much respect you deserve because of how gifted you are. Have a heart that longs to die and be forgotten so that the name of Jesus will be exalted in your life. If all we’re remembered for is how well we spoke, how passionate we were, and how marvelous our gifts were, then what have we really accomplished. No one will care that any of us were ever here 200 years from now. But if we work to direct people to the greatness of God, then our brief lives will have been well spent. When you attempt anything in this life remember verse 8 – “Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.” Without Him, you’d be swallowed alive.