Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 81:1, 1016 -- "Honey from the Rock"

Delivered at First Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls, among whom I always receive a warm welcome.

Thank you for the many opportunities I’ve been given this Summer to worship with you and open up God’s Word in your midst. The last two sermons I’ve given have been hard to preach, and, I’m sure, hard to hear: but anyone called to proclaim must proclaim what the Lord has laid on their hearts through His Word and Spirit, and must then proclaim it with boldness. Today’s sermon will, I think, be no less bold; but this text gives us much reason to rejoice -- even in hard and dark times.

The psalm starts on this note of rejoicing: “Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob!” (v. 1), which is very similar to St Paul’s command to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!” Why do the Psalmist and the Apostle issue this missive? We don’t have enough time to rehearse all the wonderful works of the Lord! In this Psalm, the focus is on the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, the Law, to His people. We have, in that story, the burning bush and the plagues, the wonders before Pharaoh and the parting of the waters, the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, the horse and its rider cast into the sea. We have the descent of deep gloom on the mountain top and the carving of stone tablets joining God to man and man to God, that He might bless them and, through that, Israel might become a blessing to the entire world. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:4-5). What a privilege! What a calling! By dint of your birth as an Israelite, bearing in your flesh the mark of God’s covenant, and your training in the ways of righteousness, you were a priest bearing forth prayers and sacrifices for the whole world! “Therefore,” says the author to the Hebrews, “through Jesus, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (13:15-16). “Sing for joy to God...shout aloud to God” the Psalmist enjoins us: take up your mantle as priest for the sake of the world. Heed St Paul when he says, “I exhort first of all the supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings, and all who are in authority: that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4). Our singing, our shouting aloud, our priestly sacrifice of praise, brings all -- men and women, adults and children -- to Christ our God.

What if, though, we find ourselves unable to praise God? What is tragedy, or horror, or inadequacy have struck us? What if we find ourselves speechless before the evil, open or hidden, in this world? The Lord responds: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt: open your mouth wide and I will fill it!” (v. 10) Even in the midst of pain, or terror, or dumbfoundedness, we can open our mouths -- silently -- and the Lord will supply our voice. If we find that we cannot even go that far, we can pray in our minds, “Open my lips, o Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim Your praise” (Ps. 51:15). As He said to Moses, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? Now, therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say” (Ex. 4:11-12). If the Lord can heal the man born blind (Jn. 9), He can certainly teach us to sing and give us the words to say!

Let us learn from Israel, though, who witnessed these wonders. St Paul tell us that, “Now all these things [of the Old Testament] happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:10). For our sake God says, “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” (v. 11). Listening and obeying are closely connected in the Scriptures, which means they are forms of trust, of faith, in God. Israel would not open their mouths in praise, even though many miracles had been accomplished for them and in front of them. Instead, they went after other gods and other lords, both spiritual and political, for their security and their safety. Time after time, the Lord called them back by His servants the prophets, and time and again they turned them away. So, He gave them over to those they idolized: to the Ba’als, to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians, to their true enemies and the enemies of us all, the demons, that they might learn repentance so that “the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Or, as St Paul puts it, “God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:24-25). The wrath of God is not anger from on high like Zeus; no, it is the prodigal Father who divides his inheritance to his two sons after the one wishes him dead (Lk. 15:12). The younger son, who realizes his deed, returns and finds his father eagerly awaiting with no residual rage -- he responds with a festival, for that which was dead was brought back to him living. The longsuffering of God, who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9) and who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), trumps the wrath that allows us to send ourselves in exile. He longs for us to turn towards Him, to forsake our sin, and run towards Him as He already runs towards us in Christ: “therefore, we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). Let us consider that image: Jesus Christ is at the finish line of our race, and the joy set before Him, then, is us, the runners, whether we are at the beginning, in the middle, or nearing the end.

In the Psalm, the Lord says it like this: “If my people would only listen to me, if Israel would only follow my ways, how quickly I would subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes!” (v. 13-14). The connection between listening and obedience is again here put in parallel, and it is a powerful parallel: trusting God and so acting leads to God subduing our enemies and pitting Himself against them in battle! But who are our enemies? This is a very tricky question: for, I imagine, if you are like me, various images of those we know to be our enemies pop into our minds. It might be an image of a brother or sister, who has taken a toy from us earlier in the day; or it might be the parent that has not given you full freedom to stay out late on Saturday night. It might be a co-worker, or a spouse who has wronged you. It may be a foreign nation, or terrorist cell, or adherents to another religion or another sexuality. And we find ourselves praying, “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like…”, rarely realizing that we have taken the role of the Pharisee, not the truly repentant tax-collector (Lk. 18:9-14). Our enemies are not, in the end, those around us -- they are the demons who ply on our own passions and weaknesses to seduce us to hate, to malign, and to sin. As St James says, “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (1:14). The Garden of Eden imagery here is pronounced: Adam and Eve were so tempted by the Serpent plying on their desires. So we must “walk in the Spirit,” the Spirit of Christ, “and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh,” the flesh inherited from Adam, who was drawn away by our enemy. In what way? St Paul tell us, “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like” (Gal. 5:16, 19-21). If, though, we “listen to God and follow His ways,” that is, live and walk according to the Spirit, He would subdue our enemies under us -- “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24), for “he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” (1 Pt. 4:1), therefore “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:11). By the Cross, which we share with Christ by faith in baptism (Rom. 6:3), so that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), our enemy has been defeated for “[Christ] Himself likewise shared [in flesh and blood] that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15). God’s Exodus is fulfilled and repeated in the work of Christ on the Cross, which we share: who else shall we listen to, who else shall we obey? He is Lord, the victorious one over sin, death, and the devil -- and He calls out to us to join Him in His victory!

We know, however, that even though “the prince of this world is cast out” (Jn. 12:31), he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pt. 5:8). We need not fear, for even our Lord saw this, as it says in the Psalm: “Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their punishment would last forever” (v. 15). The NKJV has it more strikingly: “The haters of the Lord would pretend submission to Him, but their fate will endure forever.” Our enemy has been defeated, he has been cast out, he has been destroyed; but he is looking to take as many others as he can with him. What can we do? The author to the Hebrews tells us: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’ Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:1-8). This is what it means to “walk in the Spirit”! This is the grace-filled life, the life of Christ Himself, who is the “same yesterday and today and forever”!

And what is the outcome of all of this? As we seek to live “according to the Spirit,” listening to and obeying God’s good commands to become love like He Himself is love, “you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (v. 16). What is this “finest of wheat” but the Lord’s own body that He gives us in the breaking of bread? “Take eat, this is My body broken for you” (1 Cor. 11:24). In the Lord’s self-giving, by which He defeats the enemies, He gives us His Life as our nourishment, as a medicine of immortality: receive it with gratitude in your hearts, singing his praises: “open wide your mouth and I will fill it” as He said before (v. 10). What is this “honey from the rock” with which He will satisfy us? The Rock is Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), who gave the Israelites pure water as they crossed the desert, but gives us now honey, His Word, as the Psalmist says elsewhere: “The law of the Lord is perfect...the testimony of the Lord is sure...the statutes of the Lord are right...the commandment of the Lord is clean...the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold; yes, than much fine gold. Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:7-10). “Taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Ps. 34:8) Amen.

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