Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Psalm 44

I was reminded about a week ago that the Bible is primarily made of stories. So I hope you don’t mind if I tell you some stories this morning. To the best of my knowledge, these stories are true.I checked with the sources to make sure I wasn’t going to pull a James Frey. [ed. wrote a "memoir" of questionable veracity]

Around 1918, the Russian countryside witnessed frequent skirmishes between the white army and the red army. The history books can tell you about the generals and the battles, but I’m going to tell you about some of the Russian citizens that were caught in the middle of it all. One afternoon, a company of the white army (those loyal to the Czar) stopped in a small rural community, and following the conventions of the day, took supplies as needed without payment. This week the supplies that they needed included a horse and a cart. Unfortunately for Isaac Peters, the horse and the cart that they chose to requisition were his, and unfortunately for his wife Sarah, they also decided that they needed a driver for that cart, and so they chose to take their fourteen-year-old, Gerry for that purpose.

We live in a different day and age. My son, Nathanael, is fourteen, and he is in no shape to go off to war. His older sister, at sixteen, is barely in any shape to graduate from high school! But there was my great-uncle Gerry, at the ripe old age of fourteen, being taken to war against his wishes. His mother, my great-grandmother was none-too-pleased. But what could she do? The Czar’s army were armed and in a hurry. She could only give her youngest son a kiss and then? She could pray.

The next morning, a company of the red army (those were the communists, who were winning this war) arrived in their village. And the captain of the company chose the Peters’ residence as their billet. Great-grandma served the captain the best that the farm could serve and looked after his animals as well. And the captain talked with my great-grandfather. The company was chasing a recently departed white army contingent, he was told. But since the revolutionaries knew the territory, the captain was certain to overtake them within the week.

When she heard the news, my great-grandmother approached the captain and asked him for a favor. And having been feasted and treated all evening, the captain was quick to agree: my great-grandmother’s request was simply this: when the white army was engaged to extend mercy to her fourteen-year-old son. How would he know the boy? The captain asked. He always wore a white cap. She also promised another farm meal for their return trip.

The next morning, the red army was off at a quick march. And my great-grandmother prayed. In the middle of the next week, the captain returned, and as they sat down to dinner, the newly liberated Gerry Peters, safely home with horse and cart, told his story: the white army had given him a gun, but when the fighting started, he threw down the gun – after all, he had never held one in his life, and did not know how to use one. But there wasn’t much cover. He thought about hiding behind his cart-horse, but wasn’t sure he should do that – after all, how could he return a dead horse to his father? But one by one, the soldiers beside him were being shot, and he was quite puzzled by the fact that he was spared a bullet.

“Wasn’t that lucky?” he asked.

“Not lucky,” replied the captain. “Because of your mother’s wonderful hospitality, my troops were all told that whoever shot the boy in the white cap would be court-martialed.”

It clearly wasn’t luck that great-Uncle Gerry wasn’t hit by a bullet during that battle. But you might say that it was lucky that the red army captain billeted at my great-grandparents, or that the conversation took the direction it had, or that, or that. But was it lucky? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I think that it was an answer to prayer. And Uncle Gerry was a very important person in my own life.

Eight years later, Gerry and his brothers, including my grandfather, Frank, had immigrated to Canada. The Canadian government had opened its borders in the 1920s to the Mennonites, because the Canadian West needed farmers, and the Mennonites were good farmers. Unfortunately for my family, my grandfather was not a farmer but a teacher – He spoke four languages, but none of them English. As a result, the only work he could get was in the coalmines of Alberta. It wasn’t long before the coal dust killed him, and my grandmother, Margaret, was left to look after four little boys on her own.

Not an easy life – my father has a picture of the foundation of the house in which the five of them lived. It was approximately the size of my garage. And that first winter was very difficult. Grandma told me that there were times that she would collect the crumbs after sweeping the house, and bake them into the next loaf of bread. But the second winter was even more desperate – because Grandma had run out of money. So what could she do? Winters can be quite cold in Alberta, and the cellar was out of coal. She got the family together: herself, my father and his three brothers, and they prayed.

The next morning, they were awakened by a loud sound. My grandma bundled up and went outside to discover a man she had never seen unloading a truckful of coal into her basement. There must be some mistake, she told the man.

“No mistake, lady,” he replied.

“But there is no way that I can pay for this,” she told him.

“It’s already paid for,” he mumbled.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s been paid for, lady, it’s been paid for.”

There are few things in the world that are more awesome than answered prayer.

But why am I telling you these stories? Well, we’re preaching from the Psalms these days at Bethel, and I’d like you to turn to Psalm 44. The first verse of Psalm 44 explains these stories:

We have heard with our ears, O God;
our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago.

My father told me these stories, as he experienced them and as told by Uncle Gerry. So I can appreciate this verse on two levels; perhaps, you can, too. We read the stories from the Bible, and see God at work. Perhaps God has been at work in your life or the life of your family, too.

Oh yes: I need to tell you how Uncle Gerry played an important role in my life. A couple of years later, Uncle Gerry had made a lot of money on his farm and decided to move to Abbottsford, in British Columbia. And on his way out West, in 1944, he stopped in at the little Alberta village of East Coulee, and asked his widowed sister-in-law if she and her boys would like to have a lift to Vancouver where there were likely more opportunities for them.

We have heard with our ears, O God;
our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days [not so] long ago.

In the case of the writer of Psalm 44, God’s participation in the significant past is represented by His protection and blessing: verse 2: “with your hand [O God,] you drove out the nations and planted our fathers; you crushed the peoples and made our fathers flourish.” Now there are things in the Bible that should go without saying, but the Bible says them anyway. Please look at verse 3: “It was not by [our fathers] sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, [O Lord,] your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.” The main idea here is also echoed in verses six and seven “I do not trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory; but you [O Lord] give us victory….”

Now this isn’t just false modesty: the Psalm-writer isn’t just trying to get in good with God by giving him credit. Rather, the attitude that is being expressed is not only the only honest one that we can have, but it is critical to our spiritual health. We must remember that without God there is no success. Without God there is no victory. God provides strength; He provides opportunity; and he deserves the credit for our successes. But it is a common human failing that we want to take the credit for as much as possible. In fact, this is such a common failing, and such a strong human inclination that the Bible, of course, anticipates it.

Deuteronomy 8:17. There, God says, “[Be careful not to] say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’” The next verse contains this warning: “But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives the ability to produce wealth.” Not only does the Lord give us the ability to produce wealth, but He also gives us the ability to get along with each other, the ability to praise his name, and the ability to work hard. All of human virtues derive directly from God our Father.

I think that parents have the opportunity to understand the truth of this teaching in a special way. My daughter Margaret, bless her heart, is a dear. Last month, I had asked her to help me clean up after dinner, and then when I thanked her, she gave me a big hug. “I love you, Daddy,” she said. “You do all the work, but you still want to thank me for it.” And I’m betting that that is what it is like with God: He does all the work, but he is still willing to let us take some credit, however absurd that misplaced credit might be.

At Bethel, on a number of occasions, you have shared that you feel that without God’s presence, it would be impossible to praise him… Without his participation, it would be impossible to serve him. You were entirely correct. Nobody ever brings anything into the Kingdom of Heaven that didn’t already belong to God Himself.

As Paul quotes the poet, “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” Every human being on earth relies on God, whether they know it or not, to succeed. And God, in his mercy, causes the Sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. He gives grace to all…but some more than others. And, unfortunately for many of us, it is almost never the case that God chooses to dispense grace in the way that we would prefer. And it is on that note that Psalm 44 changes key. From verses one to eight, Psalm 44 sings in a major key. From verse nine, to the end, however, the key is a minor one. In music, at the boundary between movements, a composer will often put a double bar. In Psalm 44, on the other hand, the transition between major key and minor key is indicated by one very interesting word: “Selah”.

What does the word “selah” mean? And why don’t our Bibles put it in English? Well, it is a little tricky to translate: it derives from the word to “weigh” or “measure”. I have friends who named their daughter “Selah” – but I’m sure that they weren’t thinking about how much the child weighed. You see, the word “selah” is likely an instruction to stop and think before proceeding. You know, something like “chew on it” or “ponder it”. And this is good advice, especially in the case of Psalm 44. You see, the music of Psalm 44 is never resolved, and we need to draw on the resources of the past to keep us strong for the challenges of the present. Let’s read verses nine to twenty:

9 But now you have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies.

10 You made us retreat before the enemy, and our adversaries have plundered us.

11 You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations.

12 You sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale.

13 You have made us a reproach to our neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around us.

14 You have made us a byword among the nations; the peoples shake their heads at us.

15 My disgrace is before me all day long, and my face is covered with shame

…you get the idea… let’s just skip to verse 23 and 25:

23Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

26 Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love.

Wow. Eight verses of praise, and fourteen verses of complaints – who let this Psalm into the Bible anyway? Well, God did, of course. And that is because he knows that we can learn as much, and sometimes much more, from righteous complaining as we can learn from praise. Now please don’t get me wrong here: by saying that I am not validating the recreational complaining that takes place at almost every church, ours no exception. Righteous complaining has a number of characteristics that we can see from Psalm 44. First, the complaining that we see in Psalm 44 is prefaced by honest praise: we need to be willing to accept the good before we have the right to decry the bad. Second, the complaining that we see in Psalm 44 is not directed at any individual; it is directed at God himself. Third, the complaining in Psalm 44 is honest. Sometimes our complaints aren’t so much – they are often really just a diversion that comes out of our guilt feelings.

Let me use myself as an illustration. In my job, I have the chance to work at home regularly. Working at home is terrific – I don’t have to spend an hour-and-a-half a day on the train, and forty-five minutes walking to the office. But it has its downside, too. There are plenty of distractions at home – especially after the kids return from school at around 3pm. But I’ve discovered something about myself. If I’ve worked really hard, and well, and accomplished a lot, I am not bothered by the noises that my kids make when they return home. On the other hand, if I have been distracted during the day, and wasted time rather than doing the work that I know needs to be done, then all of a sudden I complain that my children are distracting during those last two hours of the day. That isn’t an honest complaint. Far from it. Rather, complaints like that just indicate deep-seated feelings of guilt – and I’ve noticed that much of twentieth-century complaining is of this variety. In fact, I’ve found that whenever I’m inclined to complain about something – anything – that it is a really healthy exercise to question my motives.

But righteous complaining is different. It is prefaced by praise, it is directed at God, and it is honest. Finally, the complaining that we see in Psalm 44 is a cry for justice: it implicitly, and correctly, regards God as the ultimate source of justice, and it is a cry to Him for fairness, and a cry to Him for mercy.

Having said that, I’d like to point out that the complaining is every bit as spirit-led as the praise. I’d like you to appreciate that God can be present in the life of someone who is complaining about God’s absence. That might have been a little tricky, so let me say it again: We need to appreciate God’s presence in our lives – even when we are struggling with God’s absence. The proof of God’s presence in the life of the Psalmist is the fact that this Psalm was preserved for us in God’s sacred writings. Seriously. The Hebrew scriptures do not suppress human feelings or failures. They represent honest expressions of God’s children throughout history. And when those writings find their way into the canon – when God permits his name to be associated with these words – it validates them. Imagine that: God is actually validating questions about his care and concern in the lives of his children.

This is just like Psalm 22, where David writes, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Psalm 22 paints a prophetic picture of Jesus suffering in great detail, doesn’t it? So much so, that Jesus quoted this passage from the cross. As a result, Psalm 22 represents one of the most startlingly accurate prophecies in all of history. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that David was struggling with a sense of abandonment when he wrote it. And in his great mercy, God validated those feelings of abandonment. Psalm 22 is not the only Psalm that is quoted in the New Testament. The New Testament also quotes Psalm 44. And when it does, it does not quote the happy, positive verses. Rather, it quotes a verse that summarizes the sad, confused, minor-key portion of that Psalm.

Psalm 44, verse 22: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” Paul quotes this verse in the book of Romans. And as a Pharisee and a student of scripture, he is calling on his readers’ knowledge of the Old Testament to help them understand what he is referring to. Passages like Psalm 44 represent all of the injustice in the world. There is still injustice in the world, and Psalm 44 resonates with those who experience it daily. But I have a hunch that Paul was thinking about more than just Psalm 44 when he chose the verse to quote. Otherwise why not quote “we have been rejected and humbled” or “my disgrace is before me all day long”.

Verse 22 reminds me of the story of when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Psalm 44 says, “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered a sheep to be slaughtered.” For God’s sake, Isaac was literally considered a sheep to be slaughtered. And he faced death the entire trip up the mountain carrying the wood. You might say, “well it wasn’t exactly his choice.” But we need to understand: Isaac was his father Abraham’s life. I bet Abraham would have preferred to give up his own life rather than sacrifice the life of his son.

I have a friend at work who is not a Christian, and to him this story of Abraham and Isaac represents all that is wrong in the Bible. Perhaps you also reacted with disgust the first time you heard it – I can still remember the feeling of revulsion that I felt the first time I heard this story: why would/how could God ask Abraham, his friend, to sacrifice his own son? It is only when we remember this indignation that we begin to see how powerful the story really is. Yes, God does, in fact, ask us to give up those things that we consider our own – to give to him those things that mean more to us than life itself. With this in mind, let’s turn to Romans, where we find God’s answer to the writer of Psalm 44.

“[middle of verse 31] If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with [his Son], graciously give us all things?” You see, in as much as we react to God asking Abraham to sacrifice his Son, it is then that we appreciate the love God demonstrated by giving his Son for us. “[verse 35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written [in Ps. 44:22!]: 'For Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.”

If nothing can separate us from the love of God, then why do you suppose we all have our moments when we struggle? Perhaps we approach God with an agenda. We might sing, “take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee,” but at the same time, we might be counting on God to look after us. We might be counting on God to keep us healthy. We might be counting on God to support us in our family or in our career. We’d like to add layers to the deal, as if we are in any place to negotiate with God.

But we will never understand the power of the love of Christ until we are willing to set aside all of those extra conditions on a relationship with God. It is only when we are willing to bring our health to the altar. It is only when we are willing to bring our career to the altar. It is only when we are willing to bring our family and friends to the altar. Then, and only then will we might have the power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. In Abraham’s case, God returned what was precious to him, providing a ram for the sacrifice in place of his Son. But we must not count on that: our willingness to sacrifice what we hold dear is key to our growth.

The Apostle Paul, who scriptures say is an example for us, had this focus that each of us needs. His health? Paul asked God to remove a physical ailment on a number of occasions, but God replied, “my grace is sufficient for you.” His marriage? As a Pharisee, Paul was almost certainly married at one time, but it is clear that he was single throughout most of his Christian ministry. His career? He could have been written the book “A Guide to Jails of the Roman Empire”. Based on these “extras”, many modern Christians might be inclined to consider the Apostle Paul to be a complete failure. But those are precisely the Christians who will never know what he meant when he said, “we are more than conquerors." It is only once we put to death the claims we have to the things of this world that we can truly experience the depth of the love of God.

Psalm 44’s minor-key chorus was only resolved hundreds of years later, in the book of Romans. And it is possible that the minor-key experiences that we have might never be resolved in our lifetimes. But those experiences need not destroy us;
they need not make us bitter. We need to be able to give up our ambitions in those areas, to see that the love of God is bigger and greater and wider and deeper than any and all of the suffering that we could ever endure. And then, giving these things up on the altar to the Lord, will we become more than conquerors through him who loved us.