A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday July 28th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the eighth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 127. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

 “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord”.

It’s like a sanctified version of the blame-shifting games of Eden, and if you’ve been hanging around churches for any length of time, you’ll have heard it.

“Thanks for building the house/preaching the sermon/sending that note/whatever it is”.

“That’s OK. It wasn’t me, it was the Lord”.

It’s well-meaning – it’s an attempt to give glory to God for something that’s happened. At it’s root it comes from a sense that we’re all a bit useless really, and if anything meaningful is going to happen then God needs to get involved.

It’s the sort of language that springs from this Psalm, the 127th, with all its talk of ‘unless the Lord builds …‘ .

The Psalm really seems to be at pains to point out the uselessness of human endeavour. God must do the building, the watching over the city; getting up early is worthless; children come from Him. It must have been a great comfort to tired and aching pilgrims half-way to or from Jerusalem, exposed to the elements and the dangers of the road. Your efforts are useless. Thanks.

Useless? Not at all. This isn’t about abandoning human endeavour. This is about co-operation between people and God, about something small being transfigured into something eternal.

The key lies in the bit about children. In the days to be married and childlessness was a stigma, a sign that God had abandoned you and His favour did not rest on you. Hence Abram and Sarah’s laughter, the prophet’s language of barren women celebrating, of a virgin birth.

No-one’s about to pretend that in the normal course of things God just makes children appear out of nowhere. Mysterious as it all is, everyone knew that a man and woman are both essential to this process. Here’s the miracle, though. When it’s all working well, a man and a woman give themselves to one another physically in vulnerability, tenderness and love. It’s self-giving, it’s a glue that helps bind a relationship, it’s a reassurance, it’s fun. Eventually a child may come as a result. Sometimes, often a couple may be intentionally seeking a child – but it’s no coincidence that the child comes from an act of pleasure, of relationship, of love. Those come first – the child is the glorious by-product of the love … who in turn is born into love and is an expression of that love and benefits from it. Man and woman can’t make a child; but they can create the conditions for a child to be made. Or think of a plant. You can plant the seed in good soil and helpful wind and sun exposure. You can water it; but you can’t grow it. No – that happens as a result of the process put in place by the Creator. That’s the blessing – we do our bit, and God transfigures it through a divinely ordered process into love, provision, life.

When we move house or spring-clean we throw out the things of no use to us. We down-size, streamline so that we can be more effective. God doesn’t – He loves to be inefficient. Does He need to us to create children? Of course not. Does He need us to build a house? No. Does He need us to spread a message? No. Does He need us to worship Him? No. It would make perfect sense for God to wash His hands and let us go, toss us on the scrap-heap and get on with it all Himself. He needs nothing, least of all us.

But He wants us, chooses us, invites us. Out of sheer love, with no sense of lack in Himself, He says ‘I don’t need you, but I do want you. Come. Build with me. Make children with me. Guard a city with me. Serve the poor with me. Spread the Good News with me. I choose you to get involved. I don’t need you. I want you.’

Jump in. The water’s lovely.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 28th July 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A question; an answer; a question

“What have you got to be depressed about?”

The question is a tenacious one.

What have I got to be depressed about?

I was born into one of the most privileged, advanced, secure societies in humanity’s history.

I now live in the world’s most economically unequal country; but it’s OK. I have a house, running water a toilet and health care. That puts me on the plus side of the inequality equation.

What have I got to be depressed about?

I know people who live in the middle of a gang war. I know people who have to walk through the region’s most crime-affected areas after dark in the rain to get to a toilet. A toilet of sorts, by the standards of most of us who will read this.

What have I got to be depressed about?

Unlike many in my community, I have never been threatened with being forcibly removed from the family home and relocated to places with inadequate drainage, exposed to the worst of the wind and the rain.

In the grip of a depressive episode I could, should, would feel guilty.

That makes sense, seems right, makes sense of the universe, doesn’t it?

If your leg is in plaster people ask why. You explain. They understand and make allowances.

I’ve never broken my leg, never had a part of my body visibly in plaster.

My chronic arthritic spinal condition is invisible. The reasons for it can be guessed at but not explained. The pain ebbs and flows like a temperamental tide.

I’ve been told I’m too young to have a ‘bad back’. That I need to see a chiropractor/exercise more/take different exercise/apply ice/apply heat/sleep more/sleep less/sleep on a harder bed/sleep on a softer bed … (delete as appropriate).

None of these will work. At least not as a fully as the advice-givers expect. I have the same condition as the captain of the Australian cricket team and a former English captain in the same sport. My symptoms are more advanced than both because I am older and a roll of the biological dice has deemed it thus.

The invisible needs explanation to be understood. If it can’t be understood, it must be curable in familiar ways. What works for me must work for you, surely. Ignorance leads to empty advice, kindly meant but building up over time to frustration and snapped responses.

It’s the same with depression. You can’t see it, so when you or someone you know is depressed you feel you must have a peg to hang it on, a circumstance to explain it, something that can be altered to alter the condition.

As with the arthritic pain, sometimes that may be true. A plane ride leads to 48 hours of pain; a circumstance of life can lead to a depressive episode. Counselling may help; changing something may help.

Sometimes. Sometimes not, though. Sometimes my back or neck or joint pain flares for no known biological reason. Sometimes I may experience an episode of depression for no other reason than fluctuation of chemicals I don’t understand.

The cruel trick is that in both cases I can feel guilty. I look at those in plaster, I look at my gender and age and think I should be able to do more than biology allows. So I feel guilty even if everyone around me is terribly nice and supportive. I look around at the need, pain and suffering of the city in which I live and I see people with real reasons to plough to a stop with depression, but they keep going. So I feel soft, guilty, pathetic. What have I got to be in pain about? What have I got to be depressed about?

And most of the time,  these are the questions of healing as well as doubt.

What have I got to be in pain about, depressed about?

Nothing. Sometimes, I just am in pain. I just am depressed. Others may understand or they may not. They may be helpful or they may make it worse, like the unsought advice.

But He knows. As mysteriously as I may have been made, He does know. He sees the heart and serotonin. He sees the mis-firing immune system causing waves of pain.

Did Jesus get ill? Did he feel sickness and pain creeping up on him; not on the cross … I mean bent over the carpenter’s bench, getting out of bed. Not from sin, just from existing. He did feel pain on the cross – does that mean he felt pain of the sort I do? Were the chemicals in his brain prone to unpredictability, or was He perfectly ordered, perfectly centered?

Did He? Does He? Unanswerable speculation or healthy questions?

I don’t know.

But it’s a good place to take the creeping guilt, the nagging sense I should be different.

What have I got to be depressed about. As a British comedian has recently said, you might as well ask “What have you got to have a broken leg for”.

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

This post is adapted from a sermon preached by someone else (Gerry Adlard) on Sunday July 21st at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the seventh of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 126. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

God’s people came and went and came back. Quite a few times. The story of the people of God as read in the pages of the Bible is one of consistent inconsistency. Obedience, disobedience. Exodus, exile, promised land, foreign occupier. You can depend on God’s people to be undependable.

Yet if there’s one thing we’ve seen as we approach half-way on this journey, it’s that God is consistent and dependable. In the way hills are immovable, God will not shift from His people. He is for them and He wants them. He wants to work in them and through them.

We read that in the pages of the Bible. Psalm 126 alludes to that. The wax and wane of obedience and good fortune, of oppression and freedom. But through it all the sense that God’s been at work, that He’s done good things. Great things, even. In spite of the reality of tears, God’s people can still laugh and sing. This psalm tells us that celebration does not cancel out lament; it harmonises on it.

That’s all very well. Wonderful as the return of exiles to the country is, it doesn’t mean much to me. Theologically maybe. Theoretically, yes. In practice, not so much. I have my stories to tell. Long after I’ve gone they will be my psalms, songs, hymns, stores  – in the form of journals, notes, sermons, conversations, blog posts and whatever else I choose to use to capture my life in the years to come. They are the psalms I will leave.

What about you?

How will your story be told? Not for your sake, but the for those who follow. So they can see He did great things not just in the pages of Scripture but in the early years of the 21st century too. Not just the stuff of nations, but that of healing, of bill paid, words received, prayers answered.

I think of the bank account which repeatedly re-filled for a time, inexplicably.

I think of the prophetic word from a stranger so direct and on the money it reduced me to the happy tears of the deeply known and loved in spite of what hundreds believed of me.

I think of the miraculous, instantaneous healing of my wife from M.E.

I think of His closeness in many dark, painful times; so close my body vibrates.

I think of an abused man I knew experiencing into a measure of healing.

I think of the over-night changed mind by the local benefit office which meant someone wasn’t made homeless.

I think of the knife thrown at me at a range of feet, missing by several.

I think of my wedding day.

I think of the constant reminders, the insistence that He knows me better than anyone, and He’s much less bothered about that than they are.

I think of so much.

My stories, my psalms, my hymns, my spiritual songs.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon preached by Gery Adlard at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 21st July 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I didn’t preach it.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

World War Z

We like a good story, and every now and then film journalism alights upon a film to prophesy certain failure about. There are some common ingredients to these stories: the budget of the film must be both high and perceived and ever-expanding; it must be a high-profile film, often adapted from a much admired source; it must involve at least one very well-known star or director. Journalists and readers salivate at the prospect of high-profile failures like this  – it punctures hubris and we all laugh. Heaven’s Gate. Bonfire Of The VanitiesWaterworld. We do love a good story about a bad one.

World War Z had all the ingredients, and was frequently presented as such. It stars Brad Pitt. It’s directed by Marc Forster – he’s clearly not that well-known, but he did direct the critically adored Monster’s Ball as well as the messy Quantum Of Solace. It’s adopted from a book loved by many as ground-breaking, challenging example of what you can do with the familiar material of a global zombie-crisis. And yes, the budget kept rising. To complete the picture there were re-writes and ending changes.

The scene was duly set for disaster and blood-letting.

Here’s the thing, though. Despite the gleeful promises of doom, it’s quite good and it’s making enough money to already have had a sequel commissioned.

I haven’t read the book, but those who have read it tell me it does diverge significantly from the source. Clearly this was done to translate what was a deliberately un-structured narrative into something more coherent. The coherence is only partially there in the film, which is a real mix of genres and tones. Brad Pitt is a former United Nations worker who narrowly affects the escape of his family from a zombie epidemic to UN safety. In return he agrees to help get to the bottom of the crisis sweeping the world. What is the virus and why is it spreading so quickly? Improbably the answer is in Wales.

The first section is solid zombie-shocker fare. There’s a few jumps and scares; the chaos of suddenly spreading epidemic is well-handled. Pitt’s family, importantly, do feel like a family. Then the first change of gear. After some family deliberations, Pitt is off to solve the crisis. The film moves off too – away from shocker to action movie with a few jumps. It’s well handled, directed and choreographed action – especially when there are large crowds involved. The main tone is suddenly thrills not fear, though. Then in the final 3rd we’re into haunted house/hospital territory as a solution is honed in-on. Again effective, again odd.

It’s all entertaining. It’s all clearly the product of an uncertain vision of how to take the film forward. It’s exciting and gripping, but I was jolted out of the film too often by the changes of tone and shift from one genre to another. It’s a let-down to the zombie genre in that it doesn’t use the format to explore bigger issues – witness Romero’s classic …Of The Dead films, 28 Days Later and sequel or even Shaun Of The DeadWorld War Z verges on indelicate issues of geopolitics and even religion on one or two occasions but never has the guts to explore the themes properly.

Speaking of guts, this is (as the title implies) an action film not a horror one. There’s not of the literal or metaphorical guts of those films named above or TV’s The Walking Dead. There are a few winces, but this is a zombie film lacking teeth.

World War Z is uneven, clumsy and imperfect.

It is also fun, exciting and entertaining.

I look forward to a sequel with more confidence and coherence.

And maybe some guts.

I rated this movie 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday July 14th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the sixth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 125. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

 

We’re all capable of acts of extraordinary self-discipline. Given a sufficiently achievable goal of significant enticement, then most of us can find a way to get there. We may stumble on the way, but we can find it within ourselves to say the necessary ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to get there. More usually though, we give up. Losing weight is possible but for many of us it’s simply too much to do what’s necessary; many of our goals are too nebulous, too far off, or insufficiently interesting to push and pull us enough to get through the acts of self-denial to get there.

What are the things which stop me? Simple really – we all have them. Emotions, circumstances outside me and just giving up. As with losing weight or writing a book, so it is with following Jesus. We sense that we are somewhat too easily deflected. Psalm 125 is the song of a someone who knows that – and who also knows that God is different. He is not deflected.

My emotions shake me. They can flood in and cause me to look to the hills. Things I cannot control can sweep me away in the flood waters. I fear I may give up. The images of Psalm 125 comes as something of a shock, then.

Apparently I “will always be secure” (v1); it seems I “will last forever” (v1). Really? The writer evidently hasn’t conversed with me in the small hours of a bad day.

It’s not about me. It’s about hills again. I’m told Jerusalem sits on a hill, surrounded by many, higher hills. The image is one of being surrounded by something large and immovable. I thought about this, and I thought about being rudely awoken by Barack Obama.

He was visiting Cape Town a few weeks ago. I was having a Sunday afternoon doze and awoke to the confusing sound of helicopters low overhead. I went outside to see what was going on, and there was Obama. More correctly, there was a group of helicopters transporting him from Robben Island to a speaking engagement at the University. He was, I assume in the middle helicopter, flanked by other, slightly bigger and better armed helicopters.

If you’ve ever seen a person like Obama in the flesh, you’ll have seen the security guards running alongside him, ready to take a bullet for him and rugby tackle him out of harm’s way. In that helicopter, surrounded by bodyguards ready to die for him, could a Obama under threat still feel shaken and scared? Of course he could. He’s a human. It’s scary to have someone try to take your life even if the chances of them succeeding are low. But his fear doesn’t change the reality of the protection, the fact that people will die for him.

Now where am I going? To meet with God, that’s where. Like the original pilgrim singers of the Psalms of Ascents, only more so. I will see Him. will I feel scared, shaken on the way? Of course I will. I’m human. But I’m surrounded by one who’s already taken a bullet for me. So my feelings  may be real, but they won’t stop me.

Feelings, then. Other things can shake me – the things people do to me, do around me. The things I cannot control: the diagnosis, the government, the economy, the driver. Can they shake me? Yes, of course they can. But they will not last and will not stop me from seeing God. Their influence will not last. Verse 3 speaks of misused, God-given power. For the readers of the day this was governments, rulers. It could be that for us too. It could also be a decaying body, a badly driven car, an abused strength. These are real, but they will not the last. They have no power over what God has in store for me.

What else might stop me other than feelings or outside forces? Me. I might just give up. I was bought up in a Christian home and drifted into faith, breathing it in week by week. So without a moment of conversion to point to I continually made sure. Every time I was at a meeting where the gospel was presented in such a way to lead to a point of decision I would raise a hand, pray the prayer, go to the front. Just to make sure. I didn’t want to drift off and find myself unfound by God.

Many of us fear we will do so; not just teenagers. We fear backsliding – ourselves or those we love. Drifting away from faith, wandering off, falling away. It’s something we fear happening to us. We read verses like verse 5 of Psalm 125 and the fear intensifies. We don’t want this to be us, my son, my grand-daughter.

This is a warning, to be sure. But it’s a warning about what we choose, not what might happen to us. An evil path such as that described in verse 5 requires a repeated, sustained, deliberate choice. It can be done and people do it: but it doesn’t just happen. It requires knowledge and sustained choice. That can lead us away from God. But drifting off by accident. No. That won’t happen. We needn’t fear that.

There is nothing in our way, then. Not my fear, not my doubt, not the random violence and happenstance of life, not my capacity to drift away. The only thing is the bodyguard dying for me. He I can choose, or can reject.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 14h July 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

 

 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday July 7th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the fifth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 124. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

A mosquito has 47 teeth, apparently. I’m not sure I believe this. I have no special knowledge of them apart from receiving the occasional bite. I know they bite. 47 teeth in such a small being, though, seems more than is strictly feasible. An internet search can tell you all sorts of things with no proof other than the simple ability to come first when run through a hidden algorithm.

However unlikely this is, whatever the truth, it suggests what we all deep-down know to be still more true: that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of most things then we care to know. Look behind the most standard of procedures – the simple act of tapping a keyboard for instance – and your body is performing a series of coordinated actions of frankly boggling complexity. There’s always more than meets the eye.

Which is how God is. He is always at work, there’s always something afoot, there’s always a new possibility. Ironically in a contemporary culture which assumes those who profess religion to be stuck in a rigid past, pull back the curtain of the everyday and you discover the comforting, alarming truth that God is always up to something. Psalm 124 is the song of someone who knows this to be true.

The song starts (v1-2) with the call and response of worship. The worship leader cries out, the people respond. This is not the song of one person – it’s the story of a community, a gathering, a nation. Call and response is how the worship of God’s people works – one person starts, awaking faith, worship, life in the gathered. The story of the one calls out the story of the many.

It’s easy to read worship songs and hymns and think all this ‘I’ talk is rather individualistic. Sometimes that can be true – it’s an easy trap to fall into. But in reality, if I allow the worship to do its work on me, the ‘I’ of the songs I’m singing becomes a kind of plural, corporate ‘I’. This is different to ‘we’. God’s people may be individuals uniquely shaped in God’s image, but we’re part of mysterious, mystical, bigger ‘I’ called the bride of Christ. The worship of one calls out the worship of many. Which is why we should be very wary of opting out of church, for all its temptations and trials.

What’s called out here is the story of the people. The Old Testament story, as we have it in this immediate context; a story of God’s people attacked, anger kindled, the flood waters rising. Floods were real in this Middle East; a carefully planned life could be uprooted and re-arranged around you in the minutes of a torrential rain leading to flash floods. Enemies, aggression, the random rearrangement of life around you – familiar always to God’s people. As it is to all people. God’s people experience no more nor no less suffering than everyone else. Everyone has enemies. All countries go to war at some point. Everyone gets sick. Everyone’s at the mercy of the economy.

The difference for those making this song their own is that they can look back and see God was there. He was with them. In Christ, on our side. The picture is one of odds stacked, helpless pray in merciless teeth (v6), narrowly escaping a hunter’s trap (v7). By all standard rules of engagement, the escape shouldn’t happen. Prey in the teeth is dead meat.

The God on the side of the prey specialises is raising the dead. Lost causes coming through have His signature all over them. All it takes is the acknowledgement, to Him, that the cause is lost. Lost by me, you. No-one else’s fault. We’re helpless prey in the teeth of a trap for which we alone bear the blame for finding.

Him. In Him is help. Him. The maker of heaven and earth (v8).

Sound familiar? It should do. We’ve already been there, those very words, in Psalm 121. We look to the hills of other gods, other helpers … but our help comes from the one who puts hills in place, who breathes life into dust-born humanity, speaks light into being.

This our God. The God of new things. The God of creation and recreation. Of life and new. Of resurrection.

The God at work behind the scenes, not wasting anything; not desiring or causing or sustaining that which reduces; but transfiguring a simple hillside into a place of mercy and meeting.

This our God.

Tell me, then.

What can separate you from Him, in Christ?

Flood, traps, snares?

Famine, darkness, sword?

Boredom, drudgery, the everyday?

Birth, life, death?

No. In all these things, He and in Him, we, are more.

Much more.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 7th July 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 30th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the fourth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 123. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

Everybody waits for something. A childhood Christmas when the days pass slower the younger you are; a wedding day; healing; Madiba’s long years in a prison cell; release from suffering; a relationship … we all wait. How do we do it, and how do we do it well?

If it’s taking too long we often find ourselves adopting a coping strategy: hurry things along or engaging in distraction activity. Sometimes that might help; often it might not.

Christians, like everyone else, wait. For all the normal things for which everyone waits, and this: for the world that we know is not as it should be to be made right, for ourselves to be know even as we are known. What do we do as we wait? Psalm 123 tells us.

We wait, first, with an upwards glance:

1 I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.

Looking up. We’re not talking geography here. We don’t think of God as ‘up there’ somewhere. We may have inherited that idea that He is, but of course He isn’t. Where is He? We don’t know. Of course we don’t. Where does an omnipotent creator dwell? How could we even begin to know? Jesus ascended to give us picture language – to show us what we can’t wrap our minds around: that He, seated at the right hand of the Father, is over us in the way we say a King is over us. He reigns. We look up to Him in the way we might look up to someone whom we admire for their skill in a given field. They are ahead of us, beyond us, inspiring us, calling us on. Except, of course, this One is more than skilled. He is everything. So we look up.

This is fleshed out in verse 2. Language of slavery and servanthood which doesn’t sit well with liberated 21st-century ears and eyes. But that is what we are. If we believe that the One we look up to is the One we say He is, then what else could we be? Servants, slaves. Lest we fear, lest we think that this is a master who will abuse us and take us for granted, verse 2 throws us a line. We might be waiting in the hope of mercy; in the possibility of it; with the wish for deliverance. There’s no certainty in the sort of waiting to which most of us are accustomed. But this is different. Not in the hope  of mercy; it’s until. Until is certain. Until is dependable. Until is the Christmas Day that will always come; excruciating to wait for it may be, with time seeming to stretch the closer it gets; but it will come. There is no doubt. Until. Martin Luther King said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Certainty. It’s coming. So we can wait.

Waiting is so passive though, isn’t it? Doesn’t a servant, even one knowing that Master will be good, have to wait silently and obediently, unquestioningly,  uncomplainingly for action?

Not a bit of it. We are not those voiceless before an omnipotent power whom will not budge. We are those who wait patiently. But loudly and honestly. Have you read the short second half of this psalm?

3 Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
4 We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud.

We know mercy is coming … so we pour out our hearts and complain to Master about the suffering and the pain and ridicule. We might expect servants to buzz about unseen and unheard doing Master’s bidding. And we should certainly do that last part. But Master has paid an unimaginable price to have us in His presence, and He doesn’t want us to be silent. He wants to hear us. He wants to hear how bad it is to wait, how much we need Him to act, how much we long for the mercy He promises.

The Psalms are full of this sort of thing. Untidy endings, anguished cries, the hurt of hurt people. None of the feel-good here. True Christian spirituality knows nothing of the easy coping of a perma-Instagramed prayer life. No. We know mercy is coming, so we can be joyful, happy, celebrate. We must do that. We must also rant irrationally and tell Master how bad it is and tell Him we need Him to act.

The arc of the universe is bending towards justice. Certainly it is. It is also long. So Master expects us to tell Him to shorten it.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 30th June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)