This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 11th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the tenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 129. 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.
Confidence comes from survival. We are tempted to associate confidence with achieving a goal, reaching a target, making something happen. Psalm 129 is the song of someone who’s confident because they’ve survived. What’s more, it’s not down to the singer. All the singer has contributed to surviving is drawing breath. Sometimes that’s an achievement in itself.
The confidence starts by looking back – at what has been, the agonies of times past, of survival and liberation, of release from immense suffering. It’s a retrospective called out of the singer in the midst of worship – the repeated call and response of verse 1 suggesting that like Psalm 124 this was probably used in corporate worship. The leader starts and invites the gathered to join in agreement and shared experience. Worship should always do this – whether it’s silence or said liturgy or high liturgy or rock band led or organ led matters not. What it should invoke is shared experiences, positive and painful together, gathered, held and presented to God as an offering. In this case it’s the deeply painful.
The specifics of what happened are not given here; they’re alluded to in an image at once absurd and distressing. It’s of the tortured prisoner, bound and stripped to the waist, back exposed to the heat of midday sun, whips recently furrowed the skin, exposing ribbons of flesh like a newly ploughed field (v3). The history of God’s people is replete with persecution and oppression; the specifics of this don’t matter to us now. The alluded effect of it leaves us in no doubt as to the trauma.
It is not the end of the story, though. Such suffering, startling and violent as it was, is simply the content of the parentheses. The defining truth isn’t the suffering, it’s the glorious brackets of verses 2 and 4, keeping suffering in its place. God intervened, bought it to an end, put it in its place. He cut the cords – depending on how you translate verse 4, it’s either the cords of captivity or the cords that yoked oxen to the plough – leaving the opposition absurdly impotent. The captive is free and standing, the plough uselessly stationary in the field, oxen trotting harmlessly off into the distance.
So the looking back is finished in verse 4. Into the second half of the psalm, and we’re into the present day. The look back to God’s past liberation gives confidence and faith to today’s perseverance. The one oppressed seeks the same useless humiliation for current oppressors as past experienced. May the whip cord be ripped from their grasp; may the plough be severed from the beasts of burden. If healthy crops are a sign of God’s blessing, may those who torture have no chance of being seen as successful. May their crops of suffering fail as uselessly as the frail shoots which sprang up from the thin layer of earth in the organic roofs of the houses of the day. Thin soil gives no harvest; the oppressor of those who belong to God will see no long-term fruit. May they know that.
The prayer of God’s people should be that of blessing and growth – for the things of God. Shrinkage is not from Him, unless it’s the shrinkage of evil. Pray for evil to shrink, to fail, to wither; for people, even the perpetrators, to move from lives of shrinkage to experience the wide-open growth spaces of God’s kingdom. The trick is not to co-operate with the shrinkage. We may not think we do … but do we? We are prone to do so, drawn to it as moth to flame. We scent a smelly body and shrink the inhabitant to street-dwelling drug-abuser; we see a shivering but scantily clad woman on street corner and shrink her identity to that of seller of sex; we see a man or woman and shrink him or her to the definition of how we have known some of that gender in the past. We see a potential or current disciple and shrink them to too traditional, too alternative, too successful, too poor, too gay, too other to be of any potential, use or worthy of dedicated attention.
We all do it. We are called to pray for and actively grow in blessing, shrink in evil, expand our view of those around and teach others to do so … repeating a virtuous cycle in us and others until a new creation of glorious wide-open space is established in our midst.
If you’ve only lived in a cell you’ll naturally be scared of the open air. You’ll hug the wall, shield your eyes from the sun, maybe even try to dash back inside. That’s alright. There’s plenty of time. The door remains open – you must simply walk through it.
This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 11th August 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.
Also in this series: