St Michael’s, 10th July 2016
Reading – Psalm 2
Sometimes it can be hard to be a Christian. It can be hard when those we love and care for most deeply ignore or reject our faith. It can be hard when rules and regulations at work make it difficult for us to practice our faith. It can be hard when TV shows and films mock what we believe.
And I have been so aware as I have prepared this sermon, that many of you are finding it tough living out your faith at the moment. Some of you have a difficult relationship you are struggling to deal with. Some of you are finding life’s circumstances are, to say the least, a challenge. Some of you are facing an uncertain future and don’t know where to turn. And although difficulties can arise for many reasons, I sense that behind so much of our troubles and trials, there is a spiritual battle going on – not least because of all the good things currently happening in the church.
So what can this morning’s psalm say to us?
First of all, spiritual opposition is nothing new.
Listen again to the first three verses of our reading: Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. “Let us break their chains,” they say, “and throw off their fetters.” Those words could be talking about life today, couldn’t they? Yet they were written many, many hundreds of years ago, about nations and their rulers in open revolt against the Lord – proof, if proof were needed, that when it comes to human nature, nothing really ever changes.
There’s some debate as to whether the first line should read “Why do the nations conspire?” or as in some of the ancient texts, “Why do the nations rage?” But the general picture is clear, of a world united in rejecting the Lord and His ways of justice, peace and truth. And you don’t have to look very far to see what the psalmist is talking about. The news headlines are full of strife and conflict, on a local, national and international level, so much so that sometimes the events being reported no longer seem able to shock or move us.
Why, then, have so many people have turned their backs on the Lord? There is an important clue in the third verse when the psalmist talks about chains and fetters. You see, to many people all this God business is really just so much empty religion. It’s about rules and regulations, and things you are allowed to do and things you definitely shouldn’t do. Because the word on the street is that faith is about obeying a God who doesn’t want you to have too much fun, and stopping other people from enjoying themselves as well. So you mention faith to your family and your friends and what do they think of? Prejudice, intolerance, extremism. Far better, they say, to throw off all this religious nonsense and be free to live as you choose.
Now if you are here today as someone who is regularly mocked because you believe in the Lord, again this is nothing new. Read on through the psalms and you will find this is the same experience of the psalmist time after time after time. Psalm 42, verse 3: My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Psalm 22, verses 7-8: All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let Him deliver him, since he delights in Him.” Psalm 33, verse 11: Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbours; I am a dread to my friends – those who see me on the street flee from me.
Yes, there is nothing better than discovering the love and mercy of the Lord through Jesus Christ. But we also have to be realistic. There is a cost to following the Lord, and there is a reason why Jesus commands us to take up our cross. Yet the whole point and purpose of our psalm this morning is to remind us of the great truth that ultimately the Lord is in control. And that’s a fact all of us need to hear from time to time. There are times when the opposition seems too strong, when we feel weak and isolated in our faith, when, dare I say it, we even wonder if it is worth carrying on.
So listen to what the psalmist says in verse 4: The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. This is the perspective that we can all too easily forget. Our God is not just any old god. He is the one who sits on a throne, who rules over every nation and every person, who has all power and authority.
Back in the day when this psalm was written, each nation and each tribe had its own god. When one nation defeated another in battle, it would carry off the image of the god that just been defeated and put it in the temple of their own god as if it was bowing down and paying homage. Gods were seen as local and dependent on the fortunes of their followers. The idea that there was one true God over all things was to most people completely alien, as it is in a different kind of way today. We may no longer have idols or believe there are different gods in different places, but we have limited our faith to something purely personal, as if every individual can worship whatever god they happen to like. The motto of our world nowadays seems to be that it doesn’t matter what you believe providing you are sincere.
But the psalmist says, yes it does. There is only one true God. He is the Lord, the boss, the one in control. The idea that you can rebel against him and do whatever you like is pure and utter folly. Now I guess some of us are perhaps less than comfortable with the idea of our God laughing and scoffing at the nations, but here’s a picture that may help. Imagine a group of schoolkids who decide they are going to tear up the rules and run the school themselves. What do you imagine the reaction of the head might be? The chances are, she has probably seen it all before. She knows their great plan of action is plain daft. She might even find it funny. And then she takes firm action to stop the matter getting out of hand. That’s the sort of image the psalmist conjures up in verses 4 and 5. Because let’s be clear – the Lord isn’t just sitting on his heavenly throne doing nothing, and even though the nations may think they are free to do as they please, the reality is very different.
How do we know this? The answer comes in verse 6: I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill. And what does that mean? Well, to answer that question fully we have to go forward five or six hundred years after the psalm was written to a hill outside Jerusalem called the Skull. There a man was nailed to a cross in the most appalling agony and shame. And what was written above his head? This is Jesus, the King of the Jews (Matthew 27:37).
Now I guess when this psalm was written no-one imagined that one day these words of verse 6 would be fulfilled by, of all people, a humble carpenter from Nazareth. Indeed Jesus’ many opponents themselves refused to recognise Jesus as a king. They imagined that when the king promised in this psalm finally came, he would come as a conquering hero, defeating all the other nations, and leaving Israel to rule over the world as the one chosen people of God.
Yet for those with eyes to see, Jesus provided more than enough evidence that He was the king foreseen by the psalmist. He preached and taught with a power no-one had ever seen before. As He spoke, men and women were healed, demons were driven out, sins were forgiven. He raised the dead to life, He walked on water, He turned water into wine. And just in case anyone had any doubt about Jesus’ identity, twice a voice from heaven declared: You are my Son – an exact quote from the seventh verse of this very psalm.
Jesus came to this earth as God’s Son to be the promised king who would rule over the nations. So you might ask, why did He die in weakness and pain on a hill outside Jerusalem?
This leads to my third point this morning, that we have a Son who is a Saviour.
Because the reality is, there is a rebel in all of us. It’s easy to look at the nations and say how terrible it is that they’re rebelling against God. It’s easy to blame our family and friends for their lack of faith. But the verdict of the Bible is clear. Romans 3:20: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That includes you and you and me. We are part of this very society that is in rebellion against God, and we all need a Saviour who can deal with our wrongdoing and our shortcomings. That Saviour, the Bible tells us, is Jesus. And whether that is a truth you’re hearing for the first time or a thousandth, we should never lose the wonder of the fact that King Jesus, the only Son of God, died in our place for our sins exactly in fulfilment of these ancient words spoken hundreds of years earlier.
But just because Jesus died in pain and weakness on a cross, this doesn’t mean we are free to ignore Him, or turn Him into just another personal god. You see, this same King will one day come again to take his place on earth and this time His reign and His rule will be obvious for all to see. Listen again to verses 7-9: I will proclaim the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery”. One day King Jesus will come to the nations who have risen against Him and He will claim them for His inheritance. Every eye will see Him and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. And He will judge the attitude of all our hearts.
How do we know this is true? The answer is right here in this church this morning. Whenever I find myself going through tough times, I try to remember that from one small nation in the Middle East has grown a global community of believers that is reaching into almost every part of the world. In every continent people are hearing about the one true God and coming to faith in Jesus as their Saviour. And that is true right here even in Devonport. Sometimes people ask me how I keep going after fourteen years in this place. Well, I can see even during my time here how the gospel has been growing and bearing fruit, and how the Lord is building His kingdom in this place. Yes, there is spiritual opposition. Sometimes life is incredibly hard and I wonder if it is worth it. But the one true God is in control and I know there is nothing more valuable than serving Jesus as my King.
So briefly, how should we respond day by day to the one true God?
First of all, we need to pray for the nations of this world, and their leaders. Verse 10 says: Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. That tells me that we need to pray for governments who look to the Lord for wisdom and guidance. In particular, at this time of national turmoil we should be earnestly asking the Lord to raise up a prime minister who is a servant of King Jesus and who has the courage to do His will. After all, how different this land, and indeed this continent of Europe, would be, if we had men and women over us who loved nothing more than to make Christ known!
But as I’ve made clear this morning this psalm isn’t just directed at other people, it is also directed at us. And so we need to take seriously what the psalmist goes on to say in verse 11: Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Because if this God is the God the psalmist says He is, then we need to have a proper respect for Him. That doesn’t mean we need to go round afraid He might zap us with a stray thunderbolt, or terrified we might actually meet Him. What does it mean is that in every situation, in every relationship we need to ask the question: how can I honour the one true God? What can I do or say to show that Jesus is my King? After all, the first thing Jesus teaches us to pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. So as we come in prayer before the Lord, we must lay aside our priorities, our agendas and seek His will before anything else. To put it very simply, our lives must reflect the fact God is in control.
Yet as we have seen, we will still face opposition, persecution and hatred. We live in a fallen world and at times it is hard to carry our cross. So let me finish by giving you the promise in the very last line of this psalm: Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Brothers and sisters, I know that some of you are struggling with your faith, I know some of you are going through hard times. We have talked much about the God who is control and who rules over the nations. But because of King Jesus – the Son who is a Saviour – this God is not a distant God. He uses His power to be a rock and a refuge to all who trust in Him. So Let Him today be your rock, let Him be your refuge. And let us together renew our faith, whatever the opposition, so that in even this particular end of the earth called Devonport Jesus is seen to reign. For His name’s sake. Amen.