St Michael’s 24th July 2016
Readings – Psalm 4, Matthew 14:13-21
For many hundreds, if not thousands of years, the psalms have been loved and cherished by countless generations of worshippers. They have been read out loud and prayed over in silence, they have been chanted and they have been sung by believers from every tradition and denomination. They have been used on every occasion, from the funeral of a pauper, to the coronation of a queen. They have provided comfort in times of sorrow, and given expression to the deepest joy. Many people would say the psalms are the most precious part of Scripture, and they hold these words of Scripture deep in their heart.
So what is it that makes the psalms so special? Well, listen again to the first verse of our psalm this morning: Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer. Isn’t that the sort of prayer that all of us have prayed at one time or another? Now in this particular instance, we don’t know what distress the psalmist was in, and we don’t know what relief he was seeking. But the details aren’t that important. Here is a real human being pouring out his soul before the God he knows, longing to be heard, longing to see an answer. And in many ways it could just as easily be you or me offering that prayer. I certainly know I’ve been there, just waiting, just hoping sometimes even against hope I will gain some kind of response from the Lord.
And what also makes the psalms so true to life is that they don’t always offer glib or easy solutions to our prayers. The whole collection of psalms, all 150 of them, explore the depths of our relationship with God from almost every angle. So sometimes there are psalms of joy where prayer has been answered. Sometimes there are psalms of lament where it appears the Lord has stayed silent. And sometimes there are psalms where the Lord does reply but it’s not immediately obvious what He is saying. Now again, from my own experience, I can relate to all of that, and I find again and again it is the psalms which best help me make sense of how the Lord is at work in my life.
So how does the Lord reply to David’s prayer in today’s reading? I think you will agree that here His answer fits into the not immediately obviously category: How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods? What kind of reply is that? The psalmist has poured out his heart. He is seeking relief for his troubles and is desperate for answers. And all he gets is a load of questions implying that somehow he isn’t right with the Lord.
But maybe that’s the point. You see, so often we only turn to prayer when something goes wrong. We treat God rather as if He were in a little red box on the wall marked, “For emergencies only”. And in effect God is saying in this verse, why should I answer your prayers if your heart is fixed elsewhere? If as soon as you receive your answer, you turn away again until the next time you’re in trouble?
The point and purpose of prayer, after all, is not simply that we ask God for things and that we receive. Of course we can and should ask the Lord for what we need, and Jesus teaches us to ask for our daily bread. But our relationship with the Lord should also be a two-way process. We should expect that when we pray He will question us about the desires and motives of our hearts.
In our gospel reading the disciples discover at the end of a long, hot day that the crowds have run out of food. So they go to Jesus and they tell Him what to do: send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves. Because that’s the most obvious and logical solution, isn’t it? Ask Jesus to send the people away so they can go down to the shops. What the disciples haven’t realised is that Jesus just might have a completely different solution to the problem instead: They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.
Now of course Jesus could have simply done what the disciples had asked. But they wouldn’t have learnt the real identity of Jesus, or seen His power at work. Prayer is about as much the Lord changing us as it about us asking Him, so that we learn to see the situations that trouble us and the issues we face from a completely new perspective.
And really this psalm this morning is all about the Lord changing David’s perspective. Let’s turn back for a moment to verse 1: Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer. This is the prayer of a man who is in dire need, who feels far away from God and isn’t certain whether his request will be answered. Now let’s go forward to verse 3: Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord will hear when I call to him. This is the confident statement of someone who knows that God is near and that He will listen and act in answer to his prayers.
How do we explain the difference between these two verses? Well, this is where I want to drill down deep into the psalm and point out a subtle but very important change. In the first verse David prays to God. In the third verse David prays to the Lord, and if you look through the rest of the psalm you will see that he calls on the Lord again in verses 4,6 and 8.
Now to us all the different names of God perhaps don’t mean that much, but actually this change is hugely significant. You see, this name of God, Yahweh, was the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush. It was given to remind him that he was encountering the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who remains the same from generation to generation. So when David uses this same name and starts calling God the Lord or Yahweh, it’s as if he has suddenly remembered the constant and true nature of God for all time, that the God to whom he is praying is not just any old god, but the one who is completely in control and holds all things in His mighty but loving hands.
What we are not told in this psalm is whether the situation that so distressed David in verse 1 has in any way been altered. We don’t know if he received the answer that he was looking for. But in many ways that is beside the point. He prayed. God challenged him about the motives and desires of his heart. And it’s as if through that challenge David suddenly realises the true identity of the God to whom he’s been pouring out his requests.
Surely there’s an important lesson that we can learn here, as well. It can be so easy to rush into prayer with our own concerns that sometimes we can forget just what a wonderful God is waiting to hear our prayers. When we pray, we are not talking to any old God. We are in fact entering into a two-way relationship with the Lord, the maker and heaven of earth. And who exactly is the Lord? Well, He is the God of the Old Testament and He is the God of the New Testament. But the staggering thing is, He is our God. When we pray we are coming into the presence of the same Lord that Moses and David prayed to, the Lord who is unchanging and constant and true from generation to generation, and for all time. Isn’t that a truly amazing thought?
So through prayer David enters into a new and deeper relationship with the Lord. How, then, does this new relationship express itself?
First of all, in verse 4, he has a new sense of peace. Verse 4 is a difficult verse to translate but probably the best reading is: When you are disturbed, do not sin; speak to your hearts upon your beds and be still. Why be still? Because David knows this Lord to whom we pray really is in control, even in the darkest night, even when we are most alone with our thoughts and our worries. The Lord knows about our secret fears and sorrows, the thoughts which trouble us, which we feel we cannot share with anyone else. He knows, and He longs to speak to our hearts with His words of comfort and of peace.
That doesn’t mean claiming the presence of the Lord is always easy. We all know what it is like to lie awake at night, with each minute slowly ticking by, and with all kinds of thoughts going around and around inside our heads. But then so do the writers of the psalms. They are refreshingly honest about what is like wrestling with the promises of God and they know the emotions that so often well up inside us as we unwind from a stressful day. Their words have been written down precisely so that we may know how to turn to the Lord on such occasions.
So when David says speak to your hearts on your beds and be still I believe what he’s really asking us to do to apply the words of the psalms to our hearts. Because it is often at night that we fight the deepest spiritual battles, and it’s when our peace is most easily disturbed. But let’s not forget – the Lord knows about the battles that we face. Jesus himself was been through Gethsemane. That’s one reason why we have all these psalms, to minister to us when we are in need. So if you struggle with sleep – and I guess we all do from time to time – learn to read the psalms as the Lord’s precious words to you, to remind you that He is with you, and able to speak words of peace through His word and by the power of His Holy Spirit.
Secondly, in verse 5, David has a new sense of trust: Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.
Of course to David offering right sacrifices meant something completely different than to us. Back in his day right sacrifices involved the slaughter of animals according to all the laws laid down in the book of Leviticus. Because the way you expressed your faith in the Lord was to give him the firstborn and the best of your flock, as a very real and very practical expression of trust in his ability to provide.
What, however, are the sacrifices that we can make? There’s an important clue in our gospel reading today. As we have seen, Jesus doesn’t do what the disciples ask Him to do and send the crowds away. Instead He tells them to feed them themselves. And you can almost hear the confusion and the doubt in the disciples’ voice as they say: We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish. After all, what can do Jesus do with so little? How these few leftovers make any kind of difference to so many hungry people?
What the disciples haven’t yet fully realised is that Jesus is Lord. They are only focusing on themselves and how little they have. And to be honest, I know that is something I do all too often when I pray. I look at my own resources and my own lack. I forget that I worship the Lord who can transform even the smallest offering to His glory, can make even the tiniest mustard seed of faith grow into something magnificent.
Recently several of us in the church have been particularly challenged by these couple of verses from Romans 12:1-2:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Now we may not see the same kind of miracles that the first disciples saw. It’s probably unlikely we will see vast multitudes miraculously fed. But what does Paul promise us in these verses when we offer our bodies and minds to the Lord? That we may know what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. And to me that is the greatest miracle of all. The Lord, the God of Moses, of David, of each and every one of us here, promises that when we give ourselves and all that we have to Him, we can know His plans and His purposes.
That is yet another reason why it is so important to allow the Lord to speak to us in prayer and let Him challenge the deepest desires of our hearts. Because He wants to minister to us by His word, and He wants us as His children to know His ways. So the question is, do we have the faith to listen and to respond, by giving Him even what little we may have?
So David has a new sense of peace. He has a new sense of trust. Thirdly, he has a new sense of joy.
Now I’ve been thinking a lot about joy recently. It’s been hard not to when almost every day there seems to be some new atrocity on our screens. I used to know the city of Munich fairly well, as my brother used to live there, and it’s a lovely place to visit. I for one find it incomprehensible anyone would want to open fire on innocent bystanders and reduce the whole city to a state of terror. No wonder, just as in David’s day: Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?
But last week we also had our visitors from Kenya. Now life in Kenya is not always easy. They have an Islamist terror group who has carried out unimaginable atrocities. There is a huge level of corruption in society, and on an individual level, personal safety is not always guaranteed. Yet what shone out from our visitors was their sense of joy. They radiated a faith and a confidence in the Lord which seemed to fill everything they did and said. You wouldn’t on first meeting them realise just how many challenges they face day by day.
And it seems to me one of the most important ways we can express our faith and confidence in the Lord is to go out and also share a sense of joy. Now let’s be clear – joy is not the same as happiness. It’s not about pretending everything is wonderful, when it ain’t. There will still be times when like David all we can do is pray Answer me when I call to you. But joy is the deep-seated, deep-rooted knowledge that whatever we go through, the Lord is with us, that because of Jesus we have a relationship with Him that is always strong and always secure.
Now we have covered a lot of ground this morning. David has come to the Lord in distress. The Lord has challenged him to examine his heart. David has come to a fresh understanding of exactly who the Lord is. He has through his prayer received a new sense of peace, of trust and of joy.
And really all he has learnt is summed up in the final verse:
I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
That is the prayer of a man who knows what it means to rest securely in the hands of the Lord. And my simple prayer for you is that this verse may be true for you. Psalm 4, verse 8 is one of the first verses from the Bible I ever memorised and it has meant so much to me over the years. Will dare to learn this verse and claim it for yourself? So with a new sense of peace, of trust and of joy you too may learn to live in the presence of the Lord, to the glory of His name. Amen.