The Psalms: The Power of Words

Listen to my prayer, O God,
    do not ignore my plea;
    hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught
    because of what my enemy is saying,
    because of the threats of the wicked;
for they bring down suffering on me
    and assail me in their anger.

Read more…

Psalm 55

One of the reasons for the ongoing popularity of the Psalms is their searing honesty. The composers of the Psalms don’t tell us how we ought to feel, they tell us how we actually do feel! In Psalm 55 the writer’s emotions are raw.

Once again, the Psalmist is troubled and, in his troubles, he turns to God. The exact cause of his distress becomes clear a little later on. He is the victim of what others have said. At the very least words have the power to destroy our social status and reputation, and at worst words can lead to false accusation and even to death (I am writing shortly after Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi was released from jail following accusations that were made against her: for a biblical example see 1 Kings 21). We do not always get things right and need to be open to learn from the criticism of others, even when those criticisms are expressed clumsily or woundingly. We also need to be careful about what we say and how we say it and that our intention is always to build up others (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

What is worse in this case is that this hateful slander originates from someone who David once considered to be a friend (vv. 13, 14). It is always so much more painful when those close to us attack us without reason and when they criticise us in public and seek to turn others against us. Not surprisingly in this situation the pressure builds up (vv. 4,5) and David longs for escape (vv. 6–8). The modern equivalent to ‘the wings of a dove’ might be a plane out of here jetting us away from all our troubles and taking us far, far away. Jesus words though sum up the reality of life, ‘In this world you will have trouble’ (John 16:33). That’s the bad news – the good news is that immediately beforehand Jesus promised that ‘in me you may have peace’ (John 16:33). 

Sometimes that peace may be found because Jesus comes and calm the storms of life (Mark 4:35–41), at other times the storm is still raging but he comes to us in the midst of it (Matt 14:27–31).

The Psalmist encourages us to cast our cares on the LORD (v. 22) and that call is picked up in the New Testament when Peter invites us to ‘Cast all our anxiety on him because he cares for us’ (1 Peter 5:7). What do we do with our cares, our worries, our anxiety? Taking them to the Lord rather than carrying them alone still seems like a good option.

The Psalms: Encouragement When the Journey is Tough

Save me, O God, by your name;
    vindicate me by your might.
 Hear my prayer, O God;
    listen to the words of my mouth.

Arrogant foes are attacking me;
    ruthless people are trying to kill me—
    people without regard for God.

Read more…

Psalm 54

Psalms 52–54 all come from the earliest period in David’s life when he was a fugitive, on the run and hiding from Saul who was trying to track him down. Here, the reference in the title is to events recorded in 1 Samuel 23:14–28 where the Ziphites, among whom David was hiding, were happy to betray him and hand him over to his enemies.

In all of this (unlike Psalm 51!) David was not at fault, yet it didn’t prevent him from being threatened and his life being at risk. We can only begin to imagine what it felt like to be the innocent victim and yet to be hunted down as a criminal. 

No wonder David cries out to God to save him (v. 1). 1 Samuel tells us that Saul’s son Jonathan helped David to find strength in God and maybe verse 4 is the result of that. We need others to encourage us when the path on the journey of faith is rough and steep and we can be an encouragement to others when life is tough going.

Part of that encouragement is the reminder that evil is ultimately self-destructive – it loops back on those who commit it (v. 5). 

David wishes that those who slander him might be blown away. Although interestingly when David has the opportunity to do just that he shows the better way of mercy and spares Saul’s life (1 Samuel 24, Matthew 5:7, 44).

David anticipates that God will rescue him from danger and David’s response will be one of praising God in his words and his deeds. In verse 7 that anticipation is fulfilled.

The Psalm is a yet another reminder that to follow David’s God does not guarantee any immunity from suffering or hardship. When we are facing difficulties, we – like David – can bring them to God. In Christ we have the confidence that God is with us, that he can help us, that ultimately the powers of evil are defeated and that he will save us from our enemies of death and destruction.

Pastor’s Thoughts – February 2019

Dear friends, 

So we have begun to celebrate 200 years of God’s faithfulness to us here at BSBC. In 1819 the church was planted by three men and a married couple who had moved here from Sawbridgeworth with that intention. The foundation stone of the new chapel was laid on 30 November. 

It is easy to think of all the things that have changed over 200 years. 

In 1819 steam locomotives were still being developed and it would be 10 years until the first public railway opened. It would be 44 years until the Underground opened. Gas lighting had not long been invented and electric lighting would not come for another 50 years. The telephone arrived about the same time. 

That doesn’t even scratch the surface of everything that is different – they are easy to see. But what about those things that are the same? What hasn’t changed? Actually, as it turns out, the things that haven’t changed are the things that really matter. 

The church was planted so that Jesus Christ could be proclaimed as our Lord and King; so that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Triune God – could be worshipped; so that people could respond to Christ in believer’s baptism. 

Worship, prayer and preaching may take different forms today but they were as fundamental to our forebears as they are to us. So it’s important that as we begin our celebrations we do so not with a fancy event (those will follow) but with prayer. In fact 40 Days of Prayer, which begins on 3 March. 

40 Days of Prayer is a campaign that comes from our friends at Saddleback Community Church in California. We have used 40 Days campaigns before and they have been a source of great blessing. So now we want to invite you to take part in this campaign as well. The importance of prayer cannot be overestimated. There is nothing more important than prayer in growing in our relationship with God. 

As Rick Warren says: God created us to pray. Prayer is so simple a child can do it. So why is it that as adults we sometimes struggle to know how to pray? 40 Days of Prayer helps us to think about these issues and to grow in our prayer lives. 

Over the course we will look at the following: 

  • The Purpose of Prayer 
  • How to Pray with Confidence 
  • The Pattern for Prayer 
  • Praying for a Breakthrough 
  • How to Pray in a Crisis 

As before with these campaigns we will have teaching on the subject on Sunday mornings, small group materials to follow in our Life Groups and individual ways to grow in prayer. 

We need you to do two things to get the most out of this experience: 

  • Join a Life Group 
  • Get a Handbook 

If you can’t find a Life Group to join speak to Richard Lake about starting one! Saddleback started 600 new groups when they began this campaign. We should be able to manage a few as well! 

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Yours in Christ,
John

The Psalms: Seriously, Don’t Be a Fool

The fool says in his heart,
    “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their ways are vile;
    there is no one who does good.

God looks down from heaven
    on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
    any who seek God.
Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt;
    there is no one who does good,
    not even one.

Read more…

Psalm 53

By the time you’ve read Psalm 53 you might well have a feeling of déjà vu, a feeling of ‘Haven’t I heard this before?’ And you’d be right because Psalm 53 is almost identical to Psalm 14.

There is a slight variation in the title where Psalm 53 adds ‘according to mahalath’ and describes the Psalm as a ‘maskil’ of David. The exact meaning of both of these Hebrew words is less than clear although Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner suggests that ‘mahalath’ maybe the name of a tune or even an instrument.

The other minor difference is that Psalm 53 uses the word God (Elohim) rather than the LORD (YHWH).

A greater difference occurs in verse 5 where the wording is somewhat different to Psalm 14:5, 6. There may be a slight shift in emphasis from the deliverance of the righteous poor (14:5, 6) to the fate of their oppressors (53:5), but any such shift is marginal.

At this point we may be left wondering why in the oversight of the Holy Spirit a Psalm that is, to all extent and purposes exactly the same, is repeated. Perhaps it is simply because the theme is so important.

The temptation of ‘practical atheism’ is ever present. The fool does not necessarily visibly reject belief in God but does so in practice, in their heart (v. 1). When the fool has discounted the existence of God everything is up for grabs, morality lets loose of its moorings and is all at sea or as the great Russian author Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted.’

Let’s face it – many atheists are incredibly moral people. But that may be in spite of their beliefs rather than because of them. One of the practical consequences of rejecting God is that it can lead to the exploitation of others, fellow human beings are no longer unique and precious individuals made in the image of God but are simply there to be used for my satisfaction (v. 4).

The Psalm offers a counterbalance. In spite of what might look to be the case, there is a God who created the world and cares for that world, and God is still sovereign and reigns from his throne (v. 2). The Psalm celebrates an occasion that God dealt with the arrogant and the entitled who think they can terrify others and not suffer the consequences (v. 5). Sometimes we have to live in the gap between the promise of deliverance and its fulfilment, but, as we wait, we do so in the knowledge that Christ has defeated sin and death and is even now working all things for good (Romans 8:28).

The Psalms: Pity for Evildoers

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero?
    Why do you boast all day long,
    you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
You who practice deceit,
    your tongue plots destruction;
    it is like a sharpened razor.
You love evil rather than good,
    falsehood rather than speaking the truth.
You love every harmful word,
    you deceitful tongue!

Read more…

Psalm 52

The problem in the previous Psalm is the pervasive and deep rooted nature of sin. Psalm 51 deals with my sin, my failure to live up to God’s expectations and to be the person that God created me to be, a person in his image full of his love, his joy, his peace. Psalm 52 is also about sin but this time it is about other people’s sin. 

The other major difference is that in Psalm 51 David recognises and ‘owns’ his sin: he realises (albeit with quite a lot of help from Nathan) that he is without excuse for his actions and he takes responsibility for the evil that he has done. For the evildoer of Psalm 52 there is no awareness of wrongdoing and no recognition of the need to repent. The evildoer of Psalm 52 has become set in his ways. Unlike the penitent David of the previous Psalm this is someone who boasts of evil, not just occasionally in moments of weakness but all day long (v. 1), who has grown to love evil rather than good (v. 3).

This is the person who has no fear of God, they think they can act with impunity. Such people clearly existed in David’s time and they exist in our own. They may be infamous on a worldwide or national scale, they may just be local bullies, their activity may be criminal or their activity might be quite lawful. 

When we see people act in such a way, we are not to envy them but to pity them knowing that they will have to give account to God for their actions (v. 5).

God is often described in the Psalms as a rock. He is our ultimate security and safety, but also the immovable force upon which evil will be broken. In Hebrews 9:27 the author writes that people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgement. We may have questions about the nature of that judgement and how that interacts that with God’s love but as Paul wrote ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.’ (Galatians 6:7). We ended Psalm 51 with the English rapper Stormzy, so we’ll leave Johnny Cash with the last word on Psalm 52.

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light
You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Johnny Cash, ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’

The Psalms: Blinded by Grace

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

Read more…

– Psalm 51

David was the great King of the Old Testament. Yet he had feet of clay. His shield adorns the flag of the modern-day state of Israel yet he was an adulterer and an accessory to cold-blooded murder (2 Samuel 11:1–25). Even the best of us are sinners.

There may not have been times when we have been guilty of acting as savagely as David or when our decisions have resulted in such devastating consequences. Yet there is probably something within us that recognises that moment when we realise that we have no excuses for our actions and when we realise the damage that we have done.

There was not a lot David could do to sort out the mess he had made. Uriah lay dead and he had already taken Bathsheba as his wife (2 Samuel 11:26–27). When we can make up for the things we have done wrong, we should attempt to do so. If we have hurt someone, we should apologise. But it is not always possible. David was left having to make the best out of a bad situation that he alone had created. The rest of David’s story is how he had to deal with the consequences, and it is messy.

David expresses a profound sense of guilt and throws himself on God’s mercy. He appeals to God’s ‘unfailing love’ and to his ‘great compassion’ (v. 1). David’s first need is forgiveness for his wrongdoing (v. 2) but the problem is more deep rooted than absolving him for a one-off misdemeanour. David’s problem and ours is we are mired in sin. While we have to take responsibility for our individual actions there is also a sense that we couldn’t help it – we are human beings, we sin, we hurt others, we hurt ourselves, it’s just what we do. Yet it was never God’s wish. God’s desire is that we are ‘faithful’ (v. 6): faithful to him and faithful to being his image-bearers on Earth.

As well as the need for forgiveness (vv. 7, 9) the Psalm expresses the need for renewal (v. 10). At the time of writing it is the second day of a new year, already countless resolutions have been broken and in the next few weeks they’ll be joined by many more. As human beings we’re just not very good at self-improvement. If we are to be healed, it will be the work of God to create in us a clean heart and a steadfast spirit.

David isn’t quite there yet but he knows that his ultimate joy is found in being restored to the God of unfailing love who made him in the first place (v. 12).

The Psalm speaks to all of us who feel broken because of the stupid and selfish things that we have done. It does not offer us a ‘Get out of jail free’ card as we, like David, still have to deal with the consequences of our actions (although we no longer do so alone but conscious of God’s presence).

In the New Testament we see the dynamic of salvation more clearly. Through Christ we have forgiveness for sin, the slate has been wiped clean, ‘there is no condemnation’ (Romans 8:1) and the Holy Spirit is at work in us to restore the broken image, to recreate us in our Father’s image, full of love, and joy and peace (Galatians 5:22).

The last word remains with one who, like David, was a singer and songwriter. One of the biggest hits of 2017 was Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2 by grime artist, Stormzy. Reflecting on his own experiences growing up he sings, ‘Lord, I’ve been broken / Although I’m not worthy / You fixed me, I’m blinded / By your grace’.

In an interview with The Guardian he explained, ‘One of the things that I’m most impressed by, in God, is the grace that he has. No matter what we do, there’s always this, “OK, it’s fine. I understand.” That’s not to say I can go out and do something bad… But just that knowing that someone’s got you throughout anything, and they’re not going to judge you, they’re just going to understand your situation. That’s grace.’

The Psalms: God’s Turn to Speak

The Mighty One, God, the Lord,
    speaks and summons the earth
    from the rising of the sun to where it sets.
From Zion, perfect in beauty,
    God shines forth.
Our God comes
    and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
    and around him a tempest rages.
He summons the heavens above,
    and the earth, that he may judge his people:
‘Gather to me this consecrated people,
    who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.’
And the heavens proclaim his righteousness,
    for he is a God of justice.

Read more…

– Psalm 50

One of the reasons that the Psalms are so loved and cherished is that they give voice to authentic human experience. Sometimes the writer is saying ‘God, you are great!’ or ‘I trust you,’ other times there’s just an urgent cry for deliverance, ‘help!’ or when the prayer has been answered, ‘thanks.’

In this Psalm though, the human voice is absent and it is God’s turn to speak.

The opening verses depict God thundering out from Jerusalem to call his people to account. The judgment begins with those God calls ‘my people’, the people that he loves, who he has chosen and who have committed themselves to him. Sobering words for those of us who claim to follow this God and who are often better are spotting motes of dust in other people’s eyes than the plank of wood in our own.

The first thing God says to them is ‘Listen’ (v. 7). In a world of constant noise and chatter that’s one of the most difficult things to do, we are so easily distracted and the ubiquity of the mobile phone doesn’t help. To be quiet and to listen is one of the hardest things to do but it’s one of the most important. Peter once asked Jesus, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68). The words of God are life giving. The problem is we’re not always listening.

One of the ways we don’t listen is by thinking we’re doing God some sort of favour by following him. But God is not a needy God, God is not lacking in anything, the whole world is his, the whole universe is his and because he doesn’t need anything he isn’t open to bribery or flattery or manipulation (vv. 8–13).

Another way we don’t listen to God is by failing to turn to him when we’re in trouble. Obviously there are things that we should do to stop us getting into trouble in the first place and God doesn’t guarantee he will always wave a wand and magic all our troubles away but there are times when we find ourselves in too deep a mess and all the self-help books in the world can’t help us out of the pit. One of those pits is dug out of our sin and guilt, another one is marked death and dying. There’s no way out in our own strength but God promises that when we call on him, he will come to our rescue (vv. 14–15).

Another way we don’t listen is when we think God is more bothered by religious show than by our relationship with others.  The ‘wicked’ (v. 16) are those who happily perform religious acts and spout religious words but whose actions deny their faith. Calvin said that our minds are like idol factories and our biggest mistake is to think that God is like we are, self-seeking, indifferent to the needs of others and writing off those who cannot help us in some way, such a way cannot lead to abundant life (v. 22).

There is, however, an alternative: to live in deep gratitude (note the reference to ‘thank offerings’ in verses 14 and 23), to realise that none of us are self-made men or women and that everything that we have comes from God’s hand and because of his goodness. In the New Testament we call that ‘grace’.

The Psalms: Hope

Hear this, all you peoples;
    listen, all who live in this world,
both low and high,
    rich and poor alike:
My mouth will speak words of wisdom;
    the meditation of my heart will give you understanding.
I will turn my ear to a proverb;
    with the harp I will expound my riddle…

Read more…

– Psalm 49

Sometimes the Psalmist’s world sounds uncannily like our own. We also live in a world where wealth often brings power and arrogance and where it’s usually the small people who suffer. It’s a universal disease which afflicts all types of societies, although in capitalism it seems to be actively promoted.

At the time of writing billionaire tax exile Philip Green has been accused of using his wealth to hide accusations of bullying and sexual harassment. In Turkey it has now been admitted that a journalist was bloodily murdered in the embassy of the oil rich Saudi Arabians. On a more minor note David Beckham successfully hired an expensive lawyer to get him off a speeding charge even though the ex-England footballer admitted to being guilty of driving his Daimler at 59mph in a 40mph zone. It seems if you have enough money you are able to lead a different life to everyone else, a life that appears to place you above the law and can lead to little or no regard for the wellbeing of others.  

The abuse of wealth to cover up misdeeds and to cover up the suffering of others is as depressing in our day as it was in the Psalmist’s and can lead us either to jealousy or despair. However, if we are tempted to think that way it’s worth reminding ourselves that for all their money and power the amoral affluent share the same destiny as those that they have ripped off, ignored, abused, exploited or even murdered. At the end of the day you really can’t take it with you. None of their ill-gotten or ill-kept wealth can insulate them or insure them against the one great reality of death: there’s a train a-coming, it might be slow but it’s coming.

The hope of life beyond the grave is not really developed in the scriptures we refer to as the Old Testament but it is hinted at here and there and this is one of those occasions. Derek Kidner calls verse 15 ‘one of the mountain-tops of Old Testament hope.’

This hope of life with God beyond death is not a big paracetamol – Marx’s opiate to take away the pain of the present – but rather a stimulant to live a different type of life: a life of acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8) because we know that ultimately God’s kingdom is the one that will prevail. 

The Psalms: Reminders of God’s Unfailing Love

Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise,
    in the city of our God, his holy mountain.
Beautiful in its loftiness,
    the joy of the whole earth,
like the heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion,
    the city of the Great King.
God is in her citadels;
    he has shown himself to be her fortress.

Read more…

– Psalm 48

Psalm 48 is another Jerusalem Psalm. We’ve met them before (Psalms 42, 46). The Psalmist is enraptured by the ‘city of the great King’ (48:2) and is moved, like many a poet and lyricist, to go some distance beyond what others might see.

The Psalmist describes Jerusalem as beautiful in its loftiness (v. 2), but it’s actually not very high. The Psalmist describes Jerusalem as the joy of the whole earth (v. 2) but that was probably a minority opinion not shared by other nations.

In reality the Psalm is a big, bold, brassy declaration of faith. Mention of Mount Zaphon in verse 2 is not accidental, this limestone mountain on the Syrian-Turkish border was and is twice as high as Mount Zion and more importantly was where the Canaanites worshipped Baal. And yet the Psalmist says that the true God has made little old Jerusalem his dwelling place.  John Goldingay comments, ‘It’s typical of God to go for an insignificant little mountain in an insignificant location (Israel was to be an insignificant little people; David, an insignificant little boy; and Nazareth, an insignificant little village).’

Verses 4–7 speak of challenges to God’s power. The theme of opposition to God has cropped up several times already in the Psalms, most noticeably in Psalm 2 where the ‘kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord’ (Psalm 2:7). In both cases the outcome is the same. Here the invading forces melt away like the snow – they came, they saw, they fled. If we live faithfully we too can expect to face opposition (John 15:20) and that is a reality for many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world today. At times of opposition recalling those experiences of God’s deliverance in the past may encourage us that he can and will rescue us in the present.

The response to God’s salvation is to mediate on his unfailing love (v. 9). We who live on the other side of Christ are called to bring to mind the salvation that God has wrought for us, we do this most obviously when we gather together, particularly when we share bread and wine. In many church traditions what we call ‘communion’ is referred to as the Eucharist, a term that derives from a Greek word meaning ‘thanksgiving’ and which neatly sums up our response for all that God has done for us in Christ.

In the final verses of the Psalm we are invited to walk about and admire Jerusalem’s towers and ramparts. The point of the guided tour is not just to appreciate the finer details of Jerusalem’s architecture but to let physical objects remind us of God’s deliverance, in the same way bread and wine are tangible reminders of the Christ who died and rose for us. They are reminders of God’s unfailing love, so we are to pass that good news onto the next generation (v. 13) and have confidence that this good God will be our guide for ever and ever (v. 14).

The Psalms: Sharing our Victory

Clap your hands, all you nations;
    shout to God with cries of joy.
For the Lord Most High is awesome,
    the great King over all the earth.
He subdued nations under us,
    peoples under our feet.
He chose our inheritance for us,
    the pride of Jacob, whom he loved.
God has ascended amid shouts of joy,
    the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the King of all the earth;
    sing to him a psalm of praise.
God reigns over the nations;
    God is seated on his holy throne.
The nobles of the nations assemble
    as the people of the God of Abraham,
for the kings of the earth belong to God;
    he is greatly exalted.

– Psalm 47

We often read the Psalms individually, on a case by case basis, without paying too much attention to their sequence and order. However, for some of the Psalms at least there does appear to be a connection, some sort of flow between them. Psalm 46 and 47 are good examples of this.

Psalm 46 is a confident assertion, in uncertain times, that Israel’s God can be relied upon, that in an insecure world he is our ultimate security. Psalm 47 very much builds upon that. The Psalmist’s conviction that Jerusalem will not fall (46:5) turned out to be well placed (at least in the short term) and Psalm 47 seems to be a joyous, almost riotous celebration that Israel has indeed been delivered from her enemies.

Verses 2–9 look like a fairly typical example of the theology of the victor, the depressing ‘our God is the true God because our armies have duffed up your armies’ sort of thinking. From verse 2 onwards it all looks a bit triumphalist, a paean of praise to a national deity, no different to that you might expect from any pagan nation that had proved victorious in battle.  

Normally the twist in the tale comes at the tail but here it’s at the beginning.  The rest of the Psalm talks of nations being subdued (v3), of people being trampled underfoot (v. 3), of the rulers of the nations belonging to God as if they were humiliated defeated captives (v. 9). The great shouts of joy (v. 5) might be taken as being those of the victors who have triumphed over their enemies and are sharing out the spoils.  

The opening verse of the Psalm though gives a very different way, a quite surprising way, of reading those verses.  There’s much more going on here than first meets the eye. Instead of being lorded over and silenced, the subdued nations are invited to join in with the shouts of joy and to join in with the applause. 

Here we see the truth that Israel was prone to forget. Going back as far as Abraham she was called not for her sake alone but was called on behalf of others. God was blessing Abraham in order to bless the nations through him.

Of course, it’s not just Israel who had a tendency to forgetfulness, we do too. Yes, let us revel in the victory that God has won. Let us rejoice and be glad that by Christ’s death he has broken the power of the devil who holds the power of death and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14, 15), let us celebrate that in Christ he has disarmed the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Col 2.15), let us delight that his Spirit dwells within us and we are no longer slaves to sin. Let us never forget the victories that God has won but let us also remember that the blessings God has given us, spiritual or material, are not for our sake alone but are to be shared as generously as he has shared with us.

The Psalms: Peace

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
    God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.’
The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

– Psalm 46

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 many reporters described it as an earth-shattering event. The opening lines of this Psalm also employ the language of geology to describe life changing political events.

Verses 1–3 describe a world that is greatly troubled, where there is massive upheaval and the fear of conflict. Under such circumstances, when the stable foundations of our lives are under threat, whether by war or anything else, it is understandably very easy to be anxious and frightened about the future (v. 2).

In verses 4–6 the Psalmist expresses his conviction that in spite of what others say that Jerusalem will never fall – but it did (2 Kings 25).

The Babylonian exile is the painful reminder that the words of the Psalm are not to be taken in some wooden and literalistic way – as if faith in Israel’s God was some sort of rabbit’s foot or lucky white heather, a talisman or charm against any evil befalling them or us.

And yet the Psalmist’s confidence that God ‘is our fortress’ (vv. 7, 11) should not be lightly dismissed. When we feel the ground is giving way, when our bodies succumb to illness and the ravages of time, when the familiar falls away, when dreams are shattered, when our world is shaken, Jesus has promised us that we can know a peace that passes all understanding.  ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (John 14:27).

God never promises us immunity from trouble or from tragedy but we can experience a measure of that promised peace in our lives because ‘the Lord Almighty is with us’ (v. 5). The God the Psalmist worshipped is the God who became flesh in the person of his Son, who shared our lives and who even now dwells in our hearts by his Holy Spirit.

The Psalm is profoundly personal speaking to us in our discomfort and distress but concludes with a hope that embraces the whole world. Not only are we invited to see how God has brought peace – and challenged to be part of what God is doing (Matthew 5:9) – but we are promised that the God who is with us and whose peace we can know now will one day bring peace to the whole earth.

Pastor’s Thoughts – December 2018

Dear friends, 

Happy Christmas! 

By now your plans for celebrating the festive season will probably be in place. You’ll be thinking about sending out cards; be well ahead in thinking about gift-giving; and maybe you’ve already started thinking about how to plan Christmas lunch. Or maybe you’ve done none of those things, and you are one of those people that is really glad that the petrol station is open on Christmas Day because there’s always someone that you’ve forgotten. 

I’m not known as the world’s most organised person but Christmas Day runs to a timetable! Since I do almost all the cooking as well as running a service, I need to know exactly what’s going on and what I’m supposed to be doing at any time. 

This all makes an interesting comparison with the first Christmas. From Mary and Joseph’s perspective the first Christmas was chaos. They had to travel 70 miles on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem with no clear idea of where they were going to stay or what was going to happen when they got to their destination. Chaos. 

Bethlehem itself was full of visitors coming to be assessed for their taxes. No one was happy about that except perhaps the tax collectors. Chaos. 

Shepherds are just trying to go about their normal activities keeping the flocks safe from wild animals and their own tendency to wander off when suddenly the skies are full of angels singing. They have a message for the shepherds and as a result the shepherds leave the flocks behind and go to look for the baby. Chaos. 

In fact everything was chaos. Except that none of it was. In Genesis, God promised that one of Eve’s descendants would conquer the powers of evil. To Abraham, God promised a covenant with his descendants, that He would be their God. Through Moses, God promised to raise up another prophet that would speak His words to the people. Through Isaiah God promised that a servant would come who would suffer for the sins of God’s people and bring victory to them. Through Ezekiel he promised that He would give people a new heart and a new beginning. Through Jeremiah He promised a shepherd that would care for His people, Israel. Through Isaiah He promised that one of David’s descendants would reign with justice. Through Micah, He promised that this child would be born in David’s City, Bethlehem. 

No chaos here but a plan being worked out through an ordinary couple who were extraordinarily willing to be obedient to God. No chaos here, but God’s plan and hope of salvation being worked out. 

Getting ready for Christmas really should be about us preparing room in our hearts to receive Jesus afresh and to be willing to be obedient to His plan for our lives. God has great plans for us all. He has called us as disciples to be His missionaries in this place. We have just passed the 199th anniversary of the founding of this church. In 2019 we will celebrate 200 years of the life and witness of God’s people who make up this church. 

To mark this occasion a number of activities will be taking place culminating in that anniversary on the 23rd and 24th November 2019. These will include a variety of events which we will be advertising in the New Year. There will be a fund for mission events and the possibility of a trip to visit our partners in Rwanda. We felt it was right to choose a verse for us as a Church for this year and it is from Ephesians 3:20-21:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. 

Yours in Christ,
John 

The Psalms: Wedding Song

My heart is stirred by a noble theme
    as I recite my verses for the king;
    my tongue is the pen of a skilful writer.

You are the most excellent of men
    and your lips have been anointed with grace,
    since God has blessed you for ever.

Gird your sword on your side, you mighty one;
    clothe yourself with splendour and majesty.
In your majesty ride forth victoriously
    in the cause of truth, humility and justice;
    let your right hand achieve awesome deeds.
Let your sharp arrows pierce the hearts of the king’s enemies;
    let the nations fall beneath your feet.
Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
    a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom.
You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
    therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
    by anointing you with the oil of joy.
All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia;
    from palaces adorned with ivory
    the music of the strings makes you glad.
Daughters of kings are among your honoured women;
    at your right hand is the royal bride in gold of Ophir.

– Psalm 45 (read more)

I have to confess that I gave the royal wedding a miss. While Harry and Meghan were saying vows and exchanging rings I was enjoying hassle-free shopping in a local supermarket.

I did however read an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury in which he confessed how nervous he was, afraid of getting his words wrong or dropping the ring. A royal wedding is a big gig and I dare say the composer of this wedding song would have shared the Archbishop’s anxiety, even if in his day millions worldwide weren’t watching the whole event on television.

For the cynical, this Psalm can be read as the sycophantic jottings of a court musician. For the less cynical it can be seen as a joyous celebration of human love. At another level it is impossible for followers of Jesus to read these words and not think of Christ.

Israel had an ambiguous relationship with kingship – prophets warned against it but God’s people insisted on it and suffered the consequences. At best the king was God’s earthly representative, entrusted with looking after his people and leading by example. Sadly, the only example given by most of the kings of Israel and Judah was a negative one!

Out of the disappointment with human rulers however came a belief that God would send an ideal king, a Messiah, to establish his rule on earth.

It is easy to understand why early Christians would have seen in this Psalm a picture of Jesus. He is the everlasting king (v. 6), the most excellent of men (v. 2), who has defeated the forces of evil and in whom the kingly rule of God has drawn near.

King Jesus also has a bride. In Revelation John writes, ‘I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her husband’ (Revelation 21:2). Paul uses similar language comparing the people of God to Christ’s bride (Ephesians 5:25–32), John the Baptist described his cousin as the bridegroom (John 3:29).

Marriage meant leaving behind an old set of loyalties in favour of the new relationship.  Just as the bride was to ‘forget’ her father’s house (v. 10) so we are to ‘forget’ our former loyalties and make pleasing Christ our goal, as he is our Lord. Verses 10–15 are a reminder that one day we shall see him face to face and on that day, we shall be beautiful and glorious, radiant in splendour. I would be surprised if many of us feel that way too often but that is God’s intention and his Spirit is at work in us to change us ‘from glory unto glory’ (2 Corinthians 3:18), getting rid of the ugly sin side of our lives and making us more like him (1 John 3:2).

The final verses turn back to the King-groom.  At one level the climax of this wedding song is simply wishing a happy and successful marriage, the sort of thing we would wish for any couple but, read with Christ in mind, these verses remind us of God’s desire to bring many sons (and daughters) to glory (Hebrews 2:10,13). It is also a reminder that we will reign on earth with our Lord (v. 16), not bossing anyone about but nurturing the earth and caring for one another as God intended from the start. That is ‘the Big Day’ we can all look forward, a marriage truly made in heaven and one that will be celebrated forever (v. 17)!

The Psalms: God Has Not Forgotten You

We have heard it with our ears, O God;
    our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days,
    in days long ago.
With your hand you drove out the nations
    and planted our ancestors;
you crushed the peoples
    and made our ancestors flourish.
It was not by their sword that they won the land,
    nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
    and the light of your face, for you loved them.

– Psalm 44:1–3 (read more)

Is anyone there? Is anyone listening?

Ever caught yourself thinking such thoughts? If you have then this Psalm says you’re in good company.

The nostalgia-tinged opening of the Psalm celebrates what God has done in the past (vv. 1–3). It looks back to a golden age when God rescued his people, delivered them from Egypt, led them through the wilderness, took them to the Promised Land and saved them from their enemies. God had granted them success after success, victory after victory and so God is to be praised (vv. 4–8). And there the Psalm could end but it doesn’t.

Verse 9 begins the accusation: that was then, but what about now? The following verses catalogue a list of national disasters, rejection by God (v. 9), dispersal amongst the nations (v. 10), the butt and scorn of the neighbours (vv. 14–15).

I walked past a wayside pulpit the other day. It read, ‘If God seems distant, guess who moved?’ The psalmist would protest loudly, ‘I didn’t!’

In vv. 17–22 he makes it very clear that he has not been unfaithful, that he has not chased after other gods but he has remained loyal to the God of Israel. So, what’s going on?

Verse 22 suggests that sometimes suffering is the price we pay in the world for our loyalty, ‘for your sake we face persecution all day long’. Derek Kidner comments that ‘suffering may be a battle scar rather than a punishment’. Jesus said the same: ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also’ (John 15:20). That has been the case for many Christians throughout the centuries and as organisations like Open Doors remind us it still is the case for many today.

Verse 22 is also quoted by St Paul in the middle of that great passage where he reminds us that nothing in the whole of creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ (Romans 8:36). Later on in the Psalms we read that he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep (Psalm 121:4–6). There are long times in the Bible when God appears silent (the Egyptian captivity, the Exile in Babylon, Easter Saturday). Sometimes we feel like that as well, but the truth is that God has not forgotten us and is not unaware of what we go through. In his steadfast love he has and will redeem us.