During my second year at university I made a decision that impacted the rest of my life. I decided not to return to the Civil Service after graduation. The call to full-time Christian ministry was clear. I was excited to be accepted for training for the Anglican ministry. But there was just one problem. I was terrified of being expected to take funerals. But the Lord was gracious. He removed my fears while at theological college in Bristol. Three months after our first daughter was born, Joanna’s father died suddenly. Then, just a month later, my own father died suddenly. At the age of 29 I became the oldest man in either family. In one month I gained all the experience I needed to be able to empathise with others. And a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians took on special significance.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
And that is the purpose of tonight’s service. And that is one of the reasons we are reading Psalm 90 together. This beautiful psalm speaks to us of the brevity of life in the light of eternity. It was the inspiration for one of the best known hymns by Isaac Watts,
“O God, our help in ages past”. Surprisingly, there is not a hint of despair or complaint, simply humble child-like submission and trust. There are three parts to this little psalm. Each tells us something about God as well as about ourselves.
God’s Eternity and our Frailty (Psalm 90:1-6)
God’s Anger and our Sinfulness (Psalm 90:7-11)
God’s Mercy and our Hope (Psalm 90:12-17)
Thomas Jefferson once asked the rhetorical question:
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”
In the 18th Century, on both sides of the Atlantic, there would likely have been a consensus that the answer was self-evident – our civic responsibility is but the outworking of our higher responsibilities to God. When the same revolutionary spirit infected the North American Colonies as it had France, it became a more debatable question there also. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which Jefferson helped write, provided one solution – separate church and state. Originally this was intended to protect the church from the state. But since 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted it to mean that religion and government must stay separate for the benefit of both. Not so today. In an increasingly secularized world, most Americans and Europeans believe the Church should keep out of politics.
It is appropriate then to ask the question, what has religion got to do with politics? I suggest a great deal. From a Christian perspective, that we have responsibilities to both God and the state is clearly implied in Jesus’ enigmatic epigram, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ (Matthew 22:21). The religious leaders had tried to expose Jesus as either a collaborator with or rebel against the Roman Empire. Here is the context:
God has created us with meaning and purpose, with dignity and value – in His image. But for what? – We inhabit a world designed, created, nurtured and sustained by Almighty God, to whom we are accountable for the way we steward His good earth.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idolor swear by a false god.” (Psalm 24:1-4)
Life is a journey, with a beginning and end. We’re all travelers, somewhere on that journey, forever on the move, learning, growing, changing. The disruption caused by Covid-19, the daily news updates of casualties and the attempts to find a vaccine inevitably lead to a rollercoaster of emotions, highs and lows, hopes and fears. Psalm 23 is probably the most widely known and best loved of them all. In part it is because it addresses the strong emotions we often feel at times such as this. There are two parts to Psalm 23:
23:1-3 “The Lord Is My Shepherd” – What I affirm about God. 23:5-6 “You love will follow me” – What I experience of God.
23:4 links the two together. The Lord is my Shepherd because I know Lord you are with me.
As a young Christian at Sussex University in the early 1970’s, I was enthralled by David Pawson’s biblically-based teaching and coveted his weekly teaching audio cassette tapes, especially on controversial theological and political subjects. He taught me to root my faith in scripture and apply it to every aspect of life. Forty years on, I remember David with respect and admiration. View his website here.
The Psalms have a unique place in scripture. They have been likened to a hymn book. But not just any old hymnbook. Whether we feel like worship or not, as we begin to recite the verses of the psalms, something begins to happen in our hearts. It is as if the saying of the words draws us in to praise. John Piper says, “Thanksgiving with the mouth stirs up thankfulness in the heart.”
I don’t know about you, but I cannot read more than a few verses of Psalm 148 without wanting to sing the beautiful hymn “All Creatures of our God and King”. It was written by William Henry Draper, based on a poem by Francis of Assisi, and set to a tune composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. But as we sing, or say, the words of this psalm, I also confess that I smile at the absurd idea that somehow we human beings can instruct the angels, the sun and moon, the weather, the mountains, the seas, reptiles, birds and animals, to praise God. Why? Because the scriptures tell us this is something which they already do, naturally and instinctively, all the time.
On a recent flight I read an article in the airline magazine about a rather unique watch called a Tikker. It doesn’t just tell you the time – it tells you how long you have left to live. The author of the article, Ben Hamersley writes, “Do you have any idea how long you have left, well, actually? In total? To live? I do. It’s counting down on my wrist as I type this. I have, according to my watch, 44 years, ten months, five days, six hours, ten minutes to go. Even less by the time you read this, of course, and the information is coming to me every time I glance at my wrist. I’m wearing a Tikker watch, calibrated against my date of birth, nationality and other pertinent things, and displaying a forever depleting time left to my, actuarially predicted, statistically average, time of death. The brainchild of Fredrik Colting – a Swedish former gravedigger…” Fredrik obviously had plenty of time on his hands. We all do, and one of the things I love to do on a flight is watch the map of the world going by and the timer ticking down to the arrival time. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have one for our life journey? Fredrik hits the nail in the coffin by observing,
Beat the clock. Around the clock. Against the clock. Clock in. Carry the day. Once in a blue moon. From now on. In the long run Come of age. A day in the sun. The crack of dawn. Year in, year out. A month of Sundays. Hour of need. Full of the joys of spring. Now or never. The moment of truth. Better late than never. Make my day. Here today and gone tomorrow. A blink of the eye. Days are numbered. What do they all have in common? Time. We say, long time no see. Killing time. Wasting time. Behind the times. On time. Just in time. As time goes by. The nick of time. Do time. Serve time. A whale of a time. Save time. Good time. Ahead of time. No time to lose. The big time. High time. Time is money. Times flies. Crunch time. Out of time. Time for a change. Times up. I counted over 100 expressions for time. They all refer to chronological or sequential time.
Around Easter time, a few years ago, I found myself in Bethlehem. I planned to spend the day with a Christian family in a village called Beit Jala near Bethlehem. Their land had just been confiscated. Their beautiful old olive trees are being bulldozed to make way for the 8 metre high Separation Wall. It was going to come within 3 metres from their front door and not only cut off all day light, but cut their whole village in half. The Hafrada or apartheid wall (that is what it means in Hebrew) has been ruled illegal by the highest court in the world, the International Court of Justice. But few are doing anything about it. So we did. But we never got to see the family that day.
As we walked down the hill towards their property we came face to face with a line of soldiers with guns and tear gas and sound bombs. And they were not about to let anyone through. They tried to scare us off by lobbying few sound bombs at us. And they succeeded in scaring us, temporarily. But we carried on walking toward them until we came face to face with these young soldiers. We assured them that we were unarmed and had peaceful intentions. We were not there to hurt them. We disagreed with what their government is doing. We wanted to see our friends on the other side of the road – please. They said no and after an hour or so we went home. I came back the next day with a friend and we managed to see the family and take these pictures.
I am still working through the rights and wrongs of civil disobedience. What do you do when you see people made homeless, widowed, orphaned? When you witness deep injustice, theft, exploitation? When you see a State abuse its power? And Christians justify this theft of land in the name of God? What would you have done? More importantly what would Jesus have done? I can tell you what he would not have done. Would he have picked up stones and thrown them at the soldiers? Would he have taken up a gun and forced his way through? No, of course not. But would he have ignored the suffering? Would he have walked by on the other side? I don’t think so. What was the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan? If you are not sure, you need to watch our film With God on our Side.