A sermon given on June 7, 2020 at First Presbyterian Church, Tenino, WA
A Psalm for Asah
The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes; he does not keep silence; before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest. He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge! Selah “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”Psalm 50:1–15 (ESV)
Twelve weeks have passed since we last gathered as the Church to worship. Individuals and families can practice devotional times and even small gatherings for prayer, singing, and Bible study. However, it takes the communion of the Church in public worship that allows for the fullest expressions of praise and lament, joy and sorrow, and the hearing of the Word of God proclaimed. No matter what you call us, the Church is the community that worships God by gathering.
The question is, what would prevent us from coming together for this lofty purpose? What could be so earth-shacking to upset the practice of the Church meet for worship? Is not worship for the Christian as important as eating and drinking and breathing?
We all know the answer to my question: COVID-19 and “social distancing along with quarantine. Yet the Coronavirus does not answer the question fully. So, possibly the question should be re framed: where does such a virus that is as powerful and destructive as this one originate?
There are more answers to this question than anyone can collect at one time or in one place. Some pastors have suggested that the pandemic is a sign of the imminent return of Jesus. Others with less religion may say that the virus is an example of science run amok. It is something we can do but probably should not. So we are now paying the price for our arrogant use of nature by manipulating it. Radicals of this ilk may even suggest that it is only the beginning of the end. Then there are conspiracy theorists who believe that the virus was created by the Chinese intent on bringing America and Western European culture to its knees.
For me, none of these answers ring true and if anyone is true, unfulfilling. The question remains for the Christian because we believe in the all powerful Most High God who is sovereign over all that man tries to do. I believe there is a more theological approach that can be seen in Psalm 50. This Psalm is a psalm of warning, of judgment, and of deliverance.
In Psalm 50, God gathers the whole world to hear and observe his judgment upon those who are supposed to be his faithful people, but are instead mere hypocrites. The symbolism at the beginning works to declare who God is and why he can judge anyone.
“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” Zion is the dwelling place of God. It is not a physical place, though it is often represented as one in the Old Testament Scriptures. For instance, Mount Sinai is the representation of Zion for the newly delivered Hebrew people. From Zion, God spoke. “Our God comes; he does not keep silence.” God gave Israel his Law at Zion. Our God is still proclaiming his Law Word to us by means of the Holy Spirit and the Bible.
Not only is he the Law-giving God, but he is also a God who not only can call the whole world to gather, but he can cause the whole world to take notice. He declares his superiority and supremacy over all that is.
I have often heard the line “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” Technically, that God owns all things is correct. However, those who use this verse often use it to comfort themselves in times of need. That is not what God says it for. That he owns the cattle is not a comfort but it is declared to create a discomfort in us. If he owns the cattle on a thousand hills, then we own none! We are totally at the mercy of the Lord for all things.
Which brings us to an interesting situation, for God gathers the whole world, then he gathers his “faithful ones.” They are defined as those who made a covenant with God by sacrifice. This identifies this smaller group as the Children of Abraham who made a covenant with God in Genesis 15. And surprisingly, it is to these that he brings his judgment. In front of the whole world!
The key is that God is not satisfied that Israel has followed his law robotically. They offer their sacrifices the right way at the right time. We should not judge the Israelites, though. How many of us go to church every Sunday and daydream through the sermon. Then we blame the preacher for being boring. Both cases are examples of hypocrisy. And God hates hypocrisy.
Offering sacrifices without the heart, or giving money in the offering plate out of obligation are the same sort of error. God’s response to Israel, and to us, is to “Make thanksgiving your sacrifice to God.” Why thanksgiving? Because a thankful heart is a humble heart. We can’t come home from work and say, “I got a raise.” The reality is that in the workings of God’s will you have been blessed with a raise. As a sidebar, getting a raise is not supposed to be about becoming more comfortable or buying a bigger, better whatchamacallit. Thanksgiving asks God why he gave me a raise and what does he want me to do with the money.
Hypocrisy says, “I can do it myself,” whereas thanksgiving recognizes that God is the one who has done it for you. I know I am speaking in simple terms and that the whole matter is much more complex. However, the principle is the same: God hates hypocrisy.
Why, then, does he want the whole world to see his judgment upon his faithful? Because the Lord chastens those he loves. Because our chief end is to glorify God and he is glorified when we receive his correction and amend our lives. To glorify God occurs when he shows the world through his people what is righteous.
Now, what has any of this have to do with the current pandemic? Let me suggest that it has everything to do with it. I don’t know anyone who could deny that the pandemic as attracted the world’s attention. The Coronavirus was not created by God, nor is it just a shaking up of the world. The Coronavirus can be used by God for his purposes. And one of those purposes should be considered in terms of the Church’s reaction?
Sadly, I am not sure we have responded well. I wonder why I did not go to some agency and volunteer to help. I could have delivered meals. I could have ignored the risks and offered to help home-bound elderly people who had no family support. During the Black Plague, Martin Luther opened his home to care for those suffering and dying with out concern for his own life.
In whatever way anyone can come up with, the Church is called to bear the light of Christ in the world. None of us should judge others in this matter. We have enough to handle judging ourselves. But judgment is not the end. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving…and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” That is the end.
Thanking is a condition of the heart that loves God wholly and trusts God completely. It is with a heart of thanksgiving that we know we are not our own, but belong to Christ in life and in death. Thanksgiving is the place from which we may call upon the Sovereign Lord. His deliverance is his glory.