In her Wall Street Journal opinion piece two weeks ago in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of southern Texas (September 7, 2017), Peggy Noonan canvassed the range of responses to assist people in need following the storm.
At one point she wrote: ‘The local ABC station caught a young Catholic priest, a French Canadian assigned to a Houston parish, out in a kayak in the heavy rain looking for people who could use a Mass. “I guess this is how the Americas were evangelized as well with a canoe,” he said, “and this is a kayak. I hope that can bring a smile to a few people.” Noticing the TV cameras, he said: “I guess we’re live (TV). The Lord is alive, and the Lord is always with us as well.”’
Indeed, this is one of the great things we learn about the Lord God; he is not only alive but is always with us.
Psalm 139 is sometimes described as the crown of Hebrew poetry. In it, David the writer speaks of a Watcher who is not a mere passive receptor of information, like the prying eye of cyberspace. Rather he is someone who knows and understands every detail of our existence – including our motives. And, what is most important, he cares for us at every twist and turn of life.
‘You have searched me God, you know me,’ David says. ‘I have no privacy, no place from which I can exclude you. There is no corner of my mind where I can shut the door against you. Everything I do, everything I say, everything I think, is wide open to you.’ ‘You hem me in behind and before, you have laid your hand upon me’,he continues.
At first, it seems that David is saying, ‘everywhere I go, every step I take, I feel you breathing down my neck.’ But the larger context shows us that he doesn’t see it this way. The words you hem me in can also be translated, ‘you guard me’ or ‘you encircle me for my protection.’
He doesn’t view God’s all-embracing knowledge as a threat, but rather as a refuge. He is not at all resentful of God’s all-seeing intelligence.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? He asks. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast, we read in verses 9 and 10.
David’s imagery of taking the wings of the morning is that of traveling at the speed of light to a far place. Even there he will still find God. The instant the thought enters his head that he might escape God, he realizes it is impossible.
Many of us have felt the same as David, but we sometimes have a note of frustration in our voice: ‘God, I want to get away from you. I want to forget you’.
But, surprisingly to us, David isn’t trying to run away. His reaction to God’s all-embracing knowledge is one of deep-felt gratitude. For unlike human prying eyes, God’s eyes are pure, and he is just in all his ways. When we truly turn to him, his presence is not a threat or a cause for anxiety, but rather joy. David understood that God’s presence means guidance and protection.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (vv.11-12). David was anticipating the possibility that in a moment of panic he might find himself saying, ‘God has left me and forgotten me.’ Instead, he was saying that no matter how dark the situation seems, God has infra-red vision – he sees in the night just as well as he sees in the day.
Yes, God expects men and women to be true neighbors, putting aside differences and serving one another in times of need. But we often forget that such care and compassion springs out of the nature of the God who has made us. Indeed, human acts of compassion do not mean that God is on the sidelines. His reassuring hand is present as much in the tough times as in the good times.
In another psalm (Psalm 23) David could say: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. And, in the aftermath of his resurrection from the dead, Jesus promised his disciples and in turn you and me, that he will be with us always – every moment of every day – until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
One of the marks of human selfishness is our failure to say, ‘Thank you.’ King Lear,one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, illustrates this theme. The play tells the story of a man who voluntarily set aside his titles and property in favor of his three daughters, only to find himself reduced to poverty and homelessness. His daughters turned him out. “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,” King Lear says. “How sharper than the serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”
Some parents might identify with these sentiments, but how often do we as God’s children express our gratitude to him?
The opening lines of Psalm 95 read: O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods… (Psalm 95:1-3).
While there may be times when we express our thanks in silence or even with tears, singing is a great way to show our love for God. We sing when we are happy and glad when there is joy in our hearts. Have you heard the singing of the Welsh Rugby Union supporters? They can’t stop, and their singing is enthusiastic and full-bodied.
The opening lines of Psalm 95 are the words of people who know God as their refuge and strength – to quote Psalm 46 that I touched on last week.
Consider the repetition of the verbs: sing, make a joyful noise,… How different this is when so many of us drift into church pre-occupied, late and apathetic.
Indeed Psalm 95 suggests that singing is not just a matter of responding to God. Through singing, we also exhort and encourage one another. That suggests that our songs need to be strong on Bible and not insipid, ‘woosy’ stuff. For songs are not intended merely to arouse some spiritual ecstasy: they are instruments of special instruction. Singing is an important way we can express our thanks to God and our relationship with one another.
Further, as the psalm unfolds, we see reasons why we should sing: For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also…(Psalm 95:3-4).
One of the distinct features of Christianity is the insistence that there is a living, personal God at the heart of the universe. God created all that there is, and continues to sustain every part of it.
Furthermore, the more scientists discover, the more extraordinary the universe seems. There are chemists and physicists who tell us what the Scriptures reveal: the universe has not come by chance, but rather is the work of God’s design and purpose.
So, consider the personal pronouns and the imagery of verses 4 and 5: In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it; for his hands formed the dry land. These are personal images.
The word hands speaks of a God who is not some robotic brain behind the universe. When we plumb the depths of the cosmos we find not so much a scientific formula or a mathematical equation, but a divine personality.
All this tells us something else about God and us – he sustains all things, he directs all things. It’s important to know this and remind one another of it, for this helps us make sense of our lives. We see that we’re not just part of a meaningless journey going nowhere.
Here is another great reason for singing to the Lord. Our lives have a purpose, a goal. And that purpose and that goal are bound up with knowing this God who is our refuge.
No wonder Psalm 95 insists that we come and sing to the Lord: Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, a great king above all gods.
It is often said that people who go to church leave their brains at the door. But worship of God is not a mindless activity. Songs of praise are not simply a strategy to create the right psychological atmosphere. Vital Christianity always gives rise to joyful singing because there are sound reasons for thanksgiving and joy.
How often do you think about the good things you enjoy with a spirit of thanksgiving in your heart and a song of praise on your lips – when you go to church and when you rise in the morning?
In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans… I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy… I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules (Daniel 9:1, 3-5).
In Daniel 9:1-19 we find one of the really great prayers in the Scriptures. It is a prayer that is worth reading, re-reading, and meditating upon.
The time was around 539BC and Daniel, and his fellow Jewish people were in exile in Babylon. Their country had been conquered and occupied by Babylonian forces since 586BC. Daniel had been amongst the cream of the Jewish population that had been taken into exile. And while in Babylon Daniel’s abilities and faith had shone when, at significant moments, his advice had been sought by Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius.
Some scholars have questioned the reference to Darius because the only known ruler of the Medo-Persian empire with that name came to the throne after the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem. However, the references to ‘Darius the Mede’ in Daniel 6 and 9:1 suggest that this man was an official appointed by Cyrus with jurisdiction in Babylon. Further, the fact that there is no particular archaeological reference to this Darius is not necessarily a cause for concern. Scholars were cynical about the existence of Belshazzar (Daniel 5) until evidence turned up about him.
Now in his 80s, Daniel had lost neither his intellectual sharpness nor his faith in God. What is more, he had not forgotten God’s promises through prophets such as Jeremiah that the period of exile in Babylon would be seventy years. Daniel was confident that God would not forget and that the restoration of his people would occur.
However, Daniel didn’t simply take life easy waiting for God’s promises to come true. He was zealous in living out God’s commands while actively praying for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
That is significant for it shows us that God’s sovereignty doesn’t take away human responsibility. God’s rule is not a mechanistic fatalism. He invites us to partner with him in the implementation of his plans.
Daniel’s prayer has two parts – confession and petition. Let’s consider his confession.
While Daniel’s confession is a general, not personal, confession, he includes himself: ‘we have sinned and done wrong; we have rebelled; we have turned away…’ (9:5).
Furthermore, his focus is God: ‘O God’ he prays: ‘we have turned away from your commands and your laws’ (9:5); ‘we have not listened to your servants the prophets’ (9:6); ‘we have not obeyed the laws you gave’ (9:10); ‘we have not listened to your voice’ (9:11); ‘we have not looked for your mercy, turning away from our sins and learning from your truth’ (9:13).
Let’s think about this. By talking about God in personal terms – ‘your commands’ and ‘your prophets,’ Daniel acknowledged the personal covenant relationship that existed between God and his people. Furthermore, the covenant had guidelines – commands and laws.
There are principles here that can apply to God’s people now. Too often we turn away from God and act independently of him. How often are we tempted to think that God’s discipline falls only on the godless and terrorists?
So we need to ask, ‘Is God pleased with the church in the West?’ ‘Are we the kind of people he is likely to revive and bless?’ Sadly, too many churches have become hopelessly compromised by the spirit of the age. How easily we absorb our culture’s desire for instant gratification.
Daniel’s prayer sets out the principle for us that we cannot fruitfully pray for our church, for our cities and our country without first confessing our own sin. That is something Thomas Cranmer understood: he included a prayer of confession in Morning and Evening Prayer and The Lord’s Supper.
Confession involves knowing the mind of God because we have listened to his voice in his Word. It involves being honest and humble, genuinely saying sorry to Godfor our sins, asking for his forgiveness, and the ability, by his Spirit to turn back to him and walk with him.
Prayer:Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily glorify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen (Collect for Purity, BCP, adapted)
Optional – you may like to read: Daniel 9:1-23; Colossians 1:9-14.
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