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1999 Congregational Address

 

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know thy name put their trust in thee,
for thou, O Lord, hast not forsaken those who seek thee.

Psalm 9:9-10

Israel of old always insisted that the first responsibility of its king was not to preen himself or increase the lustre of his court or even triumph splendidly in feats of military prowess or political wizardry. The first responsibility of its king was invariably to safeguard the poor.

And who were the poor? They could be the financially deprived, of course. Yet they were also those whose finances were adequate but who had been rendered unusually vulnerable for any number of reasons: reversals, illness, defamation, conspiracy, enemies manifest and hidden. Who spoke up on behalf of the oppressed? Who succoured them? Who endeavoured to provide “armour” where they were most exposed? It was Israel’s conviction that God did. Yet regardless of God’s capacity to act as he had promised, regardless of his eagerness to, the oppressed would entrust themselves to him only as they knew his “name”; that is only as they were acquainted with God’s nature, character, person, presence. (Plainly “name” is a very rich notion in Hebrew.) Just as it was the vocation of the king to safeguard the vulnerable in the service of the King, so it was the vocation of the prophet to acquaint the people with the heart of the King himself. Then, and only then, could needy people be expected to abandon themselves to the One whom they now knew would never abandon them.

Will God abandon us? Why wouldn’t he, in view of the fact that he abandoned even his Son precisely when his Son needed him most? Paradoxically, it is just because the Son was forsaken for us that no human being anywhere, at any time, in any predicament, is ever God-forsaken now or can be. Because the Son was left so thoroughly derelict, and because the pang of that dereliction pierced the heart of the Father, God has taken upon himself that dereliction which we sinners deserve, which we should otherwise have, and which we should rightly fear yet could never fend off. In other words, the anguish endured by the Son and absorbed by the Father now spares us that anguish which we are sure we feel even as our feeling is in fact without foundation or substance. “I will never fail you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5) is now the cry of God’s heart to us.

Then entrust ourselves to him we must. For from the perspective of cross and resurrection we understand that what Father and Son together did for us, they did so that it never need be done to us. God is a stronghold for the oppressed. We know his “name” and will therefore put our trust in him.

The truth of the psalmist’s word I have proven time and again. And as surely as I have proven it for myself I know that I am called to be an icon of it for you. Because God doesn’t abandon, neither do I. And neither must you. For just as the king’s vocation was to reflect the characteristic behaviour of the King himself, so our vocation is to exemplify the Stronghold himself. He who provides refuge for the oppressed commissions us to do as much for each other in any and all circumstances. We, then, shall not fail or forsake one another.

 

Victor Shepherd