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On Being in Church Once More


Psalm 93


I: — “Never let anyone tell you about the good old days”, my 80-year old grandfather told me when I was 19, “they weren’t good.”   He knew whereof he spoke. My grandfather worked 40 years in the factory of a major Canadian automobile manufacturer, and worked both before and after the unionization of workers. He often told me what it was like to work in a factory in the days before worker organization. He never once told me of the pittance-wages in those far-off days.   He spoke instead of working conditions, such as the danger of having car engines, each weighing half a ton, passing overhead on conveyor-belts. Occasionally one fell off and crushed the man below working on the line.   A company official would snarl at the horrified men to mind their own business and keep working while the victim was shovelled out of the way, lest the line have to be shut down.  My grandfather spoke of the company’s policy of treating different workers with outrageous arbitrariness so as to keep all employees off-balance, anxious, thoroughly confused and powerless as well.

The “good old days.” I had a grade-8 teacher who fondled pubescent girls in the classroom.   To be sure, the teacher tried to be discreet about it.  He assumed that his stealth was undetected.  But of course we pubescent boys had noticed for a long time what he was up to. We sniggered about it at recess. One day a 13-year old girl in the class, upset at the teacher’s advances and humiliated as well at her public victimization, leapt out of her seat and ran to the principal’s office.  A few minutes later she was back in the room, crushed and in tears; the principal to whom she had fled for refuge had laughed at her story and dismissed her as frivolous.

I don’t think the old days were “good” old days.  Yes, I’m aware that there are 1.2 million abortions each year in the United States . I don’t think, however, that the swelling figure means that the human heart has suddenly taken a turn for the worse, even though I am dismayed at the ceaseless slaughter. I think, rather, that the abortion figures swell on account of medical technology.  In-and-out abortion appointments are now as quick and slick as routine dental appointments. More than two hundred years ago John Wesley was startled at the number of women he found aborting themselves in England, and startled again that so very often the women who did this were those he least expected to find doing it.

Of course parents are anxious when they contemplate the pitfalls that await a teenager whose carelessness or cowardice outstrips her wisdom. Yet when I was younger than a teenager I saw my parents haunted by a pitfall of a different sort: the polio of the 1950s.  People who had fallen prey to polio could readily be seen.  They hobbled among us or wheeled or “crutched” themselves, even as occasionally there was yet another horrible story of an iron lung.

No one is going to make light of AIDS, particularly when we hear of places like the nations of central Africa where children are raised in town after town by grandparents, parents everywhere having died on account of the disease. While we are thinking of disease, we should recall the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919; it killed millions more than World War I had so recently killed.  (The ’flu killed 20 million.)

“The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice, the floods have lifted up their pounding”, the psalmist cries in Psalm 93. Everywhere in scripture the flood is a symbol like other large bodies of unpredictable water: oceans, lakes, large rivers.  All of these large bodies of water symbolize heart-stopping threats to humankind. The threats can be natural disasters like earthquakes and epidemics.   The threats can be humanly engineered, like the savagery with which people war against each other.  The threats can be self-induced, as when people flirt with sin only to find that sin’s consequences sear indelibly.  The threats can arise from sources that most people can’t even comprehend, as when huge sums of capital are moved from Tokyo or New York or Hong Kong and chain reactions begin that leave some people fortuitously wealthy and others forever impoverished. The threats can also be the most private, personal matters that no one else will ever know of yet for all that are no less chilling for the person who dreads them, and dreads them for good reason.

I admit that some things are less threatening now than they used to be. Children are much less likely to die prematurely from childhood disease.  Workers are much better protected than they used to be.  At the same time, however, other matters are much more threatening. War now kills far more civilians than combatants.         Environmental disasters are far more lethal than they used to be.  Thanks to electronic wizardry propaganda can be disseminated much more widely and far more tellingly than it could heretofore.  In other words, while different “floods” “pound” in different eras, the psalmist’s cry is never out of date: “The floods have lifted up their voice, O Lord; the floods lift up their pounding.” Our Israelite foreparents in faith were acquainted with the world’s tumult.         The human condition is just that: the human condition.


II: — In the midst of it all an Israelite mysteriously gifted with an experience of God more intense than his experience of the world’s tumult; an Israelite mysteriously gifted with a vision of God more intimate than the spectacle of his people’s pain; an Israelite mysteriously gifted with a Spirit-intimacy more immediate than all the immediacies that clamour in him as surely as they clamour in everyone else; in the midst of it all an Israelite who knows he’s been kissed by God cries from his heart, “The Lord reigns; God reigns.”   The psalmist isn’t a human freak; he doesn’t live above the poundings without and the palpitations within that no one else can get above. And since he’s part of the community of God’s people he’s affected as much as anyone else when that community stumbles or sins or bleeds from self-inflicted wounds, or manages to disgrace itself yet again.  Nevertheless it has been vouchsafed to him to stand up and declare, “The Lord reigns! God reigns!” He shouts his declaration just because he’s been seized with a heart-seizure he could never deny and would never want to.  “The Lord reigns; he is robed with majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.” With his heightened seeing, the psalmist sees God robed, robed splendidly. To be robed, in scripture, is to possess authority.  To be robed in majesty is to have one’s authority made luminous with royal splendour. God looms up before the psalmist as sovereign; not idly sovereign (Queen Elizabeth being a mere figurehead, all power vested in parliament) but actually sovereign; and all of this shot through with splendour.         To be brought before the One who is robed in majesty is to be drawn to his authority on account of its splendour and to submit to the splendour on account of its authority.

And yet the psalmist sees even more.  He sees God “girded with strength.”   To be girded is to have one’s legs unencumbered by one’s cloak. When ancient people “girded their loins” they reached down between their legs, drew up their cloak by the hem and tucked it into their belt.  People “girded” themselves when they were about to flee, fight or work. Because God has promised never to forsake us, he won’t flee from us.  Yet since he is girded he will both fight for us and work for us.  And since he is girded “with strength” he will fight and work for us victoriously.

Now the psalmist exults, “Thy throne is established from of old; thou art from everlasting.” At the same time the psalmist declares that the world is established. How can the world be “established” when the world is precisely what is being pounded relentlessly? How can the world be “established” when chaos threatens the world at every moment? The key to understanding the psalmist is his insistence that God’s throne is established “from of old.” God’s throne is established “from of old” whereas the world is really very recent. Because God’s throne is established “from of old” the relatively recent world can never sink all the way down to chaos.  To say “from of old” is a Hebraic way of saying “from the creation.” However much chaos may appear to threaten, creation can no more be undone, ultimately, than the Creator himself be undone.  The fact that God’s throne is established, and established from of old, will always guarantee that the world is established.  However turbulent the world, however evil successive generations may be, one generation’s evil won’t be piled on another generation’s evil until evil accumulates to the point where the world is nothing but evil. This can’t happen.

At the same time the psalmist is realistic.  While evil won’t accumulate until the world is nothing but evil (and therefore humanly uninhabitable), evil and treachery, turbulence and tumult continue to afflict the world.

In Psalm 93 the psalmist refers repeatedly to the “floods.”   Any large body of riotous water is a biblical symbol for massive threat. Ocean, river, lake, flood: they all refer to threat, threat from any quarter in life, threat that aims at engulfing life.

There are always threats from natural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, epidemics. There are the threats that political leaders engineer: war, discrimination, harassment. There are threats that money-managers pose: how many people helplessly lost their savings when the head of Royal Trust invested hugely in useless vehicles and Royal Trust stock bottomed out?   And of course there are threats of a personal, private nature: crushing disappointment, shocking betrayal, powerlessness in the face of relentless disease and unstoppable death.

Robert Coles, the paediatric psychiatrist at Harvard who continues to wonder why so many clergy are foolishly infatuated with psychiatry while disdaining their clergy-work as spiritual helpers; Coles tells of a medical school classmate, now middle-aged like Coles himself, who found himself a patient in one of Boston’s major hospitals. The MD-patient was incurably ill (and knew himself incurably ill) but not near death at that moment. A hospital chaplain (clergyman) entered his room to see him and began asking him how he “felt” about the diagnosis of his disease, how he “felt” about its prognosis, how he planned to “handle” it all.  The sick physician (he was Roman Catholic) was annoyed at the chaplain’s aping a psychiatrist. He cut off the amateurish questioning by picking up his bedside bible, handing it the chaplain and fuming, “Read to me from it; read to me from anywhere at all.” Startled, the chaplain opened the bible anywhere at all.  Since the book of psalms is in the middle of the bible, any bible opened at random will more likely open at the psalms than anywhere else.  This time it fell open at Psalm 69: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” (Ps.69: 1-2)   All of us can be – are – faced with floods of any sort from any quarter at any time.

Yet the psalmist continues to cry in Psalm 93, “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty.” The psalmist knows that God’s throne is indeed established from of old.


III: — My own heart resonates with the psalmist’s. He lived 2500 or even 3000 years before I was born. Yet by the grace of God I am one with him in experience and conviction. Needless to say I’m not alone in this. There is no end of people who have read Psalm 93 only to exclaim, “It’s true! I know it’s true. The Lord reigns, clothed in majesty. His throne, everlasting, is never threatened by floods of any sort; and because he isn’t threatened by floods of any sort, neither am I.”  I have met scores of people whose deep-down conviction is just this. Many of them couldn’t articulate it in the words I’ve used.  But no matter. What counts is being possessed of the truth, regardless of whether the right words or no words are at one’s tongue-tip.  Useless, on the other hand, is being able to finesse religious vocabulary while enjoying nothing of that to which the words point.  The apostle Paul warns young Timothy about those who “hold the form of religion but deny the power of it.” (2. Tim. 3:5)  He reminds the congregation in Corinth that “the kingdom of God consists not in talk but in power.” (1 Cor. 4:20)   Please don’t think that you suffer from any disadvantage in not having my verbal dexterity or my theological vocabulary.  The people whom Paul regards as dangerous to Timothy and dangerous to the Christians in Corinth are precisely those who possess both verbal dexterity and a theological vocabulary. The psalmist didn’t cry out as he did because he was a clever wordsmith; he cried out as he did inasmuch as he had caught a vision of the immensity of God and the grandeur of God and the glory of God and the truth of God.  The psalmist cried out inasmuch as he found himself engulfed in the presence of God. But unless we are to be spectators merely overhearing the psalmist and envying his experience, we must come to be possessed of the same heart-surge ourselves.

How? It’s important for us to understand where the psalmist was when he was engulfed and overwhelmed. He was in the temple, at worship, moving through the same old exercises of the same old service as the same old speaker droned on – when it happened.  What happened?   There was stamped on him as never before what was profoundly beautiful about the place of worship: God’s holiness.  “Holiness is the beauty of your temple.”, he cried to God.

Have you ever asked yourself what is most beautiful about the sanctuary of Schomberg Presbyterian Church?         Some might say the deep-dyed carpet, others the highly polished ash pews, others still the overall harmony of all the features of the sanctuary. All of these are beautiful. Yet the profoundest beauty of this room is God’s holiness.         God’s holiness is God’s own Godness; God is utterly distinct from his creation, and not identified with any part of it or aspect of it. God’s holiness also means that God’s character is without defect or deficiency.  His love is free from sentimentality; his anger is free from ill temper; his judgement is free from arbitrariness; his patience is free from indifference; his sovereignty is free from tyranny.  God’s holiness also means that all the aspects of God’s character just mentioned are gathered up into a unity.  Just as every shade of the spectrum from infrared to ultra-violet is gathered up into what we call “light”, so every dimension of God’s character and God’s transcendence is gathered up into God’s holiness. And this is what seized the psalmist one Sunday at worship.  It happened when he was in church.         Isn’t that reason enough for us all to keep coming to church week by week?


IV: — Possessed now of that worship-induced experience of God that is stamped indelibly upon him, the psalmist exclaims, “Your decrees are very sure.”  He means he’s now convinced that God’s truth is unalterable.

We haven’t time this morning to explore what this means for every aspect of God’s truth. Nevertheless there is one aspect of God’s truth we should linger over.   We mentioned it when we heard the psalmist say that God is “girded with strength.” We saw at that time what it meant for God to be girded: he will always fight for us and work for us. At the same time, the apostles insist repeatedly that we, Christ’s people, must be girded ourselves. We too must “gird up our loins”; that is, we too must take up the struggle and the work to which God has appointed us.  Jesus tells us we must have “our loins girded and our lamps burning” (Luke 12:37 ): we must be alert and watchful and ready to do what he summons us to do at the moment of his summons. Peter tells us we are to “gird up our minds (1 Peter 1:13 ); there is an intellectual rigour, a tough-mindedness, that must accompany the conviction and experience of the heart.         Paul tells us we are to “gird our loins with truth” (Eph.6:14); whatever we do in the name of Jesus Christ and for his sake must always be done in truth and transparency and sincerity, never in duplicity or deception or phoniness.

How important is it to come to church and keep coming in expectation of the psalmist’s situation becoming ours?  It’s crucially important, not the least because until the psalmist’s situation becomes ours we shan’t have in our bloodstream the conviction that God reigns, despite the raging of the floods within and without; we shan’t know unarguably that the world is established and can never spiral all the way down to life-choking chaos. And not least, until the psalmist’s situation becomes ours we shan’t know that God is girded with strength, and that because he will always fight and work for us, unwearied work and unstinting struggle are also required of us.

On the eve of his greatest struggle and greatest work, for us, our Lord Jesus Christ girded himself with a towel, we are told. (John 13:4) It was a sign of his humility. Our humility is to reflect his – including that humility which found him at worship, in church on the Sabbath, says Luke, “as his custom was.” (Luke 4:16)   Our Lord knew that God’s holiness is the church sanctuary’s profoundest beauty. What seized the psalmist seized our Lord ever so much more intently.  May it seize you and me alike as we are at worship, in church today, and every Sunday too.
                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd                                                                      

September 2005