November 1, 2009

To Your Name Be the Glory

A few weeks ago I made a comment that the drive which some churches have in mimicking the life and practice of the early church is a bit overdone. I still think that is that case, but it is worth noting that trying to do things like believers in much closer proximity to the original events than we are isn.t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it.s probably a good idea to try and incorporate things they did like worshiping only God and avoiding the sinful practices of the broader culture. Another feature of the early church worth emulating is the fact that it was generally a sending body. In other words, it actively sent missionaries out into the world in order to spread the message of the kingdom and grow the church. You see, then, like now, not everyone is called to go to other places in order to spread the message of the Gospel. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, ministry takes money. If every believer was a full-time missionary like the Georges who would support us? Not the world, that.s for sure. We can and should be missionaries wherever we are, but that.s not what I.m talking about. As it stands, though, God does call many of His children to answer the call of the Gospel in parts of the world foreign to them. It is the responsibility, privilege, and frankly joy of churches to support these individuals emotionally, spiritually, and financially. We are blessed as a church to have two who God has called to do kingdom work in a faraway place. Shirley and Taylor Woodlief have been gifted and called by God to serve as short-term medical missionaries in Honduras with the Friends of Barnabas organization as you all know. What some of you may not realize, however, is that they are going to leave us this coming Saturday to undertake this mission. It is our duty and pleasure this morning, then, to commission them to this service as a whole church.

This month as a church we are going to spend some time in the riches of the Psalter. With that in mind, as I was thinking and praying about what Scripture would be an appropriate send off for these two, I came across Psalm 115. Psalm 115 is part of a series of psalms recited or sung by the Jews (ancient and modern) as part of the Passover Celebration. Specifically, Psalms 113-116 are sung before the meal and 117-118 are sung afterwards. Now, the Passover is the annual celebration of the Jews to remember and thank God for His faithfulness in saving them from the hands of their Egyptian masters as recounted in the book of Exodus. Specifically, it is a remembrance of the tenth plague which finally broke the resistance of Pharaoh to freeing the people of Israel from slavery. In this plague, the angel of death was sent by the Lord to the land of Egypt and was licensed by God to take the firstborn child of every family that had not faithfully followed God.s instructions to avoid this fate. Now, Israel rightly celebrates the freedom God gave them in this act, but the stand-off between God and Pharaoh was about much more than simply seeing the people of Israel set free to return to the land of their fathers. The claim of Pharaoh was that he was a god and the ruler of the largest empire in the world. The Egyptians worshiped a full pantheon of gods and goddesses (much like the Greeks and Romans would one day do). Pharaoh was believed to be among this cohort and was worshiped as such. In this light, the events of the Exodus were about God establishing Himself as the One True God of heaven and earth so that people could worship Him as they were designed to do. In fact, each of the plagues can be seen as God specifically challenging the power and authority of a different Egyptian god. In other words, the Exodus was an evangelistic effort on the part of God and Moses was His evangelist. As a result of this incredible act of God.s sovereignty and power, the people of Israel were expected to keep the Passover festival to both remind themselves and to proclaim to the world that they worshiped the One True God. Because of the very different world culture at that time, being sent out as missionaries would not have been an effective way to spread the message of the grace and power of God, but through the Law, the Temple, and their festivals, the people of Israel were intended to stand as a beacon of Truth in a dark world of lies such that all people might come to know the One True God through them. As the modern people of God, while the details of our mission and the nature of our relationship with God Himself have changed some thanks to the word of Christ, we are still to stand as a beacon of hope and Truth in a dark world of lies and false gods. All those who answer this call are able to experience the full blessings of God. For this fact He is due all the praise, honor, and glory. Indeed: Praise the Lord who blesses those who turn to Him from this false world.

Now all that is interesting, but talking about Psalm 115 and commissioning these two faithful servants to the Lord.s work. Ah, but you see, there is a connection here. Let.s turn to the word in order to see it. Open your Bibles with me to Psalm 115. Let.s read these words together: “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory because of Your faithful love, because of Your truth.” I should note that the phrase “faithful love” here translates the wonderful Hebrew word chesed which tries to convey all the richness of the love and faithfulness of God in a single word. Your translations might also have things like faithfulness, lovingkindness, mercy, or something else similar. The reason for the variety is because of how much theology is being packed into this single word. But the point here is that God is due this praise because of His chesed and His truth—the very things the Israelites were celebrating in the Passover. Today, we praise Him because of the faithful love and truth demonstrated in Christ. It is this very faithful love and truth that we endeavor to proclaim to the world through actions both grand (like preaching to a stadium full of people) and seemingly simple (like fitting a child for glasses who could never have afforded them otherwise). There.s nothing about us that make Him worth this, but it.s all about Him. Indeed, with the psalmist we can say with assurance in v. 18 that “we will praise the Lord, both now and forever.” Praise the Lord who blesses those who turn to Him from this false world.

And speaking of this false world, the next part of the psalm talks more about it. Keep reading with me picking back up in v. 2: “Why should the nations say, „Where is their God?.” That statement could be taken in a couple of different lights. It could be a complaint: “Why are they all picking on us by asking where our God is?” Or it could also be a challenge: “You want to ask where our God is, where.s your god?” Given what comes next, I tend to go with the latter option here. Let.s continue in v. 3: “Our God is in heaven and does whatever He pleases.” Okay, stop again. It.s pretty universally recognized that a god in heaven is better than a god on earth for we attribute greater altitude with greater sovereignty when it comes to things we worship. For both the Israelites taking part in the Exodus and those trying to reestablish their identity after the Babylonian exile (which was probably when this psalm was written), one of the defenses of the Israelite religion not having any idols is found right here. Other people would look at the Jews and make fun of them saying, “Where is your god? We can kneel before ours and worship in his presence. What can you do?” Here the Jews answered right back: “Yours may be on earth and visible, but ours is in heaven and therefore over your gods. Furthermore, our God can do anything He wants to; He.s not limited to a certain segment of the natural world nor by where you put him.” The point isn.t that God simply does whatever He wants (an idea which our fallen minds frame as a bad thing because we don.t understand that He is good) but that He is free and not bound by our limitations. Thanks be to God that He is sovereign and free. That means that when Shirley and Taylor go to Honduras they will be serving the same God we are serving here in Dinwiddie County. The rest of the gods in this world are limited by the abilities we ascribed to them and thus false. Praise the Lord who blesses those who turn to Him from this false world.

As the psalmist continues on this point he becomes almost comical. Look at the next few verses with me: “Their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk. They cannot make a sound with their throats.” Let me correct myself from a second ago: up to this point the author is being funny. In v. 8 he becomes deadly serious: “Those who make [these idols] are just like them, as are all who trust in them.” Well, let.s back up and deal with the funny stuff before getting to v. 8. The point the author is making here is that these idols may have human features, but to no productive end. The gods of this world are made of dust and by dust. They are created to be beautiful—hence the reference to gold and silver—but they are still created. They cannot speak to their people—neither words of comfort nor caution. They cannot see anything—whether the people are celebrating or mourning. They can.t hear anything—whether praise or pleas. They can.t smell anything which seems like a weird thing to include until we know that sacrifices were to create a pleasing aroma to the receiving god so the offering would be accepted meaning the false gods cannot accept worship from their people. They can.t feel or pick anything up with their hands. This again seems a bit odd until we remember the multitude of verses in the Bible which describe God.s care and protection with the imagery of being in His hands. These false gods are seeming more and more ridiculous yet the psalmist forges ahead. They have feet but can.t walk. This means they can.t go anywhere. Well, given the choice between serving a God who can be everywhere at the same time and a god who doesn.t leave the spot I last put it down, I.m going with the first one. In fact, though you can.t push this analogy very far, these false gods are like infants that can.t yet roll over or climb over baby gates before the mature God. Actually, when you think about it, the only folks who worship these false gods haven.t yet matured to a point of being able to recognize that something is false when they see it. Finally, these false gods can.t even make a sound. It.s not enough that they can.t speak any words from their mouths but they don.t even have vocal chords to be able to even grunt. Well, what do you call something that has a mouth, eyes, ears, a nose, hands, feet, and vocal chords but can.t use any of them? I don.t know about you but apart from some tragic medical cases I.d call it an inanimate waste of space. If all of these purposed parts of the body have never, cannot, and will never be used in the way they are intended to be used then the object that has them is purposeless. And if this purposeless object is being worshiped, what.s that say about the worshipers? Praise the Lord who blesses those who turn to Him from this false world.

The psalmist actually does say something about the worshipers. Look at v. 8 again: “Those who make them are just like them, as are all who trust in them.” Folks worshiping these false gods are just as ridiculous as the gods themselves. This was a pretty powerful message to send to the nations saying “Where is their God?” especially considering that most of these nations were far bigger and more powerful in a military sense than was Israel. Yet surely this has nothing to do with us. I mean, most people in our culture today don.t worship idols like they did back then. Well, not only is that not nearly as true as it was fifty years ago, but if folks worshiping a statue are silly, image how much more absurd are those who worship something that doesn.t even look human. Make no mistake here: we have our idols today. Yes, more and more people actually worship carved idols, but many more worship things like books, cars, sports, clothes, a certain body type, a set of religious practices (or simply the idea of church), video games, work, science, and just about anything else we can think of. The nations in Israel.s day would have looked at us with scorn and said “At least ours looks like something worth worshiping.” I.ll tell you, it takes giving up a whole lot of idols to leave behind everything that.s familiar and go to a place with a substantially lower standard of living in order to perform simple medical tasks. Incidentally, there.s a word for those who worship these false gods: dead. They are only spiritually dead right now, but dead is dead and eventually the body will catch up to the spirit. And the psalmist has something to say about those who are dead. Look down the page to v. 17: “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, nor any of those descending into the silence of death.” Now that may not seem like such an earth-shattering statement, but we were made for praising the Lord. If we aren.t praising the Lord then we are not working according to our purpose then we are without a purpose short the false ones we construct for ourselves in order to get by. In this, we miss out on all the blessings of being who we were designed from the beginning to be. This is why we must turn from the things of this world to the Lord. Just like you would institutionalize me if I told you that I had a bit of gangrene in my arm but that it wasn.t really hurting anything else so I was just going to leave it, if we maintain any…any…areas of our lives in which we worship something in this world, we are spiritually doing the same thing. Let us seek the blessings of the kingdom available to us. Let us praise the Lord who blesses those who turn to Him from this false world.

The central part of the psalm here talks more about these blessings for turning to the Lord. In fact, let.s read these verses together as a call and response like they were originally intended. You can find these words in your bulletin insert. I.ll read the leader part, you read the worshiper part. (If you are reading from a manuscript, read the italicized part.) “Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and shield. House of Aaron, trust in the Lord! He is their help and shield. You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their help and shield. The Lord remembers us and will bless us. He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aaron; He will bless those who fear the Lord—small and great alike. May the Lord add to your numbers, both yours and your children.s. May you be blessed by the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” These verses are a call to the entire world to trust in the Lord. And as we place our trust in Him we will be in a place to receive blessings from Him. The one specific blessing detailed here is for God to increase the size of our family. Now, culturally, that blessing was really important for a people who had been decimated by war and displacement. Big families are still great today, but perhaps not for the same reasons they were then. It is true that Christian parents having a bunch of kids is an effective way to grow the church, but again, that may not be the best application of this blessing for us. Instead, understanding through the lens of Jesus Christ that we are all a part of the family of God when we place our lives in His hands, we can see this as asking God to increase the number of His followers in this world. Well how is that going to happen? How about by going to Honduras to spread the love of Christ through medical mission work? In other words, when we place our trust in God not
only does He bless us, but sometimes He also makes us the means of the blessing. Shirley and Taylor, when you guys head south in a few days, know well that you will be going as a living fulfillment of this psalm. You know better than any that you will be blessed in the going, but you will also be a means of blessing to others which will in turn bring blessing to all your brothers and sisters in Christ as our number grows.

Speaking of our numbers growing, in earthly terms, a kingdom is only so large. As it gradually fills up with people, eventually people run out of room. They become too numerous to be supported by the land anymore. There.s a balance point, then, where increasing population is no longer helpful in terms of a greater number of people being a benefit to the whole. In this sense, there becomes a point at which we don.t want the kingdom to grow any larger because the balance has shifted from everyone being aided by a larger population to everyone being harmed by it. But when we are talking about the kingdom of God this discussion becomes totally and completely irrelevant. God.s kingdom is going to be able to more than handle all those who are in it. And in the kingdom of God, truly the more there are the merrier it will be. The more people we can bring into the fold of the kingdom, the more blessed we will all be. For the world is false and seeing any fall prey to its traps who could otherwise be worshiping our great God alongside us is unfailingly a tragedy. Praise the Lord who blesses those who turn to Him from this false world. He also blesses those who help others through the turning.

Now, let me turn my attention and address Shirley and Taylor specifically. You don.t need to hear from me about how incredible this trip will be. You know that far better than I do. But you do need to hear a reminder of the incredible blessing you are going to be to everyone with whom you come in contact and also to your church family you will leave for a time. We live in a world very much like that of this psalmist. There are a lot of people asking: “Where is their God?” The anticipated answer for such a question has changed, but not the reason for it. People want to know where our God is in a world that is broken and seems to reveal more brokenness by the day. And the thing is: they need to believe in something and so in absence of a God worthy of worship, they.ll worship anything that seems to hold some glimmer of truth. The great task before believers today, then, is to proclaim the truth that we serve the only God who is worthy of worship; that the world is false and our trust is only safe when it is firmly in the hands of “the Maker of Heaven and Earth.” We do that in this room at 11:00 every Sunday morning, but our audience is pretty limited here. Of the vast number of people in the world the fraction who will ever hear what is said here is so small as to nearly boggle the mind. But that doesn.t lessen the need for the message to be heard. We have the cure for the only disease in this world that matters in the long term and when we stand before the judgment throne the excuse that we couldn.t broadcast the message beyond the borders of Dinwiddie won.t fly very far. It is the missions of mercy and evangelism that believers take all over the world that carry the message spoken in little churches like ours to the far corners of the globe. Therefore, as the two of you prepare to go this week, know well that you are enabling the call of this psalm to be experienced in the lives of the people in Honduras. Know well also, though, that you don.t make this trip alone. And your accompanying team is not what I.m talking about. Like the early church, this church is a sending body. But in the sending we are also going with you in the Spirit through prayer. In this spirit, I want you to come and sit here before the body this morning and we are going to cover you with prayer in order to send you off with all the tools you.ll need for lasting success in this mission. To the congregation, I invite you to come and lay hands on them and offer prayers on their behalf. There.s nothing magic in the laying on of hands, but the record of Scripture points to the fact that God works in this touch to fill those set aside for His service with a special filling of the Holy Spirit for the accomplishing of this service. So come and join me this morning as we send these two off to proclaim through their words and deeds the God who alone is true in this false world. Let us together praise the Lord who blesses those who turn to Him from this false world.