The Mercy of God

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We are now are coming to the end of our summer series on the Psalms. Every year in August and September we go through, systematically, the book of Psalms on Sunday evenings. Tonight we are finishing this year's series with Psalm 123.

You say, "Why study the Psalms? Weren't they written between two and three thousand years ago? What relevance have they for today?" That is not just a modern question. It has been asked since the earliest days of the church. One of the first heretics went by the name of Marcion. He decided that the Psalms along with the rest of the Old Testament were irrelevant. So he cut the Old Testament out of his Bible. Plenty of people have been doing that ever since. But the teaching of Jesus himself makes you say: "No! Whatever difficulties there might be with the Old Testament, it is still God's word. So the problem is not with the Old Testament but with us who fail to understand the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament."

And that is what our Anglican forefathers and Reformers said in the 16th century. And that is why they kept on using the "gloria" - that acclamation often said after reading the Psalms - "Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was ... " and so on. For that does two things.

First, it reminds you that the Psalms are to be read understanding that the God of the Psalms is the God who not only revealed himself in the Old Testament through the law and the prophets, but also, and supremely, in the person and work of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, those words, "as it was in the beginning, is now and shall be for ever" remind you that God and his word do not change, as the Bible puts it, "like shifting shadows" (James 1.17). So the fundamental lessons of the Psalms, even though they were written 1000's of years ago, are still true today.

Now you'll see this Psalm is called, like the previous three Psalms, "A song of assents". That probably means it was a Psalm used by pilgrims when they went up to temple in Jerusalem at festival time. The general context of the psalm is there in verse 4:

"We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant."

It is a context of suffering. You see, if you are going to be a true believer, if you trust Christ and are going to live for him, you may well be ridiculed and some people may well despise and attack you. If you are a student the ridicule may be mild as when others say you are a member of the "God Squad". When John Wesley was at the university in the 18th century people ridiculed him and his friends by saying they were members of the "Holy Club". But for some people things can be far worse - as we saw this morning in Hebrews 11. You've heard of those Christians who are on trial for their lives in Afghanistan - on trial because they simply were teaching others about Jesus Christ. Thankfully in the West we still have freedom for public worship and evangelism. But that is not so in many parts of the world.

Have you read Paul Marshall's book, Their Blood Cries Out? It is subtitled, "The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians Who Are Dying for Their Faith - Why it is being ignored, why the silence, what we can do?"

It is a frightening catalogue of persecution of Christians, I quote, "in India and China, Pakistan and Mongolia, Mexico and Peru, Turkey and Egypt, Nigeria and the Sudan, Greece and Bulgaria."

And the book documents other countries where Christians are persecuted. He tells, for example, of Mary, a young Egyptian Christian from the Coptic Church. Her story was in The Observer. So this is a matter of public record.

In the 1990's she was abducted and raped during a nine month captivity. This was at the hands of kidnappers who were Islamic extremists and who tried to force her to become a Muslim. Her captors poured sulphuric acid on her wrists to remove the tattooed cross she wore and they made her fast, pray and memorize portions of the Qur'an. She was then made to wear the veil or else she would get acid in her face. Eventually she gave in and signed papers of conversion. In the meantime her father had gone to the Cairo police. They told him to forget Mary - she was in the safe hands of Islam. Then he too was forced to sign papers that he would not look for her any more. Fortunately Mary escaped with the help of a clandestine group called "Servants of the Cross". Although conversion to Christianity from Islam is considered apostasy, and Shari'a laws even call for the death penalty, the Servants helped her reintegrate into the Christian fellowship.

One of the servants claimed, "I supervise between thirty and thirty-five reconversions every month. In all Egypt there are between seven thousand and ten thousand cases of forced conversion to Islam. It is our duty to save them."

How we need to pray for people around the world like Mary.

Well, the believers represented in this Psalm have been having a hard time whether it was mild ridicule or contempt, or serious persecution. Certainly they were facing problems. But how does the Psalmist suggest you should react in such circumstances? He says, in effect, you are to REMEMBER, LEARN and PRAY.

First, REMEMBER. And you are to remember always, but especially when you are going through difficult times, that GOD'S "THRONE IS IN HEAVEN".

Look at verse 1:

"I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven."

A fundamental art that you must master as a Christian is the art of remembering. No! You don't have to be one of those "memory" aces who win quizzes in pubs and on TV. But the Bible makes it clear that there are some essentials that must be remembered. And God, in his graciousness, provides you with memory aids.

For example, you have to remember the great truth about the death of Jesus on the Cross and how, in our place, he bore the punishment for our sins. And to help you remember, you have the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion.

Then we learnt in our Home Groups this past week of another essential to remember - 2 Timothy 2.8 (these are Paul's words):

"Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel."

How important that lesson is, especially these days, when we are being told that all religions are basically the same. What nonsense! It's reasonable to say that all religions are basically false, but not that they are all the same. Judaism, for example, denies that Jesus is the Messiah. We say he was. Islam, for example, denies that Jesus was crucified. We say he was. And so on. But what makes the Christian faith utterly different to all other religions is that Jesus rose from the dead. The bones of Mohammed lie in Medina, the bones of the Buddha in India, the bones of modern secular messiahs like Lenin and Mao, lie in Russia and China respectively. But in Jerusalem there is the empty tomb. That is a fact and of world shattering significance. And to help you remember that truth, you have Sunday. From New Testament times on, Christians have met together not on Saturdays, the old "seventh day", but on Sundays - the day of the Resurrection. So when you come to church on Sunday "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead."

But the lesson you have here that you need to remember is two fold. It is, one, that God is personal, and, two, that he has his "throne in heaven" - he is sovereign over all.

First, verse 1 reminds you that God is "personal". The Psalmist says:

"I lift my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven."

The God of the Bible is not an "it", but a "he". He is not impersonal, but "our Father". Now we have to be careful. We use these personal words, as the theologians say, "analogically". That is to say, there is an analogy, or parallel, between God's personality and ours, but it is not an exact fit. He is infinite, so we mustn't limit him to our finite understanding of human personality or Fatherhood.

The $60,000 question for everyone is what is ultimate? Everybody believes in something as ultimate. But there are only two real possibilities - either what is ultimate is impersonal or it is personal. Take the view that impersonal nature is ultimate. This universe of space and time is, then, all there is. As Bertrand Russell so graphically put it: "When I die I rot". And history has to be seen as one great wheel or circle - going round and round.

It's the "On Ilkla Moor baht 'at" philosophy: "Then t'worms 'll cum and eat thee oop."

Then ducks eat the worms and we eat the ducks - "then we shall all 've etten thee." It is a cyclical process. Human beings are mere accidental throw-ups of impersonal and ultimate nature. And God is a projection of the human mind - a mythical wish fulfilment.

All that may be a logical possibility but it is extremely hard to believe. As Professor Edwin Carlstin, a biologist at Princeton University put it:

"The probability of life originating from accident is comparable to the probability of [an] Unabridged Dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing factory."

Equally logical and more believable is the alternative view, namely that the personal gave rise to the impersonal. You have that view in the Bible. The Bible says a personal God gave rise to nature. It wasn't the other way round. He gave rise to, or "created", this remarkable universe of space and time. It didn't give rise to him. But even though that is more believable, you still need evidence. So what is the evidence? The Bible says, look at history. History isn't circular. It had a beginning and will have an end. And God has been doing things in history and supremely in Jesus. And it is Jesus and his resurrection that are the great proof that what is ultimate is personal. What is ultimate is "he" and not "it".

However, in the Bible the personal nature of God is not given as a philosophical proposition. No! Because God is personal and he is your Father you need to relate to him. Luther said, "religion is a matter of personal pronouns". It centres on you being able to say, "My God", and God being able to say to you "My child". Can you do that? And you can only do that through Jesus who introduces you to his Father, ensures your forgiveness and gives you new life by his Holy Spirit so that you can start living in a personal relationship with this personal God. So verse 1 reminds you that God is personal.

But then it reminds you that this personal God is the Sovereign Lord of all. He is addressed as "you [the personal "you"] whose throne is in heaven." That is picture language but it means he is ruling and reigning. This is taught from beginning to end in the Bible. He is the King. And he rules over all - the great and the small - and in every detail. His dominion is total. Jesus said that "even the very hairs of your head are all numbered" (Matt 10.30).

Now, some people have a difficulty with this concept of God's sovereignty. That is because the Bible teaches the reality of full human freedom in decision making at the same time as it teaches God's total sovereignty. And it teaches that God can sovereignly use human free choices as the planned means to his own ends. So you read in Genesis 50.20 Joseph saying to his brothers:

"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good."

And in Acts 2.23 Peter says on the day of Pentecost:

"This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross [which they freely did]."

It is a mystery - human freedom and God's sovereignty. But the Bible says both are real. Charles Simeon, the great Anglican leader at Cambridge at the beginning of the 19th century said this - you may find it helpful:

"as wheels in a complicated machine may move in opposite directions and yet subserve one common end, so may truths apparently opposite be perfectly reconcilable with each other and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man's salvation."

Simeon believed it was essential to stress both truths, human freedom and God's total sovereignty. For that is the clear teaching of the Bible.

But again, as with God's personal nature, the Bible doesn't teach about God's sovereignty as a cold philosophical doctrine. It is taught as a great comfort. If you trust God, you don't have to worry. He is in control and nothing happens outside his control. And he is working for your good. Things may seem hard. But he knows best. As you look at the threads of your life, they may look pretty tangled. They may look pretty tangled at this very moment. But in God's scheme of things there is another side. It's like a tapestry. You just see the messy underside in this life. One day he is going to turn the whole thing over, when Jesus comes again. You will then see the amazing picture that God has been weaving.

So you need to remember not only that God is personal, but he is sovereign and in control of your life, as well as of the world. Let's move on.

Secondly, the Psalmist tells us something that you must LEARN. You must learn to "LOOK TO THE LORD OUR GOD".

Verse 2:

"As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God."

The thought here is of an ancient banquet. The master and mistress of the household are sitting at their table. Standing against the wall are slaves and the maid who are waiting for an eye signal from the master or mistress about what they should do next. They are waiting for instructions about when to bring in the next course, or when to serve more wine. The Psalmist says that is how it should be with us and the Lord. You need, therefore, to be seeking to learn what are his instructions and his will for you and your life. "Our eyes," the Psalmist is telling us, should "look to the Lord our God, till he shows mercy."

What is "mercy"? This particular word means in the Old Testament "a gracious undeserved favour shown by a superior to a subordinate". With God it covers all his love and goodness towards us. So our God is not only personal and sovereign. He is also "merciful" and gracious. He is not only our Father. He is our loving Father. He wants the best for us. How vital, therefore, you seek his guidance in life. You need to learn to "Look to the Lord our God" for mercy - for help - in solving life's problems and questions. But you say:

"how practically do you do that? It sounds good to "Look to the Lord" for guidance - but what actually do you do?"

Well, that brings us to our final heading tonight - you "PRAY" and that is our subject for next Sunday night. So I shall be brief.

Look at verse 3:

"Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt."

You simply ask God for his help and when necessary his guidance. First, if you've never done so, you must ask for his help and guidance about salvation - eternal salvation. If you had died in the World Trade Centre on September 11, where would you now be heading? Where would you be spending eternity? There is one way, and only one way, to be sure. Listen to these words of Jesus:

"whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life" (John 5.24).

So on the basis of that promise, if you've never done so, pray for God's mercy for salvation and trust Christ, and commit yourself to him, and thank him. But then you need to ask God for his help and guidance as you seek to live for him and as you experience opposition. And you need practical wisdom. The Bible says:

"If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5).

You certainly need to pray for God to help make the Bible clear to you. That is where so much practical wisdom and guidance for life is to be found. And pray for guidance when you are faced with two equally good choices. God will guide you, not necessarily when you want, but when it is good for you. That is because he is merciful and gracious.

So, in conclusion ...

Remember that God is personal and sovereign - he is our Father, in heaven and he is reigning. Learn to look to him for guidance and direction in life. And pray for his help.

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