Finding hope in hard times

Please be seated. Let me pray for us as we start to unpack God’s word:

Lord we ask you to speak to us this evening, so that we may live for you as your ambassadors in this hurting world. Amen

Tonight, we are continuing our series in the Psalms. Please turn with me to Psalm 60. The Church of Uganda has known many hard times during its 150-year history. In the 1970’s during Idi Amin’s reign of terror, Christians, especially Christian leaders where at great risk. Janani Luwum, The Archbishop, was arrested and murdered on the orders of Amin. Many people, including a young church leader, Peter Lomongin, were on a hit list drawn up by Amin’s secret police. Psalm 60.3 says:

You have made your people see [or experience] hard things…

Or, as the NIV translates it ‘You have shown your people desperate times’. Hard times come on the faith journey of most, if not all, God’s people. It is your people, God’s people, here who see, or experience, hard things, desperate times. Following Jesus does not exempt us from facing hard times or suffering. In fact, we should expect them. That is the clear teaching of the Bible, for example (1 Peter 4.12):

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

As Christians we should expect hard times. Scripture tells us that that is the case. But Scripture also provides us with the resources we need to live through those difficult times. And one of the key resources for that is found in the Psalms, the song book of God’s people. Throughout the ages the Psalms have given strength, courage, direction and delight to God’s people in their journey of faith. And they still help us today. There are different types of Psalms and one very important category is the Laments, of which today’s passage, Psalm 60, is one. These psalms enable us to struggle in prayer with God about the issues we face in difficult times. They form a model for us as we seek to come to God when we are hurting, afraid, frustrated and unsure. They give us language and emotion to express ourselves honestly and openly. The heading for Psalm 60 says that it is ‘for instruction’. So let’s see what we can learn that will help us.

1. Get to the root of the problem

A week ago, on the Saturday morning of the bank holiday, I was looking forward to a quiet morning to write this sermon. Just as I was about to get started, Meiling called me with the ominous words “Darling, we have a problem”. The boiler had stopped working! Impeccable timing! The control panel was flashing an error code – E119. So, I check the list. Low Pressure. And then ominously ‘call your installer’. On a bank holiday weekend! You could probably hear my inner corporal Jones going ‘Don’t panic! Don’t Panic!’ The level had not quite dropped into the red and I knew that I needed to open one of the valves to repressure the system. I just couldn’t remember which one. Fortunately, at this point You Tube came to the rescue and I was able to locate the manufacturer’s ‘simple fix video’ and get us out of hot water by getting us into hot water again.

So, with life as with boilers, you need to understand where the problem is before you can know how to fix it. You need to make sure which error code you are getting or you may miss an important step in putting things right. Psalm 59 and Psalm 60 both give us clues as to how to face hard times. But there is a significant difference in the two situations David found himself in and there would be a danger of missing a vital step had David approached his Psalm 60 situation in exactly the way he approached his Psalm 59 situation. There are at least two real differences between the psalms. Psalm 59 is very much about David’s personal problem. It’s individual. Psalm 60 is a problem for all the people of God of whom he is leader. It’s a corporate issue. The background to Psalm 59 is earlier in David’s life. He has been a loyal servant to King Saul, humbly trusting God and risking his life fighting against the many nations that threaten Israel’s existence. He’s doing exactly what God wants. But Saul is already in a downward spiritual cycle having failed to obey and honour God. He becomes increasingly jealous of David and feels he is a threat to his dynasty. So, he orders men to assassinate David. These hard things are all external. David has been steadfastly doing the right thing by God. The problem is outside of him.

Fast forward to Psalm 60. It’s now a number of years later. Saul and most of his sons, including David’s close friend Jonathan, have been killed in battle by the Philistines. David has become King and is beginning to unite the people of God and wrestle territory back from the nations threatening Israel. This psalm is set against a series of campaigns, that David sets out on, to pacify those enemies. The incident described in Psalm 60 seems to have taken place at the time of these campaigns. Suddenly God seems to have abandoned his people. It may be that they have suffered some kind of reverse in battle during the campaign. Or perhaps this sense of abandonment is a reflection of what has been going on over a long period of history leading up to David’s reign, where God’s people constantly went astray, suffered defeats in battle and then turned back to God and he mercifully gave them success in overcoming enemies. This ultimately unhealthy cycle is recorded in the books of Judges and in 1 Samuel. Perhaps David is calling the people to this prayer at the start of the campaign.

Whatever the actual scenario, this time round, David identifies the problem not as external but as internal. It’s a totally different error message. God is angry with his people. Listen to the first three verses of the psalm (Psalm 60.1-3):

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defences; you have been angry…You have made the land to quake, you have torn it open…You have made your people see hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us stagger

It’s a different scenario to Psalm 59. There’s a different error message and so there is an extra step that David calls the people to make with him. That step is to:

2. Make sure of your relationship with God

You will not be able to put anything right in your life if your relationship with God is wrong. Everything will be out of kilter. Hard times are not always a result of us being in the wrong. They are not always directly a result of being out of relationship with God. But when they are, you have to start there and deal with that. So, this is what David calls his people, and us, to do. To recognise when we have sinned against God. And to recognise that only by His gracious mercy can our relationship with him be put right. You can’t be reconciled to God by just trying harder. What is needed is an honest confession of sin and a simple plea for God to mercifully reconcile us to himself. Look again at Psalm 60.1-2:

O God, you have rejected us…oh, restore us. You have made the land to quake…repair its breaches…

This is the extra step that we need to take when we discover we have stepped away from God in sinful rebellion, when we have failed to trust him. This issue has to be dealt with first. As the Apostle John says (1 John 1.8-9):

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Once we’ve done that and we know our relationship with God is restored, we can return to the important step that Ramzi shared with us from Psalm 59.

3. Focus on God not the problem

Who is with you in hard times makes all the difference. Once we are reconciled with God and start to focusing on God’s nature, we discover that God is both willing and able to deliver us. Let’s look at some of those faith inspiring attributes of God we find in this Psalm:

Firstly – God protects and delivers.

Look at Psalm 60.4-5:

You have set up a banner for those who fear you, that they may flee to it from the bow. That your beloved ones may be delivered, give salvation by your right hand and answer us!

God is the one to turn to in times of danger. As poetic lyrics, Psalms often communicate truth through pictures. Here we have a picture of the midst of an ancient battlefield. Soldiers in the thick of hand-to-hand combat become separated from their comrades. They are in danger, in this instance from opposing archers. They need a place of relative security to rally. So, a banner or standard, a large flag is raised. It says come here for safety.

Secondly – God is entirely capable of bringing us through hard times.

When the right hand of God is mentioned in Psalm 60.5 it points to his power and authority. God is in control. We need to see this. We don’t need to fear. As we heard in our New Testament reading (Romans 8.31, 38-39):

If God is for us, who can be against us?...For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thirdly – God cares for us.

We are his people (your people – Psalm 60.3) we are his beloved ones (your beloved ones – Psalm 60.5). If God is all powerful and he cares about us we can face anything. So, the Apostle Peter can encourage us to (1 Peter 5.6-7):

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you

Fourthly – God’s total trustworthiness.

Unusually for the psalms, Psalm 60.6-8 have God directly addressing us rather than our petitions to Him. And when he speaks it is in his holiness – his unshakeable, unchanging character. He never breaks His Word. He never goes back on His promises. He always does what he says.

Fifthly – God’s purposes always succeed.

Psalm 60.6-8:

God has spoken in his holiness: “With exultation I will divide up Shechem and portion out the Vale of Succoth. Gilead is mine; Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet; Judah is my sceptre. Moab is my washbasin; upon Edom I cast my shoe; over Philistia I shout in triumph.”

In Psalm 60.6-7 God recounts his plans for the land that he has given his people. It is his land and they are his people and are pictured as representatives of his power (the helmet) and authority (the sceptre). They are honoured. The nations that are attacking them are pictured differently. A washbasin for sweaty feet, a place to throw your old sandals, a defeated people. God is still working his purpose out there but there is no place of honour for those who oppose him. There is much more that we could say but may I encourage you in hard times to remember that God is with you. Focus on who is with you even if, as the psalms famously say elsewhere, the hard place you are walking in is the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23.4). Human resources, yours or others, will ultimately fail (Psalm 60.11). God will not.

4. Place your confidence in God to bring you through

Psalm 60.12:

With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.

Finally, we find hope in hard times by knowing that they are only temporary. They are not our final destination, just a landscape we travel through. This psalm is written from the perspective of God’s people in the midst of desperate times. There is the real honest struggle of faith and prayer when the answers seem far away throughout all 12 verses. But the promise is that ultimately God will come through. And when we turn to the historic record of 2 Samuel 8, we find that God does just that. In all the campaigns David is involved in, it simply records repeatedly that (2 Samuel 8.6):

The Lord gave victory to David wherever he went.

And what of Peter Lomongin? He had been on Idi Amin’s death list. But God removed Idi Amin from power in 1979. He had kept Peter through those hard times and shaped him as a godly man of grace. I had the privilege of studying with him in 1982. He wanted me to go back to Uganda with him and if I wasn’t sure of my calling to East Asia, I might well have taken him up on it. Peter went on to be the Bishop of Karamoja. Under his leadership the diocese grew so large that it had to divide to become two separate dioceses.
And what about the hard things we face? What about the enemies of our faith? Our own inner sinfulness, the dark forces of evil that seek to tear us from God, and death itself? What about them? Listen to what the Apostle Paul says about them (Colossians 2.13-15):

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

In Christ, God has already won the ultimate victory for us and he will bring us through our current hard times to ultimate glory in Him. Let’s pray:

Lord, you said that, ‘In this world you will have trouble.’ But you also said, ‘Take heart! I have overcome the world”. Help us to understand the root cause of our trouble, seeking reconciliation with you where it is necessary, and then to trust you to bring us through our trials strengthened in faith and equipped to serve you. In Jesus name, Amen.

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