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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

God, the Maker of Worlds (Psalm 16)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

            In the Fantastic Four super hero comic books, one of the enemies of the Fantastic Four is Galactus, an alien so large, he travels through the universe consuming planets.  When they made the Fantastic Four into movies, in one of the films, another alien, the Silver Surfer, came to earth to warn us of Galactus’ approach and intention of eating our planet, and all of us.  The Surfer told the Fantastic Four, “It is called Galactus, ‘Destroyer of worlds.’”
            What kind of Greek trip am on that I would read Psalm 16 and think of Marvel comics and the Fantastic Four?  It’s not the first thought I had in my reading of Psalm 16.  In fact, I’ve been reading that Psalm over and over for almost a month now.  I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, what about that?  What about Psalm 16 and Galactus and the ‘Destroyer of worlds?’
It is actually something a great Bible scholar said about the Psalms and what Israel was doing when they sang the Psalms in worship and what God did through the Psalms in the heart of Israel and in us when we worship through reading, praying, singing, and most importantly believing the Psalms.  In his brief commentary Abiding Astonishment, Walter Brueggemann wrote the Psalms “intend … to unmake, deconstruct, and unmask … worlds which seduce and endanger Israel.”[i]
In this sense then, the real God, not the Marvel Comics Galactus, is the ‘Destroyer of Worlds.’  God destroys worlds – threats, ideologies, lies, false theologies, idolatries, fears, seductions.  The Psalms reiterate again and again that God is faithful and is Almighty.  No threat will come to Israel that possesses more power than God.  Foreign invaders like Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and Rome will hurt Israel, but only because God permits it.  And those injuries always come in conjunction with Israel turning away from God, turning to false God, trusting in unwise alliances, and exploiting the poor.  Unfaithfulness and exploitation always, always accompany the arrival of a foreign power in Israel’s history.
God is never off the scene.  God sometimes moves to the background to allow Israel to live with the pain that comes with her sins.  But God is always present to destroy the invader and ideological and political worlds that threaten God’s order.  God is a destroyer of worlds. 
What’s true of what God does for and in Israel is also true for the rest of human society.  First through the creation mandate to scatter over the earth, then through the priestly mandate to Israel to be a Holy nation that draws lost and sinful humanity back to God, then through Israel’s prophets who imagine a future in which all kingdoms of the earth find their fulfillment in the worship of God, and finally in the Great Commission to make all of the world followers of Jesus, the words of the Psalms ring true for the church.  God is a destroyer of worlds, the forces that would seduce, threaten, and ultimately kill the church. 
What are some of those forces?  What draws our attention away from the Gospel?  What tries to tell us who we are, when we know our identities are based on who we are in Christ? 
Some voices insist we must advocate on behalf of refugees.  Their lives are fluttering in the wind and we in the wealthy west must open our hearts and our arms and homes.  It’s matter of valuing lives.  Yet, the same voices will not permit space for the unborn when the conversation switches to crisis pregnancies or unwanted pregnancies.  Then, we can’t talk about the baby’s life, only the woman’s choice.
Some voices insist that we get very specific in damning certain sins, like homosexuality.  We must declare it an evil that threatens our way of life.  And this insistence ignores completely the way Jesus welcomed people – all people, and gave extra love to those who needed most, people rejected in society.  The voices insisting this righteous condemnation ignores the truth that the Holy Spirit is leading the church to love all people and welcome all people.
Conversely, there are voices that are just as loud that demand that all relationships be affirmed by the church.  A Christian baker or photographer sees his work as a kind of ministry.  But then these voices tell him, he has to serve a same-sex wedding.  His reading of scripture tells him that’s against God’s will.  Those voices aren’t interested in his reading of scripture.  He either has to go against what he thinks God is telling him in the Bible and bake the cake for the same-sex marriage; or he has to give up the business he loves and believes is a ministry. 
What forces draw our attention away from who God tells us who we are in Christ?
Some voices insists that our primary identity involves the country of our citizenship, instead of our belief that we are subjects in an eternal kingdom.  As citizens our top concern should be for border security.  We know our calling to go out; ‘go into the all world baptizing and making disciples.’  It’s hard to remember our call when so many voices vie for our attention and compete to tell us who we are.

I’ve done a very rough run through of just some of the issues that have dominated the headlines in the past couple of years, right up to today.  I believe we have a call from God to care for all lives – refugees, the unborn, persecuted persons in other countries, disadvantaged persons in our own community.  We are called to love these individuals and help them know Jesus as their Savior and thrive as his disciples.  We are called to love and welcome people who are confused about their own sexuality or who openly claim a sexual identity that is outside the parameters of what’s allowed in scripture.  The church must be in the mercy-giving business.  If condemnation is to come, let it come directly from God to the individual.  We’re to be mercy, love, and grace-givers.  And because theology is so complicated, I think we have to create space for people to have different beliefs on issues, but still feel at home among us.
The grand issue is calling.  We are called to the cross – to confess and then leave our sins there.  We are call to receive forgiveness and new life.  All these issues and many I have not mentioned turn into idolatries that seduce and endanger us.  God is the destroyer of the worlds that would come about if we forfeited our unity in Christ for the sake of commitment to issues instead of commitment to Him as Lord.  We’re not to be an issue-driven church.  We’re to be a Kingdom-driven church.  We love refugees and speak for the unborn, and we love and welcome straight people and gay people because love is a core Kingdom value intrinsic to who we are. 
Through the Psalms, through the church, through the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, God destroys some worlds to make room for the world God is constructing, creating.  There’s one line that has daily drawn me back to Psalm 16.  “In your presence, there is fullness of joy.” 
I look to God and say it over and I over.  I sit down to pray and begin with silence.  I try to shut out the noise of the latest rally or protest, the latest outcry or accusation that leaps off the new website.  I get my mind as quiet as I can before God, praying for the Spirit to fill the void.  After a minute or two, I then begin filling the quiet with that phrase, “In your presence, there is fullness of joy.”  I need to remember that God is present and what it means because God is present.
Reaching for that palpable sense of God’s presence, I then proceed into prayer and Bible reading and then into the day.  This yearning for God to be present and make sense of the world that seems to be devolving toward chaos is what led me to the whole idea of the ice berg.  If you haven’t been here, I’ve proposed that our mission in worship has been to seek more and more of God the way we might see more and more of the iceberg beneath the surface of the water.
This not escapism, an attempt to pretend the world’s problems don’t exist.  They do and we Christians must be a witness in the midst of the conversation.  But whether it is the refugee crisis, the abortion question, the conversation over sexual ethics, or something else, we do not come it as people of a particular stance.  We see as if we are standing in the Kingdom already.  We see it in the light of who God is.  Saying that, I do not give an answer as to what view the church holds in any specific case.  Rather, I insist that we who are in Christ view each issue through a prism of love, grace, and mercy. 
The debates over each of these issues that have produced such division turns the issues themselves into idolatries, but we will not be seduced into walking to our own destruction.  We are followers of Jesus who know God is present and thus we keep our attention on him.  We look to the Holy Spirit to know how to think, act, and speak.  And we keep looking back to the Spirit knowing the Spirit is dynamic, always on the move, leading us onto new paths. 
The Psalm itself gives markers both of God’s presence and of who we are because God is present.  In these markers we see the worlds God destroys.  We also see what God makes – a world of beautiful relationships; a world run by love.
The first marker is verse 2 – “I say to the Lord, you are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”  A few weeks ago, I came across a quote that is going to be part of my self-understanding going forward.  My life makes no sense apart from God.  Either I do good and help people because I yield to God love in me and allow God to direct my life, or I rebel against God’s love and thus I live selfishly.  Either way, the only way to understand a Christ-follower is in terms of his or her relationship with God.  Similarly, the only good in our lives is the good God brings into our lives.  Other pleasures will turn out to be relatively harmless forgeries or life-destroying seductions.  We are aligned with God when we can truly say the good in our lives comes from him.
The second marker is verse 5 – “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.”  Originally this may have be sung by Levites or referred to Levites.  In ancient Israel they were the one group not allotted land.  They were assigned to oversee worship, so their food and their provision was mandated in the commandments.  When society was obedient, they provided; thus, God was their portion.
The verse speaks to us to remind us that in addition to giving us all that is good in our lives, God meets our needs.  It’s basic to the Lord’s Prayer.  “Give us this day, our daily bread.”  Through the disappointments and triumphs, life’s wins and losses, God is always present.  God works in our pleasure and our pain, always making us new and preparing us for the eternal Kingdom.
That leads to the third marker of God’s world-making in Psalm 16 and it comes in verses 10-11.  “You, O God, do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.  You show me the path of life.  In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  God gives us good things and our lives make no sense apart from him.  God is our portion, provider of all we need.  And, God’s future for us is rescue from death; rescue to eternal life.
The word Sheol and the concept of the pit are both Old Testament descriptions of death and separation from God.  The idea I’ve been trying to present is that God rescues us by destroying divisions and temptations that separate us from Him.  God destroys those worlds without him in our lives that would arise as we follow those temptations.  Where verse 10 says God does not let His faithful one fall into the Pit, we see a Messianic prediction.  God will rescue the Messiah and we believe that rescue comes when the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is resurrected.
First Corinthians 15 says Jesus is the “last Adam,” the “life-giving Spirit.”  As he was resurrected, so will we be.  As his disciples, we have resurrection and eternal life ahead of us.  It’s all promised in this Psalm: all the good in our lives, all our needs met, and rescue from death.  “In God’s presence, there truly is fullness of joy.”
So, we unite in God.  Plenty of ideas and movements, forces of evil afoot and on the move, are jockeying to divide us and destroy us.  The Holy Spirit is drawing us together in Christ because that’s what God does.  We’ve talked about how God is big and relational.  We’ve talked about how God goes out His way for poor and downtrodden people.  We’ve talked about God loves riches and powerful people and they can see that when they see their own brokenness.  Today we see that God is a maker of worlds.  God prepare us for life in a world where love what drives relationships.  We can be active in this world, helping people, participating in causes, and raising our voices.  But whatever we do, our eyes are on God and we step out at God’s prompting, as God clears the path ahead.

[i] W. Brueggemann (1991), Abiding Astonishment: Psalms, Modernity, and the Making of History, Westminster/John Knox Press (Louisville), p.26.

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