Sunday, June 02, 2024
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“The God who Smashes the Nations”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, June 2, 2024
Reading: Psalm 2

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The Psalms of David are so majestic that they have shaped languages they were not even written in. These ancient words are the hymnal of Israel. Their translation into the King James Bible in 1611 still shapes not just how you and I talk, but how you and I think. My wife Jaylynn had a funeral for a non-church going family once. She asked what scripture they wanted. And they said, “we want that green pasture thing.” Psalm 23 might be the most famous words in the English language.

But there is another side to the psalms. For every green pasture and every “from whence cometh,” there is a psalm full of rancor. For this summer series, we will focus on these less pleasant psalms. I’m calling it “Rude Praise.” I told Elaine Choi that I would be preaching the psalms this summer. She said great, I have loads of music on the psalms. I told her which ones. She came back and said, uh, sorry, no songs on any of those. Why focus on these?

So much of our prayer is so polite. Dear God, if it’s not too much trouble, please help us to be even nicer than we already are. These rude psalms pray differently. God, you are failing at being God. Care to change that, now, please? As I listen to your lives, I hear of so much sorrow. Little polite chipper prayers won’t cut it when you face a cross. The answer is these rude psalms. We can pray to God with anger, even criticism. I didn’t grow up in church, but I still think I was implicitly taught to be polite when talking to God. But the Bible is ugly with God.

For example, Psalm 2 today. I can’t tell you how important this psalm is in the history of the church. But I bet you don’t know it. God speaks to the nations in wrath, terrifies them with fury, smashes them with a rod of iron, dashes them like a ruined pot. I’m guessing you don’t have that in needlepoint on a cushion your grandma left you.

The psalms are the longest book in the Bible, 150 chapters poems to God. Some are praise. Some are curses. Some are historical. Some laments. All are there for a reason. They’re colours on the palette God wants to paint in our lives. Stephen Boda amazed a full house last week with an organ concert. This organ has 7000 pipes. But I’m guessing there are maybe 1000 we use way more than the other 6000, right? These rude praises are the less-used pipes. Stephen showed us last week those less used pipes can make a whole symphony of sound.

Psalm 2 has the first word from God in the Psalms. What is it? The Lord… laughs. Isn’t that great? The first thing we hear from God in Israel’s hymnbook is the sound of laughter. What’s the cliché? If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans. When Sarah our foremother is told she’ll have a baby at age 90 she does what any sane 90-year-old would do: she laughs. Her baby is called Isaac, which means “she laughs.” Laughter, someone wise said, is faith’s constant companion. God is the author of humour, most of Jesus’ parables are jokes meant to double us over in laughter, so we then stumble into faithfulness.

This psalm started life in a coronation of a new king in Jerusalem. We just had a coronation in Britain, so this is familiar. And Judah is at a height of power. It has subjugated other nations. They now pay taxes and tribute and offer soldiers to the king. And not surprisingly those nations resent it. They’d rather not pay taxes or give soldiers. They’d rather rebel, cast off this oppression. And you know a good time to rebel is when there’s a new king. Untested. Unsure. Let’s rebel before the coronation is over.

Psalm 2 warns against this. You wouldn’t be rebelling against a human king but against the God of Israel who created the worlds. God laughs at those plans. We also live in a world where people scheme violence. We see its bitter fruit in Ukraine, Gaza, DC and an election no one wants this year. Right now, people are planning for evil in ways that will hurt more vulnerable human beings. And those are the plans the Lord laughs at. God has wrath and terror for those who harm the less powerful. I’ve heard stories in our community of our elders being scammed out of money by those more computer savvy. Scammers play on people’s loneliness. Despicable. One of you told me of a woman who married three times, and each time, her husband ended up beating her. God notices and is furious. We don’t usually play on these pipes, use these colours on the palette, but there is a place for God’s anger. Here’s the problem. We are not above doing harm ourselves. No one is innocent, not even one. So, you play with fire when talking of divine wrath. This psalm plays with fire. See why we’re doing this series? It’s risky, dangerous, and good.

But that’s not why Christians have loved Psalm 2.

Here’s why. It speaks of God having a Son. Begetting another. An anointed king. Those are really important words in the Christian language. Once we realize Jesus is raised from the dead and start looking for language to describe his relationship to the One who sent him, these words take on new meaning. God has a Son, a begotten one, who is anointed king over the nations.

Now, the words didn’t mean that then. They meant Israel’s king. He is sometimes spoken of as God’s son. It was a way of saying the king is really important. But in no way did it mean the king was god. Exodus speaks of God’s Son this way: “Israel is my firstborn son.” The whole nation, God’s child. Sometimes you hear people say they grant Jesus is a great moral teacher, but of course he’s not God. The great CS Lewis said this in response:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

But we Christians believe Jesus really is God, and the word “God” must now be rethought so that it includes him forever. To say that Jesus is God, Lord, anointed, king forever, is not a religious claim. It is not just true in our hearts. It is true over the cosmos. Jesus is Lord over everything that exists. As you can see in this psalm:

8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage
and the ends of the earth your possession.
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear;
with trembling kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

There was a time when Christians looked around Europe and said hmm, this psalm has been fulfilled. Every part of the known world is Christian. As far west as Spain. As far east as Russia. As far north as Scandinavia. Nothing but rulers submitting to Christ, ruling under the sign of the cross. We knew vaguely there were Muslims beyond Christian Europe. And we knew there were Jews in some places ruled by Christians. And some Christian rulers tried to change that. Make the Jews convert. March off to Jerusalem and retake it. Make the whole world Christian by force. You know about Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492, you know what else happened that year? Christian Spain reconquered the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims and kicked out all Jews. Ferdinand and Isabela are stilled Los Reyes Catolicos, the Catholic monarchs, they were so serious about their faith.

We Protestants used to say, yeah, that’s just Catholics misbehaving. But I think we can see now we Christians have all been guilty of using violence to make the world right. And not just us—our armies today are not slow to fight for democracy, capitalism, human rights—none of those things exist without the church. In World War I Europe was still Christian enough that both sides, Allied and Central powers, saw the war as a crusade, a holy war, against the other. Trying to make the world the one Psalm 2 imagines: entirely Christian, submissive, peaceful.

We’ve done great damage trying to live out this scripture.

What do we do instead? Point out ways, places, where Christ rules, without violence. In 1988 I was 14 years old. The world was divided between ruling powers: east and west. Both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. Most of us in here grew up with drills in schools in case of nuclear war: get under our desks and cover our heads. That’ll work. Then in 1989 something else happened. The Berlin Wall fell without violence at all. East and West Germany merged back into one state. Communist countries abandoned the Soviet Union and it dissolved. From the end of World War II until then we planned for war. And instead, we had a non-violent revolution. They called it the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic because it was so smooth. And in many cases, including East Germany, it was prayer meetings that led the way. Would-be protestors gathered at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig with candles. First a few dozen. Then a few hundred. Then a few thousand. Then a few hundred thousand. The East German Stasi didn’t know what to do. They were ready for tanks and bombs, not for candles or prayers. And the world was changed. No one saw it coming, no one would have believed it if you told them it was coming. Until it did.

You see? Christ reigns. For more than 1000 years we Christians assumed Christ would rule through our military might. But maybe Christ rules without us? And sometimes you can even see it?

Our Christian forebears were not wrong to think that the church is political. Anytime you speak of power, kingship, rule, authority, you’re talking politics, as this psalm does. What we were wrong to think was that politics has to be violent. That God wants us to inflict his kingdom on others at the point of a sword. Jesus commands us to love enemies. To learn from and respect them. He’s bringing his kingdom in his own way. By cross and resurrection, not sword or violence.

The psalm ends this way: God’s “wrath is quickly kindled.” Wait a minute. Can you think of another verse? I can. It’s been called the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. It’s Exodus 34:6.  

The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love.

Beautiful. But which is it? Is God’s wrath “quickly kindled,” as in our Psalm 2? Or is the Lord “slow to anger,” as in Exodus 34? You know where I’m going with this don’t you? Both. They’re both pipes in the organ. Colours on the palette. Sometimes you need to say God’s wrath is quickly kindled. For those in bondage. For the six million lost in the holocaust. The millions of Africans stolen and lost in the middle passage. And more. God remembers, and acts, and makes right with justice. And God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. Because without that there is no hope. We all oppress, do harm, fall short. And God’s patience with us is a cross. Arms out in embrace, absorbing our violence, giving us back reconciliation.

At our best, we Christians have always known that God rules through martyrdom, not violence against others. The way God conquers the nations is through laying down our own lives. Not taking others’. I know that’s paradoxical, backwards, and I know I can’t explain it to you. The early church celebrated the story of The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. The story’s a little legendary but bear with me. Under persecution by a Roman emperor 40 Christians were set out on a frozen lake to die. The soldiers warmed up a bath and said you can come live if you just renounce Christ. One did to save his skin. I get it. But a soldier guarding them saw their faith, threw off his clothes, and joined them on the lake to die. Look at that pitiful freezing army of martyrs. More powerful naked than when they dealt out death.

In this series on rude praise, we learn to pray like the psalmist: God laughs at human schemes for power. Because God is all the power there is. And it is power that spends itself in love. Only and always. Amen.