Sunday, May 26, 2013

Psalm 80 " What in the World is God doing?"

TEXT: Psalm 80
TITLE:  What in the World is God doing ?
DATE:  26th May 2013

At the beginning of the year,  and until  now all  our Home Fellowship Groups have undertaken a study on the subject of Evangelism.  Evangelism   is a core activity of our church and it is  embedded in our Church’s Mission statement, because the Lord Jesus Christ has  made it a priority for us when He said: “ Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and  of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19,20). 

Following Pentecost I want to spend 4 Sunday mornings  to speak  from the Bible about the  importance of being obedient to  Christ’s missionary calling. We need to be  continually committed  to the process of self- examination with respect  to  all  those areas  to which our Lord Jesus  has  called  us to be faithful, and  to which the early church also showed  a deep commitment. The  church of  Acts  showed a deep commitment to worship centred around the Word of God , and to fellowship ,  to prayer, to observing  the  ordinances (breaking of bread and baptizing new believers)   and to  the spreading of the Word  in terms of   Evangelism  and Missionary  work  (Acts 2 in particular and  the book of Acts as a whole). Evangelism (bearing witness) by the power of the Holy Spirit was to be a core activity  of the church.

Last week, on Pentecost Sunday we  were reminded  from  Acts  1:1-11  (particularly v.8)  that the Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit, sending the disciples of Christ out into the world  to be Christ’s witnesses. We exist to worship,   and we exist to witness. From worship we move to witness.  From  the 7th day of worship  we move  into a  six day week of  work  in which  we  are to be the  light  of the world and the salt of the earth [1], bearing witness   by  our life and  with our lips that Jesus  is our King.    I know that  some of you may be  wondering  about  the fact that you  see so few real conversions in these days.  Some of you  have been through  a number of evangelism courses,  but   you have seen little fruit  in response to your evangelistic labours.  

Now be honest.  In  your  quiet moments, do the  following thoughts ever pass through your mind? “God what are you doing? We know that you are strong and mighty and majestic. You rule over everything. You hold the world in your hand. But how long are you going to leave us like this? We’re begging you for some growth, for strength. You know how it is. Numbers are stagnant, morale is flagging, the money is all over the place. We’re a joke. The world laughs at us. Every mistake and scandal, real or imagined, is raked over with glee …by the media.  Is it that you are angry with us? When are you going to do something  to turn this around? Because, don’t forget that the whole thing is your idea. You planted this vine in the first place – cleared  the ground  for it in the backyard, dug a hole … and we flourished. But now look at us! We’re being eaten alive. Restore us, O Lord, God of hosts! Let your face  shine  that we may be saved![2]

This is essentially  a  rephrase of the  Psalm 80 which was  written by Asaph[3]  at a time  when Israel  wasn’t doing well  – spiritually, morally or physically.  The glory days had gone.  The heavens  were like brass- “ how long will you be angry with  your people’s prayers?”  (v.4) God seemed distant and  absent. The world was laughing at them (v.6).
The  modern evangelical church  can identify  with these words in Psalm 80. While sports stadiums  and  shopping  malls  are springing  out of the ground,  bursting with enthusiastic  sports supporters and shoppers, most  churches struggle  to  keep their people  focused  on the kingdom  of God. Those churches that do thrive  mostly do so  through pandering to the present culture and  by entertaining  the people. When people  walk their dogs  past our church on a Sunday morning,  and when they hear the faints sounds of our singing, what do they think? “Man, this is where the action is! I am missing out on something here!”  Somehow,  I don’t think so.  So,  what  is God doing in the world?  The  straight forward answer is  this: He is still  building His kingdom  in the midst  of this fallen humanity.  So how come we don’t see  it, is your next reply ? The answer to that  is more complex and it is reflected  in this 80th Psalm.

We learn from the Scriptures  and from history  that a  people who has once received God’s Word and His favours,  and  who are  then  despising  the means of His grace, ignoring  God’s call  to holy living and  to being a missionary people  in favour of the pursuit of  their pleasures and idols – that  these  are  left behind by the God   who moves ahead with His missionary kingdom agenda. They are not only left behind, but they are left exposed to their enemies  (see vv. 6,13,16)

Now  God, the Shepherd of Israel  and  the good  Shepherd of the church  (Ps 80:1;  Jn 10) has brought this  nation, this people  into being. In  v.8 he uses another metaphor, “a vine to describe Israel,  which God had brought out of Egypt  to be planted in  Canaan. In  pursuit of that goal He  drove out the nations from Canaan. He made this nation to grow and prosper (vv.  10,11), particularly  under the reigns of David and Solomon, and we all know how   that all ended – first with  the divided kingdom, and then  with the exile of the respective kingdoms-   the northern kingdom under the prophetic ministry of Isaiah (around  722 BC) and the  southern kingdom  under the prophetic ministry of Jeremiah  (around 586 BC).

In  v. 12 all hangs in the balance : “Why then have  you broken down its walls….?“. It is at this low point  in Israel’s history that Asaph  calls upon God in prayer (Psalm 80:14-19 ESV) :  “Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself. They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your face! But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!  Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call  upon your name! Restore us, O LORD God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

From the Scriptures  we  know that God hears His people’s  prayers when they cry out to Him with truly repentant hearts. He  never forsakes His people- even when they sin.  Though He cannot,  because of  His holiness, ignore their sin  ( He must  punish all  their sin to remain holy and just), yet  He is  also committed to delivering  His people from their  sin. Those are twin truths  about God that must never be  separated !

In Psalm 27:9   David prays: “Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not. O God of my salvation.” Why would David have prayed such a prayer if he did not have  the confidence  in the character of God , of whom he knew that  He  did  redeem and restore broken sinners?  Every time David repented from His sin , God forgave Him. Every time the  nation truly  repents, God restores. He is indeed the waiting Father  who  welcomes  the  repentant prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32). What is the basis on which He does it ?  On the  basis of ‘forgive and forget’? No! On the basis of His Son  who gave His life to atone for our sin. Now verses 17 &18  become truly meaningful: “But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!  Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call  upon your name!

Now that the Son has come (and gone) , He has sent the Holy Spirit to continue to remind us of  the person and work of Jesus,  and not only that – He  empowers us  to continue the work that Christ began. He  empowers  us in this work of being effective witnesses in the world. This is what God  is now doing in this world:  Spirit directed gospel preaching and witness  leads to the salvation  of souls. This is God’s agenda. This is His focus. He is in the process of gathering His sheep like a Shepherd (Ps.80:1). It is happening in the world. The vine is growing and budding  and producing  a harvest. The kingdom never goes backwards. It always progresses  and never regresses. The Word of God  increases  and spreads. That is the pattern of the book of Acts. Paul describes the progress of the gospel among the Colossians in the same way: “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:5-6).

Evangelical Christians   speak   a lot  about church growth,  but it is  interesting how little the NT talks about church growth, and how often it talks about  the  spreading  of the Word  in the world. The focus is on the progress of the word of God in the world, empowered  by the Holy Spirit through the people He uses as it makes its way in the world. The  emphasis is not  so much on the growth of the congregation  in terms of their  numbers, structures, ministries, finances  or success. In fact, NT congregations, as far as we know  were usually small groups meeting in homes. They were outwardly unimpressive, and had minimal infrastructure. But God kept drawing people  into them by the gospel, and then sending them out with the gospel. Or to put it in another way, Christ kept doing what He said He would do in Matthew 16. He kept building His church.

Implications :
      1. We will never have to worry about whether the church will survive  in this world. It  has  until now, and it will  until Christ comes to  make His reign visible. Christ builds His church. We (this church)  may become cold and ineffective, like Israel  was  at the time when Asaph composed Psalm 80. But the kingdom of God will not fail.
     2. The  way in which God makes His church  grow  in the first place is by His Spirit through  His Word. In that process  He  calls and empowers  all believers  to participate  in this  kingdom work. Next week we will be (God willing) look at this aspect and ask the question  whether every Christian  is an evangelist or a missionary.
      3. The  existence of the church is not dependent on  buildings , activities, finances etc. These may actually hinder us.  The  only growth that is significant in God’s plan  is the  conversion of  people and the growth of believers in worship , fellowship , prayer and the participating in gospel ordinances – baptism and the Lord’s supper.
      4. What is our work?  Our work is to join God in His mission. God has blessed us at Eastside  and given us everything  that we need. We have  resources. We are being informed about the  gospel needs in the world. We have the Word taught to us. We are encouraged to pray  for  this Word to spread. But we are not encouraged to sit on our treasures. You dear congregation are God’s trophies  jewels and treasures. The  church (like Israel in Psalm 80) loses its purpose  when it becomes self absorbed. Then one day she wakes up (like Israel) and discovers that God  no longer hears their prayers. She discovers that the enemy  is  within her. She discovers that she is the laughing stock   of the nation. It is time of  us  to  hear this. Join us  in  two weeks, on Monday 3rd to Wednesday the 5th as we  examine ourselves  and pray that we  may keep in step with the Holy Spirit  as He  empowers us to be His effective witnesses in this world. Amen!

[1] Matthew 5:13-16
[2] The Trellis and the Vine : Tony Payne  and Colin Marshall , Matthias Media , p.  29,30
[3] The Psalms  of Asaph  are Ps 50 ; 73-83. In the Old Testament there are three different men with the name of Asaph. The Asaph identified with these twelve Psalms is said to be the son of Berechiah which is said to be an ancestor of the Asaphites. The Asaphites are said to be one of the families of musicians in the Jerusalem temple. In the Chronicles it is said that Asaph was a descendant of Gershom the son of Levi; therefore he is identified as a member of the Levites. He is also known as one of the three Levites commissioned by David to be in charge of singing in the house of Yahweh. In 1 Chronicles 6:39 David appoints a man named Heman as the main musician or singer and Asaph as Heman’s right hand assistant and the Merarites at his left hand. Asaph is also credited with performing at the dedication of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles 5:12.

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