Call Upon the Lord

Text: Psalm 50:1-15

Bulletin: 2017-12-13 Advent Midweek II

Right in a middle chunk of the Augsburg Confession, the Lutheran confessors bring up a great point that goes with our psalm tonight. The Augsburg Confession, beyond Luther’s Small Catechism, is what defines us as, “The Lutheran Church.” The Augsburg Confession is divided into 28 articles, the first 21 of which are given just for the sake of clarity. They show that the Lutherans did not teach anything new, nor did they depart from what the Church throughout the world has always taught. The last of those articles talks about praying to the saints. There, it says, “Scripture sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Atoning Sacrifice, High Priest, and Intercessor. He is to be prayed to. He has promised that He will hear our prayer. This is the worship that He approves above all other worship, that He be called upon in all afflictions.”[1]

I bring this up, because it bears on our psalm this evening. In Psalm 50, God is described to us as drawing near for judgement. He summons all earth and heaven, and testifies against His people. He testifies against them for, although their sacrifices were continually before Him, their hearts were far away. Instead of offering sacrifices of thanksgiving from cleansed hearts, they offered only out of obligation. They blessed with one side of the mouth and cursed out the other. God urged His people in this psalm to call upon Him in their times of trouble, for He will deliver them. Tonight, we confess that true worship of God is to call upon Him in trouble, for He will deliver us.

I.

In their statement, the confessors found themselves aligned with God in their sentiment. In the time of the Reformation, the worship life of the Church at large had become corrupted. In many cases, no parts of the service were in the language of the people, so they went only out of obligation or fear. In places where the common language was spoken, it was often not a level people could understand. There were priests whose sole job was to offer private communion services for donors day and night. It would be one thing if people were seeking the forgiveness of sins in the sacrament at all hours of the day – but that wasn’t the case. Instead, receiving the mass was an act to merit grace.

This is a similar picture to how God’s people throughout the Old Testament, and what is described in the psalm. At many points, the people are described as misusing God’s Word and misunderstanding the sacrifices. In the psalm, God says the point He is upset with His people over is not a lack of sacrifices. Those were always before Him. Rather, God testified against them, “You hate discipline, and you cast My Words behind you…You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.”[2] God’s people lied and spoke evil, they did not live according to His Word. Then, they came to offer sacrifices out of obligation, and thought that was worship.

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon Me in the day of trouble.”[3] When the topic of worship is brought up in the Book of Concord as a whole, Psalm 50 is called upon to define the Lutheran understanding of worship. True worship of God is not to just go through the motions, but to look to God for all things good. True worship is begun in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Through the Word, He convicts us of our sins and points us to Christ, who made full payment for the sins of the whole world. True worship is to look to God for the forgiveness of sins and for all blessings, both temporal and eternal. Especially, as God named, true worship is to call upon Him in the day of trouble.

II.

Psalm 50 portrays God as drawing near to judge His people. He testifies against them. For, although their sacrifices were always before Him, their hearts were not, and they did not call upon Him in the day of trouble. If they would call upon Him in faith, He would deliver them. Often, instead, the people treated the sacrifices like pagans would. Their understanding was, if you wanted Baal to act, you had to bribe him first. Or, they treated sacrifices like doing God a favor. You do right by Him, He does right by you. Or, they treated God like a vending machine. Sacrifice a goat, get a boat. For this, God bore witness against His people.

God teaches and calls upon us here to pray, because He wants to answer. As we learned in the Catechism, God answers our prayers not because we deserve it, but because of His own fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy. To those who call upon Him in faith, He does answer and bless. Jesus has said, “Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do.”[4] Throughout our lives, we have received blessing upon blessing from God. Everything that we have, we receive from His loving hand. For all this it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

God also offers this promise to those who worship Him in truth, who call upon Him in faith, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.”[5] As our lives have been filled with blessing after blessing, so also has God delivered us from our troubles. We would not be here today, had not God brought us this far. And, who knows how many traps the devil has laid out for us, that God has sprung – we unaware? What great comfort this is for when we are suffering; we can call upon God and He will deliver. He will deliver us, also, on that Final Day when our redemption draws near.

The Augsburg Confession states with our psalm, that the worship that God desires and approves above all others is that we call upon Him in times of need. May God, by His Holy Spirit, keep us mindful of the deliverance He has provided us in the past and in the confidence that He will deliver us from all troubles, even on that Last Day.


[1] AC XXI, 2-3. Reader’s Edition.

[2] Ps. 50:17, 19.

[3] Ps. 50:14-15.

[4] Jn. 14:13.

[5] Ps. 50:15.

The King of Glory Enters In

Text: Psalm 24

Bulletin: 2017-12-06 Advent Midweek I

Tonight, we begin another period of special devotion to our God and King. We come together this evening to hear His Word, to sing His praises, and to return Him our thanksgiving for the gifts He has freely given us. Especially in this Advent season, we remember His loving kindness as we await His return in glory. In all of these things, we are united to the saints of old in the Old Testament, who worshipped God in the tabernacle and temple with the singing of psalms. The texts for our meditations this year will each be based on the Psalm of the Week. The Psalm for the First Sunday in Advent is Psalm 24. Tonight, we confess that Christ is the King of Glory, who entered into His own creation so that we might receive blessing from God.

I.

Along with many of the other psalms, Psalm 24 is one that we know relatively little about. With some of the psalms – like Psalm 51 – we know who wrote them, when, and why. Psalm 51 was written by David after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. We know less about Psalm 24. The psalm is attributed to David in both the Hebrew and Greek. The Greek adds that this was a psalm meant to be sung on Sunday. In the Church’s history, this psalm has been sung on Ascension and, for about the last 400 years – on the First Sunday in Advent as well. It’s easy to see why. This psalm is a psalm of worship to God as our king.

Psalm 24 lays out right away why we worship God as King – He is the author and founder of Creation. It says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.”[1] This  topic comes up over and over in Scripture, and often it’s the first topic that we cover with our children. Our God, the Triune God, commanded the universe to exist and it did. He spoke and it came to be. He set the stars in place and knows them each by name. He set the boundaries of the seas and rules both wind and wave. The earth and all who dwell in it are the Lord’s. He gives all things their food, and they receive it from His loving hand. Truly, the Creator God is a King worthy of all praise.

II.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place?”[2] That is to say, who may stand before this God and King, who may stand in His presence to sing His praise? “He who has clean hands and pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord.”[3] God, our God, is the God of all creation. Not one thing escapes His eye or happens apart from His knowing. He deserves to be worshipped in sincerity and truth, for His Word is truth and He is the truth. Those who worship Him with pure hearts receive from Him blessing and honor.

But, as we live our lives, we find well-enough that we do not have pure hearts. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and operate outside of the truth. Those who receive blessing from God are those whose hands are clean, whose hearts are pure, who do not deal falsely or speak deceitfully. Yet, on each count, we are guilty. Our hands we have used to commit iniquity and our hearts are filled with the same. We have spent our lives pursing our own passions and desires and have often done so at the expense of our love for others. We have spoken and sworn deceitfully. We do not deserve to ascend the Lord’s holy hill or stand in His holy place.

III.

Then the psalmist sings, “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.”[4] It’s possible that this psalm was sung as the Ark of the Covenant was moved to its final resting place in the temple. In which case, the doors may be literal. In the Church’s use, these words are also sung to creation in the confidence that the King has come. Though we may not stand in the Lord’s presence nor receive His blessing because of our sinfulness, Christ Jesus is the one who has clean hands and a pure heart. He does not lift up His soul to what is false or swear deceitfully. He who is the King of Creation now has entered into His creation to redeem it from sin. Though He spoke no lies and had no guilt, He bore our sin on the cross. He suffered, died, and rose again victorious for us.

Therefore, with all of God’s people – past and present – we sing the praise of the King of Glory. He entered into the universe He made at His incarnation, being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. From there, He rose to conquer sin and death by His own death on the cross. He comes to us now, bringing with Him blessing from God in Word and Sacrament. Through these, He gathers us together and makes us a generation that seeks the face of the God of Jacob. Soon, all gates and ancient doors must open as He returns to judge the living and the dead. This Advent, may we ever be mindful that Christ, the King of Glory, has entered into His creation to bring us blessing from God.


 

[1] Ps. 24:1-2, English Standard Version.

[2] Ps. 24:3.

[3] Ps. 24:4-5.

[4] Ps. 24:7.

The Fortunes of Zion

Text: Psalm 126

I love the opening words of Psalm 126, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”[1] The psalmist recounts the astounding grace of the Lord God who abundantly cared for His people, and in the time of the psalmist, returned the people from their captivity in Babylon. His favor was so great, that His people lived like those in a dream. In the movie, A Christmas Story, Ralphie Parker dreams about one thing: A Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. This BB gun is the one thing that he wanted for Christmas. Throughout the movie, this is the focus of his thoughts and dreams. Even at the end, the adult Ralphie reflects back on his receiving the gun as the best present ever. When he got it, it was like he was dreaming.

Throughout the Old Testament God worked in and around His people for their benefit. When they rebelled against Him, He disciplined them. He continually blessed and watched over them. Even in their exile, He did not abandon them, but instead restored their fortune by returning them to the Promised Land. His action was such that the surrounding nations took notice that the Lord had done great things for His people. As this was the case for the Israelites returning from exile, so the Lord has restored our fortunes as well. We, who once were dead in our sins and captive to the powers of the devil, have been restored by Jesus Christ. By His death on the cross He has restored our fortunes, and He will restore them again.

I.

The text begins, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”[2] Here the psalm writer recounts the great deeds of God on behalf of the children of Israel. Most commentaries say that the specific application of this psalm is in response to the return from Babylon. The nation of Israel had a long and sordid history in regards to their relationship with God; it often was an unfaithful relationship on their part. This lead to the destruction of part of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

The return may have been the freshest work of God in mind, but it was by no means the only work. Israel entered the Promised Land in 1406 B.C., but even 700 years before that God had promised the Messiah to Abraham, saying nothing of God’s grace and forgiveness shown to Noah, Adam, and others. Instead, though God’s people were always in a state of flux, God’s love remained constant.

There’s a situation that comes to mind as an example. For a long time after Israel entered the Promised Land they were ruled by the Judges. They did not have a king. Then, in 1 Samuel 8, that changed. Seeing that the prophet Samuel was growing old, Israel demanded a king so that they could be like the other nations. God tells Samuel that, from the day He brought them out of Egypt, His people have done nothing but forsake Him and serve other gods; and now, even more, they are rejecting Him again. It’s sort of like how Ralphie got his Red Ryder BB gun. Israel got their gun, but then they actually did shoot their eye out. Because of this, God’s people were carried into exile. Jerusalem was destroyed. But that didn’t last forever. God soon acted through Cyrus, king of Persia (538 B.C.), to return His people to the land and restore their fortune.

As God restored the fortunes of Israel when He returned them from exile, His Holy Israel – us – has been restored from our captivity to sin. This has been accomplished completely through the work of Jesus Christ, without anything on our part. Like Israel in captivity and powerless against Babylon, we were once all enslaved and in the chains of sin, death, and the devil. Some professors say that once the people were in exile, Babylon was relatively unconcerned with them. But our captivity to sin was much different. St. Peter said that the Devil prowls around like roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.[3] He will never be satisfied until he has murdered and led away from Christ every single person on earth. His roaring and battle against us is such, that as St. Paul said, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”[4] Even greater than the return of the people to Israel, is the truth that, by His death and resurrection, Jesus has rescued us from the guilt of our sin, from the eternal death that we deserve.

II.

Psalm 126 continues, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”[5] The psalm shifts gears from recounting God’s grace that has made His people dreamers and how His work has been made known among the nations, to a prayer and an assurance of things to come.

The joyous return from captivity, both for the children of Israel and for us, is short lived. We’ve heard the last couple weeks about how mankind is like grass that blows away. The return to the Promised Land soon turned from joy to weeping. When Israel was carried away, different people then filled the land. And when they returned, they were met with contempt. That was the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. They met opposition not only in trying to rebuild the Temple and Jerusalem’s walls, but people tried to wipe them out entirely.

Though we have been rescued from our enslavement to sin through the work of Jesus Christ, which we receive through the gift of faith, we are also faced with the harsh realities of life. We all know that outside these walls, and sometimes within, life is not easy. The psalm talks about sowing in tears. It’s like when a farmer sows his seed and for a while is in the lurch about what’s going to happen: whether it’s going to be a good crop, whether prices will hold, whether his family’s going to hold. That can lead to much distress. Even in our personal lives it seems that we often sow in tears. Even in the church. It feels like we work and work, and we toil and labor, and it looks like nothing is coming up.

Therefore we pray that the Lord would restore us like streams in the Negeb. The Negeb is an arid region in the southern part of Israel that gets less than 8 inches of rain a year, almost none from April to October. Then the winter comes and it brings with it what seems to be a torrent of rain and the parched soil just can’t hold it. Water pours out everywhere, becoming a life-giving flood in the wilderness.

In Christ, our fortunes have been restored. We have been saved through the life-giving flood of Holy Baptism, having received the gift of faith through the washing of the water and the Word. In verse 4, the psalmist prayed that the Lord would restore His people’s fortunes, yet again, through His overflowing love. The psalmist knows that God is true to His character – He is steadfast in love and abounding in mercy. Therefore, the text continues in confidence: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”[6]

As Jesus was in the upper room with His disciples on the night He was betrayed, He taught them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy…you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”[7] How well we know that to be true. Jesus promised that the world will hate us, and that we will weep and lament. It so often seems that life is just a pointless endeavor, it’s nothing but stress and turmoil. But, Jesus says, though you have sorrow now, you will see Him again. When you see Him again, your heart will rejoice, and nothing can take that from you.

Though Israel continually rejected God, still He persisted in love towards them. He rescued His faithful children and restored their fortunes by returning them from captivity. Though we once were in slavery to sin, and though we are beset by it on all sides, Jesus Christ has restored us. Through His death, He has cancelled the hold that sin had over you. In this life, even though we are made new in Christ, we will have sorrow. But the truth is: Christ has not abandoned us. He is with you always and in every situation. He has promised that He will return, and all sorrow will be no more. For at His coming we will rejoice and no one can take that away from us.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ps. 126:1.

[2] Ps. 126:1–3.

[3] 1 Peter 5:8.

[4] Rom. 7:23.

[5] Ps. 126:4–6.

[6] Ps. 126:5-6.

[7] Jn. 16:20, 22.