Psalm 81

Today is Independence Day. Every year we observe this festival with the same sort of celebrations – feasting, vacation time from work, getting together with family (or in some cases getting way from family), and then of course there are the shopping sales and special events that often take advantage of the vacationers. And these sort of celebrations are about the same as any of our American summertime holidays. Memorial Day likewise is often a good "go to the lake/lawn chairs and ice cooler/cookout" holiday.

On our American holidays, I think of Col. Clinton Taylor. He is a veteran of World War 2. I met Col. Taylor in Lake Jackson. I have known many veterans – and all of them are distinguished – but Col. Taylor is distinguished among veterans.
I think of him on these holidays because I know that on every patriotic observance Col. Taylor is involved in some honorable way remembering the true reason for the holiday. Only once did I hear him lament, in his quiet measured tone that everyone seemed to enjoy a day off on Memorial Day or the 4th, but few made time to honor those who make these festivals possible.

Perhaps that’s the nature of freedom and independence. We enjoy our liberty – but mainly for the pursuit of happiness. Not only with the patriotic holidays, but with others – even Christmas – there are just a few voices among us who speak up trying to remind us of the "real reason for the season." And if we listen we consider it just before we return to our own life and pursuit of happiness. For a day off is a special liberty – a sort of reprieve.
          And perhaps it is our nature to lose sight of the "real meaning" of the holidays in our ritual and routine because we have good practice doing so every Sunday. Yes, even on Sunday we gather out of routine and we hear the call to worship like a conductor rapping his stick on the podium. Then we lift up our song books and sing out or hymns – three to four at the most – we do our communion, give our gift and now that our duty is done we may listen to a sermon – if we have time, after all this is a day off.

I realize the title of this sermon sounds like my frustrated plea. I don’t intend to complain because no one listens to my sermon that I have worked on and prepared all week. But what if the preacher making this statement was God?

That's the way this Psalm is presented – Israel has assembled for a special holiday and they are keeping the festival just as the old law decreed. The Psalmist is the worship leader and he has called them to make their music and reminded them of the proper time and day and shown the Scriptural basis of it, and now that they have done their duty it is time for the sermon – and they hear the voice of one they do not expect to hear. An unfamiliar voice. There’s a guest speaker. God is the preacher at this festival praise service and he is anxious for the worshippers to listen.

God’s text for His sermon is the first commandment and the story of the Exodus. 6 "I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah."
He is bringing them back to the "reason for the season" but he is speaking of it in a personal way rather than citing the legal decree to worship. "I saved you. I worked to win your freedom from slavery and oppression." But now things have changed and the people have not listened to the voice of God – in fact his voice comes as one they do not recognize. 8Hear, O my people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to me!

Preachers of old might call this the "toe-stompin’" part of the sermon. God is calling out the sin. But this isn’t condemnation. It is lament – God’s lament; because just as the Psalmists have lamented before God, now God also has a lament. They haven’t listened.
9 "There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. 10 I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it. 11 But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me.
They have pursued their idols of happiness, but they are not happy. They have declared their independence, but they are not free. How could such a thing happen? How could it happen to them? How could it happen to us?
It is because God is punishing us, yes? It is because God wants to condemn us and kill our joy and take away our happiness, right?

Strangely, there is never a tone of condemnation in this sermon from God. God does three things in this sermon: First, he rescues us. We have noted that. It is the "reason" for our celebration. For Israel it was the Exodus. For us it is the cross and the empty tomb. God saved Israel by leading them through the waters of the Red Sea. He saves us by bringing us through the death, burial and new life of baptism in Christ.

The second thing God does is this – When we declare our stubborn independence from Him, He gives us everything we wanted. 12So I let them follow their blind and stubborn way, living according to their own desires.
The most chilling expression of the wrath of God is not fire from on high, earthquakes, pestilence or a flood that covers the earth. No, it is that God would give us everything our bull-heads could imagine and everything our stubborn heart’s desire.

Paul describes the action of God’s wrath this way: "So God let them go ahead and do whatever their hearts desired." (Romans 1:24.) Some expect the wrath and judgment of God to descend on America any day. I think we can understand why. Especially as we as a nation fail to listen to him and as we forget the virtues that exalt a nation. But those who expect the wrath of God in a dramatic way might be surprised. What if God gives America everything it wants. What if God gives us homosexual marriages, what if he gives us easy access to pornography and cultural tolerance of alternative lifestyles of every sort? What if God gives us freedom from personal responsibility and allows us to worship greed? What if God gives us the opportunity to define holiness by prosperity? What if God allows us to justify our discomfort, fear, and hatred of people from other nations, people of other races, people in a different economic bracket so that we are able to say "These differences are just the way it is and it is just a secular issue." What if God allows us to take his word – his revelation of himself – and turn it into a legal rule book so we can "cut to the chase" and simplify the gospel down to easy slogans so we can get busy and restore the church for ourselves.
That, I think, is more frightening and more oppressive than fireballs and meteors striking the earth. How chilling is it to think that we might create and army of idols and wake up one day realizing that we have been invaded? How chilling it is to think that we might tune out the voice and truth and ruin our hearing with the blaring music of deception so that we suddenly find that not only have we become spiritually deaf, but mute as well and we cannot speak the truth to anyone anymore – including ourselves.

No wonder God laments. It is a heart-rending thing to let your children have what they want – even though you know it will hurt them. But this isn’t the end of God’s sermon. Listen to His lament – listen carefully! 13 O that my people would listen to me, that they would walk in my ways!
If our stubborn idolatry and spiritual deafness leads to oppression and horrible consequences, then listening leads to something hopeful and promising. And just as the lament of the Psalmist turns to hope trusting that God will hear – so also God’s lament turns to hope if we will hear ... 14 "Then I would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes. 15 Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him, and their doom would last forever. 16 I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you!"

When the Congress of the United States signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, they were dissenters. They separated themselves from king and homeland, breaking bonds of connection. But in the final line of the declaration they affirm a reliance on Divine Providence.

This is the third thing God does – He conceives of a new reality despite the sin. God’s hope, should His people listen, imagines protection from enemies – God will topple with the swat of his hand the armies of idols that have invaded his people and oppressed them. His mere presence will shrivel and repel the lies and deceptions that detest God.

And God imagines providence. [And forgive me but I think that God’s image of providence is just a bit richer than Thomas Jefferson’s mention of providence as a stand-in for the presence of God.] For God describes providence as a feast at His table and He Himself is serving up fresh-baked, steaming hot rolls and slathering them with pure honey dripping off the honeycomb.

That’s how God envisions worship. That’s His standard for communion and I’m sorry but I think that vision just rises a little higher that doing the five proscribed acts at the proscribed time – not that there’s anything wrong with such decrees – but would you rather eat a recipe for hot rolls or the fresh bread that the recipe bakes!

James warned the church about being hearers but not doers of the word. I fear that sometimes we are doers – busy bees – but we never hear. We don’t listen to God.

And the way into the God’s kingdom – into his presence where there is provision and protection - is a way of listening.
"Today, if you hear His voice, don’t harden your heart as we have all done in the past." – (Psalm 95:7.)

Open your heart, walk in His ways, and worship Him. Declare your dependence on God!

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 4 July 2004

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