In recent years a ton of superhero movies have come out, and they present super bad guys who at times demonstrate a biblical view of sin but the wrong cure for our sin. These super-villains understand that human beings are flawed sinners, but their solution is almost always the same: wipe out every human being without mercy and without lifting a finger to redeem a fallen human race.
In the original The Matrix movie, Agent Smith calls humanity “a virus.” “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet,” he proclaims, “You’re a plague, and we … are the cure.” In the 2010 movie the Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, the super-villain Owlman wants to destroy the cancer called humanity (and all of existence and all living beings) by destroying Earth. In the 2005 Batman Begins movie, the villain, the leader of the League of Shadows, tells Batman: “Gotham’s time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we’ve performed for centuries.” And later on when the two face each other once again, he says: “The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome. Loaded trade ships with plague rats. Burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence we return to restore the balance.” In The Dark Knight Rises, the bad guy Bane tells Batman that he has come to carry on the League of Shadows’ mission. Batman prevented their attempt in Batman Begins, but Bane has returned to finish the job by mercilessly wiping out Gotham.
It’s easy to see where these supervillains are coming from. Just this week I finished reading Khaled Hosseini’s New York Times bestseller “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” Hosseini was born and raised in Afghanistan until his family sought asylum in the United States. His story illustrates the hopelessness and despair of a world gone desperately wrong, a world of rampant physical and emotional abuse of women by men, of the poor by the rich, of the weak by the powerful. It left me thinking that I can’t even begin to understand the pain so prevalent in other parts of this world. It’s easy to turn on the news, pick up a newspaper, or even scroll through the news stories so prevalent in real time on Facebook and feel like we as human beings are a part of a plague, a cancer infecting the earth. It’s easy to be overcome by a sense of hopelessness, of despair, even of anger. It’s easy to want to shut yourself off from the world, to write it off as going to hell in a handbasket, to avoid the pain as much as possible. It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to give in to anger and blame, or to shut it all out, to try to evil, the pain, the chaos. But as followers of Christ, we’re called to follow Christ into the darkness of this world and turn on the light.
Look at. Vv. 1-2. The Psalmist begins with a cry for blessing. It’s an almost direct quote of Aaron’s blessing in Numbers 6, words that many of you have heard me use as a benediction time and time again: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” The words of the Psalmist, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth …” take us back to God’s call and promise to Abraham and his descendants. When God told Abraham that he would bless all the nations through him, He was letting Abraham know that the job of his descendants, their vocation, was to shine the light of God’s love to the nations. Not to hoard it for themselves, savoring their role as the special people of God, but serving as a mediator of sorts between God and the nations. As they lived according to the law of God, they were to be a people shining brightly, drawing the peoples of the world into a right relationship with God. But what was intended to be an entry point into the knowledge of God and a relationship with Him, Israel turned into a barrier. They often saw their position as the special people of God as a status symbol rather than a role in the world. We’re the people of God, and you aren’t. Barriers were erected. By the time of Jesus, those who weren’t the people of God, Gentiles, non-Jews, were excluded and avoided. That’s why even those closest to Jesus expressed sincere amazement when they witnessed with their own eyes the Holy Spirit coming upon those who weren’t Jewish. Acts 10:45 says that Peter and those traveling with him were “amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.” And then a few verses later, Peter reported this to the Jerusalem council: “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party (those were Jewish believers who thought that you had to become Jewish to become a Christian) criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3). And after Peter told them what happened, we’re told that “when they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). How far from the intent of God they had fallen! How far from the heart of God they had traveled! That in spite of the prophecy spoken through Joel, their own prophet, that the Spirit of God would be poured out on all peoples, they were stunned to silence by the evidence of that very thing happening.
God’s heart is for us, but not just for us. God’s heart is for the nations. It is the desire of God for all nations, all ethnic and people groups to know Him as both Lord and Savior, to experience his grace and mercy. To know him as the loving heavenly Father that he is. It’s easy to lose sight of that, isn’t it? It’s easy to turn on the news, or pick up a newspaper, or scroll through the news stories on-line and be overwhelmed by the pain, sadness, evil, and suffering in the world. The problem comes when we try to ignore it, shut it out, or become angry and write everyone else off as hopelessly lost.
When the Psalmist looked out at the world, unsure of which way the world was heading, he threw himself and the people of God at the mercy of God. When we look out at the world today, we tend to become despondent and discouraged, or angry and overwhelmed by so many people living so far from the embrace of God. Like the super villains in the Marvel movies, I think a lot of us think the world would be better off if certain people groups were extinguished, gotten rid of. We write them off. Instead, we should allow our deep sadness, our concern, to break our hearts for so many people living so far from grace and forgiveness. What if instead of turning our news watching and reading into griping and complaining, we turned it into a time of prayer for the peoples of the world? We say there is no one beyond the reach of God’s grace. Do we believe it?
“Be gracious to us and bless us!” It is a cry of desperation, a cry for God to be merciful and gracious to his people. To shower them with His mercy. His grace. His unconditional love. The sheer, undeserved, unearned favor of God. But he does so for a purpose. Look at vv. 3-5.
As with all Psalms, this Psalm is a song. It is poetry, not prose. And vv. 3 & 5 are the refrain, the chorus of the song. They are identical. If this Psalm were being composed today, verse 5 would be two words: “repeat chorus.” But it is there, in the chorus or refrain, the words repeated over and over again, that we find the crux of the song. “Let the peoples (Notice that’s plural. You could substitute “nations” there). Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!” Out of the cry for blessing comes a call to worship. The blessing of God is not something for us to sit on, to hoard for ourselves. It is intended to flow from the people of God to those who don’t know God.
The word “blessing” is one of those Christian code words. “How are you today? Oh I’m blessed.” In America and in much of the western world, we tend to associate blessing with physical or material blessing. When we find the right house, God has blessed us. When we get a promotion at work, God has blessed us. When we’re healthy and wealthy and happy we say we’re blessed. And friends, it’s not wrong to see those things as blessings. But we do have a shallow understanding of what a blessing is. And so when we open our Bibles to Matthew 5 and read that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted are blessed, our minds go “huh?” The Beatitudes, as we call them, don’t line up with our perception of blessing. Matthew’s Beatitudes focus on spiritual qualities. Luke’s do not. Turn to Luke 6 and read that the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are persecuted because of Jesus are blessed and our minds go “huh?” And when we see that our pastor is going to be preaching about one of those passages, we find an excuse to stay home. We want to be blessed. We just don’t like the blessings the Bible talks about. In the Bible, a blessing is a gift from God that glorifies His name. Anything in our lives that glorifies God’s name is a blessing.
If you were to go home today and make a list of your blessings, what would be on that list? Would it be anything, whether it be good or bad in the eyes of the world, that glorifies God’s name? F.E. Marsh once listed some of God’s blessings for his children: an acceptance that can never be questioned (Eph. 1:6); an inheritance that can never be lost (1 Pet. 1:3-5); a deliverance that can never be excelled (2 Cor. 1:10); a grace that can never be limited (2 Cor. 12:9); A hope that can never be disappointed (Hebrews 6:18); a bounty that can never be withdrawn (Colossians 3:21); a joy that can never be diminished (John 15:11); a nearness to God that cannot be reversed (Ephesians 2:13); A peace that can never be disturbed (John 14:27); a righteousness that can never be tarnished (2 Cor. 5:21); and a salvation that can never be canceled (Hebrews 5:9).
Are you blessed today? With or without material things? With or without physical health? Are you blessed. What are those things in your life that bring glory to God? There’s an old saying: we are blessed to be a blessing. The psalmist cries out to God to have mercy upon and bless his people SO THAT the peoples of the earth, the nations, will be drawn into the worship of God. “Be gracious to us and bless us and make your face to shine upon us. Smile upon us God, so that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.” The character of Christ alive in us and the works of love carried out through us reveal the glory of God to the world. Out of the cry for blessing comes a call to worship. And in the call to worship we see the cause of mission. Look at vv. 6-7.
The heart of God beats for all peoples. Look at the words that appear in this Psalm: V. 2 on or throughout the earth, V. 2 all nations, Vv. 3 & 5 the peoples four times, V. 4 the nations twice, V. 7 the ends of the earth. Friends, Jesus did not endure temptation and a beating, experience the humiliation of a false trial and false testimony, Jesus did not carry his cross up Calvary’s hill, Jesus did not endure the excruciating death of the cross and experience real and complete separation from God so that we can stay behind our church walls, sit in chairs, sing songs, and listen to sermons. We have been blessed in Christ so that God’s blessing will flow through us to our neighborhood, our city, our nation, and to the nations. The prayer of the Psalmist is that the nations will be filled with the fear, or reverence and awe, of God as the blessing of God flows through the people of God to the ends of the earth. And his prayer is that nothing less than the rule of God be established in the hearts of people everywhere. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we are praying the exact same prayer. Thy kingdom come. God, may your rescue, your salvation, your rule and authority that is present in my heart in Christ be made known through my life throughout the world.
So how does this happen? How does God’s blessing flow into and through us to the rest of the world, drawing the nations to worship, to reverence and be in awe of God? It begins in prayer. Not only is this Psalm a song, it is a prayer. It is the heart of a child of God breaking because of the evil and pain and suffering in the world. Friends, we must learn to pray. Not just for our friends and family members, but for the issues facing our community, our city, our state, our nation, and the world. We must become global prayer warriors. As we move into the fall you’re going to notice increasing opportunities to learn to pray and to join together in prayer. Right now, you can pick up a prayer guide available on the table just outside the main sanctuary entrance and begin to pray for our community and our nation. Right now you can join in the pre-service prayer meeting that meets down the office hallway at 9:30 every Sunday to pray over this church and our worship service and for other churches in our community. Right now you can turn on the news or pick up a newspaper and pray over the people and issues highlighted. Today you can join with fellow believers at Weurfel Park for a community prayer gathering. Friends, we must pray.
And as we pray, we must act. Our lives are intended to shine the light of Christ wherever we go. We will continue to open our doors and serve together the homeless and the hungry, the lost and the lonely. But we can each walk through our days together with eyes wide open as we pray and as we serve, looking for those in need of a touch, a helping hand, a smile, a hug, a shoulder to cry on, a reminder that God sees them, loves them, and is calling out to them to come, to receive his mercy and grace.
On October 30, 2010, more than six hundred Philadelphia-area singers circulated nonchalantly among the Saturday morning shoppers in the large Macy’s store in downtown Philadelphia. Dressed in street clothes, the inconspicuous singers mingled with other shoppers. Then, at exactly noon, the organist at the mall’s historic Wanamaker organ (the largest pipe organ in the world) began playing the opening measures to the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. Suddenly, the choir members, sprinkled throughout the store, started singing in full voice as onlookers took it all in in amazement. SHOW VIDEO
We don’t have to jump up and start singing to become a flash mob for Christ. Sadly, most Christians today are known more for what they are against than what, and who, they are for. Now don’t hear me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we never take a social stand in society. But it’s possible to take a stand, even a firm stand, and do it in love. In our society that values political correctness above all else, any stand that goes against the flow of culture and society could possibly be viewed with disdain. But friends, the same was true in the earliest days of the church. The people went against the flow, often brazenly so, but without our modern attitude that says “And you must agree with me.” It never entered their minds that their government must agree with them, do their work for them. Rather than trying to force people to see things their way, to live as the church saw fit, they simply offered their way of life as an alternative. They cared for those no one else would care for. They invented the concept of the hospital and care for the sick and the dying. They welcomed widows and orphans, the sick and diseased, the poor and the outcast. And simply by living as the people of God, their lives shone brightly, drawing others into the light and warmth of God’s welcoming embrace. May we, as followers of Christ, apprentices of our savior, live our lives in such a way that they are nothing less than acts of worship. “Sprinkled” throughout neighborhoods, workplaces, communities, we can quietly point others to the glory of Christ. May we as a church shine brightly together, offering a new way of living, a new way of relating, a new way of caring, to a neighborhood, a city, a world in desperate need of hope.