Sunday, November 20, 2016

Kings Thanking the King: Sermon for Thanksgiving/Christ the King Sunday

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1). That's how Psalm 137 opens. It's just nine verses long, but Psalm 137 is notoriously one of the harshest psalms in the entire Bible. Psalm 137 records the thoughts and feelings of the people of Jerusalem as they were taken far from their demolished homes by the Babylonians – dragged into captivity, exile, in a foreign and pagan land. It's a song of the oppressed, of the lowly and beaten down. The psalm has no real happiness. The people wonder how they can ever sing to God in a foreign and pagan land like this.

They feel caught in the crossfire between worldly powers, to whom they appear as grasshoppers in their eyes. It's like – did any of you ever see the classic Godzilla movies? King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, and so on? The giant monsters struggle over Tokyo or some island village, but wherever it is, the people are like insignificant ants – they've got no hope to resist or even really be noticed in the chaos. That's how the exiles feel in Psalm 137. It's a dirge of sorrow and rage at the Babylonians' mistreatment of them. “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be repaid, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!” (Psalm 137:8).

That's why it's remarkable to me how the Psalter is arranged. We know that, sometime years later, the book had to be edited by someone – all these psalms, or collections of psalms, brought together and organized in a meaningful and inspired way, grouped into five books mirroring the Five Books of Moses. But it's remarkable to me that, when the editor made the call what to put after Psalm 137, he didn't follow it by more laments. He didn't tack on a series of extra protest anthems, songs to march to with angry signs. He certainly could have. He could have made an extended sequence exploring the people's sadness, their grief, their disillusionment, their thirst for vengeance. But he didn't. Instead, he followed Psalm 137 with, you guessed it, Psalm 138 – and Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving.

Psalm 138 is a song that turns things around. It focuses in on the phrase, “the kings of the earth” (Psalm 138:4). And it asks some very good questions – some questions that are perfect for looking back on Babylon with some healthy perspective. You can look around at the world and see that it's run by exemplars of popularity and prosperity. When you turn on the TV, you see successful rich people – the elites – who flaunt their power or play-act any other role to move the story forward. We live in a world of superstar celebrities, of politicians, of larger-than-life princes, of mega- this and mega- that – bigger is always better. These are the idols of our culture, and of the globe. Even in the church, we're prone to turn superstar preachers into celebrities. And in our own neighborhoods, we measure ourselves against the ones who seem to have it all together – the highest models of the lifestyle we claim to value. 

That's the sort of world we live in – of superstars global, national, and local. And this psalm asks: “Now wait, who's the real royalty here?” In a desert of strongmen like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Nero, and all the petty tyrants and corrupt politicoes who litter the landscape of the modern age, are these the “kings of the earth” for real – the winners of the human race we're running?

The truth is, all of us go through times when we feel a lot like Psalm 137, when we can identify with those feelings, as chilling as they might be. The people around us seem successful, happy, prosperous, and powerful. And you feel anything but. You measure yourself beside your neighbor's happiness and success, and you feel hard-pressed on every side. Maybe you're lagging behind their upward mobility. Maybe you're watching everyone else at work get promoted, and there you are, left behind. Maybe your neighbors can afford shiny new cars, flat-screen TVs, vacations, and all you can do is enviously mutter, “Must be nice...,” while straining your brain to figure out how to pay the bills that just keep piling up. 

 Maybe your health is poor, and you wonder why you can't be like everyone else, happy and healthy. Maybe you've suffered a tragic loss – a spouse, a parent, a child – and you wonder how you could ever sing the songs of Zion again, because this new reality seems like a dark and foreign land, far from the Jerusalem you used to know. Whatever the reason, you feel hard-pressed on every side. And you look around, and all you can see is how low or insignificant you feel next to these so-called “kings of the earth.”

Several centuries ago, in the tiny English village of Scrooby along the River Ryton in Notttinghamshire – a village no bigger than our own White Horse – there lived a little cluster of people who knew how that felt. In the religious and political world of their day – the two couldn't be separated, nor can they now – the Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England. But some, like a little band of believers in Scrooby, thought the Puritans didn't go far enough. They were Separatists. They illegally established churches of their own, apart from the Anglican establishment. Against church and society, they gathered in the local postmaster's house, knowing that if they were discovered, they would be punished – but they had to do what they thought was right.

Sure enough, many of their number were soon under surveillance by the authorities; others were sent to prison; still others, fearful of the courts, went into hiding. It was no way to live. So they made the decision to leave England for the Low Countries, the Netherlands. They'd heard that it was a tolerant place, a land with freedom of religion, and several groups of English Separatists had already gathered there, away from the prying eyes and iron grasp of King James. It took a while to sneak passage on the ships – the Scrooby churchgoers were betrayed frequently. But they made it to Amsterdam and then to Leiden. Separatists from all over England joined them over the years that followed.

But in the Netherlands, it was hard to be English, and it was hard to earn a living. They were poor, not prosperous, in their self-imposed exile. And they thought about the future – they worried about their children losing touch with their heritage, their language, or worst of all, their faith and values – because the city was a difficult place to raise their children, with so many bad examples all around. Temptation was too much, too strong. Persecution, they'd escaped; but they knew that the cares of the world and the comforts of the culture were no less dangerous.

Through plenty of prayer, the majority of their church decided to cross the ocean in hopes of finding somewhere better. Negotiating with agents of the Virginia Company, promising to obey King James as far as God's word allowed, they received permission. Yet again, they ran afoul of money-grubbing merchant like Thomas Weston who made them a bad deal – all their houses in the New World would be company property, and they'd work six days a week for the company, and they had to take some less savory characters with them on the trip. And when the Speedwell, the boat they purchased, was sabotaged by its own captain, they had to cram onto the one that Weston chartered for them: the Mayflower.

The sabotage delayed their departure until the end of summer – September 6, 1620. Over a hundred people spent nearly two months in an area barely bigger than a school bus. But only two died, one a servant and the other a sailor, by the time they spotted land. Landing parties searched for weeks to find a place to settle, and they were gravely disappointed by a climate colder than they expected. One of the landing parties found a tall hill near a shallow harbor, and the land near it was suspiciously clear for planting – because it had been a Patuxet village wiped out a few years earlier by an epidemic.

On December 23, those able to work waded a mile through the harbor to reach shore, and soon found out what a nasty thing pneumonia is. In just weeks, over half the passengers were dead; all but four families lost at least one member; and of the eighteen married couples on board, only three remained intact. By spring, provisions were running out, their nets were too weak to catch the local fish, the birds migrated away, they'd brought the wrong seeds – everything was falling apart. 

All that saved them was the discovery of dried corn stored underground by the natives – and the arrival of Tisquantum, a former villager there who'd been kidnapped by the English, sold into slavery in Spain, escaped, and returned to his former village only to find his village wiped off the map. He taught these newcomers how to catch eels and how to best fertilize the cornfields, and he interpreted on their behalf with the nearby Wampanoag.

And the rest of the story, we know – or at least think we do. The truth is a lot messier than we learned in school – Squanto was less trustworthy, there was plenty of hostility on both sides, the famous meal wasn't really a thanksgiving celebration, we probably wouldn't have liked the menu, we would have missed utensils and tables, over half the settlers left by then were teenagers or kids, and the natives had a habit of showing up uninvited. 

 But one thing does hold true: the settlers kept faith. They refused to believe the world's estimation of them. They refused to accept that King James and his archbishops, or Thomas Weston and his financial backers, were ultimately the “kings of the earth.” No, the settlers – although they admitted they were pilgrims in this world – believed in Psalm 138. “For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar” (Psalm 138:6).

What the Pilgrim Fathers knew, for all their virtues and all their vices, was that the true “kings of the earth” aren't the successful, the happy, the prosperous, or the powerful. That's not what it means. The real royalty are those who belong to Christ the King, and who follow him as pilgrims in the land. The real royalty live for Jesus, whether in the triumph of life or the fellowship of his sufferings. The real royalty can sing his praise right in the face of any of Babylon's gods or devils: “I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise” (Psalm 138:1). In the face of life and death, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, victory or defeat, the real royalty sings the Lord's praise and gives him thanks with a whole heart.

The real royalty turns their focus again and again toward Christ's holy temple. “I bow down toward your holy temple,” says the psalmist, “and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness” (Psalm 138:2a). And Christ's holy temple is the church – found manifest in every and all local gatherings of disciples who come together to give thanks to his name. The real royalty focuses there, attends there, so as to take part in what Christ's holy temple is all about: worship and witness.

The real royalty value the scriptures, the living record of what God says to his people: “For you have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Psalm 138:2b). And the real royalty are people who navigate life, not by might or by power, but by prayer: “On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased” (Psalm 138:3). That's the outer shape of their faithfulness to the King – to King Jesus, the high and lofty LORD who identifies with the lowly, whose love endures forever and whose glory is beyond compare (Psalm 138:5-8).

The truth is that Christ is King – and not just King, but “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16). That's what we've come together to celebrate today. Today is Christ the King Sunday. But the kingship of Christ doesn't end there. By being the bride of Christ, the church shares in what he is. The bride of a priest is made priestly; the bride of a king is made royal. And so the members of the church, the faithful disciples, become “a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10). That means us. It means each one of you, if you belong to Jesus. And we say to him: “All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O LORD, for they have heard the words of your mouth, and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD (Psalm 138:4-5).

So whether your time in Babylon is pleasant or painful, whether the winter is cruel or the harvest is bountiful, focus on that blessing. It's the one blessing that no circumstance of life can ever take from you. No matter what cancer fills your body, no matter what surgery you need, no matter what chronic pain you suffer, no matter what you career, no matter the size of your bank account or your house, no matter how much is on the Thanksgiving table, no matter who lives in the White House or who gets their own show or who makes the headlines or who marches in the streets, no matter what trouble you walk in the midst of or what enemies have wrath against you, nothing can separate you from the love of the King (cf. Psalm 138:7).

And nothing can separate you from who you are in him. This side of your redemption, you are the real royalty. You are the heirs of his promises: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me” (Psalm 138:8), is something all of us can say with perfect assurance. Nothing can stop that. Nothing can take that away. Everything else is window-dressing. Everything else is a bonus. Give thanks to the Lord with a whole and grateful heart. “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Amen.

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