This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry, gathered at the Church of Christ, on Sunday 5th May 2019.
Acts 9:1-19a; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
Today’s psalm speaks of one man’s lamentation and then vindication: the one who cries out to God from the place of death, calling upon The LORD to save, was rescued and restored. More than simply lifted out of bed, or commanded to pick up his mattress and walk home, the man of the psalm was specifically delivered from Sheol, and he responds to God’s gracious intervention by summoning his community to join his declaration of praise of God. An early indicator of what this song is about is that only in despair do we truly know who God is and where God can be found: when we are in “prosperity” (Psalm 30:6) we forget to look for God and God is hidden from us; maybe God hides or maybe God is obscured by our stuff and nonsense. But God is there when we re-/turn and God is faithful in welcoming us home with joy: God is always more ready to love and restore than to withhold and punish.
I wonder, do you have such a testimony? We’ll come back to that, but keep your story in mind as we hear more about this man’s story.
There are two subheadings in the New Revised Standard Version added this psalm on the page: one says that Psalm 30 was associated in Jewish tradition with David and utilised in the annual rituals of dedication of the temple at Hanukkah. The other subheading which comes from the twentieth century editors suggests that Psalm 30 is a song of thanksgiving for one man’s recovery from a grave illness. I like that it can be both of things, it’s such a wonderful tribute to our God and to those who worship God. I mean, why not both? Why not praise for what God did for me as part of a greater festival of setting up the house of community worship for a great festival of God’s deliverance of the whole nation in a time of war and oppression. This is true of Judaism then and now, and also of Christianity, that God is interested in you for who you are and also in the whole congregation as a unity, indeed the whole of Creation as a unity: it doesn’t have to be either/or.
This is why Psalm 30 is a great psalm to read in the weeks after Easter. Just have a look at Psalm 30:1-3 and focus on the individual story, the one man in his song of deliverance, and how he exalts and extols The LORD for drawing him up, the downcast one, and for lifting him above the scorn of the mockers. They, (remember “they” from Easter Day?), “they” had thought the faithful man had been deserted by God, but God came all the way down into Sheol, down beyond the platform of the living and into the place of the dead to rescue the man who cried out, to rescue him from falling even further down and into “the Pit” as the psalm puts it. God lifted him above all the scorn and all the pain and restored him to God’s presence, above the platform of the living, where there is healing and recovery. Of course when I say “faithful man” this is no less true of a woman who cries out to God; but I also think it true of women and men we might consider not to be “faithful”, people who cry out in desperation even if they haven’t previously been religious or even Evangelical to our liking.
So I ask you again, how does this psalm fit with your story? Have you ever cried out to God from “the place of death”, from “the grave” as it were? If you haven’t then I assume it’s because you’ve never been to the lowest place; I assume this because if you have been to the lowest place and you did not cry out to God then how is it you are here today? Seriously! I can’t say I’ve been to Hell and back, because my journey took me through the middle of Hell and out the other side, and without God I’d be dead. In fact without God I might have been dead on any one of multiple occasions, so if you’ve done it without God then either you’re lying, or you need to step up here and I need to sit down. Anyone? So we’re left with two options: either you’ve never been to Sheol; or you, like me and like the faithful man, have been down there, and the only reason you are here now, and not there now, is that God delivered you. I hope none of you have been there, because Sheol, but if you have then you know why God is worthy of all honour and glory.
In Revelation 5 we read about another faithful man, one man who went to Sheol, even to the deepest depths of its Pit, and who returned because of God. This man is the source and object of the community’s praise in Heaven: Jesus is worthy because he was victorious over death and all that leads to death, be that sin, illness, isolation, exposure, or shame. In the eyewitness account of the recipient of the revelation it’s not just a choir of angels and a few assorted cherubim and seraphim who sing, but every created being that has a voice. Every angel, every cherub, every seraph, every woman and every man, every beast, fish, bird, sheesh every rock and stone cries glory, because Jesus was vindicated by God in the sight of all creation for the benefit of all creation. The cry begins under the earth, resounds across the earth, and culminates above the earth as even the Eldership of Heaven falls face-down. That’s some adoration, massive praise and worship, glory and honour; but is not Jesus worthy of it? All who have been to and thorough Sheol say “Amen!”, or as it translates into Australian, “oath mate!”
One of the commentators I use regularly describes Revelation 5:13 as “a song of praise to the Redeemer of all”, and I have to agree. As it should be, really, given all that Jesus did and all he went through physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, spiritually, and I’m going to suggest geographically as well. Worthy is he, blessing and honour and glory and might, and power forever and ever. I add my voice to that today, and if Revelation is a picture of the future then I’ll be singing my lungs out on that day too. Glory to the one who came below the dirt and pulled me out of Sheol, lifting me above the sky to wipe me down, stand me up, and set me off on a new life.
Among the voices that will sing with me, and the psalmist, and maybe some of you, are those of Peter and Paul. Their stories are told in the gospels and epistles at large; Acts 9:1-19a and John 21:1-19 are the set readings for today. We haven’t read them this morning but I am sure you are familiar with these stories. Can anyone remember what stories these passages tell? Well, very briefly Acts 9 is the Damascus experiences of Saul the Christianophobe, and John 21 is the lakeside experience of Peter the wuss. Both of these men have recently been through Sheol, in fact Saul is still on his way out. Common to their stories is that their descent to the place where only Christ can save has happened because they let down Jesus. Peter has denied knowing his best friend at the hour of greatest need; and Saul, well Saul just been very silly in general hasn’t he. I’m not going to go into those stories now, you can read them for yourselves later, but I will say this; they were redeemed by Jesus. Now of course we have all been redeemed by Jesus, that’s the cross and that’s Melody Green’s “thank you oh my Faaaather”. But think specifically of Peter and Paul: these two nutjobs basically go on to found Christianity. That’s a big and loose claim I know, and I’m not interested in debating it at all because you know what I’m saying; what I am saying is that these men were saved not only from suicide, (think of Judas in his despair), but from wasted lives because of wasted opportunities. Christ meets them both and gives them what they need at the time, reassurance, forgiveness, friendship, and a mission. “Feed my flock” says Jesus to Peter in John 21:15-17, and then in John 21:19 “ follow me”. “Get back on your horse and go to the church, they’ll tell you what to do” Jesus tells Saul in Acts 9:8, and by Acts 9:20 he’s proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus the Christ.
Where are you today?
- I’d be sad to hear that you’re in Sheol today; primarily because I’m your pastor and I didn’t know, but if you are then let me know, please. There’s no shame in being in Sheol today, and since I’ve already been there a few times I can show you the way out if you’d like.
- Maybe you’re heading for Sheol; the bottom has fallen out of the world and you are falling and tumbling, and heading for a spreading that you know is imminent, so you’re bracing for impact. Again, please come and tell me.
- Maybe you are climbing out; with God’s help assured because that is not a climb you can make on your own. Again, let me know, I won’t take your hand because you’ll need both of them to hang on to God, but I’m happy to rub your back.
- Maybe, hopefully, you’re in a good place today. I’d like that to be true for each of you, because I don’t want disaster for any of you, but it’s okay if you’re not. But it’s okay if you are, Jesus has risen and God is faithful and if life is blessing you today then praise God. But if you have memories of your time in the shadowlands, I ask you to let those memories stir you to two activities. One, show extreme and practical compassion to your sisters and brothers who are near the Pit right now, regardless of their theology and whether you’d accord them the status of “faithful”. Even if they are not faithful, and who are we to say, but even if they are not, we are, and our job is compassion and support. Don’t be the one kicking at the fingers of the climbing, which is never your job. And two, which should be one because it is first, but is ongoing so I’ll say it last, worship and adore God the saviour, the redeemer, the healer and restorer and sanctifier. Jesus is worthy of all praise, glory and adoration.
Bloody oath he is!