God is good, all the time. And all the time, God is good. (never a southern baptist around when you need one).
I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; – with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.'” Selah
Selah means ‘Pause’. It means ‘stop and think about what you’ve just read’.
My first thought is that the writer of this psalm must have been having a really good day when he wrote this. It’s so positive! God is always faithful, God is steadfast love, God is as solid as a rock.
But actually, if you read on you find out that the psalmist is not having a good day. In fact the writer is having a very bad day.
This Psalm was written just after Jerusalem has been conquered by Babylon. The temple’s been destroyed, the people sent into exile, Israel has been decimated – its people scattered around the world.
Not a good day, but still the psalm begins with these wonderful words of praise. It’s no wonder the writer says to us “Think about this”, because I’ve got to wonder, where do these words spring from?
When I read about Mary receiving the angel Gabriel I have to wonder the same thing. Gabriel says “I bring good news”. Good news? Think about it. You’re a teenage girl, maybe 14 or 15 years old, living in occupied territory at the beginning of the 1st century.
You know that getting pregnant before you’re married is never a good thing. It’s not a good thing for a gentiles, never mind a Jew. It’s not just that life might be very difficult if you get pregnant out of wedlock, it’s that you might be stoned to death. Your village might decide to kill you just so that if a man even thinks about forcing himself on a young woman he’ll know by your example that he might as well have killed her, she’s going to die anyway.
But here’s an angel, comes to Mary and tells her that she’s about to become pregnant out of wedlock, and it’s God that’s going to do it. If that’s good news from God I’d hate to hear bad news!
But what does Mary do? She sings praises to God. If you’re a Roman catholic then these words will be very familiar.
My soul proclaims the greatness of our God,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
who has looked with favor on this lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
You O God have done great things for me, and holy is your Name.
You have mercy on those who fear you in every generation.
You have shown the strength of your arm,
and have scattered the proud in their conceit.
You have cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and have lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich you have sent away empty.
You have come to the help of your servant Israel,
for you have remembered your promise of mercy,
The promise you made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah and their children forever.
Wow, she even does a better job praising God than the psalmist!
But how is that possible? How can you sing such praise when your world turns pear shaped? I know that some will say it’s because the psalmist had faith, and that Mary loved God so much that she simply felt awed that she’d been chosen for such a task. But if that’s the case I can’t relate to them. I don’t have that kind of faith, or that kind of selflessness.
I think I live in a healthy amount of faith, but I also have a lot of doubt. And when the world turns upside down it’s my fear and doubt that screams the loudest. So, if the psalmist is simply a Pollyanna who sees the silver lining in every cloud, where does that leave me? I’m the worst case scenario guy. I get worried and depressed just because things might go wrong.
And Mary. If Mary is just so purely love, where does that leave me? I love God. I really do. But if God asked me to visit some backwater, put on a pink suit, and yell “I’m queer, I’m here, come and get me” I’m not sure how much praising I’d be doing. I don’t think I’d be feeling very blessed – and being a pregnant teenager in 1st century palestine was pretty much the same thing – and no hiding it.
So, if these folks were really human, just like you and I, how did they do it? How were they able to be so positive and full of praise when it seemed like God had given them nothing but a whole heap of trouble?
Because, I think it wasn’t them, I think it was God. I don’t think it was the Psalmist or Mary that were that special, I think it’s God. And I think that because of an experience I had not long after I moved to the States.
When I lived in New York I had a really hard time adjusting. I was in a completely different country, where everything hd a familiar tint, after all I’d watched lots of American movies, most of the people spoke English, but at the same time everythijng was different. I didn’t want to go home, I wanted to be with Chris and I didn’t want to feel like I’d failed. But home felt a very very long way away.
I really struggled, and over the fist six of seven months it got worse and worse until one day I hit breaking point.
Chris was working away. I was on my own in the apartment. I was scared, I was lonely, I was homesick, there were problems at work, I’d been ripped off by an electronics store, I was overeating, my back had gone so I was in pain, I’d gone through ‘completely miserable’ to ‘No more please’ and I completely broke down. I remember crying, sobbing, I told God I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be a pastor, I couldn’t stay in America, I just couldn’t do it.
Then suddenly the room filled with a rushing noise and with light. Light so bright I could hardly see, even though it wasn’t the kind of light that you see with your eyes. And suddenly I found myself praising God. I found myself thanking God for bringing me the the USA, for making me a pastor, for helping me through. Nothing had changed, but everything had changed. I knew that I was OK, that it was was going to be OK.
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
In that moment when I couldn’t see the path, when it all seemed dark, when I didn’t know how to pray because I’m simply human, because I can’t see the future, and because I most certainly don’t know the mind of God, in that moment I believe that God prayed for me – and prayed in me. I could hear myself saying that it was OK, that God had things in hand, that God was blessing me, that I was supposed to walk this path, no matter how it looked, no matter how it felt, and it was a blesssing, and it wasn’t me.
I think it’s what happened to the Psalmist. I think it’s what happened to Mary. I don’t think they were extraordinary people, I think they were as ordinary as you or I, but they were in extraordinary hands, the amazing hands of God.
And when God prayed in the Psalmist they knew that despite the way things looked that everything would be OK. And when God prayed in Mary she knew, despite the way it looked, that everything would be OK. More than OK, it was a blessing in the truest sense of the word.
There’s nothing you can do if you’re occupied by a foreign power, your capital city has been destroyed, and you’ve lost everything.
There’s nothing you can do if you’re a teenage girl in the 1st century and you find yourself pregnant out of wedlock.
There’s nothing you can do when you’ve had enough and you don’t even know what to pray. Unless God steps in. Unless God rescues you. Unless there’s a miracle and God’s hand enters the world on your behalf.
Which is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is the miracle. He is God entering the world on your behalf. He is the living prayer – the light that says ‘it’s going to be OK’
It’s joy when the human mind is nothing but darkness. It’s love when all you feel is fear. It’s Grace when you feel like a complete failure. It’s not something you have to do, because it’s something you can’t do anyway. It’s done for you. It’s done in you. It’s done through you. The light of the world, entering the world. The Psalmist knew it. Mary Knew it, I know it, and I pray that this Christmas, that you know it too.