These three psalms (Ps 123-125) take us on a journey from scorn to security, with God’s help (succour) the thing that makes all the difference. Ps 123:3-4 talks of contempt and ridicule, synonyms of which include scorn, disdain, disrespect, derision and mockery. This often leaves us feeling demoralised and discouraged, but the psalmist encourages us to live in humility before God as a servant attentive to his master (Ps 123:2). The problems we face may well be caused by people, but there is always a spiritual element to opposition (see Eph 6:12), and solutions are not to be found in our own strength or cleverness, but in the mercy and grace of God. (Ps 123:2-3)
We can be confident in all situations because of God’s help which means that the long-awaited disasters plotted against us lose their power over us. (Ps 124:2-6) God is able to thwart the most complex of plots (see Neh 4:15) (whilst no plan of His can be thwarted, as Job 42:2 reminds us) and set us free from other people’s traps and snares. (Ps 124:7) This confidence sustains us through life’s journey. Ps 125 likens God’s presence with us to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem (Ps 125:1-2) and we are reassured by the fact God does not change. (Mal 3:6) Heb 12 takes up this picture of being unshaken, reminding us that ‘we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.’ (Heb 12:28) Our stability ultimately comes from God’s stability.
Ps 123-125 give us the second group of three psalms in the Psalms of Ascent, dealing with troubles and trials, God’s help and protection and the deliverance we ultimately will receive from Him. Psalm 123 talks of the contempt and ridicule faced by believers from those whose opposition to God is manifested in very concrete ways experienced by God’s people. The opposition Nehemiah faced when rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem is just one example of this (Neh 2:19, 4:1-9), and it can be both distressing and wearing for people to endure the drip-drip-drip effect of negativity and hostility. The opposition is so great that destruction is inevitable if God is not factored into the equation (Ps 124:3-7), but the psalms remind us that we are not without help. Ultimately, we are not destroyed because of God’s presence with us and help towards us.
The antidote to opposition is a right view of God. We are urged to lift our eyes up to the One enthroned in heaven (Ps 123:1). God is far greater than any opposition we may face and Ps 124 is exultant in tone, because God on our side makes all the difference (Ps 124:7-8) Paul’s question ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Rom 8:31) has much the same tone. Ps 125 reminds us of the security and confidence we have in God, likening our position to the solidity and security of Mount Zion (Ps 125:1-2) God surrounds us and protects us. We may well have a long time to wait before we see the rule of God firmly established, but we have assurance that this will be the final result of history. This enables us to carry on trusting in the everyday, whether that is in prosperity or trial.
Apologies for the delay in getting the birthday pictures up this week. We had shy people on the box this week…
We often feel embarrassed or even afraid of zeal and passion, recognising them as the impetus behind action and feeling wary about the combination of emotion and action. It’s not considered British to be passionate! Zeal may make us feel uncomfortable (think about Phinehas whose zeal for God led him to kill the Israelite and the Midianite woman (Num 25:10-13) or even Jesus as He overturned the tables in the temple (John 2:14-17)). We are more comfortable with the wishy-washy, but God abhors the lukewarm attitudes so many of us bring to Him (Rev 3:15-16) and longs for us to be devoted to Him whole-heartedly (see Col 3:17).
Zeal marries patience to passion, truth to trust, fervour to faithfulness. Think of Baruch who ‘zealously repaired another section [of the wall], from the angle to the entrance of the house of Eliashib the high priest.’ (Neh 3:20) The work of repairing the ruined walls of Jerusalem may not have seemed very glamorous or spiritual, but Baruch worked steadily away with zeal. We need to understand that zeal keeps us going, even in the mundane and the boring.
Developing zeal will only happen if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, for He provides all the spiritual fuel we need to live for God. We are leaky vessels; passion and zeal may once have been ours, but it’s easy to let these things slip with time. The way to keep our spiritual fervour is to keep on being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18); this is necessary for we are all called to serve the Lord. God calls each one of us to is a life of service (which will look very different for there are all kinds of ways of serving Him!), and that life can only be successful if fuelled by Him. Only as God’s zeal fills us will we have the perseverance and passion to serve Him with love, gratitude and humility. He wants us to be never lacking in zeal. Do we?
So often, we start out well in life, but keeping our spiritual fervour is not easy. It’s easy to be worn down by activity and to become burned out. Elijah experienced this. He had seen God do great miracles by sending fire down on Mount Carmel and sending rain after three years of drought (1 Kings 18), but far from being encouraged by this, in the next chapter, we see him worn out and longing for death. He says, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty’ (1 Kings 19:10, 14) – and he had! – but he also feels pressured by how the Israelites have rejected God’s covenant, torn down God’s altars and put God’s prophets to death with the sword. He feels he’s the only one left and can’t cope with Jezebel trying to kill him. He feels he just can’t take it anymore.
Many of us perhaps feel like this. We started the journey well. We have been zealous for God for years. But perhaps the pressures of life, the trials and hardships we have faced or the difficulties we are currently experiencing, have sapped our zeal and fervour. Maybe we feel like we just don’t see the point of going on anymore. Maybe we feel like Elijah: ‘I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ (1 Kings 19:4) Maybe we just don’t have any energy anymore and we don’t know how to carry on. Our fuel gauge is on empty.
God can come to us as he came to Elijah, sending rest, sending food, sending angels, sending us the help we need. God worked for Elijah. Elijah had been very zealous for God; he had worked hard for God. But in 1 Kings 19, we see God working now for Elijah, helping Elijah, giving him the support and help he needed. God can do the same for us when we have lost our oomph, when maybe we have lost the joy of the Lord, when we are flagging in faith. Ultimately God is the source of our zeal, and there are times when we have to be like Mary and sit at the feet of Jesus, rather than always being like Martha, being anxious about everything and never stopping. (Luke 10:38-42) Jesus said, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt 11:28-30, The Message) If we are worn out and burned out, lacking zeal and fervour, God can fill us again by His Spirit and move that fuel gauge from empty to full.
Tonight we reached the end of the alphabet in our ‘A-Z of Christian Faith’… Z is for Zeal. Zeal is defined as ‘great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective’.
Zeal is fuel for the journey. It’s the thing which will keep us going when the going gets tough. Without zeal, we can easily either burn out from exhaustion or become discouraged and disheartened and give up. Paul told the Romans, ‘Never be lacking in zeal, but always keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.’ (Rom 12:11) Life is like a marathon,and if we are to run the race with perseverance (Heb 12:1-3) and finish well (see 2 Tim 4:7), we need to have the fuel of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, helping us to reflect God’s image (for God is a zealous God – see Is 9:7, 2 Kings 19:21, Is 37:32).
We can, alas, be fuelled by the wrong kind of zeal (‘ignorant zeal is worthless’. Prov 19:12 tells us). Paul is a prime example of this, for before his conversion, he was the most zealous of Pharisees, persecuting the church (Phil 3:20). It was only as he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus that his zeal was redirected in the right direction. Zeal has to be married to truth; it has to be aligned with the whole counsel of God. The wrong kind of zeal can be extremely harmful; ignorant zeal, zeal that is not based on the solid foundation of Christ and His teachings, will not lead us into fruitful service. Jesus urged us to look at the fruit to determine the state of the tree: ‘every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.’ (Matt 7:17-20)The Galatian church were almost led astray by false teachings that were being given to them by very zealous people. (Gal 4:17) We need to be careful to pursue God’s zeal, not the world’s.