I have several friends who are authors. Some are journalists, others are playwrights, some are ghost writers for famous people who cannot write sufficiently well for their books, still others are novelists (everything from historical romance to science fiction) and some write non-fiction titles.
If I have learned one thing from my friends in the writing trade, it is a principle they all hold dear:
Show, don’t tell.
If they want to get a point across, they show it rather than telling it. They do not lecture you; they do not give you philosophical principles; instead, they describe, or they tell a story.
So it is with the Psalms. As songs, they are works of art, like books. While they contain great spiritual truth, they tend to show it rather than tell it.
That certainly happens in today’s Psalm. The Psalmist does not give us a host of reasons as to why we should consider ourselves servants of God; instead, the servant-master relationship is shown. It is described.
And perhaps that’s important when for us the notion of being somebody’s servant is not one we readily approve.
So first of all in Psalm 123, servants look up.
I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy. (Verses 1-2)
Servants metaphorically ‘look up’, because God is enthroned in heaven, not in Jerusalem, the place to which they are heading on pilgrimage. However grand the Jerusalem Temple was, Jewish thought always understood that God was not restricted to a building, nor was he specially present in a holy building in ways that he wasn’t elsewhere in creation. It’s something we who end up venerating church buildings would do well to remember.
But there is a deeper reason in the ‘looking up’. Eugene Peterson puts his finger on the problem:
Too often we think of religion as a far-off, mysteriously run bureaucracy to which we apply for assistance when we feel the need. We go t a local branch office and direct the clerk (sometimes called a pastor) to fill out our order for God. Then we go home and wait for God to be delivered to us according to the specifications that we have set down.
We are so used to being consumers that we treat religion like that. Just as we are used to buying goods and services, and then complaining when they do not meet our expectations, so we treat God. Unless he does what we want, when we want and to the standard we want, we will demand our money back. The title of the Billy Connolly film ‘The Man Who Sued God’ is not so far off the truth of our behaviour. And if pastors don’t meet our expectations, we’ll get rid of them. If churches don’t provide all we want, we’ll move.
But our posture is one of looking up, not looking down. We are the servants, not the masters. And as I said, we don’t like that. We would rather give the orders than be subject to them. My Mum’s uncle told his children that the reason they should work hard at school was so that they were the people who gave the orders, rather than followed them.
Furthermore, servanthood is associated in our minds with some awful things, especially if servants are actually slaves. We might celebrate the abolition of the slave trade, but it still exists and does wicked things to people. If that’s what being a servant entails, we don’t want it.
And this is where the second description of servants comes in: servants seek mercy.
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy.
3 Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt. (Verses 2b-3)
If you are a servant, then you certainly want a merciful master. And thankfully the testimony of the Scriptures is exactly that about God. Some may fear that being a servant puts us at risk from a despot of a God, but it is not the experience of God’s people down the centuries. Again, hear what Eugene Peterson has to say:
The basic conviction of a Christian is that God intends good for us and that he will get his way in us. He does not treat us according to our deserts, but according to his plan. He is not a police officer on patrol, watching over the universe, ready to club us if we get out of hand or put us in jail if we get obstreperous. He us a potter, working with the clay of our lives, forming and reforming until, finally he has shaped a redeemed life, a vessel fit for the kingdom.
The God described in Christianity is the God Jesus alluded to in the character of the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. His younger son has asked for his share of the inheritance – effectively wishing his father to be dead. He squanders money, and is so desperate when it is all gone that he ends up with the pigs – a truly awful place for a good Jewish boy to be. Any respectable father in that culture would have had crossed arms, waiting for his son to return home and grovel, so no wonder the errant son plans his humble speech. But his father does what was considered inappropriate by looking out for his return, and undignified when he runs towards his son.
Tony Campolo tells a story in one of his books where he has travelled from his home state of Pennsylvania to Hawaii and is on jet lag. As a result, he finds himself in a diner at 3 in the morning. The only other customers are a group of local prostitutes. He hears one, named Agnes, say that the next day will be her birthday, but she also says that she has never had a birthday party in her whole life.
So Campolo had a word with the diner owner. He discovered that Agnes and the other prostitutes came in every night, and asked if they could have a party for her the next night. The owner’s wife agreed to bake a cake, and it was all set up.
Agnes turned up at about 3:30 the next morning to the biggest surprise of her life. She even asked if she could take the cake home quickly so that others could see she actually had a cake before anyone else sliced it up.
At the end, Campolo found himself offering to lead a prayer. The owner of the diner said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
Campolo replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”
“No you don’t,” said the owner. “There’s no church like that. If there was I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”
But this is the God of the Bible. He is full of mercy. He throws parties for those who have completely messed up. There is no fear in being his servant when this is the extent of his mercy.
And that takes us to a third and final description of servants in this psalm: servants are downtrodden.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
4 We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud. (verses 3-4)
That doesn’t sound much like good news, does it? But put it like this: the servants who know their God is outrageously merciful can bring their downtrodden status to him. For a merciful God is one who is on the side of such people. And even if you don’t start off in that category, it’s possible to end up there, purely by being a disciple of Jesus Christ: at times that will earn you the ridicule and contempt of which the psalmist speaks.
We don’t know why the psalmist and his friends were on the receiving end of contempt. It may not so much have been simply because they were part of the people of God, but it might well have been because the people of God were not doing that well in the world. It reads as if they were suffering oppression at the time. Maybe they were being mocked, because that meant it didn’t look outwardly as if they were living under the favour of God. As Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ says to God at one point, “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
Those downtrodden by life may cry out to the God of mercy and he will hear them. The suffering People of God may cry out as servants to their master and he will hear them, too. If that is where we find ourselves in life, there is a God enthroned in heaven who will help, normally using human agency to do so.
What might we do about it? Well, remember that this is one of the Psalms of Ascent, sung by pilgrims on their way to the Jerusalem Temple for a great feast. They would surely have brought their troubles to God in prayer – just as they were already doing in the words of the psalm. They would have entered into worship, and thus experienced a little of God’s perspective on life. They would have made sacrifices, prefigured the great sacrifice God would make in due time for them through the offering of his Son. This God would in Jesus Christ endure contempt and ridicule himself so that the lowest strata of society could experience his merciful love.
What does this mean for us now? I think it has to turn us into the kind of ‘church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.’ There is a call for us to show God’s lavish love to those rejected and sidelined by society. If those who endure contempt today are to know about a merciful God, then we have to demonstrate it to them.
That gives us plenty of scope in the wider world. You probably don’t need me to give you too many examples from the news, and I invite you to get involved by supporting organisations that demonstrate God’s love to the broken.
But I also suggest we need to put this into practice close to home and not simply give money to bodies that will do this for us at a distance. We should put out our best biscuits, regardless of who is in the house. If the nice biscuits are only for those who know how to behave, what are we saying about the Gospel? People with troubled backgrounds need to be as welcome as anyone else here at KMC.
I wonder whether people would experience us as the kind of ‘church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning’, as Tony Campolo describes. Or would they react like the owner of the diner, saying, “There’s no church like that,” all the while secretly wishing there was?