Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

“The Never Ending Praise of the Oppressed”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 1 March 2015, Second Sunday in Lent, by Nancy Tan. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 22:23-31, Mark 8:31-38, Mark 9:2-9.

If the persons whom you love very much, perhaps your best friend, parents or your child, and they are very well and healthy now, and start to tell you they think in the very near future they are going to go through very difficult times and will soon die, what would your first response be?
In HK we say, “Choi”, “touch wood!” and might even add “Chee sin!” etc.  So, when Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about his suffering, humiliation, and death in Mark 8 (vv. 31-38), his response is very natural, and we can appreciate it when he rebuked Jesus, don’t we?

We want the best for and wish happiness to those we love – and we become protective of them, hoping we can shield them from every harm and danger. Hence, when Jesus turned round and rebuked Satan out of Peter instead and made Peter’s response into a negative object lesson for the rest of the gang, I am sure we can also feel the hurt, confusion, and some indignation on Peter’s part! What’s so “demonic” for wishing Jesus safety and wellness?

Just about a week later, Jesus brought Peter, James and John to a mountain (Mark 9:2-9). Suddenly, Peter and his friends witnessed the most incredible and awesome sight! They saw Jesus transformed into something he couldn’t even describe: like semi-divinehood and in the presence of two other ethereal beings descended from the heavens!  This was just completely awesome and you bet Peter and his buddies were dumbfounded and terrified at the same time, but Peter didn’t have his smartphone with him to take a selfie!  So the next best thing he could do was, to suggest building booths and to keep all of them safe and beautiful as they should be! As soon as those words left him, they were enveloped by a thick cloud and a loud voice boomed into their ears from the sky, which Peter probably couldn’t quite make out at that time at all what it was! And the next minute, everything was back to normal again! Peter must have wished he hadn’t opened his big mouth about the booths!

Why did only the 3 disciples witness the transfiguration and was told to keep it a secret? All these secrets that the disciples have to keep, holding them until after Jesus died and rose again – were all “signs” to prove that Jesus was the Son of God. So, the transfiguration was not really for the sake of Jesus per se. It was really for Peter, James and John – and all of us – to appreciate the fact that Jesus was the chosen Messiah: he will face rejection by his own people, he will suffer, be killed and rise on the 3rd day. 

Peter did not realize it then. Peter only knew he loved Jesus enough to not want bad things to happen to Jesus.  Peter will fight tooth and nail for Jesus!
We are like Peter. When we see something beautiful happening to the person we adore, we wish time would just standstill. We want to build tents or make something just to capture that beautiful moment, so that no harm and danger will ever befall on them. Yet reality is cruel and time is merciless. They witnessed the suffering of Jesus and couldn’t do anything about it. Today most of us probably felt this helplessness like Peter did. Ps 22 shoves this reality of suffering into our faces. 

Psalms 22 is made up of a few songs or poems where the psalmists cried out to YHWH for help in times of danger and threat and with the assertion to worship his God nonetheless. It pleads for deliverance and the mercy of YHWH to act and save. I think in order to appreciate Ps 22:23-31, one needs to start at least from v. 12.
Before we start, it is good to appreciate that Hebrew poetry works on parallelism, instead of rhyme. One of the most common types of parallelism is with words, ideas or contents.

Ps 22:12
12 Many bulls surround me,
the strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

13 They open wide their mouths at me.
Like a ravening and roaring lion.

14a I am poured out like water
All my bones are out of joints.

14b My heart is like wax
It has melted in my inmost part.

15a My strength has dried up like an earthenware.
My tongue sticks to my palate.
And to the earth of death, you lay me down.

In the land of Palestine and for the most part of the ancient Near East, potteries were dried under the hot sun before they were put into the fire to be burned. Some potteries do not go into the kiln. But all were laid out under the hot sun to dry.
And biologically speaking, when we are dehydrated, our tongues will stick to the top of our palates. In this verse, the Psalmist depict how zapped of life and energy the one suffering is – “to be dry” in Hebrew also means to be lifeless, and near to, if not, death.

16 Dogs surrounded me; evil doers encircled me.
Bound up are my hands and my feet.
17 I can count all my bones.
They (his oppressors) stare and gloat over me.

18 They divided my garments among them.
And they cast lots for my clothes.
In the ancient Near East, this practice means one’s fate is determined neither by humans nor the gods! It depicts the person, his life and all that belongs to him are now succumbed to “chance”. It is a gesture by the enemies that their victim is beyond hope. That is, even their gods will not help the victim, similar to the notion that: even your God left you to die.

19 But You, O LORD! Do not be far away!
My Strength! Come quickly to help!

20 Deliver my soul from the sword!
My life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion
And from the horns of the oxen! You answer me!

Of course, we may not have horns of bulls, lions, swords, scorching sun, wild dogs and evil men waiting to kill us … but we experience forces of threats in our lives that brings us fear, terror, and that which zapped our strength away!  

Money matters: Mortgage! Debts. Rents. Insurance. Inflation.
Expectations: Family demands. Friends. Social expectations. Betrayal.
Pressure to Succeed: Grades. Exams. Approval. Projects. Quotas. Competitors.
Health. Sanity….

They are pressures we are confronted with every day. These are our bulls, lions, swords, dogs that threaten to eat us alive. And we feel our health, our sanity and strength ebbing away…  we can be drained in all ways: physically, emotionally, spiritually and even our self-esteem diminishing. Sometimes, the impact of these pressures is manageable, other times, not so. And we pray the ones we love need not face them as well. This is exactly what Peter wished of Jesus – that there will be no additional suffering than those daily ones, and especially not anything that leads to death.  

Yes, as the Psalmist prayed, sometimes we get delivered. 
Sometimes someone showed up to help us. Or, something happens and we get extension of time to complete or to sort things out. We thank God for saving us!

Sometimes all the bulls, lions, dogs had a change of intention … instead of being a threat, they become nice, or they ignored us, or they get distracted by other matters or their threats upon us are forced to stop! We thank God for saving us!
These miracles happened, sometimes we feel they are a big miracle, sometimes small, but nonetheless we are grateful.

Now let us turn to the rest of Ps 22.
vv. 22-31 Here is the overall structure which shows an internal parallelism within these verses. V. 26 seems to be the climax. We shall read these verses.

22 Resolution to Praise in public
      23 The Identities of those who praise
            24 The God who listens to the Oppressed / Afflicted
25 Resolution to Praise in public
                  26 The Oppressed are admonished to praise and live on.
27 Resolution to Praise in public
            28  God who is the Ruler
        29 The Identities of those who praise
30-31 Future generations will praise God.

Resolution to Praise in Public
22: I will talk about your name to my brothers
In the middle of the assembly, I will praise you.

23: The Identities of those who praise
Fearers of YHWH, Praise him!           All you seeds of Jacob!
Honor him! Fear him!                         All the seeds of Israel!

24 The God who listens to the Oppressed / Afflicted
Because he did not regard with contempt
And did not detest                             the afflictions of the oppressed. 

There is something important about the identification of those who praise and the God who was praised in these verses here. 
It is necessary that you know, the seeds of Jacob and Israel, has, in the larger history of Israel, an oppressed nation, rather than a victorious, a super power, or a significant political and economic player in the ancient Near East.  It is for the most part, significantly oppressed – and especially when these psalms were collected and collated. The God of Israel – is the God of those who were afflicted, who were oppressed. He is the one who will help them! Therefore, how could he look upon Israel’s oppressions with contempt? If Israel’s health gave way and caused him to smell badly, or were bullied by their neighbors, how could Israel’s God looke at them with disdain and feel they are not worthy of his help?
This is also the God whom we worshipped and praised and why we are gathered here today. The God of Israel, is the God of the Afflicted and the Oppressed.

25 Resolution to Praise in public
From with you my praise        in the great assembly
I will pay my vows                 before those who fear him.
Here, the Psalmist is resolved to praise in the public space again. In this praising, is a promise to return to God what one has committed to during the time of need. This is a public testimony, to acknowledge how God has done that miracle for you!

26 The Oppressed are admonished to praise and live on.
The afflicted               will eat and be satisfied.
Those who seek him    will praise YHWH.
May your hearts live continually. 
Here is the climax, and it is an exhortation to press on.  If you are feeling oppressed, get nourished, get help so that you can be satisfied. Seek God and praise him.  Remember when was the last time “hearts” were mentioned?  Yes, that was in the second part of v. 14!  When you are afflicted, you feel your heart losing strength and melting away. We want to give up, but here is the admonishment to tell your heart to live on! It’s telling us: Do not lose hope!

27 Resolution to Praise in public
They will remember and return to YHWH     all the ends of the earth.
And they will bow down before you             all the groups of the peoples.

28  God who is the Ruler
For the kingship belongs to YHWH.
And he rules over the peoples.

The parallelism reminds us: This God who rules, is the very same God of the Oppressed…

29 The Identities of those who praise
All the fat (prosperous) of the earth shall eat                                                                        
and bow down before him.
And all who are going down to the dust
and the lives who cannot preserve (or keep themselves alive)                       
shall bend their knees (in supplication).

Here we have a contrast of the types of people who worship YHWH.
Perhaps the first are those who have received their miracles and they became prosperous. It may even include those who have hardly suffered life’s difficult challenges before their lives end. And they worship YHWH too.
The second group, did not have a chance of an earthly deliverance from all those threats mentioned earlier. Maybe they were too weak to even eat and be satisfied, too weak to get help, and they could not keep themselves alive. They too, shall end their lives, yet they continue to supplicate to and worship YHWH.

vv. 30-31 is also a Resolution to Praise but it is for the future generations:

30a Offspring
will serve him

30b will be recounted
to my Master forever!

31a They will come
 and will proclaim
 his righteousness
31b To a people who will be born

because he has done!
Yes, there will be a new generation of oppressed praising YHWH, just because he is the God of the Oppressed!

The verse I want to highlight in this sermon today is v. 29. It admits straightforwardly that suffering in humanity is inevitable. Sometimes there are miracles of deliverance and sometimes we die in our suffering. For Jesus, his death is one of suffering, and Peter, and all the disciples, as well as Jesus’ mother and brothers, could not save him. They watched Jesus suffered physically, humiliated before the crowds and died in brokenness. 

The celebration of Lent is one for us to practice self-denial – that is to not think about our wants and comfort as much but meditate on Christ. As we enter the second week of Lent, remembering the life of Jesus and his imminent suffering, I think it is good to remind ourselves that Jesus’ suffering was for the sake of humanity and for those sufferings that humanity could not bear themselves. Yes, I am saying, if we only remember Jesus’ suffering and not consider the everyday sufferings of all humanity, we might have missed the purpose of Jesus death as well as the point of celebrating Lent. If we think less of ourselves and our own sufferings, then think about Christ’s suffering for others.

There are many persons among us who are plagued by sufferings – some were born with them like those who are born with autism, or cerebral palsy; some were consequences of other people’s abuse, like post-traumatic stress of rape or terror attacks; or their own consequences, like drug abuse… they have all become afflicted in many forms and many ways, and for most of them and us, we will die in the state of these afflictions. When we remember Christ on his way to take up the cross for humanity, may we remember the afflicted ones: not only those who are bearing their own crosses, but also the many who are bearing the crosses for those who can’t carry themselves. Yes, these are people who suffer along with those suffering, care-givers and parents of persons who cannot take care of themselves 24/7, persons who are tormented by the suffering of their loved ones. Yes, it was like the psychological torment of Peter, the rest of the disciples and Mary, the mother of Jesus went through when they could only witness Jesus sufferings, humiliation, affliction and death but could not do anything!

And may we, out of our own humanness, on their behalf – those oppressed and afflicted, offer our praise and supplications to YHWH, the God of the Afflicted and the Oppressed! Maranatha and Amen!

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, March 01, 2015

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