Today is week FOUR of our series on CHRISTIAN ENCOURAGEMENT. Which is about speaking the truth in love to build people up so they become more like Jesus. Judy put it well in a Facebook comment not so long ago. Encouragement is to strengthen a person’s will and heart to follow their God-given purpose.
We’ve looked at how GOD speaks. About how his words are powerful to change things. To change his world. And to change US. And we’ve seen that, through us, God’s words can change OTHER PEOPLE TOO.
And that’s what encouragement is: speaking God’s powerful words to people so they’ll CHANGE.
Last week we saw how SPEAKING THE GOSPEL to each other produces change. Speaking the message about our sin, and about God’s salvation in Jesus. And about our need to RESPOND to that. God USES those words to make us new people. He gives us the power to die to the old self, and live a new life. With new attitudes and behaviour. With a new direction and purpose and set of priorities.
Today we’re going to look, in a bit more detail, at the things we say to encourage. The TOPICS we RAISE. The SPECIFIC WORDS and IDEAS WE USE. Lots of places we could look, but we’re turning to PSALM 68.
It’s set back in the reign of King David. About 1000 BC. A fairly good theory is that it’s about God’s people, the Israelites, celebrating the arrival into Jerusalem of the Ark of the Covenant. The big gold box the people carried through the wilderness.
Jerusalem’s the new capital. King David’s living there. And now God’s arrived too.
It’s a time of CELEBRATION. Because the Ark is a symbol of God’s throne. Of God RULING over them. And of being WITH them.
And the Psalm’s probably being sung by the whole city as the procession carrying the Ark moves through the streets.
So it’s not DESIGNED as a lesson in the sorts of things to say to encourage each other. But it works pretty well for that purpose.
And I think there’s TWO REASONS for that.
First, what’s being said, or sung, is in THE CONTEXT OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY. It’s God’s people singing to God’s people. That’s always been God’s chosen way for us to live. Connected to his people. That’s how we stay strong.
And encouragement works BEST when it’s in the context of Christian community. Perhaps you’ve got personal experience in how that’s true. I know it’s true FOR ME.
The second reason this Psalm works so well to encourage is because it’s GOD-centred, not HUMAN-centred. Which is what sets CHRISTIAN encouragement apart from OTHER sorts of encouragement.
The shops and internet are full of self-help books and DVD’s and seminars. All designed to help you achieve YOUR GOALS. To ENCOURAGE you to dream big. To set your eyes on what you want out of life, and then to go and GET IT.
And, at ONE level, it all looks like ENCOURAGEMENT. But it’s all about YOU. It’s an empty mine shaft. It’s chasing after the wind. All that effort chasing what you THINK you want. And then, on the off-chance you actually GET it, you find it doesn’t actually SATISFY. Because you’re NOT the centre of the world.
But Christian encouragement is pointing people to the REAL CENTRE. To WHO GOD IS. What he’s like. What HE wants for your life. Because your life is NOT all about YOU. Not about your little dreams, your shallow desires, your petty concerns and complaints. It’s about HIM, and about what he wants us to do and to be.
That’s a goal that’s WORTH chasing. WORTH encouraging people towards. It’s a prize that WILL satisfy.
And it’s encouragement like THAT Psalm 68 can help us with.
So, they’re just two observations to make about this Psalm before we start. Christian encouragement works best;
in the context of Christian community
And when it’s God-centred, not human-centred.
So let’s look at the Psalm together.
Begin with prayer
First thing to notice is it BEGINS WITH PRAYER. Which is ALWAYS a good place to start. Whether you’re encouraging someone, or whether you NEED to be encouraged. Because it’s putting God in his rightful place. It’s recognising that HE’S the One who controls the events of your life. Who controls the difficulties as well as the good times. And YOU DON’T. Look at v1.
May God arise, may his enemies be scattered; may his foes flee before him. 2 As smoke is blown away by the wind, may you blow them away; as wax melts before the fire, may the wicked perish before God. 3 But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful.
Our first instinct when things go wrong is for US to jump into action. For US to arise, and fix the problems. But this is a prayer that GOD would arise.
God doesn’t need our help. He doesn’t need our plans, or our ideas. He’s powerful, and just, and good. And he ACTS when we pray.
Whatever it is we’re worried about, it’s only as difficult as SMOKE or WAX to God.
You’re sitting around the camp fire, the smoke drifts into your eyes. It hurts. But all it takes is a puff of wind in the right direction and it’s all gone.
Or wax. Looks solid enough. You can make HUGE candles out of wax. All sorts of shapes and colours. But put them anywhere near a flame, or a heater, or even a strong LAMP, and before long, they’re nothing more than a soggy puddle.
That’s the sort of truth we need to encourage each other with. Whatever the enemy, God’s got the power to SCATTER it – as easy as WAX OR SMOKE.
Chronic sickness or pain? Smoke!
Lingering sin? Wax!
Despair, or frustration? Smoke!
Loneliness, or persecution? Wax!
And prayer is what RECOGNISES that about God. And calls on him to ACT like that. “May God ARISE! May his enemies be scattered!” What a great prayer! WE can’t do it. But HE CAN!
And the thing about PRAYER is the more we learn to PRAY, the less we WORRY. Because we’re learning to rely on the God who IS powerful like that.
Daphne’s shared with me how she used to worry a lot about her family. All sorts of dramas you might know something of. But she’s learning to PRAY MORE. To just give it over to God. Whether it’s in the lonely hours of a sleepless night. Or the crazy busyness of tragic day. When she PRAYS, she’s leaving it with him. And that makes things a lot easier.
Encouragement begins with prayer.
PRAISE: Encouragement to respond to God correctly (4; 32-35)
After that prayer, the people turn their attention to EACH OTHER. In v4 they encourage each other TO RESPOND TO GOD CORRECTLY.
4 Sing to God, sing PRAISE to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds– his name is the LORD– and REJOICE before him.
Praising God. And rejoicing in him. That’s the fitting way to respond to God. To recognise his qualities, to name them and then direct your attention and thanks to him.
And v4 is ENCOURAGEMENT because it’s singing to EACH OTHER to recognise who God is, and to respond to him correctly.
It’s FITTING – God DESERVES it – because of WHO HE IS. And we can praise him INTELLIGENTLY because we know what he’s like. He’s REVEALED himself to us. We’re not left in the dark. Forced to INVENT a god.
What’s the NAME where to praise? V4. His name is the LORD. Capital letters “LORD” means it’s God’s PERSONAL name in Hebrew – Yahweh. The God who IS. “I am who I am” is one translation of that name Yahweh.
And it’s his COVENANT name. Yahweh is the God who makes a COVENANT with his people. The God who makes promises and KEEPS them. That’s why it’s fitting to PRAISE him and REJOICE in him.
And we NEED reminding of God’s character. Because when we FORGET what God’s like, and things are tough, our whole outlook changes. We COMPLAIN. We doubt his love or his wisdom.
When we forget what God’s like, and things are tough, we try to FIX THINGS OURSELF. We forget to PRAY. And we STRESS.
And so part of encouragement is to URGE EACH OTHER to respond to God correctly. To remember what he’s like. To take our eyes of ourself, and fix them on HIM. To PRAISE AND REJOICE in him. IN SPITE of your circumstances. Paul put it like this in Philippians 4.
4 Rejoice IN THE LORD always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. THE LORD IS NEAR. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, PRESENT YOUR REQUESTS TO GOD. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds IN CHRIST JESUS.
That’s encouragement. Pointing us TO GOD. And urging us to respond to him correctly.
And YOU can encourage people like that. The people in this Psalm did it just by SINGING. So can you. Think about the songs we sing. Lots of them are sung to EACH OTHER. To remind ourselves of who God is. And how we should respond to him. So SING them consciously to the people around you.
4 Sing to God, sing PRAISE to his name, EXTOL him who rides on the clouds– his name is the LORD– and REJOICE before him.
Person and Performance
And then the people continue singing to each other. Fleshing out WHY it’s fitting to praise God. Reminding each other of specific aspects of God’s CHARACTER, and his ACTIONS. His PERSON and his PERFORMANCE.
And those two categories take up most of the rest of the Psalm. His CHARACTER and his ACTIONS. And sometimes they’re a bit hard to separate. Because we know WHAT GOD IS LIKE, partly, through WHAT HE DOES.
For example, v5 and 6. The people sing to each other;
5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. 6 God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
Wonderfully comforting and encouraging words for hurting people. But the reason we KNOW God’s character is a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows. Is because that’s HOW GOD HAS ACTED. His PERFORMANCE reflects his PERSON. History has SHOWN how he sets the lonely into families, and sets prisoners free. Individuals, tribes. Even NATIONS. And so, we can RECOGNISE him as a compassionate and rescuing defender of the weak.
It’s encouragement because it reminds those who feel weak or lonely or imprisoned what God’s like, and how he treats them. It points them to the source of strength who can bring them through the difficult time. And so it CHEERS THEM ON as they struggle, so they can TRUST him, and WALK WITH him, in the struggles.
Kerryn McCann won the 1992 Commonwealth Games marathon. In 1996 she was back again. And this time the Games were held in Melbourne. With the finish inside the MCG. With 1 km to go she was side by side with an African runner. She enters the stadium and a HUGE ROAR of AUSSIE support lifts her. She sprints home and wins by 15 m. (show video)
That’s what encouragement is. Your people lifting you, bringing you home when you’ve run a marathon. Cheering you on as you struggle. Because they’re WITH you as you fix your eyes on the prize.
And the way we’re lifted here in this Psalm is by remembering God’s person and his performance. His character, and his actions.
The cheering continues in v7-14. It’s a summary of God’s powerful salvation. How he rescued his people out of Egypt, how he brought them through the desert, and settled them in the Promised Land. How he scattered the nations who lived there. And then provided for his people. No other god has acted on behalf of his people like THAT.
Then v15-18 describe the Ark of the Covenant coming into Jerusalem. Even the majestic mountains of Bashan are jealous of little old Mt Zion. Because that’s where God’s chosen to dwell. His Ark is in Jerusalem – a sign that GOD HIMSELF is WITH his people. No other god lives among his people like GOD does.
And if that was true of ISRAEL. HOW MUCH MORE is it true FOR US. God’s NEW covenant people. When God came in FLESH, and lived among us. And then who gave us all his Spirit to be with us ALWAYS.
That’s the God we praise and rejoice in!
Then v19-23, we swing back to God’s CHARACTER. V19. EVERY DAY, he bears our burdens. No holidays. No compassion fatigue. Just non stop support.
Which is WONDERFUL. But it’s small potatoes compared to the truth in v20.
20 Our God is a God who SAVES; from the Sovereign LORD comes escape from DEATH.
The writer was thinking mainly about EARTHLY enemies, and victory in BATTLE – you can see that in verses 21-23. But how much GREATER is the saving from death God brings US. Not just salvation from PHYSICAL death. Which only has meaning for THIS life. But salvation from SPIRITUAL death. Which has meaning FOR ETERNITY.
Saving us from death by providing the substitute who DIED IN OUR PLACE. And it was THAT SUBSTITUTE, Jesus, who said (Jn 11:25)
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me WILL NEVER DIE.
Our God is a God who SAVES.
V24-27 give us hints about the historical setting. The procession’s getting closer to the city. It’s making its way along the streets with musicians and singers and maidens. Rulers and ordinary people, all united as one PRAISING GOD. The God who dwells among his people.
Nation to nations
And from v28-35 we get a hint of HOW special this event is. It’s not just some local tribal religious ceremony. The scope of this is WORLDWIDE. God created the whole Universe, so it’s fitting that the praise of only ONE nation won’t be loud enough.
The writer looks forward to God’s promise (v29-31) that, one day, KINGS will bring their gifts of tribute to God. NATIONS will bow down before the God who MADE them.
It happened when Jesus came. He lived, he died, he rose again. And he ascended to God’s right hand where he rules over EVERY NATION. Where people of EVERY nationality and language can join in the chorus. Including US AUSSIES! The chorus of praise to the victorious God who wins the victory over his enemies. And rescues his people. And who lives with us, and bears our burdens.
The writer of this Psalm praised God when he could only see a GLIMPSE of that victory. And yet FOR US, this side of Christ, we can see it much more completely and richly. Our EXPERIENCE of God is more complete and rich. And so our PRAISE AND REJOICING should be more complete and rich.
How are you DOING at that? Are you singing it? Speaking it to each other? Are you PRAYING it? In spite of the difficulties of those you know, are you focussing their attention on GOD? On his PERSON, on his PERFORMANCE?
Let me close by drawing your attention to one final verse. Jump back up to v11. I’m guessing you probably didn’t even NOTICE it as we read over it. I certainly didn’t. The picture is of the winning king returning from battle, and announcing the word of victory. And the people REJOICING in that news. And declaring it to those they met. V11 says
1 The Lord ANNOUNCED the word, and great was the company of those who PROCLAIMED it:
God the King declares the victory, and his people PROCLAIM it. And while for God’s OLD Testament people, the victorious announcement came by Moses, or by prophets or judges. For US, God’s victory announcement has come from God’s SON. From Jesus, who by his death and resurrection defeated a far greater enemy than Egypt or Canaan or Babylon. But who defeated Satan and sin and death.
In Colossians 1 Paul describes the victory Jesus won. V18.
18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-
The Lord has ANNOUNCED the victorious word. And now we live to PROCLAIM it. Paul continues down in v28 of Col 1. What this victory means for him.
28 WE PROCLAIM HIM, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. 29 To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.
And that’s OUR JOB TOO. We may not all be Pauls. But we can all proclaim to each other that Jesus HAS won the victory. We can teach and correcting and ENCOURAGE. So that we might all be presented perfect on that final day. Mature, complete. That we might cross the finish line as VICTORS. With the encouragement of our fellow racers ringing in our ears.
That’s something worth LABOURING at.