Sunday, January 31, 2010
Sermon Series: Psalm 73, A God-Centric Life, Part 2
The Setting (vv. 1, 18-20, 24, 27)
The setting of a story is a container for the interaction of the plot and the characters. Generally speaking storytellers use a setting that is appropriate for the action of the story. A good example of this is the setting for the TV drama Lost, which, by the way, is in its final season and airs Feb 2. The setting for Lost is an Island in the Pacific Ocean. The events in the story are largely center on survival in a very hostile and mysterious environment. The interplay between characters and plot would be inconceivable in a setting, of say, downtown Manhattan. In other words, the actions of the characters and the sequence of the events fit comfortably in the setting of an island in the Pacific. Sometimes a storyteller will intentionally place the interaction of character and plot within a setting this is jarringly incongruent. This incongruence creates surprise, interest and conflict. Story like Hotel Rwanda represents just such a case. Here is a true story whose power is in the fact that in face of the perilous setting of civil war an individual showed extraordinary courage to save the lives of thousands of Tutsi refugees.
Our story in Psalm 73 will reveal a similarly jarring incongruity.
The setting of this story is laid out for us in verse 1. “Truly God is good to Israel”. The setting for the story is a theological idea. The world within which the plot and the characters interact is the world where God is good. There is a second theological idea that serves as the story’s setting, although it is more implicit. The setting of the story is a world where God is both good and also sovereign. God controls the affairs of human beings. Ultimately human beings will have to give account to God. Furthermore, while it can appear that God is absent from this world, the setting of this story presumes God’s orchestration actions and guidance in and through those actions.
What is so interesting when you reflect on the setting of this story is the theological setting is jarringly incongruent with the events of the story. In other words, the collision of the setting, that is the presumption that God is good and sovereign, with the actions of the story, namely the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous, create the tension within the story. The conflict seeking resolution is the result of the collision of the setting with the action of the characters in the story. There would be no story without this specific setting.
God is good; God is sovereign. If you believe this, if, like the songwriter, your worldview begins with the twin convictions that God is good and God is sovereign, you will invariably find yourself in the same story. No believer can avoid the “jarring incongruity”. What is so profound about this song to me is the brutal honesty with which the songwriter speaks. How rare it is to hear in the context of Christian community such honesty and vulnerability! But oh how refreshing! It is so encouraging to hear someone express authentically the reality of a life of faith. He does not attempt to soften the tension or ameliorate it. And the thing is, you can’t. You can’t believe that God is good and sovereign and not at times experience deep angst. If you don’t wrestle, not even occasionally, you’re not being real. Or worse, you don't really believe that God is good and God is sovereign. How could we not feel angst while watching the stories of Haiti’s 400,000 plus orphans just this past Friday night during the Hope for Haiti Now television program? Or, while not nearly as dramatic perhaps, how could my friend Julie not be experiencing profound angst?
Julie’s in her late thirties and has been a Christian all her life. She attended a Christian college and married a godly Christian man right after graduation. But after 20 years marriage and in the throws of parenting three children under the age of five, she’s deeply disappointed with her life and depressed. Some may call it a mid-life crisis. Whatever you called it, she is deeply frustrated, discontent and regretful. If she had her life to do all over again she would do it so much differently she’ll say. It’s not as if she isn’t trying to turn it around: she attends women’s small group, she has verses pasted on the refrig, she prays. She’s sought medical help and is taking medication for her depression. She regularly talks to her husband and close Christian friends about her feelings. Still, she feels trapped by her life; mothering is harder and more exhausting than she could have ever imagined and she regularly questions her suitability as a mother; she has to work for the family to make ends meet; and her husband’s prospects for earning a higher salary seem nonexistent given his career path. The future doesn’t look that bright from her perspective. “Yeah God is good and God is sovereign, but why did he give me this life?” she would say.
What I appreciate about Julie is that instead of settling for pat answers and Christian clichés, she’s expressing her struggle and trying to live an authentic relationship with God. She believes God is good and sovereign, and she’s struggling to correlate that belief with her raw experience. She’s continuing to depend on God in the midst of her angst.
I think the songwriter of the Psalm would say that Julie is experiencing a real relationship with God. This is our first characteristic:
Characteristic One: A real relationship with God is characterized by honest expression of spiritual struggle.
Having considered the setting let’s look at the characters in the story.