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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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 reubenbredenhof.com
 
Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:No Place Like Home
Text:Psalms 137:4-6 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain
 
Preached:2022
Added:2022-01-09
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 48:1,2                                                                                                                           

Ps 42:1,3

Reading – Psalm 137; Jeremiah 25:1-14

Ps 137:1,2,3,4

Sermon – Psalm 137:4-6

Ps 48:3,4

Hy 52:1,3,4,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, there’s no place like home. You realize that when you’ve been away for a while: maybe on vacation, a business trip, or in the hospital. Home is a refuge. For when we’re at home, we’re surrounded by the familiar. Home is security and comfort.

There’s no place like it. But how do we know when we’ve found that special place called home? Someone will say, “Home is where the heart is.” It’s where you come to cherish the life and the people and culture of a given place. In that sense, probably we can all think of an earthly place of belonging, where we wouldn’t want to leave.

Yet God tells us about a different kind of belonging. We know the words of Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). Or what Peter says in his first letter, “To God’s elect, strangers in the world” (1:1). Or Hebrews 13, “Here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (v 14).

Point is, we might feel very much “at home.” We might feel that about this city, this state, this country—we like it here. Yet in this life, we’re strangers, even exiles. An exile is someone who doesn’t belong where he is. He’s got a different home, and his heart is set on returning. And that’s how we need to look at this present time.

Today we consider Psalm 137, which is a song of exile. The writer is unknown to us, but the mood of his heart is unmistakable. Here, one of God’s people, dragged away to a foreign land, thinks about the place he’s left behind. And as he sings, we his fellow exiles, join him. This is our theme,

God’s people sing of our longing for Jerusalem:

  1. singing in exile
  2. singing in devotion
  3. singing in hope

 

1) singing in exile: That this is a song of exile is clear from its very first line, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept” (v 1). The author is a man far from where he belongs—he’s in Babylon. Contrast that with so many of the other Psalms, where the background scenery is obvious, when God’s people are in their land, safely in Israel. They’re even sitting in church, you could say. Just look at the next Psalm, where David sings (138:2), “I will worship in your holy temple.” That’s more like it!

But this Psalm is different. The Psalmist isn’t near the familiar surroundings of the temple or the Promised Land. He’s in Babylon. And why? God’s people were taken here because of their grievous sin.

We read about it in Jeremiah 25. There God said through his prophet, “Because you have not heard my words…,” I will bring my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon against this land and “this whole land shall be a desolation” and you will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years (vv 8, 11).

And of course it came to pass, as the LORD had said. Nebuchadnezzar came, and he pillaged the land, and destroyed the temple, and took away many Israelites to be his prisoners for many years. Babylon would become for Israel a new house of bondage, just like Egypt had been so long ago. This is why the Psalmist is sitting in Babylon and this is why he is weeping.

Try to picture him. He’s sitting by “the rivers,” which isn’t surprising, for water was abundant in Babylon. This was the land of the two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, plus many connected canals and streams. So in a way, this was a pleasant place, because a land of so many rivers will be a fertile and fruitful country. Yet it was so unlike the Israelites’ homeland. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t Israel, and it wasn’t Jerusalem. It wasn’t home.

The sons of Korah sang about Zion, the holy city, in Psalm 46, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (v 4). If you know the geography of Israel, you’ll know that Jerusalem didn’t have a literal river. But she had God! He had always been the river in Zion’s midst, the God who continually poured out blessing on his people. And so these rivers of Babylon—broad and powerful as they were—were only a reminder of what God’s people had lost. No longer does God’s river of mercy run through Jerusalem!

So why has the Psalmist come to sit alongside these Babylonian rivers? Some say that the captives must’ve been working as slave laborers on the irrigation works; they were digging ditches and pumping water for their masters. Perhaps the river was just a quiet place to gather and pray, far from the noisy crowds of the big city. Maybe God’s people liked to use these waters for their ceremonial washing.

At any rate, it’s clear what the Psalmist and his countrymen are doing. Notice that they are sitting; that’s a typical posture for mourning. Think of Job, sitting on the rubbish heap in his sorrow. Sitting, thinking, remembering, the Psalmist feels the burden of sin and its punishment. Along these foreign rivers, there’s also a river of tears.

This is so often what exiles do. Picture a young woman with her children in a refugee camp, somewhere in North Africa or the Middle East. Maybe you’ve seen someone like her on the news. Her eyes are hollow, her face is blank, or perhaps she is crying, and her children are crying. For they are so alone, and not sure of what’s next. Exiles cry, for an exile knows that much in this world isn’t right.

In his grief, the Psalmist says, “we hung our harps upon the willows” (v 2). That’s not a meaningless activity, like hanging up our Sunday clothes in the closet after today. Think of what ‘hanging the harp’ means. The songs which God had commanded for his temple, those much-loved psalms of joy and gratitude—these songs his people would not sing, they could not sing! They’d retire their instruments of praise to the trees, as another symbol of what was lost.

This is exactly what Isaiah had said about the day of the LORD’s judgment, “The gaiety of the tambourines is stilled, the noise of the revelers has stopped, the joyful harp is silent” (24:8). God took away their reason for joy.

Now, maybe these Israelites were tempted to take down their instruments, to soothe their grief with music. You know that if you’re feeling down, listening to a happy song can shift your mood, and good music can ease our anxiety. Yet the Psalmist won’t use a holy song to drown out his tears. Because how could they act like all was well? Their sin had separated them from God and brought them to this place. And so they would sit in sorrow.

Beloved in Christ, if you see yourself as an exile in this world, do you cry? Do you grieve the brokenness of things? Do you see creation groaning in travail? More personally, are you dismayed to see your own failings, how you’ve wandered time and again from the LORD? Whenever we sin, we leave the safety of fellowship with God. We threaten his gift of peace. We wound him. This calls for grief, “heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God with our sin.”

We’re not always sure what grief for sin looks like. It’s certainly more than an outward display, like if we were to sit by the local river with a box of tissues. True grief for sin happens when we come face-to-face with our true need, and we see our emptiness apart from God. It’s when you offer a genuine prayer for forgiveness—not superficial, not careless, but genuine and specific. We see that without God’s grace, there’d be an infinite separation between Him and us. We see how we’re still far from where God wants us to be, and we mourn. And beloved, it is good for us to mourn, for it turns us again and again to the LORD for his mercy.

There is something in this Psalm that adds bitterness to the grief. These exiles were being harassed by their captors: “[They] asked of us a song…requested mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” (v 3). Perhaps they had heard about how the Israelites used to sing so beautifully in the courts of the LORD. So couldn’t they pick a few of the happy songs from their playlist, to lighten the mood of these dreary days of work?

But these exiles refused to sing. They had hung their harps on the trees in sorrow, so how could now put on some entertainment? How could they sing the happy words that once filled the temple? It was unthinkable. They’d rather be silent.

If we are exiles in this world, how is that for us today? Maybe no one’s asking us to sing a song. No one’s saying, “Come, Christians, give us a hymn!” But we too are living in a time and place where many people don’t really know who we are, or what makes us tick. The world asks why we Christians don’t loosen up a little? Why so serious, and why keep going on about sin and punishment? Why not have a little fun while you’re here? Loosen up and join the party.

But the Psalmist is shocked: “This foreign land was a temporary place, and they were strangers in it. They needed to hold onto that truth, and to show it through how they lived.

Remember how the New Testament calls us, too, “strangers.” I think that we find this word hard to relate to. For do we always feel like strangers in this world? We go to the shopping centre during the week, and for the most part, we fit in. We work and spend and have holidays and take part in society like everyone else. So much about us looks ‘normal.’

But living the life of an exile means showing a holiness in all things, a difference, and a good difference. A Christian should not be invisible at his workplace. A Christian family shouldn’t blend in with every other family on the street. One of God’s exiles and strangers should not conform to the pattern of the world in how we behave on the weekend or how we manage our homes. God says we’re not supposed to join in with their mindless songs. We’re not to share in their idolatry. But we have the privilege and the calling of being set for the LORD.

 

2) singing in devotion: Ours is a sad Psalm. But it’s about something more than anger against the Babylonians, or fleeing from evil. It is about devotion to Zion! The Psalmist makes this vow in honour of the beloved city: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill” (v 5). He’d rather be crippled than be unfaithful. He vows to remain true and steadfast: “If I give in to these godless pressures, may I never play the harp again. If I forget my Jerusalem for even a moment—if I forget where I’ve come from, and where I’m going—may I be barred forever from the worship of God.”

So why was Jerusalem so important to him? Was he thinking about the riches of David’s city? The legendary safety of her walls and fortresses? No, these things were nothing next to its true beauty. Jerusalem was chosen as God’s special dwelling-place! There the temple has been built, the headquarters of the ministry of reconciliation, the holy place where they could offer daily sacrifices for sin. There on Mount Zion they could receive the assurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The Psalmist and his countrymen long for Jerusalem. And their longing is especially intense, because right now they couldn’t be there. No more worship, no more blessing through the priests, no more blood of atonement. Now, finally, they understand just what they lost when they lost the temple!

Reflect on this: Israel’s homes stood ruined, and their livelihoods had been shattered. Everything they cherished was gone. But they’ve come to see what comes first. They’ve come to see where they really belong: in the company of God, in God’s fellowship, at his temple, and under his blessing. They’d sooner give up everything of human worth, even earthly joy, physical health and wholeness, than lose that gift. For that was their true home: in Zion, with God, and in his house. This is always home for God’s people: to be with him!

No, it’s not as if God was absent from the exiles. Neither did He withhold forgiveness at this time. Already now, God had his eye on the coming of Jesus, and for his sake God took all their sins away—even now, in exile. God was still with them, but this suffering reminded them of what mattered the most.

So what if we lost our homes and cars? Or what if our church building burned down? What if we lost our job and livelihood? “No worries,” we might say, “I’d find another job. And this is why we have insurance, to restore our losses.” But that’s not the lesson here. It’s not about bricks and mortar and earthly positions. It’s about our desire to be in God’s presence, no matter what earthly loss we suffer.

What if we couldn’t worship the LORD with his people, gather in his courts? How important is that privilege? We easily say that it’s very important. We say that we’d miss the services dearly—easy to say when you have peace and prosperity. No problem coming to church when we enjoy freedom of religion and have every opportunity.

But the measure of our devotion should be plain to see already now. Your devotion to God is seen in how you act from Monday to Saturday. It is evident in your enthusiasm to worship the LORD on Sundays with his people. The strength of your devotion is seen in your commitment to be a living member of his church. It’s seen in how we resist the pattern of this world. The test of our faithfulness doesn’t only come in hard times, but in the good and the peaceful times too. Are you devoted, and living in devotion?

Coming back to our Psalm, God had said his people had to stay in Babylon for seventy years. After so long, the Israelites might’ve been tempted to make it permanent. Remember, this was an attractive land, with much to offer: nice rivers, fertile fields! Maybe they didn’t have to go back to Israel after all, and this could become their new home.

“But no,” the Psalmist says, “If I do not remember you [Jerusalem], let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth” (v 6). If I forget God’s city, or deny my citizenship in heaven, may I never sing another song, never speak another word. The Psalmist is determined not to forget. He’s determined to always give Zion the highest place. No matter where he is, no matter how long he must stay there, he’ll return to the courts of the LORD!

When we hear his longing, the Holy Spirit asks a question to us also, ‘You, exiles, what’s most important to you? Is it this country and the comfortable life you have here? Where is most important?’ And it must be Zion, which in Scripture stands for the presence of God. We want to be with him. Wherever we are, we belong to God, and He must have our loyalty.

Today we get to sing Psalm 137 in a different key than the Israelites, centuries ago. For God has indeed restored his people. Christ came and took away the separation of sin, and He brought us back to our true home with God. So through Christ, we’re in this in-between state. We’re still exiles, but not for long anymore. We’re still refugees, but those who have a sure refuge in Jesus Christ.

Remembering this helps us grasp our purpose. We’re not here to build up an earthly kingdom, but we’re here to work for the city that has lasting foundations. We want to give God the praise of our voices and the strength of our hands and the love of our hearts. So is it God’s glory that gets me out of bed every morning? Is belonging to Christ our Saviour the reason for my unfading joy?

We say with the Psalmist, “If I’m not giving my life wholly for God’s glory, may my tongue be mute and my right hand wither. If I’m not putting God’s many gifts to the best possible use—his gifts of time or talent or treasure—may He take them all away.” The Spirit says there’s no need to waste your life. You get to present your life and everything in it as a holy sacrifice to God. Serve him in devotion and sing in hope!

 

3) singing in hope: It might seem odd to talk about hope in Psalm 137. At first glance, all we see is tears and all we hear is crying. Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel? But there is hope, otherwise the Psalmist would have stopped singing long ago! They sing to the LORD who is ever faithful and rich in mercy.

God’s people can sing even in the dark times, for we sing about a home that endures. That’s the longing of verse 6, for “Jerusalem, our chief joy." God once dwelled there, He put his name there. And He also said that Jerusalem would rise again.

Already before the exile, Jeremiah spoke about how their captivity wouldn’t be endless. The core question was: Did they still believe God’s promise? Did they trust in him? Then his purpose was sure: He would redeem and restore and He would come back. That’s why the Psalmist sings, and he sings in hope! Jerusalem will once again be his highest joy—not in distant memory but in living reality.

To be sure, the Psalmist was probably disappointed when he came back to Jerusalem. For what did he and the other exiles find? A desolate land, just as God said. And rebuilding wasn’t easy. On the day when they laid the foundations of the temple, there was great weeping. More tears! Because it wasn’t the same.

So it will always be for God’s exiled people: tears and longing. In the church, there’s still so much work left to do. There’s still brokenness, division, deep sin and bitter disappointment. So we keep longing, praying, looking to the day of Christ’s return. Our hope is for that lasting city. Revelation talks about that day when “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God” (21:2). Then God’s dwelling will be with us forever.

Holding onto his promise of God, we don’t give up when there is trouble. We don’t worry when God calls us to stand apart. We don’t despair when we’re tired and weary. Because we still know where we’re going. We’ve got home, set firmly in our sights.

Together with the exiles we pray in hope: ‘Remember, O Lord. Remember your promise. Remember what your enemies have done. Remember your plan to fix everything and to make us whole again. Lord, remember how you said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you.” For us, that’s home. That’s where we’re going.

Beloved, they say that home is where the heart is. So where’s your heart? Where is your home?  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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