The City of God

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I was at a party a while back, and someone asked what I did. And I said, 'I work for a church.' So they said, 'Are you some kind of counsellor?' (That's one way people try to cope when I say what I do.) So I said, 'No. My job is to tell people about Jesus.' And quick as a flash this bloke said, 'But you wouldn't say that Muslims and Buddhists and all the rest are wrong, would you?' And he clearly wanted me to say, 'Oh no, I wouldn't say anything like that.' But what I actually said was, 'Yes, that's exactly what I'd say.' And he couldn't get away from me fast enough, because in our culture people want you to affirm pretty much every belief. And if you don't, they can get offended.

And the Psalm we're looking at tonight is to help us keep telling people that the God of the Bible is the only one who's really there – even if people don't like hearing that. So please turn in your Bible to Psalm 48. The heading (which is part of the inspired text of the Bible) says:

"A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah."

So let me help you get your bearings. Imagine a timeline, with us in 2017 at the far right hand end of it. Now go back 2,000 years along the line and you get to when Jesus lived, died on the cross for our forgiveness, and rose again to show he's the rightful King of everyone. That's what the New Testament part of the Bible is about. Go back another 1,000 years before Jesus and you get to David. God made him king of his people Israel – both to lead them, and to be a kind of model pointing forward to the kind of King Jesus would one day be. And that's in the Old Testament part of the Bible, which is where we find these characters 'the sons of Korah'. They were singer-songwriters (a bit like our own Andy Gawn) whom David put in charge to lead the praise and prayer at the tabernacle. And if you're thinking, 'The what?', take a look at this next picture:

Ian 17.09.17 Picture 1

So there in the picture is Jerusalem – the capital city of God's Old Testament people, Israel. And Jerusalem is on a hill called Mount Zion. So in the Bible Jerusalem is sometimes called Zion. And in Jerusalem 1,000 years before Jesus, you'd have found two important things. The second most important was the king – David: that's the crown with the 'D' in. But the most important thing was the tabernacle: that's the triangle with the 'T' in. And the tabernacle was the symbolic tent where God made himself present with his people. So at the top of the picture the big crown stands for the LORD, and the dotted line stands for the way he made himself present through that tabernacle.

Now he didn't want them to think he was in the tabernacle as if it somehow contained him, as if he wasn't present everywhere. But he did promise, through the tabernacle, to be specially present with them, to bless and protect them, and to give them access to him in prayer. So the tabernacle was a bit like the router you use to connect your computer to the internet. The internet isn't in your router. But the internet is with you, through your router – which gives you access to it. And back in the Old Testament, the LORD wasn't in the tabernacle as if it contained him, as if they 'had God in a box'. But he was with his people through the tabernacle.

The only other background thing to say is that we don't know which of the sons of Korah wrote this, or when. But verse 9 is a clue because it mentions the 'temple'. So look at this next picture:

Ian 17.09.17 Picture 2

The next king after David was Solomon – that's the 'S' in the crown in Jerusalem. And Solomon replaced the tabernacle with a permanent building – the temple, which is that more grand thing with a 'T' in. So I take it this Psalm was written some time after that – but we don't know how soon or long after that. So let's get into it to look for what God is saying to us, through it. And the first message of Psalm 48 is that…

1. The LORD should be praised as the only God there really is (vv1-2)

In other words, it's saying what I said at that party: it's saying the God of the Bible is the only one who's really there – and that all other beliefs about God are wrong – so, very 'un-PC'. So look down to verse 1:

"Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God!"

And the LORD – capital L-O-R-D – is the personal name which the God of the Bible revealed for himself, to distinguish him from all the other supposed gods people believed in. So, verses 1-2:

"Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God!
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King."

So if you look back to Picture 1, you have the city of Jerusalem, on Mount Zion. And in the city was the temple, where God made himself specially present to his people. And so they called it 'the city of our God', 'the city of the Great King' – the Great King being the LORD. Now this translation says in verse 2,

"Mount Zion, in the far north"

But this was written in Hebrew. And literally that line says,

"Mount Zion, the uppermost peak to Zaphon"

And you can imagine the translators saying to one another, 'People won't know what that means. We know Mount Zaphon was a mountain up north. But most people don't. So we'll smooth that detail out by putting 'in the far north'.' But the trouble is, you then miss the point. Only if you stick with what it literally says, do you get the very 'un-PC' point that verse 2 is making, because literally it says,

"Mount Zion is the uppermost peak compared to Zaphon."

So look at this next picture:

Ian 17.09.17 Picture 3

You just need to know that Mount Zaphon was where the Israelites' neighbours believed that their great god, El, lived. But verse 2 is denying that: it's saying, 'No, Mount Zion is the uppermost peak to Mount Zaphon', which is a way of saying, 'Our God is the real Great King, and yours isn't.' So imagine the son of Korah who wrote this being at a party. And this bloke asks him, 'What do you do?' And he says, 'I work for the temple.' So this bloke says, 'Are you some kind of counsellor?' And he says, 'No my job is to tell people about our God through song.' And this bloke says, 'But you wouldn't say that El, Baal and all the other gods people believe in are false, would you?' And this son of Korah would have said, 'Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. There's only one, real God and he deserves to be honoured and praised by everyone on the planet – that's why I do what I do.' And that's the point in verse 2 where he calls the LORD "The joy of all the earth", because that's what the LORD should be – but, tragically, isn't.

So that's the first bit of this Psalm's message: it's that the LORD should be praised as the only God there really is. And with all the upcoming opportunites to tell people about the Lord – from the Big Question events through to Christmas, that's the only conviction which will keep us talking and inviting and praying. It's the conviction that everyone around us owes the Lord the honour and praise of lives lived for him, because he gave us our lives in the first place – and not so we'd just walk off and say, 'Thanks for the life, but I'll live it the way I want'; but so we'd say, 'Thanks for everything – how can I live for you in response?'

Now most people today – and perhaps some of us here just looking into Christianity – would call what I've just said arrogant and bigoted and intolerant. Because most people think that all religious beliefs are just personal, subjective options, and that you therefore have no right to say yours are true and others aren't. But the son of Korah who wrote this would say, 'Excuse me, my beliefs are not just personal, subjective opinions. They're based on real events in history, through which God has made himself known.' And so my second heading, which is a continuation of the first, is:

The LORD should be praised as the only God there really is…
2. … because he's proved himself to be that in the experience of his people (vv3-8)

So look on to verse 3:

"Within her citadels [in other words, within Jerusalem's fortifications and defences] God has made himself known as a fortress."

And five words there sum up the claim of the Bible:

"God has made himself known"

So as a Christian, I don't believe what I believe because I have loads of needs and have invented God as a psychological crutch to help me face them. Nor do I believe what I believe I've worked out rationally whether I think God exists and what he ought to be like. No, I believe what I believe because God has made himself known, through all the words and events recorded in the Bible – climaxing with his own Son stepping into this world in the person of Jesus.

But the son of Korah who wrote this lived before Jesus. And in this Psalm he recalls just one of many events through which God had already made himself known back then. So read on into verses 4-7:

"For behold, the kings assembled;
they came on together.
As soon as they saw it [in other words, the city of Jerusalem], they were astounded;
they were in panic; they took to flight.
Trembling took hold of them there,
anguish as of a woman in labour.
By the east wind you shattered
the ships of Tarshish.
[Or a better translation of verse 7 is, 'You shattered them like ships of Tarshish shattered by the east wind.']"

So what are those verses about? Well, Jerusalem was under attack – that's verse 4:

"For behold, the kings assembled;
they came on together."

But, weirdly, verse 5:

"As soon as they saw [Jerusalem], they were astounded;
they were in panic; they took to flight. [And so on…]"

In other words, they only got as far as seeing Jerusalem – and then the LORD dealt with them and defeated them without a shot being fired. And there's one particular Old Testament event which fits that description like a glove. We can't be sure it's what this son of Korah had in mind. But it was either this event, or one very like it.

The event in question happened in 701 BC, during Isaiah's ministry. Hezekiah was king in Jerusalem and the superpower of the day was Assyria. The Assyrian king sent his commanders (whom Isaiah 10.8 refers to as 'kings' plural) to surround Jerusalem and attack it. They sent messages in to Hezekiah, saying, 'Look, we've conquered all the other countries around here and none of their supposed 'gods' has saved them. You're kidding yourself if you think yours will – because your 'god' isn't real, Hezekiah – so don't trust him to save you.' So at that point, the LORD's honour was on the line. Because if he had allowed his city to fall, it would have looked as if he wasn't the Great King after all – or even wasn't real at all. So here's what Isaiah 37.33-37 says happened next.

""Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria…
… I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David."
And the angel of the LORD went out and struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians…
Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh."

And if you're just looking into Christianity you may be sceptical of that and thinking, 'Really?!' But we know from sources outside the Bible two things which tally with that account. One is that some disaster – maybe a plague – did hit the Assyrian army in the region, and forced it to withdraw. And the other is that the Assyrian records of Sennacherib's reign admit that he did fail to take Jerusalem. So look on to verse 8:

"As we have heard, so have we seen
in the city of the LORD of hosts,
in the city of our God,
which God will establish for ever."

So maybe this son of Korah even lived through that event himself and wrote this in response. And he's saying, 'Just as we have heard from previous generations what the LORD has done for them, so now we've seen more evidence for ourselves that he's real.' And, as I said, the climax of all the Bible's evidence is when his Son stepped into this world, in the person of Jesus. So that's the message of the next bit of the Psalm: the LORD should be praised as the only God there really is… because he's proved himself to be that. In those words of verse 3 again, "God has made himself known," in history, in the words and events recorded in the Bible.

So you may be just looking into the Christian message, and wondering whether the God we believe in is real. In which case, you need to check out the history – check out what the Bible claims has happened. And above all, please check out what it says happened 2,000 years ago in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, which you'll find recorded in the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. You could do that by taking a free copy of one of the Gospels from our Welcome Desk; and/or by coming back to hear more – especially during our Big Question events; and/or by joining our Christianity Explored course – where we go through Mark's Gospel about Jesus, and you can ask all the questions you like.

So this son of Korah was convinced God had proved himself real in events like the time when he saved them from Assyria. And in the rest of the Psalm he says that, in response, we should do two things. So, next heading, he says…

3. We should rejoice in the LORD's love and righteousness (vv9-11)

Look on to verses 9-11:

"We have thought on your steadfast love, O God,
in the midst of your temple.
As your name, O God,
so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with righteousness.
Let Mount Zion be glad!
Let the daughters of Judah rejoice
because of your judgements!"

So he's been thinking over these events – like the time when they were saved from the Assyrians – and asking himself, 'What do they tell us about God?' And they don't just tell us he's real; they tell us about his love and righteousness. So look at verse 9 again

"We have thought on your steadfast love, O God"

And 'steadfast love' translates the word they used for married love - covenant love which promises, 'I will…', and then sticks. And back in Moses' time, having saved the Israelites from Egypt, God had basically proposed marriage to them. He'd said, 'I will be your God. And just like I've saved you from Egypt by bringing judgement on them, I will save you from future enemies by bringing judgement on them.' And in response, Israel had said, 'We will be your people. We'll trust you and live your way' (albeit imperfectly – for which God anticipated their need for forgiveness through the sacrifices of the tabernacle/temple). And if you've made a promise, the right thing to do is to keep it. That's what 'righteousness' at the end of verse 10 is about. This son of Korah prays to God,

"Your right hand is filled with righteousness."

Which means God's quality of always doing the right and just thing – in this case, keeping his promise to his people, and saving them by bringing judgement on their enemies – like he did with Assyria.

But he didn't always save them from their enemies. So, fast forward 100 years from when he saved them from Assyria, and you find he let the new superpower, Babylon, invade Israel, destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and take many of them into exile. But that wasn't because his love had failed. It was because most of his so-called people had completely abandoned trusting in him and aiming to live his way. And so this time his righteousness – his quality of always doing the right and just thing – demanded that he bring judgement on his own people's sin, in the form of the exile.

But in his love, he never gave up on them. So after the exile he let them return and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple – to symbolise that he was still with them and still loved them. But that just raised higher than ever before the question that is begged by the whole Old Testament: how can a righteous God be committed in love to sinners like us? Because our sin calls for his judgement. And his love can't just overlook it – because that's not right.

And living this side of Jesus' first coming, we know how God finally resolved that tension between his love and righteousness. It was at the cross, when his sinless Son took the judgement our sin deserves – so that on the one hand God can forgive us and love us, and on the other, he can say, 'Justice has been done.'

Now of course, the son of Korah who wrote this didn't know all that. But he'd say that we now have even more reason than he did to rejoice in the LORD's love and righteousness. But, last heading, the other response he calls for is that…

4. We should pass on our knowledge of the LORD to everyone

So look down to verses 12-14. Our son of Korah was thinking of those times like when God saved them from the Assyrians, or when he caused Jerusalem to be rebuilt after the exile. He knew that his fellow-Israelites, his contemporaries, could visit Jerusalem and see in the very fact that it was still standing the evidence that God was real and loving and righteous. So he imagines them in Jerusalem, giving their children the guided tour, and says,

"Walk about Zion, go round her,
number her towers,
consider well her ramparts,
go through her citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
that this is God, [in other words, that the very fact that Jerusalem is still here is evidence of God's hand at work]
our God for ever and ever.
He will guide us for ever."

Now, living this side of Jesus' first coming, Jerusalem and the temple have lost their significance, because what they were all about has now been fulfilled in Jesus. So if you ask today, 'What's our ultimate evidence that God is real? How has he supremely made himself present with us and shown us his love and righteousness?', the answer is, 'In Jesus – in his incarnation ('God-with us'); and in his death to bring us forgiven access to God; and in his resurrection – so that he can now be with us by his Spirit, and so that one day he will take us home to be with him in that 'new Jerusalem' described in that reading we had tonight from Revelation 21.

And the point is: we're not just to enjoy that knowledge ourselves. We should pass it on to everyone. Verse 13 says 'to the next generation'. But, living this side of Jesus' first coming, we know that means not simply telling our children about him, but being involved in the mission to tell everyone – around us and world-wide. That brings us back to where we began, because if the LORD is the only God there really is, then we need to pass on our knowledge of him to everyone.

So as a final illustration of that, let me tell you about another mountain. We've had Mount Zion and Mount Zaphon in Psalm 48. Now let me tell you a story about Mount Kenya. Our partners in Mburi live just below the mountain. Mwendwa is the leader of the partnership at their end and his grandfather was one of the first converts to Christ in the area. Previously, he'd worshipped the god whom they believed lived up on Mount Kenya. But just as Psalm 48 said, 'You find the real God through Mount Zion, not Mount Zaphon', the Christian missionaries said, 'You find the real God through Jesus, not on the top of Mount Kenya.' And the average life expectancy of those early missionaries in Africa – from the time they arrived in Mombasa – was just 18 months: they died of everything there was going. But wave after wave of new missionaries went out, despite that, to replace them. And Mwendwa's grandfather once said to him, 'We realised that their God must be real, because even though so many of them died, they kept coming to us with their message.' And that's the spirit of Psalm 48:

"Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised…
the joy of all the earth"

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