Introduction: What if?
I came across this question in my preparations for this sermon.
As I pondered this, the very first thing that came to mind was an episode of the series "Futurama" where a what-if machine was invented. Futurama is a somewhat weird cartoon science fiction series from the noughties that I used to like to watch. On the one hand, there were completely absurd examples, such as what would happen if a video game world attacked the earth.
But one example was interesting. You have to know that one of the main characters in this animated series is a woman called Leela, who is very controlled but has extensive martial arts skills. Now the what if question was, what if this woman is not so controlled, but rather impulsive and not in control. She spontaneously became a murderer in the course of this somewhat black-humoured episode when she was first teased, and then went on and on to cover up the murders.
Such weird or not so weird thought experiments -- and I want to leave the Futurama universe again now -- can be quite interesting or funny, but the question, "What if?" may also move some people personally. What would have happened differently in one's life if one had taken a different path at a certain point in time? Sometimes a "what if" becomes an "oh, I wish I had" or even an "oh, I wish I had"!
"I wish I had" is also found in the Bible, e.g. in Proverbs 5:12,13 and in the translation "Hope for All" it is also formulated in the same way (HFA):
Here things seem to have gone well once again. Still, life can be quite depressing when an "oh I wish" or an "oh I wish" takes up a large part of one's memory culture. It's creepy when you're just mourning missed opportunities.
I would therefore like to take a step back again, to "what if". The example I found in the Bible can perhaps be a help in refocusing our gaze.
I read Psalm 124; NL
If the Lord had not been for us - so shall Israel say -, 2 If the Lord had not been for us, when the nations rose up against us, 3 They would have swallowed us up alive, so great was their hatred for us. 4 Water would have flooded us, a raging torrent would have washed us away. 5 The raging floods would have overwhelmed us. 6 Praise be to the Lord, who did not let them tear us apart with their teeth! 7 We escaped like a bird from the net of the hunter. The net is torn and we are free! 8 Our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.
What if God had not been there for us?
Have you ever asked yourself that? What would have happened to you if you had not known God? Maybe you would have seen the church once, but nothing would have appealed to you because God did not appeal to you.
You might have got involved somewhere else, filled your time differently.
Would you be a different person? Without God, would you perhaps even have become a puke?
There are quite a few who testify that their lives would have run into the wall if they had not known God. Without God's help, life can very well go wrong.
Interestingly, in this Psalm, Israel is asked to ask itself this question.
"If the Lord had not been for us - so shall Israel say", let us realise what a gift it is to have known God.
It is the certainty that Jesus is with us, that we can bring him our worries, but also our thanks and our joys. We have a purpose for our lives because we know that what we are and do has eternal value. We have eternal life.
And our church is also a gift that we would not have without God. Do we see our congregation as a gift, as our congregation, or do we rather have an eye on how much the congregation is of use to us or not1 We may not always be able to free ourselves from that. But the basic gratitude for the church is important, I think.
Let's come back to the Psalm.
For David, the psalm writer, the focus of this psalm is God's help against hostile people.
David often had to flee from people who wanted to harm him. In his younger years he had to flee from Saul and later, as an older man, even from his own son Absalom. He also had to fight several battles and wars.
It is not clear from the Psalm which specific situation he is referring to. But he is certain that without God's help he would have
- "would have been "swallowed up alive
- the "waters would have washed them away".
- would have been "thrown to foreign teeth for plunder".
We know, when we study the Bible, that the accounts in the Old Testament can serve as images for us today.
We rarely fight against people today, but have other opponents, as it says in Ephesians 6:12, NL:
This sounds a bit like fantasy, but it is about something completely different, as you will notice when you read on here (Ephesians 6:13-18; NL):
Of course, one could easily preach a sermon of one's own on this text, but I would like to look at it only briefly today:
- Truth and justice help against lies and injustice. And this applies not only to the lies and injustice of others, but also to our own.
- Peace with God helps against our own inner discord, against aimlessness, against unresolved questions of life, e.g. about meaning.
- And the willingness to proclaim this peace with God, which is ultimately the Gospel, also helps other people to find peace.
- Faith helps against, yes what are the fiery darts of Satan? Doubt, discontent, seduction, and more. However, I don't think you can just ignore the arrows by faith. You have to face the attack with your faith, you have to reflect. Why am I dissatisfied? Why do I have doubts? But if you become aware of why you trust Jesus, then you can fend off those arrows. And just as it can be exhausting to hold up a shield, such a process of faith is not always easy.
- The certainty of being saved helps from surprising blows to the head.
- And the knowledge of the Bible helps one to make right decisions and to act right.
So much for the Christian armour; but we also see that without God, without Jesus Christ, there is no Christian armour.
Let us make the connection with Psalm 124.
- Lies and unrighteousness can swallow us alive if we live in a web of lies and we cannot get out of it.
- The discord, the inner turmoil, can wash us away; we no longer find a place where we belong, no meaning for our lives.
- The doubt, the discontent eats us up. Every surprising blow throws us to the ground, that we no longer want to get up. We can never resist the temptation.
This link with the Psalm shows us that without God there is no Christian armour and that we are then already lost.
God with usOf course, even with God we do not lead a pure victor's life, although we live on the side of the victor. Every Christian will of course fail, fall and sin from time to time. But he can get up again, come to Jesus and experience repentance and help.
Psalm 124 goes on like this (v.6.7):
V.7 is an interesting image here. The bird has gone into the net, just as we too sometimes fail, sometimes sin, make mistakes, hurt other people, but it doesn't have to get to the point where we are devoured by our mistakes.
The net is torn and we can get up again, confess our guilt before God and also before people, change our behaviour and come out again. We can become free again.
And the final verse expresses it so beautifully (v.8; NL):
Other translations write here (e.g. ELB):
That sounds a little better. No matter what comes, our help stands firm with God.
Let's go back to the beginning: What if...?
This invitation from the beginning of the Psalm, that Israel should visualise what would have been if the Lord had not helped them, naturally also has the sense of becoming grateful that help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.
Gratitude is one thing. It is easier in retrospect. When you have everything behind you and see what could have gone wrong, then you take a breath and are grateful.
But when you're in the middle of it, when the fiery arrows are flying at you, when the problems seem huge, when you're afraid, then it's very difficult with gratitude.
But that seems to me to be the second message of this psalm.
When it seems that you are flooded with problems, this psalm tells you that there will be a time when you can look back and see that God was there and carried you through.
You may have heard the saying that in strange situations people say, "Later we will laugh about it."
You probably won't laugh when the problems get out of hand, but maybe you can adopt the saying with a little modification: "Later we will see that God was there in spite of everything."
Of course, this kind of thing is always easy to say by non-affected people. In Proverbs it says quite aptly in Proverbs 14:10; HFA:
This is the message of Psalm 124 and I hope it will accompany us for the next week.
- What if God had not intervened in our lives? Let us be thankful that he did.
- We usually do not fight against people but against powers of darkness. And that means we have to deal with injustice, lies, discord, doubt, seduction and more.
- Without God there is no Christian armour, one is helpless against the enemy. Without God we have already lost.
- With God we can get up again after mistakes, after sins, after failure and become free. The net is torn.
- With God, "Later we will see that God was there in spite of everything."
- Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.