December 11, 2017

Christmas Comparisons - Psalm 117

Theme: God’s Comparison is a Measure of His Compassion

It’s no mystery that tensions can exist between neighbors. Here we’re thinking of neighbors in the way our culture typically understands it, as the person who lives next door to you. Several sayings bear this out: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” “Good fences make good neighbors.” Not surprising, this tension can grow during the Christmas season. Perhaps your neighbor doesn’t shovel his sidewalk as often as you’d like. Or maybe she lets her dog make yellow markings on the fresh snow in your yard. Or maybe they want to have the best Christmas decorations in the neighborhood.

Yes, as surprising, or maybe not, as it sounds, Christmas decorating can quickly turn into a heated competition. Everybody wants to have the best, most noble, eye-catching display. Some people pour hundreds or thousands of dollars into lights and energy costs. I happened to see a news article this week about a woman in Arizona who was so tired of the neighborly competitiveness that she opted for a new and unique tactic. After he neighbor had spent hours getting all his lights in order, both in the yard and on the house, this woman simply crafted a large sign that said “Ditto” with an arrow pointing to her neighbor. It was a light-hearted way to deal with the situation but for some it’s not a laughing matter.

The fires of competition arise when we start comparing ourselves with others. This happens around Christmas, but it’s hardly relegated to just this time of year. While God never directly condemns making comparisons between ourselves and others, He often warns against what it can lead to. Perhaps most often of all, comparisons lead to coveting and discontent. We see what others have. We think the grass is always greener on the other side. We pity ourselves as if the odds are against us. And on and on the discontent grows and very quickly we start to blame God. Why do others get more than me? Why is that person’s life so much better than mine?

This conundrum comes forth in the Bible too. The Psalmist Asaph wrote of comparing his life with the wicked: Truly God is good to Israel, To such as are pure in heart. 2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped. 3 For I was envious of the boastful, When I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psa 73:1-3)

Asaph was discouraged because of the prosperity of the wicked. He thought they should get what they deserved. It caused him to doubt God’s love in his life. It led him to be angry with God. Quite a different thought we get in our text for today, from Psalm 117: Praise the LORD, all nations; Laud Him, all peoples! 2 For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the LORD is everlasting. Praise the LORD! (NASB)

Psalm 117 is an interesting one. It’s the central chapter of the entire Bible and also the shortest chapter. We’re not told who wrote it, but it was contained in a volume of Psalms called the Hallel Psalms, named after the Hebrew word for “Praise the LORD”, where our English word Hallelujah comes from. These Hallel Psalms were special to God’s people. They were sung during the Passover preparation. They were even sung by Jesus and His disciples on Maundy Thursday in the Upper Room. Think of that for a moment. In that most trying of hours, the Lord Jesus most likely repeated the very same words and believed the same truths that are printed before you this morning.

We may not know whom the Holy Spirit caused to record this Psalm, but its message is simple enough. “Praise the LORD” bookends the qualities of God’s mercy, which is great, and God’s truth, which is eternal. The Psalmist worships God for these blessings. He speaks differently than Asaph because he is not concerned with what is going on around him. This unknown author is focused entirely on Who is above and what He has done. We might call this the difference between a comparison of the horizontal (what is going on in the world) and a comparison of the vertical (what is going on with God).

There is no shortage of opportunities to make such comparisons for ourselves. But we must ask, what is going to be best for our lives? Comparisons with others will lead to despair. Comparisons with God will lead to hope and praise.

This may seem like a no-brainer to you but I want to show you why it is so significant. We’re used to comparing our lives with God because He directs us to. He says, “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” Jesus said, “Be holy, as My Father in heaven is holy.” Paul describes eternal life, and the completion of love, as knowing God as He knows us today. This is nothing short of astounding. But you’re probably not blown away by it because you know it already. You’ve been living it and trusting it since your baptism. But, for those without Christ, this is a completely foreign concept. But, the key is that God does not just tell us to compare ourselves with Him in His commands, but also in what Jesus has done for us by free grace.

Look at any other world religion and God is a distant, sometimes unnamed, unknowable force. Even if a religion gets specific about god it’s certainly not for the purpose of comparing yourself to him. Take Islam for example. The goal in Islam is to follow Allah, the deity they call God. But, a person is forbidden to compare him/herself to Allah. It’s offensive even to depict Allah or his prophet, Muhammad in art. The disciple is continually told to keep a certain distance from Allah. The path for following him is to show greater devotion in following his commands; in the terminology of our thoughts today, to compare your obedience with others. Whoever is better is more devoted to Allah.

Now think of the great difference between those principles and the gospel of Christ, especially as we prepare for Christmas. We are looking forward to observing the moment in history when God entered the world, and not only that, when He became human. There is no closer comparison to us than that. God didn’t consider it blasphemy to be depicted in human terms; He chose it. He belittled His eternal, immaterial, holy presence to become exactly like us – people who struggle and strive in the filth of this temporary world. This is amazing and absolutely one of a kind. No other faith system has anything like this.

And the thing is, as soon as we get stuck in comparing ourselves to God, we are met face-to-face with Christ in the Scriptures. God dispels our fears and uncertainties about measuring our lives next to His perfect nature by using His own Son as a comparison of His own. That’s what the birth of Jesus was. God was stepping down into humanity and becoming one of us. But, just like all comparisons, when this one was made, several contrasts became apparent too. Jesus was like us, indeed. This surprised people. It continues to fascinate us with curiosity today. We sing hymns about the sublime majesty of God being in the body of a helpless baby.

But, Jesus was different too. With that great comparison of the Father’s mercy also came an honest realization of why this Child was born. We who were once made in the Father’s image, had fallen from His righteousness. Jesus came to right that wrong as well. Hebrews sums it all up in one verse: For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was like us in all things, except sin. And even in that point, He knew what sin was, He experienced it through He never committed it. Peter wrote: 1 Peter 2:24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
This is the great mercy for which the psalmist praises the LORD. But mercy means nothing without truth. The harsh truth is that we caused the innocent Son of God to be nailed to the cross of divine punishment. We are not innocent by-standers in this great sacrifice. He came for our sins and our lives. When God promised the great comparison of His Son’s incarnation into this world, to be made human like us, He was thinking of you and of me. That Savior born in Bethlehem was here to walk my path, to carry my sorrows, to suffer my punishments, to extend the hand of compassion that I withheld. My life is compared to His in all points because He bought me back from the dead.

Now, we see the amazement. It’s one thing to compare the truths of the gospel with the other religions of the world. It makes an impact. It’s quite another thing, quite another plane of appreciation and thanksgiving, to know that I today have been redeemed by Christ. Everything I read about in the Bible that He did, He did for me. That is the comparison God wants me to make each day of my life. When I feel self-righteous, compare with Christ. When I feel beaten down, compare with Christ. When I am stubborn and indignant in my sins, compare with Christ. And when I make that comparison I see great mercy and eternal truth. I see Him for me, both in the standards which I failed to keep and the blissful promises I eagerly expect. This, my friends, is the vertical comparison – the purpose of the Christmas season when this comparison began and the simple theme of the shortest chapter of the Bible.      

Come back the 73rd Psalm. When Asaph compared his life with others, what conclusion did he come to? He said, “When I thought how to understand this, It was too painful for me-- 17 Until I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood their end. 22 I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. 23 Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. 24 You will guide me with Your counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:16-17, 22-24)

His conclusion was that he needed to go back to the fact that God was with him no matter what. Foolishness and pain were the results of comparing his life with others. This is true whether you think you have it good or not. As Luther once said, “We are all beggars.” The hope of the Christmas season and of life in general is not that I have more than others, not that I can do more than others, or not that I look better than others. The hope is great mercy, and eternal truth – wrapped not in paper and bows, but in swaddling cloths.

God is with you. God holds you in His hands. God guides each every day. God will receive you to glory. His gifts through the greatest gift – His Son. Praise the LORD! Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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