7 Symbols 7.19.26
5th sermon in Praise the Lord with Symbols Series
Genesis 4:1-7, Psalm 50, Luke 3:21-22
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A seal allows an ambassador or representative to act on behalf of the One who has sent. The Scripture proclaims, we are ambassadors of Christ: we have been sent by God to bring a message, and that announcement is not our own doing, it is done on behalf of the King.
Employees in successful companies understand and implement the message found in a company logo. Ambassadors act on behalf of presidents and leaders and kings. Christians need to understand our role in announcing the King’s message. We speak because we have been commanded by God to go and tell the gospel. That reason is sufficient. Many Christians and churches have forgotten the authority of the Lord. We belong to God.
The Presbyterian Church, for all its struggle and decline, has an important seal, which accurately speaks to what the King has called us to do as a church. All that we are is rooted in God’s initiation of grace and good news. The top image is that of the descending dove of peace that came at Christ’s baptism. The word of God in the form of an open Bible is the next part of the seal, with the next two lines coming together to speak to three different priorities: the baptismal font, the Lord’s Table, and the pulpit. The seal includes all things that ambassadors do: they bring the new business of the king, they share meal and they listen. Christians show their allegiance to our God by receiving the gifts of baptism, table fellowship, and commit to listening to God and announcing his Word. The two fires on the seal recall the burning bush and the fire of Pentecost, both speaking to God’s presence. Finally, if you imagine, or possibly squint, the overall shape takes on the figure of a human, reaching out with a message. This seal reminds all believers of what our job is. It speaks to how we represent the King of kings.
When Jesus was being baptized, God spoke out of heaven: This is my Son, whom I love, listen to him! As Christians and as the church, this is our job, to see God’s gift of Jesus, to see the ultimate expression of God’s love, and listen. This pleases God!
This summer, we have considered symbols that give their praise to the Lord: bread and wine, sanctuary space, letters that speak to Jesus name and flags. Today we bring forth the seal of the denomination. At the end of this sermon, we’ll come back to the seal.
But first, let’s turn our attention to Psalm 50. Reading this Psalm this week in preparation for today, it struck me that there is an important message here for Stockton Presbyterian. God is God and he doesn’t need you (us, me)!
Didn’t expect that, huh? But before you file out, this is a liberating perspective for us to unpack. The Psalm is very similar to the story of Cain and Abel. God speaks to those he has accepted, and then to the wicked. It is to those who are consecrated that God offers some thoughts about who he is (consecrated means set apart for God’s service, and that is not a term for professional ministers, it is a term for believers)
God is God. He is your God, our God. That doesn’t mean we own God, it means that we have been invited into a relationship with this God. This God says some startling things in the Psalm, which I summarize with four statements:
I don’t need you.
I own everything.
I don’t need to tell you anything.
I am not like you.
Now, if we pay more attention to the sin crouching at our door that is ready to devour us, we can turn each of these statements into an unintended message, and so deceive ourselves. But God’s Spirit, dwelling in our hearts through faith, can deliver the true meaning of these statements.
I don’t need you. While at first our hearts might sink, it is liberating. Pride goes before the fall. We often think of ourselves in more important ways than we ought. God can do anything. He doesn’t need a bull from our stall or a goat from our pens. He doesn’t need our sacrifices. Really, he doesn’t need us in order to accomplish any of his purposes.
‘I don’t need you’ becomes, ‘but I love you’. It is a totally different type of relationship. God is, whether we are aware or not. But in great kindness, we can be aware. God has invited us into covenant, into relationship. It is his love, not any neediness, that calls out to us.
God also declares “I own everything”. “Every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine”. This isn’t a petulant child speaking, it is the Creator. All resources, all life in fact, comes from God.
It is always a helpful exercise in our prayers to name what makes us anxious and then consider God in light of that anxiety. Is God surprised? Does God not have any money? Is God overcome by obstacles? Does God not have forgiveness for us, seventy times seven? Has the Spirit not planted all the spiritual gifts necessary for a congregation’s work within us? He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Does your problem extend wider or farther than that? “I own everything” becomes, “my grace is sufficient for you”
The third idea for in the psalm is “I don’t have to tell you anything”. If God were hungry, would he consult with us? Would he seek our approval? Would he need our signature? No, he would eat. All the world is his. Yet, “I don’t have to tell you anything” becomes “but I do have something to tell you”. God has spoken in the Scripture and in Jesus Christ. I don’t have to tell you anything becomes, “but I do want to tell you something”. How delightful is this! God has chosen to say something to us, not because he needs to, but because he wants to.
The fourth idea is “I am not like you”. The Psalm declares: Do I eat the flesh of bulls? God is Holy. We are in the image of God. God is not in the image of people. This is comforting because we have seen what humans can do apart from God. The results are not good. Because God is different, not like us, we can have salvation, we can have hope, we can have wisdom and help, grace and kindness and strength from above.
In Psalm 50, the result of God differentiating himself from all people is a command to those who are in covenant:Verse 14-15 read: Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon him in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, and you will honor me. What a good way forward!
--sacrifice your thank offerings. Our words, our actions, our gifts, all of it, can be done out of gratitude. The command is to offer to God.
--fulfill your vows. Do what you’ve said you will do.
--call upon God in the day of trouble and he will deliver you.
A quick side note: I had a little anxiety this week, and I was thinking about this Psalm. In reading it, I realized that this anxiety was not from God, but created and nurtured by me. I started to name my anxiety thinking of the Psalm’s phrase “in the day of trouble call upon God” when I realized that my anxiety wasn’t actually a day of trouble. And so I started praying for those who were actually in trouble. My prayers went to others throughout the world who are suffering and in difficult situations.
The Psalm next moves to God’s words to the wicked. My suggestion is to not be in a place where these words apply to you. If you are heading that way, stop, and go a different direction. The possibility to stop and go a different direction is as old as Cain and Abel. We don’t know why God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. But the clue is in God’s word to Cain: If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?
The New Testament makes 5 mentions of Cain and Abel. Two mentions are in the Gospels, when Abel is listed as the first to be martyred for his faith. Hebrews says “By faith, Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous person, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” I John includes these words: “We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised if the world hates you.” Hebrews 12 writes that we have come “to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel”
To do what is right is the opportunity before us. Yes, you can choose the sin crouching at your door, but that simply will lead to death. And you don’t really want death. How can we know what is right? The seal speaks to us: we are ambassadors with the gospel message. We can tell the world, with God’s authority, that there is salvation. Jesus is the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through him. Trust in God and trust in Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. The seal speaks to that great message that has come down from heaven through Jesus. We have the Word of God. We have a baptism that claims us and a table where we meet with Jesus and a pulpit that reminds us of truth. We have the presence of God in the story of the burning bush and the presence of the Holy Spirit that came to believers that day at Pentecost. We too reach out to the world with a tangible, compassionate message of truth from the King. We don’t ask for obedience to the ambassador. We demand obedience to the King.
When we offer sacrifice and fulfill our vows and call upon God. God reminds us of these good words at the end of Psalm 50: The One who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God. Our offerings aren’t really needed by God, author of all life and resource. We benefit. Offering opens our hearts to see God’s saving work. But most of all, and most important, God is honored.
We don’t ask for obedience to the ambassador. We demand obedience to the King. Remember who you represent.