What to do about asylum seekers

A sermon by Rod Benson on Psalm 145

Muriel was a professor of art at a major university.  She used to leave her office door unlocked so students and colleagues could walk in and leave messages on her mural-sized bulletin board, a collage of clippings, photographs, sketches and notes.

For about a year, two items stood out from the creative clutter.  One was a large, carefully lettered card left by an anonymous visitor: “Muriel, everything is really very simple.”

Just below it, a subsequent (also anonymous) caller had tacked a sheet of notebook paper on which he or she had scrawled in black marker: “Muriel, nothing is ever simple.”[1]

Without doubt, those of us with a bit of life experience will agree that nothing is ever simple.  I have been asked to preach on “What to do about asylum seekers,” and I don’t come with the answers.  Indeed, along with climate change mitigation and Indigenous disadvantage, the problem of asylum seekers coming to our shores is one of the great social issues of our time – far more important than same sex marriage or paid parental leave schemes or tax reform.

I have spoken on this subject many times, briefly and at length.[2]  Today I want to approach the issue from a different perspective.  You’re not here to listen to a political speech, or an ethics lecture, and I’m not here to give you one.   We want to hear from God, and that means taking God’s word seriously, and facing the challenges it presents with courage, and responding to the imagination it inspires with creativity.

Turn with me to Psalm 145.  This psalm is the last of the “Davidic collection” (Pss 138-145), and prepares us for the five psalms that bring the Psalter to conclusion in praise and thanksgiving.  It is also the last of the alphabetical acrostic psalms (with Pss 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112 and 119), each line in the Hebrew (the original language in which they appeared) beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

There is another structure also apparent in Psalm 145:

  • Call to worship by the psalmist (vv 1-2)
  • Reasons for worship: the greatness of God (vv 3-6)
  • Reasons for worship: the goodness of God (vv 7-9)
  • Call to worship by creation and by the community (v 10)
  • Reasons for worship: the greatness of God (vv 11-13a)
  • Reasons for worship: the goodness of God (vv 13b-20)
  • Call to worship by the psalmist and by all creation (v 21)[3]

David is committed to worshipping God, whom he knows personally and experientially (“my God”), and as the sovereign Ruler (“the King”).  As biblical scholar John Goldingay notes, the concrete examples of God’s greatness and goodness in this psalm have the effect of accumulating “a many-sided though overlapping account of the nature of worship, of Yhwh’s greatness, of Yhwh’s goodness, and of Yhwh’s concrete positive involvement with humanity.”[4]

In verses 3-6, the psalmist announces the unfathomable greatness of God: not only in the great redeeming event of the Exodus at the start of Israel’s story (cf Dt 3:24), but also the mighty acts of God experienced by subsequent generations, reinforcing confident trust in the reality and personality of God, and reiterating the qualities of love and justice by which God is known.

Christians sometimes speak of the objective and subjective dimensions of belief, or the historical and existential aspects of the work of God, as it applies to them. All of this is powerfully present in Psalm 145.

Verses 7-10 move beyond God’s greatness to tell of his goodness.  There is an allusion to Exodus 34:6-7 here – the central defining characteristics of the God who deserves all praise and worship.  As God gave the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments to Moses, God described himself as:

the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.

Together these divine attributes draw forth not only our reverence and awe, but also our love and submission.  God is great; God is also good, and he seeks our companionship, and rewards those who diligently seek him.

But the ultimate vision of this psalm is not about the strength of David’s kingdom, or the superiority of Israel’s faith, in contrast to other kingdoms and other religious traditions.  The ultimate vision of this psalm is a picture of reality that transcends space and time and ethnic difference (vv 10-13a, 21).

Israel’s mission was to tell the story of the greatness and goodness of God as expressed in the foundational events of Israel’s history, and as expressed in God’s personal dealings with subsequent generations, “so that all people may know of [God’s] mighty acts and the glorious splendour of [God’s] kingdom” (v 12).

This is the only instance in Psalm 145 where a specific reason is given for praise and worship of God.  And it is missional.

God’s creation, and God’s people, testify to his greatness and goodness, so that people outside of Israel, and strangers to the covenant and its blessings, may hear a word about God, and know God, and experience the reality of God in their lives as Redeemer and King, and feel at home in the kingdom and family of God.

In verses 13b-20, we learn how this universal rule of God operates.  God is completely trustworthy and faithful (v 13b).  God upholds those who are weak and struggling under heavy burdens (v 14), and provides for those who are hungry (vv 15-16).  God hears and answers the cries of those in desperate need, and demonstrates his love and care by fulfilling their desires, answering their prayers, and saving them (vv 18-20a).

And, true to his longsuffering and holy nature, those who choose to deny his greatness and glory, and who refuse his grace and compassion, and reject his love and justice, he destroys (v 20b).  The theme of retributive justice is not popular today, but it appears in many of the psalms, and elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments, and we can be sure that in every case, every instance, divine punishment is just and fits our crimes against God.

But punishment and destruction are not God’s will for anyone, as verse 21 declares.  This verse takes us back to verse 1, and provides a fitting introduction to the five psalms that conclude the Psalter (Pss 146-150).

Here the universal scope of the grace and mission of God is clear: “My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord.  Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever” (v 21).

God desires both our loyalty and our public witness.  God is at the centre of the destiny of every person who has ever lived.  The psalmist invites the whole world to participate in the universal praise of the God of heaven and earth.

Psalm 145 encourages people of faith to sing, and to pray: to ask God to narrow the gap between the real and the ideal; between a fractured and painful and difficult present and a peaceful and perfect future; between the present denial of justice and compassion and mercy and the future everlasting kingdom of God, characterised by the beautiful and holy and healing attributes of God as expressed in this psalm.

Psalm 145 is a little bit like an Old Testament version of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Matthew 6:9-13:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”

But where in Psalm 145 does it refer to temptation and evil?  Not only in verse 20, with a fleeting mention of the destiny of the wicked.  At every point, there is a temptation not to exalt God, not to give him his rightful place in our lives and our land, not to recognise his true greatness and glory and grace, not to accept his compassion and love, not to rejoice in the universal scope of his mission, not to model his character and actions in our own lives.

In the Lord’s Prayer, when Jesus teaches his followers to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” he is calling us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to model our lives on the character of God as revealed in Scripture, to let go of “falsehood, and false ways, and the acknowledgement of false gods,”[5] and to embrace the way, the truth and the life of God in Christ.

What are we to do about asylum seekers?

To many Australians, the asylum seeker policies of both the Labor Party and the federal Coalition are reactionary, hugely expensive, and severely lacking in compassion.  What’s all the more shameful about the stance taken by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, is that both men claim to be Christian.

But if blame is due, it is also due to the parents, teachers, priests and pastors in critical marginal seats in western Sydney and Queensland, who have failed to instil an ethical compass in the next generation.  That’s the target of the immigration policies of both major political parties.  The government ads aren’t warning would-be people smugglers – they’re seeking to reassure voters in marginal electorates.

The Coalition would do exactly the same, only with an even more extreme policy designed to punish those who deserve protection.  There are no easy solutions, but surely compassion is preferable to cruelty.

Australian pastor Mark Glanville, writing in the August 2013 issue of Eternity magazine, says the Prime Minister’s PNG solution to the problem of asylum seekers, and the policy of mandatory detention, are indefensible from the standpoint of biblical ethics.

He says our best hope for a solution is regional cooperation with our near neighbours.  For example, the Bali process “gathers leaders and experts from the region in order to address irregular movements between countries, with the aim of stopping people smuggling and protecting displaced people.”

But governments cannot do it alone.  He says:

Biblical ethics call for a new morality in Australian politics and a new commitment among the people of God.

If witness to Christ in Australia is to be authentically biblical and if it is to be heeded by compassionate Australians, then the church must carefully attend to biblical ethics regarding the stranger and both advocate for, and model, the radical welcome of Christ.[6]

Psalm 145 gives us some hints as to what that welcome might look like, in terms of mission, and in terms of compassion.

What if the global movement of refugees and asylum seekers, along with other discernible migration patterns, is a small but significant part of the mission of God in our time?

What if God has been preparing his church for witness to people who come to our shores by boat – people who would otherwise be prevented from meeting faithful followers of Jesus?

What if opposition to asylum seekers is offensive to God?  Let us pray.

Almighty God, in whose psalmists and prophets through the ages we have seen and heard your love and justice clearly proclaimed, and in whose Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, you have definitively declared the worth of human persons,

We pray today for all Australians:

Forgive us when we fail to recognise the right of the other person to be different, and fail to defend the vulnerable and voiceless, and fail to offer hospitality to those fleeing real danger and persecution.

Give us eyes to see the plight of our fellow human beings on the high seas and in detention.

Give us ears to hear their cries and their stories, to learn their names.

Give us lips to encourage them, and speak for them, and change hard hearts.

Give us hands and feet to love them, welcome them, care for them, and restore their honour as Jesus would.

Lord, give us a new imagination for what our nation and our world should be, and instil in all of us the courage and hope and wisdom we need to get from here to there.

We pray this in the strong name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sermon 617 copyright © 2013 Rod Benson. Preached at Carlton-Kogarah Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 25 August 2013. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[1] Howard W. Stone & James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically (3rd edn; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), p. 13.

[3] John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 3: Psalms 90-150 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 696.

[4] Ibid., p. 697.

[5] Ibid., p. 705.

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