Other sermons in this series
I’m not pretending for a minute that I sit around reading the Greek classics like Homer’s Odyssey in the evenings like some of you do. Which means I generally rely on TV shows like Madam Secretary for any rare bits of culture I pick up.
And so it was a guy on Madam Secretary through the week who told the ancient story of the homecoming of Ulysses, the king. Twenty long years after he set out to do battle with Troy. And inspired me to look it up and read it.
Ulysses is battle weary. And 20 years older. And he’s been shipwrecked just off the coast of home. So here he is. In rags. The King. Unrecognisable. Weakened. Battered almost beyond recognition.
And Ulysses starts walking towards the city. Towards his palace. And along the way of course nobody knows who he is. He’s taken for a beggar. Links up with an old pig keeper Eumaeus, who offers him food. And then walks with him to the town. The people who see them are jeering. One guy laughs and calls out to them “Look what we’ve got here. One piece of filth sticking to another piece of filth. Old pig keeper, what are you taking that garbage to the palace for? All he’ll get there is a soundbeating.”
Now remember, this is the king he’s talking about. But Ulysses doesn’t say a word.
Even another beggar abuses him. People pelt him with rotten food.
And still… he doesn’t say a word.
As they’re passing the rubbish tip on the edge of town there’s a sad old dog lying on the rubbish. Argos. Who years before was one of the King’s finest hunting hounds. And Argos… the faithful dog smells the king’s scent. And lifts his head and wags his tail. The only one. Who knows the king for who he is. And then promptly dies.
Look, you can figure out the rest. They come into the palace. The abuse gets worse and worse. Because in his humble circumstances, nobody. Nobody. Recognises the king. And of course, in the end, when everything becomes clear, the way they’ve treated him is an indication of the way they’ve treated everyone in poor circumstances. And justice prevails.
Now if you look at it carefully, that’s pretty much the scene here in Psalm 41. It’s a song by King David. That paints a picture of a sick and weakened king.
Verses 1 to 3 state a general principle. That God is on the side of the sick and weak, and which means the Godly will be too. Before verse 4 to 10 make it clear that the sick and weakened one at this point is king David himself.
And the big question of the Psalm is, how will you treat this king when you meet him in his weakness. Because that’s going to count for a lot. When you meet him in his strength.
How are you going to treat David in his weakness? A chance for rebellion? An invitation to slander and betrayal?
They’re all here. In this song of a weak and lowly King.
And here’s the principle. Spelled out in the opening words of verse 1.
Blessed are those who have regard for the weak.
Because that’s not always the way, is it? In the dog eat dog world we live in, and it was even more red in tooth and claw back in David’s day; in a world around us built on the principle of the survival of the fittest, it’s very easy to fall into the habit ofwalking over the weak on your way to the top.
You might not actually be pelting rotten food. But David says, blessed are those who take notice. Who have regard. For the weak. Instead of taking advantage.
Because the Lord, says, I’m on their side. The weak ones.
And I’ll deliver them.
Verse 2, he protects and preserves them.
He doesn’t give them over to the desires of their foes. Who see it as opportunity.
This is one of the astonishing things about the Old Testament.That Israel is meant to be a place after God’s heart. And that the same God who put the stars in place looks down and comforts and protects the smallest orphan; that he looks tenderly on the plight of the poorest widow; he’s got a heart for the poor and displaced.
“The Lord sustains the sick on their sickbed,” verse 3, “and restores them from their bed of illness.”
Which is what David himself relies on in his own time of need. As he cries out in verse 4,
have mercy on me, Lord;
Heal me, for I have sinned against you.
Now it’s hard to know exactly the situation as David writes the Psalm. But as you look back at David’s life story in the book of Second Samuel, there’s a string of examples of times when David is laid low specifically because of his adultery withBathsheba. And it’s ongoing consequences.
It doesn’t mean that every time you’re sick it’s because you’ve sinned. But in David’s case he’s starting with a prayer of repentance. He’s wanting things to be right with God, and he starts from a point of humility.
Because he needs help. His enemies are circling like sharks that smell blood in the water. Because they don’t have regard for the weak at all. And just see it as an opportunity.
This time last year Vladimir Putin canceled a visit to Kazakhstan, and a junior Kazakh official made the mistake of saying publicly, “It looks like he’s unwell.” Probably just a head cold, but the media went into a frenzy. That was March 5. Then he skipped another meeting the next week, and another one on March 18. By which time the rumours were saying he was dead. Or critically ill. The Kremlin tried to deny it. And released video of a meeting they said was on March 10; and people just wouldn’tbelieve it. They were blowing up stills from the video trying to read the date on the desk calendar… to prove it was old footage and Putin was dead.
See, when you’re in a position of power and influence, it doesn’t pay to show weakness. As soon as there’s blood in the water, you get sharks circling.
And that’s how it is with king David
My enemies say of me in malice, verse 5, “When will he die, and his name perish.”
When will we be rid of him?
And they spread rumours. They’re making the most of the opportunity, because they want to use his weakness to bring him down. Forgetting the fact from verse 1 that blessed are those who have regard for the weak. And so they’re on thin ice.
Read from verse 6. Because this is not the kind of visitor you want in your hospital room, is it? “Here are your flowers. Let me look at your chart so I can spread some dark rumours on Facebook…”
When one of them comes to see me,
He speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander;
Then he goes out and spreads it around.
And in verse 7 and 8 they’re spreading malicious rumours; in the hope of destabilising his rule…
All my enemies whisper together against me;
They imagine the worst for me, saying,
“A vile disease has afflicted him;
He will never get up from the place where he lies.”
And you know the worst thing? It’s not just his enemies.
It’s his closest friend. It’s the one who shares his table.
I don’t know if you’ve ever known a feeling of betrayal like that. Someone you trusted. Letting you down.
For David, when he’s down, even his friends are kicking him. Giving up on him. Walking out on him. Turning against him.
Do you know the feeling? I dropped in on an online forum for people who were sharing their stories of hurt and betrayal.
One said, “My best mate slept with my fiancee Lisa. He betrayed me. I found out at my birthday party.”
Or another. “In high school, all my friends took my ex boyfriend’s side when we broke up, even though he was cheating on me. The one person I needed on my side was my twin sister – but even she… left with the crowd.”
Or this one. “My girlfriend dumped me for my best friend… when I was in hospital.”
Do you know the feeling? David did!
Read it there in verse 9.
Even my close friend,
Someone I trusted,
One who shared my bread,
Has turned against me.
Now keep in mind, our series is Sing with Jesus. A fresh look at the Old Testament Book of Psalms in the light of the way the New Testament quotes them.
The last few weeks we’ve been in the gospel of Luke, and we’ve seen that Jesus himself says he’s the fulfilment of not just the law and the prophets; but the Psalms as well.
And we’ve seen in Luke’s gospel the way Luke as a writer is hammering home that idea time after time after time.
So it’s interesting that John in his gospel… does exactly the same. So with the thought in mind from the Psalm that God is the God who delivers the weak, who protects and preserves and sustains and restores. With the thought that blessed arethose who have regard for the weak… and yet King David is surrounded in his time of weakness by friends that turn against him… even his closest friend… with those things in mind, we’re turning to John chapter 13.
JESUS THE WEAK
As we meet king Jesus the weak.
It’s troublesome, isn’t it? At least, the disciples thought so.
This is the time Jesus rips off his outer robe, puts a towel round his waist, and works his way round the room on his knees washing the smelly, road grimed feet of his disciples.
And it’s even more bizarre because verse 3 says at this point Jesus knows that the Father has put all things under his power; and that somehow because of that, he does the least powerful thing you could possibly imagine.
He does the slave thing.
He does the thing nobody else would even think of stooping to do.
Jesus is lowering himself to the point of absolute weakness and humility. Humiliation. In front of his followers.
If you read the chapter closely, Peter objects. But Jesus insists. Because it’s a sign, he says, a symbol… a pointer to an even bigger humiliation on the cross that’s going to make them even cleaner.
Peter, get used to it.
This is upside down leadership. This is what God’s power looks like in its purest expression.
Because God is the God who – if you remember the Psalm – loves to lower himself. And stand beside the little guy.
Look, it’s interesting, there’s a growing strand in secular leadership literature, that says leaders have got to get their hands dirty.
Leaders have got to serve their people. That leaders need to come down from their ivory towers and do what they call inverting the pyramid and serve their organisation or business from the bottom up. And Donald Trump hasn’t read that stuff.
But Jesus pioneered it.
And so verse 12 to 14 he says to his disciples, “You’ve seen how I served. So you do the same.” Do it!
Except there’s one there at the table at this passover dinner who’s just not persuaded. His name’s Judas. And he’s not going to do any serving. In fact, just the opposite.
There have been books written about his motivation. What actually drove him to do what he’s about to do. But maybe… it’s just that he despised all the weakness? Maybe… it was just sheer disappointment. That the one he thought was going to beIsrael’s messiah was just a soppy servant instead.
Judas… has had enough.
He’s been one of the twelve. One of the inner circle. He and Jesus have been mates. But he’s made up his mind.
And Jesus; maybe in a sense forewarned by the Psalm? … Jesus says to them, you’ll be blessed if you serve one another… but I’m not talking about all of you.
Because I chose you guys. And I know you. But this is to fulfil, he says, John 13 verse 18, this is to fulfil this passage of scripture. The words of our Psalm, Psalm 41 verse 9:
He who shared my bread has turned against me.
Verse 21, he makes it even clearer. Have a look.
After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”
And his disciples, they’re just staring at one another in disbelief. Saying who does he mean? Which one of us… would do that?
John says to Jesus, verse 25, Lord, who is it?
To which Jesus says, watch this. The one I share my bread with.
“It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.
And then Judas goes out into the night. To sell him out. For 30 pieces of silver.
Jesus the weak. Jesus the servant. Jesus the betrayed. But here’s the point. He’s the incognito king.
And you might look at him as he washes his disciples‘ feet and be thinking “He’s just the household servant.” A nobody.
You might be looking at him on the cross and say, he’s just rubbish. Not worth a second thought. The way they mocked Ulysses dressed as a beggar. What are you taking that garbage to the palace for?
Well, because he’s not garbage. He’s the king. And even his weakness… is stronger than you can possibly imagine.
And so even as he’s betrayed, the point is that Jesus knows the way Psalm 41 plays out. And he knows one way or another, he’s going to fulfil it in an even bigger way than David did.
Because it fits him like a glove. And so he’s supremely confident, even at the point of his betrayal. Because he can sing to himself the rest of the words of the Psalm that you can see on the screen; Psalm 41:10-13:
But may you have mercy on me, Lord;
Raise me up that I may repay them.
I know that you are pleased with me,
For my enemy does not triumph over
me. Because of my integrity you uphold me
And set me in your presence
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
From everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen.
That’s the confidence… that took Jesus to the cross. And through the cross to his resurrection. And ultimately to his seat at the right hand of God.
REGARDING THE WEAK
Which means, when you step back and think about it, Psalm 41 is in a sense a warning… That not only Judas… but anyone else who overlooks or treads down or conspires against or betrays the weak; is profoundly wrong.
And that hard wired into the universe is the fact that God himself stands by the weak. And the small. And the broken. And will ultimately, if they call on him… raise them up. Like he has with Jesus.
The apostle Paul says later on, we preach Christ crucified, because God “chooses the weak to shame the strong.”
He says “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor 1:25)
Now, I’m not going to promise you a cartoon every week. You got one last week; you can have one this week. No guarantees for next week.
It’s a cartoon by Michael Leunig. Which means it’s pretty much guaranteed not to be funny. And I’m pretty sure it’s a reflection on Cardinal Pell at the Royal Commission. Remember his words through the week. When asked what he knew about paedophile Priest Gerald Risdale, Cardinal George Pell said, “It was a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me.” He said, “The suffering was real. But I had no reason to turn my mind to what he was doing.”
So here’s the cartoon.
Leunig says, “Go down on your knees… if you can… And see the little person… who’s been waiting patiently. Waiting to you… to look down. Come close now. See clearly. See the tender little soul. So perfectly true. Now at last. On your knees. You understand… the most important thing of all.
Do you get that? Psalm 41 verse 1.
Blessed are those who have regard for the weak.
Are you maybe… too high and mighty to notice the little guy? God’s not. See, the problem with Pell’s style and his tone through the week if you’ve followed the terrible news from the Royal Commission was that even if his own hands are clean… where was the regard for the weak? And the broken? He was too high, to even notice it?
Doesn’t Jesus show once and for all God’s on their side? And not an institution? Or a Cardinal who arrives in a car with bodyguards?
The underlying question was, “Where was his regard for the weak?”
And can I ask before we throw too many stones in that direction, where’s yours?
The refugee issue. It’s complicated, isn’t it? And it makes you nervous. But the bottom line is, hard wired into the universe is the fact that God’s on the side of the weak when they call on his name. So have regard for them. The guy struggling at work. Who you can either look down on; or help. The person at morning tea on a Sunday morning you consciously avoid.
Get down on your knees close enough so you can actually see the little person you so easily overlook. Honour the weak person our world so easily despises. Care for the sick person in their time of distress. Because that’s who we are. And that’s what we do.
Simply because we remember that Jesus is the first fruits of that great turnaround. Betrayed and despised in his weakness. But raised up forever in his glory. By the everlasting God of Israel.