One of the weaknesses of our human nature appears to be that we are attracted to easy answers. We want reality to be simple. We want a universe where good deeds are clearly and quickly rewarded, and bad deeds are promptly and obviously punished. We want a life in which the way forward is always clear, and where there’s always a simple solution to every difficulty. We want a world where morality is always reassuringly black and white. We want to be able to avoid the terrifying feeling that we are tiny, helpless beings set in the midst of a dangerous world that seems callously indifferent to our existence.
But the truth is that the world is not simple. The real world, the world we actually live in, is a place where good people die of cancer at a young age, leaving families who spend years processing the pain of their loss. It’s a world where children are kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves. It’s a world where people brought up by good parents in good homes find themselves saddled with mental illnesses that make their lives a constant struggle. It’s a world where a tiny little virus that very few people saw coming can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and disrupt the lives of millions more.
One of Eugene Peterson’s most brilliant books for pastors is called ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ (the ‘five smooth stones’ title is an allusion to the story of David and Goliath, where David takes his sling and selects ‘five smooth stones’ from the brook to kill the giant). In it, Peterson looks at five lesser-known Old Testament books and explores their relevance for the pastoral task. They are the books of ‘Song of Songs’, ‘Ruth’, ‘Lamentations’, ‘Ecclesiastes’. and ‘Esther’. Possibly my favourite chapter is the one on Ecclesiastes; he calls it ‘The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying’.
Yes, nay-saying can be a pastoral task. The quest for easy answers does real damage to people’s souls and people’s relationships, and it can be a legitimate pastoral task to point this out to people. Kate Bowler, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer while in her thirties, writes about this in her brilliant book ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved. ‘Everything happens for reason’ is a cliche people use to protect themselves from the feeling that their lives are spiralling out of control. Well-meaning people think they are bringing comfort to others when they use it, but in fact, they rarely are. When you’re on the receiving end of that particular pat answer, it feels as if your pain is being trivialized or dismissed. The person who tells me “Everything happens for a reason” is not taking my suffering seriously. They find it too hard to just listen to what I have to say, without trying to give me solutions to my problem.
If your prayer life is shaped by the psalms, you know that reality is far from simple. The writers of the psalms love the image of God as ‘a rock of refuge in times of trouble’. In other words, when it seems as if life is a deadly quicksand, they have discovered that the presence of God can be a solid rock, a secure place to stand. But at the same time, they are well aware that God often seems to be absent, or asleep. They complain about how long he’s taking to show up and change things. They ask what they’ve done to deserve what they’re getting. They agonize over the prosperity of the wicked and the sufferings of the innocent.
It seems to me that to live as an adult in this world is to acknowledge both these truths: ‘Life is hard and complex’ and ‘God is my rock’. This has certainly been my experience in the present pandemic. On the one hand, in the past few weeks I’ve experienced the physical symptoms of stress in ways more severe than ever before. On the other hand, I can’t remember a period in my life when I’ve been more aware of the presence of God, especially in our shared times of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook Live.
So yes, I believe in the ‘pastoral work of nay-saying’, and in the next few weeks I want to do a bit of nay-saying on this blog. I want to look at some of these easy answers, these ‘lies we’ve loved’, to use Kate Bowler’s phrase, and explore why, in the long run, they really aren’t very helpful. I haven’t yet decided which of these pat answers to consider first. Will it be ‘everything happens for a reason?’ Or ‘God is in control’? Or ‘God won’t send you more than you can cope with?’ Or ‘God is good, all the time’? Or ‘now I am happy all the day?’ I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned!
‘You are my refuge and my shield;
your word is my source of hope.’
(Psalm 119:114 NLT)
When the phrase ‘Your Word’ is used in Psalm 119 it often means ‘Your commandments’ or ‘Your Law (Torah)’. But in fact the word ‘Torah’ might be better translated ‘instruction’. It refers not just to the laws in the first five books of the Bible, but also to the promises, the stories, the self-revelation of God in the Hebrew scriptures.
I find this helpful. I find it hard to put my hope in God’s ‘Law’ (I have such a terrible record of following it!). But the stories of God’s work in people’s lives, the promises, the way God is revealed to us in the scriptures—yes, I certainly find all of that to be a ‘source of hope’.
And of course, the Torah itself is only a signpost to God. The first line doesn’t say ‘Torah is my refuge and my shield’, but ‘You (God) are my refuge and my shield’. We love the Bible because it leads us to God, not the other way around!
But what does it mean for God to be our refuge and shield? Both those words are symbolic of safety; in time of danger, we can find refuge in God.
But how does that work? Does that mean if we ask God to be our refuge and shield, we won’t catch COVID-19? I haven’t found that to be true to my own life experience. And I don’t think this psalm promises it, either. These words aren’t addressed from God to us; they’re addressed from the writer to God, celebrating his personal experience of God’s care for him.
I certainly have not found faith to be an insurance policy against bad things happening to good people. But I have definitely found God to be a source of strength, hope, and comfort in time of trouble. Right now we’re all going through a lot of stress, and I’m sure some of us are feeling it in our gut—literally! I have absolutely no idea what I would do with that, if it weren’t for the invitation to take it to the Lord in prayer.
So let’s acknowledge the danger that’s stalking the land, and the stress we’re feeling because of it, and let’s turn to God and ask God to be our refuge and our shield.
‘All through the storm,
Your love is the anchor,
My hope is in you alone.’
Well, we’ve had quite a week, haven’t we?
It’s hard to believe that this is still only the third Sunday in Lent. In other words, it’s only eighteen days since Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we knew a little about COVID-19, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that less than three weeks later I’d be presiding at a service in which I couldn’t share the Common Cup with you—at which we would be forbidden to shake hands or share a hug at the Peace, or before and after the service—and no coffee hour afterwards! And When we started our Lent study course twelve days ago, I had no idea that in less than two weeks we’d have to shut it down.
Of course, these are minor details in the great big scheme of things. The Juno awards have been cancelled, and many national sports leagues have cancelled their seasons. Our Prime Minister is self-isolating because of possible exposure to COVID-19, as are a couple of other cabinet ministers. Concerts, university classes, workshops, cruises, holidays—the list goes on and on. People’s jobs are at risk because their businesses depend on the freedom to go out and associate with others, and the freedom to travel. And of course, there have been deaths. In Canada so far we’ve been quite fortunate about that—I read in the Globe and Mail on Friday that so far upwards of four thousand people have been tested for COVID-19 in Alberta, and only twenty-three have tested positive. In other parts of the world, of course, it’s a different story. And it’s because we don’t want that to happen here that we’re being urged to put social distance between ourselves and other people. These are common sense measures, and we ought to support them wholeheartedly. This is about saving people’s lives—especially the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
But what we don’t want is to be paralysed by fear.
In one sense, of course, fear is a natural emotion for us to feel. It’s quite useful; it helps prepare the body for action, whether the action is fight or flight. The body needs to fight against an aggressor, or it needs to run away as fast as it can. Fear gives it that little extra burst of energy that helps it respond more quickly and decisively. And in that sense, we don’t want to discourage fear. People who have no fear often do foolish things.
But we don’t want to be paralyzed by fear. And most of all, we don’t want fear to stop us trusting in the love of God for us, and we don’t want it to stop us from loving one another and being there for one another. We may have to think of new and creative ways of expressing that love, but we don’t want that love to shrivel up and die. In fact, we want the opposite. In time like this, we need to be able to lean on God in faith and trust, and we need to be there for one another. As John puts it in his first letter, we need perfect love to cast out fear.
My favourite psalm is Psalm 46. Psalm 46 was written in a time of fear. We’re not sure exactly when it was written, but it seems as if Jerusalem was in danger of being overwhelmed by some enemy. We get the sense that the world was being shaken up; that strong kingdoms and powerful countries were tottering and falling.
‘The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
(God) utters his voice, the earth melts.’ (Psalm 46.6).
Maybe those kingdoms were allies of Jerusalem, friends they’d counted on to help them in time of trouble. We just don’t know. What we can say for sure is that the psalmist’s world was being shaken to the foundations. Which is what makes the psalmist’s faith in God so remarkable.
‘God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.’ (Psalm 46.1-7)
‘Therefore we will not fear.’ That’s an astounding thing to say! Of course, we all know that the Bible often tells us not to be afraid; it’s one of the most common statements in the Bible. But here’s the thing—how many of you find that to be a helpful statement? Some of you, maybe, but I know I don’t! I have this little question nagging at the back of my mind: how do you stop yourself from being afraid? I’d love to be able to obey the command not to fear, but I don’t know how!
At this point in time, many of us have good reason to feel afraid. Maybe some of you already know some people who are self-isolating because they’re experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms. Some people have already lost their jobs because the businesses they work for are losing money. I saw on Twitter on Friday that Westjet has announced that it will have to lay off a lot of flight attendants because air travel is going way down. What about restaurant and hotel workers? People who work on cruise ships? Even us clergy have reason to be afraid. If Sunday services are cancelled, offerings go down, and, you know, not to be crass, but that’s how we get paid! And of course, in our province, all this uncertainty has hit at exactly the same time as a dramatic drop in oil prices.
How do we stop ourselves from being afraid for members of our families who are coughing and sneezing? We read the stories of all the deaths in China and Italy and we think, that could be my kids, or my spouse, or even me. Of course, we all know that one day we’re going to die, but usually we’re successful at putting the thought out of our minds. At a time like this, that’s harder to do.
Can I point out a little detail here? I like the fact that what so many translations of Psalm 46 actually say is not ‘we will not be afraid,’ but ‘we will not fear.’
To me, being afraid is something that happens to me. I don’t have a choice about it. It’s an emotion that hits me and gets my heart beating faster and the blood pumping around my body, so I’m ready to fight or run away, as need be. I’m passive; I’m on the receiving end of it.
But ‘we will not fear’ sounds like a decision, not an emotion. It can’t be a decision about a feeling; it has to be a decision about what we do with the feeling. Do we give in to fear and fall on the ground in terror, or do we say what the psalmist said: “Right, the earth is shaking to its foundations, and the city is in real danger, but I’m going to roll up my sleeves, trust in God, and remember that he’s my refuge and strength.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that God promises to take away the thing that’s causing us to be so afraid. If we look back to the Old Testament story, we know that sometimes Jerusalem was rescued from its enemies, and sometimes it wasn’t. And that fits with our experience as well. We pray for God to heal the sick; sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t, and usually we can’t figure out the reason.
But what we do know, says the psalmist, is that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (v.1). What we do know, as he goes on to say, is that ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge’ (v.7).
‘God is with us.’ When we pray for people, that sometimes seems like the best thing we can ask for them, doesn’t it? We say, “Lord, please be with my wife as she’s driving around the icy streets tonight.” “Lord, please be with my dad who’s very old and frail.” “Lord, please be with our soldiers in that faraway country where they’re in great danger.”
What do we actually mean by that statement? Think about it for a minute. Do we mean that there are some people God is not with, and so we want to make sure our loved ones aren’t on the black list? Of course not! One thing we can say with confidence about God is that God is everywhere, and God is with everyone. After all, God is the very reason why we exist, and why we continue to exist! I take it for granted that if God stopped thinking about me for a second, I’d immediately cease to exist!
But am I always aware that God is with me? Do I have a sense of God’s presence with me? Do I know how to rest in God’s love for me?
If the answer is ‘no’, then I’m really lost when times of trouble come, because no one else is up to God’s job. No human being, no matter how strong they are, can give me what God can give me. And if all I have is human help to call on, then I’m bound to be disappointed in the end.
At the end of the psalm, the writer puts these words in God’s mouth:
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
And then he goes on to repeat what we might call the chorus of the song:
‘The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.’ (vv.10-11).
‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ These are words that have resonated in Christian hearts down through the centuries. But we haven’t always been so good at putting them into practice, have we? Some of us spend our whole lives in a constant state of rush. When do we take time to sit quietly in the presence of God—maybe not even saying anything to him, just enjoying the stillness and knowing that he’s present with us?
So this is one thing we can do to lower our stress levels and stop fear from paralyzing us. We can intentionally take time to be aware of God’s presence with us.
Find fifteen minutes in your day. It might be first thing in the morning it might be last thing at night. You might have to talk to your partner or spouse and agree together on when it’s going to happen, because, you know, stuff happens around our houses! Decide on your time, and find a quiet place where you can sit. Maybe light a candle to remind you of the light of God’s presence with you.
Then just sit quietly for a few minutes. Pay attention to your breathing. Slow it down intentionally. Remember that the word ‘breath’ in Hebrew and Greek is the same as the word ‘Spirit’. As you breath in and out, imagine the life of God’s Spirit coming into you, filling you just like the oxygen molecules travelling through your bloodstream. “Breathe on me, breath of God; fill me with life anew.”
Some people find it helpful, in those times of silence, to have a phrase they can repeat to themselves from time to time. It helps stop their mind from wandering. Can I suggest a good phrase? “Be still, and know that I am God.” If we let that phrase repeat in our minds as we sit quietly in God’s presence, we can hear it as God’s voice speaking to us in the words of the psalmist. “Be still, and know that I am God. Be still, and know that I am God.”
If you do that for five or six minutes, you’ll probably already find that you’re more aware of God’s presence with you, and you have more of a sense of peace and calm.
And then talk to God. Do it naturally. You don’t have to use fancy words or censor yourself. You don’t have to read set prayers if you don’t find them helpful. If you’re scared about something, talk to God about it. Tell God about your fears. If you’re angry about something, don’t try to pretend you’re not! Believe me, you can’t fool God! If you’re worried about your children or your grandchildren, or your friends, or your parents—well, pray for them! Ask God to help them in their times of trouble. Ask him to help them be aware of his presence with them.
Two things it’s especially important not to forget. When I’m having a conversation with a friend or a loved one, if I’ve done something to hurt them, it’s especially important to apologize and ask their forgiveness. And it’s the same with God. If we’ve done something to hurt him or the people he loves, we need to own up to it and ask his forgiveness.
The other thing is to thank him for his blessings. In times of difficulty we sometimes forget about those blessings, don’t we? But St. Paul tells us, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18).
I said that intentionally taking time to be still with God is one way we can counteract our fear. The other way is to love one another. St. John tells us that perfect love casts out fear. In the original context, he means God’s love for us, and our trust in his love. But I think it’s also true that loving one another helps us cast out fear.
We are a small church, and one thing small churches tend to do well is community. My guess is that a lot of you here today know the names of a lot of other people in this church. You don’t know all of them, but you know more than you think you do. If you went home after church today and made a list, you’d be surprised at the number of names on it.
How do we be present to one another in these difficult times? How do we reach out in love to each other when we’re being encouraged to put social distance between us and other people?
One way is through the telephone. We need to know we’re not alone. Do you have the phone numbers of a few people in the church? Can I ask you to make a special effort over the next few weeks to use those phone numbers regularly? Just call each other up and chat. Make sure your friends are okay. Ask them if there’s anything they need, or if there’s something they’d like you to pray for.
Of course, some of you are on social media too—Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and all the other platforms. And we’ve got a church Facebook page and a Twitter account too. So let’s reach out to each other through these platforms. If there’s something you need help with, ask for it. Be there for each other.
I’m absolutely sure that in this time of stress, God is calling us to faith and love. He’s calling us to trust him, to rest and be still in his presence. And he’s calling us to reach out to one another in love. In this way, even though we’ll be afraid, ‘we will not fear.’ No: we’ll trust God, and we’ll love each other. And in the strength God gives us, we’ll get through the dark time and come out into the daylight again.
‘Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change’ (Psalm 46.2a, NRSV)
This morning in the Daily Office Lectionary we read the story of Jesus’ stilling of the storm (Mark 4.35-41). It’s the evening of a busy day, and Jesus and his disciples decide to take a boat across to the other side of the lake. Jesus is tired and he falls asleep in the boat. A sudden storm arises and very quickly the disciples find themselves in danger. These are experienced fishermen who’ve seen storms on the lake before, but this one has them scared, and eventually they wake Jesus up (yes, he’s still asleep!). “Master, don’t you care that we’re about to drown?” Jesus stands up and rebukes the wind and waves: “Peace! Be Still!” Immediately the wind dies down and there is a great calm. Jesus turns then to his disciples and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They’re full of awe, and they whisper to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”
This morning, around the world, we feel as if a great storm is raging around us. COVID-19 is spreading, and in our country and other countries around the world, much of what we think of as normal life is shutting down. This doesn’t just apply to the Juno awards, the NHL, and university and school classes. I notice on Twitter that many of my colleagues and friends are not going to be going to church this coming Sunday; at the moment that is not the case here, partly because (even if the Alberta Government had not specifically excluded ‘places of worship’ from their restrictions) we aren’t a large enough congregation to qualify as a large gathering. We’re being encouraged to practice ‘social distance’; keep at least six feet away from other people, don’t go out if we don’t need to, and so on.
In a situation like this, it’s natural that we should be afraid. Think about this for a minute. The disciples had been travelling with Jesus for a while. They had seen him heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. They knew he had extraordinary powers. And yet, in the boat, they were still afraid.
So maybe I shouldn’t be hard on myself if I feel fear. After all, I’ve never seen Jesus with my eyes. I’ve seen some things that seem to me like answers to prayer, but nothing like the dramatic things the disciples saw. And many times (like most Christians), it appears to me as if my prayers have not been answered. So I shouldn’t be surprised when I feel afraid, and I definitely shouldn’t feel guilty about it.
Feeling afraid is a natural reaction to difficult circumstances. But I like the way Psalm 46 is worded in the New Revised Standard Version: not ‘Therefore we will not be afraid,” but “Therefore we will not fear.” ‘Being afraid’ sounds passive to me, as if fear is something that happens to me. Fear is the agent, and I’m the victim, with the result that I’m in a state of ‘being afraid.’
But the Psalm says “Therefore we will not fear.” What does this mean? To me, it means I’ll make a decision to put my trust in God and not let fear stop me doing what I’m called to do. And I want to say right away that I know this is a difficult thing, especially for those who suffer from anxiety disorders. For most of us, this ‘not fearing’ doesn’t come naturally. It’s something we’ll have to practice.
Psalm 46 does not promise that God will take away the difficult circumstances. Here’s the full quote from verses 1-3:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in time of trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Is it an earthquake? Is it a flood? We don’t know. All we know is it’s something catastrophic and terrifying, and the writer doesn’t assume that God will rescue him from it. He simply believes in God as his refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.
I’m sixty-one, so I’ve seen my fair share of storms. In my experience, God has very rarely done what Jesus did: miraculously take away the scary circumstances. More often, God has given me strength to take his hand (metaphorically speaking) and walk with him through the difficult circumstances. I can’t claim I’ve not been afraid, but I can claim that, with God being my helper, I’ve discovered it’s possible ‘not to fear’—i.e., not to let fear stop me doing what I know I’m called to do.
God is our refuge and strength, therefore we will not fear. Lord God, you are our rock in times of trouble. All through the storm your love is the anchor. Our hope is in you alone. Amen.
P.S. I’d like to make a suggestion. While this COVID-19 pandemic continues, let’s pray Psalm 46 every day. Reading the rest of the psalm, it seems as if the city of Jerusalem is under siege, surrounded by a threatening army, and yet the writer makes a decision to put his trust in God.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. (vv. 7, 11).
Let’s make this our community prayer, taking strength not just from God as our refuge and strength, but also from our fellowship in prayer together. Who will join me in that?
P.P.S. Here’s an old 1980s version of Psalm 46 (NIV) from Ian White.
Marci and I started our married life in a little village in northeastern Saskatchewan in which almost every member of our congregation was a farmer, or married to a farmer, or a retired farmer, or connected to farming in some way or other. We quickly learned what farmers have known all their lives: success in farming is insecure at the best of times. You can spend a lot of money putting seeds in the ground in the spring, watch it grow nicely all summer long, and then at the last minute have the whole thing ruined by an early frost, or a Fall that’s so wet you just can’t get out on the land to harvest it.
That’s where crop insurance comes in. Not many farmers would put a crop in without taking out crop insurance; there’s just too much money at stake. So if the weather’s good and the crop grows, all well and good, but if things go badly, at least there’s insurance to help you make it through the winter—as long as you can persuade the insurance company to pay up! But taking it out is just common sense.
Farmers in Bible times didn’t have crop insurance, but there were measures commonly taken in the ancient world that seemed just as much like common sense to them. Let me tell you about one of them.
In most cultures in the ancient world—including the Canaanites who lived in the land before the people of Israel—there were many gods you had to pay attention to. In theory, the Israelites didn’t believe in those other gods; they believed in Yahweh, the one true God, who made heaven and earth. But in practice, they were surrounded by nations who had many gods, and they were always tempted by them. And if they looked up to the hills, as likely as not there’d be ancient shrines on top of them, places where the old gods of Canaan had been worshipped for centuries.
Ancient people thought it was just common sense to pay proper attention to those gods. If you moved to a new country you needed to find out about the local gods, so you could keep their laws and offer them the sorts of sacrifices they liked. If you did that, they’d bless you and not send you bad luck. So if you were a Greek and you were going for a sea voyage, it made sense to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon, the god of the sea. If you were setting out on a military expedition against your enemies, you would offer a sacrifice to Ares, the god of war.
So if you were a farmer and you’d just finished seeding, it was a good idea to get the local fertility gods on your side, to make sure they sent you good weather and made your crop grow. But these fertility gods were a little forgetful, and they needed reminding why you had put your crop in. So what you did was to go to the nearest temple or shrine and have sex with the temple priestess in the sanctuary; the gods looked down and saw what you were doing, and it reminded them about fertility and all that, and so they remembered to bless your land and make your crop grow.
That sounds crazy and irrelevant to us modern people; we can’t believe anyone would be fooled into thinking it would work, and anyway, we don’t worship idols anymore, so it’s not really relevant to us, is it?
Well, actually, it is. If an idol is an object of worship made of wood or stone, then no, we don’t have any of those around here. But what if an idol is anything to which we give our first allegiance and loyalty, other than the one true God? What if it’s something to which we sacrifice our health, our family life, our sense of right and wrong? What if it’s something we instinctively turn to for help in time of need? What if it’s something we expect to give us ultimate happiness? What if it’s something we expect to save us from death? Well, then the list of potential idols—or false gods—gets rather longer.
There are so many false gods in our modern world. There’s the obvious one, money and possessions. People think money can protect you from danger, make you healthy, make you happy, and give you a sense of meaning in your life. Also, many people have made huge sacrifices to wealth—perhaps by living somewhere their family is unhappy in order to get a better-paying job, or by damaging their health by overwork and unhealthy habits. There are so many good things in life that get sacrificed on the altar of ‘The Economy’; it’s almost as if it’s become my sacred duty to consume, so I can keep the false gods happy.
Well, this is only one of the false gods out there competing for our attention; it’s not hard to think of others. Success is closely connected to wealth and, once again, many people sacrifice health and family on its altar. Our nation can be a powerful false god, when it demands our unconditional obedience even when its commands contradict the teaching of Jesus. Or I think of how, instead of turning to God in times of trouble, so many people turn to alcohol or other drugs to deaden their pain and help them make it through stressful situations. The list goes on: so many good things can become idols if we put them in the place of the one true God.
Why am I talking about false gods this morning? Because they appear in our psalm for today. You might not have noticed them, because they aren’t directly mentioned, but they are definitely alluded to. Here are the first two verses of the psalm (121:1-2) in the NRSV translation:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
At first it sounds as if the writer is looking up at the beauty of the hills around him and being reminded of the one who created them, but that’s probably not the case. What’s probably happening is that he’s looking up at the hills and seeing, on top of them, temples to those ancient pagan gods. Gods and goddesses were commonly worshipped on top of hills and mountains, for the obvious reason that hilltops were closer to the heavens. So the writer is actually weighing up his loyalties. “Where does my help come from? Does it come from the false gods worshipped at the hill shrines? No—they’re too feeble to help me. My help comes from a much stronger source: ‘Yahweh, the LORD, who made heaven and earth.’”
That may seem like common sense to us, but we need to remember that false gods had a couple of advantages in popular imagination. For one thing, the Lord was invisible and they were not. There are stories of pagan generals who invaded Jerusalem and went into the holy of holies in the temple for a look at the God of Israel; they were astounded to find there was nothing in there!They were so used to the idea that a god needed a visual representation in order to be worthy of worship. And we have the same problem today. How can you worship the Creator of heaven and earth when you can’t see him and you’ve got no proof he’s there? Money’s tangible; you can see it mounting up in your bank account, or feel it jangling in your pocket. Success is obvious for all to see. Popularity, health, youth—they’re all visible and tangible. But trusting in an invisible God? That’s harder to grasp.
For another thing, the false gods were popular: everyoneworshipped them, so in order to trust in them you really didn’t have to make a choice; you just went with the flow. And so it is today: everyone assumes you’ll go along with the worship of wealth, or that you’ll be willing to set aside your religious convictions if your country asks you to, or that you’ll set aside the regular worship of God to make room for Sunday sports or family activities. Go with the flow—no effort required! But if you choose to worship the one true God and follow his Son Jesus Christ, you’ll find yourself being asked to make difficult choices all the time.
Why should we make those hard choices? The psalm seems to make exactly the same sort of extravagant promises as the false gods do. Verses 7 and 8 say,
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
Other verses are even more extravagant; verse 6 says,
The sun shall not strike you by day, neither the moon by night.
There are some people who believe these verses in a very literal sense. They believe that if they follow the one true God he’ll protect them from all misfortune and shower them with every blessing in a material sense. He’ll keep them from getting sick and protect them from their enemies in times of war. He’ll bless their businesses and make them successful and wealthy.
This works out fine, of course, until misfortune strikes. A marriage breaks up, or a business fails; a bomb explodes and kills in a random fashion, or a routine medical examination uncovers a life-threatening illness that doesn’t respond to treatments. When things just don’t seem to be working out, people who believe God has promised them health and wealth find their faith in trouble. Maybe they even find themselves asking, “Is this my fault? Have I done something especially bad to annoy God, so he’s punishing me or trying to get my attention? Or maybe I’ve been praying to empty space all along, and there really is no God after all?”
I’d like to suggest that what the one true God actually promises us is something less tangible, but more real and lasting. It’s probably never been expressed quite so well as in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God’. At first glance, that sounds like such a wishy-washy promise: ‘You may die of cancer or get killed in an earthquake or starve in a famine, but nothing will be able to separate you from God’s love.’ It’s easy to scoff at an intangible promise like that and ask what difference it can possibly make.
Until you see it making a difference in someone’s life. I think of my good friend Joe Walker, who died of cancer a few years ago at the age of 47; he was diagnosed in June and he died in the middle of August. Joe believed in prayer but he didn’t believe prayer was an unconditional guarantee. What he did believe was that in some sense, God was in control, and he needed to learn to trust God and not feel sorry for himself. At Joe’s funeral his wife described how, in the last weeks of his life, he’d gradually let go of all the things that were important to him. He was a great reader and loved discussing books; he was a guitarist and he loved to play music; he was a wonderful writer and his blog was a real inspiration to many of us. But gradually, in the last few weeks of his life, he let go of all those things. In the end, all he had left was God, and the love of God.
And so I think again of Paul’s words, ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ In Joe’s time of need it would have been pointless to turn to money or wealth or popularity or success or any other false god on offer. Only the one true God could help him, and although God didn’t heal him, it was obvious to those around him that God was his rock in time of trouble.
So today, Psalm 121 is giving us material for reflection and self-examination. It’s reminding us that the false gods are all around us, and their voices are very seductive. Am I believing them, trusting in their extravagant promises? Am I giving them my first loyalty, looking to them for the ultimate joy and satisfaction that only the one true God can give?
Let’s have the courage today to look into our hearts to find out just who is sitting on the throne and calling the shots. And if it’s anything or anyone other than the one true God, let’s have the courage to dethrone them and turn again to the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, the one who, in the truest sense, will ‘keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore’ (Psalm 121:8). Or, to use the words of Jesus, let’s “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
I want to begin this morning by reminding you of a very famous Old Testament story: the story of King David and his adultery with Bathsheba. David was the first great king of ancient Israel. A thousand years before the time of Jesus, God took him from shepherding his father’s sheep, and brought him by a long and tortuous path to the place where he became king of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah.
David was a faithful man but he wasn’t perfect. We’re told in 2 Samuel 11 that one day while David’s army was off fighting a war on his behalf, he went for a walk on the roof of his palace. The roof was high, and as he looked down over the neighbouring houses he saw a woman taking a bath in her walled garden close by. He liked what he saw, so he sent for her and had sex with her. It turned out that her name was Bathsheba, and her husband Uriah the Hittite was off at the front fighting for David.
I think we can assume that Bathsheba had no choice about accepting David’s advances. He was the king and she was one of the king’s subjects. He was a man and she was a woman. He was a native Judean and she was married to a Hittite foreigner, even if he was one of David’s soldiers. All the power structures were tilted against her.
So David got what he wanted; so far so good, from his point of view. Of course, so far everything had been done in secret. But then Bathsheba sent him a message that she was pregnant. This presented David with a major problem. After all, what he had done was against the law of God, and he had a reputation to uphold as a king who loved God. Also, Bathsheba was in danger, because on the books the penalty for adultery was death. Once again, I think we can assume she’d be in greater danger of that penalty than David.
David’s first plan was to bring Uriah home from the war as fast as possible and get him into bed with his wife. So he sent for Uriah, asked him for a report, and then sent him home for the night. However, to his horror he discovered the next day that Uriah had not gone home; he felt guilty about enjoying the delights of home when all his buddies were still in the field of battle, so he slept on the steps of the palace. The next night David tried getting him drunk, but it still didn’t work.
So David went to plan ‘B’. He sent Uriah back to the war and also sent a message to his general, Joab, telling him to let Uriah lead a charge and then leave him to his fate. This is what happened, and Uriah was killed. After the period of mourning was over, David took Bathsheba as his wife, she bore him a son, and that was that.
Except that God had been watching. And God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sin. I can’t go into detail this morning about the masterful way in which Nathan did this, but eventually David was forced to admit that what he had done was wrong, and he came to a true repentance for his multiple sins.
So here we have David, called by God to be King of his people Israel, and to lead them in God’s ways. But in this instance, he was far from being the leader God wanted him to be. We see what was to all intents and purposes an act of rape, abuse of power, and organized murder. This is the bleak reality of the human condition. During Lent we remember that God has called us to be a holy people, consecrated to him. We’re called to live as a colony of heaven with a distinctive lifestyle, and to learn to think and live like our heavenly Father. But the unfortunate truth is that we fail regularly, because we’re infected with the disease of sin, and all too often it has us in its grip.
How do we deal with this? That’s the theme of Psalm 32, our psalm for today, which may have been written by David. Let’s start by looking at verses 3-4:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Here we have someone who has sinned, who knows deep in their heart that what they’ve done is wrong, but they won’t admit it. Perhaps they even deny it to themselves—“There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?” We humans have a great capacity for self-deception.
Let’s say this person is me, and I know in my heart that what I’ve done is wrong, but I don’t dare confess it to God. After all, if I’m honest and I want an ongoing relationship with God, confessing it would have to lead to doing something about it. So every time I go to God in prayer, I avoid the subject, but I find it still dominates my thoughts. In fact, it introduces a barrier between God and me in my times of prayer.
Or perhaps I’ve confessed my sin to God, but I also know God wants me to put something right with someone else who’s involved. I resist doing that, for obvious reasons. It’s a blow to my pride! We can cheerfully proclaim in theory “We’re all sinners!” but it’s another thing entirely to go up to someone we’ve sinned against and say, “I’m the sinner who has hurt you, and I’m sorry”. But we have to do that, if we really want to move forward.
Verse 5 says, ‘Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’ And in verses 1-2 the writer comments‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.’Obviously, we’re being encouraged to come clean and confess our sins to God, so we can enjoy the benefit of forgiveness and peace.
In the gospels there’s a story of Jesus eating one day at the home of a Pharisee. ‘A woman who had led a sinful life’ came in, threw herself at his feet, washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. The Pharisees grumbled that if Jesus was really a prophet, he’d know what kind of person she was and wouldn’t let her carry on like that. But Jesus took a different view. He rebuked those who were self-righteous, but he commended the woman for her honesty, and he forgave her sins.
Some of you will be familiar with the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In step four, the alcoholic takes what’s called ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory’ – in other words, looks at their life and is honest about where they’ve gone wrong. Step five goes on to say, ‘We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to one other human being the exact nature of our wrongs.’ In steps six and seven they ask God to remove those defects, and in steps eight and nine they make a list of people they have harmed, and they try make amends to those people.
This is a very thorough process, and not a bad guide for us during Lent. We could really sum up most of Psalm 32 in the words of Step Five: ‘We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs’. Let’s unpack this step for a minute.
Admitting the nature of our wrongs ‘to ourselves’ is often the toughest part. The human capacity for self-deceit is very strong. Changing it means looking at myself, not as I wish I was, but as I really am, and accepting that this is a true picture of me. This is not some other sinner I’m looking at here; this is me, warts and all.
Then comes admitting the nature of our wrongs ‘to God’. With many sins, this is the only confession that’s necessary. We admit what we’ve done, repent and ask for forgiveness, and we receive it. We’re pardoned, we’re free, and we experience the joy the psalmist is talking about at the beginning of this psalm: ‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (v.1).
But this confession to God isn’t always enough to bring us the peace we’re looking for. There are two exceptions which spring to my mind immediately.
The first is sins in which others have been hurt. When our actions have hurt others, we also need to go to them, ask for forgiveness, and make amends or restitution if necessary. The story of David and Bathsheba doesn’t make it clear how David went about doing this. We do know that the child they conceived died while he was still a baby. But the story in 2 Samuel doesn’t give us a lot of information about their relationship after Bathsheba joined David’s harem. Possibly he was so accustomed to the power structures of his day that it didn’t occur to him that he needed to ask her forgiveness too, and make amends. We just don’t know. But we do know that in our case, if someone else has been hurt, it’s absolutely necessary to do all we can to make things right.
The other exception is sins from which we can get no sense of freedom. We’ve confessed, we’ve asked for forgiveness, we’ve tried to believe the promises of scripture, but we still can’t seem to find the peace we’re looking for. In that case we need to go on to the next part of Step Five: admitting the exact nature of our wrongs to another human being. In the Christian tradition this is done by confessing our sins to God in the presence of another person, often a pastor or priest, and then hearing that person declare God’s forgiveness to us. For many people this is a powerful experience of grace.
Understandably, there’s considerable resistance to this idea! Some people say, “I can confess my sins to God alone – I don’t need a priest interfering!” My response is “Fine – you obviously don’t need the confessional.” But I’d also invite you to ask yourself if you’re being entirely honest before you dismiss it. I’ve learned from experience over the years that there are some people who definitely need this further step, because they’re consumed by a sense of guilt that no amount of confession to God seems to be able to get rid of.
So in this psalm the writer is encouraging us to take the risk of being honest—with ourselves, with other people, and with God. In verses 8-9 he says
‘I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle’.
So often, these words describe me perfectly: a stubborn, stupid mule! I know what God wants me to do, but I don’t trust him! All I can see ahead if I follow his direction is pain and humiliation; I can’t see beyond that to the joy of forgiveness and peace. My stubbornness has opened up a gap between God and me, and I’m the one suffering from that gap. But when I come to my senses, and repent and obey—what a difference!
So let me conclude this morning by asking you three questions.
Firstly, are you being honest with yourself? Is there something you need to admit to yourself? Is it time to stop running from the voice of God and to say to yourself, “I have sinned, and I need to repent and turn back to God’s way”?
Secondly, are you being honest with God? Or is there a growing distance because of a sin you know God wants you to do something about? Don’t put it off; the longer you leave it, the worse it will be. One of the most telling features of the story of David and Bathsheba is that every time David tried another way of running away from God, he only dug himself in deeper and made things worse! Let’s not be like him! Let’s turn back to God, admit what we’ve done, and ask for forgiveness and strength so we can become the people God wants us to be. When we do that, we can be assured of God’s forgiveness.
Thirdly, are you being honest with others? Is there someone you need to apologize and make amends to? I know what it’s like to struggle against this! But the problem is, God really does hold all the cards; we won’t get any peace until we do what he wants. But when we finally give in, stop resisting God, and take that step of talking to the other person—then we’ll be at peace. It will be hard, but in the end, we’ll be glad we did it.
Let me conclude by reading verses 1-2 again, this time from the New Living Translation:
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty.
May God give us grace to put these things into practice, so we can experience this joy for ourselves. Amen.
This year I’m using the New Living Translation as my daily reading Bible, and I’m really enjoying its direct and vivid style. I follow the One-Year Bible lectionary, which takes me through the entire Old and New Testaments once and the book of Psalms twice in the course of the year. Here was my daily psalm portion for today, from Psalm 31.9-18:
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress.
Tears blur my eyes.
My body and soul are withering away.
I am dying from grief;
my years are shortened by sadness.
Sin has drained my strength;
I am wasting away from within.
I am scorned by all my enemies
and despised by my neighbors—
even my friends are afraid to come near me.
When they see me on the street,
they run the other way.
I am ignored as if I were dead,
as if I were a broken pot.
I have heard the many rumors about me,
and I am surrounded by terror.
My enemies conspire against me,
plotting to take my life.
But I am trusting you, O Lord,
saying, “You are my God!”
My future is in your hands.
Rescue me from those who hunt me down relentlessly.
Let your favor shine on your servant.
In your unfailing love, rescue me.
Don’t let me be disgraced, O Lord,
for I call out to you for help.
Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—
those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.
I’m reminded as I read these verses of two wise things I was taught about the psalms. One of my college professors used to say “The rest of the Bible speaks to us, but the psalms speak for us.” Indeed. And in speaking for us, they give us permission to pray about things we would probably be shy about mentioning if left to ourselves. I don’t usually complain about my neighbours or my enemies in my prayers, but the author of Psalm 31 felt no constraint about this! If he was upset or worried or afraid about something, that made it a valid and acceptable subject for his prayers. And when it comes to the end of the psalm—
‘Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—
those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.’
—well, I can think of a good few contemporary world leaders, and politicians closer to home, who I’m tempted to pray that prayer for!
And that leads me to the second wise thing I was taught about the psalms. I believe it was Eugene Peterson who said ‘The psalms are not the prayers of nice people!’ Look back at that part I quoted one more time:
‘Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—
those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.’
‘Let them lie silent in the grave.’ Is the psalmist praying for the death of his enemies? I think he might well be. And before I get on my high horse and quote Jesus to him on loving his enemies, I might like to consider that I’ve lived a pretty peaceful life, in two countries with free and democratic systems of government. I haven’t been forced to flee my home as a refugee, I haven’t seen family members murdered or raped, I’ve never watched as my city is reduced to rubble by bombing or cannon fire. Maybe if I had, I might have nursed a secret desire for wicked and tyrannical leaders to lie silent in their graves, as quickly as possible. And if I’m feeling that way, God already knows I’m feeling it. So I might as well be honest with God about what’s actually on my heart, rather than pretending to be such a nice, mild-mannered person. I believe it was Thomas Merton who once said that two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves about prayer are (1) “Is it the real me who prays?” and (2) “Is it the real God I’m praying to?”
I come from a tradition that prays the psalms regularly, both at public worship and in private prayer. Psalm 31 is familiar to me; I’ve prayed it many times over the course of my life. How do I enter into a psalm like this, when, as I said, I’ve lived a fairly peaceful and secure life?
What I tend to do is to ask myself “Who am I praying this psalm for today?” I may not be a victim of oppression and violence, but for many people around the world, that’s their daily reality. In the psalms I don’t just pray about my own concerns; I pray for the whole world. So when I pray these words, I can think of the Uyghurs in China, or the Rohingya in Myanmar, or the many countries in the world where gay and lesbian people are in danger of their lives. I can think of the nameless and faceless ones I don’t even know about, but who just need someone to pray for them.
I love the psalms and I enjoy praying them, but there’s one more thing I need to say about them. The psalms are prayers we can use, but they’re also model prayers. They don’t just give us words to pray; they also teach us how to pray. And the lesson is: “Be honest, say what’s really on your heart.”
One of the perils of a liturgical tradition is that we don’t get a lot of practice in that. We Anglican clergy are expected to pray Morning and Evening Prayer every day – a formal liturgy including psalms, canticles, Bible readings, and written prayers. There are a lot of strengths to this tradition, but one weakness is that we can get out of the habit of framing our own prayers, in our own words, from the heart.
And that would be sad. God cares about each of us as individuals; Jesus assures us that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. (My dad used to say “Not just counted, but numbered!”) The psalms give us permission to pour out our hearts to God, honestly and openly:
‘O my people, trust in him at all times.
Pour out your heart to him,
for God is our refuge’ (Psalm 62.8 NLT)
In using the psalms in prayer, it would be tragic if we let ourselves get out of the habit of doing that.
When I was a teenager and first getting to know God, I developed a rather serious pollen allergy. This meant that being outdoors in the summer was often not a very pleasant experience for me. Also, I was a shy and introverted kind of kid and didn’t find big crowds easy to handle. All this meant that the most natural way for me to meet God was to do what Jesus suggests in Matthew 6: Go to your room, lock the door, and pray to your Father in secret!
Several decades later, with my pollen allergy much less of an issue, I started to enjoy the outdoors more. We started visiting Jasper National Park, we made a point of walking more in the river valley trail system, and I began to develop more of an awareness of the presence of God in nature. I still love my private prayer times, but they’re no longer enough for me. I find I need to get out into the grandeur and beauty of God’s creation as a way of encountering the God who made all these things.
I suspect we’ve all got our favourite ways of meeting God. For some it might be the Sunday worship and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. For others it might be the smell of good coffee and the laughter of conversation with friends. For some it might be holding hands with a spouse and praying together at the end of the day. For others it might be working together on a project to make the world a better place. People meet God in all kinds of ways and all kinds of situations. And I’m absolutely sure that God is always inviting us to expand our horizons and find new ways of connecting with him.
Why am I making these observations this morning? Because as I read through our psalm today it struck me that God is seen here in at least three different ways. In verses 1-4 God is the God of the Temple. In verses 5-8 God is the God of the world. Finally, in verses 9-13 God is the God of the Earth. Let’s take a closer look.
First, God of the Temple.
‘Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.’ (vv.1-4)
Here we have the people of Israel gathered together in Zion, in Jerusalem, worshipping God at the Temple. There was a general sense in Israel and Judah that this place, this Temple, was where God had ‘put his name to dwell’, as they would have said it. They knew as well as we do that God is present everywhere on earth, but still they made pilgrimages to Jerusalem because they believed God had made a special promise to meet them there.
Note that this was a community occasion. We do have stories in the Old Testament of individual encounters with God in the Temple, but most of the time prayer is something the community does together. People in Bible times were much more communal than we are, and they tended to see prayer together as the most basic and most important kind of prayer. They were God’s household, God’s family, and worship was a family gathering.
What happens in the Temple? The author mentions making vows to God, which is something that was common at the time: ‘To you shall vows be performed’ (v.1). Perhaps God had blessed you in a special way, and in thanksgiving you made a vow to perform some special service for him. That vow would usually be ratified in a place of prayer like the Temple, probably with the offering of a sacrifice.
The author mentions answered prayer: ‘To you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer! To you shall all flesh come!’ (vv.1b-2a). We are a needy people, and so we come together to make our requests to God. By ourselves our prayers can often feel rather feeble, but when we ask for the prayers of the community, we can join our little voices to theirs; many people find that a real strengthening experience for their faith.
The author also mentions forgiveness. ‘When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgiven our transgressions’ (v.3). Again, this was usually accomplished by offering an animal sacrifice. The people’s sins would be confessed, the animal would be sacrificed and the blood sprinkled as a sign of God’s forgiveness being extended to the people.
The author goes so far as to mention living in God’s house. ‘Happy are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts’ (v.4). He’s probably referring to priests and Levites; how lucky they are, he says, because they get to live here all the time! It’s not the beauty of the building so much as the beauty of the presence of God.
How does this apply to us as Christians? Let’s remember that for the first three Christian centuries worshipping in a church building was not the norm; most churches were little house churches that met in people’s homes. And in the writings of Paul it’s not the physical building so much as the people of God: he tells us we’re like a spiritual temple, a place where God lives. When we gather together, whether it’s in a special building or not, there’s a special presence of the Holy Spirit with us.
So we gather to offer our prayers for the world and each other. We ask for God’s forgiveness and we share in the bread and wine of the Eucharist as signs of God’s forgiveness being extended to us. We make vows—baptism and confirmation promises, for instance—and we pray for strength to fulfil them. And as we worship, our sense of God’s presence grows. Even though we don’t live here, we know God’s presence goes with us when we leave this place, so that day by day we’re living in fellowship with God.
So God is God of the Temple. Secondly, God is God of the world.
‘By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy’ (vv.5-8).
I don’t want to be too dogmatic about my divisions here. I’m tempted to overstate my case and says that this middle section of the psalm is about God as God of the world, in the sense of the whole of humanity, whereas the last section is about God as God of the earth—that is, the non-human creation. In fact, of course, the non-human creation is mentioned in this middle section too—the mountains, the roaring of the seas and so on.
But there’s a slight suggestion that the roaring of the seas might be a metaphor; did you catch that? ‘You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples’ (v.7). Israelites weren’t natural sailors and they were a bit nervous about the sea. It was an unpredictable place, full of sea monsters, and it was likely full of demons as well! So it wasn’t hard for them to see a storm as a symbol of the violent acts of mobs of people opposed to God and God’s purposes. It was reassuring to remember that God was perfectly capable of silencing them if he wanted to!
But what exactly is the relationship of those faraway people to the God of Israel? Is he their god too, or do they belong to their own gods, and is Israel’s god really only in charge within the borders of Israel? In ancient times everyone believed in tribal gods, so when you crossed the border into Moab it was wise to know a bit about Chemosh! After all, you were on his ground, and it was wise to know what he liked and what he didn’t like, so you didn’t accidentally offend him!
But this psalmist takes a different view. He’s well aware that Israel has been chosen to come into the courts of the Lord, but he’s also quite unapologetic in claiming that Yahweh the God of Israel is in fact God of the whole earth too.
‘By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas…
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy’ (vv.5, 8).
I love this line: ‘You are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas’ (v.5). I’ve no idea which people the Israelites would consider as living ‘at the ends of the earth’, but we can be sure that the world was a lot bigger than they had ever imagined! And in this verse the psalmist proclaims his faith that God the Creator is their God too, no less than Israel’s. The people of Israel knew it was their privilege to call on God in time of need, and to expect God’s answers. Now the psalmist says the people at the ends of the earth can do the same thing.
I think this is an invitation for us today to lift up our eyes, look out beyond the borders of our churches, out into the streets and coffee shops and bars and places of business in our cities and towns. We don’t need to take God there; God is already there! God understands politics and economics and science, and I expect if he put his hand to it God could cook a great meal and brew a wonderful cup of coffee! And God is already at work in the lives of men and women, sometimes in surprising ways.
But sometimes those men and women don’t know that they can call on God for help as well. So it’s our job to tell them they can. We can even offer to pray for them if they’d like us to! We can share with them how we experience the love of God in our lives, and sometimes they’ll surprise us with stories of their own. We can point to Jesus and do what we can to recommend him to people. And we can do this confidently, knowing that God is already at work, way ahead of us.
Speaking for myself, I want to say that this is one way I really enjoy meeting God. I spend a lot of time in non-Christian circles and have some great friendships there. Over the years I’ve been amazed to see how God is at work in people’s lives, whether they know it or not. I’ve met God at open stages and song circles just as much as in Eucharists and Bible study groups. He’s not just the God of the Temple; he’s the God of the world as well.
Finally, God is also God of the Earth. Look at the last part of the psalm:
‘You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.’ (vv.9-13).
This is the God who meets us in nature, in the cycle of the seasons; the God who ‘sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain. the breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain’, as the old hymn says. This is the God who has set the earth up in such a way that it can provide for the needs of all its inhabitants, if we use it wisely and share generously. This is the God who paints the sunset using colours artists would never dare to combine on one canvas! This is the God who has decided to create some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet and then have them swim so deep in the ocean that human beings can never see them except with expensive diving equipment! This is the God who has apparently decided that the earth needs several million species of beetles!
It’s important for us to learn to meet this God. If we spend all our time praying in small rooms, we can too easily fall into the habit of thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. We need to lift our eyes to the night sky and think about what our Eucharistic Prayer calls ‘the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’. This God is far too big to fit into a small room—and yet, miraculously, he made himself small enough to grow within the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Incarnation becomes even more miraculous when we remind ourselves of who was being incarnated!
So God is seen in this psalm as the God of the Temple, but also the God of the whole inhabited world and all its peoples, and also the God of the whole created earth. We all probably have a favourite of these three, but we can all grow too, and learn to experience God’s presence in other settings.
Let me close by pointing out to you how the earth and its people respond to God’s presence. In verse 4, at the end of the first section, we read, ‘We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.’ Verse 8 tells us that ‘Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.’ And verse 13 sounds the note of joy again: ‘The valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.’
Awe, satisfaction, joy: these are what we experience in God’s presence. The God we meet in temple and world and earth is so great and glorious that we can only feel a sense of awe in his presence, like the sense we feel when we first see a huge mountain like Mount Robson. But as we get to know God better, we also experience satisfaction, in the sense of people being satisfied after a nourishing meal. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’, the Bible says; to know him and live in his presence is the most satisfying experience we can ever enjoy. And we do enjoy it: joy is the third thing we experience as we meet with this living God.
So let me end by asking you these questions. First, when you think of God as the God of the Temple or church, of the world and all its peoples, and of the earth in the sense of the natural creation, which one do you feel the most affinity for? Which one works best for you right now, as a place of encounter with God? And second, which one seems less real for you, but could be one that God is inviting you to explore? And how might you begin to explore it, so that you can enter even more fully into the awe and satisfaction and joy of living every moment in the presence of God?
‘In the night I remember your name, LORD,
and dwell upon your instruction’ (Psalm 119.55 REB).
I remember reading that Dom Helder Camara had trouble sleeping through the night. So he would get up, spend some time in prayer and meditation, and then write some of the devotional poetry for which he became well known. As he put it, he ‘got insomnia working for him’!
Like him, I have difficulty sleeping through the night. I fall asleep very quickly, but wake up at least twice during the night, and sometimes I can’t get back to sleep. But I tend to waste that time in browsing Facebook or other not-so-edifying stuff.
This morning I sensed God speaking to me through this verse, saying ‘Is it time to get insomnia working for you?’ Could I be more intentional about how I use those sleepless times to draw closer to God?