Why Have you Forsaken Me? (a sermon for Good Friday on Psalm 22)

I recently read a wonderful book called ‘Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved’ by Kate Bowler. The book is about Kate’s experience, as a woman in her thirties, about being diagnosed with terminal cancer – of looking at her young husband and her four-year old boy and knowing the chances are very good they’re going to lose her. It was written during the first year of Kate’s diagnosis – she’s still alive, thanks to an experimental drug treatment, but her diagnosis is still terminal. It’s a wonderfully honest and refreshing book; you will not find clichés here! That’s what the title means, of course. So many of us have experienced this! We’re going through some time of deep suffering and some well-meaning soul says piously “Oh well – everything happens for a reason”, and somehow we just can’t find any comfort in that phrase; it just annoys us!

In one of the funniest chapters of the book, Kate talks about how she decided to take up swearing for Lent. Now, I’m a person who one year decided to stop swearing for Lent – I fined myself a dollar off my open stage beer money for every infraction – so I was intrigued by the idea that swearing could be a good Lent discipline! As I read the chapter I realized what she was doing: she was protesting against this need that Christians seem to have to dismiss death and suffering and give easy answers for everything. Her Lenten swearing discipline was aimed at those easy answers.

She talks about how she was out for coffee with friends one night and got so frustrated with this Christian desire to jollify everything. “This is Lent”, she said. “I’m dying of cancer – I’m staring into the face of death – and during Lent the church has asked all its members to join me there. We started out with an ash cross and the words ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return’. That sets the theme for Lent! But no one is willing to stay there with me!” And then she uses this wonderful phrase – probably my favourite phrase of the whole book: “Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent!”

Well, we’re not going to ‘Easter the crap out of each other’s Lent’! Today is Good Friday, and although all around us people have started wishing each other Happy Easter, we’re going to stay with the cross today. And one of the best ways of doing that is staying with our psalm, Psalm 22. Here are the first two verses:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).

And then in the next few verses the mood seems to change abruptly.

Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. (vv.3-5)

 In other words, ‘There are all sorts of stories about how you worked mighty miracles to help our ancestors in the past; they trusted you and you saved them. So what’s the matter with me? Am I a worse sinner than them? Am I not really one of your people after all? Or are those stories just not true?’

‘And what have I done to deserve this?’ the psalmist asks. In verses 9-11 he talks about how he has been dedicated to God since he was born; ‘since my mother bore me you have been my God’ (v.10). He looks back on a life dedicated to the service of God, and asks himself if this is all the reward he gets. Why did he bother, if he was just going to be abandoned?

Which of us hasn’t felt like this from time to time? I think of people living with long-term, chronic pain who don’t seem to be able to get any relief. They pray over and over again; they lie awake at night, unable to sleep, doing their best to hold back the tears so as not to wake their spouse. They read stories about how God miraculously heals people, and they think, ‘Why doesn’t he heal me, then? Am I some particularly vile sort of sinner, that he refuses to help me? I always thought I was a Christian and a child of God, but perhaps I was wrong – perhaps I’m really nothing to God’. You see, the worst thing this sort of suffering does to some people is not to stop them believing in God, but to stop them believing in a loving God, and give them a monster instead.

Psalm 22 is a prayer for people who feel like that; it enables us to pray our experience, honestly and openly, before God. It’s the prayer of the person who suffers chronic pain day and night. It’s the prayer of the person who’s suffered some public disgrace and is afraid to show their face in public for fear of the ridicule they’ll encounter. It’s the prayer of the bereaved person who longs for some sort of sense of companionship from God in their loneliness, but finds only empty skies above.

And this is the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ (Mark 15:34). Jesus was a Jewish boy who would have learned the psalms by heart at a very early age. Now, in his hour of greatest need, the psalms gave him the words he needed to pour out his heart to the Father he felt had abandoned him.

The early Christians developed a new way of reading the Hebrew scriptures. They came to believe that Jesus was the climax of the Old Testament story; he was the one the whole story had been leading up to. And because they believed that, they loved to look for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament passages. Some of the hints they point to seem fanciful to us, but it was all part of their belief that Jesus was the true Word of God, the highest revelation of God to us, and that the whole story up until then had been pointing to him.

So they took their cue from Jesus praying the first verse of this psalm on the cross, and they looked for other hints of his story in there. When they read the psalmist saying, ‘O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest’ (v.2), they thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God would take this cup of suffering away from him – and not getting what he prayed for. When they read, ‘All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads”’ (v.7), they thought of the soldiers mocking Jesus, putting the crown of thorns on his head and dressing him in a purple robe to taunt him. They thought of the chief priests saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him’”’ (Matthew 27:42). When they read ‘They pierce my hands and my feet’ (v.16 BAS), they thought of Jesus on the cross with the nails through his hands and feet. And they remembered how the soldiers divided his clothes between them and threw dice for his seamless outer robe, and they read, ‘they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots’ (v.18).

Old Testament scholar John Goldingay explains that this psalm isn’t a prophecy in the sense that someone wrote it thinking “One day there will be a Messiah and all these things will happen to him”. This is a prayer for Israelites to pray when they need to – it gives them permission to acknowledge their sense that God has abandoned them. But it’s also one of the most horrifying prayers in the Book of Psalms, so it’s not surprising that when the Messiah comes – and goes through excruciating suffering and a sense that God has abandoned him – this is the prayer that comes to his lips.

Goldingay goes on to point out a really important truth. Of course, Jesus wasn’t abandoned by God in the sense that God wasn’t present at the Cross. God was there all right; that’s why Jesus prayed to him! You can’t address someone who has wandered off out of earshot! God is watching as Jesus is executed; God is suffering as deeply in his spirit as Jesus is suffering. And maybe more. It’s hard to imagine the depth of agony involved in watching your son be executed when you could stop it. But God doesn’t stop it. God listens to Jesus asking, “Why have you forsaken me?” and does nothing. God’s forsaking Jesus doesn’t lie in going away, but in being present and seeming to do nothing.

So many people feel they’ve experienced that! They’ve gone through awful suffering, and all the while God was sitting in heaven, knowing what was going on, and doing nothing to stop it. How could he do that?

We can attempt to give a rational answer to this question, which is good as far as it goes. We can say, “God has set up the world in such a way that people’s decisions are really free. He doesn’t make wood hard when we build houses with it, but soft when people want to use it to hit other people. He wants to teach us to truly love him, and so he can’t compel us to obey him”.

All of which is true, but it tends not to help people who are hanging on the Cross, or being unjustly persecuted, or dying of terminal illnesses. They want a sense that God is with them in their suffering. Why does he seem so far away?

And that’s the difference the Incarnation makes. Of course, we’re limited by human language; we’ve been talking about Jesus hanging on the Cross and the Father as a separate entity altogether, watching on the sidelines. But St. Paul changes the language a bit: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three in one and one in three. God was not separate from Jesus on the Cross. Jesus is God, and in Jesus God was suffering too.

And this was not something that just started on Good Friday. Throughout the whole of Jesus’ life, he had been identifying with us in our sufferings. Think for a moment of the many and varied sufferings he experienced. As an infant he was the target of Herod’s death squads and had to run to Egypt as a refugee with his family. He grew up in a working-class family and experienced the same economic pressures we all go through. He seems to have lost his earthly father at a very young age, so he was no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He was misunderstood by his family – they even accused him of being out of his mind. He went through hunger, thirst, tiredness, and homelessness. He was betrayed by a friend, subjected to a mock trial, stripped, flogged and nailed to a cross where he died one of the cruelest deaths human beings have ever devised.

Crucifixion was a terrible form of death. The fact that the sufferer was suspended by the arms would force the rib cage open and make it very difficult to breathe; in fact, the only way to do so would be to push oneself up on the nail through one’s feet, and it is easy to imagine the unspeakable agony this would cause. Eventually the sufferer would be too weak to do this, and then death would come, not so much from loss of blood as from asphyxiation.

Jesus has gone through all of this, and God has gone through it in him. As the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are…’ (Hebrews 4:15). In Jesus, God has allowed himself to be subjected to all the pain and suffering that his creation experiences. And this knowledge that God has firsthand experience of human suffering can be an incredible comfort to us.

In 1967, at the age of seventeen, Joni Eareckson broke her neck in a diving accident, and she has been a quadriplegic ever since. For the first few months she was in the depths of despair; she was often tempted to abandon her Christian faith or even to attempt suicide. But she was not even able to kill herself, because she was immobilized in a Stryker frame with absolutely no control over any of her bodily functions.

But then one day it occurred to her that Jesus knew exactly how she felt. After all, when he was nailed to the Cross he also lived in constant pain and lost the ability to move. This realization was a turning point in her attitude toward what had happened to her. It was still a long struggle, but she no longer felt alone. She felt that Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’.

So we don’t have a God who is far removed from our sufferings. We have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer with us. We could even go so far as to say, we have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer at our hands. Humanity’s anger and hatred and rejection was poured out on God on the Cross. God knows what it’s like to be rejected, brutalized, tortured, and unjustly murdered. He’s experienced it from humans just like us.

Edward Shillito was a pastor in England during the First World War, and he was haunted by the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers returning to England with shattered bodies and traumatized minds. But he found comfort in the thought that the risen Jesus was still able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’. In it he talks about how a pain-free God is no comfort to those who are suffering. To humans who are scarred by the physical and emotional scars of trench warfare, only a God with scars of his own can comfort them. The last verse goes like this:

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

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‘Acceptable in Your Sight’ – a sermon on Psalm 19

The psalm we read this morning ends with a heartfelt prayer: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’.

This prayer has been familiar to me since I was young, because it used to be a common one for preachers to use in the pulpit before they started their sermons. I must have heard my dad pray this prayer hundreds of times when I was growing up, and I’ve prayed it myself too – often, sadly, without thinking very much about it.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it really speaks for me. My actions sometimes bother me, yes, but my thoughts and my words bother me more. There are times when the best I can do is to put on an act – you really wouldn’t want to hear what my thoughts are saying! And there are so many times when I speak without thinking and then live to regret it. There are so many words I’d give anything to be able to call back.

This is where we need to start with this psalm; this is where the writer is going from the beginning. How can the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in God’s sight? The answer he gives us is that we need a vision of God’s glory and a grasp of God’s will for us. And we get this through God’s revelation of himself to us in creation, and in the word he has spoken to us.

So, let’s turn again to the psalm we read a few moments ago, Psalm 19; we’ll use the translation in the Book of Alternative Services, which is actually a pretty good one for this psalm; it’s on page 725. Let’s look first at verses 1-6, where we’re taught that God reveals himself to us through the things he has made.

Stories about experiencing the presence of God through nature are as old as humankind and almost as universal. Speaking for myself, the older I get, the more I experience them – although I think children experience them frequently too. On Monday Marci and I were walking in Whitemud Ravine with our daughter Jacqui. As you might remember it was a beautiful afternoon; the sky was clear and the sun was bright on the snow, and we saw chickadees and nuthatches, a downy woodpecker and a great big pileated woodpecker, and of course lots of squirrels! And I felt as if I could just reach out and touch the hand of God. The presence of God was all around me in the things God has made.

I think the writer of Psalm 19 had similar experiences. Maybe one night he went for a walk under a clear, starlit sky. This was ancient Israel, remember, so there were no street lamps. Perhaps during his walk he sat down on a hillside and spent half an hour just looking up at the night sky. He didn’t know astronomy as we do today, but still the majesty of what he saw brought a sense of awe and wonder at God’s creative power.

Perhaps the next day he went out again at dawn and was thrilled by the experience of watching the sun rise. The sun seemed to leap into the sky so enthusiastically – it reminded him of a wrestler jumping into the ring – or a bridegroom emerging from his wedding chamber the morning after his wedding, with a new spring in his footsteps! All of this taught our psalmist about God’s creative power.

What does our writer learn from contemplating God’s creation? In verse 1 he tells us that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. When I lived in the Arctic I discovered that the word ‘glory’ is a tough one to translate into central Arctic Inuktitut. The word often used in the prayer book is kaumanek, which means something like our English word ‘shining’. I think that’s actually a pretty good translation. After all, when you experience ‘shining’, you know a source of light is present. And in the same way, when we experience creation we know the Creator is present. Whether we’re looking at the grandeur of the mountains, or the glories of a prairie sunset, or the chickadees flitting around from tree to tree in Whitemud Ravine – when we look at this as believers, we get a sense of the power and majesty of the Creator who could make all this. The creation is a sign of God’s glory.

Hebrew poetry often uses parallelism: the second line says the same thing the first line does, but in a slightly different way. So in this verse we read ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork’. ‘Firmament’, to the ancient Hebrews, simply meant ‘the dome of the sky’, but it’s God’s handiwork – in other words, his creativity – that I want to focus on. Every artist puts something of themselves into their work, and every picture tells you something about the artist who created it. What does creation tell us about God?

I found these questions in Philip Yancey’s book I Was Just Wondering:

‘Why are there so many kinds of animals? Couldn’t the world get along with, say, 300,000 species of beetles instead of 500,000? What good are they?

‘Why is it that the most beautiful animals on earth are hidden away from all humans except those wearing elaborate scuba equipment? Who are they beautiful for?

‘Why is almost all religious art realistic, whereas much of God’s creation – zebra, swallowtail butterfly, crystalline structure – excels at abstract art?’

God is undoubtedly the most prolific creator we know. In fact, I sometimes get the impression that God enjoys creating totally useless stuff, just for the fun of it! Does that idea do something to the way you think about God?

The first half of Psalm 19 shows us God revealing himself to us through creation. But by itself this isn’t enough. It gives us that vital sense of the glory and creativity of God, but it doesn’t give us God’s wisdom for daily living. It doesn’t tell us how to live our lives to reflect God’s glory in the world. For that we need the second source of revelation the psalmist is going to tell us about: God reveals himself to us through the things he has said in the Scriptures.

We can learn a lot about people through observing them. We can learn whether they are male or female, young or old, rich or poor, old-fashioned or up-to-date. We might even be able to learn something about what they do for a living, or about their religious beliefs. But if we really want to get to know someone, sooner or later we’re going to have to talk with them and listen to what they have to say. A person’s words reveal their thoughts in one of the most intimate ways we know.

The Old Testament writers all believed that God has spoken to his people through ‘the Law and the Prophets’ – the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Scriptures God has not only revealed what he is like but also what he wants us to be like. The Hebrew word we often translate ‘Law’ is ‘Torah’, which actually means something like ‘instruction’. In Psalm 19 it is described in several ways: God’s ‘law’ and ‘testimony (v.7), his ‘statutes’ and ‘commandments’ (v.8), and his ‘judgements’ (v.9).

The psalmist thinks the people of Israel are the luckiest people on earth because God has given them this Torah. In verse 7 he points out that it gives them ‘wisdom’ – it teaches them the appropriate way to live in any given situation. In verse 8 it brings them ‘light to the eyes’ – it helps them see the path God has set before them. It brings revival and joy to their soul and warns them of ways of behaviour that are dangerous for humankind.

For me, the most important of these sentences is in verse 11: ‘in keeping them’ – that is, God’s commandments – ‘there is great reward’. Sometimes we think what that means is, ‘Keeping the Ten Commandments is tough, but you’ll get a great reward for it’. But that’s not what the writer says. He doesn’t say ‘For keeping them there is great reward’, but ‘in keeping them there is great reward’. In other words, it’s not “Well, if I learn to be unselfish on earth I’ll get a great reward in heaven”. No – the writer’s view is “As I learn to live in unselfishness, I’ll gradually discover that here and now it’s the most rewarding way of life”. The good life God reveals to us in the Scriptures is its own reward.

And of course for us Christians, God’s revelation doesn’t stop with the Old Testament scriptures. In the Gospel of John Jesus is called ‘the Word of God’. He embodies God’s speech for us; his life is a concrete embodiment of the Torah. His teaching brings out the deeper meaning of the Old Testament commandments, and he sums them up for us in his two great commandments to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As we faithfully follow Jesus, we are living out the deepest meaning of the Old Testament Torah.

So we have these two sources of revelation, the works of God and the words of God, creation and scripture. And we need them both. We need to look for God in creation to get a sense of God’s grandeur, and the sheer fun that God takes in artistry for its own sake. But we also need the Scriptures for clarity about God’s inner thoughts and God’s will for us as human beings. Perhaps temperamentally we all tend to incline toward one or other of these sources of revelation, but I would encourage you to seek a proper balance between them.

However, we also need to consider our response to what God shows us and says to us. In our Sunday services, after we have heard God’s word proclaimed to us, our response is to say, ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’, and to ask for God’s forgiveness. In other words, God’s revelation makes our shortcomings clear to us and encourages us to ask for help to learn the new way of life.

That’s what we see in verses 12-14 of our psalm:

‘Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offence. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’.

This is where we started from this morning: our great need for transformation, so that our words and thoughts and actions reflect the glory of God rather than our human propensity to mess things up. How do the things we’ve heard this morning help us with this?

First they give us a vision of the glory and wonder of God. We humans can only see a very small part of this in this life, because our vision just isn’t up to anything more. We’re tiny little created beings trying to take in the glory and wonder of the Creator of everything that exists. ‘Who can see God and live?’ ask the Old Testament writers – and that’s not only because we’re sinners and God is holy, it’s because we’re humans and God is God!

But nonetheless, God does give us little glimpses. And here’s the thing: once we sense the touch of God, were spoiled for everything else. Once you’ve experienced something of the wonder of God’s presence, you know that nothing on earth or in heaven can ever take its place. No substitute will ever do. That’s what this revelation of God does for us: it shows us how cheap and inadequate our false gods really are.

Second, the things we’ve heard this morning give us a vision of God’s purpose for human life. In the Scriptures – and most of all in Jesus – God has shown us his design for us as humans. At the centre of it all is love and faithfulness. We’re called to live in love with one another – our neighbours, our family members, people like us and people different from us, our friends and even our enemies. And we’re called to make commitments to each other and keep those commitments – to be people others can count on to be there for them, just as we can count on God to be there for us. Simply put, the Scriptures show us that God designed the human race to be a community of faithful love, and to use all our ingenuity to find more effective ways of living that out.

But thirdly and finally, we’re all conscious of our failure to live up to that. ‘Who can tell how often he offends?’ asks the writer in verse 12; ‘cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me’.

You see what the psalmist is doing here? He’s admitting that just getting good information is not enough. We can be inspired by the vision of God and of God’s will for us, but we’re going to keep getting tripped up by our human weakness, our human propensity to mess things up. And so we’re going to need God’s forgiveness, day by day, and we’re going to need God’s help to move forward.

This is where the New Testament Gospel comes in. We’re promised in the Gospel that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And we’re promised that if we look to God and pray for the Holy Spirit’s help, the Spirit will fill us and give us the inner resources we need, so we can be people who are learning to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways.

So let’s open our eyes to the glory and grandeur of God as we see it all around us in God’s creation. Let’s open our eyes to the wisdom and guidance of God as it comes to us in the Scriptures and in Jesus. And let’s turn and ask for the forgiveness of God when we fail, and the strength of God to get up on our feet again, so we can be transformed into the image of God that we see most clearly in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Story of Deliverance (a sermon on Psalm 111)

I think we often don’t realize how powerfully our stories shape us as people and as nations.

For example, in British military history the idea of the brave few who win a glorious victory over the many has been a recurrent theme. I think it goes back to Shakespeare, to Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, where the King says ‘We few – we happy few – we band of brothers’. Admiral Nelson took this up during the Napoleonic Wars, talking about his ship captains as a ‘band of brothers’ fighting against the superior numbers of the Spanish and French. And Churchill tapped into it in his famous Battle of Britain speech: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”. These stories reinforced in the British psyche the idea that it doesn’t matter if British forces are outnumbered, because they have a history of coming from behind to win.

I think in the Church we have to be very careful that we don’t get coopted by stories in the culture that are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus. Two of the most powerful are the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of the American dream. Redemptive violence tells us that violence is usually the answer: the way to defeat an enormous evil empire is for Luke Skywalker to wield his light sabre or fly his X-wing fighter to destroy the Death Star. The American Dream tells us that the key to success in life is ever-increasing wealth; to get richer means making progress and getting ahead, but not to do that is failure. These are powerful stories in our culture and they shape us in ways we often don’t notice. Unless we challenge them – and then the culture pours down scorn on our heads.

Psalm 111 reminds Israel of its founding story – the story of how God rescued a slave people from Egypt, led them safely through the desert, fed them with manna, gave them laws to shape their life together as God’s people, and then led them into their home, the promised land. Year by year by year, this story was told in the liturgy of Israel, especially at Passover time, and as the people heard it they understood once again who they were as a people, why God had called them, what God had called them to be. This story shaped their lives, which is why it was so important for them to come back to it again and again.

As Christians, as we read this psalm, we’re going to ask ourselves the question: What is our equivalent of the Exodus story? How does the Jesus story shape us like the Exodus story shaped Israel? What practices do we follow to allow it to shape us? And are we being faithful in those practices, or are we neglecting them?

The heart of the psalm is verses 5-9. Let me read them to you again from the NRSV:

‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name’.

Three incidents in the Old Testament story of the Exodus from Egypt are recalled here. First, in verse 5 the people remember how God fed them in the desert: ‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant’. Exodus tells the story of how the people came to Moses grumbling that there was no food for them to eat, and there were many thousands of them, all in danger of starvation. So God sent them ‘manna from heaven’, little flakes of a bread-like substance that fell on the camp every morning. The tradition in Exodus is that this food came to them every day for the forty years of their desert wanderings, until the day they crossed the River Jordan and entered the Promised Land: then it stopped. So God in his power and mercy kept them alive through the desert, and all through the years they celebrated this memory.

Second, in verse 6 the people remember how God led their armies into Canaan, drove out the Canaanites before them and gave them the land for themselves. ‘He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations’. The biblical story is a little unclear as to how this happened; Joshua gives the impression that it was sudden and decisive, while Judges seems to suggest it was longer and messier. But it was the universal belief of Israel that it wasn’t their own military prowess that had won this victory for them; rather, God had provided them with a safe home to live in.

Third, in verses 7-8 the people remember how God gave them his ‘Torah’, his laws or instruction, on Mount Sinai. ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness’. God didn’t give the Torah to Moses as a way of earning his love; he had already poured his love out on them freely when he rescued them from Egypt. But he wanted to shape them into a people who would shine his light for all the world around them, and the Torah was going to help them do that.

This psalm doesn’t specifically mention the coming out of Egypt itself, of course, or the crossing of the Red Sea; it assumes that story, which is retold poetically three psalms later, in Psalm 114. But if we take these four incidents in order, here is the story that shaped Israel: First, God rescue them from slavery in Egypt. Second, God provided supernatural food for them to eat in the desert so they wouldn’t starve (he also made water flow supernaturally for them). Third, God gave them the Torah to shape their lives as obedient people. Fourth, God led them into Canaan and gave it to them as their Promised Land.

I want to make two more comments before applying this story to us today as Christians. First, for Israel this story spelled out to them the character of their God: verse 4 says ‘the Lord is gracious and merciful’, or as another, more literal translation has it, ‘showing favour and merciful is the Lord’. In other words, the God of Israel is a loving and generous God. The book of Deuteronomy underlines several times that this love wasn’t something they had done anything to deserve: it was the free choice of God to make them his people and shower his love on them. The New Testament word is ‘grace’: love you don’t have to earn or deserve – it comes to you from God as a free gift, not because you are lovable but because God is love.

My second comment is to remind you that Israel reminded themselves of this story year after year. Where is this psalm recited? Verse 1 says ‘I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation’. In other words, the people of God are gathered together to worship God, and in that gathering this story is retold, to remind the people of who God is and who they are.

Verse 4 in our NRSV says ‘He has gained renown by his powerful deeds’, but many other translations say something like ‘He has caused his wondrous deeds to be remembered’, or ‘a memorial he has made of his wondrous acts’. The book of Exodus tells the story of how God commanded that year by year the people celebrate the Passover Festival as a memorial of their deliverance from Egypt. For thousands of years now Jewish people have been doing just that.

What about us as Christians? What story shapes us, and how do we celebrate it? Our story, of course, is the story of Jesus. If we were using the same categories as the Old Testament people, we might tell the story in four acts:

What is our deliverance from slavery? It’s Easter weekend: the cross and the resurrection, the story of how Jesus reconciled us to God by his death and gave us victory over evil by his resurrection. By Jesus’ death and resurrection we’re set free from guilt and fear. We find a new connection with God a new strength to do God’s will, and a new hope for the future. Easter weekend is Jesus’ great victory over the armies of Pharaoh. No wonder we celebrate it year by year.

What is our story of being sustained in the desert by manna from heaven and water from the rock? In 1 Corinthians Paul applies these stories to Christ, who is our nourishment on our desert journey through life. The Eucharist, of course, is a graphic picture of this: we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving’. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). So we celebrate the continuing presence of Jesus with us to sustain us on our journey, and especially his presence in the Eucharist.

What is our story of God giving us his Torah, his instruction, to shape our life as an obedient people? Surely this is Jesus coming among us as our teacher, by his actions and his words. Jesus gives us our clearest picture of what God is like and what God wants for us. His Sermon on the Mount and his other teachings spell out for us what it looks like to be a people who love God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and love their neighbour as themselves. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:1-3). In other words, the word God has spoken to us in Jesus is the highest and clearest word we have ever received, and it’s meant to shape us as a people.

What is our story of God leading his people into the promised land? We need to be careful about this one, because one of the discontinuities between Old and New Testaments is the place of violence. Jesus never commands his followers to carry out their mission by war and conquest. And we don’t have an earthly ‘promised land’; if we have such a place, it’s in the life to come. But where he is leading us is out into the world in mission for him. Jesus doesn’t send his soldiers out to conquer; he sends his missionaries out, armed with nothing but the gospel on their lips and the love of God in their hearts. As we share the Gospel and call others to follow Jesus, the whole world in a sense becomes God’s promised land.

How do we Christians respond to this story? Two final things: we retell it over and over again, and we live in awe of the God it reveals to us.

We Christians understand that it’s hard for us humans to concentrate on the whole story all the time. We need to go through it stage by stage, over and over again, giving our attention to different parts of it. As we tell it and retell it, it sinks into our subconscious and shapes us as God’s special people.

We’ve just gone through one of those special times – the story of Christmas. Once again we heard the story of how God came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. Luke told us of the manger in Bethlehem and the shepherds telling the story of peace on earth, good will to all. Matthew told us of the wise men and their star. John told us what it all means for us: the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Ahead for us soon is the other major festival in our story: Holy Week and Easter. We’ll focus again on the story of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection. We’ll enter into Jerusalem with him on Palm Sunday. We’ll sit in the Upper Room as he washes his disciples’ feet and gives them bread and wine to proclaim his death until he comes again. We’ll go with him to Golgotha on Good Friday and watch the nails pounded into his body and hear him cry out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we’ll go to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning, and join in the amazement of those first witnesses in the Upper Room as the Risen Lord appears to them.

But there’s a problem. Years ago, working people only got one day off at these high and holy days. Travel was difficult and no one went away. Nowadays, not so much. Many Christian people skip these central celebrations of our faith altogether. They go away to the sun, and the last thing they think about when they’re enjoying their holiday is going to church.

What does this mean? It means that year by year we miss out on focussing on these central stories that shape us as a community. Some people say, “But I can read them in the Bible any time I like”. To which I respond, “Yes, but do you?” It’s easier to get Bibles at this point in time than it has ever been, but I suspect that the Bible is actually read less and less. And anyway, it’s not the same as coming together as a community and focussing together on these central stories of our faith. So please don’t cheat yourself of this vital discipline. Even if you go away for the holidays, make sure your holiday time includes joining in worship with other Christians to celebrate the story of our salvation.

Lastly, we walk in ‘the fear of the Lord’. ‘Fear’ is perhaps not such a good translation these days; the idea of fear is usually connected in our minds with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew word includes a larger range of meanings: ‘awe, reverent respect, honour’. The writer of the psalm sees no contradiction between talking about the grace and mercy of God in verse 4 and the fear of the Lord in verse 10, so the ‘fear of the Lord’ obviously doesn’t mean terror; rather, he says, it’s ‘the beginning of wisdom’.

In other words, if we have a proper attitude of awe and wonder and respect toward God, we will be in a better position to know how to live. Day by day, as life presents us with difficult situations, we’ll find that we know how to respond to them. Knowing this story – the story of God, of God’s love and God’s power – will give us a proper view of what life is all about.

I find this to be profoundly true: the light of the gospel doesn’t just illuminate God for us – it illuminates everything else as well. Things that were dark and murky become clearer and brighter. We see God as God is; we see ourselves as God sees us, and we see the world as God sees it. And seeing those things, we know what our next step on the journey ought to be. In the end, that’s what wisdom is all about.

God our Refuge (a sermon on Psalm 62)

I wonder what you think about when you hear the word ‘refuge’?

A few years ago, Marci and I were up in Jasper and we decided to ride the tramway up Whistler’s Mountain. For those of you who haven’t been there, the tramway takes you about 80% of the way to the top. There are great views from the upper tramway station and if all you’re looking for is a good photo opportunity and a chance for a coffee in a restaurant near the top of a mountain, you’ll probably be happy with that!

But if you want to, you can also hike up from the station to the actual summit of the mountain; it takes me about an hour, although of course some people are faster than me. On this particular occasion the weather up there was a little iffy; the clouds kept coming down and then lifting again, and those clouds had snow in them. At one point the snow began to fly furiously and the wind was wickedly cold, and Marci and I decided to take shelter until the weather blew over. We found a nice big rock and hunkered down on the lee side of it, where we sat and munched on granola bars for a few minutes until the clouds lifted and the sun came out again!

‘Refuge’. That rock was a place of refuge for us. Move away from the rock, and we were subject to the battering of the wind and the cold. Move into the shelter of the rock, and we experienced protection. In the words of today’s psalm, it was ‘our mighty rock, our refuge’ (see Psalm 62:7b).

The theme of Psalm 62 is trust in God. And not just ‘trust in God’ in general – trust in God when the wind blows and the snow flies and life gets hard. Trust in God when you need shelter, when you need protection. In other words, this wasn’t just an academic exercise for the psalmist. When he wrote these words, he wasn’t just taking part in a poetry exercise. He was going through a battering of some kind, and he had discovered from his own personal experience that God was a place of refuge for him in times of trouble.

Before we go any further, let me remind you of a couple of things about the psalms.

First – and I say this because some of us here are very new to church and may not know this – the psalms that we read together each week as part of our service are very old. They were originally written in Hebrew and are included in what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. We don’t know for sure who wrote them or when they were written, although some of them may go back to the time of King David, about a thousand years before Christ. Many of them are probably not be that old, but all of them come from well before the time of Christ. They were collected and used as the prayer book and hymn book of the Jewish people, and Jesus would have been very familiar with them – indeed, he probably had many of them memorized, just like some of you have favourite hymns and songs memorized. So when we pray the psalms together, we’re actually joining in the prayers of the Old Testament people and of Jesus himself.

Second, the psalms are different from the rest of the Bible. In the rest of the Bible what we often get is God speaking to his people – and through them, to us today. But the psalms don’t speak to us – they speak for us. First and foremost, they’re prayers, and very honest prayers too. So we don’t read them in the same way we would read a letter of Paul or a prophecy of Isaiah. The best way to use the psalms is to pray them – and as we pray them, we’ll learn to understand them better.

Third, the psalms are poetry. Poetry isn’t meant to be understood literally – it uses imagery and metaphor to draw us into its world of feeling and experience. When philosophy tries to describe God, it uses words like ‘omniscient’ (he knows everything), or ‘omnipresent’ (he’s present everywhere), or ‘almighty’ (he can do anything). But the psalms don’t tend to use philosophical language for God; they call God ‘my shepherd’, ‘my rock’, ‘my fortress’, ‘my refuge’. These aren’t literal statements – they’re powerful metaphors to help us enter into an experience of God.

So let’s look for a few minutes at Psalm 62. As I said the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and sometimes it’s a tricky language to translate into modern English. Archeologists have discovered quite a lot of ancient manuscripts, and sometimes there are differences between them. If you look at different English translations like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version, you’re going to see some differences. I’m going to base my thoughts today on the NRSV, which is a little different from the version we read a few minutes ago in our Book of Alternative Services.

As I said, the theme of this psalm is trusting in God in the time of trouble. The first thing I want you to notice is the structure of the psalm; it jumps back and forth from God, to people, to God, to people, and finally to God again. Turn to it in your pew Bible and look at it on the page. Notice that there are basically five sections. Verses 1-2 are about trusting God. Verses 3-4 are about the actions of the enemies. Verses 5-8 are about trusting God again. Verses 9-10 are about the attributes of humans. And finally, verses 11-12 return to the theme of trusting God. Neat, isn’t it?

So why does the psalmist write this prayer? Apparently, because he was being assailed in some way by people who were out to get him. Look at verses 3-4:

‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse’.

I love that image of the wall: ‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter a victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?’ We can imagine a rickety old wall, in such poor shape that a little gust of wind could bring it down! And we get the point right away: the writer of the psalm is feeling fragile, because he’s being persecuted.

It doesn’t sound to me as if the persecution is imprisonment or torture or danger of death – at least, not yet. What seems to be happening is that people are spreading lies about him. To his face, they’re being nice to him: “Well, hello there, my friend! How are you doing these days! It’s so good to see you!” But he’s not deceived by these greetings, because he’s heard rumours about what they’re saying behind his back. ‘Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood’ (v.4) – or, as the B.A.S. version says, ‘lies are their chief delight’.

I’ve got a couple of things to say about this. First of all, this is a form of persecution most of us can identify with. Most of us here haven’t been imprisoned or tortured for our faith. Most of us haven’t had to flee our homes as refugees. But all of us, from time to time, have been the victims of gossip campaigns. We’ve all experienced those who greeted us warmly but whose greetings made our skin crawl, because we knew what they were saying about us behind our backs.

Second, let’s not minimize this form of persecution as if it wasn’t serious. Sometimes it can be devastating. A person’s reputation – and their entire life – can be destroyed by a false story. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a story; sometimes it can just be a question raised about their character or their history. It doesn’t matter – the damage is done. A lie once told can’t be recalled. Even if it’s later disproved, the victim will still be affected by it.

So what do we do about this situation? What does the psalmist recommend?

Negatively, we’re not to be surprised by it. People are not saints. People are complicated. We’re a bag of contradictions: joys and fears, loves and resentments, strengths and weaknesses. Good people do bad things sometimes; none of us is completely without our skeletons in the closet. The psalmist has a lovely poetic way of describing the human condition: look at verse 9:

‘Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath’.

I love the way the New Living Translation puts this verse:

‘Common people are as worthless as a puff of wind, and the powerful are not what they appear to be. If you weigh them on the scales, together they are lighter than a breath of air’.

So human beings might be able to give us a little help, the writer says, but in the end they’re strictly limited. Even the powerful, the rich, the movers and shakers, are ‘a delusion’. All their grandeur and their wealth and their fine clothes can’t change the fact that underneath, they’re just fallible human brings with the same weaknesses and frailties as the rest of us. They make mistakes, their projects fail, and one day – like everyone else – they die.

No, the psalmist tells us – trust in God. In the long run, God is the one who can be trusted.

Look at these poetic images the psalmist uses for God: ‘He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken’ (v.2) – ‘My mighty rock, my refuge is in God’ (v.7) – ‘God is a refuge for us’ (v.8) – ‘Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord’ (vv.11-12a). We get the message: when the wind is blowing on the top of the mountain, threatening to freeze your bones, God is the rock you can get behind for shelter. “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”.

How does that work? What do we actually do to take refuge in God? The psalmist offers us two insights that seem at first to be contradicting each other.

First, he seems to counsel silence. Verse 1 says ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’. Verse 5 returns to the theme: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him’. The idea seems to be ‘Wait for God to help you, and while you’re waiting, keep your mouth shut!’

But this can’t be what the verse means, because verse 8 goes on to counsel speaking! ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This makes sense to us; as someone once said, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ How many of us have had the experience of carrying around a heavy load on our hearts, and then finally being able to tell someone about it. The load was lifted! The problem hadn’t gone away, but just the fact that we could pour out our hearts to someone else made us feel better! We weren’t alone any more!

How do we resolve this contradiction?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and it isn’t always easy to translate into English. Many words don’t have exact English equivalents. With some words, scholars aren’t completely sure what they mean. And sometimes archeologists have found many manuscript copies of a particular passage, and they aren’t exactly the same – a copyist has made an error and transmitted it to others.

So ‘waiting on God in silence’ might not be the best translation of what the author originally wrote in verses 1 and 7. One of the commentaries I read suggests this translation: ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’. I love that! I get the picture of someone who has cultivated a close relationship with God: they’ve spent time with God in prayer, speaking and listening. They’ve learned from God’s commandments and God’s teachings and tried to shape their lives by what God says. And the result is this feeling of restfulness. Couples with good marriages know what this is about! It’s not that you don’t try to please each other; of course you do! But you’re not anxious about it; you’ve been together for a long time and you feel totally secure in each other’s love. That’s the way the psalmist is in his relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

Our NRSV translates verse 7 in exactly the same way, but some other ancient versions put it slightly differently: ‘Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. In verse 1 his soul is at rest in God, but in verse 7 he’s encouraging himself to stay there. He’s just had this huge shock of discovering this awful gossip campaign that his friend has started against him; he feels like a leaning wall, a tottering fence, as if his life is shaken to the foundations. But then he stops, takes a deep breath, remembers his experience of the love of God, and says to himself, ‘Truly, my soul take rest in God’.

When we understand the verses in this way, verse 8 flows right along: ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This is part of resting in God: sharing with him what’s on our hearts. Sometimes that’s an experience of joy, sometimes it’s an experience of anguish. Whatever is on our hearts, we’re encouraged to ‘pour it out to God’.

I experienced this for myself in a powerful way a few years ago when my friend Joe Walker died. Some of you knew Joe; he was forty-seven when he died of cancer; he left behind a wife and four children under the age of twelve. He was a great priest, a great evangelist, a thoughtful and genuine Christian. And I was mightily annoyed at God when he died.

I found it difficult to pray. I couldn’t make all the usual affirmations about God’s goodness and love. They rang hollow for me. I would go for my morning walk around Blue Quill park, and the only thing I could do was yell at God. I told him that if he’d wanted a list of people to snuff out, I could have given him one, but Joe definitely wouldn’t have been on it. I asked him what sort of loving care it was for Joe’s kids to do this to them. It wasn’t rational; it was visceral. But it was honest; it was how I felt.

The funny thing was: it helped. When I came back from those walks, I felt better. More than better: I had the sense that God was with me much more than when I tried to mouth platitudes I couldn’t bring myself to believe. I was pouring out my heart to God, and God heard my prayer. I didn’t get answers, but I did get God.

So this is the experience the psalmist is inviting us into this morning. Have you experienced it?

We all go through blizzards of one kind or another. Relationships are tough and sometimes people let us down; sometimes they hurt us badly. The good news is: God can be a place of refuge for us. God can be a fortress, a mighty rock.

But it doesn’t happen instantly; it takes time to cultivate that sort of relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God…Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. This is a daily decision: to turn to God, to listen to God, to be quiet in God’s presence, to listen for God’s word, to trust in God. This is a lifetime’s journey, but it begins tonight, or tomorrow morning, when you make the decision to open your Bible and read, and to say your prayers.

And say your prayers honestly. ‘Pour out your heart before him’. There’s no point in trying to deceive God; he knows what’s in your heart! So be the real ‘you’ when you pray. Tell God the truth, warts and all. He can take it! Martin Luther apparently once said ‘It’s better to shake your fist at God than turn your back on God’. So let’s turn to God, pour out our hearts to him, and find rest in him, so that we can learn to say from our own experience, ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

Don’t Rest Your Hope on Human Leaders (a sermon on Psalm 146)

In today’s psalm we have my favourite verses for an election year, whether in Canada or the United States:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ (Psalm 146:3-4 NRSV).

Eugene Peterson has a lovely paraphrase of these verses in ‘The Message’:

‘Don’t put your life in the hands of experts, who know nothing of life, of salvation life. Mere humans don’t have what it takes; when they die, their projects die with them’.

‘Do not put your trust in princes’. Oh, but we love to put our trust in princes! We’re so tired of the gang that was ruling before, and then along comes a fresh new leader, with a bright vision about how it’s all going to be different this time! ‘Make America great again!’ ‘Change you can believe in!’ ‘Sunny ways!’ The slogans are so predictable, the rhetoric is so exaggerated, and maybe for a brief, bright honeymoon period, we can actually persuade ourselves to believe them. But then the first mistakes are made, and the first evidence of human sinfulness appears, and eventually we sigh and think to ourselves, “I guess he’s just a human being, like the last guy”. He’s not the Messiah, and the kingdom of God is not going to come on earth as a result of his election victory.

Psalm 146 explains to us why this is the case, so let’s take a closer look. The psalm falls pretty clearly into three sections. We have a brief introduction in verses 1-2, and then in verses 3-4 we get the command not to trust in human rulers, and the reasons why that’s not a good idea. Finally, in verses 5-10, we switch our attention to the Lord, the one true God, and the reasons why it’s much, much better to hope in him. The psalm ends as it began, with the Hebrew word ‘Hallelujah!’ – ‘Praise the Lord!’

I want to focus today on the second and third sections of the psalm. So let’s look again at verses 3-4:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’

In these verses our poet gives us two reasons why it’s a bad idea to put your trust in princes, or human leaders of any kind. First, because they’re not God. They’d like to think they are, but when push comes to shove, these folks can’t deliver on their exaggerated promises.

Verse 3 says ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help’. The phrase ‘in whom there is no help’ could also be translated ‘in whom there is no deliverance’. When the Bible uses the word ‘deliverance’, it doesn’t just mean ‘giving people a little bit of extra help so that they can get the job done’; it means ‘saving people from something that had them totally in its power’. Think of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, totally under the power of Pharaoh. God didn’t look at them and say, “Well, they’re almost strong enough to set themselves free, and if I just give them a tiny bit of extra help, they’ll be able to finish the job!” No – the situation was desperate, the slaves had absolutely no hope of ever getting free, and when God intervened, it was a complete surprise to everyone involved.

So for a prince or earthly leader to claim to be a ‘deliverer’ was a claim to be God – rather like the Roman Emperor in the time of Jesus, who had as one of his official titles the Greek word ‘soter’ – Saviour. And it did look as if old Caesar Augustus had a good claim to that title – after all, if someone was condemned to die, he could pardon them (although he rarely did!). But while the Roman emperors were sitting on their thrones congratulating themselves on how powerful they were, an unknown village carpenter in Galilee was setting out on a ministry that would touch the lives of millions of people around the world, and would change the course of world history for the next two millennia. And now, two thousand years later, we only have a historical interest in the Roman emperors – but over a billion people around the world call Jesus their ‘Saviour’ – their ‘Deliverer’.

So the human rulers can’t provide ultimate help because they’re not God. A second reason they can’t provide that help is because they won’t be around long enough. Verse 4 says, ‘When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ – or, in the lovely translation in ‘The Message’, ‘when they die, their projects die with them’.

The books of 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament tell the stories of the people of Israel and Judah from the time of King David’s son Solomon until the time of the Babylonian exile – a period of several hundred years. Have you ever read them? There are some good stories in them, but on the whole they make for pretty depressing reading. The authors have two standard ways of describing the kings of Israel and Judah: ‘He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’ and ‘He did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Two sad truths make these books depressing reading: First, there are a lot more kings who ‘did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Second, even in the case of the kings who did what was right, the good they achieved didn’t last; they tended to be followed by a bad king who undid all the good they’d done.

In a modern democracy, leaders have an even shorter time to do the good they want to do: one election cycle, or maybe two or even three if they’re lucky! But even twelve years isn’t long enough to solve some of the most difficult problems we face as modern human beings, never mind eight, or four. And of course when governments are defeated, they tend to be defeated by people who disagree with the key parts of their program – so the chances are that a lot of the things they’ve tried to achieve are going to be reversed by the ones who follow them.

Verse 10 says, ‘The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations’. In ancient times people sometimes said ‘May the king live forever!’ but they probably didn’t actually want him to live forever – and whether they wanted him to live forever or not, he wasn’t going to! No, God is the only one for whom the words ‘for ever’ and ‘for all generations’ can properly be used. No one else is going to be around long enough to get the job done.

So we shouldn’t trust in princes or politicians because they aren’t God, and because they aren’t going to be around long enough. There is, of course, a third reason; it’s not one that’s specifically mentioned in this psalm, but it’s assumed throughout the Bible. It’s the fact that princes and politicians and human leaders are all sinners just like the rest of us. And let’s remember what the word ‘sin’ means in the Bible. It’s a happy coincidence that in English, the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the centre of it. When I’m at the centre of my own life – when I’m being selfish and self-centred and acting as if I was god of my own world – then, in biblical terms, I’m living like a sinner. We all do it – some of us do it more than others – but there is no one who doesn’t do it at all.

We all know the old saying, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. In other words, it’s very hard for ordinary human sinners to resist the temptation toward empire-building, feathering their own nests, and ruling for their own benefit. I’m not saying it can’t be done; I’m saying it’s very hard. It certainly shouldn’t surprise us when we discover evidence of corruption; after all, how confident are you that you’d be able to resist the temptation, if you were in their shoes? How many people get angry at politicians for sins that are identical to ones they’ve committed themselves, except that they weren’t in positions of public power and authority when they committed them?

So ‘Do not put your trust in princes’, says our poet. Does that mean we shouldn’t honour our political leaders, or do our best to elect people of character, people who’ve had some success in resisting the temptation toward corruption and feathering their own nests? Of course not; it’s right for us to get involved in the political process and try to get the best possible candidates into office.

But we shouldn’t pin our hopes for making a better country, or a better world, on the shoulders of those people. That’s a burden they can’t bear. They aren’t God, they aren’t going to be around long enough, and they just don’t have the ability to be perfect! So our poet counsels us to look somewhere else – to look for a better and much more capable Deliverer. Look at verses 5-10:

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!’

What is it that makes God a worthy object for our hope and our trust? Well, first of all, it’s God’s creative power: God is the one ‘who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them’ (v.6). The presidents of the United States and of Russia probably still have it in their power to use their nuclear launch codes to destroy the earth, or at least to make it completely uninhabitable for thousands of years. Neither of them, however, has the power to create ‘heaven and earth’. With our present technology they’d be dead long before they’d even completed the journey to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own – never mind trying to create it in the first place. And there are billions of star systems, most of them unimaginable distances from the Earth, all of them completely out of reach of our tin-pot dictators and earthly leaders. But God in his wisdom has created them all, and he knows them all intimately.

But this great creator God is also a God who has a special concern for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. He ‘executes justice for the oppressed (and) gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow’ (vv.7-9, excerpts).

This is the story of the God of the Bible. He’s the God who went down to Egypt to deliver the oppressed slaves and bring them home into their own land. He’s the God who used a little shepherd boy to defeat the mighty soldier Goliath and set his people free from the Philistine oppressors. He’s the God who cared for the widow of Zarapheth and sent Elijah down to help her and her son make it through the drought. He’s the God who came among us in Jesus to set people free from the power of evil spirits, to give blind people their sight again, and to reach out to marginalized people – tax collectors, prostitutes, enemy soldiers, and Galilean fishermen with weird northern accents!

The fantastic thing about this story is that not only does God care for the poor and the humble – he tends to use the poor and the humble to help them, too! His way of changing the world isn’t usually to win a general or a president over to his cause! It’s to choose someone completely ordinary – someone who just goes humbly about their daily tasks, doing their best to serve God and love other people – and to use that person to start a movement that has an enormous effect on the world. He chose a little Albanian nun called Anjezë, and sent her to Calcutta to serve the poor and the lepers. Who ever thought that Mother Teresa would become a world figure? Or little Francesco Bernadone, who became St. Francis of Assisi? Or Dr. Paul Brand, who went as a medical missionary to India and ended up making some of the most important discoveries that helped us unravel the secrets of leprosy? Or a shy little Irish boy called Clive, who lost his mum to cancer at an early age, and who loved stories about the gods and goddesses of Asgard, but went on to become one of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century – C.S. Lewis?

But it goes further than that. We’ve thought about people who became famous; what about the millions who didn’t? Philip Yancey has done thousands of interviews in his career as a writer. He says that in his mind he tends to divide the people he interviews into two groups: the ‘stars’, and the ‘servants’. It’s very clear to him that the ‘servants’ – mostly unknown men and women working faithfully in obscure places to improve the lives of ordinary people – are the ones who’ve discovered the real secret to contentment and happiness. As our poet says, ‘Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God’ (v.5).

But what does this actually mean? It sounds pious and good and holy, but do we really think that a humble aid worker in South America is having more of an effect on the world than Donald Trump? Or that ordinary Christians like you and me can do more to advance the plan of God than Justin Trudeau or Stephen Harper? Hoe does God actually help and deliver those who put their hope in him?

Well, let me answer that by asking you a question. Let’s suppose that we take the advice of this poet. Let’s suppose that we decide we’re not going to put our hope in Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton; we’re not going to rely on Justin Trudeau or Rachel Notley or Brian Jean or whoever your favourite politician might be at this point in time. No, we’re going to put our hope in the Lord our God; we’re going to trust in the God who come to live among us in Jesus.

If we trust our doctor, what do we do? The answer is obvious – we do what she says. We put her advice into practice in our daily lives. And the same is true with God; if we put our hope and trust in God, we then offer ourselves to God as instruments in his hands. We ask him to fill us with the Holy Spirit and give us strength to do things we could never do by ourselves. And then we take the words and example of Jesus and try to put them into practice in our daily lives – loving our enemies, forgiving those who hurt us, reaching out to the poor and needy and marginalized, spreading the news that there’s a God of love who cares about everyone he has made.

Do you not think that a movement like that will have a tremendous effect on the world? Imagine millions of people following Jesus together, learning to be his disciples, doing the things he told them to do. Would they be fooled by the incentives offered by marketers to buy all kinds of useless luxuries and look to possessions to make them happy? Of course not. Would they obey the instructions of their leaders to kill their fellow human beings who happen to wear the uniform of another country? No. Would they look for opportunities to – as John Wesley put it – ‘Do all the good they can, to all the people they can, in all the ways they can, by all the means they can, as long as ever they can’? Of course they would.

That’s how God changes the world. Not by a larger-than-life politician with fake hair and feet of clay, but by his power at work in hundreds and thousands of ordinary people, people just like you and me. We don’t have to have everything together in our lives. We don’t have to have all the answers. We just need a thankful trust in God, a determination not to allow anyone or anything else to take God’s place, and a desire to hear God’s word and put it into practice in our daily lives. If we do that, God can work through us to execute justice for the oppressed, give food to the hungry, set the prisoners free, open the eyes of the blind, lift up those who are bowed down, watch over the stranger, and uphold the orphan and widow. That’s what he will do through you and me, if we put our hope in him, and in no one else but him.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘The Glory of God and the Glory of Humanity’ (a sermon on Psalm 8)

It’s said that the philosopher Immanuel Kant was once attending an astronomy lecture on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The lecturer concluded with these words: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!”

Humans are the astronomers. Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, for eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

The writer of Psalm 8 felt this longing. I want to explore this psalm with you this morning under two headings: first, the glory of God, and second, the glory of Humanity.

First, then, the Glory of God. In 1952 J.B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small. Today I think that many of us still have that problem, a problem we share with our ancient ancestors. In the time of the Bible many people believed in local, territorial gods. The early Hebrew people probably thought of their god in the same way; in fact, he’s often called ‘Yahweh the god of Israel’ in the Old Testament.

We have no right to look down on our ancient ancestors for this; I suspect that many of us have small views of God as well. In Sunday School we were taught about God in simple ways, but often we still speak of God as if he were our personal assistant, dedicated to our well-being and pleasure – a sort of divine butler, who comes to us every morning and says ‘What can I do for you today?’ – or a heavenly pharmacist whose greatest desire is to find the right spiritual aspirin to take our pain away.

The author of Psalm 8 is not content with these puny views of God. Look at verses 1-2 in your pew Bibles.

O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Our Book of Alternative Services psalter translates the first line ‘O Lord our governor’; the NRSV has ‘O LORD our Sovereign’, with the word ‘LORD’ written in block capitals, to alert us to the fact that the Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’. Actually, in Hebrew this first line combines two names for God: ‘Yahweh Adonai’.

‘Adonai’ is often used for God in the Old Testament: it’s the Hebrew word for ‘lord’, ‘master’, or ‘owner’. ‘Yahweh’ is the name for God that God gave to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. God had called Moses to go down to Egypt and tell the Hebrew slaves that he was going to set them free. Moses said, “If I tell them, ‘God’s going to set you free’, and they ask me, ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

‘I am’ in Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’, but it’s a very strange name, one that almost defies definition! “I am who I am! I will be who I will be! So don’t think you can tie me down or figure me out”. In later years the name was often wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’; most modern translations use the word ‘LORD’ in capital letters.

So what does our poet have to say about ‘Yahweh Adonai’? Well, the first thing we see is his appeal to God’s creation as evidence of God’s glory.

‘You have set your glory above the heavens…
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (vv.1b, 3-4).

For many of Israel’s neighbours, and some people in Israel too, ‘the moon and the stars’ were gods themselves. Today, of course, we know what they are, and we also know all about the ‘vast expanse of interstellar space: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’ (B.A.S Eucharistic Prayer #4). As people of faith in one Creator God, we don’t see these heavenly bodies as rival gods, but neither do we see them as random bits of rock and gas that just appeared out of nowhere by chance. Our poet says they are ‘the work of God’s fingers’; in Psalm 33 the image shifts: ‘By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). Yahweh’s fingers, Yahweh’s mouth – we’re using images for God, of course, none of which are entirely adequate! But the point is clear: the vast, mighty heavens above our heads are well within God’s creative capacity!

Today, of course, we know far more about the wonders of creation than our poet did. We know about the enormous distances of space, and the enormous stretches of time too – over fourteen billion years since the universe came into being – approximately 4.5 billion years since our Earth was formed. We know about the wonder and mystery of DNA – the intricacies of the human eye – the instincts that guide birds for thousands of miles on their migrations. We know about the incredibly beautiful creatures that live in the depths of the oceans, where no light penetrates – ‘Who are they beautiful for?’ Philip Yancey asks! We see the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the peaceful lakes. For us as believers, all of these things speak to us of our God – of his wisdom, his creative power, his artistic skill, his love of outrageous colour combinations – have you looked at a sunset lately? – and his fondness for extravagant variety.

Glory be to God! God is the creator of all that exists; it was all planned and made by him, and he continues to love and care for it. Our poet sees the stars and planets as praising God, and the little children and infants on earth are joining in as well! We humans can never fully understand him – our minds aren’t big enough to take him in. St. Augustine is reputed to have said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!” As we try to describe God, we’re a bit like people looking up into the sky at the sun – our eyes are almost completely screwed tight shut against the brilliant light, so we can’t see too well to be absolutely clear about what we’re looking at! But we can worship our glorious God, and we can follow his instruction for our lives – including the particular call he has given to human beings as we seek to live for his glory. And this leads us to the second part: the glory of humanity.

In Donald Coggan’s little book about the psalms he has this to say about Psalm 8:

‘In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

‘We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?’

You’ve probably felt this sometimes too; I know I have. I’ve felt it when I was hiking in the mountains; I’ve felt it when I was out on the barren lands of the Arctic, in the immense silence, looking up at the night sky. “Space is so huge, and I’m so small! O God, does my life really matter?’ Or, as verse 4 says, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

What are human beings? The Book of Genesis has an answer:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God? Well, exactly the same language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis when Adam has a son of his own: ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’ (Genesis 5:3). So the idea of the ‘image of God’ is a parental metaphor: we’re God’s kids! We parents understand this – for good or for ill, we often see ourselves in our kids. God has made many different kinds of creatures – millions of different species, down through the millennia – but in the fullness of time it was all leading up to the arrival of his children: human beings, made in the image of their Father God.

Now one of the things about kids is this: they don’t just want to be helped or provided for. They want a role! They want to help, to contribute, to be valuable in the household! ‘I want to do it myself!’ And so the Psalm tells us that as a good parent, God doesn’t just care for human beings or provide for them; God also gives them a vital role to play.

What is that role? Part of the answer to that question is found in verses 5-8:

‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea’.

This is royal language – to ‘have dominion’. The one who really has dominion over the whole creation is the Creator God, but he chooses to share that dominion with his human children.

So what is it that we’re called to do, exactly? Verses 6-8 talk about us being given ‘dominion over the works of God’s hands’. Older generations tended to see this in terms of taming the earth and subduing it; human life was seen as a life of conflict with the forces of nature. Of course, there are times when we still feel that: when great forest fires rage, for instance, fires so fierce we call them ‘the Beast’! But nowadays we’re also aware of the awesome power of humans over our environment; we’re aware of the possibility that our activity may even be doing something that would have been unthinkable a century ago: changing the climate of the earth. We’re aware that we have created weapons so terrifying in their power that using them might well have lethal consequences, not just for us, but for our planet as well.

And so in our time we’ve begun to notice another strand of this Old Testament teaching. In Genesis 2:15 we read, ‘Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’. ‘To keep it’ has the old sense of ‘to guard it’. The Common English Bible has a wonderful translation: ‘to farm it and to take care of it’. Here is our call as human beings to be good stewards of the earth. And in our time, a time of climate change and of massive extinctions of wildlife species, it has become an urgent matter that we respond to this call.

We Christians don’t always think of this as being part of our call to discipleship; it wasn’t such an urgent issue in Jesus’ day. But let’s not forget that in Romans chapter five St. Paul calls Jesus ‘the Second Adam’. In Paul’s imagery, the first Adam failed in his calling and was unfaithful to God. But now Jesus has come, and where the first Adam failed, he has succeeded. So the call given to the first Adam – ‘to till the earth and keep it’ – has also been given to the second Adam, and as we follow Jesus, it’s given to us as well.

This creation call to humankind has never been revoked; we have been placed on the earth to till it and to guard it. God our Creator took great care when he first made this home of ours, and he continues to take great care as life here continues to evolve and develop. If we are made in his image, sharing his dominion over his creation, can we do any less? I think not.

To sum up, then: what is it that makes our lives significant? We humans are frail, and short-lived in terms of the life of our planet; why are we important? Why is your life important? Why is mine?

We’re important because we’re made in God’s image and created for relationship with God. It’s significant that in this psalm God is addressed throughout in the second person: ‘Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ Many psalms speak about God in the third person – ‘Come, let us sing to the Lord – but in this psalm we address God directly, because we’re called into relationship with God, as his beloved children.

This psalm calls us to reflect on the wonder and majesty of God. One of the best ways to do this is to get outside, into God’s natural creation. You’ve heard me say before that if we do all our praying indoors, we’ll end up thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. But if we get out into the river valley, or go walking in Elk Island National Park, or hike in the mountains – or even just go out into the country regularly and look up at the night sky, undisturbed by street lights – we’ll learn a different view of God. We’ll walk there with the great Creator, and our hearts will be full of praise for him.

And of course, our lives are important because God has chosen to share his care for creation with us. He’s not going to do it without us! He’s not going to revoke our job description! His rule over creation is not the rule of a despot, a tyrant who exploits the world to feed his own self-centred greed. God rules and cares for his world with love, patience, and skill. And he calls us to learn to do that too.

So maybe, as we think about these things, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: is God’s natural world a better place because of me, or not? And if the answer is ‘not’, then we’ve got some thinking and praying to do. One day we’re going to be asked to give account for our stewardship. On that day, I don’t think, “I just did what everyone else was doing” will be an acceptable answer.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Today we join in the praise and worship offered to you by all created things. Today we thank you for making us in your image and calling us to be stewards of this wonderful, beautiful earth which you have made. Help us to care for it as you care for it, our God, that we may truly live our lives to your honour and glory. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 8: A preliminary study

I plan to preach on Psalm 8 this coming Sunday. What appears below is not a sermon; it is my study notes as I have been digging into the psalm over the past couple of days. Hopefully it might be helpful for any other preachers who may be thinking of preaching on this psalm.

Text (NRSV, slightly amended according to John Goldingay’s translation[i])

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

  1. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.
  2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
    you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.
  3. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
  4. what are people that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you pay attention to them?
  5. Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honour.
  6. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
  7. all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
  8. the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
  9. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Exegesis
Donald Coggan introduces his comments on this psalm with these words:

This psalm begins and ends with identical words: ‘Lord our sovereign, how glorious is your name throughout the world!’ It is within this framework of adoration that the rest of the psalm is set. God in his majesty is praised in the vastness of the heavens and even babes and infants (v.2) chip in! The God who elicits the praise of his universe is a God of justice, concerned for his creation, and concerned about those who flout his laws (v.2b).[ii]

This psalm holds in tension two amazing truths. On the one hand, there is the wonder and the glory and majesty of the eternal God, Yahweh, whose glory is even higher than the heavens. On the other hand, there is the care that God takes of human beings, who are so small in comparison, and yet have been given dominion over the works of God’s hands. This creates another tension: what are the limits of that dominion?  When does God stop respecting the free will he has given to humans in order to prevent them doing evil to ‘babes and infants’? Where is the bulwark, the barrier, which he has established ‘because of your foes’?

All ‘God-talk’ runs out into mystery in the end. We little humans are tiny in comparison with God, and so we can’t grasp the full wonder and magnificence of his presence and his glory and his love. Neither can we grasp how he balances his respect for free will with his desire to protect those who are vulnerable. We know that God has given us a high calling, crowned us with glory and honour, and made us to rule over the works of his hands. But we also know that we have fallen from our high position by our own pride and sinfulness, and often dispute Yahweh’s ownership of the things he has set under our feet. We can only praise God for his goodness and also pray that he will restrain us from doing irreparable damage to the world he has created and to precious young lives that he has made.

 

 

  1. O Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.

The Hebrew of verse 1 has ‘Yahweh Adonai’, which presents a problem for translators who don’t want to use the name ‘Yahweh’, and prefer to use ‘Lord’ instead, because ‘Adonai’ means ‘lord’! The New Jerusalem Bible has no such scruples and simply translates accurately ‘Yahweh our Lord’.

‘How majestic is your name’; the ‘name’ stands for the person, so ‘how majestic is your name’ is a poetic way of saying ‘how majestic you are in all the earth!’ We’re going to read about Yahweh’s glory being set above the heavens, but this doesn’t mean that he is not present ‘in all the earth’ as well. Indeed, he is above heaven as well as earth; his glory is not ‘in’ the heavens, but ‘above’ it.

We humans sometimes take our pictorial language too seriously. In our minds we may have a renaissance painting of God as an old man with a long beard floating in the sky, and maybe reaching down to us so that his finger touches ours. ‘The heavens’ thus become the home of God; God is one being in the heavens, the Son is another being, the angels are others. In this picture, God is contained by the heavens, in the same way that we humans are contained by the earth.

But the reality is far different, and is well described by the writer of 1 Kings in the words of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27).

That author knew a thing or two about God! We talk about inviting God into our hearts; the reality is that it is God who holds us in his heart! ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). God plus a human being doesn’t equal two; God is sometimes called ‘the ground of being’, the one who makes all other beings possible. We cannot possibly adequately imagine him; every picture we create of him, even the picture of Christ, is a partial representation of the reality of God’s greatness and justice and love. 

2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
     you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
     to silence the enemy and the avenger.

John Goldingay points out that babes and infants in the Bible are usually on the receiving end of atrocities; they are the ones who are crying out to God for help. So the sense of this verse might be that this mighty God, who is far above anything we can conceive or imagine, is so concerned for us that he even hears the cries of the least significant of people – babes and infants. And he founds a barricade, a bulwark, to protect them from their foes, who are his foes as well, ‘the enemy and the avenger’: ‘Thus far you may come, and no further’, to use a military metaphor.

Of course, this raises questions in our minds, because we know of many instances where it is not true. Prayers for help have sometimes been answered, but often not: children have been abducted as child soldiers, or sold into sex slavery, or simply been bombed or raped or murdered, or treated cruelly in a whole host of ways. Prayers for their protection have apparently not been successful.

The reality of course is that, for a God who has apparently decided to respect the free will of human beings and allowed us to make decisions that have real consequences, it is not a simple thing to both respect that free will and also protect the innocent victims of it. I personally can’t understand how God can possibly do it. That he manages to do it at all is a mystery to me. It’s a little like a Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor goes back in time and is given the opportunity to remove a great evil, like the Daleks, from the time line of history. But he is always slow to do so, because he is afraid that their removal would also remove the good things that have happened as a consequence of their great evil. Changing time to erase all evil would be a very complicated thing, and maybe we humans would not like all the results of it. So where is the ‘bulwark’? Where exactly in the mind of God is ‘Thus far, and no further’? I don’t think we humans can know that.

Not all commentators agree with Goldingay’s interpretation, however. Rolf Jacobson prefers to see this obscure verse as ‘a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation’. He says,

But v.2bc may also reflect the creation motif, as Nahum Sarna has argued. The enemy and avenger in v.2c are best explained  as a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation. As is well known, the mythic concept of creation as a conflict was commonly held among Israel’s neighbors. Within the Old Testament, vestiges of this mythic idea are found. In Ps. 74:13-14a, 16-17, for example, the psalmist writes,

You split, by your might, the sea;
You broke the heads of the sea monster on the waters.
You shattered the heads of Leviathan;

Yours is the day, also yours is the night;
You fixed the light and the sun.
You set the boundaries of the earth;
summer and winter, you formed them.

It is particularly enlightening that both Psalms 8 and 74 refer to God’s might (‘ōz; cf. Is. 51:9, Ps. 89:11). The term is part of the vocabulary of the creation conflict myth, lending support to the view that the phrase you have established might because of your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger is another reference to the act of creation.[iii]

 

 

3       When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
            the moon and the stars that you have established;
4       what are people that you are mindful of them,
            human beings that you pay attention to them?

Rolf Jacobson comments:

What sort of ecstatic event or experience has caused the psalmist to cry out in praise? The answer is given in the first full stanza of the psalm. As v.3 indicates, the psalmist has wandered outdoors at night, gazed up at the heavenly wonders, and been moved to praise the Creator…[iv]

We have all felt this at one time or another. We’re walking out in the country at night, and we look up at the sky and see the countless numbers of stars spread out across the heavens. We see the vastness of creation, and as 21st century people we are even more aware of just how vast it is, stretching out for millions of light years, millions of galaxies, far vaster than anything we can ever imagine. We also think about the vastness of time: 14 billion years since our universe came into being through the big bang – about 4.5 billion years since our earth was formed. For the great majority of the history of our planet we humans were not even here; we arrived at 3 seconds to midnight. We are tiny in terms of our size, tiny in terms of the length of our existence as a species, and almost infinitely tiny in terms of our individual span of life.

Donald Coggan says,

In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?[v]

But I’m reminded of a well-known anecdote about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: man is the astronomer”.

Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, and eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

Commenting on the psalmist’s mention of ‘the moon and stars that you have established’, Jacobson adds:

Many in Israel and among her neighbours worshipped the heavenly bodies as divine bodies. In this pagan conception, the heavenly orbs were endowed with sentience, power, and identity. Here, they are merely objects that testify to their Creator’s glory – indeed, the psalmist belittles them by calling them the works of your fingers.[vi]

“What are people that you are mindful of them, human beings that you pay attention to them?” The author of Genesis has the answer, of course: human beings are made in the image of God and are of tremendous significance to God. And the psalmist goes on to reflect on the creation story and what it means in terms of humanity’s place in the world.

 

5       Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
           and crowned them with glory and honour.

The familiar translation of the King James Version has ‘For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour’. The NRSV footnote indicates that the Hebrew word for ‘God’ here is ‘elohim’, a plural word, which could be translated ‘God’, ‘gods’, ‘divine beings’, or ‘angels’. The note in the New Oxford Annotated Bible says, ‘God, better, ‘heavenly beings’ (Heb “elohim” [lit. “gods”]. …As the heavenly world is ruled by heavenly beings, so the earthly world, parallel to it, is ruled by earthly beings’.

So we have here an enormous leap in the writer’s imagination. In the previous verse he was stressing the smallness of human beings; compared to the vastness of God’s heavens, they are tiny creatures indeed. But now we see that God assigns them a very different position; they are still lower than the elohim, to be sure, but only ‘a little lower’, and God who has ‘set (his) glory above the heavens’ (v.1b) has also ‘crowned them (humans) with glory and honour’. The glory of God has been shared with his human creations; we are made in God’s image and we reflect God’s glory to the world around us. Small, yes, but far from insignificant!

Jacobson comments:

Far from being insignificant, human beings are but a little lower than heavenly beings. Indeed, the king of creation has made humanity into royalty who are to govern creation responsibly. What is notable about the start of the second stanza is that even though the topic is the worth of human beings, the poet stresses the actions of God. In each of the four lines that comprise verses 5-6, the subject of the verbs is God: You have made, you have crowned, you have made them to rule, and you have set. What gives human beings dignity and value is not anything that humans have done for themselves, but rather something that God has done for them. Our worth comes to us from outside of ourselves (extra nos). That which God confers upon us is the key to our status, not that which comes from inside of us.[vii]

Perhaps a Shakespeare quote is appropriate:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![viii]

 

6       You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
            you have put all things under their feet,
7       all sheep and oxen,
            and also the beasts of the field,
8       the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
            whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Here there is a conscious reflection of the language of the first creation account in Genesis chapter 1:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”’ (Genesis 1:26).

The one who naturally has dominion over the works of God’s hands is God himself; he has made everything, and everything owes its continued existence to him. Furthermore, as far as we can tell there is absolutely nothing to be gained, in the strict sense, for God to delegate this dominion to his human creations. God is quite capable of looking after everything that he has made; indeed, he could probably do a much better job of it, even if human beings had not fallen into sin! So we can only speculate that it was for our benefit, not for his, that God chose to delegate this job to us. ‘Yahweh God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15 CEB). As we humans developed our skill and ability to take care of God’s good creation, the growth would be ours; we would be growing into maturity as the mature adults God had longed for when he created us. For this reason, it seems, he shared his glory and dominion with us: so that we could grow and become all he dreamed for us to be. Jacobson comments,

Any person who has been around small children may be helped to relate to the message here. Children do not only want to be helped and provided for. Children want to help, to contribute, to be valuable to the household. They want to do things themselves. The powerful message of this psalm is that God does not merely care about human beings, but values them so much that they are given a role in God’s economy.[ix]

‘Whatever passes along the paths of the seas’ (v.8, NRSV) seems a little strange; maybe the meaning is ‘not just the fish, but all the sea creatures that travel through the sea’. It seems unlikely that human commerce on the sea is in view here; that would give the strange meaning that humans have dominion over their own sailors (and why only their sailors?). So I think it’s better to stick to a non-human meaning here: not just fish, but also whales and shellfish and everything that lives and moves in the seas.

Jacobson points out that there is an interesting special movement in the poet’s language here. Through the first six verses of the poem, the poet has included a subtle motif of vertical descent: ‘above the heavens’ (v.1b) > ‘heavens, moon and stars’ (v.3) > ‘but a little lower than heavenly beings’ (v.5a) > ‘crowned them’ (a reference to the head) (v.6a) > ‘hands’ (v.6a) > ‘feet’ (v.6b). Having come down to the earth, the poet now changes direction and moves horizontally outwa4d from human society: ‘Sheep and oxen’ > ‘beasts of the field’ > ‘birds’ > ‘fish’ > ‘whatever passes the paths of the sea’.

The first animals, sheep and oxen, are the domesticated animals that share space in the midst of human society. The trajectory described then proceeds outward until it ends in the sea, which in the ancient near east was conceived as the place of chaos, least hospitable to human society. But that is all the more reason to marvel at the assertion made here in Psalm 8: the fish of the sea and even those mysterious creatures that pass in the depths of the sea are realms of human responsibility! God has placed even these wild and unknown creatures under our care! [x]

 

9       O Yahweh, our lord,
      how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The psalm ends with a repeat. This is the first hymn of praise in the psalter; Psalm 1 is a reflection on the blessedness of the one who meditates on the Torah, and Psalms 2-7 are complaints, both individual and communal, about human injustice, oppression and sinfulness. But this wonderful psalm turns to God in praise, and addresses God directly, in the second person: ‘You’ (other psalms of praise don’t do this; they speak of God in the second person: “O come, let us sing to Yahweh’ (Psalm 95:1). CEB Study Bible says, ‘Psalm 8 is unique among the songs of praise because it addresses God directly; that is, it is actually a prayer of praise’.

Jacobson comments:

Most of the Psalter’s hymns begin with an imperative call to a congregation to praise God. Psalm 8 begins differently – with an exclamation of praise spoken directly to God. The first word out of the psalmist’s mouth is ‘LORD’ (‘Yahweh’). No other hymn begins in this fashion. To begin a psalm with God’s name is a characteristic way for a prayer for help to begin; this connection is appropriate, for as a prayer for help begins with a passionate cry for help, this psalm begins with a similarly passionate cry of praise. The import of this nuance is that Psalm 8 is not just a poem about God. Psalm 8 is a poem about God and us and about our relationship with God.[xi]

It’s also notable that the previous psalm, 7, ends with the words ‘I will give to Yahweh the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ (7:17). A person praying the psalter all the way through will make this commitment – ‘I will…sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ – and then go immediately to ‘O Yahweh our lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ (8:1).

Summary
I think that this psalm is about the glory of God and the glory of humanity. It is a prayer of praise addressed to God, who has set his glory far above earth and heaven; the entire creation, from the moon and the stars in the heavens to the lowliest babies and infants in the earth, joins in praising and worshipping this glorious God. But this glorious King of creation has invited human beings to reign with him; he has given us dominion over all living things. So far from the glory of God diminishing our own glory, it enhances it: this unimaginably great Creator has called created and called us to be his fellow-workers! We are his children, and like a good parent he involves the children in the work of the house!

So what is the psalm calling us to do? It is calling us to worship God as the creator of all, and it is calling us to be faithful in our work as stewards of God’s good creation. Science helps us in both these callings: it gives us a bigger picture of the immensity of the created world (and therefore, by extension, of the greatness of the Creator), and it also gives us a better understanding of the world and how we can care for it, as God has called us to do.

References

[i] John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone Part I, Westminster John Know Press, 2013, p.27.

[ii] Donald Coggan, Psalms 1-72 (The People’s Bible Commentary), Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998, p.38.

[iii] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Eerdmans, 2014, p.123-4.

[iv] Jacobson, p.123.

[v] Coggan, p.38.

[vi] Jacobson, p.123.

[vii] Jacobson p.124.

[viii] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

[ix] Jacobson p.126.

[x] Jacobson pp.125-126.

[xi] Jacobson, p.122.