13th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 15.09.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Pick up your green hymn book and flick through it. Have you ever wondered how it got put together – why we have this particular selection of songs and hymns. Over the centuries hundreds of thousands of hymns and songs have been written, but why have we got these particular ones?
Its because a group of people sat down and began to compile a list. What were the hymns and songs that were sung a lot in churches already? Well, those need to be included. What seasons of the year – Christmas and Easter for example – do we need to make sure are covered? Are their hymns and songs that resonate with our current times, or that articulate particular concerns – those need to be included too.
And not all the hymns in here were written for the same purpose. Amazing Grace was written by a former slave trader as a personal testimony to God’s work in his life. Beauty for Brokenness was written by a modern song-writer, Graham Kendrick, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Christian international aid agency Tearfund; Eternal Father, strong to save was written by a 19th century school-teacher for a pupil who was about to set sail for America.
It can be helpful to think of the book of Psalms as a hymnbook, a hymnbook compiled by those responsible for worship in the new Temple that had been built after the people of Israel had returned from exile in Babylon. At a time of national re-building, at a time when the people of God were asking exactly what it meant to be his people and how to love and worship him, 150 hymns and psalms were brought together to aid with worship.
Some of the psalms they chose, like Psalm 80, were already hundreds of years old, but their themes still continued to resonate. Other psalms had been written for specific occasions, for example the coronation of a king, but now were invested with a deeper meaning. Some psalms chosen were incredibly personal.
But all of them were chosen because they had been tested over years of experience and found to help inspire people in their prayers and worship. Whilst most of the rest of the Bible speaks to us (they are primarily God’s words to us), the Psalms are different: they speak for us (they are our words, inspired by God, to Him). They act as our prayer book and our hymn book.
Which makes the next thing about the Psalms all the more remarkable: over a third of all the Psalms are what are called psalms of lament – in other words, psalms that express struggles, suffering or disappointments, that express anger with God, that are prompted by personal difficulties, such as being falsely accused by others, or illness, or by national difficulties such as war and famine. At the heart of the people’s worship it was deemed crucial to have songs that expressed not just praise, but struggle, disappointment, even complaint. We’re going to look at one of those Psalms – Psalm 80 – to find out why.
Psalm 80 was written in Jerusalem at a time of rising fear and anxiety. The golden years of Kings David and Solomon were long over (a hundred years or more in the past). Israel was now too separate kingdoms, with the larger part in the north, and Jerusalem in the south. The Psalmist is writing as he is witnessing the military invasion and total destruction of the northern neighbour just a few miles to the north by the greatest and most feared super-power of the day. Undoubtedly their nation will be next. The nearest equivalent for us would be the Nazi invasion of France in the Second World War – some of you here would have been alive close enough to those events to know the fear and anxiety that caused. Today, its the people of Syria, Ukraine, of the Burmese minority groups, who know the fear of military forces looking to invade and destroy.
We may not know that fear, but we live in a different state of national turmoil, where the old rules of politics no longer apply, and where the tone of our discourse is becoming increasingly polarised and aggressive. What do we do with the fear, the anxiety, the anger, the frustrations that may be being stirred up in us?
It may not be our political situation but other things that may be stirring up in us a tumult of emotions – maybe relationships at work or at home that are falling apart, or may be health concerns that we are struggling to get addressed, or financial worries. Like those people of Israel, looking over the border, we may be experiencing anxiety, fear, anger. How do we bring these situations, and our feelings about them, to God in prayer. Psalm 80 begins to help.
The Psalmist, in the midst of crisis, begins by addressing God for who he is. He cries out “Hear us, O Shepherd, you who lead us like a flock.” Later, he describes God as a gardener who lovingly tends a vine. In other words, he reminds himself that he is praying to a God whose very character is to love and protect, like a shepherd caring for his sheep or a gardener his vine. In coming into God’s presence, he reminds himself that this is the God into whose presence he comes. Not some aloof, disengaged, uncaring God, but a God who loves and cares.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he began his prayer with the words: “Our Father, who is in heaven, holy is your name.” In other words reminding ourselves of who God is: holy, lord of heaven and earth and yet also our loving father. It makes all the difference to know who we are praying to.
Let me put it a different way. Before I became a vicar, I worked for twenty years for a large charity. There was a world of difference between griping about an issue to a colleague who I knew couldn’t change anything but would just concur with my grumbles and being in a one-on-one meeting with the Chief Executive who would listen attentively and implement changes if convinced. My hopes and expectations were totally different, but so was how I expressed things and what I asked for too.
The point is that when we pray we need to take time to think about the names with which we address God. They are not to be some mantra that just slip off the tongue without thought. Rather, when we pray “Father” or “Almighty God” or “Lord Jesus” do we give ourselves time to think what those words mean? How may that then shape the rest of our prayer?
The second thing about the psalmist’s prayer is that he continues with total honesty. He does not hold back. He cries out: “How long will our prayers remain unanswered? how long will we weep? how long will you let us be mocked by our enemies?” He blames God for their terrible predicament: “why have you fed us with the bread of tears, why have you broken down our walls?” This level of complaint is not unusual in the psalms – many are like that. But why should this be a model for us? Surely God expects obedience from us, not complaint?
Let’s put it this way. If you have a daughter or a son, whether a child or an adult, and you feel they are cross with you or angry about something you have done, you want them to come out and say it, so you can sort it out. It may not be particularly pleasant or comfortable, but you know that the alternative is that the issue will continue to fester and cause an underlying rift in your relationship.
Well, that is how God wants us to be with him. He already knows how we are feeling, but he wants us to express it, to tell him, to be honest about it, so that we can begin to give him the permission to work in our lives.
If you are seething about Brexit, or cross about yet another delay to seeing the hospital consultant, or anxious about work, we are to tell him. Open up and be honest.
To be honest, I find that difficult. I avoid saying difficult things at times because I don’t want to offend or upset, and I have the same attitude towards God. But God already knows how I feel. He knows when I’m disappointed with how something’s gone, or when I’m embarrassed by a mistake I’ve made or feel hurt or irritated by a comment someone makes. He just wants me to tell him, to be open and honest. Some people here are really good at doing that in their prayers – we need to learn from you.
Today, for some of us, the message of the psalms is about thinking once again about how we address God, the names we give him, and how those can alter how we approach our prayers. For others of us, the message may be about how we can grow in honesty in our prayers, daring to complain before God, knowing he is big and loving enough to delight in our honesty.
And finally, there is a beautiful verse that gets repeated three times in this psalm: “make your face shine upon us that we may be saved.” Our struggles can often feel like being in darkness. But God’s light and love can dispel the gloom and bring us hope. And as the psalmist repeats this line, his sense of God’s greatness grow from firstly “O God” to then “O God Almighty” to at the end, “O Lord God Almighty”. As he prays, so his confidence in who God is grows too. The more we pray, the more we come to be able to place trust in him.
Whatever our situation, may the face of our Lord God Almighty, shine upon us today. Amen.