10th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 31.07.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today marks the end of our sermon series on the Old Testament, and we finish with the Psalms. The Psalms are an extraordinary collection of 150 songs and hymns, written over a period of 500 years. They formed the basis of the people of Israel’s worship. Some were written for special occasions – the coronations of kings, or for pilgrims to sing as they ascended the hill to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices. Some were written to express pure delight and thanksgiving at the goodness of God – Psalm 150 was one of those – whilst others were written to express deep sadness for sin (David’s Psalm 51 is one of those). When the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem after their traumatic exile in Babylon, it was to these songs that they turned to express themselves in corporate worship and private prayer.
The most common form of Psalm was the lament. Many of the psalms were written whilst the people of Israel were in exile, far from their homeland, and many pick up this theme, including Psalm 42, the one we heard read this morning, and one we looked at a few months ago in Soul Space.
It starts “as the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you O Lord.” I wonder if any of you have ever been so dehydrated that you were desperate for a drink? I remember as a child walking in France. My father insisted on taking just “iron rations” – a handful of nuts and raisins and a small bottle of water between the five of us. Halfway through the day, which turned out to be blisteringly hot, we were totally parched, almost delirious, desperate for a drink. We wandered off route to find a farm and plead a drink in our pigeon French. I learnt that day what it meant to pant for water.
Our psalm starts with an incredibly arresting image, a beautiful, graceful female deer desperate, panting for water. In a similar way, so the writer of this psalm is desperate, longing for God: “My soul longs for God.” The psalmist is in a desperate place. He is weeping tears day and night; he is in physical pain; he is mocked, scorned and oppressed by his enemies; and worst of all, he is feeling forsaken, forgotten by God.
And from this place, we get an extraordinary outpouring of honesty. There is something raw, unadulterated in the words of this Psalm. They haven’t been softened up, refined, made acceptable. Indeed, the psalmist seems to be accusing God of neglect: “Why have you forgotten me?”
And this Psalm is not alone. There are over 60 psalms like it, 40% of the whole hymnbook. Psalms that express anger, frustration, pain, hurt, struggles, disappointments. Some speaking for individuals, some for an entire nation.
Life in exile was hard for the people of Israel, and these psalms helped to root their worship in the realities of daily life. They gave people a language, a vehicle, to express the depth of their feelings, their rawness and their hurt. As Athanasius (a 4th century Christian) put it: “Whilst most Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us.”
I confess that I find that level of honesty and rawness about my feelings challenging. I grew up in a home where I never saw my parents argue. They did have disagreements and arguments, but never in front of us children. It led to a wonderfully stable home. But it meant that when I got married and Sarah and I had the occasional argument I thought at first our marriage was falling apart. But then I realised that true love, true trust, meant being open about one’s raw emotions, knowing that the other person would still love you and embrace you.
In fact, as a wise older Christian put it to me: “Our worst behaviour/ our rawest emotions are often reserved for those who love us the most, because they are the only ones who we really trust to still keep loving us and forgiving us afterwards.”
And so it says something extraordinary about Israel’s God, our God, that when this hymnbook of Psalms was compiled, so many of them should contain such raw emotions. Whilst other religions of the day were desperate to avoid language that might offend their particular deity, the people of Israel had no such fears. For here is a God that you can be honest with, who you can tell “Its not fair”, who you can shout at “why have you forgotten me?”, who you can express your deepest doubts to.
Why? Because there is no doubting his love, his faithfulness, his forgiveness. As the Psalmist himself says, “You are my rock”, the one in whom I can trust and rely.
Take time during this service, this week, to be open and honest with God, to open up your heart fully to him.
A few years ago I encountered one of my regular reading blocks. I had just finished a book a few months earlier but couldn’t find motivation or inspiration to pick up something new. So I returned to a book I fondly remembered from my teenage years, whose characters and scenes I could still vividly recall. However, I gave up after just a few pages. What had been so vibrant then, now felt dull. I realised it was not the book. It was me. I was just in a different place.
The writer of Psalm 42 also hankers after past experiences. Here he is on Mount Mizar (whether literally or metaphorically – with the Psalms you can’t always tell, nor does it matter). Mount Mizar is the furthest place north, and the furthest place from Jerusalem you can possibly be, and still be in Israel. And here he is longing to be in Jerusalem. “I remember,” he says, “how I used to lead the processions up to the Temple, how we used to sing, dance, celebrate.” But life has changed. Things have moved on. And he is left bereft and lost.
You may be able to think of times in your own life which were like that Jerusalem experience. Maybe you are enjoying it now. Times when faith was alive and vibrant, when you knew God’s presence guiding you, when prayer came readily and easily. But for whatever reason, things have changed. You stand on Mt Mizar, not in Jerusalem
Maybe its the busyness of work or the demands of age that have drained you of the energy and enthusiasm that were in the past such an important catalyst for worship. Maybe its a change in one’s view of life, shaped by bereavements, disappointments, or new experiences and relationships. We end up in Mt Mizar still longing for Jerusalem. With the Psalmist, we may exclaim, “My soul is downcast within me.”
But the Psalmist’s response is not just honesty. It is a desire to meet with God in this new place, even if its a place not of his choosing. “Therefore I will remember you from the Land of the Jordan – from Mount Mizar”, he asserts. On Mt Mizar the waters of the Jordan burst forth from the ground in a roar of waterfalls. And its in that place that “deep calls to deep”. For the Psalmist, as for us, there is a need to discover God where we are, not where we long to be.
Like the Psalmist, like the people of Israel, we may not be in the place where we would like to be – whether health-wise, job-wise, family-wise, church-wise – but like them, we can still discover God where we are, if we are prepared to look.
Which takes us to the wonderful refrain of this Psalm, spoken at the middle and end: “Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.”
There are some days when praise comes easily. But there are other times when it comes hard. When we feel hurt, let down, in pain, oppressed, attacked, forgotten by God, assaulted by doubts, worn out by worry or grief. And in those times it is good to repeat these words:
“Put your hope in God” – the God who is our rock, the God who loves us beyond all imagining
“For I will yet praise him” – I will choose to worship, whether I feel like it or not, whether my circumstances are what I would choose or not
“my saviour and my God”
What remarkable and inspiring words to finish our Psalm, indeed to finish this series on the Old Testament. May they be our prayer this coming week.