A Sermon by Rev Chris Williams
31 July 2016 Psalm 57
Our Confidence is in God
Most times I prepare my sermon from the set lectionary readings. Today I have chosen the readings because I have something to say and it is partly personal – and reflects something of my thinking over the last few of weeks – but also something that, in talking to a number of people recently, may be helpful.
I love the Psalms. I think I love them primarily for their honesty. Often the psalmists just say it how it is – they’re honest about their feelings and their situation – even the difficult ones.
Psalm 13: How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long O Lord, indeed! How many of us could express similar sentiments I wonder? How long before I am rid of this pain and suffering? How long before I can be happy, How long before that bully is silenced, How long before we see justice and peace on the earth, How long will bad people be successful?
In our Psalm today the writer is facing disaster, and he calls those among whom he was living ‘ravenous beasts whose tongues are sharp swords’ and he was distressed by what he saw around him.
Many of the psalmists express their deepest and darkest feelings and few more than the writer of Psalm 88
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbour—
darkness is my closest friend.
A description of depression if ever there was one.
And that’s where it ends!
But I’m glad the Bible contains such passages, because it feels like we are given permission to express our reality as we see it – or, most likely, feel it.
Have you ever tried writing your own psalm – an expression of your heart to God? It can be a very rewarding exercise. I suggest just one rule: you must be honest. When was the last time you really poured out your heart to God and told him just how you feel? He won’t be shocked or surprised. ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you’ Peter tells us. Tell him your cares, your frustrations, your doubt, your anger, your fear.
Like the writer of Ps 88, that may be as far as you can go. But try it sometime and see where it takes you.
But there is hope even in these darkest of the Psalms – because all are addressed to God. Despite his seeming distance or silence, by simply railing against God – the psalmist is assuming someone is listening – with the possibility of a response. In shouting at God, he is acknowledging the fact that he is not simply shouting meaninglessly into the wind – even though at times it may feel like that.
But most of the psalms are actually more hopeful than that. While, many express concerns and fears these are often intertwined with more hopeful and positive expectations.
The Psalm we read today is one example. Here the psalmist is honest about his fears and his situation– but in the middle of his fear he constantly reminds himself and his readers that, despite his problems – his trust was in God.
But notice how many times in this psalm he begins with the words ‘I will…’ Two of the most powerful words any of us can utter.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
I cry out to God Most High,
to God, who vindicates me.
I will sing and make music.
Awake, my soul!
I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise you, Lord,
I will sing of you.
Be exalted, O God,
let your glory be over all the earth.
He knows he has a choice – drown in his despair or seek to rise up from it. Some of us need a good talking to – from ourselves! Speak to yourself – and again, if it helps, write it down: ‘I will…’
One of the most common ‘I wills’ in the Psalms is ‘I will give thanks’. There is always something, for which to give thanks. Just open your eyes and look around you and start thanking – stuff, people, creation – oh, and God. Notice the words of the psalmist today:
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies. – just two reasons to give thanks to God. Our Eucharist liturgy in a moment will give us more.
What these ‘I wills’ do, what thanksgiving does, is lift up our eyes. It stops us focussing on the problems and begin to realise there is another reality – a greater reality. Like in the films – someone wants to encourage someone who is distraught, they go up to the person and say ‘look at me’. Reluctantly, they do, and there’s a connection and restoration can begin. As we state our ‘I wills, and as we give thanks, we force our eyes on to the eyes of Jesus – and we know we are loved, we know we belong, we know we are safe.
This is why a lifestyle of praise and worship is so crucial for our spiritual wellbeing because it metaphorically keeps our heads up – how can it not, as we remind ourselves of the glory and goodness of God – as we bask in his love.
‘I will sing and make music’, the psalmist says. Do it. Literally. sing your favourite song or hymn – regardless of whether you feel like it! Many times I find myself singing a song throughout the day – a song which sustains me and keeps my head up. Actually, many of the songs I know from the past are actually straight from the Psalms.
No this is not escapism – as if the pain of human life simply becomes non-existent, but it helps us view our condition through a different lens – I hesitate to say rose-tinted. It’s actually looking at the world the right way up.
You may not have all the faith in the world but you just need enough to make a start – however tentative. Say something, write something, that does not reinforce the negatives but accentuates the positive – something that acknowledges the reality and presence of God.
I offered two further passages for you today. The second passage from Hebrews is a passage that could easily be a verse for the year – it is full of confidence and hope.
You see, our spiritual life doesn’t occur in a vacuum – it’s not ‘me and God alone-together-whatever-the-weather’ – and it’s not ‘you in your small corner and I in mine and never the twain shall meet’. We have each other. Yes, I know, too often ‘each other’ is the cause of our pain, but that shouldn’t be! We are here to support each other and build each other up – It’s a common theme in the psalms as the writers often speak of being with God’s people, worshipping together with them.
Our psalm today says:
I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples
The Hebrew passage makes a similar point:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Seriously, how can you RECEIVE SUPPORT IF YOU DON’T CONNECT IN ANY WAY – if you don’t meet? How can you give support – how can you be useful to others if you don’t connect – and I don’t mean on social media!
And finally, you may be thinking this all sounds a bit insular – it’s all about me and God and the church – but notice the words of Jesus in the gospel – As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
It’s by OUR LOVE that we are recognised as followers of Jesus – not by the depth of our knowledge, not by how big our church hall is, not by the kind of liturgy we enjoy, or the doctrines to which we hold, or the worship songs we sing, but by HOW MUCH WE LOVE EACH OTHER.
This is what people see – they see us modelling the Christ we follow and hopefully they are drawn to us and to God.
Can you see the powerful; missional dimension to our love for each other.
Some comments I’ve heard recently imply that, although it’s nice to talk so much about love, there are more important things. YOU DON’T GRADUATE FROM LOVE TO SOMETHING HIGHER OF BETTER. LOVE IS THE HEART OF IT. Yes, it’s messy, it’s costly, it’s often painful– but there’s no getting away from it. Or rather him – because we are constantly pursued by the God of love aren’t we?
This talk is partly motivated by my own experiences of recent weeks – and talking to others, I know I’m not alone. I think we are going through difficult times. I’m not going to list them, but our world is currently reeling from political, financial, religious, social and environmental problems – the church, too, is facing challenges in many ways – both the national church and here at St Mary’s and I know many of us are facing struggles in our own lives.
WE NEED TO REDISCOVER A CONFIDENCE IN OUR FAITH – A TRUST IN GOD THAT LIFTS UP OUR FACES, THAT GIVES US HOPE AND CONFIDENCE, THAT FILLS US WITH LIFE AND JOY – AND THAT ENABLES US TO LOVE – AND BE LOVED.
The psalmists, while being brutally honest about their situation and their feelings – even towards God, knew how to lift up their faces and their souls – a journey often begun by saying ‘I will..’
God isn’t finished with the church and God isn’t finished with any one of us. And, more than ever, we need each other. And when we meet we need to ‘encourage one another, to consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.’