Friday, 14 September 2012

3 reflections on Psalm 19


by Peter Lockhart

1 The heavens are telling the glory of God

Whenever I read the beginning of Psalm 19 I hear a sense of the joy of creation and the echoes of people who have shared their feeling of closeness to God in nature; whether it be in the mountains, or the bush or by the sea. Yet, as I hear this joy and sense of closeness to God I am also reminded of John Calvin's words written almost 500 years ago:

“But although the Lord represents both himself and his everlasting Kingdom in the mirror of his works with very great clarity, such is our stupidity that we grow increasingly dull toward so manifest testimonies, and they flow away without profiting us.” Calvin Institutes I.V.11

Now while environmental concern was not what was driving Calvin on this particular point it leads me into wondering whether not only does our inability to find faith of any true substance in our encounters with God in nature that it also does not 'profit' nature itself when we fail to make the connection.

Any of us can easily be lost in our wonder of creation, even encounter God in the moment and a sense of God's presence in the scene before us, yet how quickly this moment fades overcome by our perceive pressures and drudgery in everyday life. We are deaf to the muted voice found in the song of creation.

The encounter does not change us as it ought in our relationship with God nor in understanding of what it means to see stewards of God's creation - a task I believe we are failing miserably at.

In God's choice to turn towards the world in and through Jesus Christ the promise of the reconciliation of all things in him is a promise not for the destruction of the creation but a renewal of it. As followers of Jesus and having already been drawn into this coming hope I wonder whether we might begin to hear differently these words of Psalm 19.

Can we hear not simply the telling of the glory of God but the telling of the coming renewal of all things? Can we hear a call to Christian faithfulness being expressed in not only our response to God and each other but also to voice of God's glory - this wondrous world in which we live!

2 More to be desired... really?

On Q&A last week Catherine Deveny launched numerous attacks on the church and Christianity in general, culminating in this tirade:

"When you actually look at the Bible, which is - that's the only text that I’m - like, religious text that I'm really familiar with, it is basically social engineering embedded in fairytales and horror stories which is just chock full of homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division and most people haven’t even read it. It has been written by 44 - you know, 60 people, I think, 44 chapters, you know, three different languages over thousands of years, thousands of different interpretations and despite all of those different interpretations, the only thing they can all agree on is homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division."

Despite Deveny's Biblical illiteracy and obvious bias her opinion is certainly not a lone one and as much as might wish to critique the proponents of atheism (so-called new or otherwise) there can be little disagreement with the idea that many of the Biblical texts and laws are difficult, and can be even more difficult to actually live out as A.J.Jacobs found ("The Year of Living Biblically").

With all this context in mind we come with some caution to reflect on the second movement of Psalm 19 which climaxes with an expressed desire for the law of the Lord:

"The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb."

Do we really long for God's law as the Psalm describes, all of it, some of it, the anachronistic bits, the reinterpreted bits, the filtered through Christ's life bits? How do we reconcile the equality we have in Christ described by Paul with laws which are so quickly turned into self righteousness and judgement of others?

What does the Psalmist long for?

Whilst I find myself wanting to have such a deep desire God's ways - a desire greater than gold and drippings of the honeycomb - honesty is more prudent. Maybe, it is not so much that I have a deep longing for the law of the Lord, rather than I long to make sense of the disparity of the texts and experiences of Christians as I seek to live out my faith. And, I desire to understand being part of this human race that has so often failed, with or without god or gods, to live loving one another and with proper regard for this wondrous world in which we find ourselves living. I long for God to help me understand and to live well. What do you long for?

3 The words of my mouth

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

A few years ago I started using a paraphrase of these words at the beginning of my sermons as a way of seeking to focus myself and the congregation on the delivery and reception of the sermon. In a sense I have seen it as encouraging to think of the sermon as a sacred space for sacred listening. Together we listen for Jesus words to us.

Yet these words are also a reference to the sacred space which each of us inhabit as people. God has chosen us and set us apart to be his Holy people, to articulate the praise of the universe to God. As Psalm 19 says “the heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

We have the immense privilege of giving voice to that praise. A privilege not restricted to holy moments or times that we set apart but in every moment of our existence – our very lives as human beings are sacred signs of God’s love.

To put this in a practical sense I wonder what it would be like to pray the prayer I prayed at the beginning of the sermon in other settings to focus us on the purpose of our existence.

What if just before you begin to discipline your child you stopped and prayed: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

What if just before you entered a meeting at work you prayed: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

What if just before you visited your elderly mother suffering from dementia you prayed: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

What if as you sit wondering whether your children will ring you or visit you this weekend you prayed: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

If you reflect on all of the things you do during the week, all of your interactions, what would it mean to realise that in each moment you are under the scrutiny of the one who made you and who has made your life a sign and symbol of his love for others.

I know when I think about this the challenge is daunting, there are times that I say and what I do not seem to reflect this purpose and intent for my life. The words of my mouth and meditations of my heart are at times not even acceptable to the standards I set for myself let alone acceptable to what I believe would be acceptable to God.

There is a corruption in the sacred space that is my existence. I am out of step with my maker. We are all out of step with our maker. Things have awry, askew, they have become distorted and setting things right is a problem.

This problem is not a new problem but the same problem experience by the Israelites as God’s people. Individually and collectively they knew they had problems and God provided systems for them to deal with those problems. These solutions involved sacrificing animals and making offerings at the Temple.

For the Jewish people God resided in the Temple and they went to meet there. At the times of the great festival people would travel from far and wide to come and make such offerings and seek reconciliation with God.

In a practical solution to the problem of bringing animals appropriate for such sacrifices people had effectively set up shop in the Temple courtyard to help people make their offering. Here animals were sold and money changers change the Roman coin for Temple currency. The Roman coin bore the image of Caesar who was considered to be a God and therefore the coins were idolatrous items. A practical solution was provided for people so that they could worship and offer sacrifices.

But just as individually our lives our askew the practice of buying and selling and changing money was corrupted by human greed and fallibility. The collective Holy Space was also tainted and the witness and worship stunted.

When Jesus comes driving out the animals and turning over tables he was not simply raising questions about the corruption within the walls of the Temple or the structures of the religion that allowed people to be mislead but also in the lives of individual people. A new way of reconciliation was needed: God’s love and mercy could not be bought and sold!

When challenged on this Jesus says such a strange and wonderful thing: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The temple that he was referring to, we are told by John, was the Temple of Jesus own body.

Here is the good news. In Jesus own body humanity meets God, and God meets humanity. In Jesus’ very own body we are reconciled with God. As Paul later wrote our lives are hidden in Christ. The personal sacred space and the communal sacred space find a new location.

We remember this in our worship as we worship the Father in the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even now as we meet Jesus offers prayers and praises to God on our behalf.

The quality of our worship is not what makes us right with God. We do not have to sing in tune. Our prayers do not have to be absolutely theologically correct. The sermons can only represent the limitations of one person’s thoughts and ideas. And so on. Yet in the midst of all of this, God is at work in and through the Holy Spirit. Our paltry offerings are taken into the worship of the Son and he pours out upon us the Spirit enlivening us with the good news of the grace and mercy of God.

This means as I pray the prayer before a sermon I do so not because I believe I will be saying what God wants you to do and declaring his truth but precisely because of my inadequacy to do so. I describe my sermons as a different heresy I prepare each week trusting that despite this in God’s grace the good news will be heard.

Drawn into the sacred space of Jesus’ life through the power of the Holy Spirit we are set free again to live our imperfect lives witnessing to that love and mercy we have encountered.

We do so together as a congregation: collectively, communally sharing in God’s love together whilst, at one and the same time, aware that there are still tables needing to overturned in the way we do things as congregations. Yet we pray that despite our weakness that “the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart are acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.”

And we also witness personally from the midst of what can only ever be a distorted and stunted faith which but sees through a glass darkly. And so we make our prayer in each moment: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

I want to encourage you in the week ahead to deliberately say these words in situations they seem to least apply and consider the wonder of the grace of God as you engage with the conversation with your butcher, in the parent teacher interview, as you speak to your neighbour, or the telemarketer that has interrupted your dinner.

Let us pray that in each moment of our lives this prayer may be true and that we might become an icon of God’s grace; that Gods’ loving mercy might shine forth out of the sacred space of our connection with Jesus who is our Lord and saviour. Amen.

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