A sermon on Psalm 121 preached at Cromwell College UQ
As you came into the Chapel this morning, if you looked back, you may have seen the Cromwell College logo on the end of the dining hall. I can remember on more than one occasion looking up to that symbol during my years as a resident here at Cromwell.
Now as I prepared for today’s service the image of the Rampant Lion got me thinking about Oliver Cromwell, the so called Lord Protector. The person the College is named after. It was this that led me to the sermon theme, “Rampant Lions: Confusing Gods”.
But a sermon is not a history lesson but as I said before is an opportunity to reflect on God speaking to us through the words of scripture. So, as I was looking at the readings set down for the day, I kept coming back to Psalm 121 and its very first line:
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
This line has some powerful ancient imagery associated with it.
This Psalm is one of a group of the Psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent. What this means is that, this Psalm is one of a group of Psalms that were sung or recited, as the Jewish people travelled to Jerusalem for the festivals at the temple: maybe, Yom Kippur or Pentecost. They were sung to prepare people’s hearts and minds for the religious event in Jerusalem.
The reason this first line of the Psalm comes as a question is not surprisingly because that is exactly what it is: from where will my help come?
Anyone who has travelled through southern Europe and the Middle East may have noticed what is on many hills in those regions.
Temples! There are temples to the Greco-Roman Gods to Mars and to Venus, to Aphrodite, to Zeus and to Apollo and shrines to other minor deities. You can imagine the dusty travellers literally looking to the hills, seeing the plethora of belief systems of gods on offer: I lift my eyes to the hills – and there is Apollo and there is Zeus! ‘From where will my help come?’ they ask. In response to the alternatives they are reminded of their faith and their history. Will my help come from any of these no, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
This statement is loaded in its spiritual and theological meaning. The Hebrew people told a different story about creation to other ancient cultures. They wrote down their story during the time of the Babylonian captivity, over 600 years before Christ. It is a story that stands in contrast to other ancient world views about a single unoriginated God who made everything. It seems logical somewhere back there is one single coherent cause of all things, an ultimate truth: God.
This is the God in whom the pilgrims put their faith and it is the same God we come to worship on this day. It is also the same God made more fully know and present in the world by Jesus.
Yet, despite this allegiance to the creator of all things how we think about that God and how we might follow that God are certainly questions which are up in the air. As human beings there is always a limit to our comprehension of god and the world we live in, so it is that more often than not our portrayal of God is unhelpful.
To given an example of this let me return to Oliver Cromwell and his symbol, the rampant lion. What kind of God is found in the legacy of Cromwell?
Cromwell was a puritan and a devout man: he opposed the celebration of Christmas; he shut down theatres; he was deeply concerned about drinking; he prayed fervently; and, he certainly had a sense he had been called by God to what he was doing.
Yet the rampant lion reveals something of his understanding of God, the creator of all things, as a God who supported violence and war. Cromwell was involved in the English Civil of the mid 1600s, where he rose through the ranks to become a leader. He was involved in decision to execute the King, Charles I and he led campaigns in Ireland and Scotland.
The negative impact of his life is still felt today. Just the other night I was down at the school chatting about my weekend with a couple of parents who just happen to Irish, so I mentioned Oliver Cromwell. Immediately, the both declared “To Hell or to Connaught” and went on to explain how hated Cromwell was in Ireland and how he is still held responsible for much the angst and anger of the Irish against the English. Almost, 400 years later this negative legacy holds.
Just to fill in a tiny glimpse of his Irish campaign Cromwell led the English army into Ireland to subdue the Irish, especially the Catholics. It is reported at the siege of Drogheda and of Wexford his army committed massacres killing somewhere around 6000 people. Among those killed at Wexford were many women and children.
After Drogehda Cromwell famously said, “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches.”
When we look to the hills, as the Psalmist invites us to, and see the alternatives and when we are presented with Christian history in which we encounter such images of people that followed God like Cromwell what do we do?
Is this the God of whom the pilgrims sang? A God that condones violence and bloodshed and even encourages it? A God who could very well be represented by a rampant lion? After all Psalm 137 finishes with these disturbing words:
“O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!”
If this is the God we believe in, the God that Cromwell believed justified the violence of his troop’s actions, then I wonder what hope there is for the church. And I am little surprised when most of my contemporaries look to the hills and see other options as far more palatable. Not so much other Gods but other choices about the worldview they well adopt.
It is little wonder that the inheritors of the work of thinkers like d’Holbeck and Marx and Nietzsche people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and A C Grayling have so great an appeal.
The conundrum that I am speaking of, which we are participants in, might be more simply expressed in the fact that our congregation has too many vacant seats on a Sunday and that chapels like this one are rarely used for worship. Churches are closing in Australia and only around 6-7% of Australians actively engage their faith by involvement in regular worship.
Can we here still look to the hills and choose to put our trust in the Lord who made heaven and earth? I think the answer is yes and I believe the door has been left open even by the new atheists to look to the creator of heaven and earth.
A few years back atheists in England took out advertising on buses in England. On the bus are the words, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” ironically, by saying ‘probably’ ‘ they leave the room for the possibility that there might still be a God.
The answer is yes but I also believe it is an answer which comes with humility. We must admit that there are times we do not know and cannot express the fullness of our creator and, more than that, that through our history misinterpreting this God has led to much heartache and pain. we need to listen carefully to the story of this God and shaping our understanding of the creator of all things is the story of Jesus. The appearance of Jesus in our human history and in our lives is undoubtedly a touchstone for us.
In the few verses I read from the New Testament we heard what for many is a well know phrase in the words of John 3:16. It is a phrase grounded in this God’s love by sending Jesus into the world and we are told that this occurs because: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The creator’s intention, the one to whom we look, is a God not interested in condemnation, and might I dare to suggest punishment and violence against others, but in salvation. This God is about all people living in the fullness of life and in the gift of community within the creation. In Jesus there is a vision and an encounter with the maker of all things which gives us hope because we believe, ‘in him all things in heaven and on earth and have been reconciled’. This is a message of hope for everyone.
The other day I was talking with the young woman who was making my coffee at Briki. Many of the congregation know of my regular visits across the road for my caffeine hit! She asked about the Commencement Service for the University that we just had and she wondered whether people her age were interested in religion.
My answer was to ask her did she think her friends were interested in questions like; where does the world come from, or how should people behave, or what is the meaning and purpose life. Of course she answered yes for herself and she admitted other young people think about these questions too. These are spiritual questions and I shared that for me the church is a place in which we explore these very questions.
She was right to point out the many different places people can explore these questions. When people look to the hills there are many options but for me logically there can only be one creator of all things. And, for me, the church and its faith are a place in which the exploration of who that creator is takes places. More than that, it is the place in which we encounter the story of that creator walking among us in the man Jesus from Nazareth.
It is this story that shapes our hope and helps us as we explore the ambiguous images of God handed down to us by Christians through the centuries. Oliver Cromwell believed in God and believed he was called by God to do what he did. His faith was deep but looking back I am deeply troubled by the way he understood that God. And maybe this is a reminder all of us only see a glimpse of the truth.
But as I come to the end of this sermon with the confused images of God we have encountered I am also reminded of a scene from the “Life of Brian” where the People’s Front of Judea are meeting and asking what have the Romans ever given us: clean water, sanitation, roads, education, peace...
Despite the ambiguities of Christian history when we ask what the church has ever done for us, a bit like the skit, we might begin to expand our vision and see how the story of God has been active: a sense of community, universities, scientific methodologies, schools, hospitals, social welfare, spirituality, a framework for our lives and the list goes on.
I believe this is good news for any person any person young or old and worthy of sharing in their search for meaning. Yes, there are many choices but lurking behind them all is a single story, a single truth. It is a truth revealed in ancient words:
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
And sent his son among us not to condemn the world,
But in order that the world might be saved through him.