Rev'd Susan’s sermons: Psalms
These extracts are from the first sermon in a series about the psalms of David (150 in all), given in Harston Church in summer 2021. This sermon centred on Psalms 1 and 2.
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away… The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury’ ...Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling; kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.
The Psalms are a wonderful treasury - a little like Shakespeare, always relevant, in any time, because they are written by human beings and speak to us in our humanity. They bring the deepest human longings; they express the core human tensions and struggles, all the human emotions - sometimes embarrassingly so for us in our day, for the Psalms tend to say it like it is! They are absolutely honest and real from the place in which the writers found themselves. I am guessing they were written with no purpose other than the ultimate human need for expression. We are the creatures of language, and, crucially, creatures needing to reach up to a caring Creator, and so we communicate.
In the weeks leading from Easter to Pentecost we follow the disciples as they became the first Christian Church. It was a confusing time for them, quite unexpected. The psalms would have been a rock to ground these men and women in a time of extraordinary upheaval. They are the story of the people of God; an account of a particular part of their history, and certainly the story of their changing fortunes. They are also an encounter with the loving presence of God, about how we, as human beings, are grounded in God, which is in Love.
The psalms are story and lyrical poetry, not logical treatises. The last thing on the disciples mind at this stage was logic, because their whole world, their grasp on the material and the spiritual had been thrown up in the air and they were not quite sure how it was going to land! But the disciples needed love; they needed an understanding of the faithfulness of God, in changing times. And so, at the moment, I believe, do we…
For Jews today, the Psalms are a fascinating combination of the official theology of Judaism; political rhetoric from days gone by: songs of solace and inspiration for individuals and communities, and even for the nation of Israel, because they are songs of praise and expressions of lament in difficult times. They are a basis for prayer, and they are still used throughout a Jewish person’s daily life. They are recited preceding the morning service, the Shabbat Friday night service, when taking the scroll of the day for public reading in the synagogue, and in a weekly cycle of psalms is contained in the prayer book. They are recited on the occasion of festivals; they are also used when individuals are sick, and on specific occasions by individuals or groups to express praise, thanksgiving, regret or supplication…
The individual Psalms bring us firstly before God, and then in touch with ourselves. They were taken into the practice of the early church, whose members continued in the habit of reciting them. The Desert Fathers took them into the desert and passed on the tradition to their disciples. The Monastic tradition incorporated the psalms into their daily, seven-times office of worship, pausing their activities in order to pray and recite and sing them. The Christian Church liturgy has always included a cycle of psalms, as daily readings/songs and liturgical chants. The Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship includes the whole of the book of psalms: they are a bedrock of worship and encounter with the Living God.
You could argue that we have become lazy and haphazard in relation to the Psalms. We no longer say the daily office, we don’t come to church every day. You could say we have simply re-arranged our way of doing things and that now we realise we can pray and read privately as individuals in our homes…. But, with the loss of daily worship, we have lost a daily hold on the psalms as a community, although the lectionary does give us one.
Psalms 1 and 2 are our Psalms for today, and they are a prologue to the rest. Psalm 1 tells us about ourselves, and introduces the ‘law of the Lord’. We are encouraged to’ delight in the law of the Lord, and on his law meditate day and night.’ Then we are to delight, not to pay lip service, but to ensure that this law is written in our hearts.
Psalm 2 speaks in no uncertain terms of an aspect of Jesus that we rarely dwell on, his Sovereignty: ‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill… You are my son; today I have begotten you’. In the presence of this Ruler, who has secured our salvation we might adopt an attitude of scorn, questioning Jesus’s relevance to us today…. But we would do so to our own destruction, for Jesus is THE Sovereign ruler… *
I can see King David, in his younger days as a shepherd boy, sitting on one of the hills above the plain. As he keeps an eye on the flock, perhaps he sees across the vast expanse of land, the dust of horses’ hooves of a foreign army power approaching another of the kingdom boundaries. And he feels like God looking down on the peoples of the earth, and how observing their own lived-out narratives are simply a play on the stage of the earth…
I am challenged by my lack of knowledge of the Psalms. I know some of them; I know many random phrases and some whole psalms… but they are not on the tip of my tongue as they would have been for Jesus. However we should not be-little ourselves because of our lack of knowledge. If we really get hold of the resources that God has given us, then we can thrive’. 'Happy are those whose delight is in the law of the Lord. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.’ If all the paths that we walk are rooted and grounded in the good things of God, then we will be rooted and grounded like a tree planted by water.