Sunday 5 July 2015 (Year A, Narrative Lectionary)
Psalm 146 (read responsively: Common Worship version (CH4 102)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
So today is the last of our sermons series on the Psalms. And you may have noticed today that I’ve chosen all Psalms as our praise items today. You may remember that last Sunday, I mentioned various hymns which were based on the Psalms. So we’re singing some of those today.
Let us with a gladsome mind is a version Psalm 136 by one of the greatest of English poets (thought by some to be second only to Shakespeare) John Milton. It’s said that Milton was just fifteen when he wrote this poem. Later he was much involved in politics, taking a role in Oliver Cromwell’s government after the English Civil War. Indeed, one verse usually omitted nowadays (though it is based on the Psalm) reads:
O let us his praises tell,
That doth the wrathful tyrants quell.
However, admiration for his fame meant that this pronounced republican was left unpunished when the royalist returned to power- fortunately for English literature, for it was in his retirement that he produced Paradise Lost, one of the great poems of the English language.
Another classic Christian hymn based on a Psalm is O God our help in ages past, words based on Psalm 90 by Isaac Watts (born 1674, died 1748). Watts was a dissenter, that is, not a member of the Church of England- in an age when that mattered. However, as one writer puts it, ‘His tolerant spirit, his liberal views and above all his deservedly popular hymns, did much to sweeten relations between Anglicans and Dissenters’. Watts is one of the greats of English hymn writing. Other hymns by him still sung today include From all that dwell below the skies, Jesus shall reign where’er the sun, When I survey the wondrous cross, Blest be the everlasting God, and I’m not ashamed to own my Lord. Like all the best classic hymns, his are steeped in Biblical imagery and ideas.
You are before me, Lord, you are behind, a beautiful paraphrase of Psalm 139, comes from Scotland in the twentieth century. The author, Ian Pitt-Watson, was a musically gifted son of the manse, who himself became a noted preacher, serving in parishes including New Kilpatrick in Bearsden and becoming a professor Aberdeen University and in California. This hymn first appeared in a Church of Scotland hymnbook in 1973, and is by now well on its way to becoming a classic, rich as it is in imagery which speaks of God’s constant presence.
At the end of today’s service I’ll be introducing you, I think, to a new tune (although my wife tells me that the St Stephen’s Choir have sung it before) to accompany John Bell’s hymn Glory to God above! The name of the tune is Wellington Hall, where no doubt it was first tried out at some point in the 1990s. For the Wellington Church is just across the road from Glasgow University, and it has a fine big Victorian Hall to suit a fine big Victorian church. Some of you will have been in the Wellington Church, perhaps attending the funeral of my predecessor, the late Colin Anderson, who was a member of that congregation in his retirement. This hymn sounds, I think, like a fine old Victorian hymn- as brash and confident as, say, Arthur Sullivan’s tune for Onward Christian Soldiers. I think Glory to God above! deserves to be a classic, for its confident tune fits the words from Psalm 148 very well. However, only time will tell!
All of which is, once more, a reminder that the Psalms have always, and continue to, inspire the worship and praise of the Church. More than two millennia ago, someone wrote the first words of what we now know as Psalm 96: ‘O sing to the Lord a new song’. The Psalms are old songs now, but they seem to have the capacity to be ever new. At St Stephen’s last week I wondered whether this was because they are so very human. These are poems and hymns addressed to God, human words expressing deep feelings with which we can all identify. So the words of the men and women who wrote the Psalms become our words for speaking to and singing to God as well. Yet they also become a means for God to speak to us. We hear God’s word in these words, for they tell us so much about God, who God is, what God is like, what God can mean to those who believe.
We are not only singing Psalms together today- we said one together. The way that we did this, with what is a kind of call and response- leader and congregation taking one verse each- is less common in our tradition, but widespread in other parts of the church. We read Psalm 146, which begins and ends with a special word, one of the few words of Hebrew we are all familiar with: Alleluia.
Alleluia (or Hallelujah in English as well) is a word which appears in the Book of Psalms, but always as an introduction or at the end of a Psalm- suggesting that it was a kind of chorus, perhaps a chant sung by the choir in the Jerusalem Temple, or a response by the congregation to the Psalm. Alleluia sums up what we are about when we worship, for Alleluia in Hebrew means ‘Praise ye the Lord’ (it’s what’s called in grammar an imperative- ‘you are commanded to praise the Lord’).
We sung two musical settings today: one very lively, the children’s chorus Allelu, allelu
Which is how we often sing Alleluia- lively, happily, with abandon, perhaps lots of movement- and so we should sing for joy, for ours is a great God, and we should take joy in worshipping God. (Listen here).
The other setting, CH4 752 Alleluia, Alleluia) is from South Africa:
(To listen, click on number 19 on this page)
This is meant to be sung slowly, I think with I would describe as a kind of joyous determination. For Christians, joy is not just something fluffy, fun for the good times. Christian joy is something which surprises us when we least expect it. It is that bedrock that keeps us sane even in hard times.
This Alleluia first appeared in 1991 in a collection from the Iona Community called Sent by the Lord, and the compilers noted:
A chance look at a video recording of a service in a black South African church led to this melody being transcribed… The Alleluia should not be sung with too much vigour. In this setting, it is more of a meditative affirmation than a loud shout. (p59)
This is music from a church oppressed and suffering under Apartheid. Yet they still wanted to sing Praise the Lord- Halleluiah. And there is the seeming paradox of faith- that people who are suffering might want to still give praise and honour and glory to God. That even in suffering, people have a strange kind of joy. Why is that?
For these Psalms, these songs of praise, because they are human, often come from deep, painful, dark places in human experience. John Milton, whom we mentioned earlier, became blind quite young in life- before he became in Civil War politics, before he wrote some of his greatest poetry. Yet he retained his faith- Paradise Lost is a deeply Christian work of art. Atheists often say that an argument against Christianity is that terrible things happen in the world, even to good people, even to believers. They can’t quite understand what is going on when people of faith suffer, and they respond with more, not less, faith. I think that’s because people with faith don’t lose hope. For when all else fails, they have something else. They have God.
So some of our Psalms are actually laments. People call out to God from the deepest despair. There are flashes of despair and even anger at God in the Psalms. Listen, for example to this, from Psalm 69:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
Later in the Psalm we hear more complaints:
You know the insults I receive,
and my shame and dishonour;
my foes are all known to you.
Insults have broken my heart,
so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none;
and for comforters, but I found none.
They gave me poison for food,
and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it includes passages like that. Biblical faith is not jolly all the time. Biblical faith includes despair, lament, crying out to a God who often seems to be absent. This is what makes the Bible real to me. It may become God’s word for us, but it is very real, very human, unflinching in facing up to the reality of suffering and despair- and even doubt.
But in the same book we have words like those of Psalm 146, which sings ‘Praise the Lord, O my soul’- praise the Lord, because nothing else, no-one else, can be so fully trusted, is so entirely reliable. ‘Put not your trust in princes, nor in any human power, for there is no help in them. When their breath goes forth, they return to the earth; on that day all their thoughts perish’. It’s tempting to put our faith in politicians, or in patriotism, or the flag- but in Biblical faith, all these are subject to God. Read the Old Testament and you will find that even the kings of Israel are treated with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. Even King David was exposed by a prophet as an adulterer, and King Solomon, for all his wisdom, is shown as someone with multiple faults.
This Psalm makes sure we understand that it’s worth praising the God of Jacob, the true God of Israel, He is creator of heaven and earth (something which sets Israel’s’ God apart from all other national deities). And this God takes the side of justice, takes the side of the oppressed against the mighty. In an amazing list, we hear that this God will give justice to the wronged, bread to the hungry, freedom to captives, sight to the blind. This is a God who helps those suffering under the burdens of life. He has a care and concern for those most in need in the community- the foreigner, the parentless, the widow. ‘But the way of the wicked he turns upside down’.
We see this even more clearly when Jesus comes onto the scene. In Christ we see a God of love, a God whose concern is with the poor and outcast, a God who is prepared to take on the powerful, a God who is prepared to suffer and to die for the sake of justice.
John the Baptist, languishing in a prison cell, hears about Jesus’ work and sends some of his disciples to find out what is going on. Is Jesus indeed the one whom John said the people should expect? Jesus answer is simple, yet profound: ‘Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor’. Here, indeed, is what Israel expects- here is the sort of God of whom Psalm 146 speaks. For Christ takes the side of the sick and the poor- even the deaf can hear. This is a God who is on our side when we suffer, when we are oppressed, when we have nowhere else to go and no-one else on our side. Why would we not praise such a powerful, yet loving and gracious God?
Ascription of Praise
The Lord shall reign for ever,
your God, O Zion,
throughout all generations.
Psalm 146.10: Common Worship 2000 (CH4 102)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo
Information about Isaac Watts and John Milton from James Moffat, Handbook to the Church Hymnary (Oxford UP 1927)