Scripture Readings: Psalm 40.1-10

Luke 17:11–19

Sermon

How can we not be thankful?

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We have been hearing a lot recently about antisemitism- the irrational hatred of the Jews, which seems to be popping up again in this country and around the world. When I hear about antisemitism, by thoughts often turn to one of the first times I attended a Church of Scotland General Assembly, back in 1991 when I was a Divinity student.

The Moderator was one of my teachers, Robert Davidson, Professor of Old Testament at Glasgow University. On that particular day, there was a special guest: the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. After we had sung a metrical Psalm- unaccompanied, in the old Scottish style- Bob Davidson greeted the Chief Rabbi in Hebrew, and invited him to address the Assembly. It was, for me, a moving reminder of the Jewish origins of our Christian faith, and of how our Presbyterian worship continues to be suffused with those old Hebrew prayers and hymns, the Psalms.

Bob Davidson wrote a book which I turn to again and again, a commentary on the Psalms which he entitled The Vitality of Worship. It’s a scholarly book which is shot full of spiritual insight, because for Davidson, the Psalms were no dusty ancient texts, but texts which are still alive in Church and Synagogue today. He notes that that the popularity of the Psalms across the centuries and even across denominations and cultures

is hardly surprising since the Psalms cover the whole gamut of human experience from praise to penitence, from quietly confident faith to agonized perplexity, from joy at the wonder of life in God’s world to the struggle to reach out to a God who seems remote or silent, from bowing humbly before the mystery of life to bitter and urgent questioning. It is all there, and because it is all there we are there in our ever changing moods and needs[1].

You know, we usually think of the Bible as God speaking to us. But the Psalms are the words of human beings speaking to God. They are the words of people like us, speaking to their God in times of sorrow and joy, in good times and in crisis, lament and praise from both an entire nation and individuals.

Today we heard verses of a Psalm which speak of waiting on God, and of thanksgiving to God. The first part of Psalm 40 speaks of waiting for God, and then receiving God’s help, and being grateful for it:

I waited patiently for the Lord’s help;

then he listened to me and heard my cry.

He pulled me out of a dangerous pit,

out of the deadly quicksand.

He set me safely on a rock

and made me secure.

He taught me to sing a new song,

a song of praise to our God.

The cry for help is, perhaps, the most basic of human prayers. People who never pray any other time will, in a crisis, cry out ‘help me God!’ But whoever sung this Psalm at first is not one who just calls in God when he needs him. He knows that he needs to wait for God. God will come in his own time- so he waits for the Lord’s help.

Robert Davidson’s commentary tells me that the Good News (or NRSV) translation ‘‘I waited patiently for the Lord’s help’’ is not quite true to the original; it is, he says,

a questionable translation… especially if it conveys a picture of quiet resignation[2].

Davidson suggest that instead of saying, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord’s help’, we should translate these words as ‘waiting I waited’. For this is the waiting that longs for the waiting to be over: how you might feel waiting for a hospital appointment or an exam result.

For whoever wrote this Psalm was in a crisis. Perhaps he faced enemies in battle, or a serious illness- it was, in any case, a personal crisis which he compares to being in a deep pit or being sucked down by quicksand. When you wait like that, even if you are a person of faith, you wait with anticipation. You are patient, not irritable- but still, you long for the waiting to be over. You long to find out what God is going to do, and to find out what your role in God’s plan is.

Today, we have a longing to know what God has ahead for our nation, for we live in uncertain times. For three long years we have been waiting to see what would happen after the vote to leave the European Union. For UK citizens in the EU, for EU citizen in the UK, for those who worry about because their jobs or their prosperity relies on trade and exports, these are stressful times: waiting to see what the future will bring. Waiting, we have waited to see what our political leaders will do. Waiting, we wait to see what God is going to do.

When the waiting is over, and God does rescue him, and the Psalm writer is thankful:

He pulled me out of a dangerous pit,

out of the deadly quicksand.

He set me safely on a rock

and made me secure.

He taught me to sing a new song,

a song of praise to our God.

And here I want to consider what the results of the Psalmist’s gratitude are. Why do we sing songs of thankful praise to God? What does it mean to be thankful to God? How should we live, what should we do, if we are thankful to God? There are, I think, three aspects of thankfulness which this Psalm reminds us of.

Firstly, someone who is thankful has a clearer sense of who God is. The Psalmist says:

You have done many things for us, O Lord our God;

there is no-one like you.

For our God is just amazing, beyond words. Sometimes we forget just how amazing our God is. For if we restrict our God-talk to church, if we keep our prayers for Sundays only, if we allow our week to crush us with concerns and worries, we can lose sight of who God is. God is not just an abstract idea we think about on Sunday, but the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Lord of the entire world, a power above all other powers. The Psalmist sings:

You have done many things for us, O Lord our God;

there is no one like you!

You have made many wonderful plans for us.

I could never speak of them all—

their number is so great!

We may feel that God doesn’t seem as powerful in the world as he once was. We might think that the best days are behind us, that our youth was the peak of our achievements. We might even think that the church- the place where we do our God-talk- is past its best, out of date, with not much of a future ahead. But God has got plans for each of us, for the world, for the Church- a future which we can only dimly see, if we see it at all. If you have known God to rescue before, why should you not expect it again?

You have done many things for us, O Lord our God.

says the Psalmist. If that is true in the past, it will be true for the future, too. In all the changes of life, in all the uncertainty, as a sea swirls around us threatening to sweep all that we thought was secure, we can share the faith of the Psalmist that God has ‘set me safely on a rock’. As Christ taught us, if we build our faith and life on the foundation of his Word, it’s like the man who built a house on rock. When the rain falls and the floods come, building on sand is no good. Our only secure foundation in tumultuous times is to have faith in the God of Jesus Christ.

So that is the first lesson we learn if we are people who are thankful: that God is our security, our rock, the only one we can rely upon.

The second aspect of thanksgiving is that it changes our life we live as people who are grateful:

You do not want sacrifices and offerings;

you do not ask for animals burned whole on the altar

or for sacrifices to take away sins.

Instead, you have given me ears to hear you,

and so I answered, “Here I am;

your instructions for me are in the book of the Law.

How I love to do your will, my God!

I keep your teaching in my heart.

Animal sacrifices were a major part of ancient religion. But the idea that obedience to God’s law was more important than the sacrifice is a strong theme of the Old Testament prophets such as Amos, who told the people that God didn’t care about their worship, but instead wanted

justice to flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry[3].

However important worship is, the first priority of any Christian, of anyone who knows that God has been good to them, is to care for to their neighbours. We cannot worship God on Sunday if we are going to be out to dodge our taxes on Monday. We cannot consent to the continual destruction of the planet if we worship the God of heaven and earth. We are hypocrites if we worship God but don’t care about the poor and vulnerable in our communities. Especially, now, we need to make sure that we show kindness to those from other nations and cultures who have made their home among us, and who are now, very often, feeling vulnerable. How can we, in word and deeds, help them know that we care for them, are concerned for them, that we value them?

So that is the second thing we learn about what it means to be grateful to God: that we should express our thankfulness, not just in songs and prayers and worship, but by loving our neighbour, and seeking justice in the world.

And finally the Psalmist praises God by telling others of what God has done for him. He says he will never stop telling of the good news the God saves his people. He cannot keep silent- he must tell the good news of salvation.

Often we blame the media for giving Christianity a bad name. But often are the ones to blame. We sometimes complain so much about the church that we put people off the Gospel. If all you ever tell your friends is your complaints about the Church, don’t be surprised if no-one wants to join.

Why not, instead, tell your friends about why you are grateful to God? Grateful for a God who sent Jesus to speak of peace. Grateful to believe that there is a God to whom you can take all your worries in prayer. Grateful that God welcome everyone, without exception, into his kingdom. We shouldn’t be shy of speaking about our God of love, because the God of Jesus Christ is just what this dangerous and anxious world needs!

Luke tells a story of Jesus healing ten lepers, but only one coming back to say thank you. It turns out that the man who came and threw himself at Jesus’ feet was a foreigner, a Samaritan. And just as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus holds up the foreigner as an example of what faithful living consists of: the one who praises God and give thanks is the one who truly understands what true religion is. It’s time to talk up our faith, and share with others why we’re grateful to God.

Today’s Psalm verses are also very appropriate today as we gather round the table and receive Christ in bread and wine. Communion is the ultimate act of thanksgiving in worship. Not for nothing it is the Sacrament often known as the Eucharist, which is a Greek word meaning ‘thanksgiving’. Communion is an act of thanksgiving. We give thanks to a God who will never let us down. We commit ourselves to living for others, as an expression of our gratitude for all the God has done for us. And we will leave this table ready to tell others why we’re grateful to the amazing God who is our rock!

Ascription of Praise

Blessing and honour, thanksgiving and praise,

more than we can express,

be accorded to you, most glorious Trinity,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

by all angels, all people, all creatures,

for ever and ever. Amen.

BCO 1994, p587

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] op cit, p2; my emphasis

[2] op cit, p133

[3] Amos 5.21-24