Thanksgiving at a time of bewilderment

Psalm 116 New International Version (NIV)

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.

The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the grave came over me;
I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“Lord, save me!”

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return to your rest, my soul,
for the Lord has been good to you.

For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.

10 I trusted in the Lord when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted”;
11 in my alarm I said,
“Everyone is a liar.”

12 What shall I return to the Lord
for all his goodness to me?

13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.
14 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.

15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful servants.
16 Truly I am your servant, Lord;
I serve you just as my mother did;
you have freed me from my chains.

17 I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord—
in your midst, Jerusalem.

Praise the Lord.

Psalm 117

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
extol him, all you peoples.
For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

Praise the Lord

 

On Friday I buried my father.

 

He was 94, had had a good life, knew he was dying but was pain-free and had only declined in health over the three previous days which I was able to spend with him and he recognised I was there with him.  Only two weeks previously a photo of him on VE Day proudly waving the union Jack flag had gone round the Internet.  Those three days were glorious sunny weather and he was in a care home in Hindhead with a lovely view from his room.  There was none of the pain, distress, anguish, loneliness and premature unexpectedness which some, many, have experienced over these few months.  But the loss of a close family member is hard whatever the circumstances.

 

I say I buried my father.  It was a cremation, at the Guildford crematorium and I conducted the service.  As you may know, anyone can conduct a civil funeral service.  They are simply public rooms available for anyone to hire.  Okay, unless you are the Addams family, you’re unlikely to hold a party.  But decorum apart, one can do whatever one wants and anyone can conduct.  There were six of us, with my sister and her family in Australia taking part live.  No one finds reading a eulogy easy and I was grateful for prayer support and Ann with me.

 

The news of his death came through the night before I had set aside time to prepare this sermon.  I had previously looked through today’s recommended readings.  Four of them.  The first was in Genesis, about the Lord giving Abraham and Sarah a baby when Sarah was quite probably more than 100 years old.  I decided that unless it was going to be a sermon on the ethics of surrogacy, this was probably not the right one.  There was the Psalms.  The gospel reading was Jesus sending out his disciples in Mission and we had a wonderful sermon last Sunday from Rosemary on the great commission so not yet time for another.  Then the epistle reading.  Romans chapter 5.  Justification by faith.  Wonderful stuff.  Or at least I thought so.  Maybe not every preacher would feel the same and quite probably not everyone in every congregation might get so excited.  But it’s important that we understand what is our faith that we hold dear.  Justification has aspects of substitution, the price being paid and penal satisfaction.  Very interesting.  I think.

 

But with my thoughts full of the bereavement, I looked again at the passage in the Psalms.  I’m not really a person immediately drawn to the Psalms.  They are often very experience led and full of deep emotion, which some of us rather flee from.  Certainly not my first or even second choice for a sermon.  But in reflecting that morning, I felt it was right, and some of you may say I was led by the Spirit, to look again at the recommended Psalms.  So it was I considered that I should in this sermon this morning, this week, be reflecting on my experience and that of the psalm writer.

 

Because if we are a very sterile, evangelically pure, so-called muscular Christian community but not reaching out to the deepest emotional and experience based needs of our neighbours and of our own fellowship then we are that clanking broken bell which Paul criticises.

 

We live in a society which often understands and identifies itself, validates itself, by its emotional responses and shared experiences.  Some would adopt the quite prevalent existential validation: I experience therefore I am.  Which becomes for some: I have a social media presence therefore I am.  There are some Christian traditions which say in terms: I’ve had an experience therefore I’m saved.

 

We love our neighbour where they are, and they are often expecting us to meet them by sharing at a personal experience level.  We share our faith by explaining the salvation hope of Jesus Christ which we have within us but we share it also, not only but also, by our personal experience of the wonderful relationship with him.  The black lives matter protests in England were supported as many said in terms: I share the pain and the anguish of the American Blacks.  A shared experience.  A vicarious experience.

 

And so we can have no sterile Christianity, removed from, fleeing away from this aspect of our lives.  Do we need more evidence?  How about the shortest sentence in English literature?  Jesus wept.  Our Lord showed emotion and shared in the pain, grief and anguish of those he loved.  And so must we.  The Psalms are just as much part of our healthy spiritual diet as is Romans chapter 5!

 

Psalms 116 and 117 are what is known as the Egyptian Hallel Psalms, 113-118, sung by the Jewish people at Passover.  They undoubtedly would have been sung by Jesus with his disciples on the night of his betrayal and arrest.  Matthew 26.30 and Mark 14.26.  So whatever the circumstances in which the author wrote this psalm, its rich meaning was fulfilled in the midst of that little company of first disciples, perplexed and bewildered, with the shadow of death imminent.  Jesus our Lord would have sung this song of prophetic triumph over the hour of passion which he was about to experience.  This psalm would undoubtedly still have been in his mind, perhaps the words playing over his lips, as he hung on that cross for us.  Because it meant a lot for our Lord, it should for us and is a psalm very relevant for us at this time.

 

Psalm 116 is a song of personal thanksgiving.  It describes how the Psalmist experienced God’s deliverance from a situation of unexpected crisis and disorientation.  The Psalmist goes on to express commitment to honour the vows he had previously made to God as part of his salvation.  The psalm may well have been started as a private poem but it became addressed to a wider audience.  It assumes a community context for expression of personal thanks.  The goodness and faithfulness of God to one of his people should be celebrated by all God’s people.  The pandemic is not yet over.  We hope and pray there will not be a second wave.  It will one day be over.  And notwithstanding the loss of life, we should communally celebrate and give thanks to God when it is.

 

Moreover this public element of the psalm directly speaks to us in this coming summer 2020.  We were an increasingly individualistic community, here in Godalming and the Surrey Hills, our country and the Western world.  The lockdown emphasised and significantly increased that.  Life after lockdown will mean many more of us working from our homes, much more buying online for home delivery, the convenience of communicating with each other by video, watching performances live streamed and many other ways in which our lives will become far less communal and more solitary.  I acknowledge I am one of many perfectly happy with our screens and far more jittery, less confident in society.

 

This in turn conveniently meets our Protestant tradition where we hold important that we have a personal, one-to-one relationship with our God.  No one else can come to faith on our behalf.  No one else but Christ can mediate with God the Father on our behalf.  No one else receives the Holy Spirit on our behalf.  It is me and my saviour God.

 

But crucially that personal relationship is never a private relationship with God.  We share in a public way with others in worship, praise, prayer and fellowship the personal relationship we each have.  No Christian thrives on our own island.  We grow and deepen in our love and faith of our Lord in community with other Christians.  Being together.  Coming together.  Making time for each other.  Sharing with each other about our Christian experience.  Supporting each other in our own difficulties.  We therefore specifically look forward to coming back together physically and must recognise that this will bring challenges because there is a comfort and a cosiness in experiencing the virtual services at home.  Christian life is experienced publicly even though our faith is personal.

 

Over this lockdown many have been watching church services who have not entered a church building for years or decades.  You may be one.  If so, you have been very welcome and we are so glad you have joined with us.  But once we are free to meet again safely, please join us, or any other active Christian community where you may be living.  We are not perfect.  We know that better than you do.  You may have had a bad experience with another church.  Trust us: most of us have as well.  When we are fully open, give us a try.  Come along and say hello.  We give a good welcome and we will share what we love together.

 

So this Psalmist brought his private bewilderment and confusion through his personal experience into public worship, into a public place and into public thanksgiving.

 

He starts, verse 1, with his life rescued, whether from death itself or from confusion and bewilderment.  The Psalmist loves the Lord because the Lord knows his voice and his cry has been heard by the Lord.  Incidentally, when Jesus was saying this to himself on that Passover, he would have remembered his words about the sheep know the shepherds voice and the Shepherd hears their cry when they are lost.  The Psalmist knows the Lord has turned his ear to him.  Whenever he called upon the Lord for help, he heard.

 

In particular but not only, as we lawyers are prone to say, the Lord heard the cry of the Psalmist when the pains of death surrounded him.  It’s not clear if it was his own potential death or the death of others.  It doesn’t matter today.  For some of us it has definitely been the latter over these past few months.  Verse 3: the anguish of the deathbed came close and I was overcome by distress and sorrow.  Words from the lockdown of 2020 and from psalm 116.  Verse 4: so I called on the name of the Lord: Lord save me.  Again, you can imagine Jesus saying, singing, these words on that Thursday before Good Friday, knowing the pain and physical death which was going to happen and knowing he needed the Lord God to save him.  This is a prayer we can use and in doing so we share it with Christ.

 

Then, verse 5, he praises the God who saves him.  The Lord is gracious and righteous.  God is full of compassion.  And there we have it again; reaching out in an emotional, experience-based way to us and our neighbours.  It goes on.  The Lord protects those who are at a low point in their lives, verse 6.  And how does he protect?  Verse 7.  Return to rest in the Lord, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to me.  For you Lord have delivered me from death, my eyes from crying, my feet from stumbling so that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living, verse 8.

 

Here is testimony of coming through the other side, whether it is grief or depression or hardship or bewilderment.  The Lord is there with us and listening to us as we cry out as we enter this experience and he is with us all the way through and then he is with us when we come out the other end.  We have a God of deliverance.

 

So in verse 12 the Psalmist says what can I do, should I do, as a consequence of my happiness and delight at this deliverance, of coming through this dreadful process and experience?

 

And the answer to his question divides the religions of the world.

 

It is not acts of servitude, violence or submission.  It is not lifelong hardship.  It is not a set of rules.

 

Verse 13, he lifts up and acknowledges the salvation from whence his hope has come, and he calls out this has come from the Lord.  He will fulfil, verse 14, his commitment to the Lord.  Not just privately but in the presence of everyone.  Not grandstanding, saying how good am I in public prayer but asking the community to witness his intention to serve the Lord, as his parents and others had done.

 

He says he is giving a thanks offering to the Lord.  What does this mean?

 

One of my favourite verses, Romans 12.1, I offer my body, my life, as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  A hymn from Christina Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelite family fame.  What can I give him, poor as I am?  If I were a Shepherd, I would bring a lamb.  If I were a wise man, I would play my part.  Yet what can I give him?  Give him my heart.

 

We owe our God this gratitude and he calls us to give him our lives and our hearts.

 

And so we turn to Psalm 117 briefly.  Mainly because it is so brief.  Two verses.  One Bible commentator said that it is the shortest song in the collection but there is none greater or grander in the expression of praise.  Martin Luther devoted 36 pages to the psalm.  Be assured, I only draw attention to a few elements.  It naturally follows 116.

 

The Psalmist is still in a state of public praise and worship.  Calling on all the nations of the world to praise the Lord.  The NIV says all you nations but many translations have all you Gentiles.  This was Yahweh, the God of the Jewish people, but it was not just Jews who were anticipated to be singing his praises and receiving worship.  This was a worldwide God speaking to all peoples of the world.  When Jesus said or sang this in the Garden of Gethsemane on Passover, he would have had in mind the event only a few weeks later when the Holy Spirit came and spoke through those very disciples, now asleep around him, in every tongue so that everyone, tout Le Monde, understood.  This is not a God confined to one nation, one part of the world, one tradition or one culture.  This is a God for all men and women, a God for every man, and every woman.  This is a God who loves all races equally and we must proclaim this.

 

And why praise him around the world?  Because, verse 2, great is his love towards us and his faithfulness endures for ever.  Hallelujah.

 

It’s very easy for us to live a cocooned life.  Perhaps more so in this part of Britain than the rest of the country?  Certainly more in north-west Europe than many other much poorer parts of the world.  We can cocoon ourselves against uncertainties of financial hardships which previous generations took as part of life.  We have ill health but we are cocooned against the worst because of our wonderful health system.  We have employment setbacks but we are cocooned by state welfare and, in lockdown, colossal state assistance.  We become risk averse and make ourselves risk immune

 

And when we are cocooned it’s very easy to lose sight of our need for God.  We create our own shelter from the stormy blasts experienced by so many others.

 

But from time to time in life the cocoon slips away.  We are exposed.  We realise we are vulnerable.  We face big questions and big uncertainties.  This may be at a time when we have no Christian faith and we are looking for answers.  It may be that we have Christian faith and have not yet had to reach out in such uncertainty and bewilderment.

 

In these past few months many have found the cocoon lacking, insufficient and inadequate.  We are then the Psalmist.  When we are overcome by distress and sorrow, when perhaps death or death of others seems too much to bear, when we are bewildered and at a complete loss, we cry out to God and God will hear us.  In his mercy, his love, his compassion and in his graciousness, God comes alongside every one of us who cries out to him.  He won’t put us back in that cocoon but he will envelop us with his love and his peace and his better way.

 

And so we offer our lives, our hearts as a Thanksgiving to him.  For great is his love towards us and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.  How wonderful.  Hallelujah

 

Amen

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