A sermon preached at St Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 13th August 2023
We seem to be living in a world full of great challenge: in recent days we have read of forest fires in various parts of the world and especially Hawaii, record global temperatures leading to drought and famine as well as an acceleration of thawing of the arctic and Antarctic icecaps, the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, the war in Ukraine, and so on. Such challenges are far from new, but their sheer scale and impact seem bigger than before. The world of the Old Testament was also one with many hard times affecting large numbers of people. The prophets repeatedly spoke of them. But they also had an unwavering sense that God was about. They believed that God was actively revealing his power, his forgiveness, his truth, and his love. And they saw signs of God’s activity whatever the apparent or real darkness was about. They acknowledged problems, but in the end their messages were of hope during hard times. And that is the case in tonight’s words of poetry from Psalm 85.
The earlier verses of the psalm are the result of a desperate situation brought about by years of drought and famine. The singer pleads with God by recalling the many past times when God eventually transformed such situations for good.
Lord you were favourable to your land. You forgave the iniquity of your people, and pardoned their sin, turning away from wrath and hot anger.
Restore us again. Put away your indignation. Will you be angry with us and future generations. Revive us and show us your steadfast love, and save us.
We may imagine that a pause followed the earnest plea in this Psalm. Perhaps there was a time of listening. And so we come to the words we have just spoken. Then we begin to hear what the singer heard of God’s reply. It is a wonderful message of shalom. All will be well. The psalmist confidently says that he will hear what God says to his people, the faithful people of his covenant, so that they may not return to folly. Glory is near and will be with them.
The singer recounts a vision in which the grace of God comes in what would have been seen as angelic forms of love, faithfulness and right order. They are seen as in happy communion. They embrace and kiss. They respond to each other both from heaven and from earth. They are making way for God to come to save and to bless.
The vision is very poetic. But, as I have implied, it is not presented in words that we would use today. We would not see the light of hope in this way. But it is wonderful that we have people today that have a profound sense of hope even in the darkest of times. They do so in what they say, in what they write and in their way of being. Perhaps one of the best public and accessible sources of hearing about this hope is in Thought for the Day on Radio 4. And there are people among us who radiate something of this glory. In spite of the darkness around them, they radiate a saintliness which comes from their confidence in the ultimate triumph of love, faithfulness, truth and goodness. Even in the great suffering of the world, they see that good will eventually spring up from around us and that heaven will grant blessing of this good. Love and peace will kiss each other, and glory will dwell on the earth again. Such people see the world as suffused with God’s love. They see his light beyond the darkness. We see this in the lives of mothers, of nurses, of teachers and people in so many walks of life. Somehow they mediate the power of love to those around them, by their faith and love. By the way of their life God’s love is revealed.
And yet this is a calling for every one of us, and for all who love God. In whatever hardships we may endure, we are to pray from the depths. We are called to hold up to God the sufferings of the world, with a faith that acknowledges and gives thanks for the ways in which God has and will save us. We are called to be with those who are listening for God to speak. We are called to be ready and willing to put God forward in our lips and in our lives. We are all people who are called to embody God’s peace, to help reveal that ultimately all will be well.