A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 21 February 2021.
Lent this year we’re focussing on the psalms. Not all 150 of them you’ll be glad to hear, just 5 each week on a theme, and only 1 of those 5 each Sunday evening.
We’ve suggested books that you might find helpful, groups you might like to join, as well as conversations you might like to listen to. And of course you may have your own resources to draw on too.
One of the great things about the psalms is that all the different moods of faith are here – gratitude, rage, wonder, despair, trust, sorrow, penitence – they’re all here.
Sometimes a psalm focuses on just one of these – then we know where we are. But at other times a psalm can jump around a bit through the course of the same psalm – and that’s more difficult for us to follow.
But they’re old. A bit like this church, bits have been added, some bits taken away or lost, other bits glued together. So while they have a wonderful beauty to them, when you start to ask questions about this bit or that bit, it’s not always easy to know the answer. And that’s very like this church – it’s a mere 860 years old, whereas the psalms are anything up to 3000 years old.
Broadly speaking there are two main groups – psalms of praise and psalms of lament. And they’re either communal or individual, using either ‘we’ or ‘I’. The psalms of lament are the most common ones, and I don’t think you’d have expected that.
There are 5 books of psalms that make up the 150 psalms in the bible, and they come under the archetypal figure of King David, just like the first 5 books of the bible come under Moses and the wisdom literature comes under Solomon.
Already you’ll have begun to get a sense of how complex the psalms are, so it’s no wonder that they can be quite difficult. Just like anything in the spiritual life, there’s no quick fix – they take time.
But it is time that’s worth taking.
Most of the psalms come from the worship in the temple at Jerusalem, and what they do is tell us from the inside what it means to have faith. They’re prayers of one sort or another, so they not only help us to pray, but can actually be used by us as prayer – which is how we use them in our worship.
They would have shaped Jesus’ own life of prayer. And in the New Testament they are the most commonly quoted bits of the Old Testament.
As I mentioned earlier, all of the different moods of faith are here, as well as themes which the psalms invite us to make our own – the longing for justice, the emptiness of riches, care for the poor, the delight in creation, the search for happiness, the struggle with loneliness and grief – these themes keep cropping up.
But at the heart of the psalms is one key theme – a deep longing for intimacy with God. That’s what they give voice to time and again.
And whatever twists and turns any psalm may make, they orientate us, without apology or equivocation, in only one direction – towards God. For the psalms, God is an absolute presence.
So that’s some of the reasons why the psalms have been and still are the backbone of Christian prayer and worship, and both as a church and as individuals they can shape who we are.
So I hope that in some way or other you’ll join us on this journey through Lent with the psalms.
The 5 psalms for this week are all on the theme of pilgrimage or journeying.
There’s a lovely collection of 15 psalms, referred to as ‘Songs of Ascent’, pilgrim’s songs, said or sung as people went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and two of our psalms come from this collection. But you can also find this theme elsewhere such as in the other three psalms for the week, one of which is tonight’s psalm, 84.
Psalm 84 is one of the most beautiful and best-loved psalms. It’s clearly a psalm of praise rather than lament, and it’s an individual rather than a communal psalm, so lends itself to be used by each of us on our own. Tonight we’ve both said it together and also heard a version of it sung as a hymn.
Originally it was about journeying and arriving at the temple in Jerusalem that was understood as God’s dwelling place. The psalm opens:
‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!’
We’re fortunate to worship in a church building that conjures up similar feelings of delight and pleasure at being present here. Part of my role as the vicar is to be a ‘doorkeeper in the house of my God’, one of the phrases that the psalm gives us.
And we too have a sparrow and it’s nest carved on one of the pillars near where the original altar almost certainly stood, the carving and it’s location inspired by this psalm. So at this level, it’s a deeply attractive psalm for us here at Iffley; we can make it our own.
But the psalm can also be understood metaphorically. Then the desire, the longing and the rejoicing that the psalm expresses are all for the ‘living God’, an unusual phrase used in the opening verse of the psalm.
The destination of our spiritual journey is famously described in Saint John’s gospel, where Jesus says: ‘In my Father’s house are many dwelling-places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’
On the journey there we’re to find our strength in God, so that in our hearts are found the highways to Zion.
There are times when we go through barren valleys where, as the psalm says, if we’re faithful we’ll find a spring:
‘and the early rains will clothe it with blessing.’
Even this beautiful psalm though is not a tidy psalm. There’s a jump from verse 6 to verse 7 and in verse 8 suddenly the face of the anointed is mentioned. Intriguing.
But overall, while not shying away from times of difficulty, the psalm is an encouraging one. We’re on a journey full of joy and hope. As the psalm concludes:
‘O Lord God of hosts,
blessèd are those who put their trust in you.’