SERMON: The Importance of Psalms

SERMON: The Importance of Psalms

A sermon preached by Graham Low on the Second Sunday of Easter on 24 April 2022.  

Today’s world seems to be a far more unsettled place than for a very long time: war in Europe with worldwide consequences, serious flooding in Africa, corruption in many governments and centres of finance, political extremism, abuse of human rights, failure to take essential measures to reduce climate change, and now, in our own country, and indeed in our parish, serious problems for many people facing fuel and food poverty for the first time. The list seems overwhelming.

By very great contrast we are celebrating the Easter season, with so much rejoicing. We have just heard about Thomas. We read that he has missed the first resurrection appearance of Jesus but he stays with the other disciples, some of whom have also not seen Jesus so far. For them faith needs to yield to sight. He has been exceptionally loyal and devoted. Now, as we say in today’s common expression, he needs to get his head around all this.

When Jesus appears to him, his words “My Lord and my God” are the most direct and instantaneous response of any of the people we read about. It indicates that he has pondered the implications of what his fellow disciples have told him. Indeed it seems that he is now so convinced of what happened that he goes on to travel extensively as a lively witness. Tradition holds that he goes to India to proclaim the resurrection, and in one version of the story he is killed by a spear and is buried in Mylapore, near Madras. Many other legends exist about Thomas’ later life, but they are for another occasion.

It is important for us to realise that the various gospel accounts about Thomas, and the other resurrection appearances, lie alongside passages indicating doubt. Faith and doubt lie alongside one another in other parts of the Bible, particularly in the Psalms. In this context of faith and doubt we need to acknowledge that much of the pastoral work within the life of the church is a response to the apparent silence of God. It is important for us to learn from Jesus’ example of patience in resisting efforts to push people towards cast-iron certainty, which can dishonour legitimate and faithful questioning.

I have a strong feeling that Thomas might well have been particularly moved and enthused by  the glorious adoration and joy in today’s Psalm 150, as well as by the many moods expressed in the Psalms in general. The Psalms would have been fundamental to Thomas and Jesus’ devotional life: that Jesus knew them intimately is borne out by his frequent references to them.

It is very good that we have restored the use of Psalms in our Sunday morning liturgy here after the worst of the pandemic. But in common with churches we tend to spend little time reflecting on them in public, in spite of their diversity and richness. Within the psalms we can find so much that speaks to the challenges of our human lives, and to the many woes which I mentioned at the beginning.

The psalms can helpfully be thought of as being grouped into three seasons of human life.

Firstly, human life includes the season of well-being, evoking thanksgiving for the blessings of life. Psalms of this kind orient us into reflecting the joy, light, goodness and faithfulness of God and God’s creation.

Secondly human life includes the anguished season of hurt, alienation, suffering and death. It evokes rage, resentment, self-pity and hatred. This is a period of disorientation. Here we find psalms of lament, and with the abrasiveness which we need to deal with in this season.

Thirdly human life consists of turns of surprise, when we are suddenly overwhelmed by God’s gifts allowing joy to overcome fear and negativity. And so we find psalms that speak of a new orientation towards God, a new gift from God, a fresh intrusion from God into darkness, revealing light.

These three seasons may often overlap and are not time-limited, or occur in the same order.

Human life is not simply about the place in which we find ourselves. It is about moving from one circumstance to another, about changing and being changed, about being surprised about a new circumstance we did not expect, and about being resistant for a while at least to the new and clinging to the old.

Thus the Psalms can take us from a state of seemingly settled orientation, through disorientation and disarray, and then into a state of new orientation with signs of surprise and new life, and new hope. They point us towards new life, new joy, new freedom for the Jewish people, and they point us towards Jesus’ resurrection.

And so we come to today’s Psalm 150. It is entirely a series of calls to praise. These calls to praise are to musicians and dancers, and end with praise to all that lives. There in the Temple, the focal point of God’s universe, are all the creatures of earth and heaven. All the voices of the universe turn to sing praise. They lead every movement of life to be a tribute of adoration.

This is a short psalm and seemingly limited in content and yet it can be seen as inexhaustible. It is as if the Holy Spirit, speaking through the psalms gives us a final positive and vital message for everyone, whatever their situation.

May the transforming message of this psalm and the message of the resurrection be heard, felt and responded to everywhere, and particularly in Ukraine, where they follow the Julian calendar and celebrate Easter Day today.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. Amen.