Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Psalm

27th November 2016 (Advent)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
psalm-122-f
Image © City Church York, Pennsilvania

Psalm 122

1I was glad when they said to me,
    ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’
2Our feet are standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together.
4To it the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
      as was decreed for Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5For there the thrones for judgement were set up,
    the thrones of the house of David.
6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    ‘May they prosper who love you.
7Peace be within your walls,
    and security within your towers.’
8For the sake of my relatives and friends
    I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
9For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


I grew up with the understanding that the selection of scriptures set for any Sunday eucharist was made so that a common thread could be seen through them. That included the Hebrew Scripture passage, the psalm, a reading from the New Testament, and the gospel reading. On one Sunday, whilst in Bunbury, I preached a four course banquet, bringing to life all of the readings in relation to each other. In trying to limit my reflection to just one of the readings set for Advent Sunday 2016 I was faced with a dilemma, because they are all good readings for reflection, and they are tied together.

When I noted the psalm was 122 I was transported back to a time when Michael Wentzell was organist at St George’s Cathedral, in Perth, and to music written by René Rebound. This is a joyful song, celebrating an invitation to go to the house of the Lord. The music which Michael and Albert McPherson chose for their rendition of Psalm 122 is lively and joyful, unlike the usual rendering of the same psalm when read straight from the prayer book, whether done together or with a leader reading parts and the congregation reading the rest.

Together in Song, hymn 78, which Rebound, Wentzell and McPherson composed, opens with the refrain “I was overjoyed, Alleluia, when they said come with us to the house of the Lord.” Am I “overjoyed” when asked to go with someone to their “house of the Lord”? My answer to that is, unfortunately, “nothing like as often as I would like to be.” On my travels I have visited many parishes where the experience has not conveyed an impression of people who were overjoyed to be attending. To be fair, that’s not to say that the people haven’t been enthused by the Holy Spirit, or coming because they know that they can be spiritually fed. When I think of days when the church encourages people to bring others with them, I ask “if unchurched people come will they be turned away not by words or actions at the door, but by what they experience during the service. When joyful psalms sound anything but joyful, are we going to encourage people to come again? To me, that’s a “no brainer”.

For the Israelites of the time, Psalm 122 was a song to be sung on the way to the temple in Jerusalem – a time when they visited the most important religious shrine in their experience. To us, the most important religious shrine is usually our parish church, sometimes the cathedral. One of the beauties which these people encountered was that of their sacred music: they were uplifted by the sounds of well sung music and their joy was real. I remember the time when most parish churches had four-part choirs and someone with good musical skill to train them and to play for services. Alas, we have lost that in most places, so the uplifting of souls during our services is dependent on the hymns or songs chosen, how well they are presented, and how involved the congregation is in uplifting each other.

Verse 4 of the biblical version, or verse 2 of hymn 78, reminds us of our need to worship and to praise the name of the Lord for all time. We gather together to make a joyful noise to the Lord so that we are giving thanks to God for everything we have, good or bad. As someone said: “if you win the lottery, praise the Lord; if you’ve just got married, praise the Lord; if you break a leg, praise the Lord!”

Psalm 122 is also a song of hope, and expectation. Let us pray not only for peace in the physical city of Jerusalem, but also for peace in every place which represents Jerusalem for those who cannot be there. While we’re at it, let’s pray for God’s peace. Those of us who live in Australia might be thinking that we already live in a peaceful environment, but those who have been physically or mentally abused, robbed or defamed would hardly describe their own experience as one of peace; and those affected by the terrorist activities which we hear about more and more frequently would also dispute a sense of peace. God’s peace is far more than an absence of war on our own soil, because it includes a fair sharing of our resources and a willingness to look after each other.

In keeping with this thrust for God’s peace to reign in Jerusalem, we can think of today’s passage from Isaiah, in which the prophet suggests that, in response to the word of the Lord, people will turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning forks, and they will no longer learn to be at war. This is the way to God’s peace, not spending more and more on military might and threatening nuclear war because we can’t get our own way. Let us be responsible, rather than irresponsible like those who engage in violent behaviour of any kind; let us, from congregations all the way up the ecclesiastical ladder, speak up for God’s peace; and let us be overjoyed when we are called to the House of the Lord.

This psalm ends with a challenge. Note the last words: YOUR good. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, which, to Christians, is all the people not just a building, we should seek God’s good. I acknowledge that that will be tough; but it is achievable.

6th November 2016 (All Saints’ Day)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
let-them-praise-dancing
from indulgy.com

Psalm 149

1Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, His praise in the assembly of the faithful.
2Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
3Let them praise His name with dancing, making melody to Him with tambourine and lyre.
4For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; He adorns the humble with victory.
5Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches.
6Let the high praises of God be in their throats, and two-edged swords in their hands,
7to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples,
8to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron,
9to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord!

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.

 


Joy, joy, joy! With joy my heart is singing, for the one who sings, prays twice, according to St Augustine and many who have followed him. I am reminded of a visit one of my theological college lecturers made to a distant country, which shall not be named. On noting an absence of musical instruments in churches he visited the lecturer asked the reason, and was told that it was OK for the Romans, the Anglicans, the Uniting Church, and Protestant churches to have musical instruments, “but not in the House of God”!

The Psalms formed the hymn book for the Hebrew people. Music was as much a part of their life as it is for most of us today; and it is appropriate that we use our musical talents to worship God. Whilst the first verse of Psalm 149 encourages us to “sing a new song” I think the intention was that such new songs should be meaningful, directed towards worshipping God, and not banal, over-repetitive, or monotonous. From that you might gather that I have encountered all three, and sometimes in the one song. With the demise of nearly all parish church choirs in the Anglican tradition we have lost the opportunity to hear beautiful music played and sung. A four-part harmonisation of some of the still popular hymns is far more uplifting, even for those with little musical involvement, than singing the same hymns in unison. There is a desperate need to a return to singing in parts. The motto of the Royal School of Church Music is “Psallam spiritu et mente”, which means “singing with spirit and understanding.” New songs, created in that vein, can be hugely uplifting, and be of benefit to everyone.

The people are encouraged to be glad for what their maker has given them, and to rejoice in having someone, as monarch, who cares for everyone, and loves them unconditionally. We are encouraged to include dance in our worship, though there are many who believe church services to be an inappropriate place for that. Indeed, the original dances mentioned in this psalm were not celebrations for the Lord in thankfulness for the wonders of the world, but had overtones of military might, somewhat akin to the Haka performed by the New Zealand All Black rugby team. Nevertheless, dancing was encouraged, and should still be. Different means of producing music are encouraged: the version in A Prayer Book for Australia renders this as “with timbrel and with harp” but the important point is that all musical instruments should be welcomed. You could hardly expect the writers of the psalms to include bassoons, flutes, violins, harpsichords or organs, all of which were invented many centuries later.

Verses 4 and 5 continue this theme of celebration and worship with pleasure and adoration being expressed on the part of the Lord as we concentrate on the good things of life; but the tone changes drastically with the second half of verse 6. Why, oh why do we humans have to think that they must engage in violence to overcome those who think differently from ourselves? Why do we so easily forget that “vengeance is mine” as written in Deuteronomy 32:35? Why do we assume that we have the right to extract vengeance on behalf of God? Why do we not learn from such admonitions? Over the centuries verses such as 6b to 9a have been used out of context to defend actions which should offend the vast majority of sane people. We only need to look at areas of the world today where there is conflict to see this playing out time and time again. Psalm 149 is not just Christian scripture, it is scripture for Jews and Muslims alike. We are all “people of the book”. [I was surprised to find that, in Arabic, a Muslim is someone who adheres to Islam, but a Moslem is someone who is evil and unjust].

Some years ago it was said – if someone can give me the reference I’d really appreciate it – that if the governments of the world spent half of their defence budgets on cultural exchange programmes there would be no wars. Most of Australia’s cultural exchange activities are run by small organisations which are not allowed to compensate hosting families for the additional costs of having an extra person with them for up to a year, and though those costs include food, water, electricity and transport, Centrelink is unable to consider the extra person a dependent because school fees are paid by the biological parents; and those who come a volunteers are expected to contribute out of the money they are not allowed to receive. We need to rethink our priorities when dealing with people overseas. We may think we have the best living conditions in our part of the world, and we may believe that God has given us those good living conditions because we have been faithful – though that’s hard to justify with many churches becoming less and less relevant to the people around them – but does it give us the right to extract vengeance because other people don’t agree with us? I think not.

Fortunately, Psalm 149 returns to its original focus on God. Let us truly “Praise the Lord!”

18th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Psalm 79

1O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.
4We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us.
5How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name
7for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
8Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.
9Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


We continue through a period of lament, with not only Jeremiah, but also the psalmist bringing the desperation of the people into focus.

Once again, as with Psalm 14, the wording suggests, on the surface, that the cause of the problem is “the nations”. “They” have defiled the temple; “they” have laid waste to Jerusalem. ‘Who is “they”?’ we might ask. If we consider that “we” are doing, or trying to do, what God wants us to do, then “they” includes anyone who is not doing the right thing. In a world where the Hebrew people were supposed to set themselves aside from the peoples around them, and keep to the commandments – better translated as commitments – thought to have been brought to us by Moses, and not to be defiled by the ways of those other peoples, any moves to adopt the ways of non-Hebrews could be seen as going against the will of God. It was the role of the temple leaders to guide the Hebrews away from the pitfalls of other religions, and their way of life, but when the leaders failed to keep the people honest to their task disaster would befall the nation. Time and again the prophets would rail against bad leadership, and against the “false prophets” to whom some leaders turned for justification. If we take the line that failure to honour the commitment to God’s teaching will bring about disaster, then the destruction of the temple and the flattening of Jerusalem in 586BC, which is probably at the heart of this passage, shows that the people had strayed significantly from the ways of God, and the leadership was very much involved in that errant behaviour.

Scripture doesn’t just tell us what happened in the past, but it teaches us how to address issues which affect us today, many centuries after those passages were written. It’s more than a historical record of events from which we can learn: it’s an insight into how we can avoid the problems of the past revisiting us. Given that, what can we learn from this section of one psalm?

First, the Hebrew people were supposed to keep to their faith and not be influenced by the ways of life of those around them, where that would put them in conflict with God’s will. The people were required to be distinct from those around them. Customs associated with their faith took precedence over customs of the others, so mode of dress, days of worship, commitment to worship, decisions about what was good for the community had to be consistent with their faith teaching. Orthodox Jews still maintain a diet free from pork, even though the real reason for its exclusion in biblical times – the way it rapidly becomes unsafe to eat if not treated properly – has been overcome. As Christians, how often are we distinguishable from the rest of the community? How often have we stood up against incursions into the day of rest? When people come to church are they getting the same sort of experience as they would get in any other organisation around? Do we make a commitment to our faith journey such that others are touched by what can be achieved, or do we depend on the church establishment to provide everything, and expect it to be free? Are our churches any better at dealing with accusations of sexual misconduct than other organisations, or businesses? If the answer to any of those questions is “No” then we might be falling into the same pitfalls as the Hebrews were before the destruction of the temple, and we might find that our temple is destroyed. Are we prepared to stand up for our faith, and pick up the pieces after our church institutions come crashing down around us, or are we going to speak up, and act, to repent and change our ways before such destruction happens?

The section of Psalm 79 set for the 18th of September ends with a call to God to help us, to forgive our sins, and guide us back to a righteous relationship with our Creator. This should be an important part of our daily prayer life.

11th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Jeremiah 4:11-18

11It will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse — 12a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them. 13Look! He comes up like clouds, his chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles — woe to us, for we are ruined! 14O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved. How long shall your evil schemes lodge within you? 15For a voice declares from Dan and proclaims disaster from Mount Ephraim. 16Tell the nations, “Here they are!” Proclaim against Jerusalem, “Besiegers come from a distant land; they shout against the cities of Judah. 17They have closed in around her like watchers of a field, because she has rebelled against me, says the Lord. 18Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom; how bitter it is! It has reached your very heart.”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.

The set text omits verses 13-18 and adds verses 21-28.

Psalm 14

1Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
2The Lord looks down from heaven on mankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
3They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
4Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?
5There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
6You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
7O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


The principal aim of these reflections is to look at one passage of scripture from the selection set down for the Sunday before I post my comments. However, the selection of readings is supposed to have a common thread, and sometimes that thread requires a look at more than one passage. Today is an example.

The author of Psalm 14 is clearly expressing negative comments about the “fools” who do not believe in God and follow the teachings of scripture: the Lord looks down to see if anyone is wise and seeking after God, but “they” have all gone astray. Who are “they”? It’s incredibly easy for us to separate the wheat from the chaff and include ourselves on the “good” side of that separation, then label everyone who isn’t with us as against us. Sometimes that separation takes on a self-righteous tone which demeans us. Some years ago an Anglican bishop I knew was invited to the ordination service for a Roman Catholic deacon. Though the service included Holy Communion the Anglican bishop was not allowed to take the bread (or wine) because he wasn’t “Christian”, that is, he wasn’t baptised and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. At my son’s baptism we had Roman Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church clergy participating, and the sermon made a point that we were not making a new Anglican but a new Christian. Far too often I hear comments along the lines of “you don’t do things the way we do, so you’re not Christian” even if the last bit is by implication, rather than direct statement. Psalm 14 rails against those who did things differently from the established trend, but the author wasn’t a prophet, rather a hymn writer. When we look at what a prophet was saying about the situation we are faced with a quite different scenario. Within verses omitted from the set text for the week – why they were excluded begs other questions – Jeremiah shouts “O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved” [v14], “Besiegers come from a distant land” [v16], and “Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you” [v18]. Once again the prophet is crying that the leaders are just as corrupt as any of those against whom they rail. Isaiah put it another way: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” [Is 53:6]

It’s very easy for us to think that these passages refer to times in the history of the Jewish communities, but, as with all scripture, there is a message for us in the 21st century just as much as there was when Jeremiah was writing, mostly in the 7th century BC. What this combination of passages calls on us to do is to look at ourselves and see if we are guilty of classing ourselves as “good” and others as “bad” when the labels could easily be reversed. Have we lost track of what we are called, by God, to do in this world? Have we put ourselves above others as better Christians? Have we failed to recognise the Christ in others and looked for ways to denigrate those who are different from us, or approach our task of worship differently? How many false prophets have we allowed into “the Church”?

I have no doubt that sexual misconduct by those who have been able to get into influential positions in the church, either as clergy or lay leaders, is contrary to the message of love which comes from God, at least as perceived by the vast majority of Australians, but I truly wonder if we have been like the hireling who deserted the flock of sheep when a wolf attacked [John 10:12]. Only a tiny proportion of those entrusted with God’s work in the various denominations has failed to honour that task, yet we have allowed a very negative response from the non-church-going public to cloud the very good work done by the majority, and we have allowed those many good Christian leaders to be tarred with the same brush as those who have brought disgust.