A new Beginning and a Blessed and Joyful Christmas!

A Reflection on Psalm 96 by Canon Rob,
25th December 2022, Christmas Day.

The author of the psalm set for today could not have Christmas in mind because the birth of Jesus, bringing about a new relationship with God, was many years in the future. However, the psalm was probably written to celebrate another new beginning. In the year 587 Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Jews were deported, exiled from their homeland. Our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine but the events surrounding the Exile were probably far worse even than what they are suffering. The aim was to obliterate the whole nation. However, the Babylonians failed and in 445 the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem began and the people returned home. Today’s psalm celebrates this new beginning and, as we read in verse 1, everyone is invited to share the celebrations. “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.”

St Augustine, in his ‘Exposition of the Psalms,’ wrote of this verse, although from a Christian perspective: “My friends, you have learnt the new song:… We are a new humanity….by the grace of God….who enjoy a new covenant which is nothing less than the kingdom of heaven.” Psalm 96, originally meant for the Jews returning to their homeland, is fitting for today, Christmas Day, because, as we reflect upon it, we know that we have a ‘new homeland’ through the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us.” His birth brings a new beginning for all people, a new relationship or covenant, with God which is the real meaning behind our celebrations on this special day.

The Christmas message is for everyone, just as the writer of Psalm 96 knew his words were. Verses 4 and 5 tell us that the Lord is “to be feared more than all gods” because He “made the heavens.” Verse 11 exhorts the heavens, the earth, the sea and all within it to rejoice, and verse 12 asks the fields and the trees to do the same. This is a hymn of joy and verse 10 encourages all who read the psalm to, “Tell it out among the nations that the Lord is king.” As the people return to their own country they, along with everyone else – – Gentiles included, are encouraged to worship this great king, this Lord who has saved them and set them free. The “new song” is for all.

And so too is Christmas, this new beginning. As we reflect upon this psalm, might we be encouraged to ‘shout the good news’ from the rooftops! Figuratively speaking of course. Even in these difficult times, when many people are struggling financially, we haven’t escaped the commercialism surrounding Christmas but the real meaning of this great Festival remains the same now as it was on the night that Jesus was born. Could we, as the author of Psalm 96 says, “Declare his [God’s] glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples?” (Verse 3.) Christmas is a time of giving – which is why we exchange gifts – but the greatest of all gifts is the love of God, the gift we can share. Listening to a programme on the radio recently, there are apparently a number of families this year who have decided not to buy presents, because they cannot afford to do so. Instead they have agreed to spend more time with each other, without social media or the television to distract them, but to go out for walks and to sit, talk and listen to each other. What a great gift! And what a great gift the Christ-child is for everyone. The 3 Kings recognised this truth as we shall see on January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany. But verse 8 of today’s psalm speaks of gifts, offerings to be presented to God in the new Temple, a reminder to us today of the gifts which the Kings offered to Jesus. “Ascribe to the Lord the honour due to his name; bring offerings and come into his courts.”

Lord God, whom we worship in the beauty of holiness, receive our prayer;
as we tell out your salvation and declare your glory to all nations,
that all the earth may see your righteous deeds and glorify your holy name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

[Prayer at the end of Psalm 96 in Common Worship, Daily Prayer]


A Prayer for help and Hope

A Reflection on Psalm 80.1-8 by Canon Rob,

18th December, 4th Sunday of Advent

To appreciate the meaning of Psalm 80, a little bit of Israel’s history is useful. The psalm is sometimes called “A Prayer of Restoration” and for good reason. After the reign of King Solomon, Israel became a divided kingdom following a revolt of the tribes who lived in the Northern Territories. [See 2 Chronicles chapters 10 and 11.] Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, became King of Judah called the Southern Kingdom, and Jeroboam became King of Israel known as the Northern Kingdom. This took place in 931 BC. and the division lasted many years. It is thought that today’s psalm may have been written about two hundreds years after the revolt and is a plea to go back to how things used to be. (How often has a similar thing been said in the last two years following the Covid pandemic!) So the refrain, repeated in verses 4, 8 and 20, in the Common Worship version, sums up the purpose well: “Turn us [or ‘restore us’] again, O God; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” If you read the psalm in its entirety you will see what a tragic picture it paints. The people are distraught, especially those in the Northern Kingdom which was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Not only that but, as we read in verse 7, those in neighbouring countries mock them: “You have made us the derision of our neighbours, and our enemies laugh us to scorn.”

As was often the case, the cause of their distress was God’s anger. The people believed He was punishing them for their sins and the burning question on their minds was, how long ‘it’ was going to last? We find the question in verses 5 and 6 of the psalm: “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry at your people’s prayer? You feed them with the bread of tears; you give them abundance of tears to drink.” When in the midst of suffering, as during the height of the pandemic or the war in Ukraine, time seems to stand still and we long for it to be over. But when? Yet the people still turn to God for help. Their faith remains strong enough for that. Indeed, in verse 1 we have a reference to God as a Shepherd: “Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, you that led Joseph like a flock.” We are used to thinking of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd,”[see John 10.11-16], but it is quite rare to find occasions when God is referred to as a shepherd in the Old Testament. The obvious place is in Psalm 23, but apart from Genesis 48.15 and 49.24, I can’t find any more references. Joseph is referred to in verse 1 of Psalm 80, probably because he was the father of Benjamin and Manasseh mentioned in verse 2.

Holding on to faith in God when things are falling apart doesn’t come easily to many people. It used to be said that in Old Testament times people doubted God’s goodness when things went wrong whereas now, people doubt His existence. There’s some truth in that. The author of Psalm doesn’t go as far as to doubt God’s goodness, but he clearly feels the relationship has broken down. It is a dilemma. He believes the people are being punished by God because they have sinned (the normal reaction in the Old Testament period). However, he also knows that only God can help the people. But when? “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry at your people’s prayer?” It may seem strange that the Church’s lectionary should include this psalm a week before Christmas! Couldn’t there be one which is more cheerful? Yet, for Christians, the complete answer to the question “how long?” is in the coming of Jesus. Verse 2 begins, “Shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.” Jesus said that he is the “Light of the world!” In Jesus, God shines forth! The waiting is over: well, almost!

Faithful shepherd of your people as we look for the light of your countenance, restore in us
the image of your glory and graft us into the risen life of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

[Prayer at the end of Psalm 80 on Common Worship, Daily Prayer.]

All kings shall fall down before him!

A Reflection on Psalm 72.1-7 by Canon Rob,
4th December, 2nd Sunday of Advent

We are now in the Church’s season of Advent: these four weeks full of expectation and wonderful hymns, like “O come, O come, Emmanuel” with its chorus, “Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” For Christians, Christ is Emmanuel: the Hebrew word meaning “God [is] with us.” As we recalled just two weeks ago, we also celebrate Christ as King and today’s psalm is all about the king. We only use the first seven verses, but verse 11 says, “All kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall do him service.” So it is easy to read Psalm 72 with Jesus very much in our minds.

However, it is likely that the author of Psalm 72 has King Solomon in mind. Indeed, the heading says that it is a psalm of Solomon who prayed, above all else, for the gift of wisdom. [See 1 Kings 3.5-9.] So, as we reflect upon verses 1 – 7, we can see that they describe the ideal king. He will be just, care for the poor, rescue those in need, defend his country against oppressors and bring about peace. Certainly Solomon was one of the great kings of Israel and his name and example live on. Yet, again as you reflect upon these verses and think of Christ, our King, you might also want to read Luke 4.16-19 where Jesus joins the people in the synagogue in his home town and reads to them from the prophet Isaiah [Isaiah 61.1-2]: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Christ is not just “a king”, but “The King” whom all others kneel before.

But, still in the season of Advent, we are in danger of getting ahead of ourselves, having in our minds the image of the 3 Kings who visit the child Jesus at Bethlehem. Let us wait patiently for that moment, and instead continue to reflect upon the verses of our psalm for today, especially on verse 6 which may seem strange and out of context. In the second paragraph above we saw what the attributes are of the ‘ideal’ king. Now the prayer continues, “May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.” God’s promise to King David, Solomon’s father, was that his kingdom would be prosperous. So in verse 6, that is likened to the rain which stimulates growth. [See 2 Samuel.3-4] Those who are subjects of the king will flourish for all time. We find the same sentiment in Psalm 92 verse 12: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.” Cedar trees can grow to become giants which last a great many years and in the psalm they are a metaphor for the kingdom, under this king, which will grow from strength to strength and last for ever.

Verse 5 of today’s psalm puts this beautifully: “May he live as long as the sun and moon endure, from one generation to another.” We find this echoed in the Lord’s Prayer when we say, “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.” During this season of Advent we are looking forward to the coming of Christ both at Bethlehem and at the Second Coming when, as we say in the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” and remembering our psalm today, the Creed continues, “and his kingdom shall have no end.” Without doubt, Solomon was a wise and good king, even more so than his father before him. However, the real King of Israel and subsequently the whole world, is God. In our own day and in this United Kingdom, Charles is now King but he reigns under the authority of God. God’s Kingdom may not be of this world, but His Son, Christ The King, came to show us the Kingdom. Through the coming of Christ, God’s reign is here.

“The advent of our King our prayers must now employ,
and we must hymns of welcome sing in strains of holy joy.”

[Hymn 633 in Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New]

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