Facing our Fear

A Reflection on Psalm 27.1-11 by Canon Rob,
22nd January 2023, the Third Sunday of Epiphany

Today’s psalm is a personal prayer expressing confidence in the God who, as verse 1 puts it, “is my light and my salvation;” and continues, “whom then shall I fear?” The answer to the question is assumed to be: nothing and no one! In these weeks during Epiphany, we are reminded that God in Christ is with us and, as you reflect upon Psalm 27, it will be helpful to keep this in your mind. We can only guess the context in which the author writes. Some commentaries suggest the background is a battle which has been won – perhaps a failed attempt to overrun Jerusalem? It might be that the author is reflecting on God’s presence whilst seeking sanctuary in the Temple. Whatever, he feels completely safe as made clear in verse 2: “When the wicked, even my enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.” The Lord is his stronghold, just as Christians believe that Jesus Christ is with us, saving us, today. If you have sat in an empty church, especially a very old one like St Dunstan’s, you may have experienced a sense of real peace which can best be explained by feeling Christ’s presence and even the prayers of thousands offered through the years.

This is what the author of the psalm is trying to explain in the beautiful words of verses 4, 5 and 6. So great is this peace that he desires only one thing: to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of [his]life.” [Verse 4.] Not for nothing have churches long been places of sanctuary. In the psalm, reference to the “house of the Lord” may be literal but it could be used figuratively, meaning the desire to be in God’s presence always – not just in the Temple or, for us, the church building. We know, by faith, that God is with us always, hence the title Emmanuel given to Jesus, a title meaning “God with us.” God is not limited to what we call “God’s House!” But certain places hold a special meaning for us. How good it is that, after the pandemic, St Dunstan’s is open each day once again! How important it was for the writer of the psalm to have a sacred place to go to, where he could find refuge.

Yet, as other psalms remind us, it is God who is our ultimate refuge. Psalm 46, for example, begins with the words, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In verse 8 of today’s psalm, the author writes, “I will offer in his [God’s] dwelling an oblation with great gladness; I will sing and make music to the Lord.” And we can imagine him praising God as we do during our worship in church today. However, like us, he knows that he can call upon God at all times and in all places. So, verse 9 begins, “Here my voice, O Lord, when I call…” and then he continues in the following verse, “My heart tells of your word, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.” This may recall part of the speech of Moses, in Deuteronomy 4.25-31, where the people are told that when they turn their backs on false idols and “you seek the Lord, you will find him.”

This is true for people of faith for all time and for us, to seek the Lord’s face means to turn to Him, or be still and open and aware of His presence wherever we are, and know in our hearts that He welcomes us and offers us encouragement and hope, not least if we are struggling, or perhaps trying to face something of which we are afraid. We might be heading towards the end of January, and the New Year may seem a long time ago, but much in the news remains the same as it was a few weeks ago and it is perfectly normal to feel anxious about the future. So today’s psalm comes to us at an opportune time, to bring us reassurance and even courage, as we find in one of the hymns set for Epiphany: “Put thou thy trust in God” and includes the verse:

“Give to the wind thy fears; hope and be undismayed:
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears; God shall lift up thy head.”

[Hymn 576 in “Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New”]

The Voice of God

A Reflection on Psalm 29 by Canon Rob,
8th January 2023, the First Sunday after Epiphany

Along with many other Churches, at St Dunstan’s today, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany and remember the Visit of the 3 Kings to the Child Jesus. However, in the Church of England Lectionary, the title is “The Baptism of Christ.” So, near the beginning of another New Year, we reflect upon Psalm 29, set for today, and remember that for all who have been baptised, at whatever age that may have been, that wonderful event also marks a new beginning.

At first sight, this psalm seems a strange choice given the subject for today, especially as it is clearly about a storm. [See verses 3 and 7.] One of my commentaries calls it, “God speaks in a storm!” In the psalm we are told repeatedly about “the voice of the Lord” which: “is upon the waters” [verses 3]; “is mighty in operation” and is “glorious” [verse 4]; “breaks the cedar trees” [verse 5]; “splits the flash of lightning” and “shakes the wilderness” [verse 7]; and in verse 8 “makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.” What has all this got to do with baptism? In verse one, we are encouraged to give God the honour He is due. “Ascribe to the Lord, you powers of heaven, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” Then, as often happens in the psalms, the next verse almost (but not quite) seems to repeat this plea: “Ascribe to the Lord the honour due to his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Verse 9 gives us, perhaps, the main reason for giving God such honour and worship. He “sits enthroned above the water flood” and “is king for evermore.” We celebrate the belief that our God, the Creator of all that exists, is all powerful. There is no other god like Him. So, for a moment near the beginning of this New Year, reflect upon your experience of God and give thanks for those times when you have felt Him close to you and when He has guided you, even ‘spoken’ to you in your heart, through “a storm” in your life.

[Picture by Jeff Haynie]
Now, let’s return to the Baptism of Christ, even though in the calendar year and liturgically, it isn’t that long since we celebrated the Twelve Days of Christmas! The Gospel reading today is Matthew 3.13 – end. There we are told that, as Jesus came out of the water, “a voice from heaven was heard saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, on whom my favour rest.” The voice which we heard speaking seven times in Psalm 29 is here again, this time telling those standing around John the Baptist and Jesus in the River Jordan, that Jesus is the long awaited Saviour. John has prepared the people for his coming. Here is the proof that he is here. Jesus is God with us! Jesus Christ is the Word of God! [See John 1.1-14]

There are many references in the Bible to the voice of God. In the wonderful creation myth in Chapter 1 of Genesis, containing more truth than taking it literally, God speaks to bring everything into being and in complete contrast to the images of Psalm 29, in 1 Kings 19.9-14, we find the moving story of God speaking to the prophet Elijah, who has run away from the people who are out to kill him. But here, God speaks in a “still, small voice.” Let me encourage you to ponder this story for a few minutes, and reflect upon how God may speak to you and how ready you are to hear His voice. It may surprise you for we are often so involved with getting on with life, trying to cope when things go wrong, or simply being ‘too busy.’ God speaks today as He always has done just as Jesus spoke to calm the storm. [Matthew 8.23-27.] “Peace, be still!” It is that peace of God which passes all understanding but which, whenever we experience it, we know it to be true. May we all hear God’s voice and through this New Year receive His gift of peace throughout the world.

Open our ears to hear you, O God, and our mouths to proclaim your glory
and the beauty of your holiness as revealed to us in your Son, Jesus Christ.

[Prayer at the end of Psalm 29 in Common Worship Daily Prayer]

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