Give thanks to the Lord!

A Reflection on Psalm Psalm 136 by Canon Rob,
12th February, the Second Sunday before Lent

Some psalms are more memorable than others and the psalm set for today is, to my shame, one of those I always remember, but for the wrong reasons! Whenever we said or sung it at theological college my heart sank simply because the second half of every verse is repeated throughout the entire psalm and I found it totally boring. Who wants to keep singing or saying, over and over again, “for his mercy endures for ever?” What did God think of being told the same thing twenty six times? Surely He would get the message after two or three?

The recitation of the psalms is an expression of all human experience, the joys and the sorrows, and whilst many are offered to God, for example Psalm 85 which begins, “Lord, you were gracious to your land….” others, like Psalm 136, are directed towards the people. So, today’s psalm addresses those who have come to the Temple, or synagogue, to share in the worship of God: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is gracious….” There are many psalms praising God, but this one is unique because of the refrain being included in every verse. Yet if you read today’s psalm slowly and reflect upon it, you will see that the author has much to give thanks to God for. After the call to praise in the opening verses, the reader is encouraged to praise God for the Creation (verses 4-9); for freedom from slavery at the Exodus (10-15); for the time walking in the Wilderness, eventually ending in the Promised Land (16); for the battles won (17-22) and a final summing up of what God has done, and continues to do, for His People (23-26). They have suffered much but, through the words of this psalm and looking back, they have much to thank God for too and much to be hopeful about.

Last year’s Christmas edition of the “Big Issue” included a two page article called “Christmas in a Bomb Shelter.” It was an interview with a young woman in Ukraine who is involved in a project to help mothers and children evacuated from Kharviv. Over 300 scared adults and children are living in a bomb shelter but they wanted to celebrate Christmas and they did so, managing to get a little extra food and small gifts for the children. The article ends, “Christmas is about hope. And it is very good to have a sense of hope at this time. And to remember that it’s all going to pass and good things are going to stay.” Christmas may seem a long time ago but it is this sense of hope that we find in Psalm 136, a hope which doesn’t give in, a hope which trusts in God who is known and experienced as both the Creator and Redeemer. It is this same hope which we find in the Gospel reading for today: Matthew 6.25-end.

Reflecting on the psalm, you may feel that there is little in it appropriate to our experiences today. Here, in a beautiful part of England, we don’t experience the slavery which the early Israelites did in Egypt. There is no Exodus or Wandering in the Wilderness for us. Today’s Britain may not feel like the ‘promised land’ but life is still far better for most of us most of the time than it is for those, say, in Ukraine, or Iran, Afghanistan or East Africa and there is much to praise God for even, and perhaps especially, when we are going through a rough time. Look again at verse 23 which continues to speak about God, “Who remembered us when we were in trouble” and verse 25, “Who gives food to all creatures.” The author is looking back, but the truth conveyed is constant. God remembers us now when we, as a nation, are in trouble. Politicians may give a positive spin on things and people are sceptical when they do so. Who can we trust? The answer is in the Psalm for today! The One and Only who is our Creator and Redeemer. “His mercy endures forever!” The Hebrew word for “mercy” here is ‘hesed’ and for the author of the psalm, it can mean goodness, faithfulness, devotion, kindness and grace. In other words, those things which make up the divine essence, which try and describe who God is, and for us it is the God who loves us so much that He sent His Son to save the whole world for all time.

Continue to remember us, Lord, as you have in ages past.  For your mercy endures for ever!

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