A Natural Celebration

An extra Reflection for the Coronation based on Psalm 122

The last coronation of a British monarch took place seventy years ago and most us will not remember that wonderful occasion when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey. Now, we look forward to the coronation of King Charles III and his wife Camilla. Whilst it has undergone several changes through the years, St Dunstan drew up the original liturgy, for the coronation of King Edgar in 973AD. (St Dunstan’s Church contains a stained glass window of Dunstan which includes a picture of that coronation.)

Psalm 122 was first sung at the coronation of Charles I and Sir Hubert Parry’s setting has been used since the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, sung at the entrance of the monarch into Westminster Abbey. The title in one of my commentaries for Psalm 122 is “Joy on Arrival.” Parry’s beautiful setting, reflects the solemnity and grandeur of the occasion, with it’s opening words, “I was glad!” The composer added the words, “Vivat Rex!” and “Vivat Regina!” [Long live the King/Queen] making the psalm even more appropriate for this solemn act of worship which combines the hopes of the nation.

Of course the psalm dates back many years before any coronation of a British monarch. It was written to recall the joy of being invited to join a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. As verse 1 says, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’.” Such pilgrimages were thwart with danger for those who travelled alone. So being invited to share the journey with others was especially important. Imagine the joy, what we might call the ‘wow factor,’ behind verse 2. The pilgrims have arrived at their destination, ready to join the crowd as they worship in the Temple! “And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” If you watched the recent BBC2 television series, “Pilgrimage,” you will recall the sheer joy and awe on the faces of those who arrive at Fatima, having walked together for 15 days, sharing stories about their faith, or their searching for one. Such a programme gives a clue to the emotions lying behind Psalm 122.

From verse 6, the mood changes: from celebrating the end of the pilgrimage to a call to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” This change in mood is reflected in the change of music and tempo. And perhaps it is in this and the following verses which is why Psalm 122 is so fitting for this great occasion. For Jerusalem was, for the author of the psalm, the place where impartial justice was assumed to be given and this justice, along with truth and mercy its companions, were – and still are – essential for the welfare of a nation. They are needed to help its citizens to live together in harmony, though we know from experience that this isn’t always the case even in a country like ours. Justice, truth and mercy are also what God requires of us and for many years the monarch was considered to be the one whose role included the administration of these things. Hence, perhaps, the phrase “thrones of justice” and where that exists there can be peace, the peace which verses 7 and 8 of the psalm speak of: “‘Peace be within your walls and tranquillity within your palaces.’ For my kindred and companions’ sake, I will pray that peace be with you.”

The pilgrim, who began his journey alone until he was joined by others, has arrived and in the last verse he continues his prayer for those who joined him and for all the pilgrims and residents of the city. “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do your good.” Being with others has helped him to see that he shares responsibility for peace.

An Answer to Prayer

A Reflection on Psalm 116.1-7 by Canon Rob,
23rd April 2023, The Third Sunday of Easter

In his book, “How to Pray,” John Pritchard – who was Bishop of Oxford until 2014 – wrote, “Prayer is the gift of ourselves to God in response to the gifts he has given to us…. Prayer is holding open the door of opportunity in places of despair. Prayer is struggle, joy, laughter and pain.” As you reflect upon the verses of today’s psalm, you may find it helpful to keep these words in mind especially if you haven’t thought of prayer in these ways before. Prayer can take several forms, but one will almost certainly be “asking prayers” and they are legitimate because, during a lesson about prayer, Jesus said, “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you….” [See also Luke’s Gospel 11.1-13.]

Psalm 116 is a personal prayer of thanksgiving after the writer has recovered from a very serious, possibly terminal, illness. If you read the first verse several times you may sense the sheer relief and joy being expressed. “I love the Lord, for he has heard the voice of my supplication; because he inclined his ear to me on the day I called to him.” Then, in verse two, we can see how ill he had been. “The snares of death encompassed me….” Coping with this illness had been a real struggle: “by grief and sorrow was I held.” Yet, even when he was at his lowest, he knew that God would listen to his prayer. [See verse 3.]

Some scholars suggest that today’s psalm is reminiscent of King Hezekiah’s prayer of thanksgiving after he recovered from a severe illness. [See Isaiah Chapter 38 in the Old Testament, especially verses 9 – 20.] Whether or not that is the case, Hezekiah’s prayer is heartfelt. Just as important, the illness was a turning point in the King’s life just as his illness was for the author of the psalm. Hezekiah says, “Lord, I will live for you, for you alone…” The psalmist says in verse 14 – beyond our reading today – “O Lord, I am your servant….” This is life-changing. For both the author of the psalm and King Hezekiah, their prayers have not only been heard by God, God has answered. They are healed and they offer their lives in His service. Years later, this was to be the same when Jesus healed those who were sick. Their lives would never be the same because they experienced, through Jesus, what the writer of Psalm 116 experienced: a God who “is full of compassion.” [See verse 4.]

Allan Harman, in his commentary on the psalms captures this experience well, when considering verse 6: “Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has been gracious to you.” Harman writes, “The needy child has met with gracious, parental care, and there is abundant rest for the soul trusting in Him.” God is experienced as the loving parent, which is certainly not always the case in the Old Testament. No wonder then that the author of the psalm wants to serve God in whose presence he now knows he lives. God can be trusted with his life and he rejoices over this new relationship in verse 8, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” These words are echoed in Psalm 56 verse 12 where,addressing the Lord, the author says, “…you will deliver my soul from death and my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living.” Both are about being constantly in God’s presence: a presence which brings light and life. Presumably this is why these verses from Psalm 116 are chosen for use during Eastertide when we celebrate the enduring presence of the Risen Christ, who is the Light of the world and whose gift is life in all its fullness. [See John 10.10]

Psalm 116 is a prayer of thanksgiving because God has rescued the author from death and that will be true for others who have recovered from a serious illness. The prayer has been answered in the way that was hoped. But that isn’t always the case as we know. Other psalms address this and, no doubt, we will meet them in other Reflections during this year. For today though we celebrate!

“Risen Christ….. strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace…”

Thine be the Glory

A Reflection on Psalm 118.14-24 by Canon Rob,
9th April 2023, Easter Day

The hymn, “Thine be the Glory” (672 in the hymn book we use at St Dunstan’s) always brought our Easter Morning Eucharist to an end at the Church of the Transfiguration in Kempston, near Bedford, where I was the Vicar for 15 happy years. The worship was very much like ours at St Dunstan’s, but what made singing this hymn memorable was that it was the only occasion when we all let our hair down and vigorously waved the pew sheets each time we reached the chorus!! “Thine be the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son, endless is the vict’ry thou o’er death has won.” It was simple joy after weeks of learning through Lent and entering the pain of Holy Week.

We find the same joy in today’s psalm which was almost certainly written to celebrate a great national event and which is perfect for Easter Day. Verse 14, where our reading begins, clearly recalls the Song of Moses, following the Israelites’ safe crossing of the Red Sea, which you can read about in the Book of Exodus Chapter 15. Verse 2 of that chapter in the NRSV translation of the Bible says, “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation.” The psalm is a hymn of praise to God who, alone, has won a great victory and has saved His people.

Some commentators believe Psalm 118 was written to celebrate victory after a battle in which many suffered. If so, then verses 14 – 18 may be the king, or other leader, retelling the relief when it was over. Verse 15 might possibly be a reference to the soldiers’ celebration: “Joyful shouts of salvation sound from the tents of the righteous.” Certainly verse 16 are words spoken, or sung, praising God: “The right hand of the Lord does mighty deeds; the right hand of the Lord raises up.” Then, like the earlier verses which we don’t use today, the tone becomes personal: “I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord. The Lord has punished me sorely, but he has not given me over to death.” As you reflect upon these words, it’s not difficult to see why these verses are set for today. Again, as you reflect upon verse 19, you can imagine a procession reaching Jerusalem, or perhaps another major city, with the king at the front shouting: “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and give thanks to the Lord.” The national celebration, mentioned above, will soon begin!

Verse 22 may sound familiar to you. They are words which were spoken by Jesus, about himself. We find them in Matthew 21.42 when, having told the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard (where Jesus is the son of the owner of the vineyard who is killed by the tenants) he says, “Haven’t you ever read what the Scriptures say? ‘The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all.’” [See also Mark 12.10, Luke 20.17, Acts 4.8-12 and 1 Peter 2.1-10. You might also like to look up Isaiah 28.14-17.] Verses 23 and 24 are important for us at Easter for they remind us that all that happens is because God acts. “This is the Lord’s doing…” and “This is the day that the Lord has made….” In her book, “Let Me Go There”, Paula Gooder says that the writers of the Bible “describe God’s character in terms of what he had done.” In the Old Testament, God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. In the New Testament God raised Jesus from the dead. She believes it is possible to read the Bible as if everything happened in the past. But she says, “If God has saved people in the past we can be confident that he will do so again and again.” We find confirmation of this in the first and last verses of Psalm 118: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.

God bless you this Easter time. 

God of glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope; for a new day has dawned and the way of life stands open in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
[Common Worship Alternative Collect for Easter Day]

A Cry of Anguish

A Reflection on Psalm 130 by Canon Rob,
26th March 2023, the Fifth Sunday of Lent

One of the library books which I have recently read is “The Half Life of Joshua Jones” by Danny Scheinmann. At times strange, at others amusing and disturbing. Joshua’s father had died in an accident whilst caving in Wales when Joshua was a child. His body was never found. When he is grown up, Joshua is given the helmet which his father was wearing and which had been recently found in the cave. Joshua feels compelled to go into the cave himself to the place where his father died. He wears his father’s helmet and clambers down. “A floodgate unlocked inside me and I began to cry…. I cried for the twenty five years of not crying….. I don’t think I have experienced a blackness so black.” How like the experience expressed in the first verse of today’s psalm: “Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” It is heartbreaking. It is also an experience which many have gone through, not least in a time of grief. To have one’s heart broken is the cost of love.

The author of Psalm 130 is grief-stricken, not because of the death of a loved-one but because he is overwhelmed by guilt. We are not told what sins he has committed, but they weigh very heavily upon him. In verse 1 he cries to the Lord to hear him, even from the deep and distressed place in which he finds himself: “…let your [the Lord’s] ears consider well the voice of my supplication.” In verse 2 we see that the author knows he deserves to be punished, especially if the Lord is keeping a list of all his sins. The Good News translation of verse 2 shows more clearly what would happen if God “kept a record of our sins.” It continues, “who could escape being condemned?” No wonder the writer of the psalm is in so much anguish!! Yet there is hope for him still. In verse 3 he expresses his belief that there is forgiveness with God. Perhaps this belief has come from the depths of his being too: the faith that God – who is often experienced in the Old Testament as a jealous, angry and judgemental God – is also a forgiving God. And this faith leads him to fear God: to reverence Him. There is light at the end of the tunnel. However, for those who, like the author of the psalm, have been in that deep, dark place, the tunnel may seem very long and when that is so, it is good, if possible, to remember that we are often called to be patient in hope. Verse 4 puts it this way: “I wait for the Lord; my souls waits for him; in his word is my hope.” In the dark place, time seems to stand still. Yet logically we know that it doesn’t do so. The clock continues to tick even when we cannot hear it. Verse 5 repeats the need to wait, using the example of a watchmen on duty. “My soul waits for the Lord, more than the night watch for the morning.”

Lent is our time for watching and waiting. As Paula Gooder says in her book, “Let Me Go There: The Spirit of Lent”:Being a disciple is more about spending time in the presence of Jesus, and learning to see the world as he sees it, than it is about checking off a ‘to-do’ list.”

The Writer of today’s psalm has clearly found the benefits of watching and waiting. For in verses 6 and 7 he encourages others to follow his example. “O Israel wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; With him is plenteous redemption and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” Until these verses, Psalm 130 is a personal plea for mercy. Now though, it becomes a call to the nation because he realises that all people sin. Perhaps there is another lesson for us here: as well as watching and waiting? Is it that our prayers, hopefully each day, might begin with personal devotion which then overflow into petitions for others? If so might our petitions be more heartfelt because we have learned a little more to see others as Our Lord sees them?

“O God, the healer of body and soul, send us your salvation and make us whole;
…and bring us to your holy throne to live for ever with you in glory.”

[From the prayer at the end of Psalm 38]

Call to Worship

A Reflection on Psalm 95 by Canon Rob,
12th March 2023, the Third Sunday of Lent

If you are familiar with the Book of Common Prayer, you may remember using today’s psalm, headed “the Venite.” and set to be used each day, with one or two exceptions, at Morning Prayer. It was to be said or sung at the beginning of each morning’s worship reminding us that we are to put God, and our worship of Him, first. In the Prayer Book version it can be found on page 65 of Common Worship where you will see that the last four verses are in brackets. In “Common Worship: Daily Prayers,” it is used at Morning Prayer only on Fridays and the last four verses are omitted. These changes were made because the version in the BCP is from the King James Bible and the language was thought to be too stern today. Interestingly in the Psalter, in “Common Worship” and which I use for these Reflections, Psalm 95 is printed in full. I have gone into detail about this because it shows that even in Church worship – which many consider outdated – fashions change. Today we prefer to focus on the Love of God, rather than His Judgement, and the first seven verses of Psalm 95 are clearly words of praise. However, before we dismiss verses 8 to 11 of the psalm, you may like to look up The Letter to the Hebrews, in the New Testament. In Chapter 3, verses 7 – 11, you will find the words of “the Venite” and they are followed by a warning not to rebel against God. Instead the people are told to encourage each other every day in the ways of God. Only then will they find the “rest” which the Lord alone can provide.

Back to the beginning! Verses 1 and 2 are an invitation to share in the worship of the Lord who the author of the psalm knows as “the rock of our salvation.” In verse 22 of the previous psalm we read, “….the Lord has become my stronghold and my God the rock of my trust.” Here is a picture of the rock of Gibraltar!! It is unshakeable, always present, totally dependent. God is like this. More than that verse 3 says, “…the Lord is a great God and a great king above all gods.” The God we find in the Book of Psalms is supreme and unique. Time and again the people of Israel were reminded that there is only One God and as verses 4 and 5 tell us, He is the Supreme Creator: “In his hand are the depths of the earth and the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have moulded the dry land.” As you reflect upon these words, note that all that is created belongs to God. As an example of this the writer of the psalm says, “the sea is his.” The reason? Because God made it! We are rightly increasingly concerned for the future of the planet and all that lives here. We often see it on our television screens and we know that time is running out. But it isn’t just for our sake, for the sake of the flora and fauna who share the earth with us, or all the plants and creatures who inhabit the oceans, that we must change much of the way we live. It is also for God’s sake.

In this last paragraph, let us return to celebration and joy, the theme of the opening verses of today’s psalm. And we find it in verses 6 and 7. Verse 6 is very much like the opening verse, being an invitation to worship God and “kneel before the Lord our Maker.” The psalms were originally sung by the Jewish people in the Temple and in the local synagogues. However, we too experience the joy of singing hymns in our worship today, or listening to the choir singing an anthem which lifts our spirits. If we needed a reason to do these things, verse 7 provides it: “For he is our God; we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” (You may prefer to reflect upon the translation of the words in the picture above.) Whichever, we worship God as our Father and the Father of us all and Psalm 95 is, more than anything else, an invitation to share that worship with all who choose to join us.

Give me a joyful heart, O Lord, remembering that you
are my maker and the shaper of my destiny. Amen.

[Prayer at the end of Psalm 95 in Psalms through the Year by Marshall Johnson.]

The Joy of Forgiveness

A Reflection on Psalm 32 by Canon Rob,
26th February 2023, the First Sunday of Lent

I am pretty sure that all of us who read and reflect upon this psalm will know what it is to feel guilty. Guilt can be a very heavy burden and, sadly, many carry it for years and suffer because of it, both mentally and physically. However, this beautiful psalm offers the assurance that forgiveness awaits us and when received brings joy and a blessed relief. As you reflect upon today’s psalm, you may find it helpful to look at the picture above which shows the Prodigal Son returning to his father and being forgiven by him. The eye contact between them and the hug they share says it all. [See Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.11-32.] Psalm 32 is perfect for the beginning of Lent. There will be other psalms, asking for forgiveness, to be said or sung during this season of repentance, but this one is special not least because the first verse encourages us not to be miserable during these forty days: “Happy the one whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is covered.” As Jane Williams says in the introduction to her book we are invited to consider during Lent, “…we are preparing to meet and to recognise the mercy of God….which means returning home, like the Prodigal Son, to find God waiting, with arms outstretched, to welcome us home to the feast that is laid for us.”  Knowing we are forgiven, Lent helps us prepare for the joy which is to come!

God’s forgiveness is offered freely. However, it is not to be received lightly. It ought to lead to a change in attitude, even behaviour. Psalm 32 reminds us of this. In verse 2 we read, “Happy the one….in whose spirit there is no guile.” Or in the Good News version, “…who is free from all deceit.” Here, deceit means being crafty, or perhaps, “trying to pull the wool over God’s eyes.” Not that we can of course, as God knows us completely. But the author of the psalms knows we might be tempted to try – just as Adam and Eve tried to hide from God in the Garden of Eden after they disobeyed the Lord. [See Genesis 3.]

Verse 3, in the translation in Common Worship, may not be the most helpful: “For I held my tongue; my bones wasted away.” The New Revised Standard Version is better: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away.” The ‘silence’ refers to not confessing, even refusing to admit a sin, and the physical effect is graphically described as you will be able to picture in your mind if you pause to think about the “body wasted away” through guilt. In other words, the life was sucked out of him! However, the remedy quickly follows as the outcome of confession is revealed in verse 6: “you (the Lord) forgave the guilt of my sin.” Making his confession becomes the turning point and most of the rest of the psalm is an encouragement to all who read it and reflect upon it.

Firstly, in verses 7 and 8, the forgiven sinner encourages his readers to follow his example. “Therefore let all the faithful make their prayer to you in time of trouble….” Then, in verses 9 and 10, the Lord is speaking, reassuring those who hear. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go……” Clearly the Lord does not abandon sinners! On the contrary, He guides and cares for them. Finally, the last two verses, begin with a warning to those who do not learn the lesson which the writer has learned: “Great tribulations remain for the wicked…” However, those who follow his example find that, “…mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord. ” Gladness and joy are expressed in the last verse. The lesson the author has learned has been difficult-admitting we have sinned is seldom easy-but it has been a life-changing lesson. The same can be true for us and this season of Lent is a time to experience the gladness and joy too!

Have  mercy on your prodigal children, O God, and teach us to acknowledge our sinfulness,
so that, in repentance, we may come to know your forgiveness,
which is the fulfilment of our life in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
[Prayer at the end of Psalm 32 in ‘Common Worship, Daily Prayer’]

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!

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]

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]


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