A Great Celebration? Not entirely

A Reflection on Psalm 149 by Canon Rob
September 10th, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

As the Book of Psalms, the hymn book of the Jewish people, comes to an end, the theme is giving praise to God, celebrating His goodness. It is as if those who compiled the book wanted to end on a high! As I have said before, the great thing about the psalms is that they express every emotion common to all human beings. In them we find tragedy and sorrow, wonder and joy and the whole range between. Today’s psalm is full of joy but, unlike Psalm 150 say, it has a “twist in its tail.” It begins with rejoicing but the tone changes completely in the last four verses. We are taken from music and dancing to vengeance! God is praised because He has won for His people a great victory. Yet the war is not over. Verses 5 and 6 sum up the situation very well. “Let the faithful be joyful in glory; let them rejoice in their ranks. With the praises of God in their mouths and a two-edged sword in their ranks.” (Note the change in the font denoting a change in tone.) The two-edged sword is to be used “to execute vengeance on the nations.” [Verse 6b] From reading about the two World Wars, it is clear that there were victories and set backs as, perhaps, there are in all wars – including that in Ukraine. The same seems to be true here.

As with all the psalms, we can’t be sure what battle the author has in mind when he wrote Psalm 149. However, as you reflect upon the words, note in verse 4 that “the Lord has pleasure in his people.” Then in verse 7 punishment is to be “on the peoples.” Here we see the distinction between the people of God, with whom God is pleased this time, and the “peoples” who are clearly the enemy. The “peoples” are those who do not acknowledge the One, True God and who will face judgement. [See verse 9]. The prophet Isaiah spoke of this. In Chapter 61, we read words which Jesus quoted to describe his mission and ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” [See Luke 4.18-19] However, he ends his speech the line before Isaiah describes “…a day of vengeance of our God.” [Isaiah 61.2a in the New English Bible.]

The writer of the psalm believes that God will punish the enemy, the peoples, now, but several commentators suggest that the judgement upon them which he writes about will take place sometime in the future. Although we often come across the contrast between God’s “faithful servants” [see verses 9] and “the nations” [see verse 7], something which is unusual in the psalms is the clear link between the present and future which we find in Psalm 149. Could the psalmist have in mind the coming of the Messiah, the One from God, who will destroy all enemies and free His people for all time? As always we need to be careful that we don’t read into the scriptures what isn’t there. However, it is possible and Christians reflecting on this psalm do so believing that Jesus Christ is that Messiah who will, as we say in the Creed, “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

Judgement isn’t confined to the Old Testament although I recall conversations about how the New Testament focuses more on God’s Love rather than His anger which we find very much in the Old. Several of Jesus’ parables allude to God’s judgement. [See that of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25.31-46.] St Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians [6.1-3] suggests that God’s people will be involved in judging the world: something which the author of today’s psalm may have had in mind when he wrote verse 5. “Let the faithful be joyful in glory; let them rejoice in their ranks,” As we reflect on these words of pride, we do well to recall with humility our membership of God’s family.

May the mind of Christ my Saviour live in me from day to day,
by his love and pow’r controlling all I do and say.
[Hymn 447, Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New]

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Phew! The danger is over.

A Reflection on Psalm 124 by Canon Rob,
August 27th, The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

One of the things which many people find difficult is not being in control. This has always been part of human nature, but today it may be even more common, at a personal, national and international level. Take the current debate about AI, for example. Clearly there are benefits to AI not least for the NHS. However, there is increasing anxiety about it taking on a ‘life of its own,’ getting ‘out of control.’ A message which runs through the Bible is that God is in control. God calls human beings, like Moses, to help bring about His will. However, it is God who intervened to free His people from Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land. God intervened at the Incarnation: the birth of Jesus. As you reflect on Psalm 124 you may be able to recall a time, or times, when God intervened in your life.

Today’s psalm is the result of God intervening at a time when those He loved were in danger. Although we don’t know what that was, reading verses 2 – 4, we can assume the psalmist is writing about an attack of some sort. It was terrifying. “If the Lord had not been on our side, when enemies rose up against us; Then would they have swallowed us alive when their anger burned against us; Then would the waters have overwhelmed us and the torrent gone over our soul…” The author is surely writing figuratively but, whilst a very different example, we can perhaps sense a little how terrible the experience was as we see the devastation caused by the wildfires in the island of Maui, Hawaii, where the town of Lahaina has been completely destroyed. What is being described by the writer of the psalm and what we see on our television screens, is catastrophic and out of our control. Indeed verse 4 is almost primeval, referring to the waters which could have overwhelmed the people. It is reminiscent of Genesis Chapter 1, verse 2 at the beginning of the creation story: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” As you reflect on today’s psalm, you might also recall the story of Noah and the Ark in Genesis Chapters 7 – 9, where “the waters of the flood came on earth.” [Genesis 7.10] We might think the psalmist was exaggerating, but it was not uncommon for flash floods to occur and, as today, the idea of being covered in water with no chance of escape, was terrifying. Remember those who lost their lives in the submersible, Titan, in June?

No wonder then, that Psalm 124 is fulsome in its praise of God. Only seven verses long, four of them identify God as the source of help. The Lord was on their side [verses 1 and 2], God is praised because He has “not given (the people) over to be a prey” for the enemy [verse 5] and in verse 6 the author describes freedom like that of a bird who is delivered because “the snare is broken.” A message which the author wants his readers to understand is that God, the Creator of all, has the power and desire to constantly care for His people. We might think we are in control of our lives, the lives of others and, with the increasing concern over climate change, the future of this planet. However, the psalm tells us otherwise. Those who have faith know that God is in the past, present and future and we are urged to entrust our lives and souls into His hands. The author of the First Letter of Peter in the New Testament puts it this way: “…even those who suffer, if it be according to God’s will, should commit their souls to him – by doing good; their Maker will not fail them.” [1 Peter 4.19] The first part of this quotation may make us feel uncomfortable today, but remember that many in the Early Church suffered and died for their faith. It gave them the courage to go on. The truth to hold on to is that no matter what we go through, or how much we feel we are not in control, God is with us today, as He was in the past and as He always will be in the future.

“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who has made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 124 verse 7]
Thanks be to God!

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Remembering what God has done

A Reflection on Psalm 105.1-10 by Canon Rob,
August 13th, The Tenth Sunday after Trinity.

Reflection illustrationOne of the readings set for this morning’s Eucharist is from the Book of Genesis: Chapter 37, verses 1-4 and 12-28. It tells the story of Joseph’s jealous brothers who plot to get rid of him. They sell him for twenty pieces of silver to a group of Ishmaelites who take him to Egypt. Far from being a disaster, this is the beginning of a new and privileged life for Joseph who, in Genesis 45, tells his brothers all that has happened to him was down to God. This is just one example of how God has worked in the past as He continues to do today.

Psalm 105 is a celebration of all that God has done through Abraham and his descendants up to the time when His Chosen People entered the Promised Land. Throughout its 45 verses it recalls the wonderful deeds of God, and it begins with an encouragement to “give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name; make known his deeds among the people.” Only verses 1 – 10 are set to be used today, but if you take the time to read all the verses you will be able to recall other stories from the Old Testament: about Isaac; Jacob; Joseph; Moses and Aaron. When we are going through a time of crisis, personally, nationally or internationally it is often difficult to see where God is. However, as we look back on past experiences, we can sometimes see the ‘hand of God’ in whatever that experience was. So it is with today’s psalm and as you reflect upon the verses set for today, you may like to reflect on something which you have gone through and which, only with hindsight, you recognise that God was with you as He was with the early Israelites.

Reflection illustrationCommentators point out that the first fifteen verses of Psalm 105 are found in the First Book of Chronicles, Chapter 16, verses 8 – 22. [You can find this book in the Old Testament immediately after the Second Book of Kings.] It was a hymn of praise sung during the reign of King David when the Ark of the Covenant was carried into the Temple and formed part of the liturgy used that day, just as the psalms can form part of our liturgy today – as indeed they do at Evensong. And perhaps a key verse for us to especially reflect upon is verse 3 – shown above. In the Common Worship version, the words are, “Rejoice in the praise of his [God’s] holy name; let the hearts of them rejoice who seek the Lord.” However, the translation in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is probably more accurate and calls us to Glory in God’s holy name! Glory denotes the special presence of God, which we are reminded of at the Eucharist, when the bread and wine are blessed [consecrated] and become the Body and Blood of Christ. Christ is truly present and through receiving Holy Communion, we are strengthened and sustained by his presence. The Ark of the Covenant symbolised the presence of God for the People of Israel.

Reflection illustrationThe remaining verses set for today are about the covenant God made with Abraham. [See especially verses 8 – 10.] However, this promise is not just made to Abraham but, as verse 8 says, “the promise that he made for a thousand generations.” In other words, for all time, and it was this covenant which was fulfilled in and through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The covenant made with Abraham, in verse 11, was about the Promised Land and as we see in verses 9 and 10, it was confirmed with Isaac and Jacob as well. Whilst we can rightly use the verses of today’s psalm as a hymn of praise, we do so against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the violence in Israel/Palestine. This hymn of praise then can also become for us a reminder to pray for peace in the whole world which God created for all.

God of our fathers, you brought your people out of slavery and led them to freedom in the promised land;
feed us on our journey with the bread of heaven that we may hunger and thirst for righteousness
until your kingdom comes; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
[Prayer at the end of Psalm 105 in Common Worship Daily Prayer]

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A Prayer for Guidance

A Reflection on Psalm 86.11-end by Canon Rob,
23rd July, The Seventh Sunday after Trinity

A month ago we had the opportunity to reflect on verses 1-10 of Psalm 86, verses which expressed the author’s anxiety, if not depression. Today, our focus is on the later verses of that psalm which are set for this morning’s Eucharist. If you read it in its entirety, you will find that it is almost like reading two very different psalms. Last month the heading was “A cry in the darkness.” Today, it is as if the psalmist has moved on. Having given thanks for all that God has done for him, he asks that God will guide him to do what is right. “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth: knit my heart to you, that I may fear your name.” [Verse 11.] Here we see an act of re-dedication. The cloud of depression is lifting and he knows that God is with him. Indeed he can now thank God for all that God has done for him. In verse 11, as we have seen, he wants to “fear” the Lord. That doesn’t mean to be scared of God. On the contrary in verse 12 we have a clearer idea of what he means: “I will thank you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and glorify your name for evermore.” To fear God is to love God, to trust Him, and that, in turn, leads the believer to glorify – or praise, even thank – God. In verse 13 we find the reason. “For great is your steadfast love towards me, for you have delivered my soul from the depths of the grave.” Before we move on though, reflect upon the words “your truth” again in verse 11. Truth is critical throughout the Bible and when applied to God, it means that God can be relied on completely. He is “a fortress” and “a rock,” analogies which we have come across in several psalms before.

That is important to the author of today’s psalm. He finds himself under attack, presumably from evil men. [See verse 14.] He describes them as a “ruthless horde” who “seek after [his] life.” We have seen this kind of language in several psalms too. This “ruthless horde” are described as “the proud” who “rise up against” him. Whoever they are, and they are not identified, they are arrogant and cause terror to those who are faithful to the One, True, God: the Lord who made a covenant with those who would become His People: especially with Noah in Genesis 9; with Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 17; and with Moses in Exodus – see especially Chapter 24. This covenant, renewed as it was, was a huge privilege for God’s People, but it also laid upon them a huge responsibility, to obey God’s Commandments and to be faithful to Him and Him alone. No wonder then that the People of Israel, God’s own people, had many enemies who did not “set you (God) before their eyes.” [Verse 14.]

The author of Psalm 86 knows God though. Having come through his period of depression, in the earlier verses, he is now certain that God is with him and can be trusted to stand up against the enemy. Those, like him, who trust in the Lord experience Him as, “gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of kindness and truth.” [Verse 15.] These words are reminiscent of those we read in the Book Exodus, Chapter 34, verse 6, when Moses is given the Ten Commandments for the second time. “The Lord then passed in front of him [Moses] and called out, ‘I, the Lord, am a God who is full of compassion and pity, who is not easily angered and who shows great love and faithfulness’.” In the last two verses of today’s psalm, the author prays for strength to keep following God and also that others may see who God really is. “Show me a token of your favour, that those who hate me may see it and be ashamed; because you, O Lord, have helped and comforted me.

God of mercy, who in your great love drew your Son from the depths of the Pit,
bring your people from death to life, that we may rejoice in your compassion
and praise you now and for ever.

[Prayer at the end of Psalm 86 in Common Worship, Daily Prayer]

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A King Prepares for his wedding

A Reflection on Psalm 45.10-end by Canon Rob,
9th July, The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

What a contrast today’s psalm is to the one we reflected upon two week’s ago: [Psalm 86.1-10.] Then the author was in a really bad place, suffering with depression and anxiety. Today though, there is much praise for the King who is soon to be married to a most beautiful woman. In one of my commentaries, the psalm we are reflecting upon is called “An anthem for a royal wedding” and although the verses set for today are 10 – 17, it is clear from verse 1 that the author – who may have been the court poet – is eager to write his hymn. The news is wonderful and he can’t wait to share it! “My heart is astir with gracious words; as I make my song for the king, my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.” It isn’t every day that the King will marry and his bride become a new Queen!

We know from verse 12 that the bride comes from Tyre, a city in Phoenicia, north of Palestine, but she is expected to leave that behind. “Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your own people and your father’s house.” [Verse 10.] We can presume from verse 13 that she is a princess for she is referred to as “The King’s daughter.” Soon though, she will become a wife and Queen and any children she will give birth to will be princes and princesses in her new country and home. Probably it is an arranged marriage and we don’t know how this princess really feels about leaving her father, family and all that is familiar to her. Hopefully though she and her husband will find love, if they do not already share it. What is clear, again from verse 12, is that the rich and famous from Tyre will be attending the wedding and bringing gifts, or tributes, seeking her favour.

Reading through my commentaries on the psalms, some suggest that the wedding is an allegory about the love of God for His Chosen People. The same is suggested about “The Song of Songs,” an erotic love poem, also in the Old Testament. The Church has often been called the Bride of Christ and, again, some reading the psalm may want to draw a similar conclusion. However, as always, we should beware of reading into a Biblical text something which isn’t there or even intended. Can we not simply take Psalm 45 for what it is: a celebration of the coming wedding of a King? If so, we can reflect on the significance of this great occasion.

Whether or not the marriage was arranged, as I have suggested, it would be important in ensuring the endurance of the King’s dynasty. Male heirs were critical as they were in our own country until comparatively recently. It wasn’t just a case of continuing the family name! Any sons born of this royal marriage will be given a position of responsibility and carry out duties on behalf of the King, just as we see with Prince William representing King Charles. “Instead of your fathers you shall have sons, whom you shall make princes over the land.” [verse 16.] All this is reinforced in the last verse: “I will make your name to be remembered through all generations; therefore shall the peoples praise you for ever and ever.” Once again, as you reflect upon the verses of this psalm, you may find it helpful to read the 2nd Book of Samuel, Chapter 7 which is part of the covenant made between God and King David. There we read, in verse 16,the Lord speaking to King David about the future of his kingdom: “Your family shall be established and your kingdom shall stand for all time in my sight, and your throne shall be established for ever.” Perhaps the King referred to in today’s psalm was David himself! Whoever it was, we can give thanks for the love which God gives to all those in close relationships and hope that the King, in the psalm, and his new Bride and Queen found that same love with each other, as have King Charles and Queen Camilla.

Keep me steadfast and honourable, O God,
in my relationships with those I love. Amen. [Marshall D. Johnson]

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A cry in the darkness

A Reflection on Psalm 86.1-10 by Canon Rob,
25th June, The Third Sunday after Trinity

Psalm 86 is a prayer by an individual who is in a bad place. He is in trouble and depressed. Regular readers of these Reflections will know that I am a fan of the local library and, to make a complete change from the books I usually borrow, I have recently read “Lily and the Octopus” by Steven Rowley. It is about the relationship (I think autobiographical) between the author and his dog who, though elderly, he had to decide to have put to sleep because she developed brain cancer. It is a book about love and loss and on the very last page I read, “There isn’t a well-lived life that’s free of loss, and I promise the love will return to you ten-fold.” It must have taken Steven Rowley a long time to reach this conclusion because he was totally devastated: having to make an impossible decision and then to sit and hold Lily whilst she died in the vet’s surgery. The circumstances for the author of today’s psalm will have been very different. However the effect is the same: devastation and darkness, something which most of us will have gone through during a period of grief, whatever the loss may have been.

The first three verses reveal the depth of despair the writer is going through. Verse 1: “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and in misery.” God, please listen! Verse 2: “Preserve my soul, for I am faithful; save your servant, for I put my trust in you.” Yes, God is listening, but will He help me? Verse 3: “Be merciful to me, O Lord, for you are my God; I call upon you all the day long.” I know, God, that you can be merciful. Please show me some of that mercy! None of us can go through life without being hurt. The way we respond varies a great deal though. Some will come through it with their faith in God strengthened. Others are so hurt and disillusioned that they turn their backs on God. Some will become angry and want to know, “Why is this happening to me?” Others will respond to their pain by simply asking, “Why not me?” We don’t know why the writer of the psalm is so depressed, but we do know he clung on to his faith in God, believing that He is “good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love.” [verse 5] and that God will answer his prayer. [Verse 7] It is this recognition which seems to lift the writer out of his deepest gloom, and begin to see, as we would say today, “the bigger picture.” Like him we should be encouraged to pray at all times even when we don’t feel like praying. We may not get the answer we want. We may have to wait a seemingly long time. But there ought to be nothing that we cannot pray to God about.

The “bigger picture” for the author of today’s psalm is expressed in verses 8 – 10. People around him may have other gods, but he is certain that nothing (and no-one) can ever compare with the God in whom he believes and trusts. [Verse 8] That’s because [verse 10] he knows there is only One, True God who is “great” and does “wonderful things.” And how he wishes that “All nations….shall come and worship….and shall glorify [the Lord’s] name.” [Verse 9] The darkness has lifted somewhat, as in the last two pictures and verses from the psalm.

One more thing to notice about Psalm 86 is that most of it is an echo from elsewhere in the Old Testament. Just a few examples for you to find, as you reflect upon it. Verses 1 – 4 echo phrases in other psalms, including 35.10, 50.5, 79.2 and 109.16. Verses 5 -7 are reminiscent of Exodus 34.6-7 where Moses recognises that God is “compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, ever constant and true….” [New English Bible] Then in the last of our two verses today, we find the belief that there is only One True God. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 3.24. You might also find it helpful to see how such words in verses 8-10 of Psalm 86 are found in Barnabas and Paul in Acts 14.14-15. Such faith and trust in God have developed throughout history and whilst each generation will find ways of expressing them, at the heart they remain the same as found in our psalm for today.

Lord, bring us from death to life that we, and the whole world, may always know your compassionate love.

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Joy through imitating Christ

A Reflection on Psalm 112 by Canon Rob,
June 11th 2023, The Feast of St Barnabas.

Here is one of the many icons of St Barnabas showing him holding a scroll. It will be of St Matthew’s Gospel, as on his missionary journeys, Barnabas is believed to have always carried a copy of the Gospel with him. What we know for sure from the Acts of the Apostles is that Barnabas was a “good man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” [Acts 11.24] He was a Cypriot Jew and often accompanied St Paul on his missionary journeys. Tradition has it that he was martyred in Cyprus.

Psalm 112 is therefore fitting for today because it clearly refers to those who are happy, or blessed, because they fear, or have a deep faith in, the Lord. The psalm begins with words of praise for such people! “Alleluia. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and have great delight in his commandments.” They are among the righteous and, as verse 6 says, they “will be held in everlasting remembrance.” Each year, on this day, St Barnabas is remembered and his life and faith celebrated. Psalm 112 continues the theme of the previous psalm, which ends how today’s psalm begins. So, as you reflect on psalm 112, you may find it helpful to look at psalm 111 too. That psalm is in praise of God; Psalm 112 is a hymn of praise about those who are faithful to God.

Verses 2 and 3 of today’s psalm very much reflect the understanding of the people of Israel that blessings poured upon the faithful will continue through the generations, just as the “the sins of the fathers” do. “Their descendants will be mighty in the land, a generation of the faithful that will be blest. Wealth and riches will be in their houses, and their righteousness endures for ever.” Possibly this understanding goes back to Abraham’s relationship with God. Genesis Chapter 12 tells us about God’s call to Abram (as he was originally called) and God says to him, “I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing….And through you I will bless all the nations.” [Genesis 12.1-3] The message of Psalm 112 is that good things can happen to good people. So, in verse 4 those who are righteous are reassured that, “Light shines in the darkness” for them, and in verse 5 they can be encouraged because, “It goes well with those who are generous in lending, and order their affairs with justice.” Those who read this psalm will almost certainly be familiar with the 10 Commandments given to Moses. They are stark and formidably challenging. Today’s psalm is challenging too, but in a way which is perhaps more positive and encouraging.

If you watch “The One Show” on BBC 1 you will have seen “One Big Thank you,” a weekly celebration of someone who does a great deal usually in and for their local communities and often at great cost to themselves. We admire such people. They remind us that human beings can, and often are, generous and caring: something we need to help balance much of what we see or hear in the news. Psalm 112 is about such people and it tells us that they will be rewarded. In verse 9 we read, “They have given freely to the poor, their righteousness stands for ever; their head will be exalted with honour.” Perhaps this seems rather simplistic for us today. How often do we say of someone who we really admire and becomes very ill, “She/he doesn’t deserve that!” But the writer of the psalm will have known that those who have a deep faith in God will be helped to face suffering and believe that it doesn’t have the final word. Verse 7 puts it this way: “They will not be afraid of any evil tidings; their heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.” Such faith brings with it courage and a self- confidence which can help us do what we would otherwise be unable to do. St Barnabas will have found this to be true, faithful as he was to Christ and the Gospel. In giving thanks to God for him, pray that you may continue to grow in faith.

God of truth, help us to keep your law of love and to walk in ways of wisdom,
that we may find true life in Jesus Christ your Son.

[Alternative Collect for Trinity 1]

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The wonderful works of the Lord

A Reflection on Psalm 104.28-36 by Canon Rob,
28th May 2023, The Feast of Pentecost

We have journeyed through Easter and Ascensiontide, celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and his return to his Father, and our Father, in Heaven. Today our celebrations continue as we remember how the first disciples received the Holy Spirit which Jesus had promised them: the Spirit who is God with us always and everywhere. Behind this journey lies the mystery of the Trinity, which we celebrate next Sunday: the Christian belief in the God who is Three in One. As we say in the Creed, our statement of faith: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” It is a mystery, but we know no better way of trying to define God and how we experience Him in our daily lives.

This truth is behind today’s psalm which is the longest in the entire psalter in praise of God and His creation. Only a few verses are set for use today and verse 26 sums up this joyful hymn very well: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” The verses before those set for today include a celebration of the greatness of God and of the earth with its springs and rain, mountains and fields, the food which is provided, the sun and moon. From verse 26 we reflect upon how we all depend upon God and, recognising this truth, the author praises God with songs of joy. “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will make music to my God while I have my being.”[verse 35.] As you reflect upon these verses, you may find it helpful to read the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. Like the psalms, it is not to be read as science, but as poetry which beautifully describes what the author perceives and understands as he experiences the world around him. This in the days before cameras! How thankful we can be for the wonderful television programmes which capture nature and challenge us to care for, and cherish, this earth and all life. We do so, not for its own sake, but because we believe in the God who created it and whose presence we celebrate especially today.

Psalm 104 is then, a wonderful hymn of praise but, as always, it is realistic about facing life and death. There is nothing sentimental here. Verses 29 and 30 remind us that God provides all the food we need “in due season.” We celebrate that at Harvest-time. But verse 31 reminds us that we depend upon God for life itself: “…when you take away their breath, they die and return again to the dust.” Here again we find echoes of the story of creation near the beginning of the Bible. In Genesis 2.7 we read, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus the man became a living creature.” The Hebrew word used here for breath is “ruach” which also means wind or spirit, the latter significant for us on this Feast of Pentecost when we celebrate the coming and receiving of the Holy Spirit. One of the Gospel readings suggested for today is from John, Chapter 20, where the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and says to them, “Peace be with you…Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.” Also one of the hymns suggested for today is “Breathe on me Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that as you love, so may I love, and do what you would do.” [84, Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New.] Through the Holy Spirit we are given new life in Jesus but we know that one day we will die and God will “take away our breath” as we read in verse 31. However, the resurrection of Jesus, and the promise he made to his disciples and those who would follow them, assures us that death is not the end. So we hope and pray that the God who gave us breath, and who sends His Holy Spirit, will remain with us beyond the grave, as He is with us whilst we live and breath on earth.

For the breath and spirit of life that you give and for
sustaining and preserving my life, I thank you, O Lord
.

[Marshall D. Johnson]

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Who is worthy?

A Reflection on Psalm 15 by Canon Rob,
14th May 2023, Feast of St Matthias

Ruben’s painting of Matthias

In the Church’s Calendar, today is the Feast of St Matthias although falling on a Sunday this year, his Feast is transferred to tomorrow. However, as he was an apostle, let us remember him in this Reflection at least, and consider Psalm 15 which is the one set for ‘his day.’ As with many Saints, legends about about Matthias abound because we know so little about him, but the Acts of the Apostles [see Acts 1.15-26] tells us that following the betrayal by, and death of, Judas Iscariot the remaining apostles wanted to replace him and bring back their number to twelve. Matthias was chosen. He qualified because he had, apparently, been with Jesus during his three year ministry and was also a witness to the resurrection. Psalm 15 begins with the questions: “Lord who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may rest upon your holy hill?” The apostles may have asked, “Who is worthy to replace Judas?” They understood the qualifications, but how to chose? Is it stretching the imagination too far to say that the answers to the questions raised in verse 1 of the psalm perhaps give an indication of the qualities required?

George Appleton, a former Bishop of Jerusalem, said, “…all the 613 commandments of the Pentateuch (the first five books in the Bible once attributed to Moses) are summed up in this psalm.” Psalm 15 gives a clear understanding of what is needed for someone to have access to God. That includes being “uncorrupt” and doing “right,” (verse 2) “speaking the truth,” and bearing “no deceit,” (verse 3) doing “no evil,” (verse 4) and so on. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we find references similar to some of these “conditions.” The prophet Isaiah. e.g., refers to “the man who lives an upright life and speaks the truth” [See Isaiah 33.15] and in the Book of Exodus we read, “You shall not accept a bribe, for bribery makes the discerning man blind….” [Exodus 23.8] Verse 7 of our psalm condemns bribery “against the innocent.” The person who was chosen to take the place of Judas Iscariot had a lot to live up to!

Psalm 15 possibly formed part of a liturgy as worshippers entered the Temple in Jerusalem, rather like singing an introit hymn at the beginning of Christian worship, although such hymns could be said to contain more words of hope than the words conveyed by Psalm 15. “Awake, awake: fling off the night” is one introit hymn we sing at St Dunstan’s occasionally with it’s third verse:

Let in the light; all sin expose to Christ, whose life no darkness knows.
Before his cross for guidance kneel; his light will judge and, judging, heal.”


Penitence and judgement are called for in this hymn, just as they are behind the words of the psalm. As we acknowledge in the first prayer we say together at the Eucharist, God knows everything about us for from Him no secrets are hidden. However, we live in hope because we believe that through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have a new relationship with God which the author of the Psalm could not know. He was waiting for the Messiah, the Saviour.

Yet Psalm 15 still begs the question, “Who is worthy?” Who is worthy to enter the House of God, be that the Temple (as in the psalm) or a Christian church? Who is worthy to live in God’s presence? Who is worthy to be one of Christ’s disciples? The answer is an emphatic “no one!” Yet, through His perfect Love revealed in and through Jesus, we are accepted and forgiven just as we are. That doesn’t mean we can do as we please. However, it does mean that as we try and follow Jesus in our day to day lives, we are encouraged to do so because we are loved.

Lord, lead us to our heavenly home by single steps of self-restraint and deeds of righteousness.
[Prayer at the end of Psalm 15 in Common Worship, Daily Prayer]

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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.

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