Sunday 15 March 2020
Preached by Dr Steve Tomkins
I had a cracking sermon prepared on the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, but I’m going to keep that for another day. The reading comes round again in three years, so that’s something to look forward to.
Instead, we are facing a crisis, together, one that will cause some devastation, and our heads are filled with worry. At a time like this, I think the place to turn is to the Psalms.
The Psalm we read this morning does not start by saying: Everything is going to be OK. It does not start by telling us how to behave. It starts with God. ‘Come let us sing to the Lord’ – that’s what we do when we come together. When we’re on our own we would probably do something quieter. But either way we turn our attention to God. It’s not escapism, it’s not forgetting about our problems, it’s about putting them in the right context.
We turn our attention to God and God’s world. God’s complete attention is on everything he has made. If you were in the park you might look at a leaf or a cloud. Instead be aware of the ground beneath your feet. The wooden flooring, the floorboards beneath, the Victorian foundations, the rock stretching down for miles. All that is holding us where we stand. ‘The depths of the earth are in his hands,’ says the Psalm. His complete attention in on every bit of it. Or we could follow that ground, through streets and fields, all the way to the sea, wave after wave, seaweed and seagulls. ‘The sea is his, for he made it.’ His complete attention is on every bit of it.
God’s perspective, to the extent that we can even begin to imagine it, is very different from ours. He is our rock, the Psalm says, he holds us in his hands, along with much, much more. Maybe the thoughts that buzz around our head so busily start to sound quieter when we see them in this context.
And then, having turned our focus onto God, the Psalm says: ‘Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving’. We turn our attention back to our own lives, and give thanks. Gratitude is so vital to our wellbeing. One research study after another has found that regularly expressing thanks makes us happier, healthier, less depressed and less stressed, makes our lives better in dozens of different ways. I give thanks to God for this woman in my life, for this man in my life, for this child, for this event that went well, for this circumstance that brought me joy, for this thing that I rely on. Again this is not escapism from our problems, it’s not looking on the bright side and forcing ourselves to be cheerful. Giving thanks is stepping away from the worries, and focussing for a bit on our blessings, in a way that can transform how we see our lives, and how we feel about them and how we live them. It counteracts our tendency to focus on our anxieties. Gratitude breathes fresh air into our souls. And I for one am very grateful for that.
Then, the Psalm says, we bow down, we kneel before the Lord our maker.
Bowing down is to acknowledge God’s boundlessness, and how small we are. It is to acknowledge God’s goodness, and how imperfect and broken we are. It is to acknowledge God our creator, how dependent we are on him for everything we have and are and do.
And bowing down before God is also humbly to bring our prayers. Prayers for ourselves and others. Prayers for health and recovery. Prayers for help and strength. Prayers for things to go well.
Bowing down is not to demand something we have a right to. It is not to put in an order for something we are certain we will receive.
It is to voice our desires, knowing that not everything we desire is for the best. It is to voice our hopes, knowing that not everything we hope for is possible. It is to voice our longings, knowing that God is good and that God is love, but that we do not always recognise goodness and love when we first see it. It is to bring to God our fervent wishes for what should happen next in our lives, knowing that, whatever we wish, there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to grieve and a time to rejoice, a time of strength and time of weakness. A time to lie down in green pastures and a time to be led through the valley of the shadow. As this Psalm says: ‘We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’ He leads us beside still waters, and restores our souls, but the way through which he leads us there can be long and hard. He cares for us, tends us, values us, and brings good out bad circumstances. He does not save us from all troubles, but he does lead us through them.
The Psalm ends with a history lesson, unexpectedly. I mean, it’s good, more Psalms should end with history lessons, but it is unusual. It refers back to our OT reading this morning from Exodus. In this story, the Lord has led the children of Israel out of slavery, into freedom, but they have to cross the wilderness to reach the Promised Land. They come to a place where there is no water and they are thirsty and they complain to Moses. ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt?’ They want to turn back and return to their life of slavery. And in the Psalm, though not in the Exodus version, God loses patience with them, and condemns them to 40 years in the wilderness.
Why does God lose it with them? I think not simply because they complained. There is plenty of complaining to God in the Psalms, people are allowed to tell God how miserable they feel. I think why God loses patience with them is that they want to give up and turn back. God calls them on, God calls them to keep going. And I think that is the Psalm’s call to us, to keep at our Christian life.
The Christian writer CS Lewis was asked in 1948: How are we to live in the age of the atomic bomb? ‘If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.’
Of course there are ways in which we have to change our behaviour in order to protect ourselves and others. But for as long as life goes on, let us live generously, and kindly, and well, knowing that our lives are in God, forever.
We do not know what tomorrow may bring; but times like this remind us that we never know what tomorrow will bring. Jesus reminds us that we don’t make tomorrow better by spending today fretting and panicking. We make tomorrow better by spending today thinking of others, helping out those who need it, turning our attention to God, reflecting on all we have to be thankful for, leaving in God’s hands the things that we do not control, and in all the things that we do control carrying on, as Jesus taught us, in hope and prayer and love.