I'm back from being away! It was a wonderful long holiday, and I've finally finished washing the piles of laundry that resulted from our travels to France and Germany and having 8 people in the house.
During August and September we are doing a sermon series at church on the Psalms, the collection of Hebrew poems compiled over a period of some 1000 years and written by more than 12 different authors. The following is taken from the sermon I preached yesterday:
Today’s psalm, Psalm 27, is credited to King David, who probably did write the majority of the psalms. Psalm 27 was written against a background of great danger. David may have been writing in response to persecution from Saul or from his son Absalom; he was obviously under the threat of enemies, but they remain unspecified here in this psalm. Whatever it was, it was certainly a nerve-wracking and hostile time.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where you were really afraid – for your job, financial security, your health, your personal safety or the safety of loved ones, for your freedom, or for your life... you will know the debilitating effect of fear. Whatever your present situation, the reality of life is that everyone eventually will experience some kind of trouble and distress. In our Psalm, David meets his fears head on and defies them with the strength of his faith.
In the midst of distress, David begins Psalm 27 with an affirmation of the depth of his faith and his confidence in God:
The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?
David’s courage and assurance comes from his security in the Lord. God was his light – guiding him; God was his salvation – delivering him; God was his stronghold –protecting him. The questions, ‘whom should I fear’ and ‘of whom should I be afraid’ are rhetorical, like the questions posed by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans in chapter 8: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ ‘Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?’ ‘It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?’ ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
As Christians we strive to adopt Paul’s attitude and David’s attitude - to have confidence in God and not be afraid, and we ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, as we cannot do this in our own strength.
One Christian who was greatly strengthened and consoled by Psalm 27 was James Hannington, the Anglican missionary to Uganda who became bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa. In 1885, he was imprisoned and soon after, martyred. Now he’s a Saint with a capital ‘S’, but on the day before he died a martyr’s death under horrible circumstances, in his journal this St. James declared that in the midst of being ‘broken down and brought low’, he was comforted by Psalm 27.
None of us are likely to be in the same position that James Hannington was in when he endured a martyr’s death. But still, God cares for us in our relatively smaller trials of life. Sometimes when we feel like life has become a daily battle, we can forget this truth. We might think that our concerns and suffering isn’t that important in comparison with some of the problems other people have in the world today. But we mustn’t belittle the smaller trials and fears we all encounter in life, because each individual person matters to God – even the very hairs on our heads have been numbered! Our good shepherd seeks out and cares for the one lost sheep. So please don’t ever think that your problems or fears are too small for God to attend to.
These days we have fears of many kinds: for the safety of our children or grandchildren, because of violence and terrorism; or we fear our declining health or our declining wealth, and whether or not this planet can endure all the abuse we are putting it through. In the face of threatening times, David proclaims in Psalm 27 that he wants one thing over all; that is, he wants to stay close to God.
Like the Teacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, David has tried everything – work, pleasure, money – and none satisfy. But whereas the Teacher in Ecclesiastes resolves the seeming futility of everything with cynicism, David in Ps. 27 concludes that the only satisfying resolution is communion with God. It is God who makes us safe, and knowing this leads David to confident praise.
Of course, this confidence does not eliminate all trouble from life, and a deep faith should not lead to a denial of reality. This psalm has been set in a context in which troubles are acknowledged. And this leads David into the pleading prayer of verses 7-12: Hear my voice when I call, O Lord; be merciful, and answer me... Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger... David knows he is unworthy, but his hope lies in God’s mercy, not on the basis of his own moral behaviour. This gives us all hope, as we all fall short of the glory of God.
David’s heart is soft and his soul is open to transformation by God as he pleads: ‘Teach me your way, O Lord; lead me in a straight path’. We, too, need to be teachable and open to the leading of God’s Spirit. We, too, can have confidence as we call on God for mercy, for his guidance, and for liberation from that which causes us to be afraid.
The psalm concludes with a return to confidence; David’s complaint was real, but it’s powerfully contained in the trust before and after. The final verse is a deep encouragement: Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord. David is fully confident that with the Lord as his light, his salvation, and his stronghold, he will see the goodness of the Lord in the here and now – ‘in the land of the living’.
This psalm has a universal resonance with people, because we all go through tough times. And through this psalm we are reminded of the assurance we have through confidence in God. The great gift of the psalms as a whole is that through various times and seasons of our lives we will be able to identify with at least one (and probably more) of the 150 psalms. And in the case of Psalm 27 and many others, as we seek the face of our Lord in the midst of the fearful trials of life, we can allow the psalmist’s words to console us, to strengthen us, and to lift us up. Amen.