Waiting… and thanking! Sermon at St Stephen’s on 25 June 2016

Scripture Readings: Psalm 40.1-10

Luke 17:11–19

Waiting… and thanking!

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In 1990, while I was still a student, I attended- as a visitor- the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. I was curious to visit because the Moderator that year was one of my teachers, the late Robert Davidson, Professor of Old Testament at Glasgow University. The day I visited, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom was there as a guest. After we had sung a metrical Psalm- unaccompanied, in the old Scottish style- Bob Davidson invited the Chief Rabbi to address the Assembly, greeting in him as he did so Hebrew. It was a powerful reminder of the Jewish origins of our faith, and how our Christian, Presbyterian worship continues to be suffused with those old Hebrew prayers and hymns, the Psalms.

Bob Davidson wrote a wonderful commentary on the Psalms, a book which I turn to again and again, which he entitled The Vitality of Worship. He comments in the introduction, ‘The Psalms, having been at the centre of Jewish and Christian worship and devotion, communal and personal, across the centuries, have given rise to a wealth of spiritual reflection and have been the subject of much contemporary debate’ (p ix). As a noted scholar (he was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh), he brought a scientific rigour to the task of understanding the Psalms. But as well as being an expert academic, Robert Davidson was a committed churchman. His commentary is shot full of spiritual insight, for these are no dusty ancient texts, but texts which are still alive in Church and Synagogue today. For we still sing them, and read them, and pray them, in public worship and private devotion.

Davidson says in his commentary that the popularity of the Psalms across the centuries and even across denominations and cultures ‘is hardly surprising since the Psalms cover the whole gamut of human experience from praise to penitence, from quietly confident faith to agonized perplexity, from joy at the wonder of life in God’s world to the struggle to reach out to a God who seems remote or silent, from bowing humbly before the mystery of life to bitter and urgent questioning. It is all there, and because it is all there we are there in our ever changing moods and needs’ (p2; my emphasis).

The secret of the Psalms is that they are so very human. So often, we think of the Bible as a way for God to speak to us. We heard the Ten Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount, or listen to stories which inspire us, or listen in as people like Paul try to interpret the faith for us, and we feel that in these texts, we are hearing God speak to us. But with the Psalms, it is different. Mostly, the Psalms are the words of worshippers speaking to God. The Psalms are less God speaking to us, as people like us speaking to God. And so all human emotion is there, all the different ways that people respond to God and speak to God about what is going on in their lives. It’s the humanity of the Psalms that make them so powerful. For here are the words of people like us, speaking to their God in times of sorrow and joy, in good times and in crisis, lament and praise from both an entire nation and individuals.

The Psalms speak to God in different ways- praising God, speaking of journeying in faith, and telling of confidence in God. Today we heard verses of a Psalm which speak of waiting on God, and of thanksgiving to God. The first part of Psalm 40 speaks of waiting for God, and then receiving God’s help, and being grateful for it:

I waited patiently for the Lord’s help;

then he listened to me and heard my cry.

He pulled me out of a dangerous pit,

out of the deadly quicksand.

He set me safely on a rock

and made me secure.

He taught me to sing a new song,

a song of praise to our God.

The cry for help is, perhaps, the most basic of human prayers. People who never pray any other time will, in a crisis, cry out ‘help me God!’ But whoever sung this Psalm at first is not one who just calls in God when he needs him. He knows that he needs to wait for God. God will come in his own time- so he waits for the Lord’s help.

Today, many of us are waiting to see what will happen to our country, after a week in which everything has changed. Suddenly, we do not know what the future holds for this country. For some, the referendum result is a new dawn, a golden opportunity for our nation to thrive in this uncertain, changing world. For others, the risks outweigh any benefits, and they fret that burning bridges with our nearest neighbours might have dangerous consequences. Either way, we are awaiting developments. We await the Lord’s help.

The English translation of the Psalm we read today begins ‘I waited patiently for the Lord’s help’. Yet Robert Davidson’s commentary tells me that the Good News translation ‘I waited patiently’ is not quite true to the original; it is, he says, ‘a questionable translation of the opening words, especially if it conveys a picture of quiet resignation (p133). The Hebrew idiom, he suggests, could be translated as ‘waiting I waited’. There’s an emphasis on the act of waiting, and yes, the Psalmist will wait, but it is a waiting that longs for the waiting to be over. Not that he’s fidgety- not the kind of waiting that makes us tap our fingers on the steering wheel as we wait for the lights to change. Rather, the sort of waiting we experience when we have to wait for a hospital appointment to find out about something which may or may not be serious.

Whoever wrote the Psalms was in a crisis. Perhaps he faced enemies in battle, or a serious illness- it was, in any case, a personal crisis which he compares to being in a deep pit or being sucked down by quicksand. When you wait like that, even if you are a person of faith, you wait with anticipation. You are patient, not irritable- but still, you long for the waiting to be over. You long to find out what God is going to do, and to find out what your role in God’s plan is. Today, we have a longing to know what God has ahead for our nation, and how these momentous events will affect each of us.

When God does rescue him, the Psalm singer is thankful:

He pulled me out of a dangerous pit,

out of the deadly quicksand.

He set me safely on a rock

and made me secure.

He taught me to sing a new song,

a song of praise to our God.

And here I want to consider what the results of the Psalmist’s gratitude are. Why do we sing songs of thankful praise to God? What does it mean to be thankful to God? How should we live, what should we do, if we are thankful to God? There are, I think, three aspects of thankfulness which this Psalm points out to us.

Firstly, someone who is thankful has a clearer sense of who God is: ‘You have done many things for us, O Lord our God; there is no-one like you’. Our God is just amazing, beyond words. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes, if we restrict our God- talk to church, if we keep our prayers for Sundays only, if we allow our week to crush us with concerns and worries, we can lose sight of who God is. God is not just an abstract idea we think about on Sunday, but the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Lord of the entire world, a power above all other powers. The Psalmist sings:

You have done many things for us, O Lord our God;

there is no one like you!

You have made many wonderful plans for us.

I could never speak of them all—

their number is so great! (verse 5)

We may feel that God doesn’t seem as powerful in the world as he once was. We might think that the best days are behind us, that our youth was the peak of our achievements. We might even think that the church- the place where we do our God-talk- is past its best, out of date, with not much of a future ahead. But God has got plans for each of us, for the world, for the Church- a future which we can only dimly see, if we see it at all. If you have known God to rescue before, why should you not expect it again?

For ours is the God, not just of a mythical, heroic past. God is present with us now, whether we are aware of him or not. And God will go with us into the future- a future which is God’s future, for ours is an eternal God. If we think about the future of God’s church, for example, it’s pretty clear that it will be different in the future. But it always has been. I rather like being minister of the oldest congregation in this city, for it gives a sense of perspective.

When Inverness Presbytery met last year at the Old High Church, I got into a conversation with a minister who was new to our Presbytery. He was admiring the Old High, which he was visiting for the first time. And, as usual when we have visitors there, I was enjoying giving him some of the tumultuous history of this building. I said to him what I often say to visitors- that this is a building which is on a site which has been used for Christian worship for centuries, so it has been Celtic, Catholic, Episcopalian and is currently Presbyterian. God has been with this congregation through mediaeval superstition, Reformation violence, clan warfare, the Battle of Culloden, and much else. As the Psalmist says- God is faithful- God is going to abandon us now!

I have been thankful this week for my faith that God is control. Indeed, I do not know how I would have any hope otherwise. In all the changes of life, in all the uncertainty, as a sea swirls around us threatening to sweep all that we thought was secure, we can share the faith of the Psalmist that God has ‘set me safely on a rock’. As Christ taught us, if we build our faith and life on the foundation of his Word, it’s like the man who built a house on rock (Matthew 7.24-27). When the rain falls and the floods come, building on sand is no good. Our only secure foundation in tumultuous times is to have faith in the God of Jesus Christ.

The second aspect of thanksgiving which the Psalmist speaks of comes in the next few verses. He speaks of what it means for his lifestyle to be grateful to his wonderful God:

You do not want sacrifices and offerings;

you do not ask for animals burned whole on the altar

or for sacrifices to take away sins.

Instead, you have given me ears to hear you,

and so I answered, “Here I am;

your instructions for me are in the book of the Law.

How I love to do your will, my God!

I keep your teaching in my heart.” (verses 5-8)

Animal sacrifices were a major part of ancient religion. But the idea that obedience to God’s law was more important than the sacrifice is a strong theme of the Old Testament prophets, such as Amos, who told the people that God didn’t care about their worship, but instead wanted ‘justice to flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry’ (Amos 5.21-24).

However important worship is, the first priority of any Christian, of anyone who knows that God has been good to them, is to care for to their neighbours. We cannot worship God on Sunday if we are going to be out to dodge our taxes on Monday. We cannot consent to the continual destruction of the planet if we worship the God of heaven and earth. We are hypocrites if we worship God but don’t care about the poor and vulnerable in our communities. Especially, now, we need to make sure that we show kindness to those from other nations and cultures who have made their home among us, and who are now, very often, feeling vulnerable. How can we, in word and deeds, help them know that we care for them, are concerned for them, that we value them? We need to express our thankfulness, our gratitude to God, not just in songs and prayers and worship, but by loving our neighbour, and seeking justice in the world.

And finally the Psalmist praises God by telling others of what God has done for him. He says he will never stop telling of the good news the God saves his people. He cannot keep silent- he must tell the good news of salvation.

Too often, though, we think that telling others of how good our God is an optional extra for us. We have become not very good at speaking positively of God, of the joy of our faith, of what God has done for you. We want to get people to come and join us in church, but we forget that the message of salvation is not just an invitation to come to church. The Gospel is a message about what God has done for us, and what God can do for us.

It was great to hear the media report some positive stories for a change from the General Assembly this year. But too often, we Christians seem only to produce bad news for the media to report. And as individuals, do we, too, sometimes complain so much about the church that we put people off the Gospel?

Instead, when we talk about the Church or our faith with others, we should be telling them above all that have an amazing God. A world where religion is often an excuse to shoot or behead people, needs to hear us speaking Christ’s words of peace. In a dangerous world where people are frightened, we should be saying that God listens to our prayers. In a world where the poor suffer, and where all kinds of people face discrimination, we should be speaking of God’s justice. It’s time to stop being shy of speaking about God, because God is wonderful, and the God of Jesus Christ is just what this dangerous and worrying world needs!

Luke tells a story of Jesus healing ten lepers, but only one coming back to say thank you. It turns out that the man who came and threw himself at Jesus’ feet was a foreigner, a Samaritan. And just as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus holds up the foreigner as an example of what faithful living consists of: the one who praises God and give thanks is the one who truly understands what true religion is. It’s time to talk up our faith, and share with others why we’re grateful to God.

Today’s Psalm verses are also very appropriate today as we gather round the table and receive Christ in bread and wine. Communion is the ultimate act of thanksgiving in worship. Not for nothing it is the Sacrament often known as the Eucharist- from the Greek word for thanksgiving. Here we show our gratitude to God, God who has saved us from ruin even at the price of the death of Jesus. How can we not be thankful? And will we leave this table as people who thank God constantly, and who tell others about the amazing God who is our rock?

Ascription of Praise

Blessing and honour, thanksgiving and praise,

more than we can express,

be accorded to you, most glorious Trinity,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

by all angels, all people, all creatures,

for ever and ever. Amen.

BCO 1994, p587

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2016 Peter W Nimmo