Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 28 August 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Psalm 119 verse 83. I am become like a bottle in the smoke.
In biblical times they didn’t have the sort of wine bottles we have now, so our prosaic modern translators say instead that I am become like a wineskin in the smoke. But I would prefer to be a bottle in the smoke, because that image is of smoked glass, and I am unable to see anything clearly through it; there’s a barrier of sorts between myself and the clear truth, and there’s an emptiness within. And yet, and yet, says the psalmist, I do not forget thy statutes.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Psalter and has a reputation for being repetitive and longwinded. Unjust as I shall show you, but anyway we only say these psalms in little bite-sized bits. Besides you can’t remember what you had for dinner last night, let alone which psalm we said a fortnight ago. Do you know why Psalm 119 is so long? It’s an acrostic. Each eight verse section begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and there are twenty two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, which gives us the total of 176 verses. So it’s an A to Z of religious piety, instruction through poetry. The psalm tells each of us how to be a good person. That’s what it’s about. Give me understanding (verse 34). Not intellectual understanding, not scholarship, but wisdom, the ability to see how all things in God’s creation work together, and how his commandments bring ‘life’. Isn’t that what we are looking for, life in all its fullness, life with a purpose, meaning something? This is a psalm for Christians to use, because its message is clear, and the repetition maintains a clear focus throughout the psalm. Almost every verse is addressed to God. It is like a mantra, repeated over and over again, a necessary repetition, because for us poor mortals, the truth gets blurred like those smoky bottles, we need the discipline and the balance of these life-giving words which emerge from deep silence, the meditations of the past. We are to find out God’s commandments and keep them. God does not ask for blind obedience. He doesn’t throw the rule book at us. God is looking for a partner in creation. The fruit of our discipline, result of the repetitive actions of such as reciting this psalm, is liberty of spirit. God values our trust and our loyalty, and that’s different from obedience.
Christians can impose on this psalm another layer of interpretation, because in the life of Jesus we see God revealing his trust in us, his loyalty to us, his identification with our humanity. There is nothing underhand in using the psalms in this way. Like the psalmist we also see God’s ways, God’s beauty and grandeur. Psalm 119 tells us the way we are to approach God, sidle up to God, listen to God.
The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the first letter of the word for beatitude, and the entire psalm is summed up for us in verses one and two: Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way: and walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are they that keep his testimonies: and seek him with their whole heart.
This is about moulding your life, taking a new path, seeing what you have up to now failed to see. Each verse of this wonderful psalm can be cracked open to reveal to us a new idea about living a human life. The psalm is a meditation, isn’t it, in the form of a rambling prayer to God, because isn’t that what the best prayers are, not formal piety, but a cascade of thoughts about the different ways in which God is revealed, from which arises, without us forcing the pace, the sheer happiness of being at rest with God, of being a partner in his works of forgiveness and love? And if some of the imagery does not touch your heart and soul, move on; after all, thousands of years separate us from the authors of these hymns and poems, not everything will resonate with us.
But if there is one urgent message in this psalm it is this. One of tonight’s verses touches on this. The proud have digged pits for me: which are not after thy law. Our obsession with self, with autonomy, self sufficiency, the apparently virtuous individualism of today, is destructive, in the end. We end up controlled by our disobedience. We dig a pit for ourselves. I can see how this disobedience takes hold. Because we lead, on the whole, self-serving lives, the life of the individual, with the best will in the world and as part of a European liberal tradition, we have a natural fear of conformity, and some of that is entirely justified, when we see young men conforming to a jihad mentality, brainwashed into evil, trapped into acting according to the same distorted truth. The message of Psalm 119 is that conformity to God’s commandments is not like that. Obedience to God leads to our freedom, not our captivity. As we travel through that psalm, the overwhelming emotion is hope, hope for a humane and loving life, free from fear, and free to do God’s will. Verse 45. And I will walk at liberty: for I seek your commandments.