Sermon – Rev. Gillian Webb
Recently I read a book by Robert Harris called the Second Sleep. The book began with the journey on horseback of a priest that had been given the task of conducting the funeral of an elderly cleric in an out of the way rural parish. The reader is informed that the year was 1468 so of course one begins to locate the tale within that time frame but as the book continues it becomes apparent that things are not as they seem. Without spoiling too much about the plot it unfolds with some interesting things to contemplate.
If you are a fan of history programmes on television you may tune in to recent excavations from past civilisations like ancient Egypt, the Aztecs, the Romans or ancient Greece. Pots and jewellery and inscriptions and even manuscripts together give historians the challenge to explain their function within their original time frame and give us greater understanding of the peoples who have gone before us. Let us imagine for a moment that our western civilisation has disappeared and its memory lost but fragments survive that puzzle future generations. Our new red hymn book is discovered in fragments with its numbered entries broken up and its content proving a puzzle to be solved. Questions might be asked about their purpose; were they poems or songs? Who wrote them and what does it say about the community they came from? What do ‘All things bright and beautiful’ have in common with ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’? They might conclude that they were written over a long time frame and bore many different styles and word patterns.
They might piece them together in groups of celebration and even link them to possible festival events.
If this were to happen then of course it would not be new enterprise at all for scholars have done the very same with the Psalms that form part of our scriptures. We do not know who wrote them even though many of them are attributed to David and we do not know the purposes of the Psalms in the communal worship of the Israelite nation. We do know they form part of a long tradition in the history of the Jewish people and speak in many different styles of their communal walk of faith as God’s people.
Scholars have identified psalms of lament, of confession and repentance and psalms of thanksgiving. But what can be said of our psalm this morning? Psalm 121 has been included within a grouping of ‘Ascent psalms’ as it is believed that this may have been sung as the pilgrims approached Jerusalem and began their climb up to the holy city. Some have suggested that the first two lines, ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come’ may be referring to enemies alongside the mountains threatening the safety of the people below and here the mountains are seen as a region of danger maybe harbouring brigands and the cry goes up for God’s rescue and protection. But the main agreement is that it speaks of looking up to the hills around Jerusalem and the gesture of lifting up the eyes is a movement of appeal and trust that the Lord will answer from his holy mount. In this psalm we find many statements of trust. God will protect and watch over his people, shielding them and preserving them from all harm. These are great affirmations of faith and it is a truly beautiful expression of complete trust. It speaks of a trust that sustains the journey of life and the journey that life is.
The themes to be found in today’s psalm are to be found in our other readings too. Jacob is on a journey with his family (I did wonder how Jacob managed to organise 11 children to get up and ready for the family trip!) and Jacob is troubled about what the future may hold. He struggles through the night and persists until he receives the blessing he desires. This is a deep spiritual encounter for Jacob and he recognises the touch of God through the torment he has endured. He is marked for life through this experience. This may be a physical journey but it is a major moment in his journey of faith.
In Luke’s reading the widow pesters the indifferent judge to achieve justice in her case and this has a very modern feel as we know so many stories of people who have had to pester large firms for refunds and fair outcomes in shoddy workmanship or faulty goods. Persistence usually wins through as the widow discovered. Persistence and determination brings the reward.
I believe this is the message for us all this morning. Through the psalm and both our readings in various ways we hear God’s call for us to put our trust in him as we journey through our life. Life may bring us disappointments and setbacks but we must not give up or lose heart. We must persevere and look to God to support us through the darkest nights even when we feel the struggle is long and hard. The widow in Luke’s story may have turned up day after day queuing and waiting for the judge to appear and been the subject of pitying glances but she refused to give up and eventually the judge buckled under the pressure.
God does not turn his back on our pleas but we may not receive instant gratification. This does not mean we should lose heart and despair; it requires us to trust in God’s ultimate wisdom and care for us. He shall watch over our going out and our coming in and it is he who shall keep us safe.
If we cannot see the future clearly and doubt clouds our judgement then we might do well to remember Paul’s advice to Timothy. He advises him to look back to what has gone before, to the teaching he has received and the people who have helped him along the way. There we too shall discover the hand of God guiding us through other life experiences and bringing us to a new place of understanding. But Paul urges Timothy to look to the mission God has called him to and to remember that he will need persistence and courage to continue the work God has called him to do.
We look to the Bible and to the fellowship we share to encourage us through both our journey of life and our journey of faith maintaining our trust in God who will not abandon or forget us but will preserve us from all evil.