11th November 2001
at All Saints, Wimbledon
Poetry is one of the casualties of modern education. Whereas most children left school half a century ago able to quote the odd line or couplet from memory, itís much less common today. Add to that the fact that one of the largest collections of poetry, the Psalms, in the Book of Common Prayer is quite unfamiliar even to most regular churchgoers and you have a situation very different from a generation or two ago. This is not the place to discuss whether the various changes in service book, from Series I, II and III via The Alternative Service Book to todayís Common Worship have been a good thing or not, but simply to record that a huge chunk of Jewish and Christian devotional material has slipped into oblivion as a result.
This morning we shall look at one of the shorter Psalms, No. 46 and see its relevance towards Remembrance Sunday which is being kept throughout the world today Ė coinciding, as it does this year, with the actual day in 1918 when the guns fell silent at the Eleventh Hour.
But first letís be clear what the purpose of poetry is. Itís not primarily to make things sound prettier, or to show how much more clever poets are than anyone else, though it has no doubt been used for both these purposes. On the contrary, poetry serves to express what is true more memorably and more compactly or succinctly than prose ever can do.
The first of these points will immediately become clear when you try and compare the effort needed to memorize half a dozen lines of verse as opposed to the same number of lines of prose; the second point, the compactness of poetry is best understood by comparing the single line from Grayís Elegy which runs:
"The paths of glory lead but to the grave"
Ė a mere nine words, with the number of words needed to express the same thing in ordinary speech: You would have to say something like:
"Itís a well-known fact that no matter how famous somebody may be during his lifetime, death is the invariable experience of humankind." (Twenty-two words Ė over twice as many!)
Poetry, then, so far from always being long-winded flowery prose is often an extraordinarily economical way of expressing the truth. Letís now look at the 46th Psalm wit this in mind.
God is our hope and strength : a very present help in trouble, it begins.
The Jewish people for whom this psalm was written were a nation which was sandwiched, as they are today, between much larger, more powerful nations who intended by any means they could to destroy them. They were often invaded, their buildings razed to the ground, their cattle and livestock taken away, and their men, women and children led into captivity in places like Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Persia or Rome. This psalm was written when yet another invasion was about to begin. The writer wants his fellow-Jews to share his belief that God will be a very present help whatever the outcome of the current hostilities. He is therefore able to say in the next verse:
Therefore will we not fear though the earth be moved : and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea
In a part of the world which was subject to earthquakes, and all the devastation that these invariably bring in their wake, the writer compares the writer compares invasions with earthquakes and reminds himself that both can be survived. Itís useful to remind ourselves that as recently as 1755 the Great Lisbon Earthquake of November 1st killed twice as many people and did proportionately far more damage than the recent bombings of the New York World Trade Center on 11th September 2001. Thatís not to say that the New York bombing wasnít, just as shocking, but it reminds us that just as a new Lisbon emerged from the wreckage of the old, so the Faithful Remnant of the Jewish people returned again and again to the Holy Land. That minority of people who remain faithful in the face of catastrophe are called by God to rebuild the places which have been laid waste by the disasters which have befallen them.
In the next two verses the Psalmist suggests how this restoration will come about:
Though the waters thereof rage and swell: and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same Ė
The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the City of God : the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most Highest
Itís a fact that every war Ė despite all the destruction that wars entail Ė provides the opportunity for a period of creative reconstruction and innovation. A recent example, the Welfare State, as we know it, was largely the product of the Second World War, just as the fore-runner of the United Nations, the League of Nations stemmed from the First. In other words, something valuable Ė the "rivers of the flood" Ė comes forth from something wasteful Ė the devastation of war. Although this new creation may be far from perfect, and the hope that there will ever be a "War to end Wars" Ė as so many people believed in 1918 Ė is extremely unlikely, the fact remains that, rightly used, the devastations of war provides a unique opportunity for new creations.
For, as the psalmist goes on to say:
God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed: God shall help her and that right early.
The heathen make much ado and the kingdoms are moved: but God hath showed his voice and the earth shall melt away
The Lord of Hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.
The psalmist of course had in mind the visible City of Jerusalem. As Christians we now understand this to mean the Church of God, the Body of Christ, of which you and I are the living stones, appointed each by God to his allotted place.
That New Jerusalem is not to be identified with All Saints, South Wimbledon, St Stephenís Lewisham, the Church of England or even the "whole state of Christís Church militant here on earth. By far the greater part of Godís Church is already in heaven, and regardless of what takes place on this earth, those of us who have been baptized in the blood of the Lamb will, at their death, become part of that "great multitude which no man can number" which we thought about at All Saints Day. Our homeland is not here on this earth, but in heaven; nevertheless God will never forsake those who remain on this earth whilst they remain faithful to him. Itís that Faithful Remnant again, through whom God works and daily adds to them the number who are being saved.
The psalmist then turns to speak to those who have failed to discern the hand of God at work in the misfortunes which have overtaken them:
O come hither and behold the works of God : what destruction he hath wrought upon the earth
He maketh wars to cease in all the world : he breaketh the bow and knappeth the spear in sunder and burneth the chariots in the fire
The weapons of war do indeed seem fearsome when they are encountered face to face. However, the psalmist reminds us that they, like the kings, emperors and tyrants who use them to get their way, have only a limited lifespan. Where are Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar today? All dead and buried. Where are the weapons they used? Either on the scrapheap or in museums. What once seemed so formidable and irresistible is now no longer.
The psalmist concludes with the words:
Be still then and know that I am God : I will be exalted among the heathen and I will be exalted in the earth
The Lord of Hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Bible scholars tell us that those words "Be still then and know that I am God" do not mean that we should sit back and wait for God to rescue us as some people wrongly think. A better translation would be "Give in, then, and admit that I am God". In other words the fulfilment of Godís plan in a personís life must, of necessity, involve a process akin to surrender Ė a surrender to God which is every bit as hard as the surrender of a nation defeated in a war.
Surrendering is an idea which is so alien to the common mind of people today that itís hardly surprising that itís only a minority of people who surrender to God. So much of todayís popular thought and education is in terms of "self-fulfilment" and achieving what we want as opposed to what God wants for us. You and I who begin every Mass with an act of surrender, have made that surrender of our wills to Godís will find that the two wills, ours and Godís, will indeed coincide. But for those who remain estranged from God and his purposes as most people do nowadays, then it will only be by chance that the two will be one and the same when it comes to making decisions.
So Remembrance Sunday is an opportunity for reflecting upon this psalm and asking ourselves whether we have fully surrendered our will to God: if we have he will be able to use us as living stones in the building of his Kingdom; if, on the contrary, we are still holding out against him then Iím afraid, we are still firmly on the side of those who are his enemies.
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