Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
Full of splendour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
He provides food for those who fear him;
he remembers his covenant forever.
He has shown his people the power of his works in giving them the inheritance of the nations.
The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy; they are established forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name!
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practise it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever! (Psalm 111 ESV)
At this time of the year with its focus on family time, I have noticed that I can talk about ‘life realities’ and how un-Christmasy it is that people go through tough times at Christmas which can be extenuated by the focus on ‘peace on Earth and goodwill to all’. I think I may have done it again! I’ve already talked with people who have taken the Christmas tree down because they’ve had too much of Christmas and by that they mean all the build up in November and December. Advent for Christians isn’t Christmas but we feel pressured to leak some of it into the season like everyone else. Christmas has given way to sales and life is quickly moving on to new year and the ‘thoughts and fears’ of 2019.
What has just happened?
Well, we celebrated a birth but we didn’t take the little one home. So our lives go on pretty much as it did a week ago. But if you had brought a little one home then – as many of you recall – your life is never the same again. We have a little one in our home at the moment. Not a new born – 6 months old – but I can hear her cry and not feel the necessity to get up but instead wish the parents well and offer to help – and if they want help, Charlotte and I are all too happy to do so. Yes, eagerly but the baby isn’t our responsibility in the way she is her parents’.
We don’t know how long it was before Mary could put Jesus down in anything other than a manger. How many days did they stay there? How many weeks or months was it before they moved into the house that the Wise Men found them in? (More on that next week.) But what we do know is that life went on for them in the day to day joy and grind of caring for a baby.
What we do know is that they attended to his needs according to the cultural and religious norms of the day. Circumcision and naming on the eighth day. Then the Presentation for purification at the temple – more travelling though not far – remember they are based in Bethlehem – and all goes well we assume until the family is met by two old people – Simeon and Anna and there it goes again – more messages about their baby – praises to God to be sure – just like the shepherds’ message – but also there’s a darkness, a foreboding in Simeon’s words which speak of salvation but also include judgement, opposition, and a sword through a mother’s heart. No. This is not the sort of message one wants around a baby!
Our Bible readings today, however, might have already made us squeamish with the Exodus reading and God’s instruction to his people that the first born is his and sacrifices are required. Digging into this story,
God’s rescue of the people of Israel from Egypt, involves a final act – a decisive one – killing all first born creatures – and now this is remembered with thanksgiving and soberness in the ritual of sacrifice at the birth of a first born. Today, we would prefer to relegate this to history – not relevant for us – and make a note to send an email to the lectionary compilers to do a better job! But there it is – and we have heard it. You can’t unhear it but you can forget it if you want.
And that’s when our psalm for today comes in. With Christmas wrapping paper still in the recycling bin; with some Christmas toys already broken and the last of the Christmas ‘left overs’ about to be binned; with our lives either returning to normal or having never left normal; with the story of someone else’s baby still mentioned for the moment, our psalm today calls us to praise God for his wonderful acts – to thank the Lord for his actions that reveal his righteousness, grace, and mercy – and to study God’s words and deeds to learn that he is trustworthy, faithful and upright and in all his actions his goal is to redeem, rescue, buy back his people! And then the psalmist concludes by saying, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practise it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.’ (Psalm 111:10)
To which actions do you think the psalmist is referring? He can’t be referring to Jesus. Perhaps it was the Exodus or the saving acts of God helping one of Israel’s kings? Perhaps he is referring to something personal – how God has helped him – and maybe everyone or at least the congregation knows – and he wants the congregation to rejoice with him and learn with him and from him.
For Christians, the focus of this psalm will, of course, be Jesus and God’s salvation through him. But here’s the issue – when I say Jesus, am I only talking about his birth? And we’d say, ‘No, he didn’t actually save us by being born but being born was part of the rescue’. So maybe I should just concentrate on his death? That’s very important! But what part is the part to remember and praise God for? Just the Friday? How about the Thursday before? What about the week before? And of course you can see, what is happening. If I pick and choose my special ‘bits’ of Jesus, the stories I prefer and ignore the ones that make me uncomfortable, then I will have a picture of Jesus – most definitely – but more my version of Jesus than Jesus’ version of Jesus.
The psalmist challenges us to listen to all the deeds and words of the Lord and see them as full of splendour and majesty – even those things that make us uncomfortable, squeamish, or we think are simply wrong.
Christmas – as do the biographies of Jesus – those Gospel accounts – as do the messages from the prophets and the apostles – challenge us when we read the whole account, all the words of the Bible (not in one sitting!) but so that one part doesn’t ignore or deny or reject another part. The mystery of the Word made flesh is only fully understood through the words pointing to Jesus which we call the ‘Old Testament’ and the words about Jesus which we call the ‘Gospels’ and the words written to Jesus’ followers to tell them about discipleship which we call the ‘New Testament’.
All these words, however, present us with a scandalous message – something that shocks humanity to the core – about God and about ourselves. This baby was born to die. Now all babies one day die. But this little one was born to be sacrificed. And that sentence is repugnant or should be – especially when it is ordained by God to do so. Many people on this planet do not want to know such a god! Even Christians can struggle here. But this is the story we have in Jesus – surrounded by echoes of suffering and death – building throughout his life to a crescendo of darkness and mockery, despair and abandonment – all so that you and I might know meaning and purpose in life – and have as our foundation and at our core that we are loved by God and he will not abandon us. Ever.
That’s why when looking, meeting, studying, hearing Jesus, God’s praise endures forever!
- Psalm 111