Psalms 32 and 126
Good morning again—this Fifth Sunday in Lent. In the old calendar this day was Passion Sunday, the beginning of Passiontide, that two week “mini-season” that will carry us on to Palm Sunday and Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. The final stretch of the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the Manger to the Cross. Passiontide is no longer on the simplified contemporary calendar, but certainly we can hear echoes in the Collect and the Gospel and the hymns this morning.
For the six Sundays in Lent my project this year has been to reflect on the Psalms appointed in the lectionary each week, to see them as what we might call thematic clues--windows, places where we can pause for a view and perhaps a new perspective, as we would in Lent be with some greater intentionality seeking to find refreshment and renewal in our Christian faith and life.
So a quick review of the themes we’ve seen so far: on the First Sunday we looked at Psalm 91, traditionally appointed for Compline, the bedtime prayer of the church, as a parent to a little child, and as we turn onto the Way of the Cross nonetheless a song of assurance, security, safety. That we are resting gently in safety in the arms of God our Savior. “For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.” Then for the Second Lent Sunday we had Psalm 27, building on that foundation. Because we are safe in God, we can go forth into the world boldly, courageously. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” The Third Sunday it was Psalm 63. Safe in God’s arms, bold and courageous, with Psalm 63 we sing what it truly means to be joyful . Refreshed and energized in gratitude for the lovingkindness of God. Joy isn’t perhaps always the emotion we associate with Lent, but the Psalmist says, “I just can’t keep from singing.” “So will I bless you as long as I live, and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.”
Last Sunday Dan was preaching—so that means I’m going to touch on two psalms this morning—briefly, I promise--just to get to the pattern of the six psalms of these six weeks. Briefly to turn back to Psalm 32, as we read it and heard the Choir sing it last week, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare. Psalm 32 seemed to me intertwine beautifully with the context and theme of the amazing gospel story of the Prodigal Son. (For those of us who don’t have the psalter by heart and didn’t bring our service leaflets from last Sunday back with us this morning, Psalm 32 begins at the bottom of page 624 in the Book of Common Prayer.)
The Prodigal Son, whose story begins in a self-centered rebellion, then to a catastrophe of hitting-bottom, leading to repentance, “metanoia,” that wonderful Greek word that means “another state of consciousness.” Coming to his senses, his right mind. And then his return, in fear and humility, probably that long walk back to the family home like swimming through molasses, rehearsing his heartbreaking apology every step of the way. And of course the sweet drama of restoration. If the son was prodigal in his wasting of the gifts of his inheritance, the father is even more prodigal in lavishing forgiveness and love. That embrace as the Father rushes out to greet his son, who once was lost, who now is found, I think for many Christians an image that is right at the heart of our experience of God’s loving heart.
“Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!” That’s the first line of Psalm 32. Then almost in parallel with the Prodigal Son story, reminding us of the word in First John that is so often the Opening Sentence at Evensong, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And the psalmist: “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away.” But then the turning we see in verses five and six—like the Prodigal as he found himself in his desperation, while he was feeding husks to the pigs in that distant land. “Then I acknowledged my sin . . . I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’” And the promise and certainty of forgiveness, the joy of the Father as he runs out to meet his son in the road, and before the son can even speak a word. “You are my hiding place: you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.”
To know and believe and truly trust in the mercy of God for us. That’s true deliverance. Looking deep into the darkness of our own sin, our rebelliousness, our self-centeredness, all the ways we have hurt others and that we hurt ourselves, closing our ears to God’s word for us, closing our eyes and turning away—going our own way. To know and believe and trust in the mercy of God for us. To know ourselves in the words of the hymn, “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.” And then, our own hearts opened in gratitude for what we do not deserve, that we would begin to cultivate ourselves what we might call a “lifestyle” of mercy. Kindness, generosity. Graciousness. Cutting each other more slack than we deserve. “Great are the tribulations of the wicked.” That’s how Psalm 32 ends. “Great are the tribulations of the wicked; but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.” This way of Lent, to expect mercy, to know and to experience mercy, to find a spirit of mercy within ourselves.
And then with Psalm 32 in one hand, from last Sunday, refreshed and renewed in God’s mercy and forgiveness, we would turn to Psalm 126 this morning, Passion Sunday, and of course with the haunting image in the background from the home of Lazarus of Bethany and his sisters Martha and Mary. The psalm is printed on page 7 of our Service Leaflet. I had suggested at the beginning of this series that we might find it meaningful as a part of our Lenten devotional life to take our service leaflet home with us and open it to the page of the psalm of the day and read it occasionally during the week.
In the context of the 12th chapter of John, our gospel reading: On Passion Sunday we’re coming to the end of the journey--the last resting place along the road, a pause before we will leap into the crowds of Holy Week with Palm Sunday just ahead. Jesus and his disciples heading in toward Jerusalem. They pause to spend the Sabbath just outside the city in the village of Bethany with their old and dear friends, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. The holy quiet of the day of rest, before the coming storm. The family meal. And then this holy anointing, always such a stunning vision, as Mary takes the costly aromatic oil, this precious offering, and applies it so gently and lovingly, beginning with his feet. (Some of you may remember that this was the text for the stunning, beautiful sermon preached by Leslie Reimer over at Calvary Church at the Burial Office for my friend and our former friend and rector Ralph Brooks. Whenever I come to this part of John I remember that sermon and moment.) This powerful image of compassion, deep love and service. Foreshadowing for us perhaps what would happen a few days later, when Jesus would himself kneel down and wash the feet of his disciples. Anticipating the burial, preparing his body for the tomb. And something sweet and tender about the detail of the story, as Mary completes the anointing by drying his feet not with a towel, but with her hair. So personal, so intimate.
And in the background for us this morning, the psalmist in Psalm 126 sings of a glorious memory of ancient times, of God’s promises fulfilled--restoration, renewal, recovery of life. Return from exile. True homecoming. Lifted from defeat. From death to life. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.” What God has done. What we have seen with our own eyes! And from the depths, the prayer, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev.” Like the dry washes of the desert that are transformed to become abundant rivers in the rain of spring. And to offer this prayer in certainty that it is heard, and trusting the one in whom all our trust is placed. “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”
Hope, even in the hour of darkness. Hope. Certainty in the faithfulness of God. So that’s the word for this morning, getting nearer to the heart, even as we come nearer to the cross. Which would seem to be the sign of hopelessness. But Christ crucified, as St. Paul said, “a stumbling block to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
A way of living deeply and sincerely in Lent, a clue about who we are, what is to be revealed in the story of our lives and of our world. Hope. In relationships, life situations, world situations, that seem too far gone. Beyond repair. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev.” No matter how fierce the storms, no matter how lost we may seem—O Lord, my hope is in you.
So that’s five Psalms, five Sundays in Lent so far, and the first five keywords for our meditation. Again: Comfort, courage, joy, mercy, hope. What God wants for you, what he offers us. That we may find refreshment and renewal in our Christian life.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.