As we’ve been thinking about the psalms over these last few weeks we’ve remembered that they were and are the hymn book of the Jewish people and that Jesus would have known them inside out.
I wonder what his favourite psalm was. My guess is that it might have been one of the psalms full of praise for God: but also, as he was dying on the cross he used words from a psalm which is a great cry out to God.
And because there is a psalm which fits most human emotions he probably used many others in prayer as he faced different challenges and problems.
Today’s psalm however doesn’t deal with emotional issues or great events or with praise for God: it’s a very down-to-earth psalm, giving guidance for good daily living. It starts with a question-
Lord who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?
That is, who can be close to God?
The writer goes on to give four answers.
- You must make good use of your time, good use of your speech, have a good relationship with others and make good use of your money.
He starts off in verse 2;
“He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous.”
It’s leading a good life, but that is really a vague idea and we need to break it down.
- The next three answers give us some good ideas, but I think this one also means using our time rightly.
We all know the saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and it’s very true that we have to have a balance in our lives.
In the account of creation we’re told that on the 7th day God rested, and in the 10 commandments we are told that we should remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
It’s not easy to see a difference in our world today between Sunday and the rest of the week, but it’s important for us to set the day apart: for it to be a day when time with God is a priority.
We all lead busy lives, try fixing a meeting between four people and you see the problem. A great deal of what we spend our time doing may well be good and worthwhile and not necessarily selfish time, but we have to make time for the priorities of our Christian life, spending time with God. We may feel a great deal of sympathy for Martha in today’s gospel reading, and certainly, what she was doing was important if anyone was going to have a meal, but Jesus said that Mary who was sitting and listening to him had chosen the best part. Spending time with God will set us in the right framework for what the rest of the psalm is encouraging us to do.
The writer of the psalm goes on to speak of someone who
“speaks the truth from his heart, and has no slander on his tongue.”
How often do we think, “I wish I hadn’t said that,” when we’ve spoken thoughtlessly!
James in his epistle has half a chapter about guarding our tongues. He speaks of a horse which is controlled by the bit in its mouth; of a great ship which is steered by a small rudder; of a forest which can be set on fire by a small spark. In the same way he points out that the tongue, a small part of the body, can produce great results and can do great damage. He warns:
“with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?”
We need to guard our tongues because something once said cannot be taken back: its damage is done. On the other hand, our tongues can do great good. We can use them to encourage people; to praise them for something done well; to comfort people; to express our love; to thank people. That’s a very valuable use of our speech.
- The third answer speaks of someone who does his neighbour no wrong and casts no slur on his fellow man, who keeps his oath even when it hurts. It’s all about our relationships with other people. John in his epistle reminds us that: “since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Loving one another, in Jesus’ teaching and in all he did, came next to loving God. It was a natural follow up.
He told us we should love our neighbour as ourselves, and he spoke about how when we feed the hungry; welcome strangers; visit those in prison; in fact, meet the needs of those around us, we are in effect doing it for and to him.
There is a lovely children’s story of Martin the cobbler who dreamt that Jesus would visit him the next day. He watched eagerly, but as the day passed he felt that his dream had not been fulfilled, until Jesus spoke to him and reminded him of the beggar woman to whom he had given a blanket; of the barefoot child to whom he had given a pair of shoes, and others he had helped, and in doing so had met and served Jesus.
The prayer of St Teresa of Avila is emphasising the same thing: Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.
- Finally, the psalmist turns to our use of money. As we offer our gifts of money in the service we are reminded that:
“Yours Lord is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. All things come from you and of your own do we give you.”
We are stewards of our money and our possessions and we need to use them wisely, remembering that there may be a great gulf between what we want and what we need.
So how did this psalm start?
It was with a question – Lord who may dwell in your sanctuary?
The words dwell and live have permanence about them. The writer is not looking for just a nodding acquaintance with God but something much more lasting.
If we look back over his prescription for achieving that closeness with God we might well be daunted. It’s too much for us however hard we try. And certainly that’s true for John in his epistle writes:
“If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
But he goes on with words of reassurance that:
“if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.”
It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to try but it does mean that we shouldn’t be daunted.
But we are blessed because we have much more than a blueprint for our behaviour. We have the example of Jesus in his life and his teaching. Everything he did sprang from his closeness with God.
Time and time again, the gospel writers tell us that Jesus went aside to pray. In his ministry he made no distinction between people: between men and women; between those with good standing in the community and those who were rejected by those who thought they were above them; between his own countrymen and those of other nations and religions. His love and compassion went out to everyone. In his teaching he pulled no punches when he had to speak out against what he saw to be wrong, but overall his words were of God’s love, of forgiveness, of salvation.
We know that however good our lives are we cannot earn our way into God’s love. It’s there for us as a gift and we are promised eternal life because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Nevertheless we must surely try to live as the psalmist recommends; but we don’t have to feel that we can’t attain it, because, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
And that same help is there for us too. We only have to ask for it.
Sermon by Joy Kiley on Sunday 17th July 2016