January 10, 2021

Psalm Lockdown Retreat: A Psalm of Orientation

A Sermon preached by Canon Simon Butler

Psalm 112

We can all be extremely grateful for those periods in our lives when all is right, when, to quote Browning ‘God is in his heaven – /all’s right with the world’. Like many famous quotes, this one in context is deeply ironic, because in the context of the poem from which it comes an adulterous couple is planning the murder of someone else. We should be careful of such quotations!

But the psalm is very different. It truly is a “psalm of orientation”. Here the psalmist is happy and confident in their condition. They know what it means to live the good life and there is a sense of satisfaction about it. Life lived with God is truly ‘the good life’. Delighting in the Lord leads to many good things: the blessings pour down the generations, wealth and true prosperity abound. Righteousness – justice if you like – abounds. And such blessings are infectious, they spread from the individual to the wider community.

This is a picture of life lived in harmony with God’s purpose. When God reigns, not just in heaven, but in the hearts and lives of the faithful, blessings abound. “Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.”

One of the things that has been an interest of mine in the past four years, in my work in the national church, has been the concept of “wellbeing”, particularly in relationship to the clergy in our church. It’s something about which we are acutely aware right now, given the particular challenges we all face.

While secular models of wellbeing offer us some help, the biblical understanding of wellbeing takes us deeper. Wellbeing flows from our God who gives fullness of life to us in Jesus Christ. This psalm makes that very clear. Wellbeing flows from a harmonious relationship with God. As one of the contributors to the work we’ve done on wellbeing over the past few years writes, “Wellbeing is rooted in our relationship with God, as branches of the living Vine, flourishing through the abundance of God’s grace.”

Psalm 112 outlines the blessings that flow from this, how in a life oriented towards God, deep wells of health, holiness and happiness flow.

But, for the person praying this psalm, whether it was an individual at the time reflecting on their life, or whether it was more of a community psalm, something perhaps used in worship to express the height of blessings right relationship with God brings, one thing to notice is that happiness isn’t first and foremost a quality. The essence of happiness is not a sense of personal contentment, it’s marked by faithful actions. The blessings of right relationship with God are not fully enacted unless they flow outwards beyond the self to others. This is a real contrast to our modern self-absorbed understanding of wellbeing. True contentment comes when we live upwardly to God and outwardly to others. So, “Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures for ever; their horn is exalted in honour.” True virtue, and true wellbeing, take us outside of ourselves to the needs of others.

People find this hard to understand – we hoard and hold on too tight to our blessings – to the point, in some, maybe in the most dysfunctional lives and families (even presidential ones) where we can no longer appreciate the true nature of the blessings we have received. Failing to notice God’s abundant blessing, such people become greedy, grasping and grudging. They are held up in this psalm as the model of how not to live a good life.

When I read the psalms, I like to imagine the sort of people who might pray the particular psalm I’m looking at. And although this psalm doesn’t contain much of what we might call ‘biography’- we will see some which do next week – I like to think that this is a prayer that perhaps we all can say most of the time. Not necessarily because life is all golden-hued and perfect, but because – just as in many of the hymns we sing and the liturgy we recite week-in, week-out, it says something about the world which we aspire to live in and work towards. It reminds us of something that we need to be reminded of constantly – that blessing does not come through greed, self-sufficiency and self-obsession, but comes from a right relationship with God and with our neighbour. That’s a message to daily remind ourselves of for anyone who sees the world through the eyes of faith.

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