Friday, May 22, 2009

Easter VI - Dr John Jarick

“The Lord has shown his salvation to all the nations” [Response to Psalm 98 (97) in the Grail Psalter]. Today’s psalm is a splendidly resonant hymn of praise and thanksgiving, an exuberant proclamation of God’s presence in a world that is invited to respond and reinvigorate itself. “Sing a new song to the Lord”, the psalmist calls to us, as he reminds us of the “truth and love” that God has shown to “the house of Israel”.

But in fact we’ve only heard the half of it so far, in that the setting we used this morning was of the first four verses of the psalm, set as three stanzas of English verse in the Grail Psalter. As good as that half is by itself, and fully worthy of comment from an Old Testament Tutor, I trust that you will forgive me if, after sharing some thoughts on those verses with you, I also go on to make some comments on the second half of the psalm as well, the remaining five verses of that splendid composition, which is similarly set as three stanzas of English verse in the Grail Psalter. You might say that today’s sermon is a game of two halves — indeed, that may be regarded as quite appropriate on the weekend in which the Premier League football title was won, but of course the sentiments expressed in today’s song of salvation are far more profound, much more a matter of life and death for the earth, than the latest battle at Old Trafford.

Well, then, the first half. Let me remind you of what we heard earlier, when those opening verses of the psalm were sung:

Sing a new song to the Lord,
for he has worked wonders.

His right hand and his holy arm
have brought salvation.

The Lord has made known his salvation;
has shown his justice to the nations.

He has remembered his truth and love
for the house of Israel.

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

Shout to the Lord, all the earth,
ring out your joy.

Those students of this House who were recently examined on the book of Isaiah will be able to pinpoint the historical circumstances that plausibly first gave rise to the singing of this particular kind of song in honour of the God proclaimed by the prophets and teachers of ancient Israel. It was that great prophet of the end-of-exile, whose soaring poetic utterances are recorded in the second section of the book of Isaiah, who first sang the new song of salvation to a people who were languishing in exile from the Holy Land, no longer able to sing the old formerly-confident songs of Zion as they sat and wept by the rivers of Babylon. Among such downtrodden, anything-but-exuberant people, the so-called ‘Second Isaiah’ taught new songs, with words such as these:

See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth! … Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God
[Isaiah 42:9-10a; 52:8-10].

There were those among the exiles who had thought that God had abandoned them; that the promises once made to the ancestors of Israel — Abraham and Isaac and Jacob — were not worth the ancient scrolls they were written on; that the grand old Song of Moses — “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” [Exodus 15:1] — was null and void after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the deportation of the people from the promised land. But songs of lament changed to songs of joy when the redemption of Jerusalem did indeed come about, with the dramatic demise of the Babylonian superpower and the return of the exiles to rebuild the temple that had lain in ruins for close to a hundred years. Those songs of the ‘Second Isaiah’ certainly resounded in the hearts of the returnees, and it is no surprise to see them reflected also in such psalms as today’s Psalm 98. To the psalmist too, the sudden end of the Babylonian captivity manifested anew the saving nature of Israel’s God: “The Lord has made known his salvation, has shown his justice to the nations; he has remembered his truth and love for the house of Israel.”

With a song like this, the worshippers in the reconstituted temple could renew the celebration of the most time-honoured experience of Israel, the exodus from slavery in Egypt, through the addition of the newer experience of liberation, out from the darkness of that later imperial juggernaut of Babylon. And we latter-day singers can add more resonance to the song as well, as we celebrate not only those foundational divine acts in the experience of Israel, but also the new experience of God that came in the person of Jesus.

But let me hold back for the moment from saying more about that, because I promised you a sermon of two halves, and before I develop further comments, I need to put before you the second half of today’s psalm.

This, then, is Psalm 98, Part 2:

Sing psalms to the Lord with the harp,
with the sound of music.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn
acclaim the King, the Lord.

Let the sea and all within it, thunder;
the world, and all its peoples.

Let the rivers clap their hands
and the hills ring out their joy

at the presence of the Lord: for he comes,
he comes to rule the earth.

He will rule the world with justice
and the peoples with fairness.

Well, students of the Old Testament can get rather excited about the first of those stanzas, with its itemization of three particular musical instruments that were evidently deployed in the worship life of the ancient temple: the intriguing triplet of the kinnor (a harp or lyre), the chatsotsrah (a metallic trumpet), and the shofar (a ram’s horn). But for myself, who could never successfully play a musical instrument of any kind, I find the middle stanza much more exciting, with its picture of thundering seas, hand-clapping rivers, and hills being alive with the sound of music.

This part of the psalm also has resonances with the prophetic words of ‘Second Isaiah’, whose songs similarly called upon the natural world to join in the celebratory shout: “Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants… Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel” [Isaiah 42:10b; 44:23].

The joy of the prophet, and of the psalmist, is infectious. It’s simply not enough to have the temple musicians strumming their harps and blowing their trumpets and sounding their shofars to acclaim the Lord. All of nature is seen as echoing back the exuberance of the human protagonists, a great harmony — or is it a glorious cacophony? — of praises sung to the glory of God.

This wider chorus is in fact too big to be contained only within Israel. The experiences of Israel led them to discern that the Creator is also a Redeemer and a Sustainer, but the song that those ancient prophets and psalmists have taught to the world finds further resonances in ways that the ancient tradents might barely have imagined. I intimated earlier that I wanted to say something about how we latter-day singers of the Lord’s song celebrate not only those momentous events of the deliverance of the ancient Israelites from Egypt and from Babylon, but also the opening up of the proclamation of liberation to the whole world through the mission of Jesus. And to that end, I would like to bring to mind the adaptation of Psalm 98 that was made three hundred years ago by the great English hymn-writer Isaac Watts. He phrased it this way:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.

That hymn goes on, as does our psalm, to describe a situation in which not only do humans employ songs to express their gladness at the Lord’s coming, but also “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy”. And the concluding verse proclaims that:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love.

Yes indeed, as Psalm 98 originally stated it, “The Lord has shown his salvation to all the nations”. The use of this psalm on Christmas Day, in its own guise in many liturgies as well as in the guise of Isaac Watts’ great hymn in countless services, and the further use of this psalm in the Easter Vigil, and again today in the season of Easter as we move towards the commemoration of the ascension and of Pentecost, is one of the Church’s ways of indicating that the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus belongs with the exodus from Egypt and the return from exile in Babylon as a sure sign, indeed the surest sign, of God’s desire and power to save.

So it is that we “sing a new song to the Lord, for he has worked wonders; his right hand and his holy arm have brought salvation.”