Sermon: In the congregations of the princes
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
In the congregations of the princes: 8 November 09: pm: The Very Revd Frank Nelson
- Psalm 82
- Isaiah 10: 33 – 11: 9
- John 14: 22 - 29
No one could accuse the writer of Psalm 82 as lacking in lively and poetic imagination. Even in the English of nearly four centuries ago we get a sense of the daring mental picture of a heavenly court. God standeth in the congregations of the princes is better understood in the words God has taken his place in the divine council (NRSV) or God has taken his place in the council of heaven (ANZPB). In words not dissimilar to the opening of the Book of Job, the psalmist imagines God in the court-room of heaven. God is the judge – not of the doings of humans, but of the doings of the other gods. For us, long schooled in the concept of mono-theism, the concept that there is one, and only one, God, the idea of God (capital G) gathering together a whole lot of other gods (small g) sounds rather strange. But it was not unusual in ancient times to see the activities and events of this earth reflected in that of the heavenly sphere. If you like, we can imagine the opening words of Psalm 82 as a sort of heavenly United Nations, where the representatives of the nations of the world are called before the Security Council to give account for what is happening in their patch.
The accusation against the gods is straight-forward and to the point: How long will ye give wrong judgement and accept the persons of the ungodly?(BCP) How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? (NRSV) This is the cry of one who feels the unfairness of the world. It is the ancient, and still present, question: why do the wicked prosper? Why do I, who work so hard, pay my taxes, and don’t do anything terribly wrong, always seem to be worse off than those who appear to manipulate the system, have money to pay clever lawyers to find legal loopholes, and always seem to have more than anybody else?
Among the features that made ancient Judaism different from all other religions (and remember there was no such thing as a secular, godless, society in long ago times) was the strong ethical basis of a society where the poor were to be taken care of. This concept, deeply embedded in the psyche of the Jew, was reinforced annually at the Passover Festival. The foundation story of an enslaved people being heard by God was repeated year after year. God heard our cry. God rescued us. God gave us a new land. Therefore we worship God, and care for the poor among us. These concepts were deeply embedded in the minds of the Psalmist and his people from an early age. Slavery and suffering in Egypt led to the Exodus experience and shaped this particular people forever.
Verses 3 and 4 of the psalm spell out clearly the expectation placed on the gods. These are, in the more accessible words of the NRSV, to give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and destitute; and to rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. These concepts of caring for the widow and orphan, the weak and needy, run deep and strong throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. In the wisdom of the Anglican Church’s tradition we are reminded of them every time we sing, as we have done tonight, the words of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and poor.
The psalmist continues with his condemnation of the gods. They will not be learned nor understand, but walk on still in darkness. (BCP) They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness. (NRSV) Why do the wicked prosper, asks the psalmist? Because their gods are ignorant, they don’t know the way, the demands of God! Even so, they will, like the kings and rulers of the world, be judged and found wanting. They too will die, as all human beings will die. The psalm ends in a statement of almost blind trust in, and adoration of, God. Arise, O God, and judge thou the earth; for thou shalt take all heathen to thine inheritance. Once again, a newer translation helps to understand what is being said. Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you! (NRSV)
If the poetry of the psalms is political, the poetry of the prophets is even more so. The words of tonight’s first reading from Isaiah 11 are well known, and often read at Remembrance Sunday services when we think on the futility of war, and the huge cost in human lives that war inevitably brings. Tonight’s reading began in chapter 10, following an account of a terrible war. We don’t often read much of that chapter, and even tonight have just picked up the last few words where God intervenes at the last moment. The great forests of Lebanon are hacked down. And then, from the stump of Jesse, the father of the great king David, a new shoot will grow. What follows in Isaiah 11 is a wonderful picture of hope and new creation.
In fact, Isaiah 11 is the last of four passages in the first section of Isaiah all of which offer signs of hope and new beginnings following disaster. But let’s go back a little. Like the psalmist whose poetry of the heavenly council we have just been considering, the prophets, Isaiah among them, were very clear on the ethical dimensions of religion. To worship God was to care for the poor in their midst. This concept was deeply rooted in the Covenant Theology of being God’s Chosen People. It is what set the Jews apart from other people. People, especially the poor, the vulnerable in society, were to be taken care of. Yet, as so often seems to happen, the very people who should have been doing that, were so busy looking after themselves, feathering their own nests, making money, buying up property, trading stocks and bonds, that they laid themselves open to the judgment of God.
The Book of Isaiah opens with a devastating critique of the nations of Israel and Judah. They are no different to the rest. In fact, they are worse, because they have God, the story of the Exodus, the Covenant, the Ten Commandments. The judgment of God will fall heavily on those who think of themselves as Chosen, special. In the critique of Isaiah, everything that the people of Judah held dear, the holy city of Jerusalem, the Temple in which God was worshipped, the monarchy and the land promised to their ancestors – all would fall under the judgment of God. In this Isaiah is no different to his predecessor Amos. Where he is different is that Isaiah gives a picture, just a snapshot of two, of hope, of life after judgment. It is these passages of hope that we tend to focus on today.
So Isaiah 11 invites us to think of God’s anointed one; one who will have the Spirit of God – of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Is 11: 2) This special person will judge as God judges – where righteousness, this deeply embedded Old Testament concept, ensures the poor get a fair share. The longing for peace, for a new beginning, is spelt out in some of the most beautiful imagery ever written. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. (Is 11: 6ff) Here is creation, the world, as we would like it to be. Here is Shalom! This, in the words of a phrase we are increasingly hearing in Wellington, is Theology in the Public Square – at work in the world, making a difference to the daily lives of all people; not tucked away neatly in a box labeled Sunday only.
No wonder then that the New Testament writers, particularly in the Gospels, saw Jesus fulfilling these deep-seated dreams. The words of Simeon in the Nunc Dimitis capture the immense relief as the old man clutches the infant Jesus: I can die in peace, for my eyes have seen the glory of God. (cf Luke 2: 29ff) The Gospel of John becomes even more explicit in chapter 14. To a troubled group of disciples Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14: 6) The Covenant is renewed, not done away with, and Jesus invites, commands, his followers to trust him, to love him, and so to obey God. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14: 15) These are strong words. Jesus is claiming the rights of God, and inviting his disciples, including you and me, to follow him, obey him, and, with the power of the Holy Spirit to support, encourage, and sometimes cajole us, to make a difference in the world.
There is much more we could say, we have barely begun to unpack tonight’s 2nd reading from the Gospel of John, but time is against us. Sufficient to encourage you to read the whole of John 14 carefully, bearing in mind Psalm 84 and Isaiah 11; and perhaps even noting the words of tonight’s hymns. Much of our theology is learned from hymns. Colin Thompson, whose words we are about to sing, has captured in three short verses, much of what we have been thinking about tonight. May we, in our day and way, pray for, and work for, the bread, the peace, the truth and the love which comes only from God in Jesus Christ.