Our Help in Ages Past: a Sermon Preached on the Last Sunday after Trinity (21st Sunday after Pentecost), October 25, 2020, the Year of the Great Pandemic

A Sermon preached on The Last Sunday after Trinity
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
on October 25, 2020 at 11:00 am EET

O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), written in 1708, and published in The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719).
Psalm 90 from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1977)

Angry?

Angry? Of course, you have been angry.

Are you angry now? Maybe you’re angry about your neighbour, or someone in your family. Angry about the coronavirus? Angry about the government’s response to it, whether here, in the USA or Canada, or in the UK? Wondering why we cannot all be like New Zealand? Maybe you’re angry about Brexit. Maybe you’re just angry about getting old.

Anger is a strong emotion, and sometimes we shrink back from it. At worst it comes across as a loss of temper, and has negative consequences. Certainly most of the things that I regret about the past is when I have lashed out in anger. We have all seen it in children, and it is all too common in adults – raw, inchoate, irrational. It makes us embarrassed, and perhaps terrified. Anger can end relationships, and it can lead to violence.

But then there is the kind of anger that is rooted in a deep sense of justice. It can be a slow burn, and a powerful motivator to positive action. So, maybe you’re filled with righteous anger against the corruption of government officials, or towards the racism that persists in our communities, or the arrogance of the wicked that cause wars, refugees, and famines.

And then, sometimes, maybe you’re just angry with God. A young person dies, or innocent people suffer, and we demand an accounting from the Creator.         

The Angriest Psalm in the Psalter

Well, it’s all right to be angry with God. We have the precedent in the psalms. In Psalm 89 we have a great example of that. It starts off very positively:

1    My song shall be always of the loving-kindness of the Lord:  ♦
with my mouth will I proclaim your faithfulness throughout all generations.
2    I will declare that your love is established for ever;  ♦
you have set your faithfulness as firm as the heavens.
3    For you said: ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one;  ♦
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
4    “‘Your seed will I establish for ever  ♦
and build up your throne for all generations.”’

It goes on like this for the next two thirds of the psalm, at great length, through to verse 37. Then, with verse 38 the tone changes dramatically.

But you have cast off and rejected your anointed; ♦
you have shown fierce anger against him.
39 You have broken the covenant with your servant, ♦
and have cast his crown to the dust.
40 You have broken down all his walls ♦
and laid his strongholds in ruins.
41 All who pass by despoil him, ♦
and he has become the scorn of his neighbours.

It continues like this all the way to verse 51, and psalm 49 sums it up:

49  Where, O Lord, is your steadfast love of old,  ♦
which you swore to David in your faithfulness?

(The final verse, 52, has a positive tone, but that’s because it was probably was added by the anonymous editors of the psalter in the 5th or 4th centuries BCE, as a doxology to conclude one of the five divisions of the 150 psalms, the third book.)

This is not a psalm attributed to David. Only 73 are attributed to David, and the rest are anonymous. The psalters we use in church, because they are for the purpose of worship, do not include the attributions or superscriptions. Not all psalms have them, but 116 of the 150 do. Most scholars believe they were added by editors after the psalms were collected. Usually they say something like what we find in Psalm 3: “A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.” Some are attributed to Asaph, or the sons of Korah, or Solomon. In other cases they have directions to the musical director about the tune (long lost). Some have descriptions, such Psalms 120-134, each of which is identified as “A Song of Ascents”.

The attribution here at the head of Psalm 89 is “A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite”, a maskil being a type of psalm. This is the only psalm attributed to Ethan. It clearly dates from the time of the fall of Jerusalem, when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, extinguished the House of David, and took the leadership of Judea into exile. It speaks of the sense of betrayal, of a sacred covenant broken.

So how does one respond to this kind of anger?

Psalm 90

The editors of the Book of Psalms, whoever they were, chose to follow this angry psalm with one of the big guns. The superscription says that this is “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” Moses is, as our first reading today points out, unequaled, even by David: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform . . .”. Moses led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. At Mount Sinai he received the Torah, God’s law and instruction, and handed it over to Israel. After the indictment of Psalm 89, only Moses will do as response.

The psalm is entirely in the second person, addressing God. It begins with an affirmation.

1 Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.

or, as Isaac Watts puts it in his paraphrase,

Our God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

In the second verse the psalm asserts God as creator. The next few verses affirm the fragility of humanity. Then the tone changes slightly, as the psalmist acknowledges our failures:

8 You have set our misdeeds before you and our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

The anger and wrath of God are the consequences of our falling short of the glory of God and of failing to observe his instruction in either letter or spirit. It is not the petulant and arbitrary actions of some inscrutable deity. The God of Moses is a God of justice, and this is affirmed. The reality of sin and evil is not explained away, any more than in the Book of Job, but rather the majesty and righteousness of the Creator is proclaimed.

Then, with verse 12 we get a series of petitions:

teach us . . .
turn again . . .
have compassion . . .
satisfy us . . .
give us . . .
show . . .
let . . .
may . . .
prosper . . .

Psalm 90 makes the case that we have suffered. The psalmist asks for God’s compassion, loving-kindness, glory, and gracious favour, so that God’s servants and their children might rejoice, be glad, and do great things with their hands.

Isaac Watts, 2300 years later, turned this into a great Christian hymn, a paraphrase of Psalm 90, something which has sustained generations through war and adversity. It is why it has become a hymn for Remembrance Day.

The person of Moses, as described in Exodus through Deuteronomy, is someone who knew adversity, and yet he persisted. He received the promise of the land of Canaan, but he did not enter into it, but only through his children and the people of Israel would he enjoy the blessing. But he saw the future, the blessing to come, from the mountain of Nebo.

Jesus, the second Moses, summarises the Torah in our Gospel reading. Love God, love your neighbour. There is no opposition in these commandments, for to a great extent the first is fulfilled in the second; God’s justice demands that we be a servant, as Christ was a servant for us, in sacrificial love. As Christians, we find our refuge in Jesus.

So, yes, be angry. But do not just be angry, but turn and rest in the Lord. Find a refuge from suffering and pain in the person of Jesus Christ and God as manifested in the Holy Spirit.

Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come:
be thou our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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1 Response to Our Help in Ages Past: a Sermon Preached on the Last Sunday after Trinity (21st Sunday after Pentecost), October 25, 2020, the Year of the Great Pandemic

  1. Ashley says:

    A wonderful sermon and a great hymn.

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