The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 24th August 2008
For many of us, the psalm we heard this morning is associated with weddings. It is very often said or sung after the couple have made their promises to each other, so they have just become man and wife, and before they come to altar for blessing. The psalm of course is a prayer that everyone in the congregation will be blessed, but when it is sung at a wedding service it is especially a prayer that the couple will be blessed: ‘God be merciful unto us, and bless us : and shew us the light of his countenance, and be merciful unto us’. And that gives us the clue as to what the whole psalm is about. It is about the blessing of God, which may be given to a particular person, or couple, or family or people, but always spills over to include others. In the wedding service we pray that the love of the couple, which is indeed a blessing from God, will extend to others – that children will be included in their love, that their home will be a place of welcome to others, that, because they have been blessed by God, they can share in bringing God’s blessing to others.
There’s not much in this psalm to tell us how or why it was written. The only clue is in the verse: ‘Then shall the earth bring forth her increase : and God, even our own God, shall give us his blessing.’ In the Hebrew it’s not always easy to tell whether you’re dealing with a past or future tense, and here modern translations tend to make it a past tense: ‘The earth has yielded its increase; and God, our God, has blessed us’ (v.6, RSV). In other words, this may well be a song to be sung after the harvest has come in. It’s a song of thanksgiving to be sung in the temple, thanking God for the blessings of harvest.
There is another link that is important. The first verse is very like the blessing that was given to the priest Aaron to say: ‘The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’ (Numbers 6:24). What is exactly the same is the idea that the Lord should make his face to shine upon us. This to the Jews was the greatest blessing of all. It was said of Moses that he used to talk with the Lord ‘face to face, as a man talks with his friend’. It’s an astonishing idea: that human beings are so made in the image of God that we can meet God ‘face to face’. For Christians, of course, the idea takes on special meaning, because it is Jesus who has given to the invisible, spiritual God a real, human face. It is Paul who speaks of ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor 4.6). A little earlier in the same letter, Paul thinks about Moses, who, when he had been talking with God face to face, didn’t know that his face shone, but than put a veil over his face so as not to dazzle his fellow-Israelites. Paul says that when we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus , we are ourselves changed: ‘we are being changed from one degree of glory to another.’ This idea – that it is a blessing for the Christian to see the face of Jesus Christ in all his glory – comes again in the reading we had for our second lesson. At the beginning of the Book of Revelation, the seer tries to describes the glory of the Risen Christ. His face, he says, was like the sun shining in full strength’ (Rev 1.16).
And that brings us back to our psalm. For the sun, shining in full strength, gives light and warmth which enable the crops to grow and human beings to be healthy. The bright light of the sun can be too much for us, and the bright light of the presence of God’s reality can be too much for us – but this is not what the psalmist is talking about here. He is talking about the merciful God, in whose love we can bask as a child basks in a parent’s love. This is the God who loves us as a parent loves a child – and who looks for our freely given love and thankfulness in return: Let the people praise thee, O God : yea, let all the people praise thee comes twice in the psalm, like a chorus. This is the God, who is Lord over all the earth and who ultimately governs what happens on the earth. The way he has chosen to govern is to choose a people, whether we think of that people as Israel, or as the church, who experience God’s blessing in a special way and are called to share that blessing with others: ‘God be merciful unto us, and bless us : and shew us the light of his countenance, and be merciful unto us: That thy way may be known upon earth : thy saving health among all nations.
This psalm challenges me in two ways. First, I have never myself seen the face of Jesus Christ, though I have seen many beautiful images of it, such as those on the fine icons we have in the nave. And yet, I know that every human being is made in the image of God, and so in the image oif Jesus Christ. I can hear the voices of those in the parable who said, ‘“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”’ And I can hear the words of the Lord who says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Every day, of course, we see the face of Jesus a thousand times over. The question that faces each one of us, then, is whether and to what extent the face of the stranger, of the other, even when that face is contorted with hate, can be for me the face of Jesus Christ, which come to me in blessing. (I do not say this lightly.)
And then there is the challenge of the blessings, all the good things, that we receive in life. I trust that being here at this service this morning is something that you and I can receive as a gift, as a blessing from God. The question is what we do with this blessing. Is it something that we receive as for ourselves alone, or is there some way that our being here this morning will be a blessing to others, perhaps through our remembering them in prayer, or sending a card, or facing up to something we can go out of our way to do for them. Is there some way my face might be for some other human being the face of Jesus Christ? (Again, I do not say this lightly.)
So, let us receive this psalm as a word of blessing from God and say it over together, praying that in some small way God’s blessing may come through us to others:
God be merciful unto us, and bless us: and shew us the light of his countenance, and be merciful unto us:
2. That thy way may be known upon earth: thy saving health among all nations.
3. Let the people praise thee, O God: yea, let all the people praise thee.
4. O let the nations rejoice and be glad: for thou shalt judge the folk righteously, and govern the nations upon earth.
5. Let the people praise thee, O God: let all the people praise thee.
6. Then shall the earth bring forth her increase: and God, even our own God, shall give us his blessing.
7. God shall bless us: and all the ends of the world shall fear him.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen