Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fifth Sunday before Lent (3 February 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fifth Sunday before Lent (3 February 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

The Chaplain reflects on psalm 34 from the service and how language can alter how we understand God. 


I just want to spend a few moments this afternoon looking at psalm 34 which we had the first half of at the beginning of our service. If you turn back to pages 6 and 7 you’ll find it there. 

Psalm 34, may be more familiar to you as psalm 33 as it is in the translation from the Greek more commonly used in the Roman Catholic church. It may be even more familiar to you as the hymn Through all the changing scenes of life or in one of the more modern settings The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor or perhaps as the Vaughan Williams' anthem O Taste and See.

It’s one of a number of acrostic psalms, each verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which is no good to us coming to it as we do, in translation, but this would have made it very easy to commit to heart, and to recite in the original. 

It sits within the first collection in the psalter, which spans psalms 3-41 And this first collection of psalms is notable for its use of the title Yahweh, the Lord, which was particularly the custom of the Israelites, rather than Elohim, God, which predominates in subsequent psalms, and was a more general term used by a variety of traditions within Judaism. 

This collection of psalms are all ascribed by tradition to King David, and associated with an event in his life. The superscription traditionally given to this psalm being, Of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away. Not a very kingly thing to do you might think. It is a praise psalm for deliverance from trouble. Perhaps curious then that the verse rather clumsily rendered in the Coverdale version: 

They had an eye unto him and were lightened 
and their faces were not ashamed.

were by tradition the last words of the Catholic reformation martyr John Fisher as he ascended to the scaffold at Tower Hill and the sun from the south east shone very brightly in his face.

Look towards him and be radiant: let your faces not be abashed
this lowly one called, the Lord heard:
and rescued him form all his distress.

The version we have before us today is at the same time both very similar and also strikingly different to the one that I grew up with and learnt and love. 

The version we heard uses the word ‘fear’ four times, the version I grew up with had no ‘fear’ at all, not in this first half of the psalm anyway. We’ll come to the second half in a moment.

And so I wonder what a difference that has made to my concept of God compared to the concept of God of those who have grown up with the version based on the Latin vulgate which strikes me as being full of fear?

Compare:
I sought the Lord and he heard me
he delivered me out of all my fear

with: 
I sought the Lord and he answered me
from all my terrors he set me free

The first proposition to me presents Yahweh as the big brother who you seek out in the playground to sort out the bully. I get a very different feeling from:

the Lord answering me, 
and setting me free. 

That feels to me somehow more truly liberating - for all time, not just until the next time. Then if we compare: 

The angel of the Lord tarrieth round about them that fear him 
and delivereth them.

With:
The angel of the Lord is encamped around those who revere him to rescue them.

Likewise: 
O fear the Lord, ye that are his saints
for they that fear him lack nothing

has a rather different tone to: 
Revere the Lord you his saints
they lack nothing who revere him

Maybe it is simply a question of familiarity, and perhaps 16th century church-goers would have heard the word fear with a greater appreciation of the shades of meaning that have largely been lost to our modern usage. 

For us nowadays fear is fear is fear rather than perhaps more so than fear is awe and reverence.

The second half of the psalm which we didn’t hear this afternoon begins: 

Come children and listen to me, 
that I may teach you the fear of the Lord.

This is one of the verses that St Benedict quotes in his introduction to what he called his ‘little rule for beginners’.

Come children and listen to me, 
that I may teach you the fear of the Lord.

This was the only fear I knew, and the psalmist goes on to describe what it looks like:

Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit;
turn aside from evil and do good, seek and strive after peace.

Fear was in this way expressed as a positive activity, a habit of reverent loving kindness rather than physical and emotional paralysis which is perhaps what we understand by fear nowadays, fear as terror.

The ways in which we read and hear scripture, the translations of the scriptural texts that we choose or have available to us will have had a profound and perhaps lasting impact on our appreciation of the divine nature. 

And so, if you happen to be even slightly uncertain about the God we worship, perhaps you might take a fresh look at the texts that have informed this view and consider whether there might be an authoritative alternative.