This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it reflects on is Psalm 40:5.
Well, I hadn’t quite planned it this way, but sometimes happy coincidences give you a real gift; and today one of the verses in our Psalm relates very closely to part of the passage we’ll be looking at in Bible study later on, so I thought that would give us an opportunity to explore some of the related ideas and themes in a bit more depth than we otherwise might have been able to.
So what I want to focus on today is verse five of the psalm; which, in the translation as we have it, says: Blessed are those who have made the Lord their hope: who have not turned to the proud, or to those who wander in deceit.
Now, later on in Bible study we’ll be looking at the beginning of the sermon on the mount, in Matthew, which has a group of similar sayings; blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. And so on.
Well, we can look in detail at the sayings in Matthew later. But for now it’s enough to notice that the “Blessed are those…”type sayings have a long history even before Jesus, and an established place in Jewish and Christian thought.
One of the tricky things about these sayings, to start with, is that the word we have here as “blessed” is particularly difficult to translate into English. “Blessed,” “happy,” “blissful,” “fortunate,” “flourishing”… each possibility shows us something of the meaning of the original. In particular, though, there can be a confusion for us in reading it as “blessed;” does it mean that “God actively blesses those who….”? Not really. It’s more true to the original to read this sort of statement as an observation that a particular set of attitudes or behaviours contributes to some dimension of human flourishing.
So this verse, then, that says “Blessed are those who have made the Lord their hope: who have not turned to the proud, or to those who wander in deceit,” is a description of human flourishing; we flourish when we respond to God in hope, in trust and in truth.
This is a kind of blessedness or happiness which is about a state or a way of being, rather than a subjective feeling or emotion. It’s more than just temporary relief from the varieties of human misery that we all experience; it’s about a relationship with God who is bigger than all of those human miseries; a God who saves and sustains, delivers and protects us.
But that doesn’t mean that this requires nothing of us. The suggestion here is not that we are the passive recipients of blessedness; we are invited to hope, in an active and conscious way; we decide whether we turn to God, or whether we turn to idols (other translations bring out the point that the “deceit” in this verse is about the state of being so deceived that people end up worshipping what are not truly gods at all).
Not that God is absent from the picture; it’s God to whom we direct our hope and trust and reverence, God’s power that is acknowledged, and God who provides the knowledge and truth which are the antidote to deceit and confusion. But this, as so many of the “blessed” sayings, give us a picture of human flourishing which is within our reach to choose. The one who chooses to lead a life of hope and trust and truth, is the one who leads a truly blessed life. And that’s true not just for individuals, of course; it’s also true for communities. Communities flourish when we respond to God in hope, in trust and in truth.
So if human flourishing and blessedness comes from choosing hope, from cultivating hopefulness as a core part of our identity, how might we do that, and what would it look like?
It comes, at its deepest, from knowing God; from knowing God’s character, God’s purposes, and God’s disposition towards us. It also comes from a clear vision of what God is up to, not just in the very big picture (an “it’ll all work out alright in the end” kind of approach), but in the here and now. In our homes and our streets and amongst our neighbours. Hope requires a vision that is beyond where we are now, and practical ways to make progress toward that vision.
This is why vision is such an engine room for parish life; when we have a clear sense of what God wants to do, today, here and now; and a clear sense of how we fit into that, what God is calling us to be and to do, today, here and now; then that gives us a sense of purpose, of direction and of hope. And out of that sense of purpose and of hope come the energy and the commitment to live out that vision, and to attract others to come and be part of that vision as well.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, put it this way. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Why? Because if people long for the sea, they will willingly work together to build the ship.
That’s the power of vision, and it’s rooted in hope. I don’t think this parish has that kind of shared vision for its life together; a clear sense of God’s action, today, here and now, in this suburb; and shared commitment to be part of that action. We don’t really have that sense of shared purpose, direction and hope, which inspires the energy and commitment to make it a reality. Just like the shipbuilders need to “long for the endless immensity of the sea,” we need that horizon of hope, as well, as an indispensable part of what it means to be a flourishing parish; but it might take careful work for us to discern it, articulate it, share it and invite others to be part of it!
Hope is – according to today’s psalm – a necessary part of living a blessed life. It doesn’t come either automatically or by accident, but it can take work to carefully cultivate and nurture hope; work that we do by deepening our relationship with God, our understanding of what God is up to around us, and our commitment to being part of God’s work in the world today.
But that is work which we can do. Vision, hope and the flourishing which come from them are possible for us, today, here and now. It’s up to us to choose.