Let God Arise: Psalm 68 and the Theurgy of the Church

Introduction

Today, on this Ascension Sunday, we stand looking up at the skies.

The reality of Christ’s Ascension is perplexing and perhaps even stranger than the reality of His Resurrection (if anything can be stranger than that reality).

We are in between times and the paradox of the Ascension evokes questions of our Lord:

Where are you? Where is your body? What is your body? Are you absent from us? Are you present to us? What happens now?

Even before Christ is lifted to the heavens on a cloud and disappears, the disciples already sense that things are about to change, and they grasp for some tangible road map for the future, for some certainty. The disciples are wondering: What happens now? “Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom of Israel?”

He answers them:

“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

And then he is gone, taken up into heaven, and they are left, their question still lingering in the air along with His enigmatic answer … compounded and confounded by his Ascension.

Despite its strangeness, the answer given contains a promise, and that promise has been tangibly fulfilled. The Holy Spirit descended mightily on the Church on the day of Pentecost, and there has been power and witness to the ends of the earth.

 

Past Pentecost

We are past Pentecost by two millennia, still waiting for the second promise, voiced by the Angel, the promise that he would return the same way that he left.  In the Western Church, expansion is now contraction, and power is no longer an adjective applied to describe this church. Our perplexity is transformed and deepened, and again we stand looking at the heavens, we ask questions of Christ:

Where are you? Where is your body? What is your body? Are you present to us or absent from us? What happens now?

This feels particularly poignant on the day after a beloved young woman’s ordination, a day of hope but also a day of trepidation and risk. What is the future of the Church? What does God intend with us? Where is Jesus Christ—absent or present?

Charles Williams, a witty and wise lay theologian of the early twentieth century, once said,

Jesus Christ, who made himself the foundation of the church, does not seem ever to have hoped much from officers of the church. The most he would do was to promise that the gates of hell should not prevail against it.  It is about all that, looking back on the history of the Church, one can feel they have not done. [1]

Certainly it feels like this, in this day and age. The gates of hell have not prevailed, but some days it feels as if we are pressed up against those gates.  Though hell from this Western, modern perspective looks far more like an insipid decline into meaninglessness than anything too ferocious and exciting.

 

Cry Out!

But pressed against the gates, shouldn’t we cry out, like the disciples?

Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?

Shouldn’t we cry out like the people of Israel?

“Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.

And let those who hate Him flee before His face.

As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish

As wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God…”[2]

But now we are shifting in our seats. This sounds rather militant, doesn’t it? Can we say this? The Church, in the last two millennia, has learned the dangers of Christian militancy, the dangers of abusing power, the dangers of an aggressive and authoritarian Christendom.

Yes, it certainly has.

But perhaps we can we hold our breath, keep our seats and pray with the psalmist, as we are called to do on this Ascension Sunday, pressing into this psalm rather than censuring it, trusting that Scripture knows better than we what we need.

 

Psalm 68

“Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.

And let those who hate Him flee before His face.

As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish

As wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God…”

Let us first notice, as we begin, who the actor is in this psalm. It is God, not us. Let that be clear. Can we trust that God’s militancy is not our own? What is the militancy of God? How does it reveal itself?

St. Augustine, in his 40-page excursus on this psalm, emphasizes that what is being chased here is spiritual, not corporeal.

“What is being chased away is the enemy of fear—fear of the completed work of God in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This fear will flee before the God of the heavens. God will chase the corporeal bodies filled with fear; He will chase them with the heat of his love, and as wax flows liquid in the presence of fire, so many sinners will perish before the face of God.” [3]

What melts like wax, according to Augustine, is the hard-hearted fearful resistance to this love. This isn’t soft: there is judgment, and this is not without suffering. However, the militancy of God that pursues the enemy of fear in us is never retributive, vindictive, cruel and meaningless. It is hard, but its source is always love, and its intention is to melt hearts.

 

The militancy of God breeds singing

What comes with melted hearts? What happens when fear is chased away? Joy and singing—that is what happens. The militancy of God breeds joy and singing.

As the disciples prayed, hidden away in the Upper Room waiting for the Holy Spirit, joy was there, and singing. Perhaps if we only cried out, joy might come and happen to us. I heard echoes of it last night at the ordination as the power of the voices played amongst the rafters of this place.

Does this seem a small grace to you, maybe? Don’t we need it anyway?

I met with Bishop Mark MacDonald, our National Indigenous Anglican Bishop, a few weeks ago, and he spoke to me of the situation facing the indigenous people of our country. He described life in aboriginal communities in this country as comparable to life in a war zone. He said the rate of violence on reserves is one of the highest in the whole world—the whole world, including Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic. I asked him what he perceived his people needed, and one of the first things he said is that they needed to sing hymns together. They need to gather and eat and sing and read the Gospel. He said that the life of the indigenous people of Canada is centered around the life of the spirit, and because their spirits are not being fed and nourished, they are perishing. Singing feeds the spirit; in singing they come together, and this counteracts violence. Don’t tell me singing is a small grace.

Singing makes way for He who rides upon the sunset, and He who rides upon the sunset is the father of orphans and the defender of widows.

 

God’s Habitation

Augustine says,

“It is out of these orphans and widows, who no longer have any hope in the secular society that has abandoned them, that the Lord fashions a temple for Himself.”[4]

Recent Church survival strategy has stressed that the Church needs to stop trying to bring people in to itself, stop worrying about building congregations, and that instead the Church needs to go out into the world and meet the needs of the world.

The Church needs to reach into the world and care for the widow and the orphan and be present to its community, but we are not called to be a social service agency, nor a community gathering place. We are called to be the Body of the ascended Christ.

Therefore, to say that the time to be concerned with bringing people into the Church has ended, and that now the church needs to go into the world, is profoundly dangerous to the life of the Church. It assumes that worship has absolutely no power to change lives, that the word cannot bring hope and sustenance, that the Eucharist is unimportant for the poor and the hungry, that singing is irrelevant to the broken and to the widow, and that God is not the end of our existence nor the source of our lives. It assumes that God is absent and has no power to arise.

But He does, and He is the only effective source of life and power, and as we are gathered in His holy place, as the psalm says, we become the place in which He deigns to dwell.

Augustine teaches,

“When the psalm stated that the Lord is in his holy place, we might have questioned where such a place could be, since God is entirely present everywhere, and no corporeal space can contain him, so the psalm immediately adds a phrase to exclude any possibility of our looking for him anywhere else but in ourselves … Nothing else but this is the Lord’s holy place, the place so many people search for, a place where they can pray in the conviction that they will be heard. Such people need to become themselves the place they are seeking.”[5]

We can only serve when are we becoming His body, which is to worship and eat and drink of His presence and His word. But there is more, again we are not the actor in this work.

God is in his holy habitation. He is the one who makes us into His body.

“God settles the solitary in a house,

With courage He leads out those in bondage

Likewise those who rebel, who dwell in tombs…”

God settles the solitary, all of us oddballs here, introverted and often lonely, awkward and isolated—He brings us into the house of His grace and begins the shaping of the Body.

With courage, he leads all of us out, all of us who are tied up in all that binds us: our failures, our addictions, major and minor, our finances, our fears, our family dysfunctions. God gives courage. How often do we so desperately need courage to get through our day-to-day lives?

And then there is this third line, “…likewise those who rebel, who dwell in tombs.”[6]

There are multiple translations of this verse. Some translations, like the one before you, say the rebels will be left in the desert; but some, like the Septuagint, say the rebels who dwell in tombs, enclosed in their own resistance to God, will also be brought back to life from the dead. Thank God for the multiplicity of meaning translations, for so many of us here in this parish have a streak of profound rebellion in us, and though we do need to take the consequences of our lives very seriously, it is a grace to know that even we cannot resist the fire of love that melts the heart and makes us sing.

 

The Provision of God

In your goodness, O God, you provide for the poor.

Augustine’s translation says, “In your sweetness, O God, you provide for the poor.” Oh how sweet God is.

And what does He provide?

The BCP translation of the next verse reads, “The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the preachers.”

He provides preachers! Arise, O God, and provide preachers who will speak the word with truth and power. We so need this. We need ministers of the Gospel, theologians and priests who will give themselves to be among the great company of preachers, that are the provision of God for His people up against the gates of hell.

The translation of the Psalm we sang this morning reads, “The Lord gave the word; great was the company of women who bore the tidings.”

On this day after the ordination of a powerfully gifted young woman who will serve in our midst, who cannot feel as if God does not truly provide a preacher to bare the tidings? Let God arise!

And then it goes on. The Septuagint translation of the psalm reads,

“If you fall asleep in the midst of your portions,

You will have the wings of a dove, all covered with silver,

And her back with yellow gold…”[7]

This is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture.

I love it for its humour and its sweet beauty. It says that if you fall asleep, even if you come to church and sleep through the sermon, dear friends, you will have the wings of a dove all covered with silver. You will be beautiful and mount up.  God is not asking much—just for us to show up and call to Him even in our sleepy state. So when our preachers get long-winded, go ahead and sleep. This is the place to rest.

This is the place to rest, in the midst of the Word, in the midst of our inheritance, the truth given to us, in Scripture, the sacrament, in the Great Tradition and in the community of charity. The Church of today is so anxious, busy and frantic, trying to save itself from the brink of extinction.

Lay down and rest, dear Church—stop being so frantic, rest in the midst of your portion, and in the midst of your inheritance. Don’t give up your scriptures as relevant to the Church, don’t give up your doctrines as foundational, don’t give up the Eucharist as central to your life, and don’t give up Worship as priority! Don’t give these things up to make you more palatable to the secular world. Without our inheritance we are nothing. We can do nothing better than the world can, we are not particularly good, and nor are we particularly smart because we are the Church! All we have is God in Jesus Christ to offer to the world.

As Graham Green’s whisky priest proclaims with powerful humility at the end of Green’s great novel The Power and the Glory, “I put God into the mouths of people and that is what makes all the difference.”

 

You received gifts for mankind

It is this God whom we address while we gaze at the skies on this Sunday of Ascension.

The psalm continues:

“You ascended on high, You led captivity captive;

You received gifts for mankind

Truly for the disobedient, so they may dwell there.”

Saint Paul uses this verse to stunning effect in Ephesians 4, but he changes one line: “You received gifts for mankind becomes you gave gifts to men.” First, as an aside, let’s remember that the terms ‘men’ and ‘mankind’ include us women too. For heaven’s sake, ‘preachers’ can be translated as “the company of women who proclaim the good tidings.”

More importantly, however, do you see what’s happening? Do you see what is emphasized in the tension of the change between “You received gifts for mankind,” to “You gave gifts to men”? Paul is emphasizing to us that through the militancy of God’s love in Jesus Christ, who dies on a cross, is buried, descends into hell and ascends into heaven, leading captivity captive, the whole world is given to Him, taken in to His life, gathered up, redeemed and transformed.

Just so, he gives us back our lives. All of our lives, all of our acts, all of our flailing attempts at worshipful living are given to Jesus Christ and made perfect, made into gifts to be given to us and to the world.

This chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—do you know what it is about? Do you know that it is about the Body of the Ascended Christ? Here is what follows from his quote from Psalm 68:

“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”[8]

Today, on this Ascension Sunday, we stand looking up at the skies.

Yes, we are perplexed, and we are in between times, and the uncertainty of the moment evokes questions of our Lord:

Where are you? Where is your body? What is your body now? Are you absent from us? Are you present to us? What happens now?

But we have been instructed, with the disciples, as to what we must do. We must stand here singing, sleeping in the midst of our inheritance; we must stand here looking for our lives and discerning our particular callings.

God’s militancy can be trusted. He will not allow the gates of Hell to prevail against his Church. This section of the psalm ends:

“Blessed be the Lord day by day,

The God of our salvation, who bears our burdens.

He is our God, the God of our salvation

God is the Lord, by whom we escape death.”

Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered.

Amen.



[1] Charles Williams (2005). He Came Down from Heaven (p. 78). Berkeley: Apocryphile Press.

[2] Orthodox Study Bible (2008).  This Bible uses the text of the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint for its translation of the Old Testament and Psalms.

[3] Saint Augustine, Psalm 67 (68), Expositions of the Psalms, Vol 3 (p. 326). Hyde Park, NY: New City Press.

[4] Saint Augustine, ibid (p. 328).

[5] Saint Augustine. Ps. 67 (68) section 7. Pg. 328

[6] Oxford Study Bible. Ps. 67 (68) v. 7.

[7] Oxford Study Bible. Ps. 67 (68) v. 14.

[8] Ephesians 4 v. 7-16.