the voice

The twenty-ninth psalm is a model of organization. It has been carefully, thoughtfully, precisely constructed in three sections. In the first section there are three ascriptions to the LORD. In the second there are seven thunders of the LORD’s voice. And finally, in the third section, are two affirmations paired with two blessings. In the first section the LORD - YHWH - is named four times, in the second named ten times and in the third, again, named four times. It is a threefold hymn about the LORD, fitting for the God we know as Triune: Three in One. Yet I confess it is not a Psalm that I know well, that I can recite by heart or that I have taken the time to host as holy guest, as holy stranger in our midst. Today that changes.

The psalm begins oddly. It tells divine beings - literally “sons of gods” - to ascribe glory and strength to the LORD. You would think that the heavenly powers would know that God is God. Apparently not. Scholars glimpse here the incorporation of an ancient Canaanite song into the hymnody of Israel. They see hints of a world in which there are many gods battling for supremacy. Here is a song telling these lower gods that YHWH, the God of Israel, the God who delivers the oppressed slaves up from Egypt and brings them safe through the wilderness and gives them the gift of the commandments of a just way of life is the God of all gods. Ascribe to the LORD - to YHWH - glory and strength. Do not ascribe glory and strength to lesser gods. Do not ascribe glory and strength to idols who cannot deliver. Notice that glory is being rhymed with strength. Glory refers to power, to energy, to high voltage. This is what it means to say that God is glorified. It is to say that the LORD has power, strength, energy, voltage.

You would think that this is a ‘no-brainer’. Yet the Psalm is instructing not only mere mortals but the heavenly powers in Theology 101. Apparently it is not clear that the LORD, YHWH, the God met through Moses and Elijah is filled with glory - with strength. Apparently heaven is confused about this. And if heaven is confused about this then we will not be surprised to learn that there is also confusion on the earth when it comes to who has power to change things with energy to spare, to give, to transform, to save. The twenty-ninth Psalm wants there to be no mistake. Ascribe to the LORD, to YHWH, the God met in Jesus Christ glory and strength. “Ascribe”. This translation into English is lovely. Imagine being given a pen and asked to write down the answer to the question “Who or what has power to heal, to save, to make new?” Ascribe. It means, literally, “write”. Yesterday at the General Meeting of BC Conference those who are being ordained into ministry this morning were asked to speak briefly about their understanding of the gospel. They were being asked to ascribe the good news in a few words. The twenty-ninth Psalm teaches us the answer that has been passed down from generation to generation. What is the good news? Answer: “God is glorious, strong, worthy of worship”. These are the words that the twenty-ninth Psalm would inscribe on our hearts and souls, lips and lives.

“Ascribe to the LORD power and strength”. This is the threefold ascription at the beginning of the this threefold Psalm: Not “God is dead”. Not “God is a universal energy force”. When asked for the source of our energy and strength write this down: The LORD - YHWH - the God met in the Law and the Prophets and in Jesus Christ. We are a scripted people. We live from what has been written down, inscribed, scripted. It is called “holy scripture”. Notice we do not first have the experience of God and then write it down. We write it down and then live out of this story, the story of God’s glory and strength.

The twenty-ninth psalm now turns from its opening threefold ascription to the central seven-fold thunders. The Psalm is a thunderstorm marked by seven vocal thunderclaps. Seven times the LORD’s voice speaks. Seven times the LORD’s power works wonders. “The voice of the LORD is over the waters”, bringing order out the waters of chaos and calm in the storm on the sea. “The voice of the LORD is powerful”. God’s speech is creative. It is the reason that we are a people of the Word. We gather to hear the thundering Word that has power to speak light into darkness.

And the twenty-ninth Psalm has no doubt. It hears the voice of the LORD like thunderclaps, thunderclaps that snap the mighty cedars of Lebanon like twigs; thunderclaps that cause entire nations to skip like a calf. Psalm twenty-nine hears the voice of the LORD and sees flames of fire and feels the wilderness quake. To sing the twenty-ninth Psalm is to sing with ears unplugged, with hearing restored. At least that is what it feels like to me, a child of the twentieth century, who learned that the voice of the LORD is hard to hear in a world of thundering hoof-beats. To be honest, in hosting this Psalm all week long, I wondered how to proclaim such a strong and powerful voice to you. You often tell me that it is hard to hear God’s voice in a world of so much background noise and so many loud voices. I thought of Elijah who does not hear God in the earthquake, wind or fire but, finally, only in sheer silence. But, of course, the LORD who Elijah hears in the sheer silence still speaks with power. This is the paradox, the irony, carried forward from generation to generation. The LORD who speaks with power is a God met on the margins, in the unwelcome voice of the prophet, in the babe born in the manger because there is no room and crucified on the cross because he is scorned and rejected. It is no wonder that Jesus says “Let those with ears to hear, hear”. Not everyone seems able to hear the voice of the LORD.

Who knows what it is that unstops some ears and allows them to hear the voice? I do not know the answer to this question. But I know that the church is meant to be a people whose ears are being unstopped. In ascribing glory and power to the LORD we find that we hear something that we could not hear before. We were deaf to God’s voice, unaware of God’s power. And once the church cannot hear the voice of God any longer it loses it awareness of God’s power. Then, like the world around it, the church begins to give up on the LORD and begins to place its trust in other powers, idols, ideas, techniques, promises, leaders. More than that, then the church - meant to be fertile soil for faith in God’s potency - begins to be a people of despair, of lost hope. Then its gospel shrinks to something more reasonable like “inclusion”, “community”, “love”, “justice”. Then even the church is no longer confident in God’s power to shake, to uproot, to overcome.

But the God who can shake, who can uproot, who can overcome is, of course, the God of an Eastered people. The Easter gospel is the strong story of a people who have, while alive, died to death. That is what baptism is. It is dying to death before you die. And baptism is also being to raised to life on the other side of death in the here and now. The voice of the LORD that speaks to us is the voice of the risen LORD who lives on the other side of death. His voice is over the stormy waters of death and trouble. His voice causes the wilderness of despair and denial to quake. His voice awakens us to life in the kingdom come, gives us ears to hear his need in neighbours and eyes to see his presence in strangers. I am not sure why I am so much more confident in the voice of the LORD these days. I have spent my ministry in a long season in which it seems like God’s voice is, at best, trying to get a word in edgewise and, at worst, simply remaining silent, not speaking as in days of old. But now, being among the company of those living with cancer, I find myself needing to know that the LORD’s voice is strong. More than that, I find myself receptive to the twenty-ninth Psalm’s insistence that God does speak with power. I have begun to realize that the problem has not been with the LORD’s voice but with my hearing. Perhaps I - perhaps we - have been so captivated by other voices that we have not been able or willing or ready to hear the voice of the LORD. All I know is that here, on the other side of a cancer diagnosis, the voice of the LORD is strong. Like the author of Psalm twenty-nine I want you to be able to hear it, too. And I want you to be able to join the chorus with all who hear the powerful voice of the LORD, singing in reply: “Glory”.

Now the psalm makes its third and final turn. It ends with a familiar refrain, or so it seems: “The LORD sits enthroned over the flood”. It is a final declaration of God’s power in the face of the flood - the flood of trouble, the flood of anxiety, the flood of problems that drown life in fear and fatigue and failure, the flood of tears. God’s power to rule over the flood is the sure foundation on which the church is built. It is a foundation built on nothing more or less than faith, trust in the voice of the LORD. This is the inscription that scripture inscribes on us. This is the script that we have fallen in love with (which is, by the way, the best description I know of conversion). We have fallen in love with the God who sits enthroned over the flood, enthroned on a cross, the LORD’s power revealed in a journey through weakness and death.

But notice that the twenty-ninth Psalm does not end on this note. Its closing refrain moves from a description of the LORD enthroned, ruling over the flood, to a prayer that is a cry for blessing: “May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!” The LORD has strength, glory, voltage. The LORD has peace, shalom, well-being. But the people are weak, divided, not well, in need. They have been trusting false gods for strength and unity and well-being. These idols have not delivered - and can not deliver - on their promises. It is the LORD who can deliver. It is the LORD who will deliver. We are delivered by dying to the anxious life we have been living and then rising to a new life, born anew, in God’s kingdom come where heaven meets earth. This new birth happens any time, any place that you are ready, ready to say ‘yes, LORD, deliver me’; ready to pray ‘yes, LORD carry me’; ready to hear the voice of the LORD say ‘yes mortal, trust me’.

This is what we are invited to do in the hymn we are about to sing. It is an ancient Irish “lorica”. Lorica is the Latin word for “breastplate”. When warriors went into battle they would sing a lorica as they put on their armour. This ancient hymn is known as Saint Patrick’s breastplate. In it the armour that we put on is “the strong name of the Trinity”. We inscribe on ourselves the name of the LORD - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s it. Nothing else. The name of the LORD inscribed, tattooed, scripted into our lives. It happens between verses four and five. There we sing this inscription, binding it onto our bodies and our souls: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” Surrounded by Jesus Christ on every side we are protected from danger. More than that, surrounded by Jesus Christ on every side we are freed to risk living the life God intends us to live in the kingdom come - the Easter world on the other side of death - freed to live it here, now. And all cry: “Glory”.    

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