For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 6 – Ps 67
‘You’re useless – you’ll never amount to anything!’
‘You’re such an evil child!’
‘You filthy Paki!’
‘Hope you rot in hell!’
Words can be so cruel, and can cause real harm if they are directed at us, and especially if they are directed at us again and again. Philosopher John Austin wrote a book in 1962 outlining what he called ‘Speech Act theory’, suggesting that words can do so much more than merely convey information: they can actually change people. Words such as ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife together’ or ‘I forgive you’ can bring about concrete changes, much more than merely talking about weddings or forgiveness can. And if used negatively words can be curses which harm and undermine people, sometimes permanently.
There is some scholarly dispute about the nature of this week’s Psalm, but whatever else it is, it is a Psalm of blessing. Whether or not the reference in v.6 means that it would have been used liturgically at Harvest time is not clear. It may refer to something about the nature of God, who faithfully provides for his people, rather than forming a specific thanksgiving for this year’s harvest. No doubt the author of this Psalm, as well as those who used it in worship, would have been very familiar with the words of blessing in Numbers 6, which the Psalm echoes. But there has been a progression, and things have moved on since those original words.
Our tendency is to begin by praying ‘Lord bless me’. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the words of blessing from Numbers 6 are not a self-facing prayer for myself, but rather a piece of Speech Act which pronounces blessing on ‘you’. This is the first step, that we become more concerned that others might be blessed through us than we are that we should be blessed ourselves. But the Psalm takes this journey forward with its prayer that God will bless ‘us’. ‘Us’ means ‘all of us’. The ‘our God’ in v.7 is not about an exclusive claim on God by his people. It is an acknowledgement that the God whom we love and worship throws his arms wide to bless everyone. It wasn’t just the Jews who reaped a good harvest: the rain and sun provide for the wicked as well as the righteous. But our desire is that the God who so faithfully blesses us might also become the God of those who don’t yet acknowledge him. The chorus, which comes in v.3 and 5 (and perhaps ought to be there as v.8 too), is a prayer for exactly this: that all the earth might come to praise our God and, in v.7, to fear him.
This Psalm, then, is an invitation to God’s Church to do two things: to become inclusive not exclusive, and to bless rather than curse. In spite of all the references in the OT to God’s purposes for all nations, going right back to Gen 12, the Jews constantly grasped at the privilege of having their own God and looked down their noses at the rest of humanity. Even the Acts Church had to have some pretty serious signs from God and a General Synod before they realised that Jesus was for Gentiles as well as Jews. Wherever we organise our church life for ourselves rather than for non-members we are in danger of being guilty of this same attitude. Whenever we keep church the way we like it rather than asking how we can be more effective in mission, we become heirs of Jewish OT exclusivism.
The second thing is to learn the power of blessing. I remember hearing some years ago about a church which had planned a big ‘March for Jesus’ type event through the city centre, only to be told a few days before that the LBGTQ+ community had booked a Pride March for the same day, and the city council obviously feared the wrath of the Gays more than that of the Church. To that church all things LBGTQ+ would have been anathema, but instead of praying God’s wrath down on them or engaging in aggressive evangelism, they set about blessing. They set up tables along the route, gave out free food and drink, and prayed for the people as they passed. It was carnage, with ppl falling to the ground as the Spirit hit them, and many coming to faith in Christ. When we are quick to curse others, maybe we can allow passages like this Psalm to remind us that God wants to bless all the ends of the earth.