Preached on Sunday 21st February 2021
Most of us have private passions, things that interest us, where our curiosity and enthusiasms intersect. If one of your particular interests comes up in Only Connect or Mastermind, do you suddenly come alive?
One of my many private passions, as my grand-daughters would be quick to tell you, is Alice in Wonderland, or more widely the works of Lewis Carroll. Real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, he was a son of the Rectory, and ordained a deacon but, by choice, never a priest. In my first year in college, someone recommended Martin Gardner’s incomparable book The Annotated Alice to me and I’ve been hooked ever since.
One of the linguistic tricks you learn from the Alice books is the acrostic. At its simplest, an acrostic is a poem where reading down the initial letters of each line gives you some additional meaning
A good example is the poem which ends Through the Looking Glass about their day out which begins ..
A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —
If you read down the whole poem, the initial letters spell out the full name of the real Alice – Alice Pleasance Liddel.
The reason for falling down this particular rabbit hole, if you will excuse the reference, is that Psalm 25, part of which we read earlier, is one of nine psalms which are acrostic poems – albeit in Hebrew, something of a challenge for all of us, with the possible exception of Baden.
The Psalms are poems, and like all poetry rooted in a linguistic tradition they follow a number of conventions, and the acrostic form is an additional test of the poet’s creativity. We could spend a lot of time debating the philosophy behind acrostics, but simplest is often best. I like to think of it as a message hidden in plain sight.
If you are proficient in Hebrew, there is apparently a give-away here. Our reading took us to verse 9, but there are actually 22 verses in the original text. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, one for each line. I like to think that the real message here is that God’s love and mercy is comprehensive, from A to Z (or A to Zee if you prefer).
And, of course, convention and completeness support committing poetry to memory, important in an oral culture.
This Psalm wasn’t just a challenge for the poet’s craft, it is also a wake-up call for us. Can we change? Can we grow into the image of God in which we are created? Psalm 25 puts them in the form of a prayer: “Lead me in your truth and teach me.”
Though a deeply personal psalm, calling on God to remember and to show mercy, it is a psalm that speaks to all who have known trouble, been beset by enemies, or felt lost. That makes it particularly resonant for us in these times of pandemic.
It begins in an attitude of worship: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” Lifting up the hands is an ancient posture of prayer, expressing our dependence on God, a simple gesture that opens a person to receive God’s blessing. So too, the worshipper ‘lifts up’ her soul to receive God’s love.
Repeatedly the Psalmist asks to be taught God’s ways.
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths”
“Lead me in your truth, and teach me”
And he talks about teaching sinners in the way and guiding the humble.
To know about God is a starting point, but the Psalmist wants something more. He wants to be with God, to walk in God’s path.
In our society we seek instant gratification, but if we really need something we will wait for it. That’s another useful message for a time of protracted lockdown
“For you I have hoped all the day long”
Waiting was hard for the Psalmist, who was in desperate need of help. Enemies, “the treacherous”, were seeking to inflict harm and cause shame. Shame comes from outside and is inflicted by individuals or groups.
But enemies can also be within us, for example, guilt or regret for the “sins of my youth or my transgressions”. Pride can make us unteachable, but so can guilt and shame. Then we can’t move forward, can’t hear God’s voice of wisdom, or receive blessing and forgiveness.
This describes a relationship with God, a two-way communication in which the Psalmist both receives God’s teaching and dares to instruct God. The Psalmist tells God what to remember: steadfast love and mercy, and asks God to forget: “the transgressions of my youth”.
And as we live in that relationship, we wait, and receive, and lift our souls. This enables us to learn, change and grow more and more into the image of God in which we are created.
God’s compassion and mercy and love outweigh God’s judgment, wrath and condemnation. And remembering is the key. Both God and us remembering God’s promises to us, God’s covenant of grace with us.
And that’s a comprehensive A-Z message hidden in plain sight