+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Psalm 116 is a great psalm of thanksgiving, thanksgiving to God for deliverance. And unlike many psalms which at least on a literal reading are concerned with deliverance from enemies in the sense of actual flesh and blood people, Psalm 116 seems pretty clearly to be about deliverance from sickness. And this sickness was not just a common cold or a bit of a runny tummy, but something that brought the psalmist to a brush with death, which he describes in striking language:
The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me
In the passage we have heard this morning, the psalmist rejoices in God’s protection and deliverance, and concludes with words expressing trust in God’s continuing protective presence:
I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living
This sense of walking before the Lord, of God’s continuing presence with God’s people, of God watching over God’s people, is a recurring theme in the psalms and in the Old Testament as a whole. We might think of the plea of the psalmist in Psalm 27, “Do not hide your face from me”. Or we might think of the Israelites walking before the Lord in the pillar of cloud and fire as they pass through the Red Sea. Or we might think of the sense of the presence of God in the Jerusalem Temple, a presence which was believed to protect the City of Jerusalem from destruction. Israel’s God is a God who is not remote, but a God who is present. The God of Israel is not contained within the Jerusalem temple, nor within any other mode of presence, and yet the God who is outside of space and time mysteriously makes Himself available to His people in space and time. The God of Israel is a God who is present, a God who sees, a God who watches over His people, a God who saves His people.
Whilst the psalmist speaks of walking “before the Lord in the land of the living”, Jesus by contrast exhorts His disciples not to walk before Him but to follow Him; and it is a path that leads not through the land of the living but in the way of the Cross.
But there is both contrast and continuity between the Old and New Testaments. The idea that Jesus is God present with us is not something that comes out of nowhere. In the Old Testament, God is also present, sometimes in very direct ways. But in Jesus, God is present to us in a new way, in a greatly intensified way, not merely watching over God’s people, but entering into humanity, sharing our humanity. This is presence from the inside. And so it is that Jesus is able to issue the instruction to follow Him.
And whilst we often find in the Old Testament what seems to us to be a rather simple association between living according to God’s commands and enjoying the blessings of this life, the idea of innocent suffering which is so important in the New Testament also does not come out of nowhere. In the songs of the Suffering Servant in the prophecy of Isaiah, from which we have also heard this morning, we find a sense of unwarranted persecution and suffering in one who acts as God wishes Him to act.
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
These passages became vital in the way the first Christians re-interpreted the Old Testament in the light of Jesus’ suffering and death, but in today’s gospel, the penny has not yet dropped for Peter.
It is natural enough for Peter to react so strongly against the idea of Jesus’ rejection and death. He probably understood the Messiah more in terms of the traditions of King David than of the Suffering Servant; he was probably hoping for a victorious military leader rather than a crucified saviour. And if we think about it at a simple human level, no-one wants to see their friend suffer.
But in time Peter will draw out the connections between Jesus’ life and death and the riches of the Old Testament teaching about God; in time He will come to understand that the God of the Old Testament, the God who is present, and the God who saves, is working through Jesus’ suffering and death to bring about a different sort of salvation, not a military victory over enemies nor a recovery from sickness, but a new and complete salvation, a victory over sin and death and the promise of life eternal.
And he will come to understand too that the promises of protection and deliverance and vindication are made good in Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus does not teach us that we will escape suffering if we follow Him. On the contrary, He says that we must deny ourselves and carry our Cross, He says that we must be willing to give up our lives. Suffering and death continue to be a part of the human condition; nothing is more sure than that it will come to all of us somewhere along the line. And there is great evil abroad in the world, selfishness and lies and greed and all the rest, and many of us will have had to struggle with it one way or another, whether it be in the actions of other people, or in our own actions, or in the thoughts of our hearts.
Jesus does not teach us that we will escape suffering if we follow Him, but He promises us something much better than that. Jesus teaches us that if we follow Him, if we are willing to take a path of risk and danger, a path that may see us shunned and rejected by others, a path that will necessitate sacrifices of one sort or another; if we follow Him, we will like the psalmist walk before the Lord in the land of the living. There will be deliverance, there will be vindication, there will be light and life.
And more than that, in the context of eternity, and in the context of the boundlessness of God’s love, if God can bring salvation to the world through the Cross, which on the face of it is the greatest of crimes, can He not also bring good out of the struggles of our lives?
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.