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City Church


The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Mar 27, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
Psalm 119:9-16
John 12:20-33

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 119 is another of the acrostic poems found in the Old Testament and especially in the Book of Psalms, and it is by far the longest and most developed example of this form. The psalm is arranged in 22 sections of eight verses each; these sections are arranged in alphabetical order, with every verse of each section beginning with the same letter. This of course is completely lost in translation, with the exception of a small number of brave translators who have taken on the task of making it work as an alphabetical acrostic in English, with it has to be said rather mixed results.

Psalm 119 is the longest of the psalms – no doubt you have all already done the calculation and worked out that 22 sections of eight verses each gives you 176 verses altogether. And so it is that the psalm ranges over quite a number of different moods and subjects, from praise to lament to thanksgiving. And yet it has a clear unifying theme. Almost every one of the 176 verses includes one or more of a set of words which all denote God’s word or commandments: law, teaching, guidance, word, promise, judgement, statutes, commandments, testimonies, precepts. A quick look at the verses set for today will show you what I mean.

Psalm 119 is an extended meditation on the goodness and the wisdom of God’s teaching and commandments. The alphabetical form perhaps suggests that this teaching is to be found in the written word of the Hebrew scriptures, but it is not clear exactly what this would have meant to the psalmist – the Hebrew bible as we now know it did not of course then exist. Nowhere does the psalmist define what is meant by God’s law, and so much depends on the dating of the psalm, and on the dating of other books of the Hebrew bible – both of these things inevitably much disputed by biblical scholars. But this perhaps just serves to emphasise the fact that the ultimate subject of the devotion of the psalmist is in fact the teacher and the creator of us all.

Charles Simeon, the famous eighteenth century Evangelical churchman and vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, had a sign fixed on the inside of the pulpit of that church showing a text taken from John 12.21: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. It is a good and humbling reminder to any preacher that what the congregation needs is not a demonstration of the cleverness or the knowledge or the sense of humour or the oratorical elegance of the preacher, nor even how much the preacher knows about the psalm set for that particular Sunday. Rather, the congregation need to be brought in some way to an encounter with Jesus through the words of the preacher.

Now the psalms are not a bad place to start with that, in the first place because the words of the psalms are often on the lips of Jesus in the gospels, and second because there is an important strand of church tradition that teaches that the book of psalms in a general way has a very close correspondence with the person of Christ.

If Psalm 119 is a meditation on and celebration of God’s word, God’s teaching, God’s commandments, set out in an alphabetical form that emphasises the dignity of the written word in Jewish tradition, John’s gospel introduces us to the physical embodiment of that Word: Jesus Christ is revealed as the Word who was in the beginning with God, and who is made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Read in the light of John’s gospel, Psalm 119 becomes a meditation on Jesus, and a prayer offered in and with and through Him. He is the eternal Word, established forever in heaven, the thought and expression and active command of God, but also graciously close as our teacher, shepherd, light and saviour, and mysteriously present to us in the Holy Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

In the coming days of Passiontide, as we walk with Jesus from His entrance into Jerusalem, through the days that led up to his arrest, and even on the path to Calvary and to the very foot of the Cross, and as we wait with the faithful women in the garden, we are drawn into a meditation on the one who is the embodiment of God’s Word and Testimony and Commandment. In His teaching and in His life and death and resurrection we find our example and our pattern and our hope. In His self-offering He reveals the depth of the Father’ love. It is He who cleanses our way, He we must seek with our whole heart, He we should hide within our heart, and He who is our delight, more than all manner of riches.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.