Vicar’s sermon: Epiphany 2023 Psalm 72

I’ve been struggling this week. I like Epiphany. I like the magi and their stargazing. I like the Christmas cards that show them representing the 3 known continents of the ancient world. I like TS Elliot and his ‘cold coming’ and the star, and the camels and the gifts. I even like the colour the wicked king Herod adds to the story as he is foiled in his attempt to kill Jesus and I hear a very modern story as we read of Jesus, Mary and Joseph becoming refugees, needing the hospitality of others in another land.
I like the prophecies and the way Matthew takes them and weaves them into his telling of the story: it all works for me. But this week I have got stuck. Psalm 72 has just lodged itself into my thinking and made Epiphany just that little more complicated.
I’m generally fine with the Psalm – it clearly figured in Matthew’s thinking when he gave us his 12 verses about the visit of the magi. Most of the psalm reads really well…but I’ve been tripped up by verses 8 and 9. Maybe my problem lies in the context in which we are reading these verses this year: May his dominion extend from sea to sea and the from the River to the ends of the earth.
The River and the sea. From the ‘River to the sea’ is a dangerous phrase that can get you arrested at the moment as Israel responds to Hamas’ atrocities and as Palestinians and Israelis live within a seemingly unending cycle of hatred, fear, revenge, death and destruction. But the reference to geographical rule over the land of Israel is there, and is then followed by an even more difficult verse: ‘May his (the King’s) foes kneel before him and his enemies lick the dust’ – some translations read ‘may the people who live in the wilderness kneel before him’ (presumably a reference to bedouin herdsmen). It’s at this point that I feel uncomfortable. I want these verses to speak of Jesus: I believe they can, but they need careful handling as two peoples battle for this ‘Holy Land’. These verses seem to show us a King ruling through force and power – is that the Kingship we associate with Jesus?
So what do we have with Psalm 72? As verse 20 suggests, this Psalm marks the close of a group of psalms within our larger book. There are 5 of these groups of psalms (rather confusingly also called ‘books’). So we have 5 books of psalms given to echo the 5 Books of the Pentateuch. They offer a ‘prayer book’ to set alongside the 5 books of the law: a prayer book for the people of God who live in a broken world but look forward to its renewal in ‘the kingdom of God’. That renewal will come about through the work of God’s Messiah (His anointed one) and our psalm has been traditionally interpreted to refer to this ‘Messiah’.…no surprise then that Christians have said that it speaks of Jesus.
We’re also told that this is a psalm ‘of Solomon’: whether he wrote it himself (he may well have done, he was something of a polymath) or had it written doesn’t matter. It is therefore understandable that the psalmist presents Kingship in terms that he can understand: victory over enemies included.
There is much in this psalm that can feed our own understanding of authority (however we understand it). Justice, righteousness, right judgment (Solomon was famous for this) peace, concern for the poor and the weak – these are all held up as things to be sought and treasured by those with power. Just the other day the former MP Rory Stewart suggested that those nominated for the House of Lords might helpfully be measured against the things the country seeks in its rulers and that we’d all benefit if these things were actually read out when a candidate is presented in the House: honesty, integrity, probity, compassion, generosity…what would you add?
Whether that idea catches on or not the characteristics of a righteous ruler are held before us in this psalm and act as a measure against which all rulers might be assessed. Some of these things you might remember were presented to us visually at King Charles’ coronation last year: the defence and protection of the poor represented by a rod and sceptre and a sword with which to resist evil. Throughout Government and (to be honest, right through public life down to Parish Councils and School Governors) we abandoned psalmody a while back in place of the Nolan Principles. These serve the same purpose of reminding us the type of leaders we expect. If you’ve never come across these it worth knowing what they are:
• Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
• Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
• Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
• Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
• Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
• Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
• Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

So far, so good for Lord Nolan and with our psalm, but we’re still left with our tricky verses, verses 8 and 9. At this point it is worth remembering that Jesus really did upend our understanding of kingship, rule and power. For a start he declared that his kingdom ‘was not of this world’ – a phrase that can equally mean that the Kingdom of God is of a wholly different nature to earthly kingdoms but also that it is not a geographical entity with borders that need defending or foes that need overcoming. Jesus’ understanding of Messiahship also included his injunction to ‘love your enemies and bless those who persecute you’. It’s therefore hard to reconcile this model of kingship with ‘enemies licking the dust’ and nations (presumably ‘conquered nations’) bringing ‘tribute’. Which is all to say that as we read the psalm we learn from it but we must also read it through the lens that Jesus gives us.

Which brings us back to the end of last week’s sermon where I quoted the hymn ‘At the name of Jesus’. Yes, we pray for all people to acknowledge the Kingship of Christ. We can rejoice in the message that the magi present to us that all people can become part of the people of God: that the kingdom is open to every tribe, nation and community and that we belong to a wonderful kaleidoscope of peoples who have seen the presence of God made real in His Messiah, Jesus. We celebrate the victory Jesus achieves, not through violence but through his self-offering, emptying himself of all but Love, on the cross. His is a victory over the Sin and Death that mars us and the world and which makes a new way of living possible: it is not a victory that just leads to a spiral of revenge and hatred. And we rejoice that even as we sing the carol and wonder ‘what can I give Him?’ He turns the tables on us and gives us everything. The Lord ‘owns the cattle upon a thousand hills’ (says another of the psalms), He delights in his children’s offerings, but his nature is more to give than receive: Day by day He pours out His gifts upon His people, empowering us for ministry, enlisting us as his co-workers towards bringing in the Kingdom of God.

A prayer:
This day Lord, the kings brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. We have nothing of our own to bring except that which you have given: our lives for your life, our poverty for your riches. Take us and use us so that your kingdom might grow and all peoples know you as Lord, savour and Prince of peace. Amen

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