Sunday, March 18, 2012

Drawing Near with Songs of Joy

Drawing Near with Songs of Joy

Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22 – John 12:1-11

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

4th Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2012

Gathered in from the lands,

from the east and from the west,

from the north and from the south...

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love...

... and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

As most of you probably know, seminary students of the Presbyterian persuasion, preparing for careers in ministry, all have to take courses and pass exams in the biblical languages: Hebrew and Greek. No other denomination that I know of requires this, though some encourage it. And Presbyterian congregations may be either happier or sorrier for it, depending on how often it is inflicted on them on Sunday mornings – no one wants a linguistics lesson on Sundays instead of a sermon. But like it or not, pastors for this church in the past, present, and foreseeable future will have to have demonstrated some facility in Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek in preparing for ministry. It’s not a requirement that seems destined to go away. The idea is that it helps keep our pastors from being entirely dependent on translators for our understanding of scripture.

And I have been glad for that, I have to say, for almost 38 years in ministry so far. As with the study of any foreign language, study of the biblical languages helps a person realize that translations of the Bible are very often more art than science. If you studied any foreign language such French or Spanish or German for any length of time, and gained enough facility to read a novel or play in an original language other than English, you will know that it can be a disappointment to have to go back to reading a translation. The phrase “lost in translation” is a frequent reality in any movement from one language to another, which is especially evident to anyone who has used an internet website to obtain a computerized translation from English to, say, Spanish.

Probably every student of French since the 1950s has had to read Le Petit Prince – The Little Prince. One of the most famous lines of that little book ends a dialogue between the prince and a fox. In English translation, the fox’s parting words read, “And now here is my secret ... It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It is a lovely thought, but in French it sounds like a lovely thought set to a melody, maybe even in my battered pronunciation from my years-ago school days: “Voici mon secret ... on ne voit bien qu’avec le ceour. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”[1]

Every translation carries with it some imprint of the point of view of the translator. That is one reason why it is important to read the Bible in some other version than our favorite translation now and then. When we do, it gives us just a hint of the need to take the meanings of the English words in which we read the Bible with some degree of humility about their absolute meaning.

I think folks in Bible studies I have led over the years would attest to the fact that I find this to be continually fascinating. Take just one word from our Psalm reading for today. The word is translated “steadfast love.”

Even a casual student of the English Bible will recognize that the phrase “steadfast love” occurs multiple times in scripture. And if you have ever noticed that, congratulations on your observant reading of scripture! The Hebrew word translated as steadfast love is one of the first words that students of biblical Hebrew learn: cheséd. That little word occurs 127 times in the Psalms alone, and some 241 times in the Old Testament. We might not spot it every time in translation, because translators are doing their job of translating the word in context, and no single English word or phrase can fully do it justice. So it is variously translated as “loving kindness,” “mercy,” “goodness,” “grace,” “kindness,” and, that old favorite, “steadfast love.” In fact, in the phrase of the beloved 23rd Psalm that we remember as “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me...” the word translated as “mercy” in that context is our old Hebrew friend, cheséd: “steadfast love.” Surely goodness and God’s steadfast love shall follow me…

There can only be one reason why this word is such a favorite in the Old Testament, and in the poetry of the psalms in particular. It is because it so perfectly captures, in a single expression, all that God has done for God’s people, something of the very essence and nature of God.

And the psalm declares at the outset that the steadfast love of God endures. It not only endures, it endures for all time, endures forever.

Here is something worth remembering, when we search for the love of God in the midst of the trials of our lives. The phrase does not say “the steadfast love of God lasts forever.” Our trials are accompanied by a God who walks through them with us, so the observation of the Psalmist is that “the steadfast love of God endures forever.” The love of God is not an easy, sunshiny day love, but a love characterized by endurance, of the sort Paul described when he said love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[2] This is a love that bears, tolerates, suffers, undertakes, carries on and presses on no matter what. That is the cheséd of God.

David Livingstone was probably the most well-known 19th century Scottish medical foreign missionary, best remembered through Henry Stanley’s famous phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame. But perhaps the next best-known Scottish missionary, especially in the far East as well as in the New England states and Eastern Canada, was Alexander Duff. During his trip to the Americas in the 1850s he became so popular that today there are still some half dozen churches in Ontario carrying his name: “Duff’s Churches.”[3]

Duff made a voyage to India with the specific purpose of bringing the gospel to the high caste Hindus, the Brahmins of high social standing, who valued good education. He packed 800 books to take for his library in India. As his ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope, it hit rocks and sank. Passengers and crew managed to escape with their lives, but not much else. A sailor walking the beach a while later spotted an object washed up on the shore. When he picked it up he realized it was a large copy of the Bible and there was also a copy of a Scottish psalm book. Duff’s name was on each volume. When he took them to the place where the passengers had sought shelter, Duff received them and turned immediately to our psalm for today, Psalm 107, reading it in its entirety to those who had been rescued, with all 6 repetitions of God’s “steadfast love.”[4]

OK, God’s love is steadfast in every sense of the word. But where does today’s passage from the gospel tie in? Or does it? Well, not all scripture ties together into neat little bundles, but I think the tie-in for this day could go something like this:

God’s steadfast love endures forever. Now that is saying something, because as anyone who has ever been to a funeral knows, forever is not a subject human beings can discuss with any claim to direct experience. There is Jesus, sitting in the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead, but we all know he would still have to die again some day, he wasn’t raised from death into some superhuman state. He remained mortal.

But everything about the scene in the gospel exudes something of a funereal quality. There is the previously dead Lazarus there. There is the anointing of Jesus’ feet with a costly ointment, something normally reserved, in those days, for the anointing of dead bodies before burial. And in case we missed the point, John reported that the aroma of the ointment filled the whole house.

Now there are probably a dozen ways to take Judas’ words about the waste of such costly stuff when there were poor folks who could have been fed with the money it cost to buy it. But I take it this way today: The steadfast love of God comes to us in hints and brief revelations throughout our lifetimes if we are looking for it, and in that moment, at Lazarus’ dinner table, the lesson was that when Jesus came to die, it would not mean the end of the steadfast love of God, any more than the death of the kings of Israel meant that God had ceased to care, or that the defeat of the nation when it was taken into exile meant God’s love was no longer steadfast. It just meant that the steadfastness of God’s love was once again to be tested through endurance. God’s love is enduring, through death, loss, disfigurement, dashed hopes, defeated dreams, in any and every circumstance, the love of God will remain steadfast and endure, just the way the love of a parent will endure almost anything for a child, even when all others have given up hope. Only more so for God’s part.

For John’s gospel, as well as the psalmist, “life is double-plotted ... ordinary events unfold around us but ... hidden among all the mundane props are signs of the eternal. The wine is in the water, the light in the darkness, the Word in the flesh.”[5] The rising is hidden in the dying, the saving is hidden in the losing. The steadfastness of the love of God is hidden in the enduring, even when we could swear from all outward signs that it had disappeared altogether.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Gallimard, 1946, p. 72.

[2] I Corinthians 13:7.

[3]; see also

[4] Thanks to the Rev. Terri Thomas’ unpublished paper with these words paraphrased from a sermon by Donald A. MacLeod, “Thanks Telling,” preached October 13, 2002.

[5] “Gospel Sound Track” by Tom Long, Christian Century, April 1, 2001, p.11.