As many of you know, our usual practice, in worship, is to follow the suggested readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.
Each week, the lectionary suggests four readings – typically one reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (or what we as Christians often refer to as the “Old Testament”), one passage from the Psalms; one reading from the New Testament letters; and one reading from the Gospels.
As much as I enjoy the use of the lectionary, today’s service marks the first Sunday when we enter into a short portion of the year in which I am not overly enamoured with the lectionary’s suggestions. The reason is that in these Sundays after Easter, the lectionary substitutes readings from the Book of Acts in place of the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament.
There is nothing, of course, particularly wrong with the Book of Acts. As most of you might know, it is the second volume in the story that begins in the Gospel of Luke – written by the same author, and continuing the story from the departure of Jesus into the stories of the early Church. There is much to be learned from the Book of Acts.
But for the next few weeks, this inclusion of Acts, in place of an Old Testament reading, means that we do not have any significant focus on readings from the Old Testament.
But, one might ask – don’t we still use the Psalms?
And isn’t the Book of Psalms a part of the Hebrew Scriptures?
Well, I am glad you asked. Because it is indeed.
However, the way that we tend to experience the Psalms, in our worship services, is different from the way that we experience other portions of Scripture. Like our Jewish (and many of our Presbyterian) spiritual predecessors, we are in the habit of singing the Psalms. As a result, we do not read and experience the Psalms, as Scripture, in quite the same way that we experience those other biblical passages.
But there are profound spiritual and theological depths to the Psalms that we neglect to our detriment. We all know, for example, both the spiritual consolation that emerges from Psalm 23’s reflections on God as a shepherd who cares for and provides for us. We all know Psalm’s invitations to a deepened spirituality, not only in worship but also in the cultivation of a silent, renewing stillness in the presence of God. Be still and know that I am God, from Psalm 46, or “For God alone my soul waits in silence” from Psalm 62. There is much to be learned from the Book of Psalms as well.
On this first Sunday after Easter, I would invite you to listen again to the words of Psalm 133, in its entirety.
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Psalm 133 was likely one of the “songs of ascent” that the faithful would have sung as they made their way towards a joyful religious festival in Jerusalem, their lips filled with words about how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.
Who could disagree? It is good and pleasant when people dwell together in peace and in unity.
Sadly, life is not always like that. Estrangements within families, enmities between friends, suspicions and accusations between members of a community, conflict between ideological camps or even entire nations — such dynamics contribute to situations that are anything but “very good and pleasant.”
And those who first sang the words of this Psalm knew this just as well as we do. It can be good for us to remember that a huge portion of the Bible is written against the backdrop of tensions within families or between friends.
The original family in the biblical narrative, for example, was certainly not shaped by relationships that were good and pleasant; instead, it was a family torn apart by blame, recrimination, envy, jealousy, resentment, and even murderous hatred. Adam blamed Eve, Cain murdered Abel, and Cain was then estranged from his parents, exiled to wander the earth. Not exactly very good and pleasant kindred living together in unity.
And it only continued from there. One only needs to think of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, all of the internecine sibling rivalries and conflicts throughout the ancient monarchies of Saul, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Jeroboam, Ahab, Jezebel and all of the other scoundrels that rose to power. David’s famous lament for his son Absalom from whom William Faulkner drew the title for his masterpiece about the conflicts in the American Civil War – in these, and in so many other ways, both our biblical and our cultural ancestors have known the devastation that happens when human relationships are not good or pleasant.
But “how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity”, proclaimed the Psalmist.
Indeed, it is.
The Psalmis then uses two rather strange images to illustrate the nature of this good and pleasant state of affairs.
The first image is that this good and pleasant unity “is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.”
Which is actually an odd image. After all, if most of us were asked to describe what it is like to live in good relationships, few of us would think of describing it as being like having a bunch of oil poured out over your head to the point where it drenches your clothes. In actual fact, most of us probably grew up in families in which coming home with our heads dripping and our clothes drenched with oil may not have inspired particularly happy relations with whoever had to bathe us and do our laundry.
So what is this image of flowing precious oil really all about?
The most likely explanation for the use of this image was that it was a sign of overflowing abundance. The Psalmist was likely trying to celebrate that when people in a community work together in a spirit of unity, and in a cooperative and mutually supportive manner, there is usually a better chance for a good and abundant harvest.
And the fact that this precious oil was described as flowing down upon the beard of Aaron was clearly a reference to the religious celebrations that were to take place as a community, celebrations which took place in the presence of members of the priestly or Levitical clan, into which Aaron had been born. As such, this was not a celebration of individual wealth; to the contrary, the fact that there was precious oil in such abundance meant that the entire community was experiencing a time of prosperity, of success, of celebration, of blessing, perhaps even a bit of luxurious extravagance.
There is observation, and even wisdom, in these words – after all, when good relationships exist in a family, a community, a nation, and perhaps even in the entire human community, the conditions for prosperity and abundance often abound. Time, effort and money are not spent in pointless conflicts, in futile arguments, in mutually destructive forms of competition and jealousy, and even in outright war.
How good and pleasant it is when good relationships mark our connections with others – because in such situations, suggested the Psalm, what often follows are ease, security, stability, prosperity, unity, and peace.
And that is to be celebrated.
But precious oil running down a beard is not the only strange image in the passage.
The second illustration that the passage cites as a consequence of the benefits of the good and pleasant community is found in verse 3 — “it is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion”.
Again, it is a strange image — dew on a mountain to illustrate the benefits of good and pleasant relationships.
In order to appreciate the meaning, it can be good to know a bit about the geography of the region.
Mount Hermon, which was in the far north of the Israelite territory, was the highest peak in the area, and is a snow-capped range, which stands in contrast to the arid nature of much of the area around it. Melt water from Hermon seeps down the slopes and combines with springs which provide water to various river systems including the Jordan River.
As such, reference to the dew of Hermon may have been a symbol of refreshment, life, the potential for growth and blessing – all of which were envisioned as a consequence of the existence of good and pleasant relationships between people. And what was true then continues to be true – living in good and pleasant relationships is a source of refreshment, and life, and growth, and blessing.
So why would this particular Psalm have been suggested for our reflections on this week immediately following Easter?
At its heart, the story of Easter, invites us into a renewed vision of the importance of living in good and pleasant relationships. The story of the cross was a story about broken relationships which were anything but good and pleasant – marked as they were by betrayal, deceit, conflict, abandonment, denial, violence, brutality, and ultimately execution. And reigning over that terrible story was the image of a world turning its back on grace, and forgiveness, and love.
There was nothing particularly good or pleasant about the cross.
But on that cross, in the midst of that terrible violence, came One who, even to the end, nonetheless continued to call out for God’s grace and forgiveness and love to be poured out.
And in the end, his way of grace, and forgiveness, and love, of life rose triumphant. And because of that, abundance, joy, peace, extravagance, refreshment, growth, blessing are offered. These blessings of life are not just reflected in images of precious oil or in the life-giving dew flowing down the slopes of Mount Hermon — they are images inextricably linked with the vision of an empty tomb.
And in that vision, we are invited to remember, to give thanks, and to re-dedicate our lives to the One who reminds us how good and pleasant it is when we all strive to live together in unity.
But the good news is that this vision of the resurrection is not just for this life alone.
Which is exactly what the Psalmist came to realize in the closing words of this Psalm.
In that blessed communion, in the presence of good and loving relationships, in the experience of life in abundance and peace that passes human understanding, we come to discover the nature of life as God has always intended, and life as it ever shall be.
For it is there, in that state of blessing, as the Psalmist celebrated, that the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Thanks be to God.