+ ‘The voice of the Lord is above the great sea; he thunders in glory, o’er waters is he!’
It’s good to know what people think. When I asked you which way of singing the psalms in worship you found most helpful, the most popular form was metrical psalms – though all the different forms were appreciated almost equally. Today we have sung a metrical version of psalm 29 between the first two readings and it shows their strengths and weaknesses.
A metrical psalm is a translation into rhyming strict-metre verse, sung like a hymn and often to a hymn tune – though many hymn tunes were originally for metrical psalms and some hymns, like ‘All people that on earth do dwell’, psalm 100, are actually metrical psalms. The weakness is that many of them are just ‘de dum de dum’ doggerel – but then, so are some popular hymns. The strength is that they are easily sung and they enable you to focus on the words – they were the secret weapon of the Protestant Reformation, enabling the people to join in worship and to transfer it to the home and the workplace. They compensated for all the forms of popular religion that were destroyed at that time. For Anglicans they were our main hymn book until the time of the Wesleys and they are central to Scottish Reformed religion – if you were ever Church of Scotland think ‘I to the hills will lift my eyes’, psalm 121.
Why do we have psalms at the Eucharist? Because Jesus did – at the Last Supper the gospels say they sung psalms 113-118 before going to Gethsemane. Jesus also used the psalms to interpret his life, think of the words from psalm 22 he said on the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’. Psalms teach us about Jesus.
So what does today’s psalm mean, psalm 29? Today is the feast of the Baptism of Christ. It is a sort of unpacking of Epiphany because Epiphany is about the manifestation of Christ – to the wise men, at his baptism in the river Jordan, and when he turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Our final hymn brings these three mysteries together to the tune ‘Highland Cathedral’.
We heard Luke – the story is simple John is baptising people who repent of their sins. Jesus arrives, gets baptised and we see the Holy Trinity (as in the icon on the lectern). Jesus is in the waters, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and the Father’s voice is heard saying ‘you are my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased’. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But if Jesus really is the Son of God he doesn’t need to be baptised because he is without sin – he does it to be in solidarity with us, who aren’t perfect (or are you?), and to show us the way home.
That’s what’s going on today, but what about the water? Water is so important in today’s feast that in the icon you can see the little water gods at Jesus’s feet. Water’s simple, we’ve got a lot of it in Scotland – why is it so important?
The Bible is full of symbolism, everything is connected and you can’t begin to understand it until you open your eyes to the connections. Look at today’s psalm. The Lord is enthroned above the waters and his voice thunders out – like the voice of the Father at the Baptism of Christ. Instead of the dove we get another sign of the Holy Spirit, fire, in this case lightning. It is a picture of a storm, a storm caused by God, shaking the ground and breaking the cedars of Lebanon. The psalm is about 3000 years old but its picture of the Storm God is close to even older Middle Eastern texts. The key thing is that the waters are the symbol of primal chaos – you may remember the darkness over the face of the deep and the Spirit moving over the waters at the beginning of creation in Genesis.
At his baptism, Jesus descends into the waters of chaos, the Spirit hovers over the waters, the voice of the Lord is above the great sea and says, ‘you are my son, the beloved’. Jesus’ baptism, like our baptism shows the creative power of God over the waters of chaos. Originally baptism meant being dipped right under the water and coming up again. In our own lives the waters, things beyond our control, can seem to overwhelm us. In the words of psalm 69: ‘Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me’.
When this happens, remember the Baptism of Christ. He is with us under the waters in the way of the dead, but by his cross and our baptism he raises us up above the waters. The bread we receive today is the antidote to chaos. Let us pray that this year in this place we may enable all who need it to hear God’s voice saying to them, ‘you are my son, you are my daughter, you are the beloved, the one I love, in whom I am well pleased’