Our two readings tonight couldn’t be more different. One, a joyful psalm of praise, the other a rather terrifying warning about future. “There are bad times just around the corner,” as Noel Coward sang. What are they doing alongside one another?
The first thing to say is that there really were bad times just around the corner for the people Jesus was talking to. This passage comes just before his arrest and crucifixion, when the dark clouds were gathering around him. The Roman and the Jewish authorities wanted rid of him because they saw in him a threat to the status quo, to the uneasy equilibrium they lived with. Judea was always a troublesome province to the Romans, with periodic rebellions, people popping up claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah and what was seen as the cussed insistence on believing in one God. The Romans were baffled by this. They didn’t much care who people worshipped, so long as they were also willing to worship the Emperor. They just co-opted the gods of those they conquered into their already huge pantheon without a backward glance, and they couldn’t understand why this was a problem for Judaism.
Jesus knew when he arrived in Jerusalem for that final time that he was walking into the lion’s den. But he also saw that the trouble wouldn’t finish with him. It wasn’t hard to predict that sooner or later the Romans would lose patience with Judea, that the fine Temple, the city itself, would be reduced to ruins, that there would be times of great suffering. That eventually happened in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and exiled its people. Jesus knew too, that his followers would not have an easy road ahead. If the powers that be had hated him, why would they feel any better about his disciples? Luke’s Gospel was actually written in the 80’s AD, just after that great destruction, and the things Jesus had described here had taken place. In the aftermath of that Roman destruction there had been bitter arguments between the many strands that made up Judaism, including those who followed Jesus of Nazareth, which was, essentially, still a Jewish sect. The Christians had been cast out of the synagogues and many had faced persecution and even death because of the message they preached.
Bearing in mind this gloomy picture, what Jesus goes on to say is quite surprising. I don’t know about you, but if I knew that bad times like these were coming, I would want to be as ready as I could be for them. I was never a Scout, but I do like to be prepared. But Jesus seems to suggest the opposite for his followers. “Make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance,” he says. Why? He goes on to say, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Depending on themselves and their own cleverness won’t be the answer in these dark times. They won’t have the answers, or the resources, no matter how carefully they prepare. What will carry them through – in life or in death – will be the knowledge that they are loved and upheld by God.
And that’s where our Psalm comes in. “Sing to the Lord a new song” it says, a song about God’s greatness, God’s love, God’s faithfulness. Sing it “with the harp and the voice of song, with trumpets and the sound of the horn” And if you can’t remember the words or the tune, listen to the world around you. Let the sea make a noise, let the rivers clap their hands, let the hills ring out with joy. I love that. Rivers don’t actually have hands, so how can they clap them? What does it mean for a river to praise God? Surely it is just by being what God had created it to be. Rivers praise God by flowing, by being "rivery". Hills praise God by being "hilly". They’re not trying to be clever, to be better rivers than the next river, or more hilly than the next hill. They just are what they are, and that’s enough.
In the same way, it seems to me, we are called to rest in our own identity as children of God, beloved of God, God’s creation and delight, especially in times of trouble. We don’t have to figure life out or rescue ourselves. That’s God’s job. And, living or dying in him, we are safe. We can’t fall out of his hands, whatever happens.
Jesus trusts that when he died on the cross - the pain was real, the fear was real, his death was real, but the loving faithfulness of his Father was real too, and its reality trumped all those other realities. That’s why Jesus tells his followers not to try to come up with some clever defence when they are dragged into court, why he assures us that, though there really may be “bad times just around the corner” – none of us knows what tomorrow may bring - God is around the corner too, and that is what matters.