Summary: This sermon focuses on a psalm of lament and offers it as a pattern for prayer

One of the great strengths of our Anglican worship is the continuous repetition of the psalms. If you turn to the Daily Office Lectionary in the Book of Alternative Services, you will see that there is a provision there to recite at least one psalm every morning and every evening of the year.

That is a practice that has always lain at the heart of Anglican worship, right back to the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Of course that book was only carrying on a tradition dating back to the earliest Christian liturgies. And they in turn were borrowing from Jewish practice that had gone on for a thousand years before that. So when we recite the psalms, we are not only joining with our fellow believers around the world. We are engaging in the continuous worship of three thousand years!

For quite some time now, one of the habits I have engaged in my own personal devotions is to read from the psalms every day—and I almost invariably find myself enriched by the practice.

The marvellous quality about the psalms is that they give voice to the whole range of human experience. There is joyful praise. Think, for example, of Psalm 95—what we call the Venite, with which we open Morning Prayer: “Come, let us sing to the Lord; let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation…” Or the Jubilate Deo, Psalm 100: “Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.”

At the other end of the spectrum there are psalms like Psalm 55, so magnificently set to music by the composer Mendelssohn: “Hear my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my petition… Fear and trembling have come over me and horror overwhelms me. And I said, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest…’” Or the chilling psalm that Jesus quoted from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Like those two psalms that I have just quoted, the psalm that we have read together this morning, Psalm 80, is one of what are known as “psalms of lament”. Each of these psalms in one way or another expresses sorrow, pain and discouragement—we might even say disappointment with God. In all, there are over fifty of them, more than any other category of psalms in the Bible.

So for the next few minutes I want us to take a look at the psalm we have just read this morning—and I hope that you may find it speaking to you in a new way.

He looks around

The psalm was likely composed some time after the year 722 BC. That was the year when the powerful armies of the Assyrian Empire finally crushed the northern Israelite kingdom centred in Samaria. The Assyrians had gradually been gaining control of Israelite territory for a dozen years. And it was after a three-year siege that the northern capital of Samaria itself eventually fell. As was the practice in those days, the city was leveled to the ground and its citizens deported to serve as slaves.

As I read this psalm, I imagine the psalmist having made the journey back to Samaria. He wanders through familiar streets and alleyways where houses and shops and the king’s palace once had proudly stood, now reduced to piles of rubble. Perhaps it is a herd of sheep grazing on the tufts of vegetation growing up through the tumbled stones that prompts him to cry out, “Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock…” Or maybe it is the familiar words penned centuries before by Israel’s greatest king: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

In the silence of the deserted city he cries out, “Stir up your strength and come to help us!” And then for the first time we hear the sorrowful refrain that is repeated three times in the course of the psalm: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” Behind those words we can detect the faint echo of the blessing that Moses’ brother Aaron had given to his sons and the priests that would follow them:

The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face to shine upon you,

and be gracious to you;

the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,

and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)

Whatever the case, the psalmist is not afraid to vocalize his disappointment with God:

How long will you be angered,

despite the prayers of your people?

You have fed them with the bread of tears…

and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

A hundred and thirty-five years later, following the destruction of Jerusalem, it would be another psalmist who wailed,

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