Ps 137:1 “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept”
The Book of Psalms was traditionally attributed to King David, but Ps 137 is one of many which were evidently penned many years later. The scene is set in the early 6th Century BCE. The Israelites had rebelled against their Babylonian rulers, as a result of which the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and large numbers of the Jewish people exiled to Babylon where they were to remain in captivity for around 50 years. The Israelites had been evicted from their homeland and could no longer go to the Temple to pray. And so the Psalmist tells how they hung their harps unused in the trees by the waters of Babylon.
For they said, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
I write these words ahead of May 20th, when I had been looking forward to visiting Glenorchy to sing and pray with you – a visit of course cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Like many of you, Liz and I are currently living in physical isolation from the rest of the world. We are not in a Babylonian captivity, but like the exiles of old, we cannot gather in the House of Lord to sing and pray.
The Israelites had always believed that God was located in the temple, in the Holy of Holies. And if you wanted to meet God, you needed to go to the Temple. The exile taught them a huge lesson. It taught them that, though God was certainly to be found in the Temple, he was not only there. God was to be found in creation, in the burning bush, in everyday life, even by the waters of Babylon. When the people could no longer worship in the Temple, indeed when the very temple itself had been destroyed, that did not mean that God was not there with his people wherever they were. .
Like the Babylonian exiles we cannot at the moment gather for worship as we have traditionally done. Thankfully Glenorchy is still there. King Nebuchadrezzar has not destroyed our Church building.
But remember this – even if our Church building were to be destroyed, God would still be there with us. Scripture speaks of God being with us “where two or three are gathered together”. In these times we want to say more – where we are entirely isolated, in solitary confinement, yet still is God with us.
The second part of the Book of Isaiah was written during the time of Exile. The Psalmist said “How can we sing?” Isaiah offers a different response from the same battered people – Isaiah writes: “Let us sing a new song to the Lord!”. (Isa 42:10). Let that be our response as we face our troubles.
So from our homes let our hearts sing of our trust in God’s care in this world and the world to come.
In words for the Easter season written by contemporary hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette:
“With sanctuaries empty, may homes become the place
we ponder resurrection and celebrate your grace.”
Meanwhile our separation is only physical – we stand together in love. When Midwife Lynsay Coventry died of Covid-19 in Harlow, one of her colleagues said “We stand apart to minimise spread but stand together in mourning our loss”.
And Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle has written “We should wash our hands, but not the way Pilate did; we cannot wash our hands of our responsibility towards the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, the refugees, the homeless, the health providers, indeed all people, creation and future generations.”
Many children have placed rainbows in their windows during the crisis. They remind us of the story of Noah, and how in the midst of a world thrown into calamity, God placed a bow in the sky to promise his love for all. Let us rejoice in God’s presence everywhere. Let’s pray for all in need wherever they may be.
And let’s commit ourselves to share God’s love with all people.
May God bless you all at this difficult time Andrew Sails