02 July 2017

Sermon – “A Prayer for Canada” (Psalm 72)


“He shall have dominion also from sea unto sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.” So runs the King James Version of Psalm 72:8, the psalm we have just read as our Bible passage this morning. I rather doubt that the psalmist had Canada in mind when he composed this prayer for King Solomon nearly three thousand years ago. Its connection with Canada can be traced to a Nova Scotian, George Monro Grant. A native of Stellarton, Grant became the minister at what was then St Matthew’s Presbyterian Church in Halifax. Described as a “romantic evangelical”, Grant was a great admirer of the famous American evangelist of the time, Dwight L. Moody. Like Moody, Grant’s sermons “stressed the importance of personal conversion and an active engagement in the world, and were centred theologically in the mystery of the Atonement”[1], Christ’s saving death on the cross.
It was in 1872 that Grant accompanied a member of his congregation, Sandford Fleming, on a three-month, five-thousand-mile journey to Victoria. This long expedition was in preparation for the proposed railroad that was designed to link British Columbia to Canada and draw it into Confederation. The following year Grant published a travel book based on the diary he had kept. He entitled it Ocean To Ocean—a direct reference to Psalm 72:8.
Seven years later, after a journey across Canada on the newly laid railway, it would inspire another Halifax Presbyterian, Robert Murray, to pen the hymn,
From ocean unto ocean
Our land shall own thee Lord,
And, filled with true devotion,
Obey thy sovereign word.
Forty years after that, in 1921, these same words in their Latin form were proposed by Joseph Pope (a Prince Edward Islander) to be included as the motto in the newly designed Canadian coat of arms. Today I suspect that few Canadians would recognize that the phrase emblazoned across the cover of their passports is from the Bible!
Way back in my university days I had a friend who liked to say when people would quote from Scripture, “A text without a context is a pretext.” For this reason, over the next few minutes this morning I’d like us to look together at the biblical context of our nation’s motto—at the verses that surround those words, “From sea even unto sea”. As we do so, we are going to find that there are three themes that emerge, themes that I would place under the headings of peace, justice and compassion. So let’s take a look at each one in turn.

Peace

First: Peace. If you are reading from the New International Version (as I am) or almost any modern translation of the Bible, you will not find the word “peace” anywhere in the psalm. Instead you will find the word “prosperity”. It’s there in verse 3 and again in verse 7. If you were to check out some of the older versions, you would find that there the same word is rendered “peace”. Underneath them both there lies that most wonderful of Hebrew words, shalom. “Shalom”—the very word itself sounds peaceful, doesn’t it? But I think recent translators have shied away from using the word “peace” because too often “peace” just means a standoff, an absence of war, while deep-rooted hostilities may still lurk in the background. So they opted for “prosperity”.
However, the problem now is that prosperity, just as much as peace, is an equally misunderstood word—and that is thanks, not in the least, to what has become known as the “health, wealth and prosperity gospel”. That so-called gospel is the farthest thing from the good news that Jesus proclaimed. Wasn’t it Jesus who said to his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20)?
I suppose we have to leave that problem to the translators, but what does the Bible mean when it uses the word shalom—as it does in our psalm this morning? My Old Testament wordbook translates it as peace, prosperity, well-being, health, completeness, safety. One author has described it as “that full-orbed well-being of individual and society, in character and conduct, manward and Godward”[2] In fact it is all those things combined and brought together into one single, beautiful, all-embracing word.
Shalom is the picture that Zechariah gives us as he looks forward to the day when God himself will come to live and reign in the midst of his people:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there… The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew.” (Zechariah 8:4-5,12).
Again it is shalom that Isaiah wrote about in his poetic description of the new creation:
“Never again will there be in it
     an infant who lives but a few days,
     or an old man who does not live out his years…
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
     or plant and others eat…
They will not labour in vain,
     nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
     they and their descendants with them…
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
     and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
     and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,”
     says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:20-25)
It is a beautiful picture that the Bible gives us—and may it be the vision that we share for Canada: a land of peace, where people can live without fear of persecution, war, violence, discrimination or want. Certainly that has been the hope of the waves of immigrants and refugees who arrive in the hundreds of thousands every year.

Justice

However, peace cannot exist on its own. It must be accompanied by what the Bible calls justice or righteousness. So it is no coincidence that right alongside peace we meet those words half a dozen times in the first seven verses of Psalm 72. More than that, they crop up more than five hundred times over the course of the Old Testament. And why is this? Because justice is basic to any ordered society. And it is justice that makes peace possible.
Yet once again, as with “peace” and “prosperity”, those two key Bible words “justice” and “righteousness” are often skewed and misunderstood in our society today.
Many people in our day and age see justice as a matter of getting even with another person whom I perceive to have done me wrong. Yet more often than not that kind of attitude leads not to peace but to increased levels of hostility. And the public media only make this worse. They love to give us pictures of people with clenched fists and shouting so loudly you’d think their blood vessels were going to burst. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for anger. Indeed there are injustices that we would be wrong not to be angry about. But they will not be mended by getting even.
The same is true of righteousness. For many to be righteous means to regard yourself as morally better than other people—rather like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. Do you remember that man’s prayer as he stood looking down his nose at the tax collector praying next to him in the Temple? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). That is not righteousness. It’s self-righteousness, and there is a world of difference between the two. For righteousness is a matter not of being right, but of being in right relationships. What are Jesus two great commandments? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. That is what true righteousness is all about.
So what does the Bible mean when it uses the words “justice” and “righteousness”? As I have indicated already, the two unquestionably have to do with integrity, fairness and uprightness both in our individual lives and also more broadly across society as a whole. Yet even more they involve bringing people into right relationships with one another and not least with God.

Compassion

In recent years this has led to a movement towards what is called restorative justice, where victim and offender are brought together, and the offender is encouraged to see things from the victim’s perspective. But there is a whole other side to biblical justice and that is that it always has a special eye for the poor, the needy and the downtrodden. And this again is reflected in the psalmist’s vision. Take a look at verses 12 to 14, where he sings of the king,
He will deliver the needy who cry out,
      the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy
      and save the needy from death.
He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
      for precious is their blood in his sight.
So we find that in the biblical pattern peace and prosperity cannot happen without justice and righteousness. And there is no real justice where there is not compassion for the have-nots, for the powerless, for those who live on the fringes of society. Job knew this centuries ago when he declared,  
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
     justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind
     and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy;
     I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked
     and snatched the victims from their teeth. (Job 29:14-17)
If you take the Bible seriously, you cannot have a truly just society without it being a compassionate society. I remember a conversation I had over lunch with a friend some years ago. An election was coming up and I asked him which candidate he would be inclined to vote for. His answer, I thought, was both biblical and wise. “I would always vote,” he told me, “for the party I believe would most benefit the poor.” How often do you or I think that way when we cast our ballots? I know what I want: I want to see the candidate win who will do the most for me. But is that what God wants? Not according to Zechariah, who warns us, “This is what the Lord Almighty [says]: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other’ ” (Zechariah 7:9).
Ultimately as Christians we know that genuine peace, justice and compassion are to be found in one place and one place only—and that is the cross of Christ. It is by the cross that we are reconciled with God and one another and find real peace. It is through the cross that God’s justice has been finally enacted, as Jesus has absorbed into himself both the penalty and the power of our sin. It is from the cross that the mercy and compassion of God flow forth to redeem and transform both human lives and the whole of creation. And we plead for that day when Christ’s reign of perfect peace, justice and compassion will break forth, every time we pray, “Your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Yet between that time and this may we labour with all the strength that the Holy Spirit gives us to make this country into a land where those qualities of peace, justice and compassion are honoured and lived, from sea all the way to sea.




[1]     “Grant, George Monro”, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/grant_george_monro_13E.html


[2]     Psalm 72, New Bible Commentary Revised, 495