The Clutha is New Zealand’s second longest river. It flows out of Lake Wanaka in the southern Alpes, through the wonderful rugged landscapes of central Otago, the rich pasture of south Otago, out to the Pacific Ocean about 70 Km south of Dunedin just past the town of Kaitangata. It is a unique and beautiful river with its amazing turquoise blue colour.
It wasn’t intentional but one Summer, we visited both ends of the river in a matter of a couple of days, and travelled along and over much of its length. We went to Lake Wanaka and watched it start it journey, we stopped for lunch by the remains of the old bridge in Alexandra, saw its blue water mix with the grey brown waters of the Kawarau, from Lake Wakatipu. We travelled down through the Cromwell gorge and along lake Dunstan, picked cherries at Roxburgh, visited the Hydodams.
We Crossed it by bridge and by car ferry, at Tuapeka mouth. We walked down to one of the two river mouths, in that wonderful long summer dusk they have down south. The whole place bathed in vivid golds as the sun loitered by the horizon.
The thing that sticks out about the Clutha, is yes that wonderful colour, but also the sense of constant flow. Vast volumes of water incessantly moving past. Flowing down through the landscape. You also get the sense of the flow of that river through history as well. Maori settlement near its banks, an early whaling station at its river mouth, the gold rush, the hundred year floods reminding us of the rivers wild power, building of dams to feed New Zealand’s growing demand for power, a whole town moved and then what was left flooded, agricultural change, vineyards in central Otago. When I first spoke at Clinton Church, where we were doing summer supply, my opening joke was that I was happy to be there as I had heard of the revival that was happening, that there were conversions going on all over the countryside, but then I realised it was to dairying, that dramatic change and its impact a pivotal issue in yesterday’s election. The flow of the river and the flow of human history inevitably linked.
Psalm 68, has that sense of flow as well, not of a river through the landscape although it speaks of God’s presence and blessing in terms of the land being watered, but the flow of God’s great deeds in history. It’s attributed as a psalm of David, if it comes from his life then it is very much after he has been made king and is bringing the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem. Down through the ages its insistence on God’s sovereignty and power, have become a hope for Israel as they faced difficult times, threats from surrounding nations and the rise and fall of empires. It was comfort during the exile in Babylon and the return from that exile of God’s character and his sovereign power. The same hope that we who look back at it from beyond the cross and resurrection also have in God’s saving acts and the ultimate victory of God’s just and righteous reign, in the Kingdom of God.
The four psalms we’ve been looking at this season of creation, form a subunit within the wider works of the Psalms. In Psalm 65 we saw the whole of creation summoned to come to a praise Party to give thanks to God. Its focus was on the countryside around Jerusalem bursting forth in luscious growth and vitality in response to God’s great deeds: His work in creation and providence, sending the rain, answering prayer and forgiving sin. In Psalm 66 we saw all the earth called to give praise to God, for his saving deeds shown to Israel and to the psalmist himself. In Psalm 67 we saw this extended so that people of every nation and people group tribe and tongue should come and know God’s saving love; know his just rule and guidance. The ends of the earth and farthest seas are called to join creations praise for its creator and receive his blessing. Psalm 68 acts as the high point of creations celebrations. The special guest arrives, the central figure appears, God arises and is pictured as coming in a victorious procession to Jerusalem to receive the praise and accolades of humanity and creation.
It’s a hard psalm for us to appreciate, some of the images it uses are for us strange and foreign and it is full of the violent images of conquest and the brutal dealing with those who have been defeated. It’s good that the kids have gone out because it has an adults only feel with people ankle deep in spilt blood. It should have a warning on it… for mature faith audiences only…
It’s poetry and pulls its imagery from the world around to speak of God’s victory. It attributed to David a warrior, who may have seen such acts of brutality. It is written to a nation that would have been and periodically was again on the receiving end of such brutal treatment.
It’s the language of ‘Theophany’ the real physical turning up of God and as such is full of extreme language: Enemies disappearing like smoke and hills melting like wax. The stars arrayed as God’s burning Chariots.
It also has a cosmic element to it, like apocalyptic language, That God’s moving in history is played out on a heavenly scale. It marks both real events in history but looks forward to the ultimate fufilment of God's soverign reign. Cannan’s god Ba’al was the god who was seen as being the one who rode on the clouds a storm God, but here it is Israel’s God YHWH that has displaced him and rides on the clouds. It is YHWH who has provided the rain and watered the land. In Luke 20 Jesus quotes from the Psalm 110 and talks of God saying
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”
From beyond Jesus life and death and resurrection we can see that the enemies that are defeated here are ‘sin, and injustice, evil and as it says in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that final enemy, of humanity and creation, death and decay itself. Paul in Ephesians also picks up this language, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Psalm 68 also reminds us that God is full of compassion and concern and righteous. He is a father to the fatherless, a defender of the widows, the people of low or no status in society. He sets the lonely in families, and leads the prisoners out with singing. God’s rule is about justice and he opposes those who in act and entrench injustice.
The psalm gives us a picture of God’s saving acts through the wilderness and exodus. His providing water in the desert and as Israel come into the land, of there being plenty of water and a bounty of crops. Again, God’s purpose is to ensure there is enough for all including the poor.
In verse 11 the scene changes and in a profound way we see God’s word being announced by a group of women and the effect of that being God’s enemies are scattered. EM Blaiklock suggests this is a reference to Deborah in the book of Judges, calling God’s people together to battle, king Sisera, and his army being routed. His chariots of iron bogging down in the swamps before Mt Tabor. The difficult verses in that stanza may revolve around Jeal, killing Sisera by agreeing to hide him then driving a tent peg through his head. The passage finishes with a picture of God scattering the kings of the earth like snow on the mountain. It’s quite profound that it speaks of the impact of Women who are prepared to speak God’s truth to power. It is an affirmation of the place of women in that proclamation. Foreshadowing the women who were given the privilege of being the first to proclaim Christ is not dead he is alive, and are still called to proclaim that.
Mount Bashan refers to a rugged mountain range to the north east of the Jordan, it is a place known for its abundant grass lands and its healthy cattle. But this place blessed with natural abundance is told seen as being jealous of the lesser peak of Zion because that mountain is where God chooses to dwell.
In verse 24 the procession comes into view God is coming to his sanctuary, he is accompanied by all the tribes of Israel. Although only four are mentioned they are the ones from the furthest south and from the furthest north so represent all Israel coming together. They are led by singers and dancers. Not only that but as the procession moves on we see kings coming to bring gifts to honour Israel’s God. God in his strength also rebukes the nations that delight in war. The bulls amongst the reeds is an image of Egypt, and the bull amongst the calves gives the idea of the fat cattle and strong kings pushing and driving people to war. It is God who brings peace not only to Israel but to all the world.
The psalm finishes with all the kingdoms of the earth gathered in song, worshipping God for his power and his mighty deeds.
All Humanity joins with the creation in Psalm 65 in giving praise to God for what he has done for us. It is a psalm that looks forward to the coming of Jesus and the universal proclamation of God’s salvation, while it speaks of the blood of enemies, the blood that Is spilled to free us from the tyranny of sin and death is Christs. This is Good News for all humanity for all creation. It’s the postscript and the missing stanzas for this psalm, the continued flow of God’s coming and moving in history, bringing salvation and the possibility and reality of new creation.
Its river Sunday, and how does that relate to Psalm 68.
But we also need to look what the psalm tells us about the physical rivers of our world as well. The fact that while we may see the whole water cycle and rivers and lakes as a natural process, the Psalmist sees it as a show of God’s blessing and providence. Israel are a desert people and for them constant and consistent water courses are of paramount importance. They are a real blessing. The land is full of wadi’s dry river beds that only run with water when it rains. We are used to a more temperate climate, with a reliable water source and plenty of rain, rivers that flow from snow-capped mountains or the drenched hills and mountains that form the spin of our island homes. We are effected by changes in weather and over the past decade we’ve seen droughts in many areas, and of course this year is going to be known as the year that it didn’t stop raining. But we can forget how precious water is and how important our river systems are as well. With increased population, increased intensification of farming and intensification of urban and industrial water use we are in danger of losing this valuable gift. Already we have rivers in this country that are undrinkable and unswimable. It may have been easier for us to remember rivers as part of our summer holiday experience than the children here today. Whatever the makeup of parliament, we need to continue to be working at cleaning up rivers and looking at ways of preserving our God given water.
Rivers flow through the landscapes but also human history, and what we need is a change in that flow, of how we think about our rivers and water use. It’s a creation issues; caring for what God has given us; it’s a justice issue, Psalm 68 says God sends the rain to provide for the poor out of the bounty it provides. On an international scale that challenges us as well. Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats, talks of giving a drink of water to those who are thirsty as doing it for Jesus.
We didn’t have it read to us but in Ezekiel 43 there is another vision of Theophany, of God dwelling with his people in the sanctuary in Jerusalem. It is of a river starting at the altar and flowing through the temple and out into city and out into the countryside and down the hills into the dead sea. Where it flows there is new life, tress grow that always fruit and whose fruit brings healing. Even the dead sea laden with salt and minerals begins to team with life. God’s victory and God’s love and justice brings living water to the whole land. Like the Clutha it flows through the landscape, but also it flows through human history as well. It is a river that flows in Jesus Christ, the living water, that brings new life and healing, it flows as the Holy Spirit is poured out on all who believe. In our New Testament reading this morning from Acts, Paul goes looking for a Jewish place of prayer, down by the river. In the diaspora if there were not enough Jewish men to form a synagogue then they would meet by a river to pray…looking back to their exile in Babylon, where by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and their we wept when we remembered Zion.’ But here that greater river of living water flows into the life of Lydia and her household gathered there and they receive the living water of Jesus, the river flows into Europe. You and I find ourselves caught up in that rivers flow as we have come to know Jesus Christ and that river now flows through us to bring life and healing to the world around us, as we are prepared to let it well up more and more in our lives.