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Preaching in a War Zones

“It’s striking how much more vivid the Psalter becomes when you have friends in a war zone.” (Andrew Wilson, Think Theology)

I have certainly found that being in Riga at this time has brought the reality of war in Ukraine much closer. It was the lens through which I read Psalm 68 this week. It connected so many scattered thoughts that have been rattling away in my brain.

Seeing the faces of people from Ukraine seeking refuge in Latvia has brought home the reality of the conflict in Ukraine, as have the daily minibuses shuttled back and forth from the Latvian Biblical Centre to the Poland-Ukraine border.

The psalms have been a go-to place for preachers in times of crisis. Just as during the worst days of the Coronavirus pandemic, lament psalms like Psalm 13 have been perfect vehicles for expressing the questions, frustration and pain that arise due to crisis.

Some of the phrases in Psalm 68 leapt up from the page and began to work on my imagination. The psalm speaks with such resonance to currently.

‘May God arise, may his enemies be scattered …’ (1)

‘A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families …’ (5–6a)

‘When you ascended on high, you took many captives; you received gifts from people, even from the rebellious –that you, Lord God, might dwell there.’ (18)

These words in Psalm 69 are used in the New Testament in Ephesians 4:8 to refer to the ascension of Jesus. They indicate that the ultimate arising of God is found in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

‘Praise be to the Lord, to God our Saviour, who daily bears our burdens.’ (19)

In my sermon I tried to communicate that Jesus is the one who became “fatherless” for us, on the cross, as he cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus bears our burdens and draws us into a secure relationship with the Father.

It is such a display of God’s loving power that encourages us to pray. This psalm is a remarkable combination of God’s power and God’s care. We need a clear grip on both if we can pray:

‘Summon your power, God; show us your strength, our God, as you have done before.’ (28)

Timothy Keller reminds us that “if our prayer life discerns God only as lofty, it will be cold and fearful — if it discerns God only as a spirit of love, it will be sentimental.”

That is what encourages both preacher and congregation to pray,

‘Scatter the nations who delight in war.’ (30)

If we preach about the crisis in Ukraine it is important to remember that Russia is not the enemy mentioned in the Psalms.

Darkness is the enemy and the only thing that can make the darkness scatter is the light of life himself.

Jesus is the risen exalted hero of this psalm; he bears a suffering world’s burden on the cross to provide relief from all that attempts to extinguish the light.

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