How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

Parable of The Prodigal Son compared to By the Waters of Babylon

Luke 12:11‑32, Psalm 136, By the Waters of Babylon



In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


This is the Sunday of The Prodigal Son and also the first of three weeks in which we sing, "By the waters of Babylon."  That's Psalm 136.  We only sing it the three Sundays of the year that precede Great Lent, during the matins service before we have the reading of the matinal Gospel.  For me it is a highlight of the year because it is so plaintive and so full of compunction; and I'm not full of compunction, and I want to learn to be.  This Psalm teaches us that.


This Psalm is startlingly like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, especially the first portion of the parable when the son goes away to a foreign land.  He spends all of his living on harlots and carousing and begins to be in want, and then he comes to himself and comes back to his father.  All of those ideas are in "By the waters of Babylon." 


Now, this parable has many, many themes, probably a half dozen significant themes in it that are important:  The calling of the Gentiles, the Holy Eucharist, baptism, chrismation, about the image of God, about God receiving our repentance, and from a negative perspective, how not to act, in terms of the older son.  All of that is very important.


But I want to focus on one thing today.  And that is this part of the Psalm which relates to the parable where it says, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" 


The history behind The Waters of Babylon Psalm is that it was written after the Jews had been sent off to Babylon in slavery to a foreign king in a foreign land.  It was because of their sins that they were sent away.  God had warned them many times, and they had not heeded His warning, and so they were broken up as a people and sent away to Babylon.  And they penned and sang this very plaintive, very compunctionate song. 


When it comes to the point where it says, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land," I always think how that applies to me.  And I think you should think how it applies to you.  For God made us for happiness.  He made us for holiness.  He made us for purity.  He made us to be united to Him.  That is our purpose.  Anything that does not fulfill that purpose does not make us happy.


And when I hear this part of the Psalm, the whole Psalm really, but this part especially, I think this is why I get out of sorts.  This is why I'm not happy,  why I get depressed, why I feel things are maybe not going to change.  This is why.  How can I sing the Lord's song in a strange  land? 


What is this strange land?  It's not Babylon.  It is our heart. 


Our land is strange

when we are not like God,

when we do not love as God loves,

when we are not humble as the God‑Man Jesus Christ, Who humbled Himself, is humble. 

Then our land is strange.  And in a strange land you cannot sing the Lord's song. 


Our life should be pursuing the good land, and that good land of course is:  To be full of holiness and to be full of humility, love for God and for neighbor; to have no perturbations of passions in our soul that upset us and that trouble us, to have no desires that cause us to tremble and quake. 


All of us, to a greater or lesser degree, live in the strange land.  This is why you're unhappy.  You might think it's because of your environment, because of your job, because of a bad relationship, because of poverty, because of sickness.  No, that's not why.  The reason is because of the strange land in which your soul resides. 


Great Lent is the time especially during the year when we are to struggle to learn about this strange land and turn away from it just as the Prodigal Son does.


The themes of The Prodigal Son and The Publican and the Pharisee are throughout the entire Great Lent; they're so important.  We read them just before Great Lent.  We have two more Sundays, and then Great Lent begins, and then we repeat them over and over again, especially in the canons and in other hymnology of the Lenten Triodion, all the way up to Pascha, and that is because Great Lent is a time for you to learn something about yourself and to seek after God, to come to yourself. 


That is why I believe that this Psalm begins this Sunday, because it is all about coming to ourselves.  It's all about recognizing that the reason for our disquiet in our soul is that we are in a strange land.  The strange land is our sins, our passions.  That's what troubles you.  And when we understand that, then we can be like the son and we can come to ourselves. 


In my opinion those are among the most beautiful words of all of Scripture:  "And when he came to himself...".  Even though there are beautiful words that say God loves us and that Christ is resurrected from the dead and that He prepares a place for us and that He calls us friends, many beautiful things like that; none of those will affect us in a positive way unless we come to ourselves and we recognize that there is something wrong with us and that God came to fix it.  Then all those beautiful promises, have deep meaning and are actualized and given power and life in our soul.  But if a man is deaf, he doesn't hear these words.  If a man is blind, he doesn't see. 


So these words "he came to himself," are beautiful words, and this is what I think you should pursue.  This is what I pursue.  I don't do a good job of it, but I do pursue it, every day to come to myself.  What does the Scripture mean by this?  It means that you recognize death and life and that many things that you do are death.  You are like that son who is in the foreign land feeding swine, attached to a citizen of the country, that is, enslaved to the devil, doing unclean things, things that do not lead to life and that you have left your father. 


Now, these are relative things.  You might say:  Well, I believe in God, I pray every day, I haven't left God.  Well, if you say that, I will be frank with you, you're a fool.  Everybody leaves God every day except the greatest and the holiest of people. 


So if you think, I haven't done anything that bad, then you truly don't understand what's wrong with your soul. 


So Great Lent is a very good time for you then because you have to recognize that you've gone to the far country many times.  We do it every day; let's be honest.  When we judge others, when we are lazy, when we indulge our passions, we have gone to the far country. 


And there is a famine.  The famine is that the Holy Spirit is not fully abiding in us.  And we should feel that deeply; this Psalm speaks about it.  It says, "By the waters of Babylon," that is, that far country away from God, "we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion."  That would be the son remembering his father and remembering what he had with his father and how he had not appreciated it and had not been obedient to his father. 


The Psalm speaks of, "For there they that had taken us captive, ask us for words of a song."  The words "they that had taken us captive" indicate the demons, and that captivity is to our passions, to our sins.  The Psalmist protests, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"  How can you know God if you don't live as God wants you to live?  If your soul is full of darkness, you cannot have light. 


And then the Psalm goes on to say, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten, let my tongue cleave to my throat if I remember thee not.  If I set not Jerusalem ahead of others as at the head of my joy." 


This is the son coming to himself.  This is the son realizing:  I am perishing with hunger; my father has plenty of bread; I will arise, and I will go to my father, and I will say to my father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee.  This resolution comes from the knowledge of his poverty.


I've known a lot of Christians.  Not too many that are really, great sinners in the perspective of how we wrongly think about sin, in our foolish ways, of alcoholics or drug addicts or criminals or something like that.  But I've known very few people that recognize that their soul is really depraved or that there is famine in their soul and that they have gone away from their father and that they need to arise and go to their father, as this Psalm speaks and as the parable speaks. 


Now, the rest of the parable is quite important, and I'm usually focused on it because I find that, when people do repent, they falter because they don't feel God's love and they see their own falling again and they see that cognitive dissonance and they lose heart.  Well, the Father will receive us; the Father is looking for us.  But we must come to ourselves. 


This is what I as a pastor desire greatly, from the depths of my soul, for you during this Great Lenten period, that you would pursue coming to yourself, that you would pursue seeing what's wrong with you. 



you're a lot more selfish than you think you are,

or more lazy than you think you are, 

or have bad thoughts that you haven't guarded yourself from,

or reproached your brother or your sister. 

Great Lent is a time for finding that out and a time for lamenting that.


But we Orthodox Christians;  we don't just say:  Sinner, sinner, terrible, terrible, and lay awash in that.  No.  We recognize that we are in famine, that we are in want and that all we need to do is go back to our Father. 


If you look at our hymns closely, you will see that whenever we say something horrendous about ourselves, that we are a wretch and unworthy, we also say in the same hymn, almost in the same breath, that God's mercy is available for us.  This is our way because it is the way that brings peace to the soul.  You cannot have peace in your soul unless you recognize something is wrong with you, because you won't turn to God about the things that are wrong.


So I want to ask you, during this Lenten period, start off in a good way.  Start off with fasting, with more prayer than you usually pray.  Come to the Services.  And you will get tired.  We always get tired.  We always don't do it right.  Every Great Lent, I'm dissatisfied with how I spend my time.  But God is merciful.  God will help you.


Be like the Prodigal.  You're already like the Prodigal in the way you live; just admit it.  It's true.  Be like the Prodigal in his repentance because his father received him and restored the image of God that was within him.  That's what the ring and the sandals mean. 


So be like the Prodigal.  Come to yourself.  Pursue this knowledge and act upon it so that you will be able to sing the Lord's song.  Recognize that the reason you cannot sing the Lord's song sometimes is because there is that strange land:  Your soul which is sinful.  God will help you with it.  God will help you to have a clean soul.  All we need to do is recognize there is something wrong and get up and go to Him, and He will meet us even as we are starting to fall and pick us up when we are crawling. 


May God help you to find yourself in this Great Lent season.  Amen.



Priest Seraphim Holland 2014    


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