Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 21, 2016
Psalm 27 Commentary
While this Psalm has been the source of inspiration and consolation for many believers, there’s a sense in which it is a troubling Psalm. There is a great tension in it. Perhaps dichotomy is a better word. It is composed of two entirely different parts. The one is a magnificent confession of unshakeable trust in God. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear….” The other part is a fearful prayer of lament. “Do not hide your face from me….” So great is the contrast that a number of scholars suggest we have two separate poems here artificially joined together. Verses 1-6 are a Psalm of light, while verses 7-12 are a Psalm of darkness.
That may be, but I think a literary explanation misses a deeper spiritual explanation. Isn’t it true that our lives are often filled with exactly the tension expressed here, a tension so powerful that we feel divided, almost like two different people? Sometimes we are so confident of God’s love and care that we are just as bold and strong and courageous as the Psalmist in verses 1-6. Other times we so enveloped by the darkness of life that we are overwhelmed by its troubles, and we fear that God has turned against us. Then we say things like verses 7-12. The Christian life can be incredibly bright and unspeakably dark.
Here’s the great question for our sermon on this text. How in the world can we have the confidence of verses 1-6 when we are walking in the darkness of verses 7-12, so that we can say verses 13-14? “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Here’s the answer: it all depends on what you look at. The Psalmist knew that, so he speaks to his heart in the heart of his darkness, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek.”
That’s a troubling text in several ways. In part it’s troubling because it isn’t clear within itself. I mean that there is another translation of it, a perfectly legitimate translation that makes it even stronger. The old RSV had it this way, “Thou hast said to me, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to thee, ‘Thy face, Lord, do I seek.” Then this text is not simply a soul encouraging herself to seek God’s face, but God himself commanding and inviting us to seek God’s face, almost promising that we’ll find him if we do.
A deeper trouble with this text is suggested by the next verse. “Do not hide your face from me….” As we sift through the Scripture, we find that God sometimes does exactly that. We live before the face of God, as the Reformers were fond of saying; we live in his presence every moment of every day. But there are times when he hides his face from us, when the sunshine of his smile is replaced by the darkness of his apparent absence. And that produces despair in a believer. Psalm 30:7, “O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm, but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” That suggests that we might seek God’s face, but he will hide it and we’ll never have the experience of seeing it.
Indeed, the Bible even says in other places that we cannot see God’s face at all. I’m thinking here of that famous experience Moses had in Exodus 33 and 34. There has been an explosive confrontation between God and Moses over the Golden Calf. Now God has promised to bless Moses. But a shaken Moses wants more than a word from God. He says to God in Exodus 33:18, “Now show me your glory.” The Lord replies, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence…. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” So God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock and covers him with his hand. “When my glory passes by,” says God in vs. 22, “I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
That sheds important light on our text. When God says, “Seek my face,” he is not talking about seeing God in all his glory. That is not for this life. There is coming a day, says I Cor. 13:12, when we shall meet him face to face, and see him as he is in himself. But here we see only the back parts of God, God walking away from us as it were, God after he has been at work in our lives, the mysterious signs of his presence in the works he has done, sort of the vapor trail of God. Here we do not see the uncovered, naked face of God as it is in all its heavenly glory. Indeed, says the opening of John’s gospel, “No one has ever seen God” in that way. (vs. 18)
But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore this troubling text in Psalm 27:8. In fact, the most troubling thing about this text is that so many Christians do exactly that. We do not seek the face of God at all. We believe in him; we trust him; but we do not seek his face. You say, what do you mean by that? Well, I don’t mean that we have to seek experiences such as Mariette had (see my Illustration Ideas at the end of this piece), though we must be very cautious about denying that they happen at all. No, seeking God’s face has more to do with what another generation of Christians called contemplation.
I know that sounds very mysterious and mystical, but it simply means that we pay attention to God. It is not enough to believe in God; we must also pay attention to him. Or more correctly, really believing in God includes paying attention to God. Col. 3:2 describes contemplation in simple language. “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Or as Psalm 27:4 puts it, it is “to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.” It is “the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us.”
When I read that, I realized why so few of us have any experience of God. We are so focused on earthly things. Our minds are set on what we can see and hear right now. For David in Psalm 27, it was enemies, the former friends, the estranged family, and the murderous armies of the Philistines. For us, it might not be something so visible. We don’t gaze upon the beauty of the Lord because we are so focused on ourselves, on finding practical solutions to the problems of life, or simply because we are so restless, so busy, so active. It’s hard to pay attention when you are running like a chicken with its head cut off. In order to seek God’s face, we have to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.
But how do we do that in practical terms? The writer of our Psalm had the temple. “One thing I ask of the Lord; this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” The temple, of course, was carefully designed by God to mirror heaven, to give people some visible representation of his glory. David could sit in the temple (or, more properly for him, the Tabernacle) and all around him see the beauty of the Lord. We don’t have that. My last church was majestically beautiful with its soaring ceiling and its stained glass windows depicting the life of Christ, but it was still just a human house of worship designed by a mere mortal. So how can we in post-Temple times gaze at God’s beauty?
Well, we’ve already heard a hint in our reflections on Exodus 33. John Calvin said it succinctly. “The most perfect way of seeking God… is not for us to attempt with bold curiosity to penetrate to the investigation of his essence… but for us to contemplate him in his works….” We see the beauty of God in his works, in what he has done among us, in what he leaves behind, his back, his vapor trail.
The largest of these works, of course, is the world of nature. The great Reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards loved to gaze upon God’s beauty in nature. Reflecting on his long walks through the great out of doors, Edwards wrote: “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers and trees; in the water, and all nature…. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the day time, I spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things….”
But the clearest work of God is his Word. I mean, first of all, his Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. “No one has ever seen God,” says John 1:18, “but his only begotten Son has made him known.” We cannot see God’s uncovered face, said Ex. 33, but we can see his face with human skin on it. II Cor. 4:6 says that God has made his light shine in our hearts “to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” You seek God’s face by gazing on the beauty of Jesus Christ.
Of course, the only way we can gaze on that beauty is to read the Bible. We can only see the beauty of the Word made flesh by gazing on the Word made book. There are many ways to study Christ in The Book. Recently I ran across a little book entitled Looking Unto Jesus, by one of the great Puritan writers, Isaac Ambrose. He had a wonderful suggestion. He encouraged a careful contemplation of the 7 stages of Christ’s ministry as one way of gazing on the beauty of Lord. What are those 7 stages? Why don’t you find out for yourself? That would be a challenging application of this text.
We could say much more about how we can seek God’s face, but paying attention is the key, paying loving attention to God as he is revealed in his works, gazing upon his beauty as it shines forth in the moon and the sun and in the face of the Son of God on the pages of Scripture. The question for ourselves as preachers and for our congregants is, Will we do it? The Psalmist says, “Your face, O Lord, will I seek.” Will we? Will we be content with simply believing all this stuff? Or will we actually seek to come into God’s presence each day?
Of course, I cannot promise that if you seek God’s face, you will have an experience of God like Moses or Mariette had. In a fine piece in Reformed Review, Tom Schwanda reminds us that here, too, God is sovereign. “The result of contemplation is always at God’s disposal. Enjoying God… is not something we can demand or expect from God simply by following a predictable formula or the newest technique. It is always a gift given at God’s discretion. However, God may graciously lavish this upon us as we seek to be attentive and lovingly gaze upon Jesus Christ.”
In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brendan Manning tells a simple story that captures the Good News for those who would seek God’s face, even if we don’t actually experience God. “A two story house had caught on fire. The family—father, mother, several children—were on their way out when the smallest boy became terrified, tore away from his mother, and ran back upstairs. Suddenly he appeared in a smoke filled window crying like crazy. His father, outside, shouted, ‘Jump, son, jump! I’ll catch you.’ The boy cried, ‘But, daddy, I can’t see you.’ ‘I know,’ his father called, ‘I know. But I can see you.’“
“I have had an experience.” With those simple words, a young nun named Sister Mariette sets off a firestorm of controversy that results in her being expelled from the convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion. Her story is told in Ron Hansen’s little gem of a book, Mariette in Ecstasy. When she confessed to her priest, “I have had an experience,” she was referring to an experience of religious ecstasy, of moving outside herself into the very presence of Jesus. Her priest explains to her that such things do not happen. “When you see Christ or hear him, you must be mistrusting and wary, for Christ is a Word that does not give voice to the ear but goes directly to the mind. Jesus does not usually speak; Jesus performs and inspires. He does not make himself present to our human senses, but in the holy desires of the will.”
But she persists and describes her experience with Jesus like this: “In prayer I float out of myself. I have lost my body; I don’t know where I am or even if I am now human or spirit. A sweet power is drawing me, a great and beautiful force that is effortless but insistent. I flush with excitement and a balm of tenderness seems to flow over me. And when I have gotten to the fullness of joy and peace and tranquility, then I know I have been possessed by Jesus and have completely lost myself in him. Hours may pass, but I have no sense of tiredness or pain or need of any kind. I have no desires except to be held there by him forever. I have a vision of him but I cannot see his face or his form, only an infinite light and goodness. I hear his voice in an interior way, his words have sweetness and charm but no sound, and yet they are more felt and permanent in my soul than if I heard Jesus pronounce them.” Mariette even develops the stigmata, the wounds of Christ in her hands and feet and side. But no one believes her. They accuse her of being mentally ill or, worse yet, of faking the whole experience. So she is kicked out of the convent.
Mariette in Ecstasy was an assigned book in a marvelous summer seminar years ago. It was assigned because it represents a very different type of spirituality than we are accustomed to in my Reformed tradition. As our seminar group discussed Mariette, we all acknowledged the truth of these words from Mariette in Ecstasy. “We mortals have such a hunger for supernatural things. We are bored and dull and tired of each other and we have such a yearning for some sign from God that this all matters, that our prayers and good works are important to him.”
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