Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 1, 2016
Psalm 67 Commentary
Easter is long gone, but Psalm 67 and the other readings for this sixth Sunday of the Easter season keep the Easter theme alive by foreshadowing one of the most astonishing results of Christ’s resurrection.
Let me explain that by putting Psalm 67 in liturgical perspective. Next week, we will celebrate Christ’s Ascension when, according to Matthew, Jesus gave the Great Commission. And the week after that is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church so that it could fulfill that Commission. Our New Testament readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter show us the Great Commission being fulfilled in the power of the Spirit, as the first European convert is brought into the church (Lydia in Acts 16:9-15) and as all the nations of the world stream into the New Jerusalem where they will be healed (Revelation 21 and 22).
Psalm 67 is an Old Testament anticipation of those New Testament events. It is a missionary Psalm for a people who often thought of themselves more as adversaries than as missionaries. Since Christians can fall into that same way of thinking, Psalm 67 is a inspirational corrective for us. Because of Christ’s resurrection, it’s no longer “Us” versus “Them.” Now it’s “Us” for “Them.” Psalm 67 looks toward the day when that sea change in human relationships finally happens, and “all peoples praise God” together.
Psalm 67 begins with the quintessential Jewish blessing, the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6. “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us….” Note the recurrence of the first person plural. The ‘”you” of Numbers 6, uttered by the priest over Israel, is now “us,” spoken by the people at large. But it’s not an in-house blessing here; the writer turns decidedly outward. May God bless us, “that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among the nations.”
Then, in a turn that must have shocked the more xenophobic among God’s people, the writer calls on all the nations and peoples of the earth to join Israel in praising God. Using terms that were often used pejoratively (goyim, ammim, and leummim, 8 times), the writer issues a dual summons to the whole earth (earth 4 times and all 4 more times). “May all the people praise you, O God, may all the people praise you.” The Psalm concludes with another “Us” that probably includes the “Them” of the nations. “God will bless us and all the ends of the earth will fear him.” Because of the blessing of God, the historical “Us” versus “Them” has been transformed into a new “Us.”
The Risen Christ sent his Jewish disciples into the whole world to make disciples of all nations. Revelation 21 and 22 shows the ultimate fruit of that sending. But today the world is still an “Us” versus “Them” battlefield. From the cliques of the classroom to the competition of the playing field to the warfare between nations, it’s a hostile, divided world. “We” are threatened by “them,” especially if they are of a different ethnic or racial group. Think of the cauldron of emotions that boils around the immigration issue in the United States and Europe. The divisions get even more heated and dangerous when they involve religion.
That was surely the case for Israel. After all, they had been chosen by God to be his special people. He had given them a land to occupy. But that land was already occupied by other nations and peoples. So God himself ordered Israel to do battle with “them.” Throughout her history, Israel had to deal not only with the Canaanites, but also with the Egyptians and the Babylonians and the Assyrians and many lesser nations. The result was always bloody, and sometimes nearly genocidal. Not surprisingly, Israel came to see the nations as nothing but the enemy whom they needed to subdue for the Lord and whom the Lord would finally judge. They saw themselves as having a standing order from God to not only stay away from the goyim lest God’s people be polluted by their sin, but also to do battle with them lest they destroy Israel and take away the Promised Land. That’s how they understood their great commission.
Many Christians today are so horrified by that bloody dimension of the Old Testament that they become virtual Marcionites. Let’s forget about the Old Testament and focus on the New Testament that reveals a kinder, gentler God in Jesus Christ. But the New Testament, too, has some pretty fierce talk about God’s anger and the prospect of judgment. Furthermore, Christians are also called to “come out from among them,” to be a separate and peculiar people who have no fellowship with darkness.
I suspect that most Christians today have almost forgotten the “Us” versus “Them” anti-thesis that galvanized previous generations, writing off such thinking as old-fashioned and provincial. We want to engage the world for the sake of the Kingdom and, if we’re honest, we also want to enjoy the world for the sake of our pleasure. So, the old religious “Us” versus “Them” dynamic is absent from much of the church. As a result, we may find it difficult to relate to the celebration of Psalm 67, where, after centuries of conflict, the nations of the world join the nation of Israel in praising God.
Perhaps we can get into the mood of Psalm 67 better if we remember what Israel often forgot, namely, that she was chosen in order to be a blessing to the nations. In the original covenant promise, God told Abraham that he would not only make Abraham’s seed into a great nation, but also that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3, which, interestingly, is quoted in Acts 3:25 and Gal. 3:8)
During the great covenant renewal at Mt. Sinai, God explained that Israel’s special status in the world was not just for her enjoyment; it was for the world’s ultimate salvation. “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5,6) It was those last words that Israel often forgot. They luxuriated in their status as a “treasured possession,” but they didn’t emphasize their priesthood as a holy nation. They were chosen to mediate between a sinful world and a holy God, to help the world find God. The way they would do that was through their holiness, through their demonstration of how life could and should be lived under the one true God.
Through the ups and downs of their embattled history, Israel forgot that emphasis. As they became more and more unholy, like the nations, God repeated that message over and over in the great prophecy of Isaiah. As the chastening experience of the Exile loomed in Israel’s life, God reminded Israel of his ultimate purpose in words to Suffering Servant of Isaiah. “I will keep you and will make you a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles….” (Isaiah 42:6) Speaking of Egypt and other foreign nations, Isaiah prophecies, “They will bow down before you and plead with you, saying, ‘Surely God is with you and there is no other; there is no other god.’” (Isaiah 45:14) Addressing the Servant, God says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6) (See also Isa. 52:10, 56:3-8, 60:1-3, and the whole book of Jonah especially 4:1-3)
In summary, God had always intended to use Israel to reach the whole world. The way Israel would do that was by being a holy nation, a nation so governed by the laws of God that the world could see how good it is to live under the reign of Yahweh. The world would see the light of God shining in Israel, flock to the light, and live in blessing.
How ingenious and gracious of God! If God simply appeared in all his glory, the world would have been shattered, “undone” as Isaiah put in Isaiah 6 when he saw the glory of the Lord. In the same way as humans can’t stare directly into the sun or even something as small as a nuclear explosion, so “no one can see God face to face and live.” Thus, God chose a little nation to reflect his glory, as the moon does the sun. That’s why Psalm 67 asks God to “make his face shine upon us.” As the glory of God’s face is reflected in his blessings of Israel, the world will know God’s ways and receive his salvation. And all the earth will join in praising God.
Sadly, Israel did not live up to her holy calling. Even exile did not purify God’s people enough. So, God formed a new Israel, “the Israel of God.” (Gal. 6:16) As before, he began with one man through whom he would bless the whole world. His name was not Abraham, but he was the seed of Abraham. His name was Jesus, and in his person he summed up all that Israel was supposed to be– prophet, priest, and king.
He was the light of the world, but though he shone in the world, the darkness would not receive him. Instead they tried to snuff him out. But he rose and formed a new nation, a body composed of people from every nation. He told them to be a light, a city set on a hill so that the whole world could see how abundant life can be when it is lived under his Lordship. Instead of merely telling them to be holy, so that the nations will come to the light, Jesus sent the New Israel into the darkness to make disciples of every nation. But, of course, the nations will not believe the church’s message about Jesus, unless they can see the light in the church.
This is where Psalm 67 speaks to us pointedly. When we ask God to bless us, we should ask not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world. “Make you face shine on us, that your ways may be known on earth and your salvation among all nations.” The nations already experience the blessing of God in multiple ways. As verse 4 says, “you rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth.” As the just shepherd of the whole world, God provides not only the “harvest” of verse 6, but also the beauty of nature, the birth of each new generation, good government, the love of family and friends, good health and medical care, music, and so much more.
But many don’t recognize that those blessings come from God. Others are robbed of those blessings by the vagaries of a fallen world and the depravity of humanity. So, the world needs to be saved. The nations will be glad and sing for joy, only when all people know that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” to the Risen Christ. The world will know that only when Christians break through the “Us” versus “Them” divisions that ruin the world. We have been given “the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” (II Corinthians 5:18, 19) But our message of reconciliation will be heard only when we demonstrate in school, in sports, in families, in politics, in national and international affairs, and in the church that “Us” versus “Them” has been replaced by “Us” for “Them.”
Then Psalm 67 will come to pass. “May the peoples praise you, O God. May all the peoples praise you.”
I’m sure you can come up with dozens of personal examples of “Us” versus “Them.” But if you need a particularly painful one, I’d suggest the story of Melody in Out of My Mind, a young adult novel I just read. Melody is a fifth grader who is perfectly brilliant, but no one knows it because she has a perfectly awful body. She is profoundly disabled by cerebral palsy, and is unable to say a word. However, through the advocacy of her parents, the instruction of a marvelous teacher and the support of a compassionate aide, things change for her. Her aide discovers the kind of mechanical device that enables Stephen Hawking to communicate. When Melody gets one for herself, she begins to shine in her inclusion classroom. In fact, she makes the Whiz Kids team for the national competition.
But with one minor exception, the other kids won’t accept her. She is too “weird.” But she perseveres, until she arrives at the airport for the flight to Washington, DC, where the national competition will take place. There, she discovers that the whole team has already departed. They had voted not to phone her about a flight change, because she would be an embarrassment to their team. She misses the entire competition, even though she was the smartest kid on the team. It was a despicable case of “Us” versus “Her.” “May the peoples praise you, O God, especially those who embarrass the rest of us because they are too weird. May all the people praise you.”
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