Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 8, 2017

Psalm 29 Commentary

Anyone who regularly preaches on the Lectionary knows all too well that the there are times when the choice of readings doesn’t make sense.  That is not the case for this First Sunday after Epiphany when we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.  The “main” reading from the Gospels is, of course, about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.  At that event, the voice of God rang out over the waters of baptism and the glory of the Lord Jesus was manifested for the first time since the three Kings brought their gifts to King Jesus.  In Psalm 29 we hear the voice of the Lord ring out over the waters, prompting all the Mighty Ones in the universe to cry, “Glory!”  The occasion for this epiphany is not the birth of a baby, but the onslaught of a mighty thunderstorm.

You will probably choose the Gospel text for your sermon today, but preaching on Psalm 29 will give you an unusual opportunity to preach on the glory of God as seen in nature.  That might be a very helpful thing in a culture that worships nature, rather than nature’s Creator.  And preached well, Psalm 29 will give you an opportunity to show the glory of Christ from a different angle.  Let me show you what I mean.

The poetic creativity of Psalm 29 is designed to make a theological point out of a meteorological event.  It has a two verse introduction and a two verse conclusion, in both of which the name of Yahweh is heard four times.  The number four is not random, being one of the numbers of completion in Hebrew symbolism.  The same is true of the number seven.  So it is not accidental that the “voice of the Lord” is mentioned seven times in the body of the Psalm.  Clearly, the Psalmist wants us to see the complete glory of the Lord as he paints this stunning picture of an awesome thunderstorm.  Psalm 29 is not a weather report; it is theological exclamation point focused on an Epiphany of God.  Romans 1 accuses sinful humanity of worshiping the creation rather than the Creator.  Psalm 29 calls a nature worshiping culture to worship God himself in all his glory as revealed in the natural phenomenon of a thunderstorm.

Above, I used the phrase “theological exclamation point” on purpose.  Some scholars see Psalm 29 as the theological conclusion of a small collection of Psalm “of David.” Psalms 23-28 have some common themes, like the house/temple of God and the care of God for his people. “The Lord is my shepherd.”  In Psalm 29 “David” demonstrates that our Good Shepherd has the power to care for his people no matter what threatens them.  What he shows about God’s power elicits the shout of “Glory!” from all who are in God’s temple/house.  Rather than worry about the threats that face us, we are encouraged to shout “glory” because our Shepherd is stronger than all the powers that threaten us with chaos.

What makes Psalm 29 unusual is that the call to give glory to Yahweh is issued not to Israel, nor to the nations, nor to the earth or the universe (as in so many other Psalms), but to “the Mighty Ones (verse 1).”  Opinions about the reference of that phrase are varied.  The Hebrew phrase is “sons of gods.”  Some Christian interpreters think that is an adumbration of the New Testament practice of referring to believers as children of God.  But most scholars see this as a reference to angels or, more tantalizingly, the gods of the Canaanites.

Nearly all such scholars see direct parallels between Psalm 29 and Canaanites Psalms of praise to Baal, who was their god of thunder and rain and, thus, fertility.  The obvious point of Psalm 29 is that Yahweh, not Baal, is the God of Thunder.  So the Psalm opens with a call to those Canaanites “gods” to join Israel and the nations and the universe in praising the only true God.  What we have in verse 1, says Robert Alter, is “the flickering literary afterlife of a polytheistic mythology.”  David calls on Baal’s “deposed pantheon” to give glory to the only God.  In a polytheistic, pluralistic world, this is an important point to make, albeit a controversial one.

The occasion for the writing of the Psalm was, as I’ve already said, the onslaught of a terrible thunderstorm.  One can picture David out in the fields keeping watch over his father’s flocks, when he notices a darkening of the western sky over the Mediterranean (“the mighty waters” of verse 3).  Fascinated and not a little afraid, he see the storm clouds gather, billowing up into the stratosphere.  He hears the first distant rumbles of thunder as the storm comes on shore in the north country of Lebanon.  The thunder grows in volume and frequency, the lightning strikes fill the sky, and the winds reach destructive velocity, so even the mighty cedars of Lebanon are broken in pieces.  The very earth shakes, so that “Lebanon skips like a calf.”  The storm moves through the land even as far as the Desert of Kadesh in the south.  Throughout the Promised Land, the voice of the Lord is heard as the storm “twists the oaks and strips the forests bare.”

It is an awesome display of power.  No wonder that “all in his temple cry ‘Glory!’”  Who is the “all” in his temple?  And which temple?  Is this the building in Jerusalem filled with believers, or the temple of creation inhabited by every creature great and small, or the heavenly palace of God where the “Mighty Ones” are gathered to witness God’s power?   Given our interpretation of “the mighty ones” above, it is probable that “David” is referring to all those competing gods.  The point is this.  If even those “gods” give glory to Yahweh when they see his glory in the storm, how much more should his chosen people and the rest of the human race.  Rather than simply being in awe of a stunning meteorological event, let us give glory to the God whose voice is heard and whose power is seen in the storm.

What we have here is thunderstorm as theophany.  Rather than seeing nature as an enemy of belief in God, Psalm 29 challenges us to see nature as the original revelation of God.  A word of warning to the unwary preacher.  Some may hear Psalm 29 as nothing more than a testimony to the primitive belief that thunder is the voice of God, a belief similar to the childish notion that thunder is the sounds of the gods bowling and that raindrops are the tears of God.  So it is your privilege and responsibility to give a more nuanced view of nature and nature’s God, of science and general revelation.

James Luther Mays puts it this way.  The science and technology of modern culture move us to “see the world as a complex to be explained and exploited, to take the unnecessary step beyond science of reducing the world to the dimensions of our reason and our needs.”  We need to beware that science and technology don’t eviscerate the basic human instinct to shout “glory” to the God who is revealed in nature.  Already centuries ago, Calvin saw the looming displacement that was coming. “It is a diabolical science which fixes our contemplations on the works of nature, and turns them away from God…. Nothing is more preposterous than, when we meet with mediate causes [natural events and laws], however many, to be stopped and retarded by them, as by so many obstacles, from approaching God.”

You may face another obstacle as you preach on this Psalm.  Not only is the thunderstorm impressive; it is also destructive.  As we recall the aftermath of thunderstorms or tornados or, more recently, Hurricane Matthew in the United States, we might respond to such destructive power not with a shouted “Glory!” but with a strangled “Mercy!  Have mercy on us, O Lord!”  If it is the voice of God that we hear in the thunder, how are we to worship such a God when our homes have been ruined and life has been lost?

If thunderstorms can be a theophany, then we face the age old issue of theodicy.  How can we justify the ways of God with us, when those ways are so mysterious.  “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.  He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.”  There are many ways to speak to the mystery, and the main one is suggested by the convergence of Psalm 29 and Matthew 3 in our readings for this First Sunday after Epiphany.  Matthew 3 reminds us that the voice of the Lord heard over the waters is the voice of the Father who sent his Son to save the world from the chaos produced by sin.

Jesus is the power of God in human form, the power of God enclosed in the weakness of human flesh, the power of God that will save the world not by thunderstorms that break trees, but by a cruel death upon a tree.  Rather than explaining the ways of God with us, Jesus shows us God suffering with us.  “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

It is helpful to remember that we hear the voice of God thundering in Jesus life only one other time.  As he approached his last days, Jesus said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour?’  No, it was for this very reason that I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”  Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again. The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered….”  (John 12:28, 29)

Where do we see the glory of God most clearly?  In storms?  In Scripture?  In the Son of God sentenced to die in the darkness of God-forsakenness!   “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:14)  We see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”  (II Cor. 4:6)  Jesus came to bring peace to a world blasted by the chaotic power of sin.  No wonder that at his birth, “all in his temple cried ‘Glory!’”  Or as Luke reports it, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”

So, you can legitimately use this nature Psalm about a thunderstorm to get to the grace of God in Christ.  In fact, there is already grace in Psalm 29.  Note how it ends, with Yahweh “enthroned over the flood… enthroned as King forever.”  The flood mentioned in verse 10 is probably not the Noahaic flood, nor the flood caused by the thunderstorm that has just swept by, nor the cosmic ocean that floated between earth and God in ancient cosmologies, but the primeval chaotic waters at the beginning of the world (Genesis 1:2).  The Psalmist is saying, “Yes, the world can be chaotic.  You’ve just seen that in the destructive violence of the thunderstorm.  But in the end, and, indeed, right now, your God is ruling even over the chaos.”

Yes, that is hard to explain, but you can be sure of this.  “The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace (verse 11).”  That is an unexpected ending to a Psalm focused on power and glory, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to those who know the Gospel reading for today.  Given the fundamental nature of the God of the storm, we should have expected that the last word of the Psalm would be Shalom, peace. The Son with whom God is well pleased has died and risen so that we may have a peace that passes understanding, even in the midst of the storm.   This is the crowning comfort in a world where storms of all kinds seem to make everything uncertain.  His “is the kingdom and the power and the glory.”

Illustration Idea

Anyone who has seen the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” remembers Jim Carry playing an ordinary doofus who is given almighty power by God, who is played by Morgan Freeman.  That casting choice led a movie reviewer for the New York Times to reflect on the way Hollywood movies have portrayed God.  God, said the Times, is always either a “hairy thunderer or a cosmic muffin.”  God is either a threat way up there or a soft comfortable kind of joke right down here.

The great religions take God more seriously than Hollywood does, of course, but those are always the options.  Deistic religions see God as so removed that he isn’t involved with the world at all.  Pantheistic religions see God as so close that he is the world.  Islam has a God so far above us that all we can do is submit to him in fear.  Buddhism tells us that God is so close that we are all God, while Hinduism says that God is in everything, so that you have literally millions of gods corresponding to the various parts of the world.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ answers the great question about God’s relationship to the world not with some philosophical treatise or some theological construct, but with a story.  It is the story about the awesome power of God that took a man who died as a criminal and not only raised him from the dead, but also rocketed him to a place far above “all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given… and made him the head over everything for the church….”  (Ephesians 1:22-23).  Neither hairy thunderer nor cosmic muffin, our God has shown his mighty power to save us by becoming one of us. God is both far above and for us.  And all in his temple cry, “Glory!”


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