Well, they did it again. I mean the compilers of the lectionary. For the second week in a row, the lectionary returns to a Psalm that we studied less than half a year ago. I know, I’m beginning to sound like one of those “grumpy old men” who complain about everything. But, really, with 150 Psalms to consider, some of them long enough to warrant several weeks of study, why should we recycle so often and so soon? For my earlier and more exhaustive comments on Psalm 112, see the August, 2016, entry on the “Sermon Commentary Archive” section of the Center for Excellence in Preaching website.
When I stop being critical, I can see a bit of wisdom in repeating a reading so often and so soon. It teaches us that there is always more in a text than we saw the first time. Over 45 years of preaching, I often discovered that I preached a very different sermon on the same text because so much had changed in the world and the church and in me. Though the Word didn’t change, I saw new things in it and preached the gospel in a fresh way even though I used the same text. So, here are some comments I didn’t make last August because I didn’t see Psalm 112 this way then.
First, Psalm 112 is what Walter Brueggemann calls a Psalm of Orientation, a Psalm in which everything is the way it should be in a world ruled by a just and righteous God. The righteous prosper, their children flourish, and the wicked waste away and come to nothing. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, the way all the righteous wish it were.
But life isn’t always the way it’s supposed to be. Sometimes the orientation to the world described in Psalm 112 is shattered by trouble that disorients us. As in Psalm 73, the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper, and the faith of the righteous is deeply shaken. The Psalter is filled with Psalms of Disorientation which express with great pain and sorrow what it’s like to live in a world where things are not the way they are supposed to be.
And then there are Psalms of Re-orientation, in which the Psalmist comes to a more mature and realistic faith in God, one that takes account of both God’s faithful love and the rough edges of life in a fallen world. Rather than losing faith because of trials, the righteous see the world and God more clearly.
Brueggemann’s scheme of Orientation, Disorientation, and Re-Orientation is a very helpful way to make sense of the many voice we hear in the Psalter. Like any attempt to explain the complex messiness of life, it may not explain everything with equal clarity, and his scheme may force an occasional Psalm into a mold it doesn’t fit. But as a way of making sense of the Psalms and life, it is very helpful. The Psalms are so varied precisely because they represent the wildly different experiences of God’s people as they try to trust and obey their sovereign Lord.
Psalm 112 gives voice to the (hopefully) many children of God who are celebrating the goodness of life under God. They are blessed and they know it. They fear God and God has blessed them abundantly. You can preach it that way, as a call to thanksgiving and as an encouragement to keep pursuing righteousness.
But when you preach such a sunny message, you must remember that some in your congregation are living in the midst of shattering disorientation. They will hear your sermon with great skepticism because Psalm 112 does not describe their lives, even though they have tried their best to be righteous. Others in your congregation will smile happily at your sunny exposition, but tomorrow the sun will stop shining for them, when the doctor gives them that diagnosis or their spouse suddenly dies or the stock market drops 20%. As you preach on Psalm 112, you must take account of these people, too.
One way to do that is to give the counter-example of Job. There was a man who could have written Psalm 112. Life was ridiculously good. Job was ridiculously good. Even God pointed out his goodness, though the Devil claimed that Job was good only because God had blessed him so much. To prove the Devil wrong, God removed his “fence” and let the Devil have his way with Job. Everything came crashing down. He suffered the kind of disorienting disasters that would cause most people to “curse God and die.” But Job was persistent– beat up, bitter, and belligerent, but still a believer. He argued ferociously with his friends and even dared to call God on the carpet. But he didn’t follow the counsel of his well-meaning wife.
Then, in the end, God answered all his questions, not with a rational explanation of what had happened to him, but with a personal appearance, a once-in-a-lifetime theophany. And Job arrived at a newly re-oriented faith. “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” But that’s not the end of the story, because that’s not what God wanted for Job in the end. As at the beginning, God wanted to bless this man. In the end, God blessed him in such an abundant way that Job could have written Psalm 112 all over again in capital letters. He was once again “blessed.”
So, if you’re going to preach on Psalm 112, be sure to preach to those who shiver in the shadows as well as to those who bask in the sunlight. And don’t forget to preach Christ. His life followed the Orientation, Disorientation, Re-orientation pattern. From the perfection of heaven and his early life where he knew exactly what his life was about (“I must be about my Father’s business”) to the suffering of rejection and the agony of the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to his glorious resurrection and re-coronation in heaven as the Lord of all, Jesus experienced all the chapters of our lives. As we preach Psalm 112, let’s be sure to remind folks that we have a sympathetic high priest who “had to be made like us in every way.” “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17, 18)
One more note on preaching this Psalm. Be sure you highlight what a righteous life looks like to God. The righteousness that God blesses is not an uptight, tight fisted, grim lipped, rules oriented life. It is open handed, delightfully joyful, wildly generous, people oriented life. God gives us all the blessings of family and fortune not so that we can simply enjoy the blessings and thank God profusely, but also so that we can share our blessings with the poor. A righteous person is “gracious and compassionate.” She is “generous and lends freely.” He even “scatters abroad his gifts to the poor.” Such a person is truly just, and that’s what counts to God.
Indeed, such a person will ultimately be impervious to the disorienting disasters of life, because her security is not based on those blessings. Even though the sun doesn’t shine for a while, “even in the darkness light dawns for the upright.” Even when the foundations of his fortune and his family are shaken, “surely he will never be shaken.” Even when the headlines are filled with bad news, “he will have no fear of bad news….” Such a person holds her power and prosperity loosely because she holds her God so tightly. “[H]is heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. His heart is secure, he will have no fear; in the end he will look in triumph on his foes.”
All of which is to say, if you preach on Psalm 112, let your final focus be on faith. Don’t trust the blessings; trust the One who blesses. Don’t focus on the good life; focus on the goodness of the God who gives that life, and sometimes takes it away. That’s the ultimate re-orientation to which Psalm 112 points us. Just before he died, Jesus said, “In the world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”
In the Presidential election, President Trump promised to “make America great again.” Clearly that resonated with many people. Who doesn’t want to live in a great nation? But Psalm 112 suggests none-too-subtly that greatness is to be measured not in how much we have but in what we give away. In God’s eyes, a nation’s (and a person’s) greatness is not counted in the currency of power and prosperity, but in the currency of compassion and generosity. In the language of Psalm 112:9, the person who resists the temptation to put himself first and instead puts others first will find that “his horn will be lifted high in honor.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 5, 2017
Psalm 112:1-9 (10) Commentary