Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 9, 2017
Psalm 31:9-16 Commentary
There are two ways to commemorate Palm Sunday, according to the Lectionary. We can focus on the Palms and celebrate a day of victory filled with Hosannas. That was my focus last year (see the Sermon Commentary for March 20, 2016). Or we can focus on the Passion going on beneath the Hosannas. That is a key focus of Psalm 31, particularly these verses in the middle of the Psalm which show us the dark underbelly of Palm Sunday.
In all three years of the Lectionary cycle Psalm 31 is read on Passion Sunday, largely because Jesus took verse 5 on his lips as he breathed his last on the cross. But verse 13 is really the center of the Psalm, both literally and thematically. “For I hear the slander of many; there is terror on every side; they conspire against me and plot to take my life.” As the Hosannas rose from the lips of the crowd out in the streets of Jerusalem, whispers of conspiracy filled the back alley room where the religious leaders huddled to plot Jesus’ death. We read of that plotting in Mark 11:18, Luke 19:39 and 47, and John 11:45-53 (after the raising of Lazarus) and 12:19 (after the Hosannas).
Some scholars believe that Jesus quoted not only verse 5 on the cross, but also the entire Psalm. The combination of trust and rejection that fills the Psalm certainly fits those last hours of Christ’s life. Thus, there is some credibility to that suggestion, but we have no real evidence that it’s true. It is probably more homiletically fruitful to say that Psalm 31 enables us to experience the Passion of the Christ from the inside. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to hear Psalm 31, especially verses 9-16, as a cry from the heart of a suffering Christ.
The first verses (9-13) are a desperate lament, detailing the passion of Christ. It was deeply emotional; as the Man of Sorrows his “eyes grow weak with sorrow” and his “soul and body with grief.” His physical anguish is palpable as his “strength fails because of … affliction” and his “bones grow weak.”
But his suffering was also relational. Verses 11 and 12 remind us of the betrayal of Judas, the flight of the disciples in the Garden, the denial of Peter, and the general absence of his apostolic band during the worst hours of his Passion. Did Jesus think of these words as he was arrested and tried and beaten? “Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors; I am a dread to my friends—those who see me on the street flee from me. I am forgotten by them as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery.”
Being rejected by your closest friends when things get tough is perhaps more painful than any beating. We can only imagine the pain on Jesus face, when his eyes locked on Peter’s in the courtyard of the High Priest. The very disciples who led the Palm Sunday parade have become an improbable part of his Passion.
His rejection by human beings reaches its nadir as the religious leaders plot his death. How ironic that the very people designated by God to lead his chosen people in their God given mission to the world should become the leaders of a conspiracy to get rid of the Messiah who would fulfill that mission! As verse 13 prophecies, Jesus knew what was going on in that back alley. He knew the thoughts of women and men before they spoke, so there is no doubt that he clearly heard the whispering. But he made no move to escape their plot, because it was part of “The Divine Conspiracy.” Think of how the early church prayed when persecution began. “Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” (Acts 4:27, 28)
Jesus knew all of this would happen. In Mark’s Gospel alone, we hear him predict his Passion three times (Mark 8:31-32, 9:31, 10:33-34). It had to happen (“must” in 8:31). It was part of God’s plan of salvation. It was all in God’s hands. So, his bitter lament ends with a confession of absolute faith. “But I trust in you, O Lord.” Anticipating the so-called cry of dereliction from the cross, verse 14 ends, “I say, ‘You are my God.’”
And that leads to the crux of this Psalm, which was the crux of the matter for Christ and is for all Christians. “My times are in your hands….” It is difficult to imagine a more powerful and pregnant confession of faith than that. All the times of my life, good and bad, “the best of times and the worst of times” are appointments set by our covenant God whose love is unfailing. Ecclesiastes 3 will help us think about the various chapters of our lives as divine appointments. After poetically summarizing the times of our lives (“a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven”), the Preacher says, “God has made everything beautiful in its time.”
Even if we struggle to believe that all of our times are appointments made by God, we can rest secure in the words of Christ that conclude this pregnant phrase. All our times are “in his hands.” It may feel as though we have fallen into the rough hands of evil men, but we are in the gentle hands of God. We can not only commit our lives into his hands at the end of life, but we can also trust him completely in all the times of life.
There is a powerful play on words running throughout Psalm 31 that will help us understand and appreciate what it means to be in the hands of God. The Psalmist talks about two kinds of space: the threatening space of his enemies and the sheltering space of his God. His enemies are trying to set a trap (verse 4). He feels surrounded by them so there is terror on every side (verse 13). Indeed, he feels as though he is in a “besieged city (verse 21).” The enemies want to narrow his life until his last breathe is snuffed out.
But the Psalmist has another place to which he can flee, a refuge in which he will be safe. That’s how he opens the Psalm. “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge.” “In the shelter of your presence you hide [me] from them (the enemies)… in your dwelling you keep [me] safe….” (verse 20). In our day many people see faith as restricting, as life narrowing, as a threat to life full and free. The Psalmist reminds us that taking refuge in God in fact makes life more open, more liberating, more fulfilling. “You have not handed me over to my enemies, but have set my feet in a spacious place.”
The hands of God that hold the times of our lives not only keep us safe; they are also make life spacious, abundant, and free. Being a servant of God (verse 16) is the best way to live, because God’s face smiles on his servants, in the best of times and the worst of times. Psalm 31, with its connections to Christ’s passion, assures us that the hands holding our times have been pierced with nails.
Psalm 31 is a Psalm for all the times of our lives, perhaps especially for this time in history. Those who share in Christ’s suffering at the hands of anti-Christian forces can hear and use this Psalm as a source of comfort, even as they face death. That is surely how Stephen used it as the last stones smashed the life out of him. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” (Acts 7:59) And that is how Peter encouraged all believers to face the persecutions of life. “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (I Peter 4:19) Patrick Reardon comments on the words of Peter: “This committing of our souls to God is not just one of the various things we do as Christians; it is the essential feature of our life in Christ.”
Perhaps those dramatic words about martyrdom will seem distant from the experience of most of our listeners. We’re not living in the ISIS terrorized regions of the Middle East, where Christians are literally pursued to their deaths. But we certainly hear the whispers of conspiracy against the cause of Christ all around us, don’t we?
We may pick up on different whispers, depending on where we stand on the political/theological spectrum. Those on the left will hear whispers about threats to their social justice agenda, given the noises being made by the new President. Those on the right will hear whispers about threats to their personal morality agenda, given the recent pronouncements by the Obama administration and the Supreme Court. In the divided culture of North America, there are enemies aplenty and conspiracy theories of all kinds. So, all of us need to take a deep breath and say with the Psalmist and with our Lord, “But I trust in you, O Lord. I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”
The siege of the city of Aleppo is a perfect illustration of the disastrous effects of sin. In much the same way as President Assad of Syria laid siege to that city, sin besieges us, hemming us in, squeezing the joy out of life, raining down destruction on us, and ultimately taking our lives. Only the Suffering Savior can deliver us into “a spacious place.”
During last year’s Presidential election, Hillary Clinton was convinced that there was a right wing conspiracy against her, and there may have been. And Donald Trump was equally convinced that there was a left wing conspiracy against him, and there may well have been. We are all the victims of some kind of conspiracy. Thank God for what Dallas Willard called The Divine Conspiracy.
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