Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 30, 2017
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 Commentary
Clearly, Psalm 116 was chosen for this Third Sunday of Easter because it is a Psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from death. It reverses the order of things in ordinary life, where we move from life to death. Here the Psalmist moves from death.to life, like Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection. Indeed, Jesus could have spoken the words of this Psalm; perhaps he did in his private times of worship post-Resurrection. It is a perfect Psalm for us as we live in the afterglow of Easter and anticipate our own death and resurrection.
Our lectionary reading for today inexplicably chops the Psalm into arbitrary chunks. Most scholars see three sections in the Psalm, but our reading breaks off part way through the first section and picks up again toward the end of the second section. We miss big, juicy parts of this lovely Psalm, like verse 7. “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” One could preach a whole sermon on that text alone.
But we preachers do that kind of textual slicing and dicing all the time for homiletical purposes, even though it would make our exegetical professors roll over in their graves. I’m going to do a bit of that here, though I don’t think it is illegitimate. I’m going to focus on verses 1 and 2 and 12 and 13, because I think that Psalm 116 is all about the centrality of prayer in a life of thanksgiving.
The Psalmist wrote this lovely Psalm because he was once in deadly danger. “The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome with trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, save me!’” Here the lectionary reading cuts us off, so we don’t know what happened next. But the opening words have already shouted the answer. God answered his prayer. “I love the Lord, for he heard my prayer; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.” Now he wants to spend his days giving thanks for that resurrection experience. But what is the best way to give thanks for such deliverance. “How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?” That, I take it, is the central question of the Psalm.
How many of our listeners can say those words of verses 1 and 2? I ask because over the years I counselled more than a few believers who would have changed the Psalm a little. “I love the Lord, even though he has not heard my voice. He did not hear my cry for mercy. In fact, he seemed to turn a deaf ear to me. I called on the name of the Lord, but he didn’t save me from my trouble. I’m still in it. I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed, and it hasn’t worked.” So instead of celebrating with the Psalmist, they questioned, “Why should I pray when it doesn’t work?”
In my Reformed tradition we often refer to the old Heidelberg Catechism for guidance when we wrestle with deep theological questions that are also intensely practical. In Question and Answer 116 (quite a coincidence, eh?), we hear an answer to our question that seems both counter-intuitive and counter to the facts of our lives, both theologically wrong and personally false. I should pray “because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us (that’s the counter-intuitive, theologically shaky part of the answer) and also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly (that’s the part that doesn’t seem true to our lives).” As we speak to folks who struggle with prayer because it doesn’t seem to work for them, that old Catechism answer might be a helpful way to think about Psalm 116.
We should keep praying because prayer is the most important part of the thanksgiving God requires of us. That’s exactly what the Psalmist says in verse 12 and 13. “How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord.” The “goodness” is answered prayer. And in gratitude for answered prayer, he prays more. Indeed, the Psalmist says that three times (verses 2, 13, 17). “I will call on the name of the Lord.”
That is the surprising answer to the question asked by gospel singer Andre Crouch in his famous song, “My Tribute.” “How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me? Things so undeserved, yet you gave to prove your love for me; the voices of a million angels could not express my gratitude….” Then Crouch answers his own question at the end of his chorus: “Just let me live my life, let it be pleasing, Lord, to thee….”
That’s the usual answer to the question asked by the Psalmist in verse 12. Just live your life in a way that pleases God. The main way we give thanks is to be obedient. We all know that. Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments?” But now the Catechism, echoing Psalm 116, says, “No, the most important part of thanksgiving is not obedience. It’s prayer.” That’s astonishing. And it will change your prayer life if you believe it.
How can that be true? Well, consider this undoubtedly apocryphal story. Once upon a time there was a very good king who ruled his subjects with both firmness and generosity. He gave them all they needed and he demanded that they show their gratitude and love by obeying his laws. But his subjects decided they did not want to be under the king. They wanted a democracy in which they took care of themselves and set their own laws. So they launched an armed revolt against this very good king. But it was no contest. With overwhelming force, the king quickly conquered them.
Then he hauled the rebels into the royal court for sentencing. Expecting to be executed for treason, they were astonished when the king pardoned them, one and all. They were overcome with surprise and gratitude. “How can we thank you enough?” they cried. “We’ll never disobey again. We’ll serve you as slaves. We’ll give our lives to you. How can we thank you?” The king surprised them again when he answered, “You can thank me by treating me like God. Bend your knees, bow your head, and simply ask me to supply all your needs. It’s not enough that you keep my laws. I want you to actually pray to me.”
Now that’s an audacious, blasphemous thing for a king to ask, but it is exactly what God asks. Pray to me as the main way to show your thanks. At its heart prayer is simply saying, “Lord, I love you and I need you.” That’s what God wants more than anything from us—not our little gifts, not our pitiful attempts to do his will, but our love, our hearts poured out in prayer.
The Psalmist reminds us that God answers prayer in a wide variety of ways that sometimes leaves us wondering, was that an answer to prayer? Sometimes he saves our souls from death, as the Psalmist says in verse 8, while other times he simply keeps our eyes from tears and our feet from stumbling (also in verse 8). Sometimes he answers with fire from heaven and other times in a still small voice in a deep dark cave, as in the life of Elijah. Sometimes he delivers us from evil, but other times he uses us to make his kingdom come in the midst of evil. Sometimes he gives us our daily bread, while other times he bends our will so that his will is done on earth in us.
Whatever shape God’s answers take, the most important part of giving thanks is more prayer. It’s a circle—problem, prayer, answer, thankfulness, more prayer. Indeed, one of my professors talked about the “triple circularity of prayer.” That strange expression was his of getting at the complex relationship between God’s grace and our prayer. It is the grace of God that draws us to Christ and moves us to grateful prayer. We receive that grace by faith and then we pray to express our gratitude. And in those prayers we ask for more grace. And in response God gives us grace.
Do you see the circle, the triple circle there? It’s all of grace, from beginning to end and in the middle. Yet prayer is important, because, says Catechism, “God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for them and thanking him for them.”
It’s very mysterious, and that mystery keeps some of us from praying as God requires. We think, “God knows what I need. God will give what God wants to give. Why should I pray? It can’t possibly go any good.” The Psalmist wasn’t hampered in his prayers by such theological second guessing. The Psalmist was in trouble and he prayed. God heard and God answered. The Palmist was grateful and he prayed. Simple, because he didn’t let his theology get in the way of the most important part of thanksgiving.
That’s exactly what Jesus says to us in Matthew 7. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will be opened.” Note the commands. Why should we pray when it doesn’t work? Because Jesus, our Savior and Lord, commanded us to do it. Don’t let your theology keep you from doing what Jesus told us specifically to do. If your theology says prayer isn’t necessary, then your theology is wrong in some fundamental way. The Jesus who came from the bosom of the Father and who perfectly knew God’s mind said, “Ask.” When asking doesn’t seem to work, “Seek.” And when seeking doesn’t work, “Knock, knock and knock.”
And note the promises—“it will be given, you will find, the door will be opened.” If we come to God in prayer through Jesus Christ and in the way Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer, God will answer. We might not get what we asked for, but God will answer. We might not find what we were looking for, but God will answer. The door that gets opened might not be the one we knocked on, but God will answer.
God doesn’t expect us to understand his ways anymore than a 3 year old can understand the ways of her parents. What God expects is that we keep praying even when it doesn’t work, because his own Son said, “Ask, seek, knock.” Keep praying, even it doesn’t seem to work, because Jesus said it will.
If we believe what Jesus said, we’ll be able to say this lovely thing the Psalmist says in verse 7. “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” He is talking to himself, calming himself, like a child soothing herself as she slips off into slumber, snuggling in, cuddling up to the heartbeat of God’s love by reminding herself of how good God has been. “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you. I love you. I need you.” And Jesus says, “I hear you. And I loved you first, and I love you best, and I always will. So keep praying.”
Here’s a way to think about prayer as the main way we give thanks for the resurrections in our lives. Think about your holiday celebrations, especially at Christmas. That is such a magical and miserable time of year. We’ll get together with family and friends, hoping for a wonderful time. But it is often a time of considerable tension and pain. We exchange gifts around the Christmas tree, trying to be merry and grateful. In fact, we are unhappy about the state of our relationships. What we want to say is, “It’s not your gifts that I want. Just tell me and show me that you love me.” That’s why prayer is the most important part of thanksgiving to God. By bending the knee and bowing our heads and talking to God, we say, “I love you and I need you.” That’s a greater way of showing gratitude than anything else.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!