Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 18, 2017
Psalm 100 Commentary
It is not hard to figure out what Psalm 100 is. The superscription says simply, “For Giving Thanks.” Thus, it was probably used as liturgical accompaniment when a thank offering was given in the Temple. Perhaps it called on those who offered such a sacrifice to have the proper attitude of worship, rather than just going through the motions. On one level, then, it is simple praise. But on another level, a level we may not notice at first, it is subtle politics.
Let’s look at the simple level first. This is a quintessential praise song or, more correctly, a call to praise. Note all the imperatives addressed to the worshiping congregation–“shout, worship, come, know, enter, give thanks.” Psalm 100 is an urgent command to do something so simple, yet so profound that we struggle to do it consistently. As the old praise song from the days of my early ministry put it, Psalm says, “Let’s just praise the Lord.”
In those early days, I was helped in my prayer life by that now hackneyed acronym, ACTS. Comprehensive prayer should consist of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. That helped me because most of my prayers immediately and persistently focused on supplications, petitions for me and mine. On a good day, I might start with a time of thanksgiving, if things were going particularly well. And on a bad day, a day I was experiencing my deep Calvinist guilt, I might spend a good deal of time in confessing my sin, telling God what was wrong with me. But I found it very difficult to begin my prayers telling God what was right with him. Prayers filled with simple praise are very difficult to do.
So Psalm 100 is a very helpful model for us. Though it is filled with imperatives, it does not feel negative or heavy handed at all. Instead, it is filled with positives that sing. The dominant note is joy and gladness. We are called to joyful songs and thanksgiving and praise. What a helpful reminder for us when we feel like complaining, accusing, pleading, or lamenting—all of which are perfectly legitimate purposes for prayer throughout the Psalter. Psalm 100 urges us not to lose our praise when times are hard.
This is the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time. The great Feasts of the Christian year are behind us; we have celebrated the extraordinary life and work of Jesus for half a year. Now we focus on how we are to follow that Jesus. The use of Psalm 100 here at the beginning of Ordinary Time suggests that praise is the preferred voice for ordinary time, the ordinary voice of those who believe in the Jesus who has done all those wonderful things for us.
In fact, that focus on faith in God is precisely the emphasis of Psalm 100. Why should we praise God all the time? After the first three imperatives, the Psalmist says, “Know that the Lord is God.” This is not “the good Lord” of country music singers, the generic God of American civil religion. This is Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. The last part of verse 3 is a reference not to creation, but to covenant. “It is he who made us and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” That’s the central reason to give praise to God all the time. He is Yahweh who has made us his own by his saving work in Israel and, preeminently, in Jesus Christ.
The Psalmist helps us to praise God even in hard times by reminding us of three specific aspects or benefits of belonging to Yahweh/Jesus. First, he is present, “there” in a real way. So we are called to “come before him… enter his gates… his courts.” Clearly that is a reference to the Temple, where Yahweh dwelt in a special way, though he was the God of heaven and earth. If you were a faithful Jew, you didn’t need to wonder where God was in difficult times; he was right over there, through those gates, in those courts.
And now Yahweh is right over there, in Christ who called his body the new temple. “In him all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19) We can rejoice as Psalm 100 commands us to do, because Yahweh is present to us always in the person of Jesus. “I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Second, God is not only present; he is also our Shepherd. We are “his people, the sheep of his pasture.” This recalls Psalm 23, of course, where Yahweh is our Royal Shepherd who takes care of all our needs, so that we “do not want.” And it anticipates Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. God is not some sort of vague spiritual Presence; God is our personal Savior through Jesus. We belong to the Good Shepherd who purchased us by his own blood, the blood of the Lamb.
Third, and this is already implied in those ideas of Presence and Savior, we should be joyful always because this God “is good.” We should offer the Lord our thanksgiving, not because he is all-powerful and should be feared, and not because he is unpredictable and needs to be placated, and not because he is complicated and needs to be dealt with carefully. We should come to Yahweh with joyful songs simply because he is good.
The Psalmist is quite specific in his definition of God’s goodness. It does not consist first of all in all the good things God give us; that is often the first thing we think of when we have to find reasons to be joyful. No, the Psalmist focuses on the covenant God has made with us. Right after confessing that Yahweh is good, his next words are those two covenant soaked words chesed and emunah, love and faithfulness. No matter what is happening to us we can count on the love and faithfulness of our God in Christ. I like the way James Luther Mays puts it: “as far as time runs, the future is ruled by the chesed and emunah, the lovingkindness and faithfulness, of Yahweh.”
OK, so there’s the simple way to preach on Psalm 100. Now let’s take a look at the subtle politics in this Psalm. So far we have focused on the special relationship Yahweh has with Israel, but notice how the Psalm opens—with a call for “all the earth” to shout for joy to Yahweh. He is Israel’s God, but all the earth is called to know that he is King over all the earth. I use the word “King,” because Psalm 100 is the capstone to a group of Psalms (93-100) that claim Yahweh is king over all people, all nations, all lands. Now Yahweh is King over “all the earth.” This a blockbuster political statement, what Mays calls a “theopolitical” proclamation.
Thus, when the Psalmist says, “Know that the Lord is God,” he is speaking not only to Israel, but also to all the nations and peoples of the earth, all of whom had their own gods and kings. In fact, in the Hebrew of verse 3 there is a little Hebrew pronoun (hu, meaning “he”) used in connection with Yahweh. It gives verse 3 this meaning. “The Lord, he is God” or “the Lord alone is God.” The covenant making God of Israel is the only God there is, the only King there is. You may have your gods and your king, but they are not the only God and the true King.
All the gods of the nations are fickle and fallible, so they needed to be courted and placated. But Yahweh is the covenant making and keeping God on whom we can always rely. He is simply trustworthy. Recall the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18. When Baal did not respond to the frenetic prayers of his prophets, Elijah suggested that perhaps Baal was off on a trip, or taking a nap, or relieving himself in the water closet. Baal cannot be relied on. When Elijah prayed a simple prayer, God rained down fire and consumed the offering. Do you remember what the people of Israel shouted in response? “Yahweh, he is God. Yahweh, he is God.” That was a theopolitical confession, as it is here in Psalm 100.
In Israel’s day, the question was not, “Is there a god,” but “Who is God?” In spite of the rising tide of atheism, that is still the question of our day. The world is full of polytheistic possibilities. Not only are there great world religions that make claims for their gods, but there are also nearly divine political leaders who claim that they and they alone can fix the problems of their country or even the whole world. All of us, even the most religious, have a tendency to rely on aspects of the created order to give us security in the face of multiple threats.
Psalm 100 stands up in this theopolitical world and says, “The Lord, he is God. He alone is good and trustworthy. He alone rules the future in his love and faithfulness.” So, we have to decide whether we will trust the palace of the king or the Temple of the King. Is Jesus Lord, or is Caesar? If we put our trust in Trump or Trudeau, in the US or Canada, in Republicans or Democrats, in the military or in money, in our own intelligence and our efforts, in our gods or our kings, we will not be able to shout for joy all the time. This simple call to praise presents us with a political message that is not so subtle after all. Whom or what shall we worship? Which power structure will we embrace as divine?
But this polemical message also has an evangelistic corollary. Psalm 100 calls the whole earth to join in the praise of Israel. Jesus was born an Israeli and recruited his disciples from those ranks and did all of his work of salvation in Israel. But after he rose from the dead, he told his Jewish disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. The Risen Christ proclaimed that he had all authority in heaven and on earth. But his first use of his authority as the Resurrected King was not to condemn those who worship other gods and kings, but to invite them to worship him and obey “everything he had commanded.” “Jesus, he is God! He is good.” “Shout for joy to Jesus, all the earth!”
Knowing that Jesus is Lord is not a purely, or mainly, intellectual endeavor. Indeed, the word “know” in the Hebrew is yada, which is first used in the Bible in a very interesting context. “And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore a son.” (Genesis 4:1, RSV) Knowing Jesus may begin with learning some facts and giving assent to them. But we don’t really know Jesus as God until we enter a close personal relationship with him, a relationship characterized by trust and intimacy and communion. Think sex and you have it.
A contemporary praise song speaks of “ten thousand reasons” to praise the Lord. Psalm 100 gives us just one, and that is the Lord Jesus himself, with all that involves. If we can focus on him, then we can obey all the imperatives in Psalm 100, even if those 10,000 reasons are missing for the moment.
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