Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 24, 2017
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 Commentary
I have a suggestion for this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Rather than singing with Mary about the Son she is about to have, let’s sing with ancient Israel about the God whose love and faithfulness will send this Son of David, in spite of the great sin of the sons of David. Mary’s Magnificat is the recommended reading for today, but I think the alternate reading in Psalm 89 can provide some rich homiletical fruit for this day before Christmas.
Both Luke 1:46-55 and Psalm 89 are songs of reversal. Mary sings of God bringing down rulers from their thrones and lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. The coming of the long-promised Son of David will accomplish those reversals, and that is good news. Psalm 89 sings about a very different reversal. It begins with high praise for the Lord whose love and faithfulness have promised to establish the house of David forever (verses 1-4). A soaring hymn of praise about the power of God (verses 5-18) is followed by a stirring description of the eternal kingdom headed by the line of David (verses 19-37). No matter what happens, that line will be established forever like the sun and moon in the sky.
But then comes the great and shocking reversal, signaled by two words that usually herald the Gospel, “but God.” Instead of announcing the Good News of what our loving and faithful God has done to reverse the fortunes of his downtrodden people, Psalm 89:38 announces the Awful News that this covenant making and keeping God has “rejected, spurned, been angry with [his] anointed one, renounced the covenant with [his] servant….” What follows is perhaps the most agonized, confused, even angry lament in the entire Bible. “How long, O Yahweh? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire (verse 46)?”
Granted, this terrible reversal is not part of the Lectionary reading for today. We are supposed to preach on verses 1-4 and 19-26, which are very appropriate for this day before Christmas. Why in the world would we want to complicate and even ruin a nice text with this horrible reversal? Why, indeed, even fool around with such a gnarly text when we have the perfectly lovely and infinitely more comforting reversals of the Magnificat?
Well, I suggest preaching on Psalm 89, all of it, because it ends precisely where many Christians find themselves in this happy season– experiencing a painful reversal and crying out to God, “How long, how long, how long?” Acknowledging our sorrow and confusion will make the birth of the Son of David even more glorious and comforting. With that homiletical goal in mind, let’s take a closer look at our reading for today.
The Psalm begins with a celebration of the twin pillars of Israel’s life, Yahweh’s love and his faithfulness, his hesed and his emuna. Because of the unshakeable dependability of Yahweh, Israel’s life is absolutely secure. “Your love stands firm forever… you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.” Heaven is far above all the vagaries of time and space, all the changes of history. Israel’s life is rooted in the seat of highest power and authority.
What’s more, the love and faithfulness of God have guaranteed that David, the greatest King of Israel, the one through whom Yahweh has made Israel the most powerful nation on earth, will continue to reign through David’s line for all coming generations. No matter what might change in the surrounding nations in the generations to come, Israel will always have a Davidic King on its throne. Security in heaven above and on the earth beneath—how could it get any better than that?
To further anchor Israel’s future, the Psalm reminds God’s people of the way God has blessed David up to this point. Through a series of couplets in verses 19-26, Israel is reminded of God’s role in elevating David: God anointed David, crushed his foes, extended his realm, made him first among all kings, and promised that his dynasty will last forever. David’s greatness does not depend on David’s greatness, but on the love and faithfulness of Yahweh. So even if, and when, David is not so great, Israel can still depend on the Davidic line, because of Yahweh.
In fact, the Psalm anticipates a time when the Davidic line will not be great, when, in fact, they will disobey Yahweh and forsake his law. When that happens, threatens God, “I will punish them with the rod, with flogging,” that is, severely. But, even then, promises God, “I will not violate my covenant…. [David’s] line will continue forever….”
What a wonderful promise for God’s people through all their generations, including our generation. In a world where our leaders regularly make and break promises, whom can we trust? When one administration routinely backs out of solemn agreements made by the previous administration (think of the Paris accord, the Iran deal, Obamacare, and so forth), what can we and the world count on? I’m not criticizing this President or any other human leaders; maybe previous promises need to be broken. Every new set of leaders seems to think so. The point of this Psalm is that God isn’t that way. We can count on him to keep his promises, including the one featured in Psalm 89, about the line of David.
Except that Israel has experienced exactly the opposite. “But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one, you have renounced your covenant with your servant,” and our lives are in shambles as a result. Those words could refer to many times when Israel thought that God had forsaken them, but most scholars think this is a reference to the Exile and even to that long time after the return when Israel languished in mediocrity. During that intertestamental period, God seemed inactive and silent. Immanuel was absent, it seemed. It seemed to all the world and certainly to Israel that the Davidic line had been extinguished for all time. So, God’s people cried out, “O Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David.”
But Psalm 89 reminds us that we cannot trust appearances and experiences. What seems to be is not necessarily what is. Yes, it surely seemed as though God had broken his promise about David’s line, but in fact he was doing exactly what he promised. “If your sons forsake my law…, I will punish them…, but I will not take my love from him nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.” The question was not, will Yahweh keep his promise? It was rather, how long will it be until we see that promise come to fruition? With God, it is never a question of if, but of when. We may be confused and angry about his timing, but we should never doubt his love and faithfulness.
How long, O Lord? Until God sent an angel to break the silence. Until God moved into this earth in a way that boggles the imagination. Until these words, “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” Indeed, he will reign over the universe, because “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” to Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of the Most High.
Psalm 89 helps us celebrate the birth of that Son in a unique way. It enables us to claim the promises of God, even when it seems that God has broken them. As we sit in our disappointment and despair, Psalm 89 reminds us that it may take God longer than we think is loving. But when he finally comes to our aid, it will boggle our minds. To Mary’s amazed, “How can this be?” the angel responded, “nothing is impossible with God.”
The God who sent his Son to reverse the fortunes of his people will also reverse what seems to be his own silence and inactivity. ”O Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?” It’s right there, in the manger of Bethlehem. It’s right there, in that baby, who is Christ the Lord, the eternal Son of David whose kingdom will never end.
To help children (and adults) grasp the idea that things aren’t always what they seem to be in the Kingdom of God, it would be very helpful to show the kids an optical illusion, either in a children’s sermon or on an overhead screen. The best one would be that mass of vertical and horizontal sticks that look like nothing, until you tilt your head a little or focus your eyes in a different way. Then you suddenly see the word, “Jesus,” spelled out in the middle of the meaninglessness.
Nearly everyone in your audience will relate to the ubiquitous question asked by children at the beginning of a long trip. “Are we there yet?” When the patient parent explains that it will be a long time before we’re there, the inevitable follow up is, “How long will it be?” While not downplaying the pain of suffering saints, it is important to assure folks that God’s sense of timing is not ours. Like every good parent, his love and faithfulness give us assurance that he will get his children safely home.
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