Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 11, 2018
Psalm 50:1-6 Commentary
At first glance Psalm 50 seems an odd choice for the celebration of Christ’s Transfiguration. This last Sunday of the Epiphany season should be filled with talk of Christ’s glory finally revealed to his followers, as in the Gospel reading for today from Mark 9. The reading from the Epistles sings about the “glory of God in the face of Christ.” Even the Old Testament reading from II Kings 2 shows us the glory of God in the departure of Elijah in that fiery chariot swept heavenward by a tornado. Transfiguration Sunday should be about the glory of Jesus, whose name means, “Yahweh saves.”
But in Psalm 50 we have a stern word to Israel from the Yahweh the Judge. Identifying himself in stentorian tones as “The Mighty One, God, Yahweh,” he hauls them into court (“summons”), calling on heaven and earth to be witnesses of this judicial proceeding. In verses 7-15 he accuses them of misdirected worship and in verses 16-23 he lashes out at their lawless behavior. Throughout those verses he speaks with withering sarcasm (“if I were hungry I would not tell you,” verse 12) and fierce anger (“I will tear you to pieces,” verse 22). It’s no wonder the Lectionary leaves out the last 17 verses and focuses only on verses 1-6.
And that’s too bad, because those last verses give us the opportunity to do something very unusual and necessary with Transfiguration Sunday. Those early verses of Psalm 50 are perfected suited for this Sunday, because they are filled with glory. “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him and around him a tempest rages.” Here is an epiphany of God’s glory that reminds us of Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:16, 18.
But those last verses of Psalm 50 turn this fiery Epiphany into a day of covenant renewal, a day to confront our sins and return to the God who has saved us once and will save us again (verse 23). That’s not just an interpretation of what’s happening here in Psalm 50. It is exactly what verse 5 says, “Gather to me my consecrated ones (i.e., those who are faithful to me in covenant) who made covenant with me by sacrifice.”
Picture the scene. Israel is gathered in the courtyards of the Temple at one of the three annual pilgrimage feasts—Passover, Pentecost, or Tabernacles. A prophet/priest speaks in God’s name to his people. But it’s not a call to worship as in so many other Psalms. Rather, it’s a summons to court. Even as the courtyards of the Temple become the courtroom of God, our sanctuaries become the courtroom of God on this Transfiguration Sunday. We are going to encounter the glory of our God in an unexpected way, not first of all as our shining Savior, but as our stern Judge (though our Savior does appear here).
We preachers might not want to go in this direction, because it seems so old fashioned, so non-seeker friendly, so, well, negative. But ask yourself these questions. Have our people gotten confused about the purpose of worship and have they wandered away into patterns of behavior that are destructive of their very lives? Is it pastoral to just let them go in wrong directions because we want to be positive all the time? And could it be that that glory of Jesus shines all the more brightly against the dark backdrop of our sin? Could this vision of Yahweh the Judge help us see a new vision of Yahweh the Savior, speaking of his death on the Mount of Transfiguration?
Psalm 50 is designed to help God’s people renew their covenant with their God, and that‘s a good thing. They have drifted away from faithful covenant worship and life, because God has been silent. “These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face.” Here’s an important preaching point. When God does not speak into our lives, we assume that he approves of what we’re doing. We assume that he is just like us. We end up making God in our own image. And that can be deadly for us.
So here in Psalm 50, God breaks his silence. He comes to his people and his major act in coming is speech. He begins and ends our section of Psalm 50 by identifying himself. “The Mighty One, God, Yahweh,” or “Yahweh the God of gods.“ “God himself is Judge.” Indeed, no less than 7 different names or titles are given to God in Psalm 50. Make no mistake about who is addressing the gathered people of God.
After years of silence, God “speaks and summons the earth (and the heavens, verse 4).” “Gather to me my consecrated ones (verse 5).” “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you; I am God, your God (verse 7).” Those last words, of course, echo the central covenant promise (“I will be your God and you shall be my people”), and they identity God as both the Judge and the Key Witness. (“State your name, sir, for the record.”). The Voice that identified Jesus as the Son of God on the Mount of Transfiguration identifies himself here on Mount Zion as the offended God of Israel.
Why is Yahweh offended? What did Israel do wrong? What is the sin we have carried into church this bright morning? Verses 7-15 address the well-intentioned sin of misdirected worship. It’s not that Israel was offering sacrifices; God had told them to do that. Indeed, they sealed the covenant with sacrifices (verse 5) and continued to approach their covenant God with sacrifices. The problem was that they had begun to see their sacrifices as something God needed, as something on which God depended. This idea of the care and feeding of the deity was endemic in the neighboring pagan religions. By providing sacrifices, worshippers made the gods their clients or customers who were at their beck and call. If we just do worship right, we can turn our God into our servant who will do what we want. This subtle but deadly distortion of worship slithers into our minds like a hissing serpent.
Here God speaks loudly and clearly against the misuse of worship. I don’t need your sacrifices to survive; I own all of creation. I don’t need your tender loving care; I am “the I am what I am.” What I want from you is simple thanks and heartfelt prayers for help. You need me, not the other way around. I love you so much that, when “you call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you and you will honor me (verse 15).” Then keep the vows you made when you were in trouble. Just be faithful and keep your promises to me, as I keep my promises to you.
That is the gentle, though sarcastic, word God speaks to those who have failed at worship. He isn’t so gentle with “the wicked (verse 16).” These may be the same people as in verses 7-15 but now identified as those who have intentionally turned their backs on God’s covenant law (verse 16). Using several of the ten commandments, God excoriates them for talking a good line (taking his covenant law on their lips in church), but walking a wicked line. They engaged in what Brueggemann calls “a trivialization of Torah when covenantal statutes are resisted and then completely forgotten.” Upon such as these, upon Christians who worship regularly and give lip service to the Ten Commandments while living in open disobedience, God pronounces stern judgment.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, we can say to our people that the coming of Jesus in all his glory does not give us license to worship any old way we want or live like hell as we head for heaven. Here God comes to us in a different manifestation of his glory, the glory of a righteous Judge. Preach what Psalm 50 says, and then point them to verse 22. “Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue.”
Those are incredibly harsh words, words we don’t want to speak. But think of it this way. Sin tears us to pieces, and God in his fierce love tries to call us away from it with a threat like this. To save us from the consequences of sin, God speaks in words designed to put the fear of God in us. Brueggemann puts it this way. “Those who violate covenant cannot count on the guarantees of the covenant Lord. They choose for themselves disorder, and they get what they choose.”
The Psalm does not end with punishment, just warning and instruction. “Consider this,” says the Judge. Don’t brush it off as “hell fire and damnation preaching.” Take it in and think deeply about it. And instead of trying to buy my favor with your sacrificial worship, just give me thanks for the grace that saved you in the first place (verse 23). Humble gratitude and heartfelt cries for help, these expressions of genuine faith, will “prepare the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.”
It may be difficult to wade through the hard words of Psalm 50, but if you dare to try, you will put the Transfiguration of Christ in a whole new light. Here is the Judge of all the earth humbled in human flesh, on the way to the cross to die for sinners like us. We don’t worship properly and we don’t live obediently, so we deserve the Judge’s sentence. But instead of carrying out that sentence on us, the Judge commutes our sentence by executing it on Christ. His greatest glory was not seen on that shining Mountain, but in the darkness of another Mountain.
That, of course, was exactly why Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about his death on that mountain (Luke 9:31). He came precisely for those who disobeyed the Law that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai and for those who ignored the prophetic call to return to the covenant Lord. The greatest glory of Jesus was that he did what Moses and Elijah could not do. He saved sinners who call on his name. To paraphrase Psalm 50:2, “From Calvary, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.”
It is fascinating that the very sins condemned by God in Psalm 50 are now in the headlines. After decades of glorifying sexual sin of all sorts in the movies, Hollywood is in an uproar because it has discovered that some of its brightest stars are sexual predators. After producing thousands of movies about criminal activity, society is shocked that young basketball stars would shoplift in China and then have one of their fathers downplay the importance of such a crime. And our whole culture is overwhelmed by the blizzard of evil words blasting out of Washington. Our politicians, aided and abetted by the news media, “speak continually against your brother and slander your mother’s son (verse 20).” The church can be an Epiphany of the glory of Christ by considering the hard words of Psalm 50 and allowing the Spirit of Christ to transfigure sinners into saints who show the world another way to be fully human.
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