Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 25, 2018
Psalm 22:23-31 Commentary
Psalm 22 is the quintessential Lenten Psalm. Most obviously, Jesus quoted verse 1 on the cross and many scholars think that he quoted the rest of the Psalm throughout that dark time of God-forsakenness. Certainly, the Psalm has lines that perfectly fit other moments of his crucifixion. And the first Christians used this Psalm more than any other to explain the meaning of Jesus’ passion.
In taking up “this anguished cry of a godly sufferer victimized by the vicious and prolonged attacks of enemies whom he has not provoked and from whom the Lord has not (yet) delivered him (NIV Study Bible notes),” Jesus identifies himself not only with a suffering humanity, but also with the entire tradition of messianic prophecy. In using Psalm 22 so passionately and frequently, Jesus and the early church were saying that the cross was not one man’s experience of punishment for (his own) sins. It was the fulfillment of the work prophesied by the entire Old Testament. Psalm 22 is just the clearest and most powerful pointer to the meaning of Jesus’ Lenten suffering.
Our reading for today is the unexpectedly triumphant end of a Psalm that has been alternating between despair and hope, solitary suffering and solidarity with the faith of Israel. Psalm 22 has two easily identifiable parts: the prayer for help in verses 1-21 and the praise for help given in verses 22-31. Within those two parts, there are two more divisions. The prayer consists of verses 1-11 with its two laments and expressions of confidence and verses 12-21 with its two laments and pleas for help. Both sections end with the same refrain, “Do not be far from me.” The song of praise also has two sections. In verses 22-26 the Psalmist calls the congregation to join him in praise because God has come near in answer to his prayer. In verses 27-31 he broadens that call to include the whole world.
These two parts of Psalm 22 are so distinct in their tone and content that some scholars have suggested our reading was once a separate Psalm later appended to the earlier verses. But such a reading completely misses the fact that the movement of the Psalm powerfully captures the experience of nearly all believers. We always live in the tension between struggle and victory, between despair and hope, between crying for God to come and help and praising him for doing exactly that, between the agony of God’s absence and the ecstasy of God’s action on our behalf. A person could see Psalm 22 as an artificial joining of two separate Psalms only if that person is either stuck in verses 1-21 or hasn’t ever been in verses 1-21. For all other believers, this is the normal shape of life this side of the eschaton.
The radical shift between verses 21 and 22 simply points to the fact that the Gospel has happened between the two. How could such deep despair become such high praise? Grace intervened. Even as we walk the Lenten road, we know how this sudden change happened in the life of Jesus. It takes one verse in Psalm 22; it took three days in Jesus’ experience. One verse. Three days. Grace happened. Jesus rose.
So, even as we are invited to walk the Via Dolorosa in verses 1-21, we are called to the Via Jubilate here in verses 22-31. A bit strange for Lent, perhaps, but then again we cannot pretend that Easter has not happened. Even in our deepest sorrow, there can be joy because, again and again, we experience that God “has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cries for help (verse 24).” The passionate prayer of the forsaken one, “be not far off,” has been answered. Now it is time to praise the God who is always present even when he seems absent.
The Psalmist begins his summons to praise with the congregation of Israel, his brothers and sisters in the faith: “you who fear the Lord, all the descendants of Jacob, in the great assembly.” The reference to “the poor” in verse 26 is probably not a reference to economic poverty, though that would fit in with the reference to the rich in verse 29. Both rich and poor should join in praising God. The poor are those who are spiritually poor, the lowly who depend on God, that is, Israel. When he was deep in despair, the Psalmist had made a vow to give thanks in the great Temple assembly when and if he was delivered. So now he does just that, offering up a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise for what God has done.
But his call is not limited to the believers who “seek the Lord.” In verses 27-31, he foresees the day when all of humanity will join God’s people in praise. Indeed, humanity will become God’s people. In response to Israel’s telling and retelling of the story of God’s grace, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord….” The word “turn” there is shub, the classic Hebrew word for repentance. “All the families of the earth will remember and repent and bow down before Yahweh, for [they will acknowledge that] dominion belongs to Yahweh and he rules over the nations.” Sounds a lot like the end of the great Christ-hymn in Phil. 2:6-11, doesn’t it?
This isn’t a reality yet; note all the future tense verbs in verses 27-31. This an eschatological vision of the world-wide scope of the work of the suffering Messiah. Not only the poor, but also the rich, often castigated in Scripture for their oppression of the poor; not only Israel, but the nations of the world; not only those who are vibrantly alive, but also those who “go down to the dust, who cannot keep themselves alive;” not only those who are children now, but even those who aren’t even born yet, present and future generations—all of these, all classes, all races, all ages, all those afflicted by the vagaries of existence will “proclaim his righteousness….” After a lifetime of wrong, a whole history of wrong, God will make it all right.
What a vision! But it’s not all future. Indeed, the theme of the Psalmist’s praise (verse 25) is spelled out in the last words of the Psalm– ”for he has done it (verse 31).” That is the Good News that must be told to this and future generations. Yahweh has done it. He seemed far away as we suffered our afflictions. We begged him not to be far off. And he has answered. He has come close. Indeed, he has come into our social and emotional and physical afflictions and, most of all, into our experience of God-forsaken. He has defeated all our enemies by being defeated by those enemies. Or so it seemed. And so it felt. “My God, my God, why…?” But in being so undone, Jesus did it. As he said in his last words, “It is finished, for God has done it.”
That‘s an important reminder for Lenten pilgrims. We are not saved by our Lenten observances—not our prayer, not our fasting, not our worship, not our penitence, not even our faith. We are saved by what God has done, is doing, and will do in Christ. All our expressions of faith are simply our feeble human way of taking hold of the God who has taken hold of us. He has done what we cannot do. As one scholar puts it: “All face and finally experience the three-fold losses experienced by the Psalmist: the loss of physical vitality, the loss of the possibility that family and friends can sustain and relieve us, and the loss of a conscious relation to the cosmic power that creates and maintains existence. In the passion of Jesus that three-fold loss is undergone and he dies. But his resurrection is the signal to all who dread and undergo that three-fold loss that death itself has been brought within the rule of the God of Jesus Messiah.”
In your sermon this Sunday, help people remember well so that they can tell a people yet unborn: “he has done it.” And we are saved.
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page ]
You simply can’t end this sermon or the service in which you preach it without some reference to the old hymn by Horatius Bonar, “Not What My Hands Have Done.” It moves us away from traditional Lenten disciplines to a laser-like focus on the work of Christ.
Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
Thy grace alone, O God, to me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone, O Son of God, can this sore bondage break.
No other work save thine, no other blood will do;
No strength, save that which is thine own, can bear me safely through.
I bless the Christ of God; I rest on love divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart I call this Savior mine.
‘Tis he that saveth me and freely pardon gives;
I love because he loveth me; I love because he lives.
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