Psalm 107 was originally a liturgy of thanksgiving offered at one of Israel’s great festivals, as evidenced by the opening call to give thanks and the repeated refrain, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men.” The theme of this thanksgiving is the often-repeated word, hesed, translated as “enduring or unfailing love,” demonstrated by the goodness of Yahweh in his role as Redeemer of his troubled people.
That theme alone makes Psalm 107 a fitting choice for this Fourth Sunday of Lent, as we follow our Redeemer on his journey to the cross where he performed the most “wonderful deed” for humanity. But originally this Psalm was probably a reference to Israel’s “second salvation history,” not the Exodus from Egypt, but the release of the hostages from Exile (cf. verse 3 with its reference to Israel’s being gathered from the four points of the compass).
To move God’s people to thanksgiving, the Psalm writer doesn’t put forth a series of propositions extolling the goodness of God’s love. Rather, he tells stories, stories that enable us to live into Israel’s experience of a “love that will not let us go.” Some of the stories clearly come directly from Israel’s history (being lost in the wilderness and being imprisoned in darkness), while others are more generic (getting sick to the point of death) and even unusual for the landlubbers of Israel (getting caught in a storm at sea).
As different as these stories are, the writer tells them in an almost perfectly parallel form. First, there is a basic explanation of their trouble followed by a brief elaboration of the depth of their difficulty. That is followed by the exact same response on the part of the sufferers. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble….” And in every story, God’s response to their cry for help is given in the same words; “and he saved them from their distress.” Then comes an explanation of exactly what Yahweh did to save them. Finally, there is a formulaic call to give thanks, repeated verbatim after each story, and a concluding line emphasizing why Israel should give thanks or how they are to do that. The only real difference in these stories lies in the details.
But, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. It is obviously more correct to say that the Gospel is in the details, but the details of the trouble make the Gospel shine forth more brightly. That is surely the case in our reading for this Sunday, where the trouble is sickness unto death. Here’s the devil in the details; the writer connects this terrible sickness to the sin of the sufferers. They “suffered affliction because of their iniquities.” This sounds like the kind of theology discredited by Job and by Jesus, so we’ll need to parse this story carefully.
It all starts with this fascinating and troubling statement. “Some became fools through their rebellious ways….” That’s not an unfamiliar theme in Scripture. We find it in Genesis where Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God and, seeking to become as wise God, became “damned fools.” In Romans 1 Paul echoes that with his verdict on the whole rebellious race of Adam and Eve. “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” As one scholar put it, thinking they were wise, sane, progressive and sophisticated, the rebellious human race became fools in their rebellion. So it always goes.
And, as Romans 1 puts it so powerfully, this rebellious folly has consequences for body and soul. Here in Psalm 107 the consequence is sickness. Does that mean we can trace every illness to some specific sin? Both the book of Job and the teaching of Jesus (cf. John 9) tell us, “No, absolutely not.” While it is true that some sin does directly cause suffering (think of how gluttony or drunkenness can lead to a whole variety of bodily ills), we are not wise enough to make that connection for any one case of illness. So, we must be careful as we preach this text.
That doesn’t mean that God never visits sickness on sinners for the purpose of punishing or chastening them. The other Old Testament reading for today, the story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21, is a vivid example of God responding to gross sin by sending physical sickness. And that story is just a specific historical fulfillment of the covenant curses made by God in Leviticus 26:16 and 25 and Deuteronomy 25.
We do not like those kinds of texts, or the picture of God they present to us. Most of us would never preach on such an idea. But our text from Psalm 107 confronts us with the fact that sin has terrible consequences, whether directly imposed by God or simply the natural result of the sin. Sin is not a minor thing. It ruins life, makes us sick, and leads to death. That is not the message we want to preach, but it is the dark background of the Gospel. We don’t want to dwell on this part of today’s text, but in this sober season of Lent there is spiritual value in this text. Its dark teaching re-emphasizes how important it is to repent, turn from sin, and embrace our sick and suffering Savior, who heals all our diseases.
Not surprisingly, that is exactly where our text goes next. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” As I said above, that is the constant refrain in these stories of trouble. No matter what the trouble, God responds to our cries for help with his grace, even when that trouble is caused by our own foolish rebellion. That is a remarkable thought; indeed, it is the heart of the Good News.
That Gospel assures us that God’s grace isn’t reserved for good people who just need a bit of assistance in otherwise spotless lives. He responds in grace to folks who have royally messed up their lives by their own folly and outright rebellion. As today’s reading from Ephesians 2 puts it, “We were dead in our sins and transgressions, but God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive.” Here’s the benefit of dwelling for a moment in the darkness of verses 17 and 18. They make the unfailing love of God shine more brightly.
Verse 20 tells us exactly how God saved these deathly ill people; “he sent forth his word and healed them.” In the Numbers 21 story, that was a word to make a bronze serpent and to instruct the snake bitten Israelites to look to that Serpent for healing. And the Gospel reading for today (John 3) connects Jesus directly to the bronze serpent. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” What follows that, of course, is the heart of the Gospel in John 3:16. As the first chapter of John’s Gospel says, the “Word” of Yahweh “rescued them from the grave.”
No wonder the Psalmist repeatedly calls the redeemed to give thanks. Given how quickly we forget what God has done and simply move on with our divinely redeemed lives (like 9 of the 10 lepers in the Gospel story), we need this call. It is uniquely suited to this season of Lent, when we are tempted to fixate on dust and ashes, sin and death, and the practices of penitence. That is all well and good, but let us not lose sight of the fact that the Christian life is primarily one of gratitude and joy. Else we become gloomy counter advertisements for the Good News.
Our reading for today ends with an important direction about how we are to give thanks—not just individually and privately, but corporately in church. Thank offerings were to be brought to the Temple, where they became part of a festive meal with the priests. As part of those meals, the grateful redeemed were to tell the story of God’s wonderful deeds with songs of joy.
I can only imagine how our lives would be transformed if contemporary Christians were to follow that ancient way of giving thanks. Oh, we do give thanks, but often in a formal and private way. We follow the liturgy (if there is one), but no one knows how God has answered our prayers for help. And increasingly, Christians aren’t taking their thanks to church at all. They simply stay home, because joining a congregation in worship is too, well, inconvenient (see my Illustration Idea).
You can see any number of connections to Lent in this text. But if the ones offered above haven’t persuaded to preach on Psalm 107 rather than the other meaty readings suggested for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, let me suggest three obvious Lenten lessons that will preach. First, apart from the work of Christ and his Spirit, we are all fools whose sin brings us affliction and death. Second, all of us are only one wise move from rescue. All we have to do is cry to the Lord from the bottom of our trouble and from the depths of our needy hearts.
Third, in his unfailing love, God is always ready to deliver. The wording of verse 19 is surely intentional; after all, it is repeated in exactly the same way in all four stories. “Then they cried to Yahweh… and he saved them….” There is no gap between the cry and the salvation. God is ready to save. God is eager to save. God is dying to save. No wait, he already did, “for God so loved the world….”
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page.]
Psalm 107 opens with a call for corporate thanksgiving: “Let the redeemed of the Lord say this….” But such group thanksgiving is becoming increasingly rare. One of the chief reasons is the sheer inconvenience of corporate worship. I was convicted by a recent piece in The Christian Century by publisher, Peter Marty. Entitled “Church is Inconvenient,” it makes the point that church is a bother in many ways. Responding to the rapidly increasing number of folks who simply stay home, Marty sarcastically says, “I have decided that making Sabbath worship an integral part of one’s life is highly inconvenient. For those who stay away from communal worship because Sunday is the day to arrange personal leisure, take special care of oneself, or get the kids off to soccer, making time for church is just plain inconvenient. For those of us who make church a priority, Sabbath worship is equally inconvenient, though in a different way. We sing songs we didn’t pick, hear scriptures we didn’t choose, commit to endeavors for which we must sacrifice, and—here’s the worst—sit next to people who aren’t even our closest friends.” So, many folks say with Emily Dickinson, “Some keep Sabbath going to church–/I keep it, staying at home.”
Convenience often feels great, says Marty, but it’s not an unalloyed good. For example, he points out that if we only exercise when it is convenient, we will not enjoy maximum health. And he concludes that the inconvenience of worshiping together is central to a healthy spiritual life. “We Christians love to talk about Jesus, and with good reason. But it’s impossible to have Jesus apart from the church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reading of the apostle Paul led him to say that we cannot know Christ apart from Christian community, because the church is Christ’s body.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 11, 2018
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 Commentary