Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 29, 2018
Psalm 22:25-31 Commentary
The Lectionary can be a hard taskmaster, especially when it assigns the same reading twice in two months during entirely different seasons of the liturgical year. That is the case with this reading from the last verses of Psalm 22. It was our assignment two months ago during Lent and is now our reading for this Fifth Sunday of Easter. What were the developers of the RCL thinking?! Well, maybe they were like my old high school basketball coach, who made us run the same drills over and over again to teach us something valuable.
Psalm 22 is, of course, the quintessential Lenten Psalm. As Patrick Reardon puts it, it is “par excellence the canticle of the Lord’s suffering and death.” But this Lenten Psalm has two parts so distinct in tone and message that some scholars think it is really two separate Psalms welded together. But in my comments on Psalm 22 in the Lenten season, I opined that the two halves really do fit together, because verses 22-31 remind us, right in the heart of Lent, that Easter is coming. The agony of verses 1-21 is not the whole story. They will inevitably be followed by the ecstasy of verses 22-31. Thus, considering these closing verses during Lent was a good corrective to the darkness of that penitential season.
Conversely, focusing on these same verses now in the Easter season reminds us that all is not glory and praise in the lives of those who follow the Risen Christ. Verses 1-21 are still there, lurking in the background of the text and often creeping into the foreground of our lives. The victorious life can still be mighty painful. Sometimes it is difficult to sing God’s praise through gritted teeth. Both the cross and the empty tomb are always realities in the Christian life. I don’t know if that is what the lectionary writers were thinking when they assigned these same verses in two different seasons only two months apart. But that is surely a way you can preach on Psalm 22 in this joyous season.
James Luther Mays puts it eloquently when he says that verses 1-21 are “a vision of what happens when evil breaks through the normal restraints of humanity because the correcting salvation and providence of God are absent.” To which I would add that verses 22-31 are a vision of what will happen when God breaks through the normal constraints of evil and brings the correcting salvation that makes all things right.
That’s what began to happen on Easter, as anticipated in verse 24. Unfortunately, our reading for today doesn’t include that verse, but you must use it in your sermon. It, and it alone, accounts for dramatic shift in visions in Psalm 22, and in life. “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help.” That is a shocking verse, because it denies the complaints of verses 1-2 and 6-8. In spite of the Psalmist’s deep suffering and his conviction that God had “forsaken” him, Yahweh was not far off, did not despise or abhor, did not hid his face, but heard the Psalmist’s prayer. That kind of reversal is exactly what happened between Good Friday and Easter morning. It is a perfect Easter text.
And the words that follow are a perfect text for this Easter season, in which we live out the reality of Christ’s victory over sin, suffering, and death. According to our reading the most appropriate response to the resurrection of Christ is praise, praise focused on what God has done in Christ. “From you comes the theme of my praise….”
There are two things worthy of note in your sermon on this text. First, this praise begins as an individual act, but it moves to a corporate activity. Second, it begins with Israel before the time of Christ, but extends beyond the life of Christ to the ends of the earth and to the end of time.
So, though the Psalmist begins with his own words of praise (“I will declare your name…. I will praise you…. I will fulfill my vows”), he immediately calls his “brothers,” “the congregation,” “the great assembly” to join him in his praise. For the Israelite it was unthinkable to keep the experience of answered prayer and divine deliverance a private matter, “between my God and I.” Everyone needed to know, because, of course, everyone wrestles with the same experience of God’s silence and inactivity. We need to encourage each other, not with the kind of “humble bragging” that makes times of testimony self-serving, but with the kind of testimony that turns all attention on God and God alone. Note how the Psalmist focuses on Yahweh (“your name,” “you,” “revere him.”)
All members are invited to join him in praise, all those “who fear the Lord,” “all you descendants of Jacob.” All will sit down at the sacrificial meal that followed the thank offering, including “the poor.” That is probably not a reference to economic poverty. The aniwim were those who were poor in spirit. Indeed, sometimes Israel as a whole was referred to as the aniwim, because they depended on Yahweh the way the poor depend on their benefactors. All who feared the Lord, who sought the Lord, who depended on the Lord are invited to join in praising the Lord.
In other words, the redeeming work of Yahweh in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, will create a community united in praise. When I think of the sad divisions in the church today, I hear Psalm 22 as a clarion call to the church to become such a community. We are far from it; indeed, the worship wars are sort of over, but they still sour our praise. You can use this Lenten/Easter Psalm to hold out “the vision glorious” of a church that attracts the world to Christ by the voice of united praise.
That’s the second thing to note in these closing words. The redeemed individual and the united church call the world to join in their Easter praise. The praise of Psalm 22 is not provincial or temporal; it’s not just for Israel/the church and it’s not just for the present or even for the living. In verses 27 and 28 we hear about the future of the Kingdom of God. He is Lord right now, though not acknowledged as such. But as time goes on and when the end finally comes “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to Yahweh, and all the families of the earth will bow before him….” Why? Because “dominion belongs to Yahweh and he rules over the nations.” The Risen Christ will finally bring all things under the feet of God (I Cor. 15:23-28). Here is an eschatological vision of the power of Easter that should fill us with confidence and hope.
But the Psalmist isn’t quite done with his call to praise. In verse 26 he mentioned the “poor,” but in verse 29 he says that “the rich of the earth will feast and worship,” too. That might be a reference to the fact that the arrogant rich are often the enemy of the poor believer. Even the enemies of God’s people will finally join the Messianic banquet. Or it might be a reference to those who are dying; the Hebrew of verses 29-31 are famously difficult. “The rich” might be synonymous with “all who go down to the dust.” In most of the Old Testament, death simply meant the end of life, and the dead do not praise the living God. But maybe Psalm 22:29 is exploding the conventional Jewish views of what is possible. Even the dying and the dead will join in the praise of the one who is victorious even over the last enemy.
This praise will go on through the ages. “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about Yahweh.” The chain of covenantal faithfulness will go on and on, because those future generations “will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn.” Until Jesus returns, there will be a church in the world, as Jesus said in Matthew 16:18. As the church declines in the West, we hear many gloomy forecasts about its future in the world. But Psalm 22 assures us that the victory of Jesus on Easter will not be wasted. The preaching of the crucified and risen Christ will go until he returns. Finally, the whole world will bring its homage to him, the Lord of Lord, the King of Kings.
Because “he has done it.” That’s the last line of this poem; it summarizes the Christian life and the gospel by which we live. God has done it. It is finished. Everything needed to reverse the agony of human life has been done. Ecstasy shall follow. People ask, “What is the world coming to?” Psalm 22 says, “It is coming to this. In the end, there will be praise, universal and eternal. Everyone, everywhere, at every time will praise Yahweh for what he has done in Jesus Christ.”
Here’s a message of unalloyed hope for dark times in the world, in our nation and in our church. It’s not a triumphalist message that denies hard times; verses 1-21 will keep you from such nonsense. But in times of agony, we need to be reminded that God has done it and the victory of Easter has “cosmic ramifications for all people everywhere. Such is the audacious unrestrained testimony of the delivered.” (Brent Strawn)
As I write this, the famous Davos Conference has concluded. That is the annual gathering of the world’s glitterati at a Swiss ski resort. As someone said, “It’s where the billionaires gather to talk to the millionaires about the middle class.” Once a year the world comes together to sing the praises of Mammon and discuss what that great god can do if we only apply ourselves better. What a different picture is painted in Psalm 22. But thanks be to God, even the rich, saved by the impossible grace of God, will one day “feast and worship” the God who became poor so that we might become rich.
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