Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 27, 2018
Psalm 29 Commentary
Psalm 29 is the Lectionary’s choice for “Baptism of our Lord Sunday” in all three years of the cycle, and with good reason. The theme of God’s voice echoing over the waters is common to Psalm 29 and the synoptic Gospel stories of Christ’s baptism. The creation emphasis of Psalm 29 moves naturally into the redemption emphasis of the Gospels. So, good choice.
But is Psalm 29 a natural choice for Trinity Sunday? Not so much. I mean, upon first and second reading, I found absolutely nothing related to the Trinity in Psalm 29. The only possible connection would be the theme of “the Lord enthroned (verse 10)” which sounds like the reading from Isaiah 6:1, “I saw the Lord seated on a throne….” That prophetic text was chosen for Trinity Sunday presumably because of the thrice repeated cry of the seraphs, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” But even that connection is a bit of a reach.
So why choose Psalm 29 for Trinity Sunday? Why end the celebrations of the great Feasts of the Christian year with the crash and the flash of a thunderstorm? You might use this text to preach a spring thunderstorm sermon, emphasizing how we hear the voice of God in that weather event. Like the rest of creation, it shouts the Lord’s glory. That would be an interesting sermon, but it wouldn’t fit the special day the church celebrates today.
That’s what I was thinking, when I had one of those Aha moments that must be some small sign of grace. Suddenly I heard Psalm 29 precisely as a thunderous conclusion to the great Feasts of the church year. Psalm 29 is not about the Trinity per se, but it is fitting praise for the work of the Triune God that we have been celebrating at Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. The divine work of redemption is accomplished, and Psalm 29 invites us to join the heavenly hosts and the Temple crowd in crying, “Glory!”
The thunderstorm so graphically pictured and so powerfully voiced in Psalm 29 was the most awesome demonstration of God’s glory and strength in Israel’s experience of nature. Since Israel had no exposure to volcanos or hurricanes or tsunamis, the thunderstorm was the most impressive natural event in the typical Israelite’s life. So the writer of the Psalm uses the experience of a thunderstorm to move God’s people to ascribe glory and strength to their covenant Lord.
The Christian preacher can use this Psalm to move God’s people to ascribe glory and strength to their Lord, not for what he has done in nature, but for what he has done by grace in history. In the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, we Christians have seen and heard something much more awesome than a storm. And we should cry, “Glory!”
It is fascinating that the Psalm opens with an invitation/command addressed to the “mighty ones,” which is literally “sons of God.” Opinions on the meaning of that mysterious phrase vary widely. Some see it as a call to Israel, pointing out that the New Testament sometimes calls Christians children of God. Others hear this as an address to the angels, to the “heavenly host” of cherubim and seraphim, to Gabriel and Michael and the 4 living creatures of Revelation 4.
Still others imagine a kind of heavenly council, composed of the “gods” of the nations around Israel. Though Israel was taught that these gods were nothing on earth, they might be imagined as assembled around the throne of Yahweh giving him the glory. Scholars who champion this meaning of “mighty ones” point to the similarity between Psalm 29 and a Canaanite hymn to Baal. They posit that Psalm 29 is a polemical piece designed to put the empty idol Baal in his place. All the glory belongs to Yahweh, not Baal or any other god.
Still others speculate that the “mighty ones” might be some other kind of extra-terrestrial beings about which we are currently ignorant. I’m thinking here of C.S. Lewis’ marvelous space trilogy in which the drama of redemption on earth is being closely by the inhabitants of other planets which have not yet fallen into sin (see especially Out of the Silent Planet). Along that line of interpretation, one might try to hook in young people here by speculating that the Psalmist is appealing to the kind of super-heroes that populate the video world. Even Superman, Captain America, and the Black Panther are called to praise the God who has all the glory and strength.
However we read that opening command, it is fascinating that the call to the heavens is followed by a theophany from the heavens. No sooner are the “mighty ones” commanded to ascribe glory and strength to Yahweh than Yahweh shows up with a mighty voice. No fewer than 7 times is the “voice of the Lord” mentioned in verses 3-9. That is preceded by 4 mentions of that divine name in verses 1-2 and followed by 4 more in verses 10-11. This Psalm is all about Yahweh.
The heavenly host are called to give glory, the heavenly storm shows his glory, and then the inhabitants of earth shout his glory. “And in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’” Some scholars think the temple of verse 9 is the heavenly temple, but it feels to me like the Psalm is moving from heaven to earth. The storm that came from on high has moved through the earth. Now the covenant people of Yahweh are moved to join the “mighty ones” in giving glory. The assembled people of God spontaneously join the assembled “mighty ones” in praise.
That should be the point of a sermon on Psalm 29 for Trinity Sunday. It is should not be a sermon that speculates doctrinally about the Trinity. Rather, it should be a sermon that calls God’s people to give praise to the Triune God for what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have done. Even as the heavenly hosts announced the birth of the Son with words about “glory” and “peace,” so the earthly host conclude our celebration of that Son’s work with words about glory and peace.
Speaking of peace, it is not accidental that this thunderous Psalm ends with that word, Shalom in the Hebrew. The storm is over, and there is peace. The drama of redemption is over, and there is peace. Or should be.
I want to suggest an unusual, but hopefully helpful way of reading the last two verses of this Psalm. Years ago I taught courses on narrative preaching, using the books by Eugene Lowry, especially The Homiletical Plot. Lowry urges preachers to organize their sermons using a narrative plot. He used five exclamations to summarize that plot: Oops, Ugh, Aha, Whee, and Yeah.
The “Oops” is the introduction of trouble the puts people off balance. The “Ugh” is the deepening of the trouble, where life gets messier and messier because of sin. The “Aha” is the turning point in the sermon, the introduction of grace into the trouble, the place where grace breaks into the story of human misery. The “Aha” should be followed by the “Whee,” in which salvation is explained and the grace of God celebrated. Finally, the sermon should end with a “Yeah,” which shows how life is different, now that God has come in his grace. As a result of grace, here’s how life is changed. We can settle into the experience of salvation with a satisfied “Yeah.”
I go to all this trouble to say that verses 10-11 are a wonderful example of “Yeah.” We’ve seen the “Whee” in the storm, God riding into human experience in the storm, and in the manger and on the cross. And we have cried, “Glory!” Now that salvation has been accomplished, here’s how things are in the world and in our lives.
First, we know that “the Lord sits enthroned over the flood.” That might mean the flood after the storm, or the “flood of mortals prevailing (from Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”).” But most likely, verse 10 is about the flood of chaos that threatens to overwhelm our world. We’ve seen a bit of that chaos in the storm, but we know that Yahweh reigns over even worse chaos.
Second, the reign of Yahweh is not temporary. Other kings may come and go. There is nothing so constant in human experience as change. But after witnessing the awesome salvation of our God in Christ, we can count on this– “the Lord is enthroned as King forever.” What a comforting assurance in this time of national political turmoil!
Third, this eternal “King gives strength to his people.” There will still be chaos, but he will give strength to survive in the midst of the storm.
Finally, “the Lord blesses his people with peace.” As I said, this is that pregnant word, Shalom, which is not just peace of mind, or the cessation of warfare among people, but the complete restoration of all thing so that paradise is regained. All is right, all is harmonious, all is balanced, all is healed, everything is perfect. This is the goal of the Triune God in the work of redemption. He has already accomplished the first and decisive steps in that plan to restore peace. We have celebrated that in the great Feasts of the church year. So, now as we look back on that work, we can cry, “Glory!” And as we look ahead to the completion of the Triune God’s plan, we can be sure that there will finally be complete peace. Yeah! I mean, “Glory!”
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