Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 3, 2018
Psalm 81 Commentary
I’ve chosen to write on the alternative Psalm reading for today, since I have written on Psalm 139 twice in the last year (see January 14, 2018 and July 23, 2017 in the Sermon Commentary Archives on this website). Rather than repeating what I’ve said before, I want to suggest that you take a different tack on this second Sunday of Ordinary Time.
The great feasts of the Christian year are behind us. We are entering that long stretch of time during which we focus on living out the Good News that we celebrated at Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Psalm 81 starts us off by calling us to keep celebrating the mighty acts of God. Don’t let ordinary time become ordinary time. Keep worshipping with exuberance and with all your heart.
That is a necessary word for the church. During the lazy hazy days of summer it is easy to lapse into worship that is insipid and empty, or to skip it altogether. That’s the problem to which Psalm 81 speaks. It issues a strong call to worship to a church that is not listening very carefully to the God who speaks. Not only are their ears closed to the voice of God, but also their hearts are turned to false gods. It’s a problem with which the 21st century church is very familiar. So, you could use Psalm 81 to preach a much-needed sermon entitled, “If You Would But Listen to Me!”
The Psalm opens with a call to worship that is powerful in what it says and in how it says it. Verses 4 and 5 make is clear that worship is not optional, not just a nice thing to do on a Sunday morning if you don’t have anything better to do. No, God commands worship; the Psalmist uses three different words to underline the obligation of worship—“decree, ordinance, statute.”
That pattern of threes runs through this opening call to worship. God’s people are commanded to “sing, shout, and begin the music.” They are to strike the tambourine (or hand drum, since tambourines weren’t invented until the Middle Ages), strum the harp and lyre, and blow the trumpet (percussion, strings, and brass). They are called to celebrate three different festivals—New Moon, Full Moon, and the “Feast,” probably the Feast of Tabernacles.
This is not a polite invitation to worship; it is a powerful, insistent command. Such heartfelt worship was a key part of Israel’s covenant responsibilities. And it is for us today, though you wouldn’t know it from the lackadaisical attitude demonstrated by many Christians, who use the day of worship as a personal day, a family day, a recreational day, a day for doing their own thing.
In verses 6-7, God reminds Israel and us about why we should worship him. Here’s the answer to the teenager’s whining, “Why do I have to go to church?” and the weary worker’s groaning, “Why can’t I just sleep in for a change?” Because of all God has done for you. In thinly coded language, the Psalmist alludes to the Exodus event: the deliverance from Egypt (“I removed the burden from their shoulders and their hands were set free from the basket”); provision in the wilderness (“I rescued you”); the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai (“I answered you out of a thundercloud”); and the testing of their faith (“I tested you at the waters of Meribah”).
There are some interpretive problems in that list of God’s mighty acts. For example, the rest of the Bible sees Meribah as the place where Israel tested God, not the other way around. The solution is probably that God tested them first by leading them into a waterless place, and then with parched throats they tested God by rebelling against his leading. But those difficulties don’t change the basic message. You cried to me in your distress and I acted to save you. And for that you ought to worship me as a continual act of grateful, loving obedience.
But now that their cries of distress are over and God has acted, Israel has stopped listening to God. In their relief, their mouths have stopped crying out to God and their ears have gone deaf to God’s voice. So in verses 8-9, God pleads with them to listen. “Hear, O my people, and I will warn you—if you would but listen to me, O Israel.” But Israel has not only stopped listening to Yahweh; they have also wandered away to foreign gods. In direct violation of the First Commandment, the commandment from which all the others flow, Israel has bowed down to other gods. So God reiterates the prologue to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt.”
This may seem like an ancient problem to many of your congregants, an issue with which we don’t have to wrestle in the 21st century. But James Montgomery Boice puts it very well when he identifies this as the greatest issue of life. Will we worship the God of the Bible and of Jesus? “The sin to which redeemed people are forever prone is that very idolatry from which the Lord has redeemed us. Those idols seem forever to call us back, even though we have turned away from them ‘to serve the living and true God.’” (1 Thess. 1:9) Boice continues: “The problem is that the people of God do not know God, or at least they do not act like they do. Instead of worshiping the Lord and him only, Christians seem to be worshiping the gods of secular culture—gods of wealth, pleasure, fame, status, and self-absorption.”
In Psalm 81, God is obviously upset, but amazingly God is also persistent in his loving call to worship. Even as he commands them to worship him and him alone, he pleads with them as his beloved children. Three times he appeals to them as “my people” (verses 8, 11, and 13). The old Scottish commentator Alexander Maclaren accurately points out that “there is a world of baffled tenderness and almost wondering rebuke in the description of the rebels as ‘my people’… that the tribes bound by so many kindnesses should have been deaf is a sad marvel.”
But God’s love does not make him soft on sin. Rather his love makes him respond to sin in a way designed to show us how foolish and destructive sin is to our welfare. That’s what the remaining verses of the Psalm are about. Our assigned lectionary reading ends with the warmly generous invitation of verse 10b. “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” I suspect that the lectionary ends there because the mood seems to shift in the next verses. God says some hard and politically incorrect things about the enemies of his people. But to end the Psalm with verse 10 ignores the covenant blessings that flow to those who do, indeed, worship God in grateful, loving obedience.
God says has done all those things for his people and he wants them to have full lives, “but my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit (literally, did not love me). So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.” How redemptive of God to treat our sin that way! He doesn’t smash us for our rebellion, for our dalliance with false gods. Rather, he lets our sin run its course, gives us what we think we want, allows us (in the words of the old Burger King commercial) to “have it your way.” Then we discover that we are enslaved to the very gods we thought would give us the life we thought we wanted.
That’s how we should read those words about enemies in verses 13-15. As part of his covenant blessings upon Abraham and his seed, God promised to “bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3) Of course! Those who ruin the lives of God’s children will find their own lives ruined. That’s how sin works. It always rebounds on those who do it. Sin is its own punishment. And obedience is its own reward.
So if God’s people will (finally) listen to his voice and follow his way, he will quickly subdue the forces of sin. If we insist on going our own way, we will wander into a life that is less full that God desires for us, a life dominated by the forces of destruction we have embraced. If we listen to God’s voice and worship him in loving obedience, he will satisfy our longings and hungers with blessings both cultivated (“the finest of wheat”) and wild (“honey from the rock”). So, open your ears to God’s voice and open your mouth to God’s blessings. Give him the worship he deserves and he will give you gifts far beyond your deserving.
If the problem addressed by Psalm 81 seems too culturally distant to be relevant, it might help to remind people of the powerful verses throughout the Old Testament about worship that is less than heartfelt. Isaiah 29:13 thunders, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” And Amos 5 leaves no doubt about God’s attitude toward heartless worship. “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies…. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.” Remember how Jesus cleansed the temple of those who had perverted worship. And recall how the New Testament applied the history of Israel to the life of the church in passages like I Corinthians 10:1-11 and Hebrews 3:12-4:2. I love the advertising campaign developed by the conservative Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, PA. It focused on the theme of the above Scriptures and Psalm 81. “Jesus Hated Church Too.”
God’s entreaties to his distracted and distant people in Psalm 81 (“if you would but listen to me”) reminded me of worried parents reaching out to their media fixated adolescent or of a lonely wife pleading with her sports-addicted, TV-absorbed husband. “Listen to me. Are you listening to me? Can you even hear me anymore? If you would only listen to me, we could be close again, have hope again, and have a life again.”
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