Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 28, 2018
Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22) Commentary
Digging Into the Text:
1). The first thing to notice about this Psalm is that it is an acrostic. The poet/Psalmist not only takes on the usual formal patterns of Hebrew poetry such as parallelism, but adds the even more demanding form of the acrostic. It is analogous to the modern poet adopting the form of the sonnet on top of the other formal demands of poetry.
Sometimes this extra formal demand if an acrostic may make a Psalm seem more haphazard and repetitious, as in Psalm 119 (not to take away anything from its poetic power). Psalm 34 is remarkable for its coherence and flow even within its strict poetic boundaries. No one unfamiliar with the Hebrew would suspect it’s an acrostic.
2). Again, it’s important to take note of what the Lectionary includes and excludes in its selection. As commentators have noted, there are two main themes in the Psalm. One is an exhortation to lean on God in faith and prayer through times of trouble. This is based on the persona experience of the righteous.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
The second theme of the Psalm appears at verse 11, an exhortation to live in the “fear of the Lord,” which involves living by the ethical demands of God’s law
Keep your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
seek peace, and pursue it.
So, it becomes clear that the lectionary selection basically eliminates the theme of the ethical life lived in the fear of the Lord in favor of the theme of prayer trust in God’s care and deliverance.
The problem is that the juxtaposition of these two themes is part of the genius of this Psalm. It’s like the way in which faith and works are tied together in the epistle of James– you can’t really have one without the other. In the framework of this Psalm, you can have faith in the Lord’s deliverance without the ethical commitments that the Lord calls forth in us. Faith without works is dead.
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their cry.
The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
So, the preacher has a decision to make. Do I follow the lectionary selection at the expense of ignoring the ethical balance of the Psalm, which makes for a less complicated sermon text? Or, do I take on the larger, but more theologically rich, challenge of weaving the two together as the Psalmist does so exquisitely?
One way of including the excised verses is to take up the ethical section of the Psalm as a sort of short interlude. Of course, trusting in God’s faithfulness and deliverance also means that we are committed to being the kind of person God calls us to be. Trusting in God’s deliverance while living contrary to God’s law amounts to what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap faith.”
3). This is a liturgical Psalm of praise for God’s deliverance in a time of trouble, but it’s genius is that, alongside the praise and thanksgiving, it contains a good deal of solid instruction. It is important to keep in mind that the best hymns, songs, or liturgies contain both. Compare, for example some contemporary praise songs alongside the best of traditional hymnody. Too often the praise songs have little or no theological and ethical content to build faith the congregation. “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above” is a good example of a classic hymn of praise that also provides deep theological content.
4). This Psalm emphasizes that the proper stance of those who seek the Lord is their poverty and lowliness. “This poor man cried….” (vs. 4) “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (vs. 18) Western culture tends to affirm and reward an attitude of strength and self-sufficiency, but the Psalm calls us to an attitude of dependence and trust. When we are in touch with our inherent human weakness and vulnerability we will foster a spirit of prayerfulness and thankfulness.
5). One of the obvious problems of the Psalm is that it seems to promise a kind of safety and well-being that is in conflict with the reality of life.
[The Lord} saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.
Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing.
The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all;
he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.
This is a part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. Like Proverbs, it is important to remember that these are not promises for every individual in every circumstance. A well-known proverb like “train children in the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6) is not an iron-clad promise for each and every person. It is meant to offer a general truth.
The promises of deliverance and well-being in Psalm 34 do not mean that God’s people are always delivered from trouble and will live a long and healthy life. The Psalmist admits, “The righteous person may have many troubles.” Life is difficult and full of suffering for everyone. The point is that there is no one but the Lord our God who can truly deliver us. We cannot do it ourselves, nor can any other human being. Trusting in God, we anchor our lives and destiny in the care of the eternal and Almighty Creator, and we put our trust in the Son who has conquered death and sin.
6). “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” This daring and earthy image, coming in the middle of the Psalm, also serve as its nerve center. The only way to really experience the blessings and high calling of this Psalm is to put them into practice. Faith is not merely a trusting attitude of mind, a feeling. We experience faith by living it.
Those who actually do commit their lives to God in trusting prayer are typically those who also testify to God’s gracious love and care. Those who do not make that commitment are typically those who find all the loopholes in God’s promises. Those who actually seek to pattern their lives on reverence for God’s will are typically those who find it to be the pathway to well being and joy. Those who refuse to follow the ways of God typically find themselves overcome by life’s struggles and pain.
Taste and see” calls us to live what we believe as the only way to truly experience the goodness and grace of the Lord. Or, to put it even more radically, It is only by living our faith in prayer and obedience that we discover it’s reality and know its true comfort. To recall another old hymn, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be in happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
Preaching the Text:
1). If you are going to address the apparent conflict between faith in God’s guidance, protection, and help and the persistence of pain and suffering in life, you might point to two Christian leaders who trusted in God through suffering and pain.
Pastor Andrew Brunson was recently released after two years in prison in Turkey. On his release he spoke of the struggle to maintain his faith even in solitary confinement by meditating on scripture and prayer. His release is a good example of the gift of answered prayer.
But sometimes deliverance does not come. The book “The Monks of Tibhirine: (and film “Of Gods and Men”) tells the true story of a Roman Catholic monks in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria during the rise of radical Islamist forces there. Under threat of death, the monks decided to remain in Algeria because of their commitment to its people. All of them were eventually slaughtered by Islamic militants. It looks like a testimony to God’s absence rather than to answered prayer.
However, Brother Christian, Prior of the monastery wrote a letter to his family and friends to be sent on the occasion of his death. It is a testimony to the kind of faith in Christ that doesn’t demand deliverance, but perseveres as a testimony to Christ’s love for the world. You can find that letter here.
2). One of the ways to understand the Psalm’s call to “taste and see that the Lord is good is to discover it in our actual experience. In “Mere Christianity” C. S. Lewis says that one of the ways to begin to follow Jesus in the Christian life is to begin to live as though you were a Christian. The chapter called “Let’s Pretend” suggests that whenever we say the first words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father,” we are, in fact, pretending to be God’s sons and daughters. “To put it bluntly, we are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending…. You are not the Son of God whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greed, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death.” Why? “What’s the good of pretending to be what you are not?
Lewis continues, “When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And, in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality into reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.” In this way, we “taste and see that the Lord is good,” that is, our
The same could be said for another vital Christian practice, receiving Holy Communion. Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you.” But our minds tell us that this is just some bread and wine. How can it be the body and blood of Christ? We receive the obviously earthly elements of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. In a way, the faith by which we come to the Lord’s table is a kind of pretending. In that “pretending,” in this “acting as if” we are fed with Christ’s own life-giving self. We “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
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