Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 2, 2018
Psalm 25:1-10 Commentary
When I read Psalm 25, I find myself drawn to its utter realism. If you enter into the rhythms and patterns of these verses, what you will find is probably something akin to your own life. If you are like most people, including most Christian people, then the pattern of your piety is probably something of a see-saw: there are ups and downs; good, strong seasons and dry, weak seasons. Clearly this is the experience of this Hebrew poet, too. Just look at how the various parts of Psalm 25 are interspersed and woven together. (By the way, this sermon commentary will encompass the whole Psalm, despite the Lectionary’s cutting off the reading at verse 10.)
On the one hand there is lofty praise of God as the psalmist lifts his entire soul up to heaven, placing himself squarely before the throne of Yahweh in a fervent desire to praise God. On the other hand those words are followed by honest admissions of hardship, loneliness, and grief. Even those who lift the essence of themselves up to God are not guaranteed that they’ll never have a bad day!
On the one hand there are places in this psalm in which the psalmist expresses firm desires to learn about God and live according to his divine ways only. On the other hand those same verses are accompanied by other passages which unstintingly confess sins past and present. The sins and follies of youth are laid out for God to see, but so are the struggles and setbacks of the psalmist’s present life. The life of faith is not always a bed of roses, and we don’t always come out smelling like a rose ourselves, either!
On the one hand there is in this psalm some truly soaring rhetoric on how God rewards the faithful, satisfying with good stuff those who fear God and who strive to live by the light of God’s covenant. On the other hand it is clear that despite this belief that God gives good things to his beloved ones, nevertheless this psalmist faces the traps and snares of his enemies. Worse, this current crisis has multiplied what the psalmist describes in verse 17 as some troublesome thoughts in his heart–a passage that sounds suspiciously like how a person might describe major depression.
There is here praise but also lament; piety but also pity; fond aspirations but also sinful failures; firm hope but also real hurt. A description of real life does not get much more honest or realistic than this!
Probably this psalmist had exactly real life in mind when he wrote this, too. Psalm 25 is one of several poems in the Hebrew psalter that is an acrostic, which means that each successive line of this psalm begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Since the Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters, Psalm 25 has twenty-two lines, the first one beginning with the Hebrew equivalent of the letter “A,” the second one starting with the letter “B” and so on down to the equivalent of the letter “Z” in the last line (this larger unifying frame is another reason not to cut off the reading at verse 10).
One of the reasons psalms got written as acrostics was to help people memorize the poem. In a time when no one had access to books or any other kind of printed material, people had to memorize everything. They could not just go and “look it up” in their own personal copies of the Bible. By composing a poem as an acrostic people would have an easier time memorizing it. The ABC pattern is a mnemonic device.
Perhaps this psalmist wanted to make sure that people could memorize his poem for two reasons: first, because he knew how well his poetic sentiments fit in with real life. This psalm is something worth carrying around with you as you lead a similarly real life of sin, suffering, hurt, and disappointment. But second, and just as importantly, this psalmist wanted to remind people that in and through all these varied experiences is ever and always the need to be instructed by God. The psalmist wanted people to memorize a poem about instruction by God because it is precisely the very act of memorization–of rehearsing something over and over until you make it a part of who you are–that is the key.
The solution to sin, the way through suffering, the method for clinging to God’s rich promises even during periods when you yourself don’t seem to be on the receiving end of those promises–in and through it all this psalmist clearly believes that receiving divine tutoring is somehow the answer. This may not be an obvious answer. This may not be an easy answer. Being instructed by God may not eliminate life’s pains or even, all by itself, tie off every loose end of life. But in receiving divine instruction there is somehow hope.
In the course of this poem just about every conceivable Hebrew verb and synonym having to do with instructing gets used at least once. The psalmist dug deep into his Hebrew thesaurus to pummel readers with a variety of words having to do with education. He asks God to instruct him in the course of his hymns of praise, in the course of his petitions for help, in the course of his pleas from the midst of life’s valleys. In fact, let’s scan through this poem specifically to note how frequently this motif pops up.
In verse 4 the poet talks about God’s ways and paths and asks God to guide and to show these divine roadways. In verse 5 God’s truth comes to the fore, and the psalmist pleas that God will guide to and also teach that truth. In verse 8 he begs God to instruct him and then in verse 9 petitions that God again guide and teach. Verse 12 features yet another request for instruction and verse 14 depicts Yahweh confiding his covenant and making known the truth of his love and faithfulness.
The posture of the faithful over against God is one of humble submission to the ongoing education God alone can provide. Unlike people today, and perhaps unlike people in many eras of history, this psalmist sees sin and turns to divine tutelage as the solution. He sees suffering and seeks to understand it based on what God can divulge through further instruction. He experiences loneliness and so decides to learn more about God’s covenant faithfulness as a way to parse those lonely times.
We think of the word “disciple” as meaning “follower,” and in a sense that’s true. But the original word used in the New Testament for “disciple” really means “student.” The original disciples hooked up with Jesus not merely to tag along behind him to see what might happen next. No, they apprenticed themselves to Jesus because they sensed that he was an interesting rabbi at whose feet they dearly desired to learn the great things he would impart to them, his inner circle of learners.
As Dallas Willard has pointed out, part of the realism of the gospels and of their presentation of the teacher-student relationship can be seen in the fact that so very often in the gospels you find Jesus basically bawling out his disciples. He was not rejecting them but loving them. Good teachers take their students with utmost seriousness–it would be profoundly unloving to let students persist in error. Discerning students likewise are willing to be corrected. It’s not fun to be corrected and it can be frustrating, too. But only a fool would enter college under the assumption that there’s nothing the faculty can teach him that he doesn’t already know. Only an even more foolish person would assume that professors exist merely to validate everything you already believe and think you know.
Disciples are students. They follow the Master not merely to be close to where the action is but to learn. But I wonder if we sometimes forget that today. It seems that maybe we’ve kept the follower part of our definition of “disciple” but have largely left the student part alone. We join a church and just kind of trot along with the crowd, coming to worship more to watch what happens than to do any hard thinking; turning worship into an event to make us feel a certain way more than a time to make us think a certain way.
But when worship becomes entertainment and sermons a spectacle to be observed more than a lesson to be chewed on and mulled over, then disciples become spectators not learners. It’s bad enough if we treat worship as a passive entertainment experience but if at the same time we also restrict our Christian learning to only that hour or two of worship on a Sunday, then we all but ensure that we will not often, if ever, assume the posture of Psalm 25. We will not make a part of our daily lives this psalmist’s example of trying to make sense of life’s richly varied experiences by being incessant and attentive students of God.
Psalm 25 was written as an acrostic to help people memorize it, carry it with them, make it part of the warp, woof, and weave of the everyday. But how well do we or our contemporaries do in seeing life as a learning experience at the feet of God?
But precisely what—I hear you asking—does this have to do with the first Sunday in Advent? In one sense I confess that I have no idea why this was chosen for Advent 1 in the Year C Lectionary. But maybe we can say this: Advent is—or should be—the first surprise in a Gospel message chock-full of surprises. Jesus came to this earth to teach very new things. He came to reveal the hidden depths of things we thought we already knew and to reverse a lot we had all along only assumed was correct. The only way you are going to “get” Jesus and his Gospel message is to assume the posture of a very faithful, very loving student. You are going to have to listen carefully and well.
In this sense, then, maybe Psalm 25 is a good way to begin Advent after all.
Of all the images in Psalm 25, perhaps the one in verse 14 is the most striking. There the psalmist depicts Yahweh as beckoning to the believer, summoning the faithful with a gentle wave of the divine hand. Once we respond to God’s hailing of us, God drapes his arm around our shoulders, pulls us in tight, and then, to use the word of verse 14, he confides in us–he cups his hand to our ears and whispers to us about his covenant love and faithfulness.
It is an intimate image showing how much God loves us and how much we, in our own love for God, delight in receiving his very personal instruction of us as to his ways, his love, and above his faithful grace that will never let us go. Despite our sin, our shortcomings, our suffering in this present world, God confides in us, let’s us in on a little cosmic secret. And the secret is that God’s got the whole world in his hands, including us. He won’t let go. It is that stunning revelation that should make us, as faithful students, say in response, “Really! You’ll never let go?! Tell me more. Tell me more.”
[Note: Regular readers of the CEP website recognize that I have now returned from my recent sabbatical. So on this first week “back on the job,” I want to thank Rev. Leonard Vander Zee for filling in so wonderfully for me on the Gospel and Psalm sermon commentaries since September. I know his work blessed many and I hope that everything we continue to do at CEP will continue to do the same!]
Some time ago I read an article about memory in which the author pointed out that printing written materials was never designed to replace memory but to help us memorize better. But over time, precisely because we have so much that is already written down, the act of memorizing has waned. It is sort of like what happens when you get a telephone which can store twenty or so phone numbers in its memory: eventually you forget the very numbers you call the most frequently. “My phone has memory, I don’t” we sometimes joke. And it’s true.
So it goes with many things, including Scripture. When you’ve got a half-dozen Bibles scattered around your house, you assume that you have such ready access to the Bible that you don’t need to spend much time memorizing its texts or meditating on them. But even as storing a number into the memory of your phone is very different than storing it in your own brain, so also the words in an unopened Bible on the shelf next to the dinner table: those words are not going to float across thin air and somehow become part of who you are. Making them part of your very self requires reading, reflecting, memorizing.
Of course, being a believer means far more than knowing a lot. Also, you don’t have to be a brilliant scholar to qualify as a faithful believer. Indeed, there are some very bright scholars in the world who know reams about the Bible but who are not disciples.
True discipleship combines knowledge with love, ardent desire for God with a life that shows that same fervor in daily patterns of holy living.
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