Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 3, 2019
Psalm 71:1-6 Commentary
There is a part of the well-known story (and the popular Sunday School story) of “Jacob’s Ladder” that most people don’t know about or just ignore. The outlines of the story are familiar and are also accurate enough to the biblical text in Genesis: Jacob is on the lam, fleeing the fury of his brother Esau whom Jacob has just swindled out of his family blessing (with the conniving help of their mother). Having run as far as he could before collapsing in exhaustion, Jacob uses a stone for a pillow and promptly has a dream of a stairway to heaven on which angels of God are ascending and descending even as a divine figure at the top of the staircase (or ladder or whatever) promises to be Jacob’s God. Jacob wakes up, concludes he had somehow stumbled into one of those “thin places” where the boundary between heaven and earth is a bit porous, and so names the spot “Beth-El” or “the House of God.”
The next part is what we usually miss: Jacob then says to the God of his fathers, “OK, God, I will serve you and let you be my God and I will worship you IF (and I want to stress IF) you one day bring me back to my homeland unharmed.” Jacob, the heel-grasping liar, cheat, and swindler, is cutting a bargain with Almighty God. His dream of God’s assurances notwithstanding, Jacob will nevertheless hedge his bets and reward God with his own loyalty and worship only after God comes through for him.
In a poem like Psalm 71 we can easily miss a somewhat similar dynamic: yes, the psalmist claims God as his refuge and strength (as many psalms do) and says that he is quite intent on continuing to praise this God. However please note: for all that to happen and to continue, God has to do his part, too. Maybe this is not quite as conditional an arrangement as crafty old Jacob articulated but there is the firm sense here that the psalmist expects God to keep coming through for him, to issue the necessary orders to the powers that be in the universe to rescue him and to slap down his enemies. Just beyond the stopping point of this particular assigned lection after verse 6, the psalmist cajoles God to not forget about him when he gets older. “Don’t throw me away or toss me aside just because I get up there in years, O Lord. The rest of the world might not honor the elderly but YOU sure better keep on keeping on for me even then!”
Sentiments such as this are not at all unusual in the Psalms. You kind of find this all over the place in fact. Yet today in the church I would wager that most people would feel uncomfortable being this up front with a nearly tit-for-tat expectation that our ongoing praise of God could in any way, shape, or form be contingent on God’s coming through for us. Imagine the reaction of most people in a given congregation if during some open mic time of prayer a member of the church stepped forward to pray, “Dear God, I overall plan and hope to continue to come to worship services here and to sing my praises to you and throw my offerings into the collection plate but . . . it sure would help motivate me, O God, if you came through for me on that big securities deal I have pending on Wall Street. Save me from my creditors, O God, and clear away the barriers to this deal so that I will then be able to go on praising you!”
Whether or not there would be audible gasps, surely most people would feel their spines stiffening as they sat and listened to this. Can you really talk to God that way? Should you?
Now, perhaps nothing in Psalm 71 or other such Hebrew poems in the Psalter are actually quite as crass as my analogy. But even so, the language of Psalm 71 is strikingly different from what we more commonly feel compelled to confess and say and pray in church: an unconditional surrender to God come what may. If something bad happens to me, it was God’s will (and who would I be to complain about it?). We owe God and we certainly owe Jesus everything and God owes us nothing. My praise and my testimony to God will go on unabated no matter what. I would not want to leave the impression with anyone that even 5% of my ongoing praise of God is contingent on anything I might want God to do for me. Even when I prayed for rescue and it did not come, I would be a terrible sinner even to mention this to God much less hint I might just praise him a little less on account of it.
Many of the ancient Hebrews who composed these psalms had a kind of plucky faith not often seen among more buttoned-down Christians these days. The psalmists dared to lament, to complain, to cajole, to threaten. “Hey, God: guess what? If you let me die, I cannot sing to you anymore from down there in Sheol so if you want me to stay active in the choir, keep me alive!”
Like anything, such pluckiness and boldness in prayer can go too far. It can be abused. It would not take much imagination to conceive of how this could also morph into a Me-First narcissistic faith in which God is reduced to a water boy. That certainly could be a danger in our current culture of entitlement. Sometimes these days when faced with some uppity believer who seems to think it’s God’s main job to make people rich and comfortable, we need to point people the other way and tell them in humility to be thankful for the inestimable spiritual riches they have already been lavished with by grace and to hush up about their other health-and-wealth fantasies and expectations.
Still, there seems to be something deeply human about having the kind of honest relationship even with God that admits we are not stoics, we are not just in this relationship for it to be 100% one-way. The God who gave us life can be asked to sustain that life, rescue that life, help us in that life now and then. And God, being God, is no more offended by that natural expectation on our part than a good parent would feel disappointed when it becomes clear that a child really does need Mom or Dad to put food on the table and protect him or her from harm when necessary. A child’s having that expectation speaks well of his or her opinion of the parent: Mom and Dad will come through for me because they are supposed to come through because the whole thing is founded on love. Children who have no such expectation of help or rescue or protection from a parent are usually the same kids who were abused by those parents or so serially let down by them as to dash all hope. That’s not a healthy picture.
Psalm 71, then, can be a bracing tonic for prayer lives that have perhaps become too timid. God does not mind our leaning on him or having expectations of him. Good relationships are always two-way. A poem like this psalm may helpfully remind us of that.
My Old Testament professor in Seminary was Dr. John Stek. When teaching on the Psalms, he noted something C.S. Lewis also noted: a lot of the time God more or less demands to be praised. But isn’t that a bit off-putting? Do we care for people in life who seem always to be sucking around for a compliment? Isn’t it a bit vain and self-centered to ask for ongoing praise?
Well, all things being equal yes but consider, Stek suggested, this scenario: suppose a single mother worked day and night to provide for her son, Charlie. She worked in a factory by day and cleaned toilets in an office building by night to give Charlie good food to eat, nice clothing to wear to school, and all the other things a young kid might need and want. But then suppose Charlie is a bit of an ungrateful clod. He never notices how hard his Mom works, never thanks her, and even seems a bit entitled and is not infrequently a bit rude to his mother.
Now, suppose one day this mother said, “Charlie, I deserve better than this from you. I deserve far more respect and quite a bit more gratitude than you ever express to me.” Would we conclude this was a vain, egotistical woman on account of asking for a bit of thanks from her child? Hardly.
So also with God: God can dare ask for our praise because due to our sin we are like Charlie: we just often miss seeing how much God gives us. We need to be reminded of how much has been given to us already and on an ongoing basis.
Of course, in the case of what we said here about Psalm 71 it goes the other way too: in a healthy relationship it is both OK that a child expects a parent to provide for him AND the parent will not take it ill that this expectation is there. It is a two-way street and if the parent is in a position to provide for a child’s needs, then it is a source of delight that this is so and if at least some of a child’s gratitude is contingent on such provision, well that, too, would be only natural.
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