Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 17, 2019
Psalm 27 Commentary
C.S. Lewis said somewhere that when you add it all up and consider it all together, in the end we would all find that our prayer life is also our autobiography. Who we are, where we’ve been, the situations we’ve faced, the fears that nag us, and not a few of the core characteristics of who we are as individuals: all of it can be, and really should be, detectable and on display in the way we pray. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to formal prayers we say in public. Maybe it doesn’t include fully even the prayers we say with our family at the dinner table. But prayer as autobiography in the sense Lewis meant emerges more from the sum total of our private prayers more than from anyplace else.
Because it is in those intensely private moments that we spend with our God that we lay bare our souls, that we open up our hearts, that we maybe cry out to God in ways we’d be embarrassed to let anyone else see. It’s when no one else is listening except the God who loves us that we confess the more craven parts of our hearts. For better or worse, the temptations with which we struggle and which we confess do reveal something about who we are. It’s when we are in quiet moments of prayer that thoughts occur to us that maybe we don’t tumble to at other times (and that we would not utter were other people listening in).
But the point is that over time, our prayers are our autobiography, the story of our lives, the patterns of our thinking, the priorities that rise to the top. Psalm 27 is like that, too. Here is a psalm that has long been a favorite for many. It contains memorable turns-of-phrase, several of which are among the Bible’s staunchest statements of trust in God. True, this is also one of those psalms that contains a kind of ancient language that is somewhat remote from our experience. If you really think about it, many Psalms can come off as a bit foreign-sounding. In one of her many wonderful books, Anne Tyler shows us the character of Maggie who, near the opening of the novel, attends a funeral. In the course of the funeral, the minister read what Maggie thought was a really lovely psalm, which was a relief to Maggie since she had always been under the impression that the psalms were forever going on and on in a paranoid way about enemies and attacking armies.
Psalm 27 does have some of that kind of talk. We don’t go through most of our days thinking about our lives in quite the military-like language used in some of Psalm 27. But despite the foreignness of some of that, this is nevertheless a psalm we feel we can relate to, a psalm that bursts with precisely the kind of trusting confidence in God we all would like to have. But when I read this entire psalm aloud recently, I was struck by the fact that when you look at the whole poem, you realize that this is not simply one long string of statements of confidence, trust, and repose. Instead, this looks to be the autobiography of this psalmist, replete with a variety of spiritual and mental dispositions.
To see this, look at the sweep of these verses. Again, the strong and staunch statements of confidence are what most of us already know about. With the Lord God Yahweh as his light and his salvation, as the stronghold of his life, of whom or of what would he ever need to be afraid? Evil men with butcher knives could stalk him in dark alleys by night, but he would not be afraid of them. An entire army with horses and chariots and strapping soldiers bearing swords could march on him, yet would he be confident in the protection of his vastly superior and much stronger Lord God Yahweh.
That’s how the psalm begins. It is also how it ends. Verse 13 again speaks of confidence. In between those opening verses and that closing one, we read a smattering of similar predictions of success and of being kept safe. The psalmist is sure he’ll triumph over his enemies, that he will be exalted in victory, that he will therefore have any number of occasions to sing to God and to shout for joy. All in all, that much sounds like the confessions of some kind of saintly superstar, of a man whose faith is the kind of bulwark that could make the rest of us feel like pious amateurs.
But then there are those other parts of the psalm. Starting in verse 7 we begin to hear something a little different. “Hear my voice when I call, O Lord God Yahweh! I am seeking your face the way my heart urges me to do, so do not turn your servant away.” Actually, it says something starker than even that in verse 9: it says not only “do not turn your servant away” but also “do not turn your servant away in anger.” This is followed by a plaintive plea not to reject or forsake the psalmist. Then comes verse 12 where the psalmist, who earlier had expressed such utter conviction that God would always help him to triumph over his enemies, suddenly this same psalmist is all-but begging God not to turn him over to his enemies. And you can detect more than a twinge of anxiety at the end of verse 12 in the description of those evil people who are snorting out the hot stinky breath of violence–what’s more, they are quite literally breathing right down the psalmist’s neck.
But finally comes that lyric verse 14, a verse we have all repeated to ourselves many times. “Wait for the Lord, be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord.” That verse is beautiful and it is true, but has it ever struck you that the posture of waiting seems a very different one than the posture we envisioned for the psalmist in verses 1-3? After all, does anyone enjoy waiting? Waiting in line, waiting in a traffic jam, waiting for your turn to use the bathroom, waiting for your table to be called to the buffet–these are all common experiences but not necessarily our favorite ones. “Are we there yet?” the kids ask from the back seat of the car. “No, we have a long ways to go yet, you’ve just got to be patient!”
But then there is that other kind of waiting. What will the lab results be when the pathology report of your biopsy comes back? “How is that surgery on our child going?” we wonder as we bide our time in the Waiting Room at the hospital. Is there anything more agonizing than waiting for the dawn on those nights when your anxiety keeps you from sleeping? Waiting can make minutes draw out like a blade. You glance at the clock on the Waiting Room wall, you turn over in bed to see the glowing numbers on the alarm clock’s display and you sigh deeply to see that it’s been only five lousy minutes since the last time you checked.
“Wait for the Lord” the psalmist says in conclusion. In fact, he says it twice. Wait. That’s the bottom line of Psalm 27. Waiting. Maintaining confidence while waiting. Bucking ourselves up to be strong of heart while waiting. That last verse leaves a different taste in your mouth than those boldly confident verses from elsewhere in the psalm. Earlier you might have thought that here was a psalmist who could not be shaken and just maybe we suspected that the reason he could not be shaken is because this is one of those lucky fellows for whom the Lord seems always to come through immediately. He always gets his prayers answered, and pretty swiftly at that.
But not so. Psalm 27 is this person’s autobiography. If we’re honest, then we’d have to admit that taken all together, this psalmist reminds us a lot of ourselves. If we have faith, then we have a level of trust in our God, who is the target of our faith. Faith involves hope and trust precisely because, as the apostle Paul says in one of his epistles, we cannot at this point see our God the way we can see lots of other things in life. We hope for what we do not yet have, Paul says. And so while we await the consummation of our salvation and that day when our faith will be made sight, we hope and we trust.
That’s where doubt and fear can seep in. Even if we have very confident trust (as does this psalmist), if there is the least little fissure of doubt, anxiety can creep in. It’s like trying to seal up your house to keep mice out. Try as you may, the fact is that the mouse can get through an opening the size of a dime, and it’s pretty tough to seal up every dime-sized fissure in the walls. So with the psalmist, we also have lots of confident things to say about the providence of God. But also with the psalmist, we have those times when our prayers switch from phrases like, “Though an army besiege me my heart will not fear” to things like, “O God, protect me! Here they come! They look ugly and dangerous! Don’t abandon me, please!”
Frederick Buechner once said that doubt is the ants in the pants of faith: it keeps us moving and alive! Paul Tillich once said that doubt is not the opposite of faith but is, for now at least, a part of faith. So in Psalm 27, there’s really no huge disparity or conflict between stark statements of trust and plaintive pleas for protection. We know what this is like, and we know that our God understands this, too.
So there you have it in Psalm 27: the heights of confident faith and the depths of the anxiety that can still come to us when the bottom seems to be dropping out. Here we have both the loving and cozy relationship the psalmist has with God and all those glowing words about meditating on the beauty of God in the temple and yet we have also words about those times when we hide our faces from God out of fear that he’s mad at us for our sin. Above all, we have in the end that admonition to wait. We wait because we don’t have all the answers just yet. We wait because we don’t yet know whether or not any given prayer will be answered the way we hope.
Our lives of discipleship in this world are varied. Because of that, there are those Sundays when we can belt out a hymn like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and feel the truth of it clean down to our toenails. And then there are those Sundays when we can’t get through it without our voices cracking because lately God has seemed to be on vacation.
The psalmist who wrote Psalm 27 can relate to all that. But so can the God he served and the God in Christ we serve. Because this is the loving Creator and Redeemer who sticks closer to us than flesh is to fingernails. Even if your father and mother rejected you, this God would not. It’s just not in him. So even though our lives have their share of ups and downs, the constant steadiness of God is a reassuring source of refreshment for us. The Lord is our light and our salvation. Always. Of whom, then, shall we be afraid?
Note: Our Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings here on the “This Week in Preaching” page, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas.
Trust is the word you employ when you are sure about something yet without necessarily having it nailed down as a piece of knowledge. By way of an analogy once used by Richard Mouw: let’s say someone comes to you and claims to have seen your son smoking marijuana this past Friday night. But suppose that in reply to this accusation you can say, “That’s not true because last Friday night, my son and I were at a baseball game together and we were together the whole evening.” If you could say that, then you would not need to trust that your son didn’t do such a thing–you’d know it. But what if your son really had been out of your sight that Friday evening? In that case you’d have to go and ask him about it. If he swears that this is not true, and if you have good reason to believe that your son is not a liar, then you will trust him. You’ll go back to the accuser and say, “My son denies it, and I trust him.” But you won’t finally know. And, alas, we’ve all invested our trust in people who did turn out to be lying to us.
So with the psalmist we do trust our great God. We trust the Jesus in whom we have placed our faith for salvation and eternal life. What’s more, we do have good reason, a solid foundation for this trust. As John Calvin famously said over and over, although it’s not open to scientific scrutiny or proof, the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit affirms for us that God is real and that God is love and that our God is reliable. But until that day when our faith is made sight, the fact that we have trust means that we don’t have quite that level of confidence that comes with verifiable knowledge.
And so we trust. We wait.
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