Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 24, 2019
Psalm 63:1-8 Commentary
When a psalm is as relatively brief as Psalm 63 and yet you notice that the Lectionary would have you stop reading—and presumably stop preaching—three verses shy of the actual conclusion of the poem, one might be justified in wondering what’s up. What is in those last few verses? Why the full stop before this short psalm is truly wrapped up? As is typically the case, the reason seems fairly clear: this otherwise lyric poem that expresses both utter longing for God and then also complete satisfaction in communing with God concludes with less-than-lyric statements about having one’s enemies be slaughtered and so silenced.
This, of course, is not the only psalm that seems to take a hard turn toward some measure of vengeance or violence. Psalm 137 and especially Psalm 139 are more classic examples of otherwise “nice” songs that suddenly curdle into expressions of significant mayhem wished upon enemies and/or wicked people.
At Calvin seminary the week I was pondering this sermon commentary, it was Oral Comprehensive Exam week for our senior M.Div. students. So in their exams I asked a couple students about this choice by the Lectionary. Why did the folks who put together the RCL stop the reading at verse 8 and what did these students think about that choice? Was it conveying any kind of a message? One student said that maybe it was because such sentiments as the ones in verses 9-11 just don’t accord very well with the Gospel. This doesn’t sound like the Jesus who told us to forgive enemies and hope for the best for even those who persecute us. So rather than confuse people in the church today, best to leave such pre-gospel calls for violence and vengeance out perhaps.
That is a charitable view.
A second student, however, had a slightly dimmer view, suggesting that leaving out verses 9-11 is an attempt to make the Bible tidier than it really is. And in particular it might be an effort to make even God out to be a kinder, gentler, less upsetting deity. It’s less that the Lectionary does not want people confused by verses so much as it is an attempt to evacuate from God any hints of judgment.
That is a bit less charitable, though since the Lectionary has been known to hopscotch around the words of also Jesus in certain passages so as to skip over parts where Jesus pronounces woes and judgments, this less charitable view may be right.
What both students agreed on, however, was that when you consistently ignore or bracket the parts of the Bible that talk about God’s judgment on wickedness—or the need for God to judge evil and those who perpetrate it—the net effect is to reduce the shining splendor of God’s grace. Grace shines the brighter when we truly understand what sinful people like us would otherwise deserve (all things being equal). No one likes to ponder God’s judgment or the punishment of evil but something of the holiness and righteousness of God gets lost in the bargain when we ignore those realities even as the love of God that saves us by grace alone becomes a little less remarkable.
I suppose it counts as an irony that the Lectionary stops us up short at verse 8 precisely during the Season of Lent when we are supposed to meditate on our sinfulness and on our utter need for what only Jesus could do for us on the cross. It may also count as an irony that the first 8 verses of Psalm 63 are all about a deep, deep hunger for God, for ALL of God, for a true fellowship with God. The psalmist wants to soak up God’s power and glory, wants to get to know God and how God upholds him at all times.
The thing is, though, that the closer you get to God, the more you begin to sense God’s holiness. The more you see God’s glory, the more you see how tawdry our fallen world is by comparison. It’s like Isaiah in Isaiah 6: once you see the holy, holy, holy God of glory and of might sitting upon his throne—and then once you look back at your own life—you are undone. “Woe is me! I am a person of unclean hands and lips!” The light of God’s holiness lights up and illumines our hearts and we have no choice but to see ourselves and our world for what we are: fallen and in need of help.
But it also means you see those who willfully stay far away from God as in need of some kind of response. To try to tap dance around the idea that a holy God of power and glory could just let evil slide on by without any response is not right. We cannot avert our eyes forever and anon from the prospect of judgment, of wrongs being righted, of injustice being addressed.
We probably need those last 3 verses of Psalm 63.
But to my one student’s point about not confusing people who follow the Prince of Peace we have to say another thing: we need to read and interpret—and preach on—verses like Psalm 63:9-11 as Christians, which means hoping for the best and recognizing that any “evil” people we might ponder need no more and no less of Jesus’ saving blood and grace than we do. We wish for them to be saved. We hope that they can come to Jesus so that God’s response to wickedness and injustice can be seen by also these people as having ultimately fallen upon Jesus alone. Because it was on the cross that the full weight of God’s just and righteous and also necessary judgment on evil fell. Evil and wickedness and those who sin high-handedly cannot be winked at or waved away lightly. Yes, we need to know about the reality of judgment in order to savor God’s grace the way it deserves to be savored. But when we know we ourselves were saved by that very grace, we desire it to come to all others, too, even those who wish us harm.
Including words of judgment and such make the preaching life harder not easier. But since pondering these dimmer realities also keeps grace as the shining effulgence of divine love that it is, it is worth the extra homiletical effort.
“If we fail to acknowledge truthfully who [our enemies] are and what they are doing, then we cheapen forgiveness and, indeed, may perpetuate or exacerbate the cycle of violence and vengeance. The path of forgiveness cannot be authentic unless there is truthful moral and political judgment. Of course, that means, in the first instance, acknowledging the senses in which all of us have been, and to some extent still are, enemies of God. That is what it means to repent daily, to continue to unlearn the patterns of sin and evil as we seek to become holy people.” Jones, Gregory, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, Eerdmans, 1995, p. 263
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