Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 14, 2019
Psalm 31:9-16 Commentary
It is Palm/Passion Sunday and so God’s people come to church. We Christians come to church because we believe when we do, we come into the presence of God. We believe in God and so we believe God is faithful to the promise that when we gather in God’s name, God is among us. Certainly we all now and again have our doubts, be they fleeting moments or long dark nights of the soul. But in general, when we step back and survey the broad contours of sacred sojourns through this life, the one unbroken line that we can see is our rock-bottom belief that there really is a God and that he really did come down here once upon a millennium in the form of a man called Jesus.
It’s a daring set of beliefs. Throughout most of history it has even been radical to believe it. Almost no one who has ever had faith has claimed it is a natural, obvious, or easy thing to embrace. Yet we do believe. Most days we believe right down to our socks that Jesus is Lord. We render up prayers to him without thinking. We get our burger and fries and pause in our hearts to say “Thank You.” We kiss a loved one at the door before he or she heads off for work and we don’t even have the door bolted shut again before we furtively plead for this one’s safety on the roads.
That’s just how many of us think, and at least some of us cannot remember a time when we thought any differently. In Psalm 31:5 (which is just before this lection begins but you kind of need the whole psalm anyway to make sense of it) the psalmist refers to God in a way that anchors not only this psalm but the whole of our faith. The psalmist commits his spirit to God because Yahweh is, he says, “the God of truth.”
In Hebrew the phrase is el emet, and the word emet is a root word for “amen.” The God on whom this psalmist stakes his past, present, and future is the “Amen God!” He is “the God of truth” not just in the sense that he does not lie but in the sense of being faithful, reliable, steady, and sure. God is stable. In a world where people can be so fickle, where once-good friends can drift apart and where sometimes even the most trusted of confidants betray our trust–in such a world cynicism is easy, trust is hard. So much so that we perhaps have a difficult time really conceiving of Someone who just flat out will never let us go.
But that is the foundation on which Psalm 31 is built but also on which everything we believe is built. It is the basis for this psalm’s two most striking lines. A good deal of the psalms use somewhat formulaic language. Phrases like “being handed over to enemies,” God’s being “a refuge and a rock,” asking God “have mercy on me”–all these are quite common throughout the Psalter. It seems like certain catch phrases were so conventional that all Hebrew poets made use of them.
But here and there in the psalms there are phrases found nowhere else. Psalm 31 has two such lines in verses 5 and 15. The more famous of the two is verse 5. Because Jesus quoted this with his dying breath in Luke’s gospel, this verse tends to pop out at Christian readers. But even had Jesus not spoken these words, they would still be striking. “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” A similar idea comes in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” The spirit and the times of this psalmist are placed into God’s hands. But what does that mean? What did the psalmist convey with these words and, assuming we would like to adopt a similar view for our own lives, what might they mean for us?
Let’s begin with verse 5, which has come to be understood differently than it was originally intended. Since these were Jesus’ dying words, we assume this verse is meant only for the moment before death–a pious way to depart this life. And indeed this phrase did come to be used just that way. The first martyr Stephen said this in Acts as he was being stoned to death as did the famous early church martyr Polycarp as he was being burned at the stake. Taken this way verse 5 looks like a kind of holy epitaph.
Curiously, however, that is not the way it is used in Psalm 31. Instead this is very much a plea not to die! This psalmist is in trouble. Evil people plotting schemes of death surround him. So in verse 5 he cries out, “Look, O God! I’m taking my ruach, my very breath, and placing it into your hands. Keep this breath in my body, O Yahweh, O reliable and steady and faithful God! Don’t let them take my breath away from me!”
Similarly in verse 15: couched in a context that indicates that life had gotten about as bad as it can get, the psalmist declares that his times are also in God’s hands. First his breath and now his times are cupped in God’s hands. Hemmed in by people who don’t believe in God, who ridicule the psalmist for his faith, this poet hurls everything to God.
What’s more, this psalmist is bold enough to tell God that what he expects God to do with his breath and times is preserve them. He’s counting on God to quell the lying tongues around him, to squash the evil ones who wish him harm. He’s putting God on notice that God’s own faithfulness and mercy are on trial here. He expects results.
And apparently God comes through. The psalm concludes in verses 21-24 (again, beyond the rim of the lection but necessary to notice) with words that make it clear that these prayers were answered. You can envision this psalm being read in a Temple worship service by the psalmist as a personal testimony. He would try to whip up the faithful by giving his autobiography. The final line of this psalm has the psalmist essentially saying, “Just look at me! If God could get me out of the jam I was in, he can do the same for you! So thank God for what he did for me and, while you’re at it, take heart! He may well do the same for you one day!”
What do we do with Psalm 31? Can we trust God with our body’s breath and our life’s times even though things may not click together so neatly for us? Can we still join the psalmist in calling God the God of utter reliability, faithfulness, and stability when, as a matter of fact, we do not always get our prayers answered the way we want?
If the Christian faith were a matter of seeking only a pain-free life of health, wealth, and success, then every counter example of such a life would serve to diminish the trustworthiness of God. But a faith whose primary symbol is a cross can never be construed in such simple terms. Most of the time when we look at the cross, or when we ask the average Christian to express what the cross means, we say (or we hear others say) that what the cross means is “Jesus died for our sins.” And that’s true, of course.
But maybe we need to look at that cross and realize that what it also means is that there’s more to God’s ways with a fallen world than simple formulas, neat guarantees, or pat answers. The cross may be God’s giant “No!” to sin, but it is also God’s giant “No” to simplicity. The cross screams testimony to how complicated things can be, how deeply entrenched evil is, how perilous it can be for even the Son of God to enter this world. Even Jesus could not get off this planet with his every prayer answered and his life preserved.
Yet Jesus was resurrected and is alive today to proclaim that God is faithful. Even when the worst happens, even so we commit our entire selves to God’s pierced hands. As we enter this new period of earthly time, we again commit our times to God’s hands. We do so hoping that all will be well for us, believing that God is the one who has the power to make it well for us, but we commit our entire selves to God first and last because he is worthy of our faith, adoration, and our very selves. Maybe all will not be well, but we believe God is still worthy of our love.
Psalm 31 is a typical biblical tribute to God. In one form or another, most of us could repeat these words from our own experience. Whether we’ve ever had a situation exactly as grim and dangerous as the one that appears to be described here, many of us have at one time or another felt pretty desperate. Maybe you had a troubled pregnancy and spent months fretting about the well-being of the baby in your womb. Or maybe you had a child in the hospital or a spouse undergoing a scary surgery or treatment. Maybe you’ve felt depressed and at the end of your rope, stuck in an unfulfilling career and a less-than-happy marriage.
And for at least some of us those have been the times when we have thrown ourselves on God’s mercy. When situations are quite literally “out of our hands,” we find ourselves throwing everything into God’s hands. When my daughter was in the hospital with a serious bone infection some years ago, I well remember the evening she had a violently adverse reaction to a medication. I went crazy with anxiety and a sense of helplessness. I just had to get out of the room and so marched into an empty stairwell and pounded my fists against the concrete walls in fear and frustration. But when I finished that pounding, I opened up my clenched fists and heaved empty hands toward heaven. I had to put it into God’s hands. Mine were empty and powerless.
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