Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 5, 2019
Psalm 30 Commentary
A friend of mine, when noting life’s oft-difficult circumstances, likes to sound a hopeful note by saying, “Ah well, joy cometh in the morning.” Or at least joy may come in the morning but most of us know altogether too well that sometimes it doesn’t. Or the “morning” in question ends up being pretty far off. But the idea of joy coming after a night of weeping sums up Psalm 30’s upbeat tone. It is obvious why this poem got chosen for the Sunday after Easter. It is mostly about life being snatched from the jaws of death, of renewal coming after what looked like the end of all things. Of resurrection in a sense.
Of course, if Psalm 30 can be made to sound like some proto-Easter hymn, it contains plenty of imagery that was firmly embedded in the worldview of the Ancient Near East. In particular this is one of many places in the Old Testament where you can detect ancient Israel’s belief that death might just be the end of everything. In answer to the question “What happens after we die?” most Israelites would have answered, “Nothing good.” Sheol or the realm of the dead or “the pit” as it is referred to here and elsewhere seems to be the common destination of all those who die whether they had faith in Yahweh or not it appears. And Sheol is not a pleasant place, either. It is at best a dim holding cell and most people—including any number of the psalmists—also viewed it as a place where all praise of God would cease. “The dead cannot praise you” many psalmists wrote, and this was usually used as a goad to God to keep them from dying lest he lose more members of his choir.
It is too easy for Christians today to project backwards onto the Old Testament the views of the afterlife most of us grew up learning. Mostly many Christians embrace a fairly simple either-or post-mortem scenario: either you go to “heaven” or to “hell.” The former is wonderful and not infrequently embellished with all kinds of biblically unlikely scenarios in which the things we liked most in this life (golf, snorkeling, singing, eating) go on and on in super-sized paradisiacal ways. The latter is variously pictured as a place of tormenting flames or other physically (or spiritually) dire and unpleasant things. In any event, that’s how a lot of people think. And so we quietly assume that Moses and David and Isaiah and everyone else in the Bible thought the same way.
But it’s not true. Expectations of what happens after one dies evolved over time and in the earliest days of Israel’s covenant relationship with God, post-mortem expectations were on the grim side.
Perhaps, however, remembering humanity’s—indeed, even Israel’s—longstanding fear of death can properly increase (if we need this increased, and maybe we do) our awe and gratitude over what God in Christ did to give us hope in the face of death’s inevitability. If the poet of Psalm 30 was jumping up and down with joy over God’s deliverance of him from the pit, it is in no small part due to the fact that he sensed that without God’s help, death might just have the last word on all of us (and it would be a grim last word at that).
Of course, we humans are good at trying to deny this or, these days, to turn death into something to sweep away in favor of other distracting rituals that look nothing like a traditional funeral from any faith tradition. A recent Washington Post article took note of things that people like author and funeral director Thomas Lynch have been seeing for the last couple decades: a desire to down-size death (and the deceased) as perhaps a way to prevent us from dealing with the potentially harsher realities here. This trend toward celebrating life—sometimes even in churches now where “Celebrations of Life” have eclipsed more traditional funeral practices—has even caught the attention of people who may not be particularly religious. To quote from the Post article, “’Do you think we’re getting too happy with this?’ asks Amy Cunningham, director of the Inspired Funeral in Brooklyn. ‘You can’t pay tribute to someone who has died without acknowledging the death and sadness around it. You still have to dip into reality and not ignore the fact that they’re absent now.’”
“Dip into reality.” That’s a curious but perhaps accurate way to put it. Psalm 30 definitely takes a good reality dip here, reminding us that short of God’s interventions, we would all end up in death’s “pit,” and that’s not a terribly comforting prospect. But on this Sunday after Easter, we can join with the psalmist to note that in Christ and because God is stronger than death, our mourning has been turned to dancing, our sorrow in the night to a joy in the morning, our drab attire of penitence and mortality replaced with the garments of salvation through the resurrection of Jesus our Lord.
That is definitely worth celebrating, especially by a people who otherwise are able to face and acknowledge that the world as we know it where death seems to have the last word on everyone is not the world toward which we are headed in our Father’s bright kingdom. Thanks be to God!
It is, of course, not exactly a full-throated proclamation of Gospel hope but in his own oblique way Tolkien helps us to see what hope beyond death may look like in this scene from the Peter Jackson version of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” as Pippin contemplates what looks to be his impending death only to have the wizard Gandalf point him toward a better hope.
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