Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 23, 2019
Psalm 22:19-28 Commentary
Ordinary Time is just beginning in the early summertime of 2019 yet the Lectionary directs us to a sometimes difficult psalm. Yes, we are being asked to consider only the hope-filled, praise-filled conclusion to this poem but it’s not as though we can forget its terrible opening set of verses. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” brings us right back to Christ’s cross and the Lenten Season now well behind us. The subsequent verses describing the horrid agony of the poet sear our imaginations with the rawness of their imagery.
Yet, like most Psalms of Lament, even Psalm 22 turns a corner at some point. Verse 19 still sounds the alarm of the need for deliverance from grave dangers. But then suddenly all is well again. God came through. He did not look away from the terrible specter of the suffering one whose ribs could be counted, whose bones were melting like wax, whose mouth was drier than dust. God turned his face toward this very one and somehow brought about a rescue. If it is true that the precise nature of the agony described in the first half of Psalm 22 is rather vague, so is the precise nature of the delivery. Like many Hebrew poems, so Psalm 22 remains just general enough that it can be adapted as a prayer to fit a wide range of possible scenarios and circumstances.
But let’s face it: if it was true in Part A of this psalm that the descriptions of torture and mockery and agony were searing, once in Part B the psalmist flips the praise switch, the torrent of happy imagery is equally astounding for both its vividness and its broad reach. This psalmist is not just a LITTLE happy about his deliverance, he’s ecstatic! He pivots from being as wretched as humanly possible to being about as optimistic as possible. His own joy leads him to some pretty wild predictions: ALL the poor will be taken care of, ALL the families of ALL the nations will join in the choir to sing praises to Israel’s God, Yahweh.
For some reason it reminds me of a little scene from the Indiana Jones movie “The Last Crusade” when a German is trying to secure some military help from an Arab sultan. The sultan is totally uninterested in the treasures they bring him but then he spies the Rolls Royce in which the Germans had arrived and claims it as his own. Once they agree, he goes over the top in lavishing on them every possible piece of assistance and provisions imaginable. “You’re welcome” the German tells him. It is a nice understatement for a gratitude that had gone a little over the top.
So in Psalm 22: once the psalmist gets his deliverance, his gratitude goes over the top. The cork flies off the shook-up champagne bottle of joy and the poet foresees an entire planet of people bowing down to serve and praise Yahweh alone. “You’re welcome” God might say in return for such effusive praise and enthusiasm.
For us preachers, this sunny conclusion to Psalm 22 presents some interesting homiletical challenges. Of course, it is good to preach on such passages of deliverance, of promises kept, of people whose fortunes were wonderfully reversed. At any given moment in most every congregation, there are people ready to sing along, ready to hop onto and ride this wave of enthusiasm with gusto and joy because, indeed, God came through for them. Prayers were answered. The sick child got well again! The cancer has not returned! That hoped-for big promotion at work came through. For people such as this in our churches, we need to preach the joy of Psalm 22 and also help people connect their own personal joy with the wider picture the psalmist paints. That is, we should use the occasion of our own happiness to be a public witness that will invite others to join us in the song. God’s project of salvation is always bigger than my your or my personal needs. My rescue from suffering is a great thing but we want also to point others to the God who is always doing this kind of thing and at the end of the cosmic day has plans to do this for the entire universe.
But, naturally, we have to point out that at any given time in most every congregation, there are going to be people who feel quite solidly stuck in Part A of Psalm 22. Their deliverance has not come. Maybe it can never come: the sick child died. The cancer is back. The promotion was given to someone else and your own position in the company was eliminated. Or maybe there is still the prospect for prayers to be answered in the future after all but . . . well, it is still the future and only the past is inevitable.
We preachers are forever seeking that homiletical and pastoral sweet spot where in our sermons we can properly celebrate those who have a right to the joyful enthusiasm of praise in Psalm 22 Part B while not leaving to the side of the road those still in the doleful sorrows and agony of Psalm 22 Part A. Maybe it is enough to take a time out in a sermon on an upbeat passage like this one to acknowledge that we are all aware that not all of us are in that good place yet (and that some of us have found that good place to have eluded us perhaps for good). We don’t understand the whys and wherefores of all that. Maybe that is why there is also a Psalm 88 in the Bible where the return to goodness and joy and light never happens after that relentless poem of lament. God can still be with us not only when the bottom drops out but when it appears the bottom cannot ever be replaced either.
However we do it, it is important to remember that we are always preaching to a mixed congregation and while it is important to laugh with those who laugh, we have to at the same time be ready to weep with those who weep. And if it’s true that those still suffering can take away some hope and solace from those who have been delivered of this or that affliction (“Maybe this will yet come for me too!”), it is also true that those who are celebrating can temper themselves just enough to not make the still-suffering folks feel put upon, left out, or even made to feel that maybe the reason they are still hurting is because their faith is not strong enough, their prayers not as ardent as those who got what they were seeking.
Chalk it up to yet one more of the preaching life’s little challenges.
In her recent book Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), Kate Bowler talks a lot about her research into the prosperity gospel and its incessantly sunny promises that God will shower rich blessings on all true believers if only they are faithful and devout enough. She wrote a whole book on the subject and was pretty jaded on this school of theological thought. But that was before she was diagnosed with a possibly fatal Stage 4 cancer at the age of 35 and not long after she had at long last become a mother after a long struggle with infertility.
Suddenly Bowler understood why the prosperity gospel has such appeal. Because she found herself thinking “I do not deserve this. I am a good person. God owes me better than this.” Deep down we all want this for ourselves, and if those who pedal the prosperity gospel are theologically and biblically wrong to promise such things as a kind of divine blank check, they are not humanly wrong in knowing that this is a deep vein of desire that can easily be tapped in most every person.
We all want the happy ending. And sometimes it comes. But not always and neither did Jesus ever say it would come always and to all who are faithful. When it comes, we celebrate with the joy of the ending of Psalm 22. But when it does not, we ought not feel there is nothing more to say. There is much more to say. God is faithful and even if it cannot come within the span of our lives on this earth, in the end Psalm 22 will be correct: God will rule and he will have dominion and all will be well. Maybe not now. But some day. The Jesus who once himself identified with the dereliction of Psalm 22:1 has taken care of that much.
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