Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 21, 2019
Psalm 15 Commentary
Perhaps you have seen variations on this but people sometimes joke about the over-the-top list of qualifications you can sometimes see in church advertisements for a new pastor. “We are seeking a pastor with deep biblical knowledge, superb communications skills, a well-tuned pastoral heart, an ability to relate well to the youth and someone who is around 30 years of age with 20 years of pastoral experience.” Not a few of us have read such ads and concluded “I guess that rules out the Apostle Paul!”
Sometimes when you serve as a guest preacher you see a little bronze plate affixed to the pulpit that only the preacher can see: “Sir/Ma’am, We Would See Jesus.” OK, but sometimes it seems like to qualify as a pastor in some congregations you would have to BE Jesus to get the job!
All of which leads us to Psalm 15. It’s a short Hebrew poem. Short but devastating. Because here is the job description, the list of qualifications for anyone worthy to dwell with God. And it’s fairly daunting:
Treats Neighbors Well
Never Breaks a Promise
Never Changes One’s Mind
Liberally Gives Money Away to the Poor
So . . . please raise your hand if this consistently describes you. Anyone? Anyone?
Here is yet another moment when we can be glad that the Hebrew Psalter is meant to be read as a whole and not merely as a pastiche of otherwise unrelated poems. In particular in this case we can be thankful that there are also Psalms of Confession in the Bible. Because obviously those psalms would be unnecessary if any given person of faith really were able to live up to Psalm 15’s rather lofty ideals of spirituality and moral perfection. Or at least if they were able to live up to all this consistently and 100% of the time.
But perhaps this leads back to the opening line of the psalm: who may live in God’s sacred tent? This may or may not be a reference to the Tabernacle that later became the Temple. But it kind of sounds like that and, if so, it could be pointing to the Holy of Holies, to that most sacred place that was thought to be God’s earthly headquarters such that even the High Priest could enter it only once a year (and even then might have been taking his life into his own hands in so doing). You would very nearly have to BE God to enter into so sacred a space, much less to be able to live there, stay there, make it your home. If Psalm 15’s moral and spiritual bar seems to be set rather high, perhaps this is the reason: we are looking for a relationship with God akin to what Adam and Eve had with God prior to the Fall into sin. But so long as we all keep living “east of Eden,” that’s just not going to happen.
In the Old Testament even for God to be able to maintain his earthly residence among his people Israel, those people had to be constantly sacrificing and making atonement for their sins. Large swaths of the Torah and the Pentateuch are consumed with rigorous rules and regulations governing all this. Perpetual seeking of forgiveness and making sacrifices to atone for sin was the only way a perpetually unholy people had a shot to stay in relationship with a perpetually holy God.
So even from the perspective of the rest of the psalms and most certainly the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures it seems that the answer to Psalm 15’s opening question as to who can dwell in God’s sacred tent or on his holy mountain is “No one.” The description that follows can be fulfilled by no one, not even Moses, the greatest spiritual leader Israel ever had. Even he could not see God’s face. Even he could not enter the Promised Land on account of his own failures. He got closer to God than anyone but that only reinforces the idea of how very far away the rest of the people would have been from the Psalm 15 ideal.
Psalm 15 is the kind of thing that could lead to despair. Assuming we would want to be this close to God, the question becomes “Who could make this possible for us when we have no honest shot of achieving all this ourselves?”
Naturally enough, as Christians reading this poem we already know the answer. Who can do this for us? Jesus the Christ of God (and Jesus alone). In Christ we now are clothed with all the righteousness of Jesus himself and so when God looks at us now, ta-da, we fit the Psalm 15 bill after all. Oh, not really based on how things go in our daily lives. Yet spiritually we possess all the riches of Christ. He justifies us by his grace. We were crucified with him and raised with him and now share in his very Life.
Earlier I mentioned that sometimes you get the feeling a given pastor would have to BE Jesus to qualify for a church post based on the lofty job qualifications you sometimes read. But of course not only pastors but all believers already essentially ARE Jesus. Psalm 15 makes us cast about for Someone who can help us live up to those lofty spiritual and moral aspirations. But we need not look far for help. Our help is in the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth through his Son Jesus our Savior.
Frederick Buechner once helped to explain the theological meaning of “justification” by referring us back to the literal meaning of that word when it comes to printed documents. On our computers today we can “right justify” or “left justify” or “full justify” any document. Mostly we opt for left justification which means that unless you purposely indent a line to start a new paragraph, the first word of every line in the document will begin at the same place—in the same column—such that they all line up. “Justification” for those lines mean that they stand in a right relationship with the straight edge of the paper itself. The paper is a straight vertical line along its edges. For words and lines to be “justified” with that, they line up, they are as straight as the paper’s edge itself. They are in a right relationship with the page. (And if you do “Full Justification,” then both the left and the right columns do this with the left and the right straight edges of the paper on which the document is printed.)
When we read Psalm 15, we see it as almost a measuring stick. It’s the straight edge of morality against which everyone will be measured. Does my life line up with that straight edge? Or am I crooked and jagged and out of alignment at many different points? Most of us have to acknowledge we are largely out of alignment. We are not justified relative to this psalm’s straight moral edge.
But in Christ we have been fully justified by grace alone. We line up. We match. We measure up after all. Thanks be to God!
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