Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 28, 2019
Psalm 138 Commentary
Psalm 138 has features shared by many psalms of praise. There are vows to praise God. There are references to the poet’s motivations for praising God. There is the ardent hope that eventually all the earth and all the kings and peoples of the earth will learn to praise Israel’s God as well. Like most psalms the specifics are not mentioned, which makes these ancient prayers capable of becoming also our own prayers yet today. We can fill in the specifics from our own lives if we wish. The Hebrew Psalter has long been the Prayerbook for Jews and for Christians alike precisely because these psalms are general enough to be adaptable to most any time, person, place, and set of circumstances.
But for this sermon commentary I want to focus on verse 6. The sentiments contained in that verse are also shared by many other psalms, including Psalms 8 and 113 and others. Perhaps people in the Ancient Near East from other religious traditions had similar thoughts about their own gods and goddesses, though most of what I know of other ancient religions might indicate otherwise. In any event, a distinctive feature of Israel’s faith was not merely a celebration of God’s grandeur, power, and majesty. Most all religions believed that much about their deities. Indeed, a main thing that distinguishes deities from human beings is precisely their superpowers, their awesome—and, in most other religions, their fear-inducing—might. Few people in history have ever worshiped small and manageable gods, after all. What would be the point?
But in most other faiths it is precisely that power that sets gods apart, that introduces an existential gap between their existence and human existence. What’s more, it is the God’s majestic power that keeps people in line through fear and intimidation. Offend Zeus and the lightning bolts from Mount Olympus may get aimed in your direction. Fail to show respect to the Babylonian god Marduk and good luck with next year’s harvest. Same goes for Re the sun god of Egypt and the gods that governed the flooding of the Nile to make crops grow: honor these gods or suffer their wrath. Some people were known to throw virgins into volcanos and sacrifice their own children to appease the gods. Gods were dangerous. You would do anything to hold the unleashing of their power at bay.
Of course, the Old Testament tells us that the people of Israel also had a healthy fear of God’s power. When God thundered from Mount Sinai, the people begged Moses to be their stand-in. And the holiness of Yahweh was not be trifled with—those touching the Holy Mountain or those a bit later in Israelite history who were foolish enough to treat the Ark of the Covenant like a private trinket sometimes found themselves on the bad receiving end of God’s power.
Given that Israel’s faith shared some of those fears and characteristics with people of other religions, it is all the more remarkable to notice in the psalms—and in Psalm 138:6—that what evoked the purest wonder and joy and devotion in Israel was not God’s remoteness and the gap that existed between his kind of power and our puny human powers. No, what wrung the most ardent praises from the people of Israel was God’s remarkable ability to care for us in all our littleness. The Bible tells us that God’s original goal was to dwell closely with his imagebearers. Sin messed up that plan but God kept promising to get closer. And as small previews of all that, God regularly stooped low to take note of little old us. The orphan, the widow, the foreigner, the vulnerable: they all snagged the divine attention on a regular basis. The plight of women unable to bear children, the dangers faced by women without men to protect them in a patriarchal society: these things garnered divine love. They stirred something else that Psalm 138 notices about God in verse 2: God’s chesed, his “unfailing love.”
Sometimes translated as “lovingkindness,” that Hebrew word chesed pops up all over the place in the Psalms as the #1 reason the Israelites found to praise God. But it was never just a generic, remote sort of grace and kindness. It was up close and personal. The best expressions of God’s lovingkindness came to individuals, some of whose stories we can read in the Bible (and it very often involved women): Hagar, Hannah, Ruth. God showed his lovingkindness to David and he in turn mirrored that for hapless and vulnerable people like Mephibosheth.
The true greatness of Israel’s God was not just his almighty power but how God was able to channel that tremendous power into a lovingkindness that could get focused, laser-like, on one person at a time (one vulnerable person at a time as often as not). And when God’s power came to you in that way, it did not threaten to unmake you like some lightning bolt from Zeus. Rather that power of God filled you, warmed you, overwhelmed you, swaddled you in loving grace.
In the New Testament Paul sometimes gave us a surprising reason why God saved us: it was out of God’s “kindness.” We usually do not associate kindness with power. Kindness is soft, warm, fuzzy. Power is raw, white hot, dangerous. But somehow in Israel’s God, the soft and the warm could coalesce with the raw and the otherwise dangerous. God’s true greatness was in his ability to notice us tiny humans in all our frail, flawed, and specific lives and beam divine love to us.
As the end of verse 5 says, the glory of Yahweh is great. But that only leads to verse 6: the true greatness of that glory is that Yahweh can also be the God of small things, of small people, of needy people who get engulfed by his tremendous lovingkindness.
In a sermon of his I heard a while back, Tom Long talked about the spiritual fruit of kindness. He noted that a key motivation for kindness is our ability to see deeply into every person we meet. We see past their outward flaws and appearance to the radiant image of God that glows inside every one of us. C.S. Lewis noted something similar in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory.” Lewis said that if we could right now see our neighbors as they will appear when transfigured into resurrected beings in God’s eternal kingdom, we might be tempted to fall down and worship them. They might well appear THAT luminous to us. Perhaps this explains why God is able to stoop down to care for us in all our littleness: he can see past our sins and our foibles to the divine images he made us to be and that in Christ he will one day restore us to be. In the meanwhile, Long and Lewis would counsel, our ability to look for this in others can help us be a little kinder, too. Because God demonstrates that kindness is not soft and weak. It may just be one of the most powerful forces in the cosmos!
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