Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 17, 2019
Psalm 98 Commentary
Reading Psalm 98 is like uncorking a well shook-up bottle of champagne. The cork rockets upward and the bubbly inside the bottle fountains forth in exuberance. We’ve all seen those locker rooms after a team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl when players spray each other with such bottles—some years ago someone finally had the good sense to outfit everyone with goggles after too many players discovered that champagne in your eyes doesn’t feel real great (not to mention the odd errant cork flying around the room). But those are scenes of intense joy and celebration.
Psalm 98 is like that when it comes to the praise of God. The psalmist just cannot contain himself. His praise of God sprays holy froth over the whole creation by the time this poem is finished. It’s a kind of “everybody in the pool” sort of thing as the praise moves from people to musicians with every conceivable type of instrument and then onward to include the very earth itself. Seas, rivers, mountains, trees, and every last person anywhere are all brought into the divine choir. Never mind that the psalm invites what we otherwise regard as inanimate objects to sing: it doesn’t matter one bit to this poet. God’s praise can never be exhausted and it is as though even our finest human efforts to sing are not enough: this song won’t be complete until every last creature and thing contributes its own kind of musical praise.
But then comes the rather surprising conclusion. Yes, yes: everyone: you are hereby ordered to praise God, to praise specifically Yahweh in the Hebrew imperative hallelu yah! Why? Well, the first part of the psalm gave a brief litany of God’s faithfulness to Israel. But the capper to it all comes in verse 9: why praise God? Because he’s coming to judge the whole world.
Now it’s just possible that some might find that prospect to be something just shy of a cause for exuberance and thanksgiving.
Being judged might sound threatening to a lot of people. Indeed, as pastors we not infrequently counsel with people—sometimes dear saints in the final days of their lives—who despite their lifelong devotion to Christ, will share with us that the prospect of Judgment Day scares them. “What if I don’t measure up? What if I am one of those people Jesus talked about who will cry ‘Lord, Lord’ but who will be sent away empty after all?” Indeed, few people are not at least a little unsettled by Jesus’ quasi-parable about the Sheep and the Goats.
In history the church has often used the specter of Judgment Day to frighten people into behaving. Medieval cathedrals used to put graphic depictions of Judgment Day over their front doors as a veritable giant finger wagging in people’s faces as they entered God’s presence. “Shape Up or Else!” seemed to be the message.
So how is it that this exuberant psalm thinks it is a good idea to cap off a universal call to praise God with the prospect of being judged? Well, there may be several things to observe in this connection.
First, the prospect of judgment usually IS good news to those who exist on the underside of history and society. Victims and the victimized, the exploited, those living under the sting of the injustices of racism or sexism or other forms of abuse regard judgment pretty positively. The only people who genuinely need to fear judgment are precisely those who have a sense that they will be shown as being on the wrong side of things. (And probably it is the case that quite a few of the people who for now wield all the power would be loath to praise any God in any event.)
Second and related to this first idea: most everyone ought to have a deep-seated hope that at the end of the cosmic day there will be the revelation that there is such a thing as right and wrong, as justice and injustice, as good and evil and that all of the books of justice that are for now out of moral whack will get balanced out. Those who have gotten away with murder their whole lives ought not get away with it fully and finally. And those who have been the victims of such people ought to be vindicated somehow. Very few people—except just possibly those who are profiting from unjust lives—look at the world as it is at any given moment and conclude that everything is working out pretty much the way we all deep down think it should.
A final note: despite those dear saints who tell us pastors that they fear Judgment Day, we now are armed with the Gospel and the Good News that there is nothing to fear. All of the judgment that might ever descend upon any of us—not to mention all of us collectively—definitively descended upon Jesus on our behalf. If we are in Christ, then even judgment does not cause us to fear. One of the gems of the Reformed tradition is The Heidelberg Catechism. Faced with those Medieval attempts to frighten people with the prospect of Judgment Day, the authors of the Catechism took the line from the Apostles’ Creed “he will come again to judge the living and the dead” and they framed it up exceedingly positively in the question and answer that begins “How does Christ’s coming to judge the living and the dead comfort you?”
Comfort in the face of judgment? Yes. Exactly. That is the Gospel. So come on, everybody, and you rivers and seas and everyone else too: praise the Lord!
When Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., wrote his award-winning book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, he got the inspiration for the book’s title from a scene early in the Lawrence Kasdan movie Grand Canyon. A well-to-do white man named Mack has his Lexus breakdown in a Los Angeles neighborhood where one most definitely never wanted to be stranded. Predictably he is soon accosted by some gang members who threaten his life and are preparing to jack his car. Just then Simon shows up, an African-American tow truck driver who makes it clear that gang intimidation or no, he is going to tow this car away and take the driver safely with him. As you can see in this compilation scene, eventually Simon tells the gang members that “everything is supposed to be different than what it is.”
Wise words. And true. Things are out of plumb. Injustices abound and go unchecked. Maybe that is why the idea that a good and loving God is going to come by and by and judge all things really is precisely the motivation for praising God that Psalm 98 claims it to be.
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