Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 5, 2020
Psalm 147:12-20 Commentary
Two rather striking features to this psalm leap out at you. First, there is the singularly positive, sunny statements about how God has strengthened Jerusalem, given peace within Israel’s borders, and just generally provides a warm and safe environment for God’s people. The second striking feature is the celebration at the end of Psalm 147 of the laws and ordinances of God and how lucky Israel is to know them because no other nation does. In fact, Israel’s knowing God’s Law is WHY God treats Israel so well.
Why are these two things so striking? First, because the Book of Psalms was probably compiled and edited into its more-or-less final form sometime after the exile into Babylon. In other words, after the time when Jerusalem proved to be not so well fortified after all and when there was zero peace within Israel’s borders. And then second it’s striking also because it was Israel’s singular failure to observe God’s ordinances and statutes and laws that led God to punish them in the first place.
In short, Psalm 147 is celebrating an idealized portrait of God and Israel but as it turns out, this happy picture of security and obedience never really happened. Or at best it happened in fits and starts now and again in Israel’s history but was never a sustained reality for very long. Surely a song like this must have stuck in people’s throats after 587 BC. Even those who returned to Jerusalem years later under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah never came anywhere close to seeing Jerusalem restored to its old glory. And the people of Israel would remain in an occupied state from that time all the way up to the diaspora after Jerusalem’s second destruction in 70 AD.
What do we do with a poem like this given the historical and spiritual realities we know only too well? Well, this is a psalm assigned in the Year A Lectionary for the very first Sunday of a new calendar year. It also comes the day before Epiphany on January 6. The just-finished holiday season is receding in life’s rear view mirror and we are all gearing up for a new year, replete with some of those New Year’s resolutions a few folks will have made in recent days. It’s a year in the United States that may be starting out with a political firestorm of impeachment and that—believe it or not—may actually get only worse after that as we hurtle toward what promises to be yet another highly fractious election in November. Buckle up!
All things being equal, we cannot easily see Psalm 147’s portrait of happy serenity—spiritually or otherwise—applied to our own lives just now either. Even so, is there a way to view this poem as aspirational? Or can we view it as the reality we as Christians really do now have in Christ if only we have the eyes of faith to see it?
I suspect there is something to this. “In the world you will always have trouble” Jesus said to his disciples on the most troubling night of his own life. “But take heart: I have overcome the world.” In other words, Jesus assured his disciples that no matter what was roaring all around them in society at any given moment, within the citadel of Christ’s love and Easter resurrection power, there would be a chance for spiritual calm, for hope, even for joy. That ought to provide us with no small measure of comfort no matter what our circumstances. What’s more, Christ revealed himself to be the end of the Law—not the “end” in the sense of its coming to an end but “end” in the sense of Jesus’ being the very purpose and culmination of all that the Law of God had all along been aiming at: the flourishing of God’s people in God’s creation. The Law was the Owner’s Manual for creation and by following it, people had a chance to experience the delight in this world that God intended (even as they—as part of that delightful living—are warned off from doing things that would be spiritually and physically perilous).
It is perhaps no coincidence that throughout Psalm 147—including in the first 11 verses that are technically not part of this lection—it is God’s mighty power in creation that the psalmist points to over and over as proof of God’s love and grandeur as well as his ability to do whatever he promises. Rain, snow, hail, winds, the care of animals: it’s all testament to God’s majesty. And THIS is the God who loves us, who loved Israel enough to give them the gift of the Torah, of the Law that would keep them safe while at the same time helping them to flourish.
It’s all part of one grand package of loving revelation to God’s people. And it has all culminated in Jesus Christ now. This is the Savior, the Lord and King of Creation, in whom we now dwell through baptism. Indeed, the New Testament reveals we have been made “a new creation” already. We lean into and participate already now in all the goodness that is yet to come in God’s kingdom.
Who knows what the year 2020 will hold for whole nations much less for our individual lives or for our families. A new year is always a two-edged sword: on the one hand a new slate of 12 months holds out lots of promise even as there are big events—weddings, graduations, the birth of a child—we anticipate happening sometime in 2020. On the other hand, though, there are lots of possibilities for disappointment, for the unforeseen, for exceedingly tragic events that we may or may not dimly suspect to be possible on New Year’s Day. But whatever the world has in store for us, in Christ we know we have been built up to be spiritually strong and already in Christ to be also victorious.
There is more than a little hope in all that. Thanks be to God!
Psalm 147 is an example of many biblical psalms and other passages that celebrate how active God is within his own creation. C.S. Lewis once noted that when it comes to God and creation, we are always fighting on two different fronts to keep things in perspective. On the one hand are those who remove God fully from creation. This is the Deist view—the universe is like a giant clock that God wound up long ago but has ever since God has just let it tick down on its own with little to no divine awareness of what is happening (much less any divine activity within that creation). On the other extreme are the pantheists—and the cousin school of thought of panentheism—that identity God so closely with the creation as to make the creation itself God (or part of God). Neither extreme will do, Lewis observed.
As Psalm 147 shows, God and creation are at once distinct AND YET God is intimately involved in it, taking delight in it, directing the rain and the snow, superintending the care of animals and of all creation. It’s a balancing act. For those who exile God from his own creation, we need to show how much delight God still takes in the cosmos on a rolling basis—God delights in your vegetable garden, for instance. For those who blur the lines between God and creation, we need to put some daylight between the two while at the same time keeping God passionately involved.
Like so much else in theology, orthodoxy tends to lie in the territory of both/and rather than that of either/or!
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