Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 15, 2020
Psalm 95 Commentary
Growing up in a tradition that had once upon a time been founded on Psalm singing only in church, I sang lots of psalms in my boyhood church even long, long after my Reformed tradition had added also hymns to our standard Psalter Hymnal songbook. Even as a young boy, though, I was struck by one musical psalm setting that we sang pretty often. It was titled “Now with Joyful Exultation” and was set to a pretty jaunty tune in a major key, a tune that had what I could best describe as a fair bit of bounce and lilt.
And that fit wonderfully for most of the words since this song was based on Psalm 95. “Now with joyful exultation let us sing to God our praise . . . For how great a God and glorious is the Lord of whom we sing.” Like its psalm of origin, this song is properly upbeat.
Except on the last line of the fourth verse. . . at which point the final upward bounce of the melody (a jump of a sixth from G to Eb) suddenly seems perversely celebratory as the song concludes with the dire judgment spoken in God’s voice that some people “never in my rest shall share.” I always thought in my heart that after that final phrase we could as well utter a gleeful “Hey-Hey!” as though we were smacking our lips over the prospect of God’s condemning certain people to eternal UN-rest. It always felt like singing a funeral song to the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” or something.
I will give the person who paired Psalm 95 with this hymn tune credit, though: that sudden dark ending to this song is precisely what happens to this otherwise positive and exuberant poem. As an RCL selection for Lent 3A, one wonders if it was that final stanza of judgment that was the rationale for making this a Lenten Psalm because the rest of Psalm 95 could better fit Easter or some other grand holy day of celebration.
As psalms go, Psalm 95 is curious on multiple fronts. First, it is an exultation for certain. Metaphors for God as a Rock, as a King, as a Shepherd are lyric and lovely. God’s redemptive desire is played off against his mighty power as the Creator of all the earth and as the One who is so awesome that he holds whole mountain ranges in the palm of his hand.
It is all positive. Praiseworthy. But then suddenly comes verse 8 when out of nowhere the voice of God speaks. Where this comes from is uncertain as the entire psalm had been up until then a clear address of the psalmist to Israel. But then the focus yanks over to a couple of very dark moments from Israel’s history of desert wanderings, to a couple of failures where the people grumbled against Moses and, by proxy, against God himself. Suddenly anger flashes in the divine eyes that earlier in the psalm had sparkled like limpid pools of divine love in creation and redemption. And then judgment falls like a hammer blow to the back of the head—you didn’t see it coming and then, WHACK, you’re dead. And oh, by the way and while we’re at it, there will be no rest for rebellious people like that.
If Psalm 95 gives you a vague feeling of whiplash, you are reading the poem correctly. And if that Lent-like concluding set of verses is why this was chosen for the Season of Lent, you can understand that. It’s just a mystery how it came into an otherwise upbeat Psalm of Praise. The oddity of setting the dark final words to the psalm to an upbeat tune in that song I just mentioned matches the starkness with which Psalm 95 ends too. It is the proverbial bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky.
Is judgment always this close to praise, or to calls of praise? Do we need to always hedge or qualify a call to praise with a warning of “Do this or else!!”? Even when we are properly thanking God—and/or are being called to thank God—do we need to summon to mind those times in our past when we actually let God down? Is this meant to sharpen the urgency of the praise imperative? To scare us into doing it better in the future, including in the near-term as we ponder whether to follow the direction of the first 7 verses of Psalm 95?
Guilt always seems like a bad motivator, particularly in a Gospel context. Even being reminded of our past failures can leave a bad taste in our mouths. If you are having an argument with your spouse, it feels like dirty pool to have one person bring up a past mistake—that ostensibly had been long ago forgiven—as a way to twist the argumentative knife in now this present moment. But if that feels unfair on the human plane, does it become any less offensive if God does it?
So many questions. But perhaps Psalm 95 can stand as a reminder that we all of us are always walking a bit of a tightrope between a proper posture toward a loving and benevolent God and an improper posture of rebellion or of selfishness. No, we don’t like being reminded that we’ve messed up in the past (and so watch out that you don’t do it again!). And if the reminder of the past is brought up merely to wound us afresh, to make us feel guilty all over again for a sin that has been long forgiven, then that feels manipulative and wrong.
Perhaps, then, there is a way to remember past failures as a prudent reminder that yes, we all for now still have the possibility of lapsing back into failure. No, I don’t need to feel guilty all over again or plead for forgiveness all over again, especially if we know God has forgiven all those past failings. But maybe it can be a good Lenten exercise to remember past sins as a proper goad never to rest on any laurels, never to conclude that we’ve got this whole sanctification thing down pat and don’t need the Holy Spirit’s help anymore.
Instead we are reminded of something that really is a positive Gospel truth: Grace is where we live. It is by grace our past failings have been put away. But it is also only by grace that we can move forward in ways that glorify God. It’s no fun to call to mind those times when we let God (and ourselves) down. But if such a memory drives us once again to the foot of the cross and a complete reliance on Christ’s mercy alone, then that’s not all bad either. And if the memory of God’s having forgiven us for those past failures is vivid for us, who knows: maybe it would even be OK to sing about that to an upbeat tune in the major key of Grace.
Additional Year A Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
In a memorable sermon titled “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” Fred Craddock had a lovely line that so well sums up where most of us find ourselves as often as not, and possibly this is something that reflects the larger tension we find in also Psalm 95:
“In my mind I serve God. But there’s another force in my life, and I say ‘I’m going to do that.’ I don’t do it. I say, ‘I’ll never do that.’ I do it. Crucified between the sky of what I intend and the earth of what I perform. That’s the truth.”
Between the sky of our intentions and the earthly reality of our actions. Crucified between them. That’s the truth. And if it’s no fun to remind ourselves of our past failures, it’s also no fun to never remember them so as only to repeat them over and over. And over.
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