Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 23, 2020

Psalm 138 Commentary

It’s only 8 verses long and yet Psalm 138 pulls off a pretty nifty feat: it encapsulates most of the major themes of the entire Hebrew Psalter!  Let’s make a list of the kinds of prayers and motifs that get mentioned across these very few verses:

A vow to praise God continually

A vow to single out most especially God’s lovingkindness, his chesed, his grace

A thanksgiving for God’s having answered a cry for help

A plea for all the kings and all the nations to praise Israel’s one true God

A note that although lofty, God has a special place in his heart for the lowly and poor

A note that life is hard sometimes but God is asked to set his hand against the poet’s enemies

A closing praise that God’s faithfulness endures forever

Did Psalm 138 leave anything out?  Praise, Thanksgiving, Lament, a hint of Imprecation, a singling out of God’s best and most praiseworthy traits, a universal Call to Praise Israel’s God.  This really is The Book of Psalms in miniature.

Probably the very capaciousness of this short poem makes it a challenge for preachers.  Let’s say you follow the rule that any given sermon should be finally about just ONE thing.  Well, what does one do with a psalm that is about ten things?  You could do a whole series on prayer using just Psalm 138, an eight-week series that would take just one verse at a time.  I am not recommending spending two months in just one short psalm but the point is that there is enough material here you could seriously ponder the possibility.

What if we wanted to preach just one sermon on Psalm 138?  How might a preacher accomplish that?

Well, we could take the big picture of this poem and talk about how this psalm—like the larger Book of Psalms of which it is a part—reminds us that the lives of every one of us are varied, textured, never just one mood or experience but an ongoing series of moods and experiences before God.  True piety can never be captured by a single Hallmark card-like sentiment.  You cannot transfer some upbeat Bible verse onto a counted-cross-stitch wall hanging and claim that no matter what your day may be like, just reflecting on these few happy words from Scripture will make all things well.

Life isn’t like that.  We have days of high praises and days of dark valleys.  We have good friends and we have enemies.  What’s more, we are called to do different things that will inevitably lead to different experiences (some good, some not so good).  We are called to witness and to call the whole world to join the choir in praising our one true God.  That was not a popular thing to do in the Ancient Near East and it’s surely not a popular thing to do in most modern societies today but that is our vocation.

And we are called to imitate our great God in standing up for the lowly, the poor, the most vulnerable among us.  God is regularly praised in the Psalter (Psalm 8, Psalm 113) for his marvelous ability to stoop low, to take notice of the same people that we human beings often fail to notice because they live on the margins of our awareness.  God sees the very people we are often blind to (Jesus quite literally incarnated this kind of divine vision for the lowly when he came to this earth).  Standing up for justice, calling out the kind of corruption that preys on the poor and marginalized may not always feel like the safest thing to do but, again, it is our vocation in imitation of God.

So the big picture of this small psalm points to both our varied experiences as followers of God and to the varied ways we are called to bear witness to that same God.  What it all adds up to is that we are supposed to see connections to God everywhere we look.  And when we are able to see the presence of God in all times and places, we have the chance to call attention to that divine presence and work as an act of witness.  Living life, as the ancients used to say, Coram Deo or “before the face of God” is all-consuming.  Or it is supposed to be.

But this runs contrary to the modern tendency to compartmentalize everything, especially religious faith.  Most especially in free societies with religious freedom the idea of having a freedom OF religion translates for a lot of people to having freedom FROM religion in the sense of treating one’s faith as a weekend hobby that needs to remain home when you go to work or to school the other five or so days a week.  That is not exactly the picture of the devoted life that Psalm 138 sketches, however.

Now to be clear: this does not mean in free societies that public schools should favor one faith over another by posting symbols of that faith in classrooms or that government buildings or courthouses have to privilege one set of religious symbols or monuments over all others.  But it does mean that when people of faith work in such settings, their faith stays with them, their ability to see God at work remains alive and valid, and providing a quiet, non-coercive witness remains our vocation.  At the very least we cannot talk or act in ways in the office that are completely at variance with how we talk and act in church.  We cannot support approaches to the poor and vulnerable five or six days a week that are contrary to what we hear from Scripture on Sundays as to God’s attitudes toward those marginalized people.  If our faith is not coloring how we view the news of the day, something has gone wrong with our discipleship.

Just how that works out for any given person in any given occupation or station in life will vary, and we preachers need to be careful not to give the impression that this is easy nor leave the impression that there is every and only ONE way to do this faithfully and here it is . . .  We cannot give people struggling to lead faithful lives just the one round “peg” and insist they hammer it into their vocation no matter what the shape a given vocational “hole” may be.  We always leave room for the Spirit to cultivate faithful (and creative) ways to get these things done.  But Psalm 138 at the very least encourages us to keep up the struggle so that before “the gods” of also our age (to riff on Psalm 138:1) we bear witness to the true nature and character of our one true God through our Lord Jesus Christ who leads us along by Christ’s Holy Spirit.

Illustration Idea

Few writers of the late 20th century did a better job of connecting our everyday lives to our spiritual faith than Frederick Buechner.  “Listen to your life” became a kind of leitmotif in his writing.  Listen to your life because God is speaking to you everywhere.  Or, to invoke another image once used by Buechner: Life is sometimes like the Hebrew alphabet: it’s all consonants and no vowels.  All by itself, it’s all hard sounds that are impossible to vocalize.  Of course, native Hebrew speakers/readers know instinctively which vowel sounds to supply in between which consonants to make the language speak-able and pronounceable.

And that is what faith does for all of us, Buechner said: it supplies the vowels that help our lives to make sense.  Into the jumble of consonants that our lives throw at us, we are given by grace the vowels we need to make of it all something lovely after all.

I am not 100% sure this ties in with my take on Psalm 138 in this sermon commentary but I think the psalm’s broad view of how all of life has something to do with God ties in with this.


Biblical Books:

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