Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 18, 2020
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) Commentary
“A scribe to the Lord . . .” At least that is what I heard my minister say when I was a young boy attending a church in Ada, Michigan. Rev. Angus MacLeod began more morning worship services than not with that portion of Psalm 96 that repeats the call to “ascribe” to the Lord all manner of good things. It was his standard Call to Worship. But while I was not sure as a boy what “a scribe” had to do with anything, the verb “to ascribe” registered even less with my still limited vocabulary. And so most every week I heard Psalm 96 quoted but it would be years before I had a clue as to what those verses were talking about.
Now that I do know what “ascribe” means, I still find Psalm 96’s words to be highly curious. What would it mean for all the families of the earth to ascribe to God glory and strength when, as a matter of fact, the rest of Psalm 96 makes clear that God already has glory and strength all locked up? It reminds me of those psalms—or of the Virgin Mary’s song in Luke 1—that call upon us to “magnify the Lord.” Well how exactly are puny creatures like us supposed to magnify a God whose glory already fills the universe? “To magnify” means to make bigger and is usually applied to very small things—think germs and molecules and fleas—so as to make them easier to see. You magnify what you cannot easily see with the naked eye—or that you cannot see at all like a distant star or planet—not monster trucks or Mount Everest.
Of course, when it comes to God it would be odd to talk about magnifying God were it not for the myopia of sin. The classic old hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” traditionally had a line in one stanza that said “though the eye made blind by sin thy glory cannot see.” The glory is there. It’s on display. It’s visible. But we cannot see it. And so maybe there is a need for even as small a person as the Virgin Mary sitting in the middle of the backwaters of the Roman Empire to “magnify” God so that those who might otherwise miss seeing him have a shot of spying God’s majesty after all. You make God bigger for those whose vision is bad.
So also in Psalm 96: it is abundantly clear that the one true God of Israel has it all: splendor, glory, almighty power, majesty. The whole creation came from this wonderful God and that whole creation joins in to sing this God’s praises. To be God means, by definition, that you lack nothing.
It reminds me of a Star Trek movie when the valiant crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise encounters a powerful being who claims to be God and who the crew actually wonders if it might be God. Except then this “God” asks to borrow their starship so he could leave the region where he was and travel to another part of the galaxy. “What does God need with a starship?” Captain Kirk incredulously asks. It’s the moment they realize this is no god of any kind. If you are God, you don’t need someone to give you a lift. God is by definition self-sufficient.
But that is why that word “ascribe” is apt. The people reading Psalm 96 were not being asked to give God glory and strength. This was not a shopping list to go out and buy some nice stuff for God that God did not already have the way at a baby shower the expectant mother is given strollers and onesies and baby formula seeing as she does not yet own any of that soon-to-be-needed stuff. No, when you “ascribe” something, you attribute something to someone, you credit something to someone. Or it may be that you are associating a certain quality to a certain person. Say you hear a piece of beautiful music but you don’t know for certain who composed it and yet you are confident when you say “That just has to be Mozart!” You are ascribing the work to Mozart because you know of Mozart’s artistry, the quality of his compositions, the lyrical way he had with stringing notes together.
To ascribe is to acknowledge certain qualities. In God’s case we know all glory and power belong to God and so when we are called to ascribe such things to God, we are engaging both in an act of praise and an act of proclamation as we are inviting others to consider just how much glory and strength our one true God has. When you ascribe a piece of music to Mozart, you are indicating how talented Mozart was, how singularly lyric his every composition was. You are saying, in short, that Mozart was great, a musical genius nearly without peer.
When we look out over creation to behold beauty and splendor, we ascribe these things to the handiwork of God because they reveal something of God’s own glory. We are saying that God is great and when we say it publicly, we are hoping others might be inspired to take a good long look at our God, too.
Psalm 96 subtly also reminds us why this public ascribing is needed: because the world is filled with other “gods.” People get distracted by counterfeit religion and spirituality all the time. But if verse 4 startles you by claiming that Israel’s God is above all gods—making it sound like there really are other gods in existence—that is quickly undercut by verse 5 that says those “gods” are finally just idols. Fakes. There is only one God. But that does not keep people from pondering those hollow gods anyway and their devotion to those faux deities prevents them from seeing the glory and splendor of the real God.
In our modern world we have perhaps become a bit shy about public ascribing to God of all God’s wonderful attributes and characteristics. We have grown accustomed to pluralistic societies of religious tolerance and we don’t want to be accused to shoving anything down anyone’s throat. We want as Christians to come off as kind, not belligerent. And it may be true that we ought not want to be guilty of threatening those who cannot for now see the glory of our God in Christ or the splendor of the Gospel’s Good News.
But what we can do is bear witness, to display our own enthusiasm in ascribing to God all the good and beautiful things we can experience in life and in the created world. And in so ascribing—in standing up among “the nations” as verse 10 says—to declare that the universe is ruled by a good and gracious God, we can hope that the enthusiasm of our ascribing will become contagious, will make people want to ask us about our faith. And when they do, Psalm 96 alone provides a long list of wonderful things we can say about our one true God.
In her short story “The River,” Flannery O’Connor wanted to say something about the drama and the power of baptism. She believed many people had become a bit blasé where baptism is concerned, that we had turned it into a cute little rite of passage for babies on a par with getting their six-month portrait taken at Walmart or something. In her story, therefore, she has a young boy who wants to be baptized but for various reasons cannot find anyone to do it. So he tries to baptize himself in a river but he slips, falls, and drowns. Baptism, O’Connor wanted to remind her readers, involves dying with Christ.
When she was later asked why she used such grotesque and harsh imagery like this in this story and in many of her other stories, she replied “Because in the land of the nearly blind, you have to draw big caricatures to get anyone’s attention and help them to see.”
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