Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 22, 2020
Psalm 95:1-7a Commentary
It is said that those who refuse to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. Well, in that case the Lectionary on this final Sunday in Ordinary Time—also known as Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday—would have us stop just short of Psalm 95’s attempt to bring us a lesson from the past. Starting in verse 7b, this otherwise very upbeat poem of thanksgiving and praise takes a dark turn. Those reading the psalm are given a solemn warning not to repeat Israel’s failures to trust God at Maribah and Massah (literally the places of “quarreling” and “testing”) because that was the kind of behavior that got a whole generation of Israelites banished from ever entering the Promised Land and its promised rest.
But we are supposed to stop short of that in this season of Thanksgiving in the U.S. and on Reign of Christ Sunday when our thoughts need to remain upbeat and grateful. Curiously, in the Year A Lectionary and in calendar 2020 this is the second time Psalm 95 has occurred. The first time was back in March during the Season of Lent and on that occasion, the whole psalm was assigned, final words of warning and judgment and all. Apparently a bit of darkness is OK for Lent but less so for the end of the church year.
Speaking of darkness, in this year of 2020, Psalm 95 in Lent was assigned for Sunday, March 15, and that was probably the last in-person gathering of most churches for a long time to come as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown began right then. What followed was a wrenchingly tough year worldwide. Infections, deaths, fear, racial unrest in especially the U.S., a fraught presidential election that is ending in still more conflict: well, we none of us exactly saw any of this coming. At some point we all remembered welcoming 2020 with gladness on New Year’s Eve but then regretting we had ever done so. Who needs a year like this one? A few have even referred to it as “the lost year.” A year of losses—jobs, education, mental health, life itself. And a year of losses in less vital but still significant areas: loss of the chance to celebrate graduations, weddings, anniversaries or even take anything resembling a normal vacation.
Christ the King / Reign of Christ Sunday marks the end of this church year. Next week we begin Advent and about one month after that we will close the books—happily so for most of us—on the calendar year too. But because of what the end of the year feels like—the end of the church year and soon the calendar year—some of us might find celebrating the Reign of Christ a little difficult. After all, this world this year has as often as not hardly looked like it was being ruled over by a loving Christ Jesus.
We are told in Psalm 95 to extol our God because he holds the deep places of the earth and tends to all of us like a shepherd with a flock. But not a few of us have felt pretty shepherdless at times this year. Those of us who are pastors—literally the undershepherds of Jesus—have had to try to minister from a social distance that quite literally kept us from reaching out to the people who needed our ministry the most. Funerals got delayed, COVID patients died alone in hospitals, surrounded not by family or a pastor or elders from the church but by strangers in masks and amidst whirring and chirping machines.
The truth is, we don’t need the final verses of Psalm 95 to turn us to more somber or darker subjects. The months gone by have provided plenty of that as it is and it is so palpable this year that if we are to preach honestly on Psalm 95, we need to bring the celebration of God’s/Christ’s reign into conversation with all the things that at times threatened to eclipse our view of God upon the cosmic throne.
In the U.S. and in the run-up to the presidential campaign, some of us frequently saw efforts on Facebook and Twitter by Christians who wanted to turn down the political heat some by posting things like “No matter who wins the White House, Jesus is still on the throne!” But you got the sense that few took a lot of solace in that. Particularly the wide swath of Christians in America who supported Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 seemed to believe Jesus needs our political help and the prospect of President Trump’s needing to vacate his office has left some feeling defeated not just at the ballot box but even spiritually. And no doubt on the other side many are pinning too much on Joe Biden as well. Christ is King but . . . well, we have more immediate and pressing concerns than seem to be on the agenda of King Jesus.
Perhaps this year Psalm 95 can be a call for all of us to remember who is really King and truly in charge and to let that qualify some of our other concerns along the lines that those Facebook posts about King Jesus intended to accomplish. And maybe it’s also a time to acknowledge that this cosmic kingship is very hard to see a lot of the time. Most of us have spent a fair amount of time in the modality of Lament in 2020. And most of the Lament Psalms (fully a third of the Hebrew Psalter) lament the seeming absence of God from everyday life and experience. It takes a lot of strong and robust faith to maintain the belief that God in Christ really is in charge, that the “kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.”
We cannot celebrate the Reign of Christ lightly this year. We don’t want to skip past the sorrows, losses, and fears that 2020 has brought crashing down around people everywhere. “For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all the gods” we are told in verse 3. Yes, by faith we believe that is so, and Christ’s victory over hell and death secure that truth for Christians even more.
But if that line has now and again stuck in our throats this past year, that’s OK. King Jesus understands. But as we end the church year and soon the calendar year, we need to grab all the comfort and strength we can from the ardent belief that at the end of the day, the bright center of the universe really is Love. Love made flesh. And speaking of that . . . next week we begin Advent anew too.
In Lent and in the month of March this year when I wrote a sermon commentary on Psalm 95, I recalled a song setting of Psalm 95 that we sang pretty often in my Christian Reformed Church growing up. 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!” or a “Cha-Cha-Cha” 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.
But of course there is nothing actually delightful or happy about the historical warning with which Psalm 95 concludes. Yes, we dare never turn our back on God or signal our distrust that he really is the Cosmic King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Because those who do so end up cutting off the branch on which they are sitting. That’s tragic, not something to sing about with a jaunty tune. And yet as we reflected on in this commentary, a lot of things can happen to us in life—even in the life of faithful believers—that tries to shake our trust that there is a loving and benevolent God on the throne.
Not only should we take no joy in those who “never in my rest shall share,” we should have sympathy for them in that even the most pious among us now and then feel some powerful tugs away from having confidence in our Cosmic King after all. If this difficult and oft-grim year of 2020 has taught us nothing else, it is that life is hard and belief in a faithful King can be pretty tough to maintain sometimes.
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