Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 20, 2020
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 Commentary
Most of what makes Psalm 89 such an interesting poem cannot be seen if you restrict yourself to just the verses that the Lectionary has carved out of the psalm’s full 52 verses. Because this poem that begins in such an upbeat tone and with such a full-throated desire to sing praise to God for God’s faithfulness ends with long and bitter notes of lament.
We start by praising God. Then, in verses 5-14 that the Lectionary skips, the psalmist praises God more for his creation. But then the poet begins a slow slide into lament. It starts in verse 19 when David is mentioned as an anointed one of God who would never be forsaken. But soon enough it becomes clear that whoever is writing this psalm thinks he deserves the same protections David had been promised but, alas, nothing of the kind if happening and he is at the mercy of many foes, being mocked and abused and feeling just generally completely neglected by God.
We will comment in a moment as to how one might account for this combination of praise with lament and what it means but first a couple contextual notes.
First, some wonder if Psalms 88 & 89 are meant to form a pair, kind of one Psalm in two parts (similar to Psalms 42 and 43). Psalm 88 of course is the darkest of all lament psalms. This is the only example of a lament in the Hebrew Psalter that not only never turns the corner back toward brighter things but actually concludes with the bleak line, “Darkness is my best friend.” If Psalm 89 is meant to continue Psalm 88, then perhaps its opening lines are an attempt to be brighter after all even if—by the time also Psalm 89 concludes—it is clear that all that was lamentable in Psalm 88 is still there. In any event, Psalm 88 casts an exceedingly dark shadow and Psalm 89 at the very least stands in that shadow.
Second, internally the Book of Psalms is divided up into five sub-books, each concluding with some version of Psalm 89:52, “Praise be to the LORD forever” (see also Psalms 41:13, 72:19, 106:48, 150:6). No one has ever definitively figured out if each of the five sub-books has a theme or an emphasis. Laments are scattered pretty evenly throughout the books but are concentrated in the first three even as the entire collection concludes with the strongest of all praise psalms starting around Psalm 144 and on through to the end in Psalm 150. Still, it is good to note that Psalms 88 & 89 wrap up Book Three with two decisive notes of lament, signaling perhaps that this is just how life goes sometimes, even for the most faithful of God’s people. Things don’t always turn out sunny right away. Sometimes darkness is your only friend and try though you may to praise God for God’s faithfulness as the first part of Psalm 89 does, the things that nettle us may not disappear right away.
Let’s admit that this is not the cheeriest message one could hear. Particularly in this time of 2020 as we are experiencing both the sorrow and fright of the pandemic of COVID-19 and also experiencing the tensions and sorrows of racial unrest in the wake of the unjust killing of more black people, we maybe are not overly heartened to hear that sometimes—even for God’s faithful people—such difficult times don’t just evaporate as soon as you ask God for help. We may not know why that is the case but for certain we can know that it very simply IS the case and that it has ever been so for God’s people as reflected in many Psalms of Lament or even in many psalms that seem to start out as Psalms of Praise (as with Psalm 89) but that curdle back to some lament after all.
Then again, although the Lectionary’s carving out only a few of the happier parts of this psalm obscures this, the fact is that Psalm 89 does manage some obviously heartfelt praise in the midst of lament. There are things we can focus on in even darker moments that may not lift all the gloom but that can point us toward better, more hope-filled things.
Please know that I am not being a Pollyanna here nor encouraging anyone to preach Pollyannaish sermons. This I would never do! But there may be something to be said for pondering God’s faithfulness in times when the bottom seems to be dropping out on many parts of our lives and of our world. And though we are now in the last Sunday of Advent 2020 with Christmas a scant five days away, we have to face the fact that we are in the midst of a long, dark winter. Hope may be on the horizon. Vaccines may yet tame the virus and end the pandemic so that a year from now as 2021 closes, maybe, maybe, maybe things will be better. But not yet and not for sure even so.
There may be something to be said for doing what the psalmist does in verses 5-12 through pondering the creation (something maybe these summertime months give us the opportunity to do more than in the bleak midwinter where many of us find ourselves just now) and connecting this to the awesome power of God.
In other words, maybe it is spiritually at least a little helpful in seasons of genuine and legitimate lament to do what we can to praise God for God’s faithfulness and for God’s awesome and majestic power on display in the creation. Perhaps although not eliminating all the difficulties, such postures of praise and adoration can fan embers of hope in our souls that God is in charge, that God can and will do something, that God can and will still bring all things to where he wants them to be when the kingdom of Christ fully comes.
And perhaps as Christians if we connect God’s faithfulness to its most radical instance ever—the death of God’s own Son on the cross that that truly human birth in Bethlehem made possible—then we can be reminded of just how far God is willing to go to be faithful to God’s own promises. And that most assuredly can inspire hope. To quote the well-known line of Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption: Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And good things never die.
Thanks be to God.
Be sure to check out our Year B Advent/Christmas resource page for more sermon and worship ideas and links to many sample sermons as well. Visit us all through Advent!
I have perhaps used this illustration before in some other connection here on the CEP website but the psalmist’s posture of praise in the midst of lament and suffering definitely puts me in mind of the end of Maya Angelou’s classic essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It goes like this:
Back in the 1930s and 1940s Maya lived with her family in the Deep South where her parents ran a small grocery store. One day when Maya’s Mama was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of the store, a group of white girls came by and decided to spend some time mocking Mama. They laughed at her for being black. They said nasty, racially wounding things. One 13-year-old girl did a handstand at one point, allowing her dress to fall down around her shoulders to reveal she was not wearing any underwear. So she mooned Mama with her bare bottom and her bare front.
And watching her Mama from a corner of the porch, young Maya was furious that Mama did not do something, say something, shoo those nasty girls away. But Mama stayed calm and as Maya moved a little closer to her Mama, Maya could hear her singing softly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”
The girls tired of the show eventually and left. And as Mama stood up to return to the store, Maya could hear her singing softly again “Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down. Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down.”
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