Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 24, 2021
Psalm 62:5-12 Commentary
Just why the Lectionary begins this short psalm in verse 5 is something of a mystery. First of all, the first verse sounds the leitmotif of this brief poem. Secondly, if you don’t see the context of WHY the psalmist needs to find his rest in God alone—because the psalmist is being attacked and ridiculed by foes—then the “rest in God” material loses some of its oomph. So were I following the Lectionary and chose the Psalm Lesson to preach on for this Sunday in January 2021, I would preach on the whole psalm. It’s not like those extra 4 verses make this too long of a reading!
But as we continue to reel from the horrors of 2020 and as the pandemic–and now in the U.S. as political unrest threatens our very sense of security—how much we need to read about how we suffer at the hands of those who wish us ill. Of late many people in this world—and certainly most Americans since the events of January 6—feel like that “tottering fence” and “leaning wall” referred to in the opening verses of Psalm 62. Foundations have been shaken. Ugly words have been and are being spewed on social media and into camera lenses. We wonder what is left that is solid, that could provide refuge.
The psalmist has an answer of course: God alone. And we are encouraged to pour out our hearts to this same God. And why not? We could never take reliable refuge in a God we could not entrust with our deepest fears and anxieties, doubts and dark thoughts. For God to shelter us, God needs to know us, needs to hear from us what makes us need divine refuge. In the spirit of the Psalms of Lament, so here we are encouraged to not hold back, to not deny our deepest yearnings or feelings for the sake of some false pretense of a piety that feels it has to pretend all is sunny and well with our souls no matter what comes. No, divulge it all to God. God can take it. And when we sense God understands, then God’s sheltering of us takes on new meaning because we know God holds the answers to help us.
But then comes a practical reminder of something we need to remind ourselves of often. Because in verses 9 and 10 the psalmist points out the final analysis of evil and arrogant people: they are in the end nothing. A piffle. A trifle. Just hevel, the Hebrew word for “breath” that gets used as the refrain in Ecclesiastes for meaninglessness, vapor, futility. Certainly the proud and arrogant of the world are good at putting on a fine show. They are full of swagger, full of sound and fury. They are splashy and flashy. They seize the headlines and dominate news cycles. They amass riches and power and seem to be able to buy their way out of almost anything. While some people go to jail for 15 years for being caught with 2 ounces of cocaine, some get away with massive fraud or crimes or swindles and never seem to have a moment’s regret and certainly never get anything remotely resembling their comeuppance.
In short, they look formidable and substantial. Forces to reckon with and all that.
But it’s not true, the psalmist declares. In the end they are nothing. Nothing in God’s sight—which is a sure way actually to BE nothing—but nothing in the long run of eternity either. Their works will not abide. Their power will come to a stunning and sudden end.
This is then followed in verse 10 with a prudent warning: don’t try to gain the riches or power these people have by adopting their methods as your own. It might work in this busted-up and messed-up world of ours but it will lead to also your ruin, to your being counted among those who finally have no real substance at all. And even if through ordinary means that are not themselves devious you find yourself having some wealth or other goods, don’t make them the center of your life. For one thing such material things can disappear in the proverbial blink of an eye. But also, in the end only one thing—or better said, only one Person—should be the center of your life and on which you set your heart and it is right back this psalm’s answer for everything: God Alone.
The psalm ends with a line that may be troubling to Gospel preachers today who need to proclaim the New Testament’s message of salvation by grace alone. Namely, the psalm ends with the declaration that God rewards everyone according to what they have done. Does this sentiment—and this is hardly the only place in the Bible where you can find it—do an end-run on salvation by grace alone? No. Even in a Gospel context it remains true, it is just that once you are baptized into Christ, Jesus’ deeds become your deeds. Jesus’ perfect righteousness gets credited to you. But if you are not “in Christ” (to use the Apostle Paul’s favorite shorthand phrase for salvation), then all that remains are your own deeds and when that happens . . . well, good luck with passing muster before a Holy and Righteous Almighty God. (And, of course, based on everything else this psalm claims, it goes without saying that if all you can present to God as the summation of your life is your ill-gotten-gains financial portfolio . . . well, then we come back to that line about being no more than a puff of air.)
Again, in a dark season of life on a global scale—and in dark and fragile moments in a place like the United States where much seems unsure just now—Psalm 62’s reminders are meant to bolster us, reassure us, give us some hope in a time of much hopelessness and loss. Applied to all that, these are not pat or easy answers. But from the vantage point of faith, they are the truth, and there is more than something to be said for that!
I have used this before in other sermoncommentaries from passages that make a similar point but verse 9 of Psalm 62 reminds me of the end of the Harry Potter cycle of novels and films. From the beginning, the evil Lord Voldemort—he who must not be named—seemed beyond formidable. He was perhaps the most powerful wizard in the world and was certainly the most vicious and evil. He seemed invincible, even early on in the stories finding a way to come back from what looked like his death. He claimed he would live forever.
But then in the end in the final battle with Harry Potter, Voldemort is suddenly defeated. Having quite literally had his soul chipped away through a series of events, in the end Voldemort was just nothing, a breath, a puff of air. And so when in their final battle Voldemort has his own death curse rebound upon himself, he just floats away. His entire body starts to waft into the wind like the ashes of a burned up newspaper. And just like that, he is gone, quite literally scattered to the winds. (You can watch—or re-watch!—the scene here.)
That is Psalm 62’s message about all those who fancy themselves as masters of the universe for now: in the end they will be revealed as being nothing at all. As insubstantial as the ash of a piece of burned paper.
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