Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 21, 2021
Psalm 25:1-10 Commentary
Samuel Johnson is reported to have once said something to the effect that we need more often to be reminded than instructed. And perhaps the RCL thinks so too since Psalm 25 was assigned a few months ago near the end of September. Probably what I wrote then—most of which is the content of this sermon commentary—can take on a slightly different spin for the first Sunday in Lent with the psalm’s words about the need to instruct sinners and receive guidance from God on a regular basis ringing some penitential notes in this penitential season. So let’s explore how this goes in the 25th psalm.
Again pace Johnson: we need more often to be reminded than instructed. Intuitively probably most of us have a pretty solid sense of what he meant. It’s not that I don’t know the basics of knife safety when I am slicing and dicing vegetables in my kitchen. It’s just that sometimes I am in a hurry and so I don’t clean off my cutting board. Next thing you know my knife tip gets stuck on a piece of carrot, the knife slips sideways as a result, and I take a chunk off a fingertip. I received the proper instruction once. I just needed to be reminded of it again. To remind myself.
This does not mean, of course, that any of us are ever really finished with encountering new learning in various subject matters or areas of life. Hopefully we all aspire to be life-long learners. But the fact is that most people of all education levels have throughout their lives received plenty of good, solid, accurate instruction about all kinds of things we encounter on a daily basis and so the key is to remind ourselves of what we know so we can follow through on it, do things right, be wise, stay safe. How often, having taken a shortcut to save time, do we make a mistake only to say to ourselves, “I know better than that!”
Indeed we do often know better. We just need to be reminded.
Psalm 25 is a poem that pines for divine guidance and instruction. Lots of psalms ask God to shine a light upon our paths, to guide our steps, to teach us what is right.
For also followers of Jesus—remember that the Greek word we translate as “disciple” in the New Testament really means “student” at its most basic linguistic level—lifelong learning of God’s ways (as perfected humanly in Christ Jesus) is vital. It’s basic. But let’s also be honest: most of what we need to know to be Christ-like we already know and learned a long time ago. We really do more often need to be reminded of that. Frankly, some of it is common sense, other parts of it are common decency, and still other parts are so morally basic that they are reflected in the laws of almost every civilized nation all down through history.
Even as children we know more than we sometimes want to admit. With some—but rare—exceptions, very few children who get caught having done something wrong are being honest when they claim, “I didn’t know that was naughty to do!!!” Grown-ups are not much better. When a man tells his wife that he really didn’t know that having a couple drinks with another woman at a bar followed by his inviting her to chat more in his hotel room would lead to his committing adultery . . . well, he’s not likely telling the truth of what he knows deep in his heart and soul. We often know what is right. We don’t need to be taught. Just reminded. Again: we need to remind ourselves as often as not.
Or to make this more spiritual and less psychological: we need to let the Holy Spirit remind us. We need to be attentive to the Spirit’s voice in our hearts as the Spirit guides our feet, helps us make better decisions, and shows us—albeit not for the first time but perhaps the ten-thousandth time—the path on which God wishes to guide our feet. And listening to that Spirit is by no means automatic. If only it were.
Instead this is a matter of regular prayer. Maybe it’s a matter also of praying the psalms, like Psalm 25. We want to find ways regularly to attune our spiritual hearing to the Spirit’s voice, to let the Spirit set our internal moral compass for us. Yes, as also disciples we should desire to be lifelong learners but as often as not, we need to be lifelong receivers of the Spirit’s prompting us to do what we already know is right.
But another word needs to be said before this sermon commentary concludes: life does contain a lot of morally gray zones where it is genuinely difficult to know what to do. Years ago the WWJD bracelet and t-shirt fad—What Would Jesus Do?—made it seem as if so long as you had a bracelet on your wrist to remind yourself to ask yourself what Jesus would do in any given situation, then you’d know right away. But it’s not always quite that easy to know what Jesus would do or what Christ through the Spirit would have us to do or to say. It’s not a weak Christian who admits to being stumped somewhat often as to how to navigate certain waters but a strong and wise one who does so.
In that case the words of Psalm 25 become even more vital as we really do need to be instructed and not just reminded. The Spirit no doubt has a hundred good ways to get through to us with answers to such quandaries and questions, though not all are easy to receive or hear and sometimes answers can be a long time coming, too. Just because we cannot tell quickly what we ought to do is no reason not to keep on asking for the instruction.
Verse 9 notes that it is the humble person who receives God’s instruction the best. Humility is the opposite of pride, of thinking we can make a go of everything totally on our own all the time. And humility is the beginning of wisdom and so is the opposite of also folly. Because as it is often said: Fools are often in error but never in doubt. That’s because they cannot be taught. Wise are those believers who look to God’s instruction—and yes, to the Spirit’s incessant reminding of us—every day as part of a faithful life lived to the glory of God.
In this time of Lenten repentance, our every confession of sin immediately translates into a more ardent desire to live into the words of something like Psalm 25, asking God to guide us so that next time, we’ll do what we already know to be the right thing.
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page.
Sometimes it seems that for all the appeal it has on the surface—and for all the things about it that really are correct—the “What Would Jesus Do?” mantra needs almost as often as not to be replaced with—or at least supplemented by—another question: What Would Jesus NOT Do? What would Jesus NOT say? It sometimes feels like a lot of ugly things that also Christians say and do—sometimes to even fellow Christians on Facebook much less to people who do not share the Christian faith—would be avoided if we wondered what Jesus would not do or say.
Jesus would not fire off an email in anger. He would not sneer at another person on Facebook in sarcasm over even some post Jesus himself disagreed with. Jesus would not assign libelous or mean-spirited labels to people of different political viewpoints on certain hot button issues of the day. None of that is to say Jesus would be silent or would fail to address anything he deemed important. But how would he do it? A lot of the time the Gospel indicates he would most assuredly not do it the way too many of us do.
And let’s be honest: even if it is genuinely not always easy to answer the question “What Would Jesus Do?”, if we eliminated up front all the things Jesus would NOT do, our lives and the world in general would be a much better place.
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