Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 7, 2021

Psalm 19 Commentary

Since I began teaching preaching about 15 years ago, one of the things I find myself most often urging students to do is pay good attention to their transitions.  Segues, metonymy, giving listeners little verbal hooks inside the sermon to help folks track the sermon’s forward progress: all of these things are vital to good sermon writing.  Too often, though, one encounters sermons that seem to make wild leaps from one paragraph or section to the next.  In the preacher’s mind C follows B logically but the fact of the matter is, most people have no idea how the preacher got from B to C and need help to understand.  (Of course, now and then there may be a preacher or a student who sees connections between B & C the likes of which NO ONE else could ever perceive, but that’s a different issue.)

Someone should have told this to the poet of Psalm 19.  Because somehow or another between verse 6 and verse 7, the song seems to make what looks like a wild leap.  This could also be an example of another very bad sermon-writing mistake: the Step-Down Introduction.  This happens when the preacher begins with an image that everyone assumes is leading them down Path A but suddenly it turns out the preacher had been going down Path B all along and now the congregation has to backtrack to catch up.  A sermon that begins by talking about how important teachers are makes all the listeners think that the value of good role models is the subject at hand.  Except then the preacher suddenly starts to talk about tax vouchers for private education and most listeners are left to think, “Whhaaaat??  I had no idea that THIS is where the preacher was going with all that!”

For Psalm 19, the opening imagery has the reader scanning the skies.  The sun, moon, and stars are dazzling us with their brilliance and with their silent—yet unmistakable witness—to the Creator God.  Long about the time you are getting all enthused by these celestial wonders, suddenly the writer of this psalm takes hold of your face and forces you to look down at some dusty Torah scroll where you can consider God’s Law.  And that is then where the rest of the poem spends all its time: on the beauty, splendor, richness, and sweetness of God’s statutes, commands, rules, and laws.  And since we are in the Law department anyway, the psalm ends with a kind of confession in asking God to straighten out within us anything that God’s Law reveals as being crooked.

As for the sun shining in the sky?  By the end of the psalm it is as though that image had never been conjured in the first place.

Soooo . . . what gives?  Was this originally 2 short songs that someone thought loosely to stitch together?  Or can we do what the psalmist elected not to do; viz., figure out what made sense in his mind to connect the wonders of the firmament with the wonders of God’s Law?  There are a few possibilities we could consider.

One possibility is that the psalmist is so enthused about the beauty of God’s Law that the beauty one sees on a starry night or when observing the brilliant course of the sun across the sky on any given day really did seem to be practically the same thing.  Whatever God makes or does is splendid.  The sun?  Sure.  Lovely.  The Law?  Also for sure.  Gorgeous.  They are kind of the same after all.

A related possibility is that both the creation and the Law are so downrightly orderly, and perhaps this is the connection the psalmist saw between verses 1-6 an then verse 7 and following.  There is majesty to be perceived in how God laid out the architecture of the cosmos and also in how God laid out the structure of God’s Law.  The universe coheres.  There is a logic to it all.  There is purpose in it all as well—neither the physical world nor the spiritual realm are simply a random, booming, buzzing confusion.  It’s a symphony not a cacophony.  It all forms a cosmos and not a chaos.

Certainly it is true that sometimes the world seems pretty chaotic.  But you get the feeling that if you pointed that out to this psalmist, he would have a ready-to-hand explanation: life seems random and the world looks chaotic precisely because people are NOT following God’s blueprint for life as contained in the Law.  Life on planet earth would be as regular and orderly and happily predictable as the courses of the stars above if only we did what God told us to do.  Follow the rules, color inside the lines, learn to live happily within the area proscribed by God’s moral boundary fences and all would be well.

People don’t do that and hence this psalm’s closing prayer for God to forgive but also to heal and to straighten out whatever within the psalmist is not in plumb with God’s rules.  The Lenten note with which this poem concludes is no doubt the reason it is assigned for the Season of Lent in the Year B Lectionary.

Life is meant to be beautiful—as beautiful as the stars above.  And God has given us the great gift of a Law that can help us achieve that beauty.

Of course, Psalm 19 might sound other discordant notes for some people.  Rules are very often not one’s favorite thing in life.  Most folks don’t get all swoony when looking at a list of rules the way the psalmist clearly feels when looking at God’s Law.  We often chafe against regulations.  You can start a heated political argument almost anywhere by saying either “I think the government needs to regulate the economy and the environment more than it currently does” or alternatively by saying, “The best government is small government—keep your nose out of my business!”

Of course, on the human level not every law or regulation is perfect.  But not so with God’s Law.  It always aims at making our lives better.  Its goal is ever and only just one thing (and it is the best thing): Shalom.

Helping us to see and celebrate that beautiful prospect is what Psalm 19 is all about.  It is what the sun, moon, and stars are all about too.

Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page.

Illustration Idea

Perhaps it is a bit of a silly joke—and it may or may not relate as well as it might to the subject at hand—but here goes:  A man newly arrived in New York City hails a taxi.  He gets into the backseat and gives the driver his destination address.  The driver takes off on the streets of Manhattan and as they approach a red light, the taxi driver sails on through.  “What are you doing!?” the passenger cries out.  “Don’t worry” the driver says, “My brother Felix does it all the time!”  Soon they come up on another red light and again the taxi drives through the intersection.  “You’re going to get me killed” the man sighs.  “Don’t worry—my brother Felix does it all the time!”  Finally they come up on another intersection and as they get to it, the light turns green.  The passenger breathes a sigh of relief even as the taxi driver screeches to a halt.  “Now what are you doing?” the passengers asks.  “Hey,” the driver replies, “My brother Felix might be coming from the other way!”

There is a certain inescapable logic to the existence of most laws.  We can flout some laws, break some laws, ignore some laws but not only do we do so to our peril, the orderliness that laws make possible has a funny way of reasserting itself too.  It seems to have something to do with how the world got made in the first place.


Preaching Connections: , ,
Biblical Books:

Dive Deeper

This Week:

Spark Inspiration:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup