Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 14, 2021
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 Commentary
The Lectionary is giving us but a small sampling of Psalm 107 by carving out the first three verses and then a half-dozen from the center of the larger poem. If you read the entire psalm, you will discover it is a curious historical retrospective on various experiences that various unnamed people have had at the hands of God. Throughout the Psalm the upshot of those first few verses is the theme: God delivers people from distress. And even if at times it seems like God was the sender of the distress in the first place (usually as a punishment for sin), nevertheless God receives all the praise for the deliverance from distress that eventually comes.
The larger poem runs through a checklist of different groups and how they got into the distress from which they eventually needed deliverance.
Some wandered in desert wastelands . . .
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness . . .
Some became fools through their rebellious ways . . .
Some went out onto the sea in ships . . .
Of course, in no case do we receive any clue as to who the “some” are. But from the looks of the opening verses, this psalm appears to be casting a wide net. References are made to “all” whom the Lord has redeemed as well as to “all” the people gathered from north, south, east, and west. In that sense the scope of Psalm 107 appears to be much wider than just Israel. For sure there are parts of this poem that echo Israelite experiences in Egypt and in the wilderness but since Israel was not a sea-faring people (indeed, they viewed the sea as a remnant of pre-creation chaos) surely the reference to people setting out on the sea in ships goes beyond Israel.
In that sense Psalm 107 is an ode to salvation for all people who cry out to the Lord God in their distress, whatever that distress might be and whatever the source of that distress might have been once upon a time. No doubt this is why the Lectionary features this on the Fourth Sunday in Lent. We give thanks to God for not just this or that individual instance of salvation from dire distress but from our largest source of human distress: our enthrallment to death itself. The cross of Christ delivers us from eternal death once and for all.
So while it may be the case that “some” get into trouble through Path A and “some” others lose their way on Path B, the fact of the matter is that “all” and not just some of us are on a path to perdition unless Someone can rescue us from our inevitable demise in death. Small wonder the New Testament refers to death as the last enemy. It is not the only enemy, and Psalm 107 lists a few other foes for us. But death is the last enemy because it is our common foe.
But this ultimate deliverance has come and so the other refrain that punctuates Psalm 107 is also something to which we need to pay attention: the call to give thanks over and over to God for what God has done. Having been saved by grace alone, this is now our common vocation. Give thanks! The solemn nature of Lent is not meant to be an end in itself, a kind of enduring downer for the sake of being negative. The penitence we express in Lent (as well as the meditation on our own finiteness that is also part of Lent) are gateways to rejoicing.
This knowledge of God’s great salvation, though, is more than that too. It also sets the agenda for what we ought to ponder, think about, call to mind, celebrate on a regular basis. Although it not part of this lection, the final verse of Psalm 107 states it well:
Let the one who is wise heed these things
and ponder the loving deeds of the Lord.
Heed these things. Ponder God’s loving deeds.
Not a bad mantra for Lent.
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page.
In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Neal Plantinga notes at one point that for now and in this world nothing set our tongues to wagging like bad news. Bad news spreads like wildfire. The news media is all over bad news. We regale one another with the bad things that happen, write Op-Eds for newspapers about it. But one day in God’s bright kingdom, things will be different. People will sit on their front porches and call out to passersby to lift up and celebrate good and positive things! We will get effusive about lovely acts and most certainly about the loving deeds of God that led to salvation. We just won’t be able to get enough of the good stuff!
This also reminds me of an observation in Marilynne Robinson’s luminous epistolary novel Gilead. At one point the book’s narrator, the Rev. John Ames, muses if we will remember our lives on earth once we get to “heaven.” Some say no, we ought not remember our old troubles in a fallen world. But Ames thinks otherwise. “In eternity this world will be like Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”
Remembering some of what was difficult will be the path to do what Psalm 107 says: ponder God’s loving deeds by which he rescued us from so much sorrow.
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