Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 27, 2021
Psalm 30 Commentary
Psalm 30 is almost singularly upbeat in its incessant exaltations of God. But the discerning reader and preacher will notice that underneath all this praising there has been a history of pain. References are made to having gone down to the depths, to sinking into the pit, to enemies eager to gloat over the psalmist’s downfall, and even a reference to having been rescued from the grave. This psalmist has definitely been around. He’s been there and back again more than once.
If Psalm 30 is known for anything, it is probably the line in verse 5 about how weeping lasts but for a night “but joy cometh in the morning” (as the older translations had it). The idea of joy coming in the morning has resonated with Bible readers for millennia. It is a fine expression of an abiding hope. But from the looks of the psalm, “morning” is a loose term that almost certainly need not be interpreted to mean that every single season of grief lasts no more than 12 hours before relief comes and joy returns. This poet, like most believers, knows that the morning can sometimes be a long ways off.
It reminds me a bit of the COVID pandemic across most of 2020 and a good bit of this current year too. Pandemics don’t last forever and so deep down we all knew we would one day arrive at a post-pandemic moment. Initially a lot of us foolishly hoped it might be a matter of weeks. When things started to look serious the first part of March 2020, my wife and I decided we would be keeping our Spring Break plans for going to New Mexico the first week of April. Things might be better by then, right? Well, a couple weeks later we knew that was a no go and so changed our reservations and plane tickets to the middle of August because surely by then . . . Eventually we scrapped the whole thing and have not yet tried to make new plans.
We all suspected that post-COVID joy would come one morning but that morning kept getting pushed farther and farther into the future until we stopped even trying to pin our hopes to a certain date or season. But as that morning may now be dawning with vaccination rates rising and COVID cases declining and mask mandates being lifted, we know that it feels all the sweeter to eat at a restaurant again because it took so very long to get here.
Something of that dynamic is going on in Psalm 30 as well. Precisely because he had been cast down into the depths for a long while (and more than once) and because that morning when joy and rejoicing would come back took so long to arrive, now that he is in a better spot, his praise of God is that much more jubilant and enthusiastic. You have to have wailing for it to be turned into dancing and you have to have been in sackcloth for a while for it to be replaced with joy (verse 11). The unhappy presence of the sorrows leads to a more vibrant happiness when deliverance comes and God is once again seen as utterly faithful.
My neck of the theological woods is a Reformed one with a strong Calvinist influence. Those of us who are heirs of John Calvin’s theological tradition have often been caricatured as a rather gloomy lot. So much talk about sin and depravity and of how even our best works are but as filthy rags in God’s sight. The old barb about the Puritans is mostly overstated but not without at least a modicum of some historical backing: A Puritan is someone who worries that somewhere in the world someone is having a good time. Now, now, that’s not fair. Still, John Calvin could be relentless in his focus on sin and depravity. A distillate of a lot of Calvin’s thought can be found in the Reformed confessional document The Canons of Dort, and it’s not a cheery read.
But here is the thing: Calvin wanted to present sin as utterly monstrous in order to present salvation by grace as utterly majestic. You cannot appreciate the grandeur of grace and the wonder of divine election until you realize how bad things are without all that saving work of God through Christ. The light of God shines the brighter when we have a firm appreciation for how the darkness would overwhelm us were it not for God’s intervention.
Every once in a while we may run across someone who was the beneficiary of a tremendous gift. But it can also happen now and again that we find some such person only to discover that he seems to have no idea how amazing the gift he got actually was and is. His gratitude seems to be more on the level of being thankful that someone loaned him $5 when he really ought to be as grateful as if someone had donated a kidney to him. So we may take such a person aside to say, “I don’t think you have a clear picture of what happened to you so let me fill you in on a few things, pal.” Maybe you go on to sketch what his life would have been like without the gift, how bad off and destitute he could very well have ended up. You want to enhance his gratitude by sketching some scary and dark stuff that you hope will open his eyes to what has really taken place in his life.
So also our gratitude to God for his salvation and deliverance. If we ever find ourselves being nonchalant about all that, being grateful but, you know, not TOO grateful, then we need to know what the poet of Psalm 30 knew: our lives are lost to many pits of despair and finally to the grave itself if God does not do something to save us. Just open your eyes to what has really gone on and to what would actually be the case had things gone otherwise and you, too, will soon find yourself joining the exaltations of Psalm 30.
As I have noted before in other sermon commentary articles here on the CEP website, there is a poignant moment in the play and film Shadowlands, the story of C.S. Lewis’s late-in-life romance and marriage with the American Joy Davidman. Joy is the love of Lewis’s life but she also has a cancer that they both know will take her life sooner rather than later. Lewis had a hard time grappling with the cancer and was often minded to downplay it or try to ignore it. But at one point Joy tells her husband that the sorrow that will come later was part of the joy they had in being together for now. “That’s the deal” Joy says. Joy and sorrow have this quirky connection in which paradoxically the presence of the sorrow enhances the joy. And that is something the psalmist of Psalm 30 seems to have known about.
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