Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 27, 2022
Psalm 99 Commentary
All these millennia later it is easy to read the Psalms, especially one like Psalm 99, and forget how at once scandalous and vaguely ridiculous they might appear to be. Or at least how they could appear to an outsider to Israel who was looking in. After all, in poems like this one, the psalmist is making some breathtaking and sweeping claims. But it is the locus and focus of those claims that properly might widen your eyes when you really think about it.
After all, the Lord God of Israel, Yahweh, is said to be a Ruler of such cosmic might and grandeur that all the other nations must tremble and bow down before his holiness. Now, when we read this today, I’d wager that most people envision God high and lifted up beyond the rim of the known universe. We see our God as King—and now with Jesus as the King of kings—sitting on a glorious celestial throne from which he upholds billions of galaxies and gezillions of stars and so on.
Ah but wait: that is not quite what Psalm 99 says. That is not where the psalmist directs our gaze. No, we are brought to Mount Zion, to the Temple, to the Holy of Holies, to the Ark of the Covenant, to the two carvings of cherubim that sit atop that Ark. The camera of Psalm 99 keeps zooming in, and in, and in, and in with ever-smaller objects filling up the frame. We end up staring at a rectangular surface that’s about 51 inches long and 31 inches wide, something smaller than the surface of your average dining room table. And THAT is where Yahweh is said to be sitting and from that perch he is doing all this global ruling and such.
Now I mean no disrespect to Ancient Israel but . . . “Mount” Zion is really little more than a big hill. Everest it is not. And Israel itself, even in its heyday under Kings David and Solomon, and the city of Jerusalem and the Temple at the center of that city: none of that made the cut of being included in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Those wonders included the Hanging Gardens in Babylon, the great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt, the statue of Zeus at Olympia in Greece, the Temple to Artemis in Ephesus. The Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant within it were not on the list. Not even close. The Wonders of the World tour bus did not stop there.
Yet Psalm 99 is one of many psalms that tell us that Mount Zion and that Temple and that Ark of the Covenant were together the most important place in the cosmos, theologically speaking. From the outside looking in, that seems ridiculous.
What’s more, the psalmist then goes on to detail more reasons why that God seated on that Ark between those cherubim deserved praise. But the list is all pretty intramural to Israel. We hear about Moses and Aaron, Samuel, and how God spoke out of a cloud and doled out laws. This is all very much in-house stuff regarding just Israel. Sure, maybe if you were an Israelite this all seemed like a big deal but honestly on the grand scale of human events across history, this is a little like claiming that the goings-on of the Smith family from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, far outstrip other things like, say, the events involving World War II or the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Maybe to the Smiths their family history seems powerfully important but, honestly, we’re talking about very tiny fish in a huge historical pond.
In short, we miss the audacity of something like Psalm 99 when we forget the true and original historical framework of these words.
And yet . . . if we are Christians preaching on this Psalm in the 21st century, then we are doing so because at a very important level, we think the psalmist here is correct. Yahweh is the one true God of the cosmos. He is the Creator of everything that exists. He was doing a special thing in Ancient Israel by laying the groundwork for a salvation that would finally be global, perhaps cosmic. Yes, from the outside looking in, little old “Mount” Zion and that little box known as the Ark of the Covenant seem like an unlikely center for such galactic-level activity.
But that’s just it: this is how God operates. If we can see what makes Psalm 99 audacious by all objective standards, we can also celebrate all over again how God is forever operating in the hidden margins of life to accomplish his grand purposes. After all, eventually in the biblical narrative our focus will also get very, very small: all our hopes will be pinned to a miracle zygote growing within the small uterus of one young woman in the backwaters of the grand Roman Empire. And if THAT does not strike you as also an audacious, scandalous, miraculous claim . . .!!!
God so often works through the very particular, through the very small and the seemingly insignificant things of this world to accomplish a salvation that could not be more grand. In the end, all of the holiness Psalm 99 celebrates got concentrated down into that small, microscopic zygote that then grew into an ordinary-looking baby and that further grew into an otherwise unremarkable carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Yet God was in that Christ to reconcile nothing short of the whole world to himself. Yes, that is an audacious claim. It is also either the truest and dearest thing anyone has ever heard or a piece of utter nonsense. The particularity of the Christian claim in the Gospel really brooks no middle ground.
But when you see and recognize this truth, you fall back in awe and wonder and, with Psalm 99, can but declare, “Exalt the Lord our God . . . for the Lord our God is holy.”
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When we praise God for specific blessings in all the small and particular ways God works, then, as Walter Brueggemann has said, we bear witness to another world. We burst the narrow horizons and the shrunken boundary lines within which most people live to declare our belief in a larger world in which God is the King. “The act of praise opens a world for viewing but also for participation,” Brueggemann has written. In our act of praising God for his specific wonders we not only sing to God, we sing against the false gods of this world–the gods of self-sufficiency, of homemade salvation, of narrow human achievement in a world where everything is the result of luck or hard work but never the result of God’s work. But in our praise of God, we declare our faith not just in his transcendent power but in his down-to-earth love for us.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that for now we can only tune up our instruments in preparation for the heavenly symphony of praise. But if you’ve ever been to an orchestra concert, then you know that there is something lovely and exciting about even the warm-up time. When you hear that cacophony of sounds, you know you’re getting close. And then, every once in a while in the midst of the jumbled sounds of percussion, woodwinds, strings, and brass, every once in a while someone plays a few measures of the Mozart piece that is coming up. And when you catch those few strains of the real music, your heart skips a beat in anticipation.
In this sinful world we can but tune our instruments, but tune them we must. And as we do so, we shout “Hallelujah” to everyone around us, inviting them to join us in our chorus of praise to the Savior, to the God of small things, to the Lord of our everyday lives.
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