Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 4, 2022
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Commentary
At 98 years of age, Jimmy Carter is now not only the oldest currently living former President of the United States but he has now lived to become the oldest former President ever. Strikingly, he has also been a former President for over 40 years. During those four decades of time, Carter’s reputation has soared but, of course, he left office after a single term that most observers regarded as a failed presidency.
In addition to the energy crisis and the tanking of the economy, America on Carter’s watch also got embroiled in a hostage crisis in Iran from which Carter and his team could not extricate themselves. The final humiliation for Carter was having it fall to Ronald Reagan, immediately after his inauguration, to announce that Iran was releasing the hostages that very day. Reagan tried to give credit to Carter for his diplomatic efforts that quite literally went up to the final hour of Carter’s term, but it was too late. Carter was deemed a failure.
What people may forget, however, is that Jimmy Carter was the first President who made human rights the cornerstone of his foreign policy. Politics, economics, military aid, peace negotiations, and foreign assistance: everything was secondary to any given nation’s treatment of its people. Strikingly, this had never before been the guiding concern of any President in the past. It may be fair to say that neither has it been priority #1 of any President since Carter, either.
But it was a noble thing Carter did and it was deeply rooted in his Christian faith too. But it was not celebrated with any particular pomp and circumstance at the time and has been fading in memory ever since too. Why? Probably because what people most want to see in their leaders is confidence, bravado, strength, guts, and power. We want our leaders to be strong. We pray for wisdom and confidence. We hope for boldness and for inspiration.
Very often our thoughts are at some distance from the core sentiment of Psalm 72 and its plea that God will endow the king with justice. Righteousness and Justice in a leader may take a back seat these days to Power and Persuasion, to Bravado and Zeal. Having a firm sense of justice does not sell well politically. Reagan called for “Morning in America” not “Justice in America.” Obama ran on “Yes We Can” but you get the feeling “Yes We Can Be Just” might not have ignited into a chant at rallies. Many like the idea of “Make America Great Again” but as bumper stickers go, “Make America Just Again” might not work.
Yet this was to be the key trait in Israel’s kings. And as Psalm 72 makes clear, what this would mean for any given leader is that he would have a very soft spot in his heart for the vulnerable, for the downtrodden, for that repeated Old Testament triplet of the widow, the orphan, and the alien. These were the so-called “anawim” that are always singled out in God’s Law as deserving of special care. And, alas, Israel’s ultimate failure to care for these poor and marginalized members of society later became Indictment #1 when the Minor Prophets like Amos and Micah assailed Israel for breaking God’s covenant.
But as Psalm 72 makes clear, it was the king of Israel who was supposed to set the tone. The king was the one who had to be endowed with a special measure of God’s Spirit so as to be able to notice those who cry for mercy in society. The Lectionary skips over verses 8-17, probably in this case for the sake of brevity in that those verses mostly repeat what is already in verses 1-7. However, if you read those verses, then you can see again a major focus on the poor and needy in verses 12-14. Clearly this is the key theme in this psalm and in its depiction of who the king is supposed to be and what is supposed to be a major focus of his royal responsibilities.
But then as now, the odds of having a leader actually be able to see and care for such groups of people seem stacked against kings and presidents and prime ministers. If you are a member of the anawim today—or increasingly also in Israel’s day—then good luck being able to get the attention of an exalted leader. We know who gets cabinet posts and ambassadorships and offices in the West Wing or at 10 Downing Street: the wealthy, the big donors, the flashy celebrities in the worlds of business or entertainment.
If you are an ordinary citizen, then during campaigns you might get emails ostensibly from the candidate him- or herself and goodness knows your volunteer efforts for the campaign will be welcomed. But if any of that makes you think you will have a better shot at being heard by the candidate if he or she actually makes it to high office, you will soon find out that is not the case. Your notes, letters, and emails will mostly not get past the first stage of a multi-stage vetting process. The best you can hope for by all reply will be a pre-printed standard post card saying, “Dear Friend: Thanks for writing!”
It would take a leader of extraordinary compassion and skill to be able to keep a focus on the invisible members of society when the highly visible folks clamor for the leader’s attention day and night. In truth, no leader of Israel ever actually succeeded in fulfilling the vision laid out in Psalm 72. Some did better than others at keeping the broad contours of God’s covenant but at their worst, the leaders actually trampled on the already downtrodden. Kings became less likely, not more likely, even to be able to see such folks in the wider kingdom once the reins of power ran through their hands.
What kind of a leader could actually possess all the power there is in the world AND still be able to wield that power in ways that would benefit the lowest of the low? Well, the fact that Psalm 72 is a Lectionary text for the Second Sunday in Advent gives you the answer: it’s Jesus. It’s the incarnate Son of God. He alone came to us full of grace and truth. He alone has the divine ability to not get intoxicated with his own power but instead to channel that power directly into the lives of the people who need it most. This is the perfect King of Israel that Psalm 72 pines for.
The only question that remains for the rest of us in Advent and at all times is whether those of us who happily embrace Jesus as the King of kings can find it within ourselves to go and be likewise. Or do we also get intoxicated with power for power’s sake if only we can sidle up to the powers that be in Washington D.C. or Ottawa or London or wherever? Or in our Instagram celebrity-driven culture, do we also only have eyes for the beautiful people who walk down the red carpet at the American Music Awards or the Grammys or the Oscars? Psalm 72 is paired in the Advent II Lectionary with John the Baptist’s shrill call for repentance in Matthew 3. Of what particular sins might John the Baptist be calling us to repent? Maybe not displaying enough concern for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the welfare-dependent, the addict, the lonely, the abused, the exploited.
Who knows how historically or even textually valid certain side notes and superscriptions in the Book of Psalms are. Nevertheless, Psalm 72 has traditionally been listed as the last Psalm that is said to be attributed to or more directly connected to King David. If so, then maybe we regard Psalm 72 as a kind of valedictory address, a bottom line, a final word. Maybe this particular song and its focus on a King for the oppressed represents not only the last word but the best word for what we can all but dimly hope will be true of our world now and into the future of God’s kingdom. If so, it is not a bad final word at all. Indeed, it is a profoundly hopeful word. “Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen.”
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John Lennon and Paul McCartney may have gone on to become stratospherically famous as the lead songwriters for The Beatles, but they seemed never to have forgotten their working class roots. Many of their best loved songs celebrated the invisible people of society, and no song did this better or more famously than the ballad “Eleanor Rigby” and its refrain “Ah, look at all the lonely people. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
No one, least of all Paul McCartney by his own admission, quite knows how a name he claims to have just made up also appears on the gravestone in a church cemetery in McCartney’s boyhood home of Liverpool. McCartney admits he might have noticed the name on the tomb once and subliminally recalled it later. In any event, the woman in the song is an emblem of lonely people—the kinds of people who no one knows. “Eleanor Rigby, died in a church and is buried along with her name. Nobody came.”
History is silted full with people like that. People on the margins, people few know, people few notice in this life. Yet somehow the good news of the perfect King who just is Jesus is that it is precisely these types of folks he always noticed most of all during his earthly ministry. And insofar as Psalm 72 is ultimately coming true in the reign of this cosmic King of kings and Lord of lords, apparently these are the same people who will matter the most forever and ever too.
“All the lonely people. Where do they all belong?” The Bible has an answer: they belong with Jesus, the child of Bethlehem’s stall who came for all such as this.
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