C.S. Lewis said somewhere that when you add it all up and consider it all together, in the end we would find that our prayer life is also our autobiography. Who we are, where we’ve been, the situations we’ve faced, the fears that nag us, and not a few of the core characteristics of who we are as individuals: all of it can be, and really should be, detectable and on display in the way we pray. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to formal prayers we say in public. Maybe it doesn’t include fully even the prayers we say with our family at the dinner table.
But prayer as autobiography in the sense Lewis meant emerges more from the sum total of our private prayers. Because it is in those intensely private moments that we spend with God that we lay bare our souls, that we open up our hearts, that we maybe cry out to God in ways we’d be embarrassed to let anyone else see. It’s when no one else is listening except the God who loves us that we confess the more craven parts of our hearts. For better or worse, the temptations with which we struggle and which we confess do reveal something about who we are. It’s when we are in quiet moments of prayer that thoughts occur to us that maybe we don’t tumble to at other times (and that we would not utter were other people listening in). But the point is that over time, our prayers are our autobiography, the story of our lives, the patterns of our thinking, the priorities that rise to the top.
Psalm 27 is like that, too. Here is a psalm that has long been a favorite for many. It contains memorable turns-of-phrase, several of which are among the Bible’s staunchest statements of trust in God. True, this is also one of those psalms that contains a kind of ancient language that is rather remote from our experience. In one of her many wonderful books, Anne Tyler shows us the character of Maggie who, near the opening of the novel, attends a funeral. In the course of the funeral, the minister read what Maggie thought was a really lovely psalm, which was a relief to Maggie since she had always been under the impression that the psalms were forever going on and on in a paranoid way about enemies and attacking armies.
Well, Psalm 27 does have some of that kind of talk (though the Lectionary oddly skips over that and chops this poem up rather strangely—this sermon commentary is considering basically the whole psalm). We don’t go through most of our days thinking about our lives in quite the military-like language used in some of Psalm 27. But despite the foreignness of some of that, this is nevertheless a psalm we feel we can relate to, a psalm that bursts with precisely the kind of trusting confidence in God we all would like to have.
But if you look at the whole psalm, you realize that this is not simply one long string of statements of confidence, trust, and repose. Instead, this looks to be the autobiography of this psalmist, replete with a variety of spiritual and mental dispositions. In the end, we may discover that it is precisely this variety of expression that fits our lives just as well as (and maybe even better than) the statements of confidence with which we may be more familiar. In other words, it’s honest.
Look at the sweep of these verses. Again, the strong and staunch statements of confidence are what most of us already know about. With the Lord God Yahweh as his light and his salvation, as the stronghold of his life, of whom or of what would he ever need to be afraid? Evil men with butcher knives could stalk him in dark alleys by night, but he would not be afraid of them. An entire army with horses and chariots and strapping soldiers bearing swords could march on him, yet would he be confident in the protection of his vastly superior and much stronger Lord God Yahweh.
That’s how the psalm begins. It is also how it ends (more or less). But then there are those other parts of the psalm. Starting in verse 7 we begin to hear something a little different. “Hear my voice when I call, O Lord God Yahweh! I am seeking your face the way my heart urges me to do, so do not turn your servant away.” Actually, it says something starker than even that in verse 9: it says not only “do not turn your servant away” but also “do not turn your servant away in anger.”
This is followed by a plaintive plea not to reject or forsake the psalmist. Then comes verse 12 where the psalmist, who earlier had expressed such utter conviction that God would always help him to triumph over his enemies, suddenly this same psalmist is all-but begging God not to turn him over to his enemies. And you can detect more than a twinge of anxiety at the end of verse 12 in the description of those evil people who are snorting out the hot stinky breath of violence–what’s more, they are quite literally breathing right down the psalmist’s neck.
But finally comes that lyric verse 14, a verse we have all repeated to ourselves many times. “Wait for the Lord, be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord.” That verse is beautiful and it is true, but has it ever struck you that the posture of waiting seems a very different one than the posture we envisioned for the psalmist in verses 1-3? “Wait for the Lord” the psalmist says in conclusion. In fact, he says it twice. Wait. That’s the bottom line of Psalm 27. Waiting. Maintaining confidence while waiting. Bucking ourselves up to be strong of heart while waiting.
That last verse leaves a different taste in your mouth than those boldly confident verses from elsewhere in the psalm. Earlier you might have thought that here was a psalmist who could not be shaken and just maybe we suspected that the reason he could not be shaken is because this is one of those lucky fellows for whom the Lord seems always to come through immediately. He always gets his prayers answered, and pretty swiftly at that. He always walks on the sunny side of the street.
But not so. Psalm 27 is this man’s autobiography. If we’re honest, then we’d have to admit that taken all together, this psalmist reminds us a lot of ourselves. If we have faith, then we have a level of trust in our God, who is the target of our faith. Faith involves hope and trust precisely because, as the apostle Paul says in one of his epistles, we cannot at this point see our God the way we can see lots of other things in life. We hope for what we do not yet have, Paul says. And so while we await the consummation of our salvation and that day when our faith will be made sight, we hope and we trust.
As John Calvin famously said over and over, although it’s not open to scientific scrutiny or proof, the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit affirms for us that God is real and that God is love and that our God is reliable. But until that day when our faith is made sight, the fact that we have trust means that we don’t have quite that level of confidence that comes with verifiable knowledge.
That’s where doubt and fear can seep in. Even if we have very confident trust (as does this psalmist), if there is the least little fissure of doubt, anxiety can creep in. It’s like trying to seal up your house to keep mice out. Try as you may, the fact is that the mouse can get through an opening the size of a dime, and it’s pretty tough to seal up every dime-sized fissure in the walls. So with the psalmist, we also have lots of confident things to say about the providence of God. But also with the psalmist, we have those times when our prayers switch from phrases like, “Though an army besiege me my heart will not fear” to things like, “O God, protect me! Here they come! They look ugly and dangerous! Don’t abandon me, please!”
So there you have it in Psalm 27: the heights of confident faith and the depths of the anxiety that can still come to us when the bottom seems to be dropping out. Here we have both the loving and cozy relationship the psalmist has with God and all those glowing words about meditating on the beauty of God in the temple and yet we have also words about those times when we hide our faces from God out of fear that he’s mad at us for our sin. Above all, we have in the end that admonition to wait. We wait because we don’t have all the answers just yet. We wait because we don’t yet know whether or not any given prayer will be answered the way we hope.
Our lives of discipleship in this world are varied. Because of that, there are those Sundays when we can belt out a hymn like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and feel the truth of it clean down to our toenails. And then there are those Sundays when we can’t get through it without our voices cracking because lately God has seemed to be on vacation. There are those Sundays when, although we have sins to confess, we sense God’s grace and have good hope that it will not just forgive us but also make us stronger for next time. And then there are those Sundays when we recall that thing we said or did and feel every bit the hypocrite even for being in church. How could God not be just furious with us?
The psalmist who wrote Psalm 27 can relate to all that. But so can the God he served and the God in Christ we serve. Because this is the loving Creator and Redeemer who sticks closer to us than flesh is to fingernails. Even if your father and mother rejected you, this God would not. It’s just not in him. So even though our lives have their share of ups and downs, the constant steadiness of God is a reassuring source of refreshment for us. The Lord is our light and our salvation. Always. Of whom, then, shall we be afraid?
I cannot help but be struck by something of late. The Revised Common Lectionary is, of course, on a 3-year cycle, meaning the last time we were in Year A was in 2020. Psalm 27 that year was assigned for Sunday January 26, 2020, and so I wrote the most recent version of this commentary the last full week of January. By then we had all heard whispers and rumors of a place in China called Wuhan. We’d heard something about SARS-CoV2 and started to hear a couple words most of us were having trouble remembering or pronouncing: coronavirus, COVID-19. (When I typed this just now, the spellchecker did not flag those words. I doubt they were in my dictionary in 2020.)
Still, we continued on with life as usual three years ago. We held our annual Symposium on Worship on the Calvin campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan, starting on January 30. We welcomed our usual 1,500 participants. Few of us who gathered that week had ever much seen anyone wearing a medical facemask in public and we had no idea that in about 5 or 6 weeks’ time, we would see the end of such public gatherings of people for a very long time. We had only the dimmest of intimations—and maybe not even that much—that our world was about to be turned upside down with consequences that would reverberate for years.
So far, nothing has ever quite been the same since.
Like Psalm 27 itself, we had reasons for confidence in God. We knew life had its ups and downs but mostly a lot of us were blessed to be living more in the “ups” than the “downs.” But also as in Psalm 27, very soon and very suddenly something would happen. We’d be locked down. Churches would shutter. Malls would close. Schools emptied out. Campuses were evacuated. And we all found ourselves joining the psalmist in crying out, “Do not forget us, O God! Though my mother and father could forsake me, don’t you forsake us! We need you!” As someone wryly observed that spring, February in 2020 had 29 days. March had 243 days. April had 303 days. It sure felt that way.
We never quite know when our circumstances might change. Psalm 27 was written for us to apply to every season of life, including when our lot in life that had been comparatively stable gets destabilized in ways that will cause fierce disorientation and a true challenge to our confidence in God.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 22, 2023
Psalm 27:1, 4-9 Commentary