Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 2, 2023

Psalm 31:9-16 Commentary

Psalm 31:11 says “I am an object of dread to my neighbors; those who see me on the street flee from me.”  I suppose we all have our days when we feel like this but mostly we chalk it up to paranoia.  “I am just imagining that everyone I meet is averting their eyes.”  “It’s all in my head that no one has said Hello lately.”  But for this psalmist, the situation looks to be pretty real and maybe for that reason this Psalm is appointed for Palm/Passion Sunday.

In some ways this Hebrew poem is one of those psalms that can feel foreign to us.  There is here—like in a number of psalms—so much talk about unspecified “enemies” and of people who have laid a trap for the psalmist.  It does all sound vaguely paranoid and almost militant and in this way may feel like a far cry from our everyday experience.

Oh sure, we all have people who don’t much care for us.  And although we are called to love all people, we often return the favor of not caring much for the people who don’t like us.  And yes, in any given organization there are self-important people who might step all over you if that’s what it takes to make themselves look better in the boss’s eyes.  These are the things we gnash our teeth over after work when sharing a glass of wine with a spouse.  “She’s driving me clean up a wall” we might say.  “If I have to sit through one more meeting with that blowbag, I’m gonna lose it” we might say in the privacy of our home.

Still, we’d be hard pressed to call these people our mortal enemies, people who are plotting our very destruction the way the psalmists often seem to depict matters.  These folks might make our lives a bit miserable now and then but we’d never go so far as to say they are plotting to take our very life the way Psalm 31 claims.

Were we to apply this to Jesus—and as an RCL text for Palm/Passion Sunday I imagine we are to do so—then the talk of real enemies plotting to take one’s life makes sense.  But even short of that and even shorn of the most literal application of death threats and traps and such, there is much about what we could call the “acoustics” of Psalm 31 that relate to us after all.  The last time I commented on this psalm was in 2020 at the very moment when our wistful and wishful thoughts that the COVID lockdown could not possibly go so long as Easter that Spring were coming to a swift end.  “I mean after all,” we all thought, “cancelling Easter services would mean the pandemic disruptions would have to last a whole MONTH and that could not be.”  Well . . .

And even well since then, we have endured a whole lot of gloominess and difficult days, months, years.  We have come to recognize how quickly we can all become desperate, lonely, confused when world events take the unexpected turn they did in 2020.  Yes, the times of our lives are in God’s hands.  They always have been.  It’s just that lately we have all gained a keener sense that time and our lives and our plans are not as in our own control as we once fancied (and maybe want to fancy again).  Turns out our times were never really in our own fragile hands to begin with.  Our times are in God’s hands.  But that’s a good thing to remember at all times—times of disorientation and even as the part of any reorientation that has come or may yet come.

What we need most are not all the ways by which we ordinarily assess our value or worthwhileness: success at work, good grades, or just flat out being busy (as though busyness were itself a mark of sanctification).  No what we need most is what on our busiest days we sometimes reflect on—much less give thanks for—the least: God’s face shining on us with his grace and love.  That divine favor is what we really need.  It’s all that will really last.

If we reflect on all this at the head of Holy Week as we follow Jesus’ lonely trek to that cross, then we can know for sure that the God who holds the times of our lives and the God whose face we need to shine on us with grace can be wholly relied on.  Because he has taken all the loneliness, isolation, fear, anxiety, and dread we ever experience and God has dealt with it once and for all.  On the other side of all this is resurrection.  There were no shortcuts to that resurrection, and we ought not de facto take any shortcuts in our commemoration of Jesus’ saving work either by hurrying past the dark stuff so as to arrive at Easter’s bright dawn.

No, we need to see how God has taken all the anxieties that are written all over Psalm 31 and put them away.  There had all along been just the one big Enemy we all face: Death itself.  All the other enemies of Psalm 31 or any other parts of life are just forerunners to the final Enemy.  But God has now defeated that Enemy.  And because of that we can jump down to the final verse of Psalm 31: “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”

[Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter.  Visit this page here.]

Illustration Idea



The very young among us know nothing of danger.  Point a gun at an infant or little child and he will as likely grab for the barrel and try to play with it same as if you held out a teething ring or a rattle.  Of course, there can be other reasons to not sense danger, like being overly optimistic or having a large naivete.  I think of the comic movie Crocodile Dundee.  A savvy New York reporter has taken Mick Dundee from his sheltered life in Australia’s Outback to New York City.  One night they are out for a walk in the big city when they are approached by some leather-clad men.  In this scene, notice how the New Yorker’s face instantly freezes into fear and panic.  She knows danger when she sees it.  But Mick isn’t even ruffled and even after it becomes clear those young men really had been there for a mugging, he still laughs it off as just kids having fun.  Yes, Mick has seen danger in his life but it didn’t look like this.  (And anyway, he knows a real KNIFE when he sees one!)

Well, we might all wish we would be that naïve or that we could live in a world where circumstances would never have to cause our faces to sink in terror.  But as we grow up, we leave behind the innocence of children and the naivete of the sheltered.  We’ve got some real enemies out there after all.  But that’s why we need the hope of Psalm 31: we know what’s up.  We’re not stupid or ignorant.  But we also know in whose hands the times of our lives are resting.


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