Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 21, 2023

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 Commentary

In a classic scene of the old TV sitcom M*A*S*H Hawkeye Pierce decides to play a trick on his nettlesome bunkmate Frank Burns.  Lately Frank had been bragging about how his stock market portfolio had been getting richer.  But it is clear—to the consternation of the more pacifist Pierce—that the reason is that Burns is profiting off the very Korean War they were sunk into neck deep at their mobile army surgical hospital.

So Pierce decides to write a fake letter to his father in which he thanks his father for the stock tip about Pioneer Aviation and how Pierce wants his father to sell off all his other stocks so as to buy into Pioneer Aviation since their Senator said it was going to go through the roof.  Of course there was no such thing as Pioneer Aviation—Pierce just wants Burns to embarrass himself in front of his broker when Burns calls him to say he wants to be all in on Pioneer Aviation.  When Pierce tells his other bunkmate Trapper John of his plan, Trapper asks how Pierce can be sure Burns will see this letter and so take the bait.  “Simple,” Pierce replies, “I’ll hide it.”  And sure enough, Pierce tucks the letter under his pillow with just a little bit of it visible.  Once the always nosy Frank Burns sees it—and after making sure no one else was around—he immediately grabs and reads the letter and falls into the trap.

Some people cannot resist going after that which appears hidden.

Here is a lesson the Revised Common Lectionary could use.  Because the Lectionary is often very good at “hiding” from view Bible verses they deem troubling or scandalous in some way.  Most of the time if the Lectionary assigns verses 1-6 and 12-25 of a given chapter, you would not often lose money by betting that verses 7-11 contain some imagery of violence or condemnation or judgment.

But Psalm 68 goes at such themes right off the bat, and the Lectionary this time has us read it.  Maybe it fits with this time of the Ascension, a time when we meditate on the cosmic victory that Christ won over sin and evil and when we celebrate now his enthronement at God’s right hand in ruling the galaxies.

Or maybe it is because of where Psalm 68 goes with these more militaristic images: it goes straight to God’s tender care for the most vulnerable among us: widows, the lonely, the poor, the orphans.  All of this brings us to that Bible-wide theme—very prominent in the Old Testament—of that group known as the anawim.

The widow, the orphan, the alien: this triplet (and their collective category of being “the poor”) pops up all over the Torah.  God’s people are mandated to care for such marginalized people—indeed, Israel is commanded to give extra, over-the-top care to people in these social categories.  Of course, Israel mostly fails in doing that and so the next big appearance for the anawim are in the prophets and especially the Minor Prophets like Amos and Micah.  Not only did Israel and its leadership fail to protect these poor people, it was far worse than just that passive failure: they also actively exploited these people!

But these people are near and dear to the heart of Almighty God.  And so in Psalm 68 God—and now God through the ascended Lord Jesus—sallies forth into the world to defeat evildoers.  But what is the worst thing some of those people do?  From the looks of Psalm 68 it was exactly exploitation of the anawim.  And so in Psalm 68 it is God himself who both notices these invisible people and actively promotes their cause and reverses their fortunes.

The Torah mandates this care for the vulnerable, the Prophets assail Israel for not doing it.  But it is in the Psalms that God is often celebrated as the champion of the lowly.  Psalm 113 is another good example but there are others.  Yes, as is often true in the Psalms the promises seem a little too sunny—if only it were true that every childless woman would be able to have children after all and that every poor person would find his fortunes reversed.  But it’s not always so.  What is always the case, however, is that the heart of God is set on the poor, the vulnerable, the people the rest of society is often too busy even to notice.  We call these people “marginalized” for a reason: they sit on the margins of society and they exist barely registering—if at all—on the margins of our awareness.

Yet Israel found the true greatness of Yahweh not just in his cosmic power or his ability to make mountains smoke and deserts convulse.  No, it was God’s ability to see us in our littleness that really bowled over the psalmists.  It was the way the Great God Almighty of the universe could make himself small, could condescend to the little people, could draw close to us on the margins of our tiny existence: this was the true wonder of Israel’s God and the #1 thing he did as a result of routing evildoers.

If we are paying close attention, I suppose that aspect of Psalm 68 previews the most glorious thing God ever did: made himself a microscopic zygote in the uterus of a young woman.  And out of the utter littleness of what God let himself become came something really very big indeed: a galactic rout of evil and a glorious vindication and rescue of all the lonely, lost, last, least people of the world.

And if that is not reason enough to join the poet of Psalm 68 in calling on the whole world to sing praises to God, I don’t know what could motivate one’s praise.  But the Gospel tells the truth: God is the Great God who gives strength to God’s people.  Praise God.  Hallelujah!

Illustration Idea

In my seminary office I have a colorful Hoberman Sphere.  In some ways the Hoberman Sphere is a great example of how something that can expand into something really big can also collapse down to something quite small.  This video shows one of the world’s largest Hoberman Spheres at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey doing its thing, expanding to a huge sphere 18 feet in diameter and then collapsing back down into a very small sphere.

This is the movement of God in the incarnation—the glorious Son of God who fills the heavens compacts down into something small enough to be born of a woman.  But it is also the movement of God in Psalm 68: from the huge expanse of God’s glory in the heavens down to God’s narrow focus on the tiniest of vulnerable people in this world!  The God who is bigger than anything and everything has abiding concern for the smallest among us.  As images go, that is quite incredible!


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