Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 26, 2023
Psalm 95:1-7a Commentary
This is another one of those lections that stops just short of the place in the psalm where there is a decisive—yet probably important—shift of tone and theme. Yes, the first seven verses of Psalm 95 are a lovely doxological celebration and a call to worship this Creator and Redeemer God for all God is worth. God is majestic and we bow before that majesty. We are God’s people, the flock under his care. God created all things and all things properly belong to God.
But then . . . a warning from Israel’s history enters the picture and this is the part the RCL would have us stop short of seeing. But in this short psalm, that doesn’t really work. Is it pleasant to remember Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness? Nope. Is it pleasant to have this initially upbeat psalm of praise end on the sour note of God’s saying “You shall never enter my rest”? Nope. But it is not as though this psalmist is making this up as a kind of object lesson in theory or in the abstract. This actually happened to God’s people at one point. They were told that although they were the generation of the exodus from Egypt they would not be the generation of those who entered the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.
So this is a lesson from history. But why did the psalmist remind his readers of this after beginning so lyrically? How does that unhappy business involving rebellion and banishment function in Psalm 95? Well, obviously this is meant to serve as a cautionary tale. Don’t get yourself into a situation where God will once again have to react to you in the way he reacted to your stiff-necked ancestors! You don’t want this to happen to you as well! So keep the posture of reverent worship and adoration we just sketched in the first part of Psalm 95 so that your story will not end with the words “They shall never enter my rest.”
That much is perhaps easy enough to understand. But this raises an issue for preaching just generally that we can ponder a bit. Maybe the reason the Lectionary stops short of these words is to signal the thought that perhaps this kind of threatening is not fitting in a Christian pulpit. After all, Christians believe that all of the punishment for sin has now fallen on Jesus Christ on the cross. God has laid on him the iniquities of us all. And in the wake of this—a la Romans 8—we can now declare that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And as the end of that same chapter also thunders forth, there is now nothing in all creation that could ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Given that, in our preaching is it ever appropriate to use the fear of punishment as a way to motivate people to behave and live for God? Yes, we all know the well-known Jonathan Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon but with all due respect to Edwards, does that imagery fit believers who already have union with Christ? Unbelievers? Yes. That is why we must issue the call to repent and come to Jesus. But once people do and live under that umbrella of no condemnation and in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the God who has now saved us by grace alone through faith alone, does the kind of finger wagging at the end of Psalm 95 befit a proclamation of the Gospel?
This is a somewhat perilous area. Because on the one hand all preachers should recognize the need to be serious about calling people to lives of discipleship, of concretely visible sanctification. Morality matters. Christ-likeness matters. As a colleague teaches, conformity to Christ is the bedrock foundation of ethical living for Christian disciples. We want people to see themselves in Psalm 95:1-7a and not in Psalm 95:7b-11. But what anchors such living and thus what anchors homiletical calls to it?
There is always guilt, the gift that keeps on taking. There is always finger-wagging threats that you don’t want to get sent to hell without an electric fan, the gift that keeps on scaring. But in the context of preaching to people who qualify as what Psalm 95:7 calls “the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” and in a Gospel-informed context, is guilt and threat what motivates us?
My own Reformed tradition has answered such questions with a No. What motivates is not guilt but gratitude, not threat but Thank You to God. Why avoid sin? Because we have been not only saved by grace but transformed by it and what’s more, we are so bowled over by grace that we cannot help wanting to make the entirety of our lives into a giant Thank-You card to God in Christ. The Fruit of the Spirit grow on trees that are rooted in the Grace of God. Or as Paul says in Romans 6 when explaining why we cannot want to sin more, the part of us that wanted to sin was graciously drowned in the waters of baptism and so we are now new resurrection people. We want to live for God’s glory. We want to be people of gratitude.
Moral living is not something we have to do. Such leaning into our baptismal identity in Christ leads to all kinds of wonderful things that we get to do! Preachers want to present Christian living as something so beautiful that people desire to get in on that lovely action. The Gospel of God’s grace in Christ is a thing of beauty. It inspires. It enthuses. And it leads to the fitting response of gratitude for all that God has given us.
Maybe the Lectionary was trying to say all of that by leaving off the threatening tone of Psalm 95’s final verses. But this is an important enough area of homiletical and theological thought that it deserves to be confronted and dealt with so that in all our preaching—including when we tell people the ways in which they ought not behave—we really keep on proclaiming the Gospel.
Few contemporary Christian songs have ever better captured the dynamics of what was discussed above in terms of the proper motivation for moral Christian living than the great song “My Tribute (To God Be the Glory)” by the late Andrae Crouch. The entire song serves as the best illustration of all this that I can think of! Watch it. Sing it at a service when you talk about what is the purest spring for transformed living.
Here is a link to the alternative Psalm this week: https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2017-11-20/psalm-100/
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