Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 7, 2024

Psalm 29 Commentary

Last summer a tornado ripped through our area.  It did not come very close to where I live but for those in and near its path, it was frightening.  Whole homes were destroyed and in some places so many trees came down, you could not recognize whole neighborhoods.  A man with whom I chatted this Fall at a church where I preached said the tornado came a mile or so from his property but even at that distance, he lost 13 entire trees.

The power of such storms is awesome and fierce but when the oaks are twisted and the forests stripped bare near our homes, we do not generally respond by shouting “Glory!”  Yet that is the response of the psalmist after witnessing the spectacle of a powerful thunderstorm as he reports it in Psalm 29.  We may not always recognize it as such right off the bat but there is no question that Psalm 29 is an ode to a thunderstorm.  Or better said, it is a psalm of praise to the power of the God as revealed in such spectacles of nature.

Generally speaking, however, if we connect the majesty of God with the wonders and majesty of God’s creation, we do it when watching beautiful sunrises and sunsets, especially when mountains or bodies of water are involved.  We praise God for the deep, deep blue feathers on an Indigo Bunting.  At my house where we attract a lot of birds, we always stop and stare whenever the largest of all woodpeckers, the Pileated, latches onto one of our feeders to hammer away at our suet cakes.  (Below is a picture I took in December.)  This is what can wring a “Praise God!” from us.


And though we may be wowed by thunderstorms, tornados, hurricanes, and tsunamis—YouTube is chock full of videos of storms, and many people watch such videos often—but because they cause us also concern, alarm, fear, and sometimes sadness when property is destroyed and lives are lost, we are not as quick to connect severe storms  to worship and adoration of the Creator God.

It is possible that the psalmist is mostly praising the power of God as revealed in storms and is not in so doing bracketing out the sad fact that when this power slips out of place, bad and tragic things can result.  In that sense we could read Psalm 29 as the poet saying, “You think that microburst thunderstorm you just saw was amazing.  Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to the true power of the Almighty God of Israel!”

It is curious, however, that the Year B Common Lectionary assigns this psalm on the day when the main focus is on the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.  Aside from the voice of God thundering over “the waters,” there is not a lot here that would make a person link any of this to baptism in any sense.  That may also be why few pastors would choose to preach on this text for the first Sunday after Epiphany (though if you are reading this, maybe you are going to do this after all!).

Perhaps, however, pondering this in connection to Jesus’s baptism and perhaps to baptisms just generally can remind us of a few things.  First, in some places the most common baptisms are infant and child baptisms.  These tend to be warm and lovely affairs.  Everyone likes babies.  Everyone likes the sense that their church is vibrant and includes young families as well as older members. These baptisms are relatively quiet affairs.  Perhaps the children of the church are invited to gather around the font.  I used to use a lot of water when I baptized babies and the children of my congregation knew they had a good chance of getting splashed with the overflow.  They liked that!

But enter Psalm 29 with its reminder that the God involved in even this kind of baptism is not tame, is not just cuddly and soft and full of divine beatific smiles to match the smiles of the adoring parents and grandparents of the baptizand.  Our true God has oomph!  Our true God is awesome, fierce, and perhaps a little scary as a result.  We are not trafficking in minor matters when we see a person—including an infant—get identified with this covenantal God by the Holy Spirit of Christ Jesus.  A little awe at the sight of a baptism might be in order.

Here is also where the ending of Psalm 29 comes in.  Because having just shown us the ancient equivalent of a YouTube video of some whopping storm, the psalmist concludes by reminding us that the God who can whip up such power without breaking a sweat is the same God who channels that power into little old us.  “The Lord gives strength to his people” we read in verse 11.  What strength?  Well, some of the same strength that just twisted oaks and roared with such mighty winds as to strip trees of all their leaves.  Whoa.  Some of that juice gets hard-wired into our hearts?  It’s a wonder we don’t just catch fire or even incinerate all together!  But baptisms into the Name of this Triune God are connecting us to just that power.

Given all of that then, maybe Psalm 29 and baptism are a good pairing after all!

Illustration Idea

Storm chasers are a curious lot of people.  If some people were not very aware of what storm chasers do, the 1996 movie Twister gave us a good window into this world.  In the case of the movie’s plot, the two lead storm chasers (played by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) and their team of geeky and nerdy scientists are not chasing storms for the sheer thrill of it.  They are studying tornados so as to understand them better and so perhaps save lives by being able to predict twisters earlier and get people into shelters sooner and before it is too late.

But the fact is that many storm chasers (who do the opposite of what everyone else does; namely, try to get closer to the funnel cloud as opposed to moving away from the storm’s path) really are mostly in it for the spectacle and the thrill of seeing one of nature’s most awesome events up close.

I sometimes wonder, though, what people who lost their homes—and maybe even more dreadfully experienced the loss of life—in such storms think in case at some point they run across a storm chaser’s video in which he is cheering the twister on and hooting and hollering in celebration of getting a good look at very storm that wiped out someone’s home.  One person’s “That was awesome!” gets paired with another person’s “That was tragic!”  And in that combination we get a sense that the power of nature is often a two-edged sword: tidal waves and hurricanes are amazing.  As Psalm 29 reminds us, they really do point to the majesty of the Creator God.  Yet for now these spectacles slip out of place at times and take life.

Maybe some day in the New Creation we will be able to witness the Creator’s power without the fear that properly accompanies being in a storm’s path now.  And like watching a fireworks display that was awesome but not a danger to us, maybe that is when we will join the psalmist of the 29th Psalm and cry “Glory!”


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