Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 11, 2024
Psalm 50:1-6 Commentary
It is not difficult to see why the Lectionary has us go to Psalm 50 on Transfiguration Sunday in Year B. There is much here about glory and shining and the splendor—very nearly we could term it the terrible splendor—that surround Israel’s God. We are only being asked to look at the first six verses in the lection. Verse 6 concludes that God is indeed the great God of justice. But in what follows in the balance of this poem, we find out what one possible outcome of all that fierce shining and justice is: if you are an impious and wicked person who thumbs your nose at God, God may well consume you utterly.
Maybe the Lectionary would rather have us avert our eyes from such unhappy news. But the fact is that like the rest of Scripture, Psalm 50 knows that the awesome holiness of Almighty God is nothing to trifle with. There are ways to be on the good side of that holiness and definitely ways to be on the opposite side, and it is not a good side to be on in the long run. Even in Jesus’s Transfiguration as reported in the gospels, when God the Father thunders forth from the glory cloud enveloping Jesus at that time, he not only speaks words of Fatherly approval for his Son but has a message for the cowering disciples: “Listen to him!”
It has long struck me as odd that one of history’s most famous visual displays came down to the bottom line of not looking at the transfigured Christ but listening to him! With the Super Bowl in football coming up soon, we will again have the prospect of some dazzling halftime show with more eye-popping special effects, lasers, and light shows than you can shake a stick at. It’s primarily a musical event, too, of course, but most of us would find it pretty odd if someone suggested that for this year’s halftime spectacular you should cover up your TV screen and just listen to the music. Listening does not actually seem to be the primary point!
Yet it was in the Transfiguration and we know why: the disciples had in fact not been listening. A week earlier when Jesus said he had to suffer and die, Peter rebuked Jesus sharply. That was not their plan of political glory for Jesus. And not long after the Transfiguration after Jesus again pointed to the way of humble sacrifice, the disciples broke into an argument about which one of them was the greatest (and thus perhaps had the best shot at a top tier cabinet post once the Jesus Administration replaced Rome). The disciples had to listen when Jesus spoke of humility, suffering, and sacrifice and stop insisting on their own agenda. You did not want to be on the wrong side of things when it came down to Jesus’s way of accomplishing salvation.
So also in Israel: this God of shining effulgence and righteousness and justice as Psalm 50 displays all that must be obeyed, listened to, worshiped. To do otherwise—or worse, to do opposite and opposing things—was to risk the all consuming fires of God’s righteous judgment.
Someone recently said that in their opinion, one of the biggest challenges facing preachers and the church generally these days stems from the fact that a lot of people just no longer want to connect God with the idea that God would ever even consider punishing people for their sins. We want an indulgent God. We want the kindly “old man upstairs” sort of God presented in what Christian Smith describes as “morally therapeutic deism,” a God who grades on the curve and is mostly just interested in people being nice.
Well and of course maybe we can understand some of this impulse. The Gospel is primarily about the lovingkindness and grace of God and God’s free offer of salvation through Jesus the Son. But what we cannot forget is this salvation is available for one reason: all of God’s punishment for and judgment on sin fell on Jesus on the cross. The hell of it all, the misery of it all, the death of it all: it all fell on the shoulders of Jesus. God laid on him the iniquity of us all. By his stripes we are healed—stripes inflicted on him for our sins, not somebody else’s sins. If we shy away from talking about punishment for sins because we want people to know God will never punish us again if we are in Christ. But to suggest punishment and judgment are not or never were in our salvation mix is to bracket out large—I would say huge—swaths of the Bible.
Of course, now that we as baptized believers dwell “in Christ,” the glory and shining effulgence of Christ’s holiness holds no terror for us. In an overt attempt to move the larger church away from how the Medieval Church had used the prospect of God’s judgment to terrify Christians into behaving better (and maybe contribute more money to the church!), the authors of the Reformed confession The Heidelberg Catechism at one point asks the question (in connection to the Apostles’ Creed line “he will come again to judge the living and the dead”), “How does Christ’s coming to judge the living and the dead comfort you?” That’s right.
But we cannot for even this reason ignore that the holiness of God is, as mentioned above, nothing to trifle with. And neither is the kind of wickedly willful sins that the latter part of Psalm 50 deals with can just be lightly dismissed by God. We want to proclaim the Gospel of course. We want to preach Good News. But the beauty of the grace of all that loses a bit of its shine if we water down what all Jesus had to surmount, suffer, and forgive to get us that grace.
In various other connections I have noted that in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Speaking of Sin, she has a chapter title that is intentionally paradoxical: “Sin Is Our Only Hope.” And of course what she means by that is along the lines of the idea that if you are sick and it takes the doctors forever and a day to diagnose what’s wrong, once you get the diagnosis, in most (but alas not in all) cases that diagnosis is a great thing because it leads to the proper treatment and hopefully through that a cure A friend of mine who is a doctor has noted to me that “No one wants to be what doctors call ‘An Interesting Case.’” God’s holiness means we are forced to admit vis-à-vis God that we are sinners and God as a holy God cannot help but see we are not holy. But that becomes the spring of grace to forgive us and thus what is noted above: since God now sees only Jesus when he looks at us, even the prospect of judgment can, paradoxically enough, comfort us!
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