Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 7, 2024

Psalm 133 Commentary

Come on and admit it: I am not the only one tempted to insert one more adverb into the opening verse of Psalm 133:

“How good and pleasant and rare it is when God’s people live together in unity.”

We are painfully aware of why the temptation to insert “rare” exists today.  Too many congregations and whole denominations are anything but unified these days.  In the United States in particular across the last 20 years there has been an ever-widening chasm of partisan feuding yawning open before us and that chasm runs right down the center aisle of too many church sanctuaries too.

The pandemic revealed and then intensified some such divides.  Pastors and congregants found themselves directly at odds as to what constituted prudent responses to COVID.  As a result not a few even long-term pastors were shown the door and where the pastor did not leave, a good many congregants headed for the exits instead.  We have all heard reports that some congregations that in the past had a goodly bandwidth of opinions on a variety of issues morphed post-COVID into far more conservative bodies.  The unity of ideas might be present now in those places but it came at a very high cost.

Then there are the in-house theological and biblical issues that tear at the fabric of denominational and congregational unity.  Not long ago one particular issue in my neck of the woods ended up dividing even a congregation I had long regarded as one of the healthiest churches I’d ever seen.  Seems like no one is immune from our epidemic of ecclesiastical disunity.

So it is true, as the very brief poem of Psalm 133 claims, that where there is great unity, it is a sign of nothing less than the blessing of Almighty God.  Unity of this kind pleases the Lord.  One has to assume, therefore, that disunity breaks the divine heart.  It is something that the Lord God cannot and will not bless, either.  I think it was Philip Yancey who once observed that Jesus has been crucified multiple times: the one literal occasion on Golgotha and then over and over again on account of how the Body of Christ on earth has behaved throughout church history.

What accounts for so much disunity?  One has to assume that there is a counter-power at work in the cosmos that is as nauseated by unity among God’s people as God is overjoyed by it.  If so, then that more demonic realm would introduce a thousand temptations to lure people into speaking words, taking actions, assuming postures that would all be calculated to mess things up on the church unity front.  Since the devil is nothing if not an opportunist, there are so many ways to get this done.

Worse, those of us who are the targets of such temptations—and that is pretty much all of us let’s admit, alas—get further duped into believing that the words we speak and the postures we assume are all in service of the greater good.  None of us would fall for a temptation that was as brassy and obvious as, “Hey, say this to Joe Smith over there because it will be a great way to introduce sharp divisions into your congregation!”  No, no.  First we convince ourselves we are on the side of the angels and are in loyal service to our Savior and that is why we say what we do to Joe Smith.  The church is too important to me not to say what needs saying to Joe and to Helen and to Luis and to Anton and all the rest.

But if ever we sense we are contributing to a lack of unity among God’s people, it needs to break our hearts as it does God’s heart and lead us to repentance.  The things that contribute to bad cycles of dysfunction among God’s people need to stop, and if I cannot control a lot of things in life, I can control myself and so the bad spiraling into disunity needs to stop with me.  Jesus is our premiere exemplar of the ultimate One who absorbed evil after evil without ever giving back as good as he got.  The cycles of violence and revenge stopped with Jesus.  This happened in a thousand little ways throughout Jesus’s life and public ministry but the whole of history’s bad momentum stopped finally at the cross.  In response to the world’s having done its level best to destroy Jesus, he responded with “Father, forgive them . . .”

In Eastertide we worship the risen Jesus who still bears on his body the marks of nails and ropes and whips and swords.  Jesus is now the incarnation of the kind of forgiveness and forbearance that alone is our hope if ever we are to achieve unity in the church—the kind of unity celebrated in Psalm 133.  We need to take joy when we see unity.  Even though today none of us would particularly revel in having oil poured on our heads, back in Israel’s day such anointing was a tangible mark of the blessing of Almighty God.  Whatever we might deem to be the modern equivalent of that, this is the sign of divine favor and joy and blessing we need to seek and revel in whenever we find it.

Psalm 133 is one of the shortest of the 150 psalms, clocking in at only about 30 words in Hebrew depending on how you count.  But it packs a wallop.  It was a powerful call to unity for Ancient Israel and remains no less so for the New Israel that just is the Body of Christ on earth.

Illustration Ideas

In this sermon commentary I suggested that there is an evil power at work in the universe that has a vested interest in wrecking the unity among God’s people in the church.  Unsurprisingly that put me in mind to recall the C.S. Lewis classic work The Screwtape Letters in which senior demon Screwtape writes letters of advice to the junior demon Wormwood.  The letters are mostly a primer in the art of temptation.  Here is a passage that gets at some of what was discussed regarding Psalm 133 in this commentary in terms of how we are tempted to take on attitudes toward the church that would more than tug a bit at our sense of unity with others.  Regarding the Christian whom Wormwood is assigned to tempt (the Christian is referred to as the “patient”):

“Make his mind flit between things like ‘the Body of Christ’ and the actual person sitting next to him in the pew.  Provided any of his neighbors sing out of tune or have boots that squeak or have double chins or odd clothes, the patient will easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. [Keep him from thinking] ‘Well, if I can be a Christian with all my foibles, why not these others?’”  p. 12


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