Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 19, 2024

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b Commentary

“But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.”  If you look closely at the Revised Common Lectionary Psalm assignment for Pentecost Sunday in Year B, you will notice they don’t want you to know about verse 35a.  Just skip over it.  Pretend it’s not there.  It’s like an ugly belch or burp from the psalmist and it’s best not to dwell on this expulsion of gas.  And anyway, the final verses of Psalm 104—a lovely and lyric poem throughout—are so uplifting, so moving, so incredibly specific about the works of God for which to give God praise that this interjection of judgment almost ruins the whole thing.

It reminds me of one of many humorous scenes in the movie Groundhog Day.  The TV weatherman Phil Connors is stuck in Puxatawney Pennsylvania, reliving Groundhog Day over and over and over.  Eventually he realizes he is attracted to the producer who traveled with him and so tries to strike up a romance with her.  But one night at dinner Phil asks her what she studied in college.  When she replies “19th century French poetry,” he bursts out laughing.  “What a waste of time!”  Instantly she sours and he realizes there is no recovery from that verbal gaffe.  (Of course, since he is re-living the day repeatedly, he takes time to memorize some French poetry and so next time responds far better on his re-do!)

That seems to be the RCL’s attitude toward the verse about getting sinners and wicked people to vanish.  It is like some verbal gaffe, words that sour the atmosphere and ruin the mood that Psalm 104 had otherwise been striking.  Best to engage in a de facto re-do.  Just skip over it.  Maybe no one will notice.  But some of us are not quite comfortable with editing God’s holy Word just like that.  This is not an easy verse but is it as out of step with the previous verses as one might at first think?

The final ten or so verses of this psalm are a lyric celebration of the creation.  We are given a quick whirlwind tour of ocean depths and mountain heights as well as of the abiding providence of God in sustaining all that wonderful beauty and life.  It is all done in a celebrative mode.  It is all an act of ecstatic praise but also of profound wonder and the works God has wrought and the works he continues to tend to so all may flourish as God had originally intended.  And of course although we leapfrogged over the first 23 verses of the psalm, we know that the entirety of Psalm 104 is a celebration of creation wonders and God’s sovereign role as Creator of all.

But throughout it all, there is nary a whisper about sin, evil, or wicked people.  There is not so much as a dark sentiment of any kind.  This is overall one upbeat piece of writing.  So whatever one might make about the Lectionary’s decision of just bracket out the psalm’s one less-than-chipper sentiment, it is still a fair question to wonder where in the world verse 35a came from.  It does seem out of place.  Nothing before or in the brief closing words of the poem prepares you for the sudden appearance of a call for final judgment and the disappearing of some people.  What might explain this?

Maybe it was because it suddenly occurred to the psalmist that everything he had celebrated in this song was threatened by wicked folks.  And that made him sad.   My wife always has a hard time watching nature documentaries or even sometimes reading articles about the splendor of coral reefs or the beauty of rain forests because she knows that almost inevitably before the film or article is over, there will be a section about how pollution and warming oceans and deforestation is threatening everything that had previously been celebrated in the film or article.  And this makes her so sad she either just does not watch or read such things at all so as to avoid the sorrow she knows will be part of it or when we watch a nature special on TV, she will get up and leave the room as soon as the narrator says something, “But today these corals reefs are . . .”  She just knows her heart will break a bit on what comes next.

Maybe something like that happens in Psalm 104.  How can you not be troubled by the fact that there are sinful and wicked people in this world who take no delight in the created world?  How can you not be disturbed by people who just shrug when they hear about a species teetering on the brink of extinction?  How can we bracket out completely people who fail to honor the Creator God and who in fact actively chew up, use up, and sully God’s good works with nary a thought for future generations or how the wanton destruction of the creatures and spectacles God made impacts God himself?

No, we don’t want to focus on sinful and wicked people and systems.  No one should relish or smack their lips over the prospect of judgment—not at least if we are serious about following the Jesus who told us to love even our enemies and forgive even those who persecute us.  Still, the good things in which we take the most delight are threatened by certain types of people and in the longest possible run, God will have to do something about that.

It is by no means clear exactly why this latter part of Psalm 104 is assigned to the Year B Pentecost Sunday.  But maybe we could assert this: when the Holy Spirit of God drenches us in all the Spirit’s goodness and infuses us with all of Christ’s ways of viewing all of life, we will be sensitive to the things that threaten the goodness of God and the Good News of the Gospel.  We cannot pretend that evil and sin and some of the people who carry out the program of sin and evil do not exist nor ignore the threat they are to all that God made good.  Don’t we all long for a day when such things no longer exist?  Maybe we would rather see the forgiveness, repentance, and renewal of such people more than witnessing their utter annihilation but with the eyes of the Holy Spirit, when we are enabled to see all that is good, we also recognize all that threatens that goodness.  And we earnestly hope the day will come when that just won’t be present anymore.

Illustration Idea

Some years back my CEP writing partner Stan Mast put us in mind of the outstanding Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “God’s Grandeur” in connection to Psalm 104.  I recommend you read this poem and consider incorporating it into a Psalm 104 sermon.  Note also how Hopkins rhapsodizes over the splendor of creation but—perhaps in a similar way to Psalm 104:35a and a nod to the destructive influence of some people on this otherwise wonderous creation—Hopkins also notes how too often humanity trods and trods and trods over the good things of God, searing, blearing, and smearing God’s creation in ways that break the heart.  And yet there is hope.  As Psalm 104 also says, God stays with his creation.  It has not yet been fully spent or done in.  And ever again is that Holy Spirit who broods over the world “with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”


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