Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 2, 2024

Psalm 81:1-10 Commentary

Psalm 81 is God’s cri du coeur, the cry of the heart.  When we think of God’s heart, we mostly think of its purity or power.  There is a long tradition in what is now mainly the Roman Catholic tradition of the “sacred heart.”  If you have ever been to Paris, you perhaps visited the beautiful Sacre Coeur church that sits on a bluff overlooking the city.  And the sacred heart of Jesus has been a longstanding staple in the art world.

But although we mostly associate God’s sacred heart with power and purity and holiness, the Bible suggests God’s heart can be broken too.  In the Flood narrative in Genesis 6-9 God looks at the sorry state of the world following humanity’s fall into sin and God is not described as angry.  God grieves.  God is sorrowful.  God’s heart broke.

We see this in also Psalm 81.  Much of this poem is a recounting of God’s saving acts toward Israel and in particular of course the Exodus from Egypt.  God did all those wonderful, loving, and saving things for his people.  And even now God is standing by, ready to fill up his people to the brim with blessings of all kinds.  God is eager to do this.  God wants to do this.  And yet Psalm 81 is shot through with the language of “If only . . .”  If only the people would listen.  If only they would root out false gods from among themselves.

In verses 11-16, which the Lectionary would have us ignore (but as preachers we ought not do so), it becomes clear that all of this is a pretty big “If only” indeed as the people did not listen, did not turn toward the God so eager to fill them with good things.  So what else can God do?  He does not want to force people to love him because then it’s not really love.  The language of the latter part of Psalm 81—again, just beyond the technical end of this Year B lection—is that God more or less throws up his hands and let’s things take their course.  God just gives the people over to what they apparently prefer to the blessings of God, and even though this is going to lead to mayhem and misery, that is what God is said to do.  As someone once said, those who are unwilling to say to God “Thy will be done” may hear God say, “Very well: your will be done!”

Yet even so and at the very end of the psalm, there stands God, tears in his eyes perhaps, still holding out stockpiles of wheat and honey if only the people would wake up, repent, and let God unleash upon them not the mayhem of their self-appointed punishment but the goodness God has stored up for them.

In the end Psalm 81 traffics in something that a lot of people in churches wrestle with all the time: when it comes to bad things happening in the world and when it comes to people making bad choices that mostly lead to suffering for other people, where is God in all that?  Why doesn’t God force good things to happen?  Why does God not head off every bad human choice that leads to suffering?  For most people in the church, these are not abstract, ivory tower inquiries.  These are questions about breast cancers and childhood leukemias and broken marriages and genocides and senseless deaths in mass shootings.  If God is as eager to dispense goodness to us as Psalm 81 suggests, why doesn’t God just do it already?

Let’s stipulate that as preachers there are no easy and certainly no pat answers here.  Yes, we can spool out philosophical and theological scenarios about the active and passive and permissive will of God.  We can suggest that God does head off more calamity and accidents than we can know about since we cannot know about something God prevented.  But we believe God does do this.  But clearly not all the time.  People today, like the ancient Israelites, keep making bad choices, keep turning away from the God who really has our best interests at heart.  And though the church is thankfully flush with stories of powerful conversions by people who seemed unlikely ever to repent or to cease making the bad choices they had made their whole lives up to that point, it does not always happen.

Can we speak a word to those in front of us on a Sunday morning who as much as ask us with their eyes, “If God does head off or cure some diseases and sicknesses, why didn’t God do it for my child?”  Perhaps the only honest answer is that we do not know.  But perhaps the only other thing we can offer is the broken-hearted God of Psalm 81 who stands heartsick in the midst of our brokenness and yet who also stands ready to deliver so many blessings.  The God who honestly says “I am eager, willing, and ready to bless you with abundance” is also the God who lets us know that the things that bring sorrow to God and to the world do not have the last word.

The loving God of Psalm 81 who lets us see into his hurting heart, who lets us listen to his pleas of “If only . . .” is the God who will make sure that in the end, goodness and mercy will win the cosmic day.  God has made sure of that through the death of his own Son.  And in Christ Jesus the Lord we now know the fullness of the line from another psalm that “in his right hand are blessings forevermore.”

Illustration Idea

In a sermon commentary on Psalm 81 some years ago, my CEP colleague Stan Mast said that God in Psalm 81 resembles the parent of a teenager who cannot seem to get his eyes unglued from video games or the screen of his phone.  “Can’t you just put that thing down for a minute and talk to me, son!?”  Or God is like a lonely wife and mother who can no longer seem to get her family’s attention.

It reminded me of Delia Grinstead from the Anne Tyler novel Ladder of Years.  Delia was a faithful wife and mother but over time she found herself feeling like a tiny gnat whirring around the edges of her perennially distracted physician husband and her too-busy-to-bother-with-Mom children.  She stands on the edges of her family and pleads for them to look at her, talk to her, engage with her.  But to no avail.  Finally the day comes when the family is at the beach and Delia takes off walking down the beach and does not return.  It takes a bit for the family to even realize she’s gone missing.  Once the police start asking for a description of Delia and things like what she had been wearing the last time they saw her, they unsurprisingly cannot give up much information.  They had stopped seeing Delia a long time before.

God must feel like that a lot.


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