Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 7, 2024

Psalm 123 Commentary

Recently I did a study tour through the American South with a focus on reckoning with the legacy of slavery in the U.S.  Before the trip I had known, of course, about the reality and the tragedy of the slave culture of the South (and a few places more north too).  But after eight full days of touring museums on the history of slavery and of civil rights as well as visiting a number of sites that became pivotal in the fight for freedom, the true horror of slavery and the post-Emancipation epidemic of lynchings became far more vivid.

Coming off that recent trip, then, I found that for me in reading Psalm 123, the acoustics of how I heard these words were altered.  The centerpiece of this short psalm is the spectacle of a slave cowering before his or her master and looking for some measure of mercy.  Although it may be true that slavery in the ancient world was not identical to what developed with Africans in the U.S. thousands of years later, it still can be a little difficult to handle Psalm 123’s lead image.  As preachers we could even anticipate this language could be triggering for some people of color—perhaps for most—and that fact would require a deft touch if one elects to preach on this poem.  It might even be wise not to import that image into the sermon itself or recognize the fraught nature of it and change the image for the sermon itself perhaps to a child looking to a loving parent for mercy when they are in trouble.

With that said, we can observe that Psalm 123 is very short, clocking in at only 4 verses.  It is listed among the Songs of Ascent and even though this one has more to do with looking up to God instead of literally going up physically to the Temple, the idea that this is an upward moving prayer is still present.  Mercy and some measure of kindness from God are what the psalmist seeks and in the concluding lines of the poem we find out why: the people of God had of late suffered contempt and ridicule from the proud and arrogant people around them.

Of course, the people of God have long known that there is a certain sense that we will always be out of step with a fallen world.  Today disciples of Jesus are supposed to be seen as odd ducks, as people who believe in things many chalk up to sheer fantasy or wish fulfillment.  Disciples believe in things like a Virgin Birth, a resurrection, miracles, answered prayers.  We believe the Bible is different from any other book that has ever existed or will ever exist.  We believe there is such a being as the Holy Spirit who is able to direct our paths and who can even “speak” to us.

Most of the world doesn’t buy it. Although he is very respectful about it, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has a kind of tradition that every December not long before Christmas he publishes an interview he did with some prominent Christian leader.  Jimmy Carter, Luke Timothy Johnson, Tim Keller have been among these folks.  But no matter who the interviewee is, Kristof always asks one same question of them all every year: “Is it really necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth?”  He finds that hard to swallow.

Kristof is respectful but some other prominent critics of Christianity and of religion just generally are not so civil and feel no need to hide their contempt for naïve Christians who are an embarrassment to modernity.  Books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion by authors like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens assail especially Christians for their dumb beliefs.  Christians, they assert, are naïve, childish, immature, irrational and as stupid as people who would actually believe in the Tooth Fairy or river sprites.

Psalm 123 would definitely peg writers like this, and the thousands or more who adhere to similar assessments of religious faith, as proud and arrogant.  They dump boatloads of contempt onto the heads of Christians and have zero remorse for doing so.  And maybe people in our congregations work with folks like this or are related to people like this and maybe endure things like a fractious Thanksgiving Day meal when Uncle Floyd cannot help but pooh-pooh the God that some other family members had worshiped earlier that day at their church’s Thanksgiving Day service.  No, this is not as brutal as physical persecution.  No one kills or gets killed in this kind of verbal sparring arena.

But it still stings.  It is not pleasant.  And it surely introduces the temptation to back-pedal our beliefs a bit just so we don’t appear in the eyes of others to be dumb or irrational.  Or it can also produce the temptation to defend our faith and although there are lots of very respectful and intelligent ways to do that, there is also the possibility that we get into a verbal shouting match with our detractors and that in turn can devolve quickly into other things that are decidedly unpleasant for all concerned.

Far better to take the posture of the psalmist: raise your eyes to God and ask for his reassuring mercy.  Ask God to comfort us in the distress we feel.  Ask God to defend us if he wishes but also ask God to keep us from lashing out, from giving as good as we get in ways that will only further detract from out witness instead of actually enhancing or improving it.  And since we know our Savior Jesus endured almost every form of ridicule and abuse available from the proud and arrogant around him, we know we have a shining example to follow.  Not only does Jesus fully understand what we go through in times of withering ridicule, he is able to help us endure it as he did.

That is the God to whom we lift our eyes as we ponder Psalm 123.  And that is a fine thing to realize and in which to take solace.

Illustration Idea

In Maya Angelou’s classic essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” we see a vignette of what it looks like to lift our eyes to God in the face of ridicule rather than lash out.  Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.

The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black.  One thirteen-year-old girl even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down.  She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom and front.  Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something.  Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”  The girls tired of the show and left eventually, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down.”

Note: There is a commentary on Psalm 48 on the CEP website written by Stan Mast:


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