6th Sunday after Pentecost
July 3, 2016
Psalm 40 You can click not this link to read the text in Oremus Bible Browser.
Years ago Macy Gray stepped up to the microphone to accept a Grammy for best new album. She’d been singing for a while and had a small following, but her album was a huge hit and made her famous. The first thing she said came from Psalm 40, although I didn’t know it at the time. “I waited for the LORD, who heard my cry. He lifted me out of the miry pit and put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” I still don’t know much about her story and any of the obstacles she had overcome to create the songs that finally made her famous, but I gather that her life had been changed and that the album for which she was being celebrated reflected that change. Often the testimonies of Christians in public seem overblown and often seem not to hold up over time. But her quoting this psalm intrigued me, and made me go looking for the psalm to read it on my own.
The lectionary of psalms I’ve been following has chosen the psalms we study using Walter Brueggeman’s classification of psalms into psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Psalms of Orientation are praise psalms like Psalm 113 and Psalm 1, and reflect a perfect world in which life is trustworthy and stable. Psalms of Disorientation are the cries for help when the bottom drops out and the world is out of whack. Psalms of Reorientation are like Psalm 40, and reflect the times when faith in a trustworthy God can set the world aright, but we still remember the disorientation. When we’ve walked through the valley of the shadow of death, we can celebrate our rescue, but we are changed forever.
Psalm 40 is a psalm of thanksgiving, and a psalm of reorientation. It tells the story of a rescue, and of life on the other side. It praises God as the only God who could have saved the psalmist from the disaster. And it promises to tell everyone what God has done. “When we receive God’s aid, the ‘thank you note’ that God desires is that we tell others where they, too, can find God.” (Jacobson’s)
Customarily, in the Temple tradition, when you receive God’s help, you are expected to go to the sanctuary and make a sacrifice of thanksgiving. But here the psalmist says that he heard God ask instead for his testimony, written on a scroll, and offered in the assembly. Actually this may be the very song that the writer composed as his or her thanksgiving. Patrick Miller suggests that this helps to date the period of this psalm to the exile or after the exile of Israel in Assyria and Babylon. The psalm reflects a person who was delivered and found himself responsive to the Lord in a new way, offering witness and himself as thanksgiving instead of sacrifice. Ezekiel and Jeremiah prophets from the time before and during the Exile, both talk about a time when the Law of God will be written on hearts of God’s people, and the prophet of Isaiah 40-55 was called upon to bring tidings of the Lord’s righteousness. The idea of a personal testimony and a change in one’s behavior as the result of God’s intervention is a prominent theme of that time. Those seventh and eighth century prophets proclaimed that God rejected the liturgical sacrifices of Israel because they were offered by a disobedient people. Sacrifices alone cannot make you acceptable to God, it is what you do when you leave the altar that matters.
There’s also a blessing in this psalm, a beatitude, as there was in Psalm 1. It pronounces blessing on those who follow God’s path, who live by God’s teaching. “Happy are those who have placed their trust in the LORD.” Happy can also be translated privileged. Trust in the Lord, the psalmist declares, is a better course of life than turning to other sources of security and contentment. Deliverance is just one more example of the innumerable wonders by which God has preserved the people. Our salvation is set within the continuity of the salvation history of God’s people.
This is the point of the writer of the Book of Hebrews, which quotes this psalm as the words of Jesus. The emphasis is that the Law, the teachings to God’s people, could not get rid of sin by itself, as sacrifices had to be offered over and over again for the sins of the person and the sins of the people. So, explains Hebrews, Christ had to come to get rid of the sin that the Law could not abolish. In Chapter 10, Jesus is quoted as saying: “Sacrifice and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God I have come to do your will, O God. (In the scroll of the book it is written of me).” It is a paraphrase of verses 6-8 of Psalm 40. The quote is indirect, it’s true, but the Psalmist gets it right, the desire of his heart to follow the will of God as testimony to God’s saving action is exactly what’s needed. Jesus’ obedience even to death accomplished the perfect offering for all.
On the other side of salvation, being saved by God’s powerful and merciful hand, one lives differently.
This is a picture of Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Nazi death camp at Birkenau where his father, mother and younger sister died. He died yesterday. He spent his life in testimony to the possibility that without remembering what happened then, it could happen again. In an NPR series “What I Believe,” he said: For in my tradition, as a Jew, I believe that whatever we receive we must share. When we endure and experience, the experience cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared. And of course I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human being, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways – disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet….How can we therefore speak, unless we believe that our words have meaning, that our words will help others to prevent my past for becoming another person’s – another people’s – future. Yes, our stories are essential – essential to memory. I velieve that the witnesses, especially the survivors, have the most important role. They can simply say, in the words of the prophet, “I was there.”
What is a witness if not someone who has a tale to tell and lives only with one haunting desire: to tell it. Without memory,, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. After all, God is God because he remembers.”
Songs of distress are replaced by songs of thanksgiving. Stories of danger testify to the nearness of God who remembers you and comes to rescue you. Stories of rescue lead to new songs and noticing the world around you as a miracle of God’s creation and care. The proper response to salvation is transformation in living, testimony in speaking and lifting one’s hands in praise. Amen.