5th Sunday after Pentecost
June 26, 2016
“Don’t worry, be happy!” Remember that one? That seems to be Jesus’ tune in the Gospel reading. He’s preaching his Sermon on the Mount, and manages to cover many topics. Matthew’s image is of a new Moses, the new Lawgiver, interpreting God’s requirements for life more deeply even than the original Law.
Psalm 27 says much the same thing, in its own way. It is classified as a psalm of trust, along with the classic psalm of trust, Psalm 23. But part of the beauty of psalms is that those ancient prayers and hymns never minimize how hard the world is, and how God’s people can feel besieged, and how they can actually be besieged.
The theology that undergirds all the psalms is always about God; God’s constant presence with God’s people, and how God has saved the people over and over and over. This shows up in every psalm, but in the psalms of trust it is especially obvious. Trust psalms are very much like the Lament psalms; they are spoken at a time of crisis. The difference is that the dominant emotion is trust, rather than simply a cry for help. In Psalm 27, it’s hard to tell the exact crisis is for the psalmist. It could be a true battle situation, in which the writer really is facing an enemy encampment. Or later in the psalm it is suggested that he is in legal situation in which witnesses are testifying against him with false accusations. What is clear is that the psalmist knows that when you are in trouble, you go right to the nearest shrine and make your plea to the God who promises to hear you and protect you.
The theme of false accusation suggests that in the development of this psalm the typical opposition that God’s people have experienced is generalized to the difficulties that have faced many generations of the faithful. Think of Joseph, Moses, David, Jeremiah, the exiles in Babylon, even Jesus, Paul, the infant church, and the martyrs. In its present form, this psalm can teach us to trust in the way of life of God’s teaching, a way that will often be misrepresented and called into question. We trust that those who stand firm in God’s way will be heard and rescused.
The metaphors are rich: the Lord is called a light because it is God who drives out the darkness. It is in the light that life revives and flourishes. The ancients of Israel called God “my salvation” when they were delivered from the Red Sea. Christians think of Jesus as the light of the world, as he claimed, and as our salvation because he delivered us from sin and death.
As with the psalms we have already studied, psalms of trust have a structure. There is always a description of the threat faced by the psalmist. Psalm 46: “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” Psalm 23 talks of being surrounded by enemies, this one of the realities of war and false accusation. These psalms never pussyfoot around the problem, they make clear that human beings are vulnerable and that the world is a dangerous place. But that is what makes them so effective for those of us who read them when our own lives feel threatened. In them we draw strength from the courage of our ancestors who faced these perils and turned to the Lord in the their need.
That expression of trust in the Lord is the second feature of psalm of trust, and their dominant theme. And the reason for their trust is the third feature of a psalm of trust; the trustworthiness of the One to whom they pray. “The Lord of hosts is with us,” says Psalm 46. “Thou art with me,” says Psalm 23. “He conceals me in the recess of his tent, on a rock he raises me up,” says Psalm 27. The characteristics of the God they trust is depicted in both a rich array of metaphors that describe God’s presence, and a description of how God has been at work in the world up until this day.
The metaphors are rich: shepherd, banquet host, light, shelter, rock, fortress. William Brown (quoted in Jacobson) has argued that it is the “psalmists deployment of metaphor that enables the personal language of pathos to be felt by reader of every generation.” These metaphors are not simply a decorative device that adorns the limbs of the tree of the poem, they are the tree itself says Rolf Jacobson. Often the metaphoric language that describes God is extended when the psalmist talks about how God acts: the shepherd “leads beside still waters,” my salvation causes “my head rises over my enemies around me.”
It is the character of the Lord that makes it possible for the psalmists to trust so completely in God. They give themselves over completely to God’s loving fidelity, say the Jacobson’s. The image of the shepherd who guides the sheep to green pastures, is not just an idea conveyed to an audience, but an experience of God’s trustworthiness. This experience is the theological witness of the psalms of trust. Even though they convey a clear picture of the dangers of the world we live in, they also evoke trust and confidence as they show us the Lord as light, shepherd, fortress.
This psalm may sound familiar to some of you, because I have read it to you when you were in the hospital, or to someone you love who is failing. It is one of my own favorites, one I turn to all the time. It tells me that even an army camped around me cannot destroy me, and that the most extreme trouble cannot remove me from God’s attention and God’s loving care. Whom shall I fear, indeed. Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path, I have prayed many times when I couldn’t see the way, and found myself anxious and afraid I didn’t have the courage or strength to do what would be asked of me.
All the academic study is helpful in giving you confidence to read and explore the book of Psalms. But primarily it helps you to read enough to find the ones that speak directly to you, as the scholars have suggested about the immediacy of the metaphoric language of the psalmists. “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Palm 19:14. Amen.