Easter 3A

April 28, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Luke 24:13-35

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 2:14a, 36-41

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 116: 1-4, 12-19

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments and Observations

    Psalm 116 is a rich psalm of thanksgiving that the poet fills with vivid imagery.  Yet might those who preach and teach it also proclaim it as a love song to God?  Not of the romantic feeling that we sometimes confuse with love but of the kind of wholehearted adoration of the One who makes and cares for all things that are created?  After all, the poet calls on the name of the Lord and finds rest in the Beloved.  She also recognizes that she always lives in the Lord’s presence, fulfills her vows to the Beloved and serves the Lord.

    Psalm 116 portrays an intimate, loving relationship between God and the psalmist that, as Kathryn Roberts notes, “engages all the senses.”  The distressed poet has called out to be heard.  The beloved God has listened to the poet, kept his feet from stumbling and wiped his tears away.

    The Revised Common Lectionary appoints only verses 1-4 and 12-19 for this particular Sunday.  However, that seems to unnaturally stunt the psalm’s expression of love and thanksgiving.  After all, Psalm 116 begins with the poet’s song, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice.”  Yet it’s not until verse 12 that the poet describes his response to God’s hearing of her voice.  So even those whose preaching and teaching the lectionary shapes should feel free to explore and present the entire psalm.

    Those who do so will want to reflect the psalm’s lovely tone of thanksgiving in their presentation.  The psalmist is, after all, deeply thankful to God for God’s past activity.  Something clearly threatened her well-being.  The poet may even have been on death’s doorstep.  However, scholars generally suggest that the threat to the psalmist also engulfed the whole community.  So some propose that while the psalmist felt threatened, he was part of a community that was perhaps endangered by either Egyptian slavery or the Israelite exile.

    Certainly the imagery the poet uses to express that threat is very vivid.  He remembers feeling that “the cords of death entangled” him.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think of ourselves trapped by something like seaweed or kelp that drags us down to the bottom of deep water.  Or one might imagine the psalmist being in Jonah’s water-logged sandals.  In fact this psalm’s language is reminiscent of Jonah’s prayer from the great fish’s belly in Jonah 2:5: “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep waters surrounded me; the seaweed wrapped around my head.”

    The psalmist mentions “death,” what James Mays calls that “terrible, final word” three times.  So it’s as if she felt as though she were already under death’s power.  Before God graciously rescued her, death shaped the poet’s life.  That’s echoed by her memory of the “anguish of the grave” (or Sheol) coming upon her.  In her deathly condition the poet felt, in other words, as though she was beyond God’s loving reach.

    That’s why some scholars suggest that the “precious” in “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” refers not to death’s value to God, but its costliness. They suggest that the death of God’s beloved is “precious” in the same sense that we refer to metals as “precious” or “costly.”  If, after all, death or Sheol is a place from which, as Israelites believed, no one sings songs of thanksgiving to God, then death of just one saint is costly to God because it silences a song of loving thanksgiving to the Lord.

    The psalmist doesn’t explicitly identify the source of her suffering.  While the language is “deathly,” as Roberts points out, the psalmists often thought of distress as simply the work enemies and slanderers.  So Psalm 116’s references to death and the grave may be metaphorical, perhaps alluding to the trauma of persecution, attacks by enemies or physical or mental duress.

    This gives those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect on what leads worshipers to feel as though the death’s cords are entangling them.  It also offers an opportunity for worshipers to identify with and pray for those whom God has not yet rescued, who still feel the anguish of the grave.

    Whatever the source of the threat was, the psalmist cried out for help, not unlike a child whom a storm or nightmare frightens and calls for someone to come to his side.  The psalmist celebrates God’s response hearing his voice, his cry for mercy and delivering his soul from death.  This faithfulness shows that, as Roberts also notes, the poet’s ongoing trust is well-founded.

    God’s faithfulness also fuels the poet’s determination to express her thanksgiving.  So in verses 13-14 she sings, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.  I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of his people.” (italics added).  And in verse 17 she adds, “I will sacrifice a thank offering to you.”  (italics added).

    The psalmist’s determination to audibly and publicly thank God for God’s goodness offers those who preach and teach Psalm 116 a chance to reflect with worshipers on their own responses to God’s goodness.  It challenges worshipers to ask ourselves about our natural response to signs of God’s faithfulness.  Do we tell God how much we love the Lord?  Do we publicly and vocally express our thanksgiving to God for all God’s goodness to us?

    Psalm 116 expresses the poet’s thanksgiving to God that God heard his cry for help.  Yet, candidly, worshipers don’t always feel as though God hears our cries.  So God’s hearing of worshipers pleas for help is sometimes a profession that experience seems to belie.  Psalm 116 offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on the nature of God’s hearing.  After all, we sometimes think that God doesn’t hear our cries.  So preachers and teachers might help worshipers ask if that failure to hear is actually God’s “no” to our prayers.

    However, the psalmist responds to God’s salvation with a profession of trust.  He sings that God is gracious and righteous, that God is full of compassion and protects the simplehearted.  So it’s as if the psalmist can lecture himself to “be at rest again.”  Yet the psalmist isn’t telling himself to take a nap or go to bed.   Perhaps, instead, this call to “be at rest once more” refers to the poet’s intention to visit the temple as a place where God’s presence provides both relief and security.  This God has been good to the poet.  God has delivered her soul from death, wiped her tears from her eyes and prevented her from falling on her face when she stumbled.

    Psalm 116 is the language of an individual psalmist.  Yet others have appropriated it for their own use.  God’s Israelite sons and daughters recited it at the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.  It’s a song individual worshipers whom God has healed or freed from some threat might sing.  It’s appropriate for individual and communal celebrations of God’s faithfulness at times like Maundy Thursday and Easter.  In fact, Paul seems to allude to Psalm 116:13 in his description of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 10:16.  He, after all, calls the communion cup “the cup of blessing for which we give thanks.”

    In fact, is it too much of a stretch to think of Psalm 116 as a psalm the resurrected Jesus recited?  The cords of death, after all, entangled him.  The anguish of the grave came upon him.  Yet God heard Jesus’ cry for mercy.  On that first Easter, God raised him from the dead.  And because of that resurrection, worshipers walk before the Lord in the land of the living, both now and in the glory of the new earth and heaven.

    Illustration Idea

    Those who preach and teach Psalm 116 might consider beginning their presentation by announcing, as a colleague once did, that they’d talked to President Obama (or Prime Minister Harper or some other world leader) on the phone that very morning.  They’d note that they’d had a friendly conversation and that they’d asked that national leader to do something for them.  The preacher/teacher would then announce that the president or prime minister had agreed to do that very thing.

    Worshipers might think the preacher/teacher was either lying or under the influence of a drug.  Yet is the psalmist’s claim any less audacious when he claims that the Lord heard his voice?  That the one who makes and cares for everything that is created turned God’s face toward him and not only heard but also answered “yes” to the poet’s cry for mercy?

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Peter 1:17-23

    Author: Stan Mast