Easter 5A

May 12, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 14:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 7: 55-60

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 31:1-5; 15-16

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments and Observations

    Psalm 31 is a servant of God’s prayer for God’s protection and deliverance from his enemies.  It’s a prayer that Christians can hardly hear without thinking of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.  After all, it’s not just that the Revised Common Lectionary appoints it as the psalm for Passion Sunday.  Luke also says that Jesus prays verse 5a (“Into your hands I commit my spirit”) as he dies on the cross.

    Some scholars even suggest Jesus prayed the entire psalm as he dangled between heaven and earth on that Good and terrible Friday.  One can at least imagine that Psalm 31 ran through his mind as he suffered and died, plotted against by those who’d made themselves his enemies and abandoned by virtually everyone, including his Heavenly Father.

    However, those who wish to remain faithful to Psalm 31’s original context aren’t eager to leap too quickly across the ages to Golgotha.  After all, Jesus was neither God’s first nor last servant to pray at least the sentiments of this psalm.  In fact, those who preach and teach Psalm 31 may benefit from reflecting on and helping hearers to reflect on who else might pray it.

    We know enough about the isolating effects of bullying, for example, to imagine that its victims might pray something like this psalm.  Or consider the victims of spousal or other abuse who sometimes feel isolated from their family members and friends.  One might also imagine Christians whom others persecute for their faith offering Psalm 31’s prayer.

    At the heart of Psalm 31 is the poet’s profession, “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge” (1).  It’s imagery that’s echoed by references to God as a “rock,” “fortress” and “shelter.”  So the God to whom the psalmist confidently turns here is a protector.  God is also, however, a reliable protector, professes the psalmist, because God is “righteous” (1).  God is, in other words, wholeheartedly committed to God’s people with whom God is in covenant.

    The psalmist fills the part of this psalm appointed by the Lectionary for the fifth Sunday of Easter with images of the Exodus.  The psalmist is professing that the God of the Exodus is present with God’s people, long after God has completed Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery.  God didn’t, in other words, just shelter the fleeing Israelites.  God also delivers God’s children from all sorts of enemies.

    Yet the psalmist’s enemies are clever.  “Free me from the trap that is set for me,” she writes in verse 4, using imagery derived from hunting and the treatment of prisoners of war.  It’s as though the psalmist’s enemies have covered a large hole in the ground with a flimsy bridge that will collapse under the weight of the fleeing psalmist, sending the poet tumbling into a pit.

    The language the poet uses in Psalm 31 is very conversational and intimate.  Preachers and teachers will want to note the extensive use of personal, second person pronouns.  “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge … Turn your ear to me … you are my rock … for the sake of your name lead me and guide me … Into your hands I commit my spirit” (italics added).

    Clearly the psalmist has a very intimate relationship with God the Creator of heaven and earth. The poet understands that God’s work is not limited to the act of creation but also extends to the care for what God creates.

    In verses 9-13 (outside of the Lectionary’s purview for this Sunday), the poet describes the great misery her enemies have inflicted on her.  Yet verse 14 serves as a kind of pivot from the despair often fostered by those clever enemies to the hope God gives.  With its great “but” it’s as if the psalmist lifts her eyes from her misery and the enemies who surround her to the God who created and cares for her.

    Candidly, however, we live much of our lives “within” that pivot.  Many of God’s children suffer the deep distress caused by sickness, unemployment, loneliness, despair and other maladies.  It’s never easy to lift our eyes and hearts above those “enemies.”  Yet we live in hope even in the face of such distress.  So we can join the psalmist in professing, “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’  My times are in your hands.”

    The image of our times being in God’s hands is an especially vivid one that invites Psalm 31’s preachers and teachers’ reflection.  As James Mays notes, the psalmist isn’t claiming that the length of her lifetime depends on God.  Instead she seems to be affirming that God holds her destiny, the things that shape her life, firmly in the palm of God’s gentle hand.  While her enemies have some power over her and may even have her “in their clutches” as it were, the psalmist insists that they can’t hold on to her, because she belongs to God.  In fact, as the Apostle Paul might add, even the psalmist’s mighty enemies can’t rip her out of God’s loving hands.

    Melody Knowles suggests that the psalmist believes that once God realizes his desperate plight, God will act to right the wrong in her life.  That’s why, she posits, the poet prays, “Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress” (italics added).  He can beg God to pay attention to his plight because that’s part of God’s nature.  The God to whom he turns is a God of “unfailing love.”  His enemies harass the psalmist.  His friends have abandoned him.  Yet the psalmist can “be strong and take heart.”  “The Lord preserves the faithful.”

    Illustration Idea

    In verse 15 the psalmist professes, “My times are in [God’s] hands.”  Of course, that’s an anthropomorphism because God is spirit and, thus, doesn’t have literal hands.  But how might we describe God’s figurative hands?

    The website palmistrylines.com describes palmistry as “a branch of ancient science, which deals with the complete study of the palm-prints to get the idea of future events in life… The mounting and sliding lines on the palm, nails, shape of the fingers, color and surface of the skin over the palm are seen as the important factors for the judgment… The clear and deep lines on a palm indicate accomplishment, while the thin and broken lines are a handicap for the person.”

    Perhaps few people who teach and preach Psalm 16 accept palmistry’s presuppositions. Yet we might find a helpful avenue into the psalm to be imagining with hearers what God’s “hands” that hold our times would look like if we could “read” God’s palms.

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Peter 2:2-10

    Author: Stan Mast