Last Epiphany B

February 13, 2012

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Mark 9:2-9

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    2 Kings 2:1-12

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 50

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Those who choose to preach and teach Psalm 50 may wish to invite hearers to imagine a kind of courtroom and trial scene to help them think about this psalm.  After all, while it’s a covenant renewal liturgy, it also has vivid courtroom imagery.  Psalm 50 features a judge, a convening of the court, witnesses, testimony and defendants.

    The witnesses in this courtroom drama are nothing less than the heavens and the earth.  While they may seem to us like odd witnesses, their status relates back to Deuteronomy 30:19ff.   There God, at the institution of God’s covenant with Israel, says to her, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”

    Now God re-summons those cosmic witnesses to testify to Israel’s failure to be God’s faithful covenant partners.  Their witness emphasizes the fact that while Israel hasn’t recognized it, she has been so unfaithful that even the creation can see it.  God’s summons to the cosmos to serve as witnesses to Israel’s unfaithfulness takes on a special poignancy in light of our modern degradation of creation.  The heavens and earth, the air and the soil, bear witness to the way we have been God’s unfaithful covenant partners through our pollution of the air, soil and water.

    Psalm 50’s judge is the God of heaven and earth.  However, this judge doesn’t silently glide into the courtroom in her somber black robe as a bailiff calls out, “All rise.”  There’s nothing quiet or subtle about this judge’s appearance.  This Judge will not be silent.  The Lord dramatically storms into the courtroom accompanied by a blaze of fire and the roar of a storm.

    Since Psalm 50 is a covenant renewal liturgy, we’re not surprised that its imagery is reminiscent of Exodus 19’s account of the Lord’s appearance to Israel in the wilderness: “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord ascended on it in fire.  The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.”

    Those who preach and teach Psalm 50 may want to contrast its imagery of God with that which at least some of the modern church has adopted.  It’s tempting to think of God as a best buddy who only gives what people want and never asks anything of them.  The church is always tempted to domesticate the God of heaven and earth into a kind of benign deity who is hardly concerned about peoples’ behavior as long as they’ve accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

    Such divine indifference is hardly consistent with Psalm 50’s imagery of the Lord.  After all, its names and titles for God are evocative enough all by themselves.  This God is the “Mighty One,” (1) perhaps better translated as “Yahweh, the God of gods.”  This Judge is the God not just of Israel, but of the whole creation and, as such, has the right to summon the entire cosmos as witness against unfaithful covenant partners.

    In fact, verse 6 explicitly refers to God as “Judge.”  The following verses indicate that it’s Israel whom this divine judge summons into God’s courtroom to, in a sense, stand trial for her faithlessness.  Israelites are God’s “consecrated ones,” those whom God has graciously set apart for service and faithfulness to God.

    However, God judges Israel’s worship to be unfaithful.  Psalm 50 suggests that Israel assumed that just going through religious “motions” such as bringing sacrifices was enough to please God.  God, however, insists that God doesn’t need what Israel sacrifices to the Lord.  After all, God already owns all of it.  God doesn’t need bulls or goats.  Every animal, head of cattle and bird already is the Lord’s.

    What, then, does the Mighty One, God, the Lord want?  How do God’s faithful covenant partners worship the Lord?  God longs for Israel to express both her thankfulness and dependency on the Lord.  After all, that’s the double response of those whom God has created and for whom God cares.  Genuine thanksgiving to God arises out of a deep awareness that God is the giver of every good gift.  Human realization of our complete dependence on God fuels our thanksgiving for that generosity.

    Those who preach and teach Psalm 50 may want to explore with hearers what sorts of things we’re tempted to substitute for such a relationship of thankful, dependence.  What sorts of things keep God’s covenant of grace’s partners from worshipping the Lord in Spirit and in truth?

    However, Psalm 50’s God doesn’t just judge consecrated Israel’s worship.  This God also judges Israel’s behavior.  God insists that while Israelites say one thing, they act in a completely opposite way.  They’re able to recite the Ten Commandments and the terms of God’s covenant with them.  Yet at the very same time they’re willing to engage in theft, adultery, lying and slander.  Of course, while verses 18-20 specifically address several specific sins, we should see that list as illustrative rather than exhaustive.  Clearly Israel is guilty of faithlessly violating God’s whole law.

    Some may find it challenging to preach and teach Psalm 50’s liturgical and ethical demands to those whom God has saved by grace alone.  After all, Christians know that our obedience to the Ten Commandments can’t save us.  We can’t obey them perfectly enough to fully satisfy God’s righteous demands.  Only Jesus Christ could obey them and keep God’s covenant perfectly.

    So perhaps Psalm 50’s preachers and teachers will want to set it against the Christian tendency toward what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”  It’s always tempting for those whom God saves by God’s grace to assume that God doesn’t care how we worship and behave as long as we believe in Jesus Christ for our salvation.  Psalm 50 vividly reminds us that God cares passionately about what kind of faith we evidence through our worship and behavior.

    Those saved by God’s grace alone received through faith may recoil a bit at Psalm 50’s harsh tone.  Yet as Richard J. Clifford points out, its abrasive tone shouldn’t particularly surprise us.  What we might think of a vicious scolding and questioning was typical of covenant renewal ceremonies.  What’s more, texts like Judges 24 show that God designed such scolding to prompt God’s covenant partners to self-examination and repentance.

    That would seem an approach avenue for preachers and teachers to follow into Psalm 50.  It can be used to invite God’s sons and daughters to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all of creation, including their worship and behavior.  By God’s Spirit, Psalm 50 can also stimulate God’s modern covenant of grace partners to renew our commitment to responding to God’s grace with a faith that includes genuine worship and obedience.

    Illustration Idea

    Among the first words at least some children learn to say is the word, “Mine!”  As they scan the “kingdom” that is their various toys they exclaim, “Mine!”  Children try to protect what belongs to them from other children by insisting, “Mine!”  By doing so, they’re trying to keep from sharing their treasures with others.  And while adults may be more sophisticated about our longing to hoard what we have, we too naturally say, “Mine!”

    Interestingly, God also says, “Mine!” in Psalm 50:10: “Every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle of a thousand hills.”  Yet God doesn’t hoard what belongs to God.  Were that true, every one of us would die.  Thankfully, while God is the Sovereign to whom all of creation belongs, God is extraordinarily generous with what belongs to the Lord.  Even as God says, “Mine!” God opens God’s hands and arms to share God’s bounty with God’s creatures.