Proper 24A

October 13, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 22:15-22

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 33:12-23

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 99

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments and Observations

    Psalm 99 is the poet’s song that celebrates God’s reign over the whole creation.  It’s the last of the “enthronement psalms.”  Yet it doesn’t just celebrate God’s sovereignty.  It also, according to Sandra Richter, at least indirectly addresses the problem of Israel’s kings’ failure by recalling Israel’s wilderness wanderings under Moses’ leadership.  Psalm 99, after all, remembers a time when Israel’s leaders “called on” God’s name (6) and God “answered them.”  However, under many of her rebellious kings Israel enjoyed no such intimacy.

    Among the refrains of Psalm 99 is an assertion of God’s holiness.  It concludes each of its stanzas that sing of God’s sovereignty (1-3), the stability and peace God offered Israel (4-5) and God’s faithfulness to God’s servants (6-9).  This emphasis on God’s holiness serves to highlight not only God’s moral perfection, but also God’s complete “otherness.”  God, insists the poet, is not a creature like human beings.  God is the wholly “other.”  Yet, it’s as if the poet marvels near the end of the psalm, this wholly other God not only reigns over what God makes, but also “stoops” to hear and answer God’s human creatures’ calls.

    This concept of God’s holiness offers those who preach and teach Psalm 99 an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on modern notions of God.  It’s natural to try to “domesticate” God by referring to the Lord as a “best buddy” or toothless grandma who’s just like us except that God never gets angry.  This, however, is hardly the “holy” God of which this psalm sings.

    The first half of Psalm 99 employs some tabernacle/temple language.  It reminds worshipers of one of the great paradoxes about Yahweh: while God is wholly other, God also graciously stoops to be present among God’s sons and daughters.  God, according to verse 1, “sits enthroned between the cherubim” who sat atop the ark.  We first meet cherubim in Eden where God has assigned one of them to guard the Garden from fallen people.  They reappear in both the tabernacle furnishings and Ezekiel’s visions.  Israel houses those cherubim in the tabernacle until David moves the ark to Jerusalem.

    Ezekiel describes cherubim as having faces like humans, wings like eagles and the bodies and feet of either lions or oxen.  Cherubim form the seat of the sovereign Lord’s throne.  Richter notes that they show up only when the Lord is near in order to defend the Lord and God’s throne from unholy advances.  She also suggests that Psalm 99’s reference to those cherubim emphasizes God as a great and awesome king who should be approached only with reverence and deep humility.

    This holy God’s reign leaves, to borrow Jerry Lee Lewis’s musical phrase, a “whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.”  “The Lord reigns,” asserts the psalmist in verse 1, “let the nations tremble … Let the earth shake.”  While the nations may be great, God is more formidable.  Israel may fear her mighty neighbors.  God, however, is even mightier.  This is no God to be lightly trifled with.  The holy Lord must be approached with awe and reverence.

    The psalmist’s profession that this God is sovereign over all the nations is, as Richter points out, a radical claim.  After all, the ancient world viewed its gods as reigning over only the lands controlled by people who worshiped them.  It assumed, for example, Shamash ruled over a Babylon whose rulers served him and Chemosh ruled over a Moab ruled by its worshipers.  So Israel’s “neighbors” assumed that Yahweh ruled only over a little patch of Canaanite hill country whose rulers served the Lord.  Against that assumption, the psalmist professes that while Israel doesn’t rule over the whole world, her God does, even over those lands and people that don’t yet submit to God’s rule.

    Because God reigns over them, the psalmist invites not just Israel but also “the nations” to worship the sovereign God.  In verse 3 he calls them to “praise” God’s “great and holy name.”  The poet challenges the nations to “exalt the Lord our God” in both verses 5 and 9.  So God’s creation and creatures don’t just tremble before the Lord.  They also offer God their worship and service.

    God, after all, deserves that worship.  In contrast to much human reign, God’s reign is just (4).  Israel’s contemporaries thought of kings’ word as law.  So the only hope those on society’s margins had was for a king who showed them compassion.  God and Israel’s prophets either praised or condemned kings according to the care they did or didn’t show the vulnerable.  God’s reign, insists the poet, is always just and right.  It is praiseworthy because it pays special attention to those on society’s margins.

    Psalm 99 reflects on the care God lavished on Israel throughout her history.  By referencing “Jacob” in verse 4 perhaps the poet isn’t just using a synonym for Israel.  She may also be inviting Israel to remember God’s faithfulness even to a Jacob who wasn’t always particularly faithful himself.  In verse 6 the poet speaks of Moses, Aaron and Samuel as leaders who not only worshiped God, but also led justly.  God responded to their godly leadership by speaking to Israel from within the cloud.  In doing so God gave Israel directions for godly living in obedience to God’s “statues and … decrees” (7).  In fact, the psalmist recalls, God graciously forgave Israel even though God also justly punished her for her disobedience.

    So why does the psalmist rehearse God’s past care for Israel?  Why do God’s modern adopted sons and daughters pay so much attention to what may seem like the Bible’s ancient history?  It’s a way of giving both the psalmist and our contemporaries’ confidence that God will graciously act in the same way toward us that God acted toward Israel.  This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 99 a chance to reflect with worshipers on their own need to recall God’s faithfulness.

    Psalm 99 ends with a refrain that echoes verse 5.  “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy.”  What, after all, could be a more appropriate response to God’s sovereignty, holiness and justice?

    Illustration Idea

    Verse 5’s mention of God’s footstool” (Hebrew: la hadom) is a vivid one that may invite some whimsical reflection.  People, after all, link footstools or ottomans to rest.  They’re where we put our feet up after a long day or hard work.  Footstools are places where put people rest as they sip a cold drink or even take a short nap.

    God’s footstool that is Zion, however, is hardly a place linked to God’s rest.  God is, after all, as Jesus said, always working.  God never rests.  What might it mean, then, that Zion is God’s footstool?

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

    Author: Stan Mast