Easter 5B

April 26, 2021

The Easter 5B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 15:1-8 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 8:26-40 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 22:25-31 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John 4:7-21 from the Lectionary Epistle.

Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 91 (Lord’s Day 33)

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 15:1-8

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 8:26-40

    Author: Stan Mast

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 22:25-31

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Let’s try a little thought experiment: imagine running across a long-ish narrative poem that began with something like, “The one I love torments me day and night, insults me in private and in public.  She has made me out to be a villain, and I rue the day I ever met her at times.  Who will deliver me from this woman!?”  Well, that’s a striking set of observations!

    So can you imagine this same poem ending this way: “She walks in beauty like the night, of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright, meet in her aspect and in her eyes.”

    Surely, you would think, both parts cannot be included in the same poem.  Either this is a mistake or someone inadvertently smashed together two completely different poems about two completely different people and experiences.

    But honestly, this is almost exactly what Psalm 22 is like.  If you take up just this week’s Lectionary verses of 25-31, you would assume that if this was the end of a poem, then the first part of that same poem must have been pretty lyric and lovely too.  But no.  The opening of Psalm 22 is a cry of raw dereliction and most of the first half is all about torment and the triumph of enemies and about a God who seems remote, aloof, and unwilling to do anything to help the hapless poet.

    How, then, can the same psalmist who accused God in the shank of Psalm 22 conclude on a series of notes that could not be more laudatory?  The last half-dozen verses here are gushing with pious enthusiasm for God.  The sentiments expressed very nearly count as fawning.  God is depicted as beneficent and munificent.  God raises up the poor and puts them on a par with the rich.  God provides a rich feast of food even as people look to God as the source of all life.  The whole earth redounds with God’s praise and all who see and know this God bow down before him.  God’s reputation is so glowing that it will ricochet from one generation to the next and so on forever and ever.

    It’s like listening to the Hallelujah Chorus six times in a row!  Therefore the question: short of some editorial glitch in which someone mindlessly stitched together the beginning and ending of two disparate and opposite psalms, what explains the 180-degree turnaround from “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to “They will proclaim God’s righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: God has done it!”???

    Honestly, I don’t know the answer fully.  Let’s rule out an editorial error, however.  Let’s also stipulate something I have observed before about Psalm 22: whatever you make of its sunny conclusion, do not use that as a way to wash away the power of the first half.  Don’t do what one preacher I heard once did: suggest that when Jesus cried out verse 1 from the cross, he didn’t really mean it but was kind of winking at us because he knew how Psalm 22 ended and thus that was his real message, not that he ever actually felt abandoned by his Father or Spirit.

    No, that won’t do exegetically.  We have to take the derelict and miserable situation of the first part of Psalm 22 with utmost seriousness and conclude that this really had been the psalmist’s experience at some point even as it was also the experience of Jesus on the cross.  That kind of thing can happen to believers along the way in their walks of faith.  Having faith in God is no shield against hurt or sickness, loneliness or alienation from other people.  Philip Yancey once had an aptly titled book that resonates with most honest Christians: Disappointment with God.  Or think of the more recent volume by Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved). 

    But that only makes our key question more difficult: how can all of that coexist in the same psalm with this roaringly positive and praise-filled conclusion?  Truth is, this is a mystery but it is not a mystery with which we are unfamiliar as pastors and preachers.  We have all met and ministered to people who have had every right to ditch their faith in God altogether.  By all objective standards it seems like God has ignored far more prayerful pleas in someone’s past than God has answered.  From the outside looking in, God seems to have let this person down repeatedly and even brutally.  Few of us would tolerate such treatment at the hands of a fellow human being.  This is not what friends do for one another.

    Yet there this person is in worship every week, singing his or her heart out.  There they are in the Wednesday Bible study group encouraging those who are discouraged and talking about God and about Jesus in ways that bolster the resolve and the faith of every person in the room.  Job-like they stand up in essence to declare, “Though he slay me, yet will I believe.  I will sing of my Redeemer and his goodness unto me!”

    You witness all this and you step back in wonder.  It is a mystery how the Spirit keeps people in their faith when a lot of people would have given up on God had they experienced even one-tenth of what such a person had gone through over the years.

    How can Psalm 22 contain such disparate elements of despair and pious joy?  I don’t know, but I meet incarnate examples of exactly this with some frequency and I regard them as miracles of the Spirit.  If Psalm 22 reminds us of such faithful folk, then that is a good thing indeed.

    Illustration Idea

    In a scene from the film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hermione Granger attempts to tell her friends Ron and Harry why a fellow student of theirs is so conflicted.  (You can watch the scene here).  After piling up at least a half-dozen disparate things this young woman is experiencing and that caused her to cry in what should have been a happy moment, Hermione then listens as Ron exclaims, “One person couldn’t feel all of that.  They’d explode.”  Hermione then rejoins, “Just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon!”

    But Hermione is right: each of us can at any given moment be a boiling mix of all kinds of conflicting and conflicted feelings.  We can be simultaneously grateful and angry about something.  We can be at once excessively sad over some loss in our life and yet feel profound happiness in another area of our lives.

    The psalmist who penned Psalm 22 definitely had a much wider range of emotions than a teaspoon.  Here was a person who could hold in fruitful, faithful tension a wild variety of experiences and attendant emotions and yet somehow weave them together into a single poem that—if we are honest—is a pretty good reflection of where a lot of us are on any given day.

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 John 4:7-21

    Author: Doug Bratt