Easter 7A

May 22, 2017

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 17:1-11

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 1:6-14

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35

    Author: Stan Mast

    Psalm 68 is known as the most difficult Psalm, but it is a fine choice for this Seventh Sunday of Easter, also known as Ascension Sunday.  The connection to Christ’s Ascension is rooted in the way the early church read it, as evidenced most clearly in Paul’s use of verse 18 in Ephesians 4:8-13.

    Within the Psalm itself there are hints that the church’s appropriation of this Psalm for its celebration of Christ’s Ascension was fitting.  The opening call, “May God arise, may his enemies be scattered, may his foes flee before him,” sounds a lot like Paul’s description of Christ’s victory over God’s enemies in Ephesians 1:20-22.  After recalling how God’s power had raised Christ from the dead and “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion…,” Paul says that God “placed all things under his feet and appointed him the head over everything for the church….”  Further, the title given to God in Psalm 68: 4 and 33 (“him who rides on the clouds” and “him who rides the ancient skies above”) echoes the description of Christ’s ascension in Acts 1.

    So, Psalm 68 is a good alternative text for this Ascension Sunday, if we can get past its difficulties.  Some of those difficulties are textual.  Says one scholar, the average preacher will may be intimidated by “uncertain texts, rare words, allusive language, and shifting styles.”  But that same scholar says, “Whatever its uncertainties, to read it or to hear it read is to experience something of the awesome, wonderful majesty of the warrior God who saves his people and brings his kingdom.” (Mays)

    In that quote we encounter the other, and greater, difficulty with this Psalm.  That difficulty is the theology summed up in the phrase “warrior God.”   Many preachers and listeners will struggle with the militant, some might say triumphalistic tone of this Psalm.  In a day of interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance, when the emphasis everywhere is on the unity of the human race, Psalm 68 seems like a throwback to the days of a muscular Christianity that allied itself with nationalistic pride.  In those good old days churches sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” ambivalent about which soldiers were marching off to which war.  This unease with a “warrior God” is surely what led the Lectionary to omit the fiercest words of verses 11-31.

    It would be easy for the queasy preacher to simply skip this Ascension Psalm to avoid these difficulties.   But Kathryn L. Roberts has an interesting, counter-intuitive observation.  “In a time when violence is too quickly and slickly the answer, it would behoove the church to lean in to the difficulties Scripture often tells about God, rather than editing them out.”   In other words, maybe Psalm 68 with its military tone is precisely the text we need for this Sunday, which just happens to be the Sunday before Memorial Day in the United States, when we remember those who have fallen in war.

    But how do we handle all of those literary difficulties?  We can’t even get to the theology if we can’t make sense of the Psalm’s words.  The introductory notes in the NIV Study Bible suggest a helpful way to grasp the meaning and movement of various parts of this complex Psalm.  It is a processional liturgy that celebrates the glorious and triumphant rule of Israel’s God by tracing God’s march from Mt. Sinai (in the days of Moses) to Mt. Zion (in the days of David). In the theology of Israel’s history, the events at Mt. Sinai marked the birth of the Kingdom of God among his people, while the placement of the ark in Jerusalem marked the establishment of God’s redemptive Kingdom in the earth.  In other words, what we have in Psalm 68 is not a war hymn, but a Kingdom hymn; not a glorification of violence, but a celebration of God’s great campaign to restore Shalom on earth.

    There are 9 stanzas in the liturgy, which roughly coincide with the stages in that march: verses 1-3 are a call to begin the journey with God in the lead (see my comments on these verses later); verses 4-6 remind God’s people of the benevolence of their warrior God; verses 7-10 recall the wilderness journey from Sinai to the Promised Land; verses 11-14 celebrate God’s victory over the kings of Canaan; verses 15-18 picture Yahweh’s ascent of Mt. Zion, as symbolized by the elevation of the ark of the covenant; verses  19-23 assure God’s people of God’s future victories; in verses 24-27 the procession comes into view; verses 28-31 are a prayer that God will muster his strength to subdue his enemies as before; in verses 32-35 the procession ends with a full throated call to praise the God of power who is enthroned in his sanctuary.

    Here are some points that will help you flesh out the theme of celebrating the victory of our Warrior God.  First, there is no question that the first stanza (verses 1-3) pictures a rough, tough God.  And why not?  He has enemies, after all, and he did not start the fight.  It was the Adversary, the Accuser, the Destroyer who enlisted human beings in the fight against a merciful God who created all things good.  It would be totally wrong for God to allow the forces of evil to destroy his good earth and his beloved children.  Any God worth his salt must defend the world he loves and defeat those who would destroy it.

    The call that opens this Psalm is the cry of all God’s children who have been caught up in the war initiated by evil.  “May God arise, may his enemies be scattered… may you blow them away….”  I know, that sounds like an advertisement for a violent video game.  But it is, rather, a call for help from sad and suffering people.  “But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before the Lord….”  Other Psalms echo the questions of God’s suffering children: “Why are you so far off, O Lord?  Why do you wait?  How long will you allow us to suffer?”  Psalm 68 puts that sentiment in stronger terms.  It’s time to act.  “May God arise!”

    The next stanza in the liturgy of victory is a reminder that our warrior God is a Savior, the Savior of the helpless.  Verses 4-6 show the tender intention of the God who goes to war.  His heart is wide open to the marginalized, the oppressed, the victims of evil.  He is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.”  He “sets the solitary in families; he leads forth the prisoners with singing.”

    That last phrase is undoubtedly a reference to Israel’s exodus from the house of bondage in Egypt, but the rest of that stanza reveals God’s heart for all those who suffer under the hand of evil.  Indeed, Exodus 22:21-24 shows how fierce is God’s concern for the least and the last.  “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.  Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.  If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.  My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”

    The third stanza (7-10) praises God for his care in the dry and barren places of the journey.  Even when God’s people pass through the wilderness, God marches with them.  In the most unlikely places, he showers his grace upon them.  In lovely language that tempers the violence of other verses, God is praised for both thunderstorms that shake the earth and showers that make it bloom.  The Promised Land had grown weary under the dominion of evil, but God’s powerful grace symbolized by rain “refreshed your weary inheritance.”

    Our reading for Ascension Sunday skips over the next 20 some verses, because they are studded with violence, warfare, and blood.  But there is also a steady emphasis, like a drumbeat, on the presence, power, and danger of God’s enemies.  There are “beasts among the reeds” waiting to attack, and “bulls among the calves of the nations” ready to charge.  There are “nations who delight in war.”  It’s not as though God is out to pick a fight, as though God enjoys fighting, as though God is a bully.  It is rather that the enemies of God’s campaign to restore peace won’t give up, so he can’t/won’t either.  He loves his world too much to let evil ruin it.

    And even though Psalm 68 talks about God’s people plunging “their feet in the blood of their foes,” the Ascension connection of the Psalm reminds us that the Son of God shed his blood even for his enemies (Romans 5:9-11).  God is not a blood thirsty Warrior.  But war and blood are a part of life, so our God immersed himself in our lives (even the blood and the war) to bring peace.

    If we read Psalm 68 in the light of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, we can understand why it ends with shouts of praise.  In a world seemingly dominated by the power of evil, we celebrate the victory of God over evil.  “Sing to God… to him who rides the ancient skies above…. Proclaim the power of God…, whose power is in the skies.  You are awesome, O God, in your sanctuary; the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.”

    Those last words give us opportunity to remind people that our Warrior God is the Savior of the World.  Therefore, we who follow him are obligated to use the power he has given us to participate in his world saving campaign.  And we do that best, not by picking fights with those liberals/conservatives/Muslims/Republicans/Democrats, but by showing mercy to the least and the last and the lost.  In a culture fiercely divided into “them” and “us,” let us be the ones who reach out to “them” in the name of our Conquering and Compassionate Savior.

    But even more important than emphasizing our role in God’s peace campaign, let us be sure to focus on the victory of Christ.  As important is as social justice is, the center of the Gospel is Jesus and what he has done for us.  So, as Americans celebrate on Memorial Day what humans have done to preserve the peace by making war, let us celebrate today the sacrifice of Christ, who died violently to make us free and bring us peace.  Ascension Day is a celebration of the victory of the Crucified God who arose and now “rides the ancient skies above.”

    Illustration Idea

    We humans love to celebrate our victories. On Memorial Day tomorrow there will be parades all over America.  On July 4, there will be fireworks and concerts.  We celebrate all victories: the winner of the Super Bowl, the team who emerges victorious in basketball’s March Madness, the triumphant candidate in the Presidential campaign, and our grandchild’s monstrous (read dribbler between the shortstop’s legs) home run.

    Psalm 68 calls us to celebrate the greatest victory in the history of the world, and the glorious homecoming of the conquering Hero.

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

    Author: Scott Hoezee