March 13, 2016
PRAYING A PSALM WITH JESUS
For our time of Lent, which is coming to an end soon, we have been reading the Bible in two directions. The first way has been forwards, from front to back, from the beginning of God’s interaction with His people to Jesus. The second way has been backwards; meaning, from the life-death-resurrection of Jesus back to the beginning. For, in reading forward we see and feel the pull towards God sending His Son, and by reading backward we see afresh the riches throughout. As you may recall, for this Lenten season we have taken seriously Jesus’ statement, very much his thesis or mission statement, spoken at the end of Luke’s gospel: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (24:44).
And so today I have chosen a psalm—a psalm that has been something of a companion to me for the past seven years, a psalm for which I have been very grateful. And Psalm 16—our psalm for today—is a psalm of deep need and deep trust. It is a psalm that comes alongside us, and encourages us to seek and pray to the God of hope—our God who has, is, and will be with us. And we see that nowhere better in the life of Jesus.
The title of our homily is “Praying a Psalm with Jesus.” We will imaginatively merge the reading forward and reading backward, so that this psalm gives voice to the silent prayers of Jesus. It’s unique to note that throughout the gospels we rarely get let in to what Jesus is praying about. It’s like a story that Bill Moyers tells about his time as an aide to that distinctive character, President Lyndon B. Johnson (’63-’69). Bill Moyers, a minister, offers to say grace at a White House meal. Moyers, sitting at the other end of the table, bows his head and begins, but Johnson cuts him off and bellows “Speak up, Moyers, I can’t hear you.” Moyers coolly responds, “I wasn’t talking to you, sir.” So too it is that we don’t hear or know what Jesus prays, but this psalm fits well Jesus’ person, so we shall involve ourselves with the psalm alongside Jesus, and by this psalm be trained and encouraged in lives of truthful prayer to God.
From the opening lines of the psalm we are presented with the foundational posture of Jesus—a life dependent on the care of God. Jesus’ life and aim of announcing and welcoming people to God’s kingdom was met with opposition, argument, and even outright hostility. He lived under the threatening eye of the authorities, but he did not shrink back because he was schooled in this prayer of God’s caring presence. But how do we pray this today? Where we are, in our over-insured, hyper-legislative, ‘there’s an app or pill for that’ culture, it seems like the goal is to make sure we don’t have to seek refuge in God, a sort of reversed Murphy’s Law. More strongly, our culture is trying to get rid of prayer, to pull all of life under our control. But in this adventure we’ve been brought into called Christianity, we are learning to “live our lives out of control,” as my friend Stanley says, that uncertainty and danger are always with us, and that God is the one who is with us through it all.
And then in the second verse the prayer moves from seeking refuge to declaring trust, a close relational trust in the one God. And this calls to mind the temptation of Jesus. When given the opportunity to acquire authority over all kingdoms and peoples of the world, all for the low, low price of worshipping the devil, Jesus doesn’t call the devil’s bluff, but asserts that one’s absolute loyalty is to God. After the temptation you could almost hear Jesus say “You are my Lord, apart from you I have not good thing.” And we have a Lord who has said “you are my child; apart from me you have no good thing.” This is a verse that needs our time and attention, because who can honestly say this? Like a close, trusting friendship, it will take time and intention to be able to say “you are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.”
Verse three is quite interesting because the focus shifts to others: the “holy people”—other people who have been claimed by God and in return find their entire good in Him. There is no embarrassment in expressing joy over the faith of others. Unlike today, where it seems that the people Christians are most afraid of are other Christians. Yet, consider this: Had Jesus taken devil’s offer of all the kingdoms, then Jesus wouldn’t have needed to call disciples and waste all of his time teaching them and putting up with their failures and lack of imagination. Then there would be no need for the people of God. So by his trust and obedience to God, Jesus also shows love for his neighbor and for those far off. Jesus’ trust in God also showed his trust in others, difficult to work with as they were. How can that not be good news for us?
Following verse four and the depiction of the lamentable state of those in idolatry, verses 5-8 soar in praise to God and His gifts. Such descriptions of a “delightful inheritance” established by well-placed boundary lines sound too good to be true. And perhaps that is why in verses 7-8 we are brought into the counsel and instruction of the Lord. This reminds us that some things take time, guidance, and experience to become “true” to us. When Jesus spoke in parables about the gracious, welcoming God who forgives beyond comprehension, the main responses from the disciples were scandal or confusion. Only over time, of walking with Jesus through his life and beyond the cross and resurrection were they able to comprehend the explosively grand nature of the gospel. To take another biblical example, a well-known psalm urges “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). But, to extend the analogy, I’d say that the Lord is a complex flavor, and it may take some time get there and appreciate it. But God is patient and welcoming, and he may even wrestle with you and bless you for doing so.
The final three verses are particularly striking. And because it is not Easter yet I am reticent to say much more (as if I’ll spoil the ending or something). Indeed, our friend Theodoret (who lived 1,600 years ago—isn’t it great to have friends that old?) wrote about this section “It is superfluous for us to interpret it,” because we all know what it is really about. I won’t be as blunt as that, but I will close on the point that with Jesus and this psalm we see that death is part of our adventure of faith. This is not to sentimentalize death and its attendant horrors and sorrows (and if you think this does, then I have some Flannery O’Connor for you to read), but a reminder that we are not living in a fight against death. God does not abandon his children to death, for He is the one who has made known the path of life, and he brings us all the way.
To conclude, I shall read a close relative of our psalm this morning—Psalm 23. You may join in declaring it, but feel free to be quiet at your choosing:
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.