A: What’s going on here?
B: What do you mean?
A: You’re preaching on a Psalm.
B: Well, we’re preaching on a Psalm.
A: Ok, we’re preaching on a Psalm. But you picked Psalm 130 for us to preach on. You never pick a Psalm for a sermon text.
A: Very, very occasionally.
B: Yeah, many years ago we had a local group of ministers who got together every week to look at the coming Sunday’s lectionary texts.
B: And I remember one day one of the Presbyterians saying that the Psalms weren’t meant to be preaching texts. There’s a Psalm reading every week you know.
B: Anyway, he said the Psalm for the week was intended to be read or used in worship, but not as the basis for a sermon. Somehow that made some sense to me, and it’s stuck with me.
A: I suppose that does make sense, because the Psalms were pretty much written to be used as part of worship.
B: Right. I remember hearing or reading somewhere that the Psalms were the songbook for the temple. In Jesus’ day, and long before I suppose, they would have been sung as part of worship in the temple in Jerusalem. Then, through the centuries, they have continued to be used in worship.
A: We have a whole section of Psalms in our hymnal. We use them every so often in our services.
B: Right. And lots of hymns are based on a Psalm.
A: “On Eagle’s Wings”, from Psalm 91.
B: “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”, from Psalm 87.
A: Plus some of the contemporary Christian songs.
B: That’s right. The Cistercian monks chant through all hundred and fifty Psalms about every two weeks, as best I can figure. As I remember, six of their seven services of worship a day include a couple of chanted Psalms. I tried to figure out how we could chant number one thirty today.
A: Just wasn’t happening?
B: Just wasn’t happening. But we are going to get the congregation to read it responsively after we finish talking about it.
A: Is that the next best thing to chanting?
B: I think so. So anyhow, for the longest time when I was doing my sermon planning I just skipped over the Psalm for the week.
A: So why a Psalm today?
B: Well, as much as I appreciate Presbyterians – and I went to a Presbyterian college mind you – at some point I started to think, why not use a Psalm for preaching? What if I’m missing out on some good stuff? In fact, I know I’m missing out on some good stuff, because a lot of the Psalms really do have a great message about God.
A: So you decided the Presbyterians were off base on this idea?
B: Maybe just a little. I suspect it’s a good plan to make a priority of preaching from one of the other lectionary readings, but I can’t see how it hurts to focus on a Psalm every so often. Especially since we don’t otherwise use them every Sunday.
A: Sometimes we use one, or part of one, for the call to worship.
B: That’s true. But only every so often. Most of the time we go to one of the worship resource books.
A: So we do. But I’m glad you picked a Psalm today. It’s good to have a variety of preaching texts.
B: I think so. And the Psalms are kind of unique when it comes to Bible readings. They’re not only worship material. They cover just about everything.
A: That’s the truth. There are praise Psalms, and lament Psalms and Psalms that give history.
B: And there’s Psalm 119.
A: Yeah, the really long one.
B: I heard a seminary professor, who loves the Psalms, talk about how boring 119 is.
A: There just are so many ways you can you love the law of the Lord.
B: I the case of Psalm 119, there are twenty-two sections, each one starting with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And yeah, it gets pretty – repetitive – over the course of a hundred and seventy-six verses.
A: Then there’s Psalm one thirty-seven.
B: Oh yeah. It starts off really nice – “By the waters of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” It’s talking about when the Jewish people had been conquered by the Babylonians and a lot of them taken to Babylon as prisoners. It’s a lament about how they long to return to the promised land.
A: The ending is a bit – harsh. Talking about the Babylonians it says, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
B: A bit harsh. One time when I was at the monastery that Psalm came up in one of the services. The monks just cut it off before they got to that verse. I thought that was interesting.
A: Sure was. The Psalms express pretty much the whole range of human emotions. But that ending of Psalm on thirty-seven is pretty extreme.
B: I would say of whoever wrote it that it was not their finest moment.
A: I would agree.
B: However, on the whole, the Psalms can be very helpful in maintaining and deepening our faith in God. Lots of times they sort of speak for us, whether we feel so good we want to praise God and give thanks to God, or we feel so bad all we can do is ask for help.
A: That’s probably why they’ve been so popular for use in worship and people’s devotional lives for so long.
B: I’m sure. When you read them regularly they become familiar, in a good way. Sometimes they say what we want to say or need to say, but don’t know how to put into words.
A: That’s really helpful when it comes to our individual devotional life. And our worship life together.
B: I suspect the variety of what’s in the Psalms is a big reason they’ve been so popular, and so important, for so long.
A: I think so. So what about Psalm one thirty?
B: Oh yeah, Psalm one thirty. That is the one for today, isn’t it?
A: So you say.
B: Well, actually there is some confusion. I’m thinking the lectionary folks made a change at some point in recent years, such that my planning calendar says one thirty but my resource book has Psalm thirty. So I started working on Psalm one thirty, then I saw thirty…
A: (interrupting) Uh, but we’ve landed on one thirty, right?
B: Oh, yeah. Sorry. Yes, one thirty. It’s a very upbeat little Psalm.
A: A mere eight verses.
B: Yes, but it packs a lot into eight verses.
A: It does. It’s a cry to God, sort of pleading to God, to listen and come to the Psalmist.
B: And it’s not just a Psalm about one person’s relationship with God. The writer is talking about the relationship between God and all of God’s people.
A: A lot of the Psalms do that, don’t they?
B: Maybe most.
A: It’s interesting that it mentions forgiveness. Sometimes we think of God as depicted in the First Testament as a God of judgment – mistakenly, I might add.
B: Absolutely. In both testaments God is consistently the God who loves and forgives. But it is noteworthy that Psalm one thirty lifts up God as a forgiving God. It gives what sounds like a very Second Testament way of thinking, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,” iniquities pretty much being sins, I take it…
A: I think so.
B: “…should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?”
A: In other words, we all sin.
B: Right. The Psalmist says, nobody’s perfect. Everybody falls short in the eyes of God. But then it continues.
A: It says, “there is forgiveness with you.”
B: Sounds very much like God’s grace. We Christians talk about how Jesus has brought us a new relationship with God, and rightly so, but forgiveness has always been a part of God’s nature. Otherwise we human beings probably would have been gone a long, long time ago.
A: Isn’t that the truth. I like that this Psalm lifts up God’s forgiveness as a part of how God relates to us.
B: Yes. Then it goes on to mention hope. Can’t go wrong with hope.
A: As God’s people we always live in hope. We hope for the coming of God’s reign on earth. We hope for justice and peace in our lives and in our world.
B: We hope it won’t rain when we’re planning to play golf.
A: Is that in one of the Psalms?
B: I think one of Paul’s letters. First Augusta National, as I recall.
A: I see.
B: I do like how Paul talks about hope in Romans, that part about suffering produces endurance…
A: And endurance produces character…
B: And character produces hope. Isn’t that interesting? Don’t we usually think that if we start with hope, we’ll be able to endure what comes along, and that will build character, which gets us through the hard times of life.
A: Paul flips that around, doesn’t he? By putting hope at the end of the line.
B: Yeah. He says hope is the result, the outcome of the hard times of life, when we have faith. And then he concludes, “and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
A: Our hope in God is never in vain.
B: That’s right.
A: Then the psalmist says, “with the Lord there is steadfast love.” “Steadfast” adds something to that, don’t you think?
B: It does. “Steadfast love” translates a special Hebrew word that refers to God’s love for us. It’s based on the fact that God has made covenants, agreements, with people, and that God is going to stick with us, no matter what.
A: Yeah, we human beings don’t have such a good track record when it comes to sticking to our parts of the covenants.
B: No, we don’t.
A: Abraham gets impatient waiting for a child, so he has one with Sarah’s servant woman. Moses doesn’t even want to get started going to Egypt.
B: The prophets all come to remind the people that they aren’t keeping the covenant. They’re worshiping other gods, not obeying the commandments.
A: We humans are pretty much a mess.
B: Yes we are.
A: Yet God never gives up on us. God has steadfast love for us, no matter what.
B: Ain’t that a good thing!
A: Sure is. It was that love which meant that Jesus came to show us a way to new life and a new relationship with God and with each other. It’s that love which means that the new covenant we have in Jesus is still God’s way of reminding us that we are loved and forgiven.
B: Amen. It’s interesting how often you run across that phrase “steadfast love” in the First Testament. Not a surprise that it shows up in the Psalms.
A: Psalm one thirty also talks about God’s power.
B: Yeah, that’s something I guess I don’t bring to mind very often.
A: It says God has great power to redeem.
B: Forgiveness, hope, steadfast love, power to redeem – sounds like a package deal.
A: Kind of is, isn’t it? If you redeem something you’re trading one thing for another. I understand you remember something about redeeming green stamps?
B: Heck yeah! Collecting green stamps was a big deal.
A: It was?
B: Oh yeah. When you bought stuff you might get x number of these little stamps. You collected them in little books and redeemed them for things. It was very cool!
A: Did you know that you can still redeem green stamps?
B: No way!
A: Yes indeed. In fact the program is still in business. Only now they’re called greenpoints. It’s the digital age.
B: Well I’ll be. Greenpoints. Anyway, I suppose the Psalm is talking about God having the power to change us, to redeem us from being someone without hope to someone with faith. It says God can redeem us to become a more faithful follower of Jesus.
A: It’s not easy to make those kind of changes. Interesting that the Psalmist claims that God has the power to do that for us.
B: Sure is. There are plenty of stories in the Bible, and through history, that demonstrate God’s power to redeem. The apostle Paul, St. Francis, etc. and etc.
A: I suspect that if we asked around today we could hear some stories of how God has redeemed people we know.
B: I suspect you’re right. Well, the Psalms. Good stuff. Forgiveness, hope, steadfast love, power to redeem. Good stuff.
A: All packed into eight verses. And I understand we’re sort of going to read them together.
B: Really wanted to have us try some chanting, like they do at the monastery, but my skills in leading chanting are not quite adequate. So we’re just going to read. But we will read antiphonally, one side of the sanctuary and then the other.
A: Sounds like it’s worth a try.
B: I hope so.