Psalm 22: 22 “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has : not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!
Last Sunday Lynn Miller preached a wonderful message from the Psalms of the Old Testament. Today you’re hearing another message from the Psalms, with a focus on the last two verses: 30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. 31 They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” I hope is to preach more sermons this Lenten season from the Psalms.
If you’re wondering why, it just so happens that that is the first question in the sermon outline in the bulletin today: “Why all the sermons on the Psalms this Lenten season?” Why? Because the Psalms of the Bible express all the facets of a covenant relationship with our covenanting God. The Psalms express all the emotions, experiences, sensations, frustration, joy, struggle and triumph of a living covenant relationship with a God who makes covenants, from both God’s perspective and our human perspective.
But we, in contemporary American society, tend to be contract people, more than covenant people. Contract language sounds like this: “The parties to this contract are the aforesaid entity authorized under Oregon State Statutes 137.b subpoint 24c with all rights, obligations, privileges and authorities as specified in Article 34.197 of the Commercial Code of 1985, herein known as Contractor and ____________________________, as defined and permitted under the Dept. of Public Safety requirements and regulations 215.3c, with all rights, obligations and authorities as specified in Article 25.793.b3, herein known as “Client.” So on and so forth. Got that?
Compare that contractual language with God’s words through the Prophet Hosea: Chapter 10: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. 3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. 4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them…7 My people are determined to turn from me. Even though they call me God Most High, I will by no means exalt them. 8 “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?”
That’s the language of a covenant commitment between persons, not a contract between “parties.” But we make contracts basically because we don’t want to run the risks of trusting each other too much. Covenants, by contrast, are all about giving and gaining trust as we heard earlier in the service, about the covenant between God, Abraham and Sarah. A contract focuses on performance, but a covenant is about persons. A contract is about each party’s legal rights, restrictions and responsibilities, while a covenant is more about a personal relationship. If one party to a contract fails to deliver, then the other one is free to walk away. No gain? No pain. But in a covenant, the care and commitment still remain. There are still consequences of breaking trust, of course. Whenever Israel abandoned or betrayed God, they lost many blessings and the protection of God. But they never lost their covenant God. Complete cut-offs are the last resort of a broken covenant, not the first. But in a contract, you assume that the relationship will end, at least once the goods and services are delivered. And so a covenant, like marriage or church membership, can be risky, costly, complicated and require work, while a contract is a way of keeping a relationship as safe, painless, undemanding and uncomplicated as possible.
Some people may treat the Bible’s covenanting God as just a legal American contract God: This, this, and that are what I want from God, and if God fails to deliver, then I can walk away from God, the church and the faith. The reverse is also true: whenever we fail or flub up, we fear that a contract-for-service God will abandon us, or worse. But as much as people rebel against God by worshiping other gods and exploiting the poor and God’s planet, our covenant God never stops caring about us, nor about our relationship with God and each other.
So again, the reason why we’re hearing from and about a Psalm today and in my future Lenten season messages is because ours is a relational, covenanting God, not a contract-for-service God. That’s why the theme of the Lenten reflections is this covenantal phrase: “Between You and Me,” and not the contractual: “For this you get that.”
Now for the second question in the outline: Who’s speaking here in Psalm 22? Whose prayer is this? In verse 24, the one praying discloses his name when he says, “God has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one.” Psalm 22 then is the prayer of “The Afflicted One.”
But who is this “Afflicted one?” There are at least three answers to that question, all Biblical. Sub-point A, “the Afflicted One” is King David. David’s name is on the heading of this Psalm. David would have expressed the kind of triumph and joy we hear in these verses, for example, when God fulfilled the promise to make him Israel’s king.
But we get such words of joy and triumph in only the last third of this Psalm. The first two thirds of the Psalm are a Lament, expressing the great pain, sorrow and suffering David experienced when King Saul sought to take his life. Or when his son rebelled against him and seized the throne. And so the Psalm begins with words of pain and confusion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Now where have we heard those words before? We’ll hear them again on Good Friday, when we recount the story of Christ’s death on the Cross. There, in his dying agony, Jesus cried out the opening lines of this very same Psalm. That’s the second answer to the question, sub-point B: The Afflicted One is not only David, but the Son of David, Jesus, the Christ. Church tradition has long understood Christ to be the Afflicted One, and the Righteous One, whose prayers of praise and pain, lament and thanksgiving fill the Psalms. It is Christ who walks and talks and prays in and through the Psalms of the Bible.
Not only church tradition, but the Bible itself draws the connections between Jesus and the Psalms, especially this Psalm. In words that predict Calvary and the Cross, we read, 22:7 “ All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”….14. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.
15 My mouth[d] is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce[e] my hands and my feet.17 All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. 18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”
If that sounds like the script for Good Friday on Golgotha, that’s because it is. So, the Afflicted One speaking in Psalm 22 is also Jesus.
But there is a third person speaking in this Psalm, who can rightfully pray as “The Afflicted One,” sub-point C. That’s you, me and anyone who has ever been pushed to cry out to God in confusion, grief and affliction, who has ever wondered, Where is God? and Why does it seem like God has abandoned me? Anyone who feels the pain and fear of being targeted by sickness, suffering, circumstances or other people. And so our Jewish friends recite this Psalm for the Feast of Purim, when they remember how the Persians targeted their ancestors in the time of Esther. Psalm 22 then is not only the prayer of King David, but of the Son of David, Jesus, and of all God’s covenant people. Psalm 22, both the sad part and the triumphant part, is our prayer as well.
Which brings me to the third question in the outline: So what? What does Psalm 22 tell us to believe and to do? This Psalm, like all the psalms, presents us with two questions at least to ponder and to address: A) Is our relationship with God, our life of faith, more of a contract for goods and services, or is it a covenant relationship, come what may? If we should say, “My life with God is more of a covenant than a contract,” good. But that brings up another question: B) How deep and wide is the scope of our covenant commitment to God? Is it just for ourselves, or does it touch and bless others, including and especially those not yet with us, the generations to come?
As for that first question, Is our relationship with God, our life of faith, a contract for goods and services from God, or a covenant commitment with God, for keeps? Let’s not be too quick to answer. To be human is to be a mixed bag of motives and emotions. We’re never a finished product this side of eternity. That’s the genius of what a French monk spelled out eight hundred years ago, St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
And Yes, they named the big dog after him, but don’t ask me why.
In his classic devotional book, On Loving God, Bernard described four stages of spiritual growth: we all start out with 1) Love of Self for Self’s Sake. That sounds crass, but it’s not all bad. It puts food in our bellies and gets us out of the street when a truck is barreling down on us. But if that is the sum total of our life and loves, then we’ll treat life and all relationships as just a contract for goods and services.
When God awakens our spirits to his love for us, we typically move on to the second step: Love of God, for Self’s Sake. We love God for what God can do for us. That sounds contractual, too. Bernard, however, did not condemn that stage, either. Nor do I. But if we get stuck there, such a contractual relationship with God will not stand up under the kinds of trials and tests which the first part of Psalm 22 describes. Nor will it lead to the kinds of joy and triumph that the last part of Psalm 22 expresses. It will break down the moment we too become “the Afflicted One.” Then our last prayer will be, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” before we give up on God altogether. That would be like trying to keep a sinking ship afloat for just a few seconds longer by cutting loose all the lifeboats and pitching over the life jackets.
In such times our choices finally narrow down to that one choice which the Afflicted One in Psalm 22 faced: Not, will I go through affliction or not, but will I go through affliction with God, or without God? What will remain if and when this mysterious life and its incomprehensible sufferings and losses will have run their course, if not the one treasure that even death cannot steal? God, and God alone?
But if we hang on to our covenant God with a covenant commitment, God will lead us to Bernard’s third stage of spiritual growth: Love of God for God’s sake. There we enter over time into a relationship with God that is more of a covenant commitment, come what may, than a mere contract for goods and services from God.
That leads to the fourth stage of growth according to St. Bernard: love of self for God’s sake. When I finally know what that is like, I’ll describe it to you. I think Bernard would tell me, “You’ve got a ways to go yet.”
But I would also tell Bernard, “Hey, you left something out of your book, ‘On Loving God.’ You left out the stage which the last verses of Psalm 22 describes: “love of others for God’s sake, including others whom we do not know and cannot see, even those not yet born.” Which brings us back to the second question that this Psalm poses to us: B) How deep and wide is the scope of our covenant commitment to God? Is it just for ourselves, or does it touch and bless others, including and especially those we hear about in Psalm 22: “posterity…future generations,” and “people yet unborn?” That question applies not only to parents and grandparents, but to all of us, whether we are called to marriage or parenthood or not.