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Life Together: The Secret of the Psalter

Note: This sermon is in two sections. The first section is the part of the sermon given by Pastor Matt, “The Secret of the Psalter.” The second section is by Pastor Cheryl Harader, “Walking Through the Valley.”

Part 1: The Secret of the Psalter

Psalm 118

How many of you use a daily devotional?  For those of you who don’t know what I mean, a devotional is a book or a publication that has a daily reading, often including a Scripture passage and maybe a prayer.  Over the years, there have been a million devotional books written with this same idea:

  • Streams in the Desert is a classic.
  • The Purpose-Driven Life is a newer one.
  • I read My Utmost for His Highest when I was in college.
  • A couple of continually-publishing books are The Upper Room and Guideposts
  • The Book of Common Prayer has been around since 1549…guiding the prayer life of Christians for hundreds of years.

Wouldn’t it be cool if archaeologists uncovered the daily devotional book that Jesus used?  During an excavation of Jerusalem, they find this scroll with Jesus’ name etched in the front?  Wouldn’t it be a pretty cool thing to see what daily devotions guided Jesus in his ministry?

Well, good news, because you have a copy of Jesus’ daily devotional in your Bible!  And in most Bibles, all you have to do is open it to the exact middle, and you’ll find it!  The Psalms are basically a daily devotional: a short prayer that could be read each morning at the start of the day.   In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who we have followed throughout this Lenten season in his book Life Together, talks about how important it is to pray the Psalms.  He writes, “The Psalter is the great school of prayer.”  It teaches us how to pray and what to pray for.  This morning, Pastor Cheryl and I will preach two sermons, each based on the Psalms as a way of using the Psalms to teach us.  In this service especially, which begins with the joy of Palm Sunday and ends with the grief of the cross, the Psalms are perhaps the most logical place to start.  Because the Psalms often read the same way – a Psalm of joy and celebration next to a Psalm of despair and anguish.  And perhaps the reason why so many believers have read the Psalms as their prayer guide is because life is like that – a good day next to a bad one.  Of course, the Psalms teach us that good day or bad day, we can trust God.  They are our school of prayer because whether it is a day of celebration or a day of grief it is a day to trust in God, to pray to God, to listen to God, to worship God.

And that is exactly the way that Jesus used the Psalms, the best we could tell.  Of course, we don’t know what was happening in the mind of Jesus at any given time.  But we do know that the faith practice of Jesus appeared to mirror that of other Jews.  Jesus – and many other Jews like him – would have known the psalms by heart and prayed them.  Throughout his ministry, we could imagine how the Psalms were his great school of prayer.  Every time he went into the hills to pray alone, it was likely that he prayed the Psalms.  Imagine with me:

  • Before he fed the 5,000, he might have prayed Psalm 144 about God’s provision, about the granaries filled and the abundant produce.
  • Before he taught the masses, he might have prayed Psalm 119 about delighting in God’s commandments: “O, how I love your precepts!”
  • And before he entered Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, he might have prayed Psalm 118.

Psalm 118 seems to be a worship Psalm.  It is about a festive procession of those worshipping God, and was likely used in worship services, as a way to guide the liturgy of the worshippers.  In fact, we use it that way still today: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”  And all four Gospels connect this Psalm to the triumphal entry.  They all quote verse 26: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  This seems to be the Psalm that was on the minds of those Jews who gathered to wave the palm branches and lay their coats on the ground in front of Jesus.  As they shouted “Hosanna,” it was likely that they were thinking of this Psalm.

Now, interestingly enough, this Psalm became a favorite of a lot of the kings who entered into Jerusalem.  They loved to be associated with the festal celebration of God’s anointed.  They loved to throw themselves parades and make sure everyone knew that God had blessed them…that they were the anointed kings of Israel.  But the problem is that all of those kings fell short, in one way or another.  In general, the kings tended to promise protection, but failed to deliver on justice.  They wanted to be known as the kings who would protect the people, protect the land, protect the interests of Israel.  But in just about every case, they failed to protect the commands of God to live according to justice.  To care for all of God’s children.  To protect the “least of these.”

But Jesus came into Jerusalem with a very different plan.  He came promising that justice would be centerpiece of his reign.  His ministry was always about the least of these.  His teaching was always about the poor and broken of the earth.  Where the kings of the past had failed to enact justice, Jesus’s reign was going to be about justice, first, last, and throughout.  That’s why when he entered Jerusalem, it wasn’t on a warhorse with trumpets, but on a donkey, with a motley crew throwing chewed up coats on the ground in front of him.  Jesus’ reign was beginning, but it didn’t look like anyone else’s.

You see, while the kings of old promised protection but failed to deliver justice…

…Jesus’ reign would bring justice, but not protection.  Safety and security were never a promise of following Jesus.  In fact, every chance he got, he told them the opposite:

“Take up your cross and follow me.”

“The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

And from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected would be the cornerstone.”  The world would reject Jesus, in the name of safety and security.  But he came to offer another way…


Part 2: Walking Through the Valley

As we come to consider this second Psalm for this morning, we realize that the hosannas that began that week very quickly disappeared, and by Friday were no longer heard. This Psalm can take us to that–take us from the hosanna of Sunday, and help us think about, perhaps, Jesus Christ and his week.

First let’s look at what the Psalmist had to say. The Psalmist perceived that everyone was against him (or her? I’ll use the pronoun “him” but we don’t know who wrote it for sure). The Psalmist, we can tell, has an illness, one that isolates him and makes him feel unwelcome. One that he says makes his body waste away. This applies to so many situations. He mentions some of those situations: grief, social rejection, alienation and hurt, probably by friends, family–he has experienced all of this.

One theologian said that the extreme state of joylessness has caused the physical disease. I thought that was an interesting comment. For one thing, joylessness isn’t a word I’ve heard very often–at least I don’t recall hearing it. But joylessness is a reality in many of our lives today, and if not in our lives, in the lives of people that we know. People who are on a part of their journey in which they feel isolated, in which they are experiencing grief and alienation and hurt of some kind. I imagine that if not now, at some point you have felt the pain that the author of this Psalm felt, that you’ve felt like people were against you or perhaps you felt like the world was against you. Like on one of those days when you trip and fall on the floor as you get out of bed–that’s not a good way to start the day! And things just don’t get any better, and you wonder why everything is so bad.

Or bigger things in life: illnesses, your own or in those you love–those kinds of illnesses we’ve all known. Perhaps you, like many, had to struggle through the flu this season. That’s not just a one or two-day illness. It totally wipes you out. It makes you feel helpless, like all you want to do is stay in bed, like you’re wasting away just like this Psalmist is talking about. That’s why the Psalms are so great–they show what it is to be human.

We know too that the Psalmist mentions both mental and physical illness. We know that mental illness is a cause of or is at least an underlying factor in so many physical illnesses.I read in one study that 67% is the increase in the probability of having a heart attack if you’re depressed. There’s a 50% greater chance that you’ll have cancer if you’re depressed and don’t deal with it. And for any other mental struggle that you think of, there’s a percentage to go along with it and how it affects your body. God made us body, mind and soul. And so we are to care for body, mind, and soul. And the Psalmist mentions both in his struggles. Because he knows that–that it’s not the way God wants it to be.

The Psalmist even says that the terror is all around. Terror is not just a word for this generation. Terror is a word that people have felt throughout all of human history. It’s a word that makes fear be a controlling part of who we are. And that too affects us, emotionally, mentally and physically.

But we walk that path, or we know people who are walking that path, and we can walk with them as we lean on God and the strength and love God gives us. But as we walk or journey through all of these struggles, we don’t walk alone. And the Psalmist knew that too. Verse 14 says, “But I trust.” Just a few words. That “but” that’s in there is the strongest word to show a difference from the first thought to the second that he could have chosen in the Hebrew language. The person is very aware of the grief, of the social rejection, of the alienation, of the physical pain. The Psalmist is very aware of that, but the Psalmist trusts. This author is willing to endure these harsh realities in life because he believes that God is with him. He persists in that belief.

If we want to see an example of this, we just look to Jesus and his actions as he traveled to Jerusalem. Jesus knew that he was headed to Jerusalem when he healed people. He healed the ten lepers, he healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath day. Jesus cried over Jerusalem after he finally got to Jerusalem. Jesus spoke to Zaccheus. Jesus taught what the widow’s offering meant, that it wasn’t the big white beautiful buildings that they were looking at that made the difference, but the devotion of a person that made the difference. And, almost all of that got him in trouble with the Pharisees, especially when he called down woes on them. Jesus knew all of that as he journeyed to and as he lived through those days in Jerusalem.

Jesus trusted in God through all of these struggles. It was a struggle, because as I said, he was upsetting the people who could kill him. But Jesus kept going on, as he began his journey to Jerusalem. One of my favorite scriptures in the Bible is found in Luke 9:51: “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” It wasn’t an accident that he went to Jerusalem, it wasn’t an accident that he faced all of these negative things. He did it because he knew God was with him.

But I think about how the disciples and those watching him, even those who greeted him with hosannas, didn’t see God’s hand in this. They probably heard people talking about killing Jesus, especially after he raised Lazarus from the dead. They couldn’t see God working in Jesus’s life. They probably couldn’t see God working in the Psalmist’s life either. As a matter of fact, in their belief, the Psalmist had to be doing something really bad to be going through all he was going through. But God was working, and both Jesus and the Psalmist knew that God walked with them.

There’s a story that Tony Campolo shares. He’s an American Baptist pastor, evangelist, and college and seminary teacher. Many of you may know his name and his books. He shares a story about going to a meeting in a city in California, and right before he went out to preach his first sermon of the series of sermons he was going to be doing there, the pastor said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you that after every Sunday service we have a time of healing prayer, and we’d like for you to be a part of that.” And Tony Campolo looked at him and said, “I don’t believe God is a magician. I don’t believe that if I just lay my hands on someone and pray for them that that’s the way God works.” The pastor talked to him some more, and Tony finally said, “I’d be glad to be a part of it if I can pray in the way I want to.” And so as people came to Tony after his sermon during this healing time, he prayed that God would make God’s self known in the life of the people. He found that most people didn’t come for healing. If it was a financial problem, he’d pray that God would lead them to the right person.

There was one couple who came where the husband had cancer. The man was very bitter and angry and miserable. Tony prayed with him and his wife for God’s healing touch in whatever form that might take. He prayed that God’s joy would find its way into this man’s life even now and that the love of God would be a part of their life as a couple. About 3 months later he got a letter from the wife, saying, “I just wanted you to know that my husband died.” And he thought, “Okay, here it comes, she’s going to blame me now.” But that wasn’t what the letter was about at all. She thanked him because after their talk, after Tony’s  prayer, the man enjoyed the last three months of his life. He had turned around. He had listened. He had allowed God to touch his life in a way that he had never expected God to touch his life. And he made sure that people around him knew that God was with him, even if they couldn’t tell from the outside.

That’s where this week that starts with hosanna brings us to. Jesus knew–those looking in from the outside didn’t know. It didn’t mean that Jesus didn’t suffer because we know Jesus suffered. Through this week, I hope that you have time to read through some of these Psalms that are so honest. I encourage you to read Psalm 22 that begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But read it clear to the end, because the Psalmist, almost no matter what they say at the beginning, ends up stating their trust and their faith in the God who saves them.


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