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15 July 2015

Being Honest with God (7.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 8)

Psalm 89

There once was a King who lived in the far east. He was growing old and it was time for him to choose a successor. He had no children and he did not like his senior officials, so he decided to do something different. He called for all the youths in the land to gather outside the palace on a certain day.

When that day came, all the young girls and boys gathered outside the palace and the King came out and said, “I have decided to choose one of you to be my successor.” The children were all shocked. “I am going to give each of you a seed. You will take this seed home with you, plant it, water it and care for it and in one year from this day bring the plants back here. I will then look at all the plants and choose one of you to rule the kingdom.”

One boy named Ling received a seed from the King, like everyone else. Ling ran home and told his mother. She helped him get a pot and some soil, and they planted the seed. Ling watered the seed carefully and waited for a plant to grow.

After three weeks of watering and caring for the seed, nothing yet had grown out of Ling's pot. Yet, other children were all talking about the shoots that had sprout already in theirs. After four and five weeks the other children were talking about how tall their plants were and yet Ling’s pot still showed not even one sprout. After six months Ling was sure he had killed his seed while the others bragged about having tall trees and plants.

The year quickly passed and the day came for all the children to bring their plants before the King. Ling was saddened and decided he was not going to go at all.

Ling's mother said that he should go before the King and be honest with him. What if the King become angry because Ling didn’t show up, it could be very disrespectful. So Ling sighed and said he would take his empty pot to the King.  He went to the palace with his head hung low.

Upon arriving, Ling saw how all the children had plants, trees, bushes and flowers in their pots. Ling hid behind the tallest person he could find so as to not be noticed. Just then the King came out and everyone clapped. The King walked around and looked at all the plants, smiling. “My, what lovely trees, flowers and plants there are here today.”

Just then the King saw Ling and his empty pot. The king ordered his guards to bring Ling to the front. Ling was terrified.

When Ling got to the King, the King asked him his name and he replied, “Ling.” All the others were laughing and heckling with whispers and chatter.

The King ordered everyone to be quiet. The crowd got quiet. The King then spoke, “Behold your new emperor.” Ling was stunned. He said to himself, "How could I rule a kingdom when I can't even grow a plant?

“One year ago today,” the King began. “I gave you all seeds and asked you to go home and plant that seed and water it and bring it back in one year.

I gave you all boiled seeds, which cannot grow. All of you brought me plants and flowers that you got from another seed because the first seed did not grow.

Only Ling here came forth with the exact seed that I gave him a year ago. Ling was the only one who came here with honesty, and the courage to be honest with his King. Welcome Ling. He is your new King.”

The story about Ling, the new king, is a good introduction to the theme of Psalm 89: Being Honest with One's King.

The relationship of old (VV. 1–4)
1 Of the hesed of the Lord forever I will sing; / generation to generation I will make known your faithfulness with my mouth; 2 for I will declare, “Your hesed is built to last; / the heavens, your faithfulness is established in them.” 3 “I cut a covenant with my chosen; / I have sworn to David, my servant. 4 I will establish your descendants forever; / and build your throne for generations.” Selah

Hymns to the Lord (VV. 5–12)
5 The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, / also your faithfulness in the assembly of holy ones; 6 for who in the clouds can be compared with the Lord? / Who is like the Lord among the divine beings? 7 God is feared in the council of the holy ones, / great and fierce above all surrounding him. 8 O Lord, God of hosts, who is like you? / O Mighty Lord, your faithfulness surrounds you. 9 You rule over the surging sea; / when its waves rise, you still them. 10 YOU crushed Rahab like a corpse; / with your mighty arm, you scattered your enemies. 11 The heavens are yours and so is the earth; / the world and all that is in it, you founded them. 12 North and south YOU created them; / Tabor and Hermon joyfully praise your name.

The relationship of the recent past (VV. 13–18)
13 You have a mighty arm; / your hand is strong, your right hand is lifted. 14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; / hesed and faithfulness go before you. 15 Happy are the people knowing the festal shout, O Lord; / in the light of your face they walk. 16 In your name, they rejoice all day; / in your righteousness, they are raised up, 17 for the glory of their strength is you, / and by your favor our horn is exalted; 18 for our shield belongs to the Lord / and to the Holy One of Israel, our king.

God’s covenant with Israel (VV. 19–37)
19 Then you spoke in a vision to your beloved ones and you said: / “I have given help unto a warrior.
I have raised up a chosen one from the people. 20 I found David, my servant; / with my holy oil I anointed him, 21 whom my hand will sustain continually; / also my arm will strengthen him. 22 An enemy will not mistreat him, / nor a child of unrighteousness humble him. 23 I will crush his foes in front of his face; / I will strike down those hating him. 24 My faithfulness and hesed are with him, / and in my name his horn is exalted. 25 I will set his hand on the sea / and on the rivers, his right hand. 26 He will declare of me, / ‘You are my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.’ 27 Also I will make him the firstborn, / most high of the kings of the earth. 28 Forever, I will keep my hesed for him; /my covenant will stand firm with him. 29 I will establish his offspring forever; / his throne will be like the days of the heavens. 30 If his children forsake my torah / and do not walk with my justice, 31 if my statutes they profane / and my commandments they do not keep, 32 I will punish their transgressions with a rod / and their iniquities with plagues. 33 My hesed I will not remove from him, / nor will I betray my faithfulness. 34 I will not defile my covenant / nor alter the words from my lips. 35 Once and for all, I have sworn by my holiness; / I will not lie to David. 36 His descendants will continue forever / and his throne as the sun before me. 37 Like the moon, it will be established forever, / and as a witness in the clouds it is established.” Selah

The current situation 
and God’s reversal (VV. 38–45)
38 But [now] you have rejected, refused, / and become very angry with your anointed. 39 You have renounced your covenant with your servant; / you have defiled his crown in the land. 40 You have broken through all his walls; / you have  made his strongholds ruins.
41 All those passing by plunder him;
/ he has become a revulsion to his neighbors. 42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; / you have caused his enemies to rejoice. 43 Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword; / you did not support him in battle. 44 You have put an end to his splendor; / you have thrown down his crown on the ground. 45 You have cut short the days of his youth; / you have wrapped him in shame. Selah

Seeking relationship with God (VV. 46–51)
46 How long, O Lord? / Will you hide forever? / Will your anger burn forever? 47 Remember how brief my time is; / for what futility have you created humans? 48 What human can live and not see death? / Who can escape from the hand of Sheol? Selah 49 Where is your hesed of old, O Lord, / which by your faithfulness you swore to David? 50 Remember, O Lord, the reproach of your servant, / which I am carrying in my bosom, from all the many peoples, 51 with which your enemies reproach, O Lord, / with which they taunt every step of your anointed.

Editorial addition (V. 52)
52 Blessed be the Lord forever. /
Amen and Amen.  (NICOT)

There is a stretch of almost forty verses that, if reading Psalm 89 were a ride in a car, could be passed through rather pleasantly, with many familiar sights (themes and words) to be admired along the way.

Summarizes Beth Tanner: "The first thirty-seven verses ... offer praise to God for God's steadfast love"; she goes on to say that the psalm's themes "of control of the universe and creation are common in texts that proclaim God's kingship".

But just as we as passengers are tempted to fall asleep, V. 38 makes for a rude awakening.  The car crashes.  As we emerge, bruised and disoriented, we find that the real message of Psalm 89 is announced with an angry "but":

38 But you have rejected, refused, / and become very angry with your anointed. 39 You have renounced your covenant with your servant; / you have defiled his crown in the land. ... 44 You have put an end to his splendor; / you have thrown down his crown on the ground. 45 You have cut short the days of his youth; / you have wrapped him in shame. 

The people around the Psalmist are wondering just how much longer God will be angry.  They feel as though God has abandoned them and withdrawn his promises:

V. 49
אַיֵּ֤ה חֲסָדֶ֖יךָ הָרִאשֹׁנִ֥ים אֲדֹנָ֑י
ay·yêh ḥă·sā·de·kā hā·ri·šō·nîm ’ă·dō·nāy;
Where is your hesed of old, O Lord,

נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתָ ּ לְ֝דָוִ֗ד בֶּאֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ
niš·ba‘·tā  lə·dā·wid be·’ĕ·mū·nā·te·kā
which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

The verses leading up to V. 49, in the paraphrase by Eugene Peterson, give us a good idea of the passion with which the Psalmist hurls her words at God:

"How long do we put up with this, God? Are you gone for good? Will you hold this grudge forever? Remember my sorrow and how short life is. Did you create men and women for nothing but this? We'll see death soon enough. Everyone does. And there's no back door out of hell. (VV. 46-48)

As Beth Tanner puts it, the words of the Psalmist are directed not just TO God, but also, pointedly, AGAINST God.

Things are tough; the Psalmist has decided to stop being nice; her words are bold, harsh and abrasive. She holds God accountable! She is honest with God. Radically Honest.

Continues Tanner: "This psalm speaks of powerful faith, faith that is strong enough to demand that God hear our pain ... that we can accuse God of not living up to God's promises when that is the way we truly feel ... It shatters the way we often 'do' church and says that pain and disillusionment are part of our lives and also a part of our relationship with God".

As you let that sink in for a minute, you know that this is a chance to review your own relationship with God!

Because it stops right before V. 38, the section assigned for this Sunday completely misses the point of Psalm 89. That is unfortunate, as the church is in dire need of Biblical laments, which are, as Walter Brueggemann said in a recent interview, "... an insistence that things cannot remain this way and they must be changed".

He continues, "Such prayers are partly an address to God, but they are also a communal resolve to hang in and take transformative action. Unless that kind of grief and rage and anger is put to speech, it can never become energy".

Biblical laments are leading the way to being honest with God.  As Brueggemann says, when grief and rage and anger are not spoken, when we are afraid of being honest with God, then their power is lost ... to ourselves, and to our relationship with God.

In the field of mental health we know that when grief and anger are not spoken, they will find another way to express themselves, often in medical problems.

Perhaps the modern church, by having become so "nice", is on the way to get sick.

We need to lament more.  We need to be more honest with God.

Think of Ferguson, think of Staten Island, think of Charleston.

We need to lament. We need to learn to take God seriously and to remind God of God's promises.  With great honesty (once we take that risk!) comes the gift of closeness, of intimacy, of a real relationship.

Just like Psalm 88, Psalm 89 provides no answers, but both psalms model how to stay in relationship with God no matter how rough it gets in our lives.

Beth Tanner cites Elie Wiesel who said this when asked whether he ever lost his faith:

“I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith not outside of it.”

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