Feb. 26, 2012, Psalm 16 Magnificent Failure
Genesis 9:8-17 Psalm 16 1 Peter 3:18-22 Mark 1:9-15
Scorpion and the Old Man, as told by Henri Nouwen
One morning, after he had finished his meditation, the old man opened his eyes and saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water. As the scorpion was washed closer to the tree, the old man quickly stretched himself out on one of the long roots that branched out into the river and reached out to rescue the drowning creature. As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively the man withdrew his hand. A minute later, after he had regained his balance, he stretched himself out again on the roots to save the scorpion. This time the scorpion stung him so badly with its poisonous tail that his hand became bloody and swollen and his face contorted with pain.
At that moment, a passerby saw the old man stretched out on the roots struggling with the scorpion and shouted: “Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly evil creature. Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful creature?”
The old man turned his head. Looking into the stranger’s eyes he said calmly, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that doesn’t change my nature to save.”
Our readings for Lent begin with a failure – God’s failure in Genesis to rid the world of evil through the flood. God saw that humans were wicked and decided to destroy them from the face of the earth. Their wickedness was so complete that they couldn’t even imagine good things. “When the Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on earth, and his heart was grieved.” (6:5-6) However the situation wasn’t changed after the flood. “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start.” (8:21b) The flood was a failure for it did not change the human heart. What did change, though, was God. God realized that there was something within the human heart that was drawn to evil, to that which was not good for it.
Like the story of the scorpion and the old man, how can God blame his creation for behaving according to its nature? So God realizes he is the one who has to change. God makes a unilateral covenant with his people, not because of any merit on their side or anything that they did to deserve it, God doesn’t require anything of Noah. The covenant is entirely God’s initiative, out of God’s love for his creation. All of the obligations fall upon God’s shoulders. God rejects his previous desire to destroy. Never again he says, in a binding covenant that restricts God’s freedom. God willingly gives up his freedom for our sake.
God changes and realizes he has to try something new to reach his people. And so, when the time was right, thousands of years after the flood, God tries something entirely new, he empties himself and becomes one like us in his effort to reach us and save us. In our gospel today we see this human God, Jesus, after being baptized by John, being tempted by Satan before beginning his ministry of repentance. He, who was sinless, was baptized by John out of obedience to show us the way. In taking on our human nature he experiences everything we experience. He is tempted in all ways, yet resists. Satan would have him forget his God, forget who he is; Jesus resists.
This bold experiment ends with worldly failure on the cross, book ending Lent with two failures of sorts, but is the failures God’s or ours? And is it truly a failure? Remember God’s wisdom appears as foolishness, God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Peter speaks about the flood as a precursor to baptism. Noah and his family were saved through the flood but the flood was not able to wash away the stain of sin upon humankind. Christians are saved through the waters of baptism which washes away the stain of original sin, yet doesn’t free us entirely from evil in this world. Even Jesus was tempted, so we are too. What are we to do? God looked around before the flood and saw only Noah as being good. Are there any good persons in the world? People who put their trust in God and God alone? Is this human experiment the ultimate failure, or the ultimate success? Are humans capable of changing their nature?
Our psalm for today would say a resounding yes. Even before Christ came, there were people of faith, people of deep and abiding trust in God. The writer of this psalm is one such person. The writer recognizes his need for God, that only with God is goodness and mercy. The psalm is a psalm of trust. The writer entrusts his life to God, “Preserve me, O God, for in thee I take refuge . . . I have no good apart from thee.” (1-2) He recognizes that nothing is good apart from God, that all good things, happiness and prosperity, come from God. He recognizes his great need for God. The King James version reads “my goodness extendeth not to thee” meaning even our best never comes close to “the best” which comes from God, reason for us to be humble and ask for pardon.
The writer takes delight in the “saints” in the land, they are “the noble” (RSV) or “the excellent” (King James) and he is one of their company, enjoying God’s blessings. Those who follow other gods “multiply their sorrows” (6) It isn’t just a matter of increasing sorrows, hurts, pains or grief, but they are multiplied indicated a great increase of suffering for those foolish enough to follow other gods, or exchange the one God for a heathen god demanding blood libations rather than the offerings of wine that were offered to God. This is such an abomination to the writer that he will not even take their names on his lips.
The psalmist then goes on to express the inner well-being that comes from putting his trust in God. “The Lord is my chosen portion and cup.” (5) Portion is one’s share in the division of goods and cup, a metaphor based on practice of passing wine to a guest at a feast or meal, means my fate or destiny (hence Jesus passed the cup at the last supper, Mt. 26:27, 39). God is my destiny, God holds my fate, God is my possession (portion) all through God’s choice since it is God who holds my lot. Yet the writer has also chosen God. There is no forcing on the part of God. The psalmist’s good fortune cannot be taken from him for it is God who holds it fast. Not only that, “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, yet, I have a goodly heritage.” He uses the metaphor of dividing lines of property to indicate the blessings he has received. Each of the blessings he has received from God are comparable to fertile fields or pleasant land.
The writer goes on to say how God counsels him, gives him directions for his life, speaks to him at night to keep him from going astray. He starts with God before him always, but God moves to his right side, as a nearby friend, walking by his side. God, the object of his life, becomes his walking companion. “Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices.” Who would not be glad with God at his side? His whole body is at ease, trusting in his God. God rescues him from Sheol and shows the path of life where he will enjoy pleasure for evermore – perhaps hinting at an afterlife
So, are people capable of changing their very nature? The writer of this psalm is a far cry from the wickedness of Noah’s time. God changed so that we might be saved. Through God’s love we are changed, people over time are changing. The basis of this change lies in the first line of this psalm – our recognition of our need for God and humility before our God. This is the repentance that Jesus is preaching in our gospel today.
Lent is a time to repent and believe the Good News of God’s love. Why is this so hard to do? Especially when you see all of the blessings that come to those who put their trust in God as seen in our psalm. Because there is still that unredeemed part within us, that part of human nature that would sting those who try to help us, that would reject God to their own detriment. That is why we need this time of Lent, time to remind us of our own sinful nature. It is only through God’s love that we can be changed and become all that we are meant to be. But oh, the joys that are ours when we do that. As the psalmist tells us, “you will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.”
Robertson, copyright Feb. 2012