May 13, 2012, Mother’s Day Psalm 21: Thou dost set a crown of fine gold
Acts 10:44-48 Psalm 21 1 John 5:1-6 John 10:9-17
“Would you like to be queen for a day?” Remember Queen for a Day? Old tv show, beginning of America’s obsession with big winning game shows. Four women were selected out of the audience and told their hard luck stories. One who received most applause won the title along with a dozen roses and many prizes. Show ended with host saying, “Wishing we could make every woman queen for every single day.”
Well, what would you say if I told you, you already are queens and kings, not just for one day, but every day? All of you in retirement with your silver hair and long life!
Psalm for today is another royal psalm. Psalm 20 was the prayer of a king going into battle. Psalm 21 is prayer of celebration after the king’s victory. The two could possibly refer to the same event. Written in two parts, verses 1-7 addresses the Lord, verses 8-12 are addressed to the king. The psalm starts with the king rejoicing. “You have given him his heart’s desire,” the psalm continues. God gave the king everything he desired; he gave him many blessings, a crown of gold, and long life. Verse 3 states you met him with goodly blessings – image of returning warrior being greeted by cheering throngs and then having a crown or other symbol of success placed on head. An old Gaelic saying states that “he is a king who is well.” The crown could be a symbol of God’s blessing through good health. As one commentator states, “Morally, health is holiness; to be well is to be ‘good all through.’ That crown of pure gold is within the reach of all of us poor ‘slaves that would be king.’” (Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 4, p. 113) The king asked for life (vs. 4) and God gave it to him, length of days. Each of you, having made it to 80, 90 and beyond, have that length of day. Even more than that, God makes him most blessed forever, making him glad with the joy of his presence (vs. 6) – the promise of life with God forever in heaven where we will wear a heavenly crown.
At verse 8 the psalm shifts its focus and addresses the king, proclaiming more victories, not only over his enemies but their descendants as well. The verses are problematic in their violence and vengeance, creating a challenge for the reader. You won’t find these verses in the common lectionary for such verses are routinely avoided. Walter Brueggemann, speaking at a conference at Western Theological Seminary encouraged listeners to wrestle with such difficult passages rather than avoid them. All of Scripture is helpful and thus worthy of our attention. So how do we deal with such difficult passages?
For some insight, let’s look at our passage from Acts of the Apostles. This passage is often referred to as the second Pentecost as the spirit comes to the Gentile community. In order for this to happen there needed to be some changes. In verses preceding, there are two visions. First Cornelius, a devout and God-fearing man, has a vision of an angel who told him to go to Joppa to a man called Peter. Peter then has a vision of a large sheet filled with all types of animals. Peter was told to slaughter and eat. Peter resisted saying he had never eaten anything profane or unclean. The voice responded, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” This happened three times. While Peter was still pondering the vision, the servants Cornelius had sent to find Peter, appeared at the door of his house. The Spirit instructed Peter to go with them and so Peter journeyed to Cornelius home where he stayed despite Jewish law against Jews associating with Gentiles. “You know that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with, or visit, a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean.” Thus the stage was set for the conversion of the Gentiles. The issue here is not is about whether food is clean or unclean. Rather it is about contextualizing the gospel, “and the need for Christians to see the saving activity of God in cultural contexts that are unfamiliar to us.” (Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Lent/Easter, p. 152)
Why do we resist passages that do not reflect our own worldview? Because of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term that basically addresses the brain’s tendency to dislike contradictory messages. The brain is a cognitive miser, meaning it likes to conserve energy, doesn’t want to work any harder than it has to. These contradictory messages means the brain has to work to understand them and may even be forced to change its opinion. So sometimes, rather than do this, we will simply dismiss information that we don’t like, or, we believe what we want to believe. It can be hard to break through this resistance. In the case of Peter in Acts, it took a profound vision from God to get him to be open to possibility that Gentiles can also be saved. Profound religious experiences have a way of getting us to see reality in a different way, change long held beliefs.
So let’s look at the cultural context of our psalm. Second portion of psalm could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. People are praying for the king. They are praying for a complete conquest, one so complete that the king’s enemies would be wiped off of the face of the earth, it would extend to their children and their children’s children. Early Hebrew nation had little concept of an afterlife. They did speak of Sheol as this shadowy place, but for most part, focus is on the here and now, this life. Immortality for the Hebrew community lies in the community, not in a life after death, which makes Jesus’ resurrection even more profound. A common Hebrew blessing would be for children and children’s children for countless generations, hence God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. And so, a Hebrew curse would be that there be no generations, thus no immortality for enemies. While it sounds terribly harsh to us, especially within the context of a prayer, it would not seem that way for the Hebrew community.
Another way to look at it would be in terms of God as the king and the last judgment when the wheat will be separated from the chaff. God is the one to destroy evil from the face of the earth, wipe out all of the seeds of evil, even to the last generation. The fiery furnace could be the fires of Gehenna. In this sense they are praying for God to prevail and wipe out all evil from every generation.
In a spiritual sense, if we are to free ourselves of sinfulness, we must not only root out the big sins, murder, adultery, theft, but even the smaller ones, the off-spring of sin, thoughts that lead to un-kind and evil actions. In this sense we pray that God will put all evil thoughts to flight. Psalm ends with a confirmation of the writer’s belief in the strength of God to do all these things and praise of God.
Our gospel from John picks up where we left off from last week with the vine and the branches. Jesus tells us to abide in him, or remain in him. What does it mean to abide in Jesus? Many of you know my friend Marcy who is currently under Hospice care. When another friend asked her if she had any new insights as she faces her final journey, especially in light of her years of ministry and being with others during similar times, she said, “I don’t know that I have any great insights. God’s abiding love is with me.” What a great gift, to not only know God loves us, but to experience that love, feel it.
How do we experience that love? Through others and the love we feel for them. To be loved, to be aware of God’s abiding love, surely that is the greatest gift of all, the greatest crown to wear.
Each of us already has a crown waiting for us in heaven. It is a crown of love. In that we have loved and been loved, there is a crown awaiting us. There are cheering crowds in heaven above, waiting to welcome us home and place this crown on our heads.
Today we celebrate mother’s day. Our mother’s have an important role to play in making us the people we are, in helping us be open to God’s love. In that we have been loved well as children, we will be able to love as adults, both receiving and giving and growing in God’s abiding love. And so, let us wear our crowns well. Wishing we could make every woman, and every man, queen or king for every single day. We can!
Robertson, copyright May 2012