Proper 8C 2022
The powers that be who plan our lectionary try to relate the Old Testament lesson and the New Testament lesson and, if possible, the psalm. The Epistle is apt to get short shrift, I’m afraid. As I worked on this sermon, I found that 2 Kings, Luke and Psalm 77 related well not only to each other, but also to life, not only as we live it, but as human beings have always dealt with it.
Psalm 77, as translated by Eugene Petersen, makes me nod my head in agreement as I read the whole thing. This morning all we got were the first two verses and then the final ones. Here is Petersen’s version in its entirety.
I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might, / I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens.
I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord / my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.
When friends said, “Everything will turn out all right,” / I didn’t believe a word they said.
I remember God – and shake my head. / I bow my head -- then wring my hands.
I’m awake all night – not a wink of sleep; / I can’t even say what’s bothering me.
I go over the days one by one, / I ponder the years gone by.
I strum my lute all through the night, / wondering how to get my life together.
Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good? / Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn and threadbare? / Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners? Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
“Just my luck,” I said. “The High God goes out of business / Just the moment I need him.”
How many times have we felt like the psalmist? How many times have we felt – do we feel – bereft? Abandoned? Hopeless? How many times do we face dark, sleepless nights, worrying? Whether our reasons for feeling hopeless are justified or kind of stupid, our feelings are real. I remember one time sitting on my bed, pounding my fist on the bedspread, and saying – whining, actually – “Why can’t things be different?” That was about an adolescent romance, so serious at the time, so trivial now.
It has been said that the poetry of the psalms is the language of God, the language that God understands. The psalms represent the collective history of God’s people talking to God, and in most cases they convey our deepest feelings as we try to get God’s attention. The 77th Psalm comes out of where God’s people were at the time, in exile, and out of where we can be today.
The poet describes their feelings and ours when we seem to be under attack, when we are feeling rejected, when we need some reassurance that someone out there cares. And that someone had better be God. Most of us can remember times like that. We’ve been there. We’ve struggled with unanswered prayer. We can identify with that old spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” The old landmarks seem to be slipping away; we worry about the shifting morals of the young. We worry abut terrorism. About the rising prices of everything – while our incomes don’t rise at all. Sometimes things are so hard that our prayers stick in our throats, and the psalmist’s lament becomes our own. “Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end?”
Elijah knows these feelings well. Poor Elijah! The entire nation had abandoned God in favor of Baal [BAY-el] which was the deity favored by king Ahab’s wife Jezebel. Even after Elijah had soundly defeated the prophets of Baal in that “whose God can spontaneously light a fire” contest, where no amount of dancing and shouting and chanting and blood-letting and carrying on could light Baal’s tinder-dry firewood and where God caused Elijah’s stack of wood, soaked with a huge amount of water, to burn up completely, -- even after all that, Elijah remained a hunted man with a price on his head. Feeling put upon, to say the least, and under attack, Elijah sits under a broom tree, despondent, until God gives him a job to do. “Go finish the business that Elisha began, or else see to it that Elisha does it himself.” Haven’t we done that with our kids? You’re bored? Let me give you a job to do.
The only strategy that both Elijah and Elisha seem to know for fighting the nation’s apostasy with is to use fire, the almighty, powerful, fire-breathing lightning and flames from heaven. And Elisha has ordered up a double portion of Elijah’s power. That’s a lot of fire!
With the background of Elijah and Elisha’s solving all their problems with fire, it’s not a surprise that in Luke the disciples want to rain fire from heaven on the Samaritans who want nothing to do with Jesus because he wants to worship on Zion in Jerusalem, and they worship on a different mountain. And when we’re honest with ourselves, wouldn’t we, too, like to take care of annoying, recalcitrant, threatening people this way?
Well, as it turns out, Jesus says, “No, we don’t do that kind of thing. No time for that. Keep you eyes on the prize. Set your faces toward Jerusalem. Keep your hand on that plow. Hold on.” Notice that he doesn’t moralize about revenge. He has more important things in mind.
There are a couple of interesting points here. One. Luke is asserting, once and for all, that Jesus is not Elijah. That needed to be established. Before, Matthew, Mark and Luke had all believed that maybe Jesus was Elijah. But when Elisha took his hand off the plow and asked to have a farewell party with his family before following Elijah, Elijah had said, “Sure, go ahead.” Not so with Jesus. No time to bury your dead father. No time to say good-bye. No time to turn back to the way things used to be. Set your face toward Jerusalem. Keep your hand on that plow. Hold on.
Another point. The prophet Malachi had said, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and children to their parents.” On the other hand, we hear Jesus talking of turning fathers against sons, husbands against in-laws, and all the rest. We hear Jesus saying there is no time for traditional family matters. The urgency of proclaiming the kingdom of God calls for a radical break with tradition and familiar institutions. Set your faces toward Jerusalem. Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on.
Jesus is carving out new territory and new strategies for dealing with the rejection and despair and hopelessness that this sermon started with. Keep focused on Jerusalem. Keep focused on the good news of the kingdom of God. Plow a furrow straight into the heart and mind and love of God, where there is no place for displays of power and destruction of one’s enemies – no room for ancient quarrels.
I guess it’s a question of perspective. Measured against the love of God, our despair, our annoyances and frustrations end up looking pretty small.
Jesus seems to be saying, “Remember who I am. I am not Elijah. God raised up Elijah to get your attention refocused on the one God who matters, the one God who cares, the one God who, at the end of the day, will lead you, just as God put you in the hands of Moses and Aaron who led you out of slavery into freedom. Now God has sent me, has actually come down as me, to dwell among you all and to help you to see that it is useless and meaningless to dispute which mountain you will use for worship.
Worship on your mountain and don’t obsess about your neighbor’s. Don’t dictate what your neighbors should and shouldn’t do. What is at stake here is serving God and serving your neighbors. And guess what. Those stubborn Samaritans, like it or not, are your neighbors. Later, says Jesus, I will tell you a story in which you will learn that on some days the only person who seems to understand what I am really saying, doing, and urging you to do, will be one of those Samaritans you want to reduce to a heavenly barbecue. There are good Samaritans everywhere. You can’t judge a book by its cover. (Well, I’m sure Jesus said that before it had become a cliché.)
Jesus could start as Psalm 77 does. Facing rejection among the Samaritans he could, like Elijah, sit down under a broom tree and complain.
A brief side issue. A broom tree is not a sturdy trunk with brooms sticking out from which housecleaners and custodians pick the tools of their trade. Broom trees resemble dense twiggy bushes. They have roots that reach deep down to ground water even in the driest months. They’re almost leafless, though they can have small white blooms on them. Hopefully Elijah got some relief from the hot sun while he sat there. Would he have said, “Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good? Will he never smile again? Is his love worn threadbare? Has his salvation promise burned out? Has God forgotten his manners? Has he angrily stalked off and left us? ‘Just my luck, the High God goes out of business just the moment I need him.’”
But Jesus knows what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” The poet in Psalm 77 does sit down feeling utterly abandoned, but then he begins to remember. As Eugene Petersen translates in The Message: (I can’t resist finishing up the rest of the Psalm with you.)
“Once again I’ll go over what God has done, lay out on the table the ancient wonders;
I’ll ponder all the things you’ve accomplished, and give a long, loving look at your acts.
O God! Your way is holy! /No god [small g] is great like God [capital G.]
You’re the God who makes things happen, / you showed everyone what you can do –
You pulled your people out of the worst kind of trouble, / rescued the children of Jacob and Joseph.
Ocean saw you in action, God, / saw you and trembled with fear; Deep Ocean was scared to death.
Clouds belched buckets of rain, /Sky exploded with thunder, / your arrows flashing this way and that.
From Whirlwind came your thundering voice, / Lightning exposed the world, Earth reeled and rocked.
You strode right through Ocean, / walked straight through roaring Ocean, but nobody saw you come or go.
Then we’re suddenly calm.
Hidden in the hands of Moses and Aaron, / You led your people like a flock of sheep.
Jesus knows that fixing our minds and hearts on this powerful, creator, caring God of the Bible will lead us away from senseless controversies, away from any feeling of abandonment, and will reset our faces toward Jerusalem. This God will once again give us the strength to put our hand to that plow and hold on. It’s the Gospel plow taking us straight to the heart of God and God’s love.
You know, don’t you, that we can plow and create music at the same time – we’re good multi-taskers. Hence, when we “strum our lutes all through the night pondering how to get our lives together,” Jesus acknowledges that it will be in the singing of poetry such as the psalms that our God will not only hear us, but will hold us in his hands, especially through those sleepless nights.
A bunch of years ago I found myself sitting through a sleepless night with Karl’s Aunt Toots, who was dying of bladder cancer. It’s a painful condition, but she was pretty much comatose, and the rest home staff was keeping her as comfortable as possible. Before she dropped completely into unconsciousness, she had asked for me. To my knowledge she had never been a church goer. Never had set foot in a church in all the years I had known her. So there I sat, prayer book in hand, a bit unsure of what to do for her. I finally read the prayers for the dying, but that doesn’t take long. And she apparently wasn’t interested.
So I started through the Psalter, reading aloud those that seemed to fit the occasion. And many of them resonated with her. As I finished each one, she would move a bit or make a small sound. I can’t say for sure, but they seemed to give her comfort. From fear of pain and death, from uncertainty of what was to come, she seemed to find peace and acceptance and a focus on the kingdom of God. The journey through the psalms turned out to be rewarding.
We don’t need to read the entire psalter, though, to be nourished by the psalms. One at a time is a full-meal deal. Like Psalm 77, we see the progression from desperate hunger to a satisfied full tummy, from utter despair to that wonderful contrasting panorama that moves us from the terrifying power of ocean and storm to our utter safety in the hands of the Shepherd. Amen