Sermon preached at Meadowood Senior Living, November 13, 2016
Many people have said that there is really only one story in the world. Christians would say that that is because all good stories somehow reflect the story of Jesus. Surely the story of Jesus fits in with all good stories.
The story of the ugly duckling has endured for centuries because we can identify with the ugly duckling. We all feel at some point like the world doesn’t appreciate us. We long for someone to see that we really are good people and that the world is wrong to look down on us. We long to be vindicated, to have people know that we are right and they are wrong, to be able to say to the world, “You don’t appreciate me because you’re asking the wrong questions. I’m not an ugly duckling; I’m a beautiful swan.”
And Jesus, of course, is the ultimate ugly duckling: “He had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him.” “The stone which the builders discarded has become the cornerstone.” “God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
This is the template from which our ugly duckling story comes, and the Bible promises that those who pledge allegiance to God’s ugly duckling will someday be vindicated as Jesus was.
Today I’d like to take a look at the ugly duckling of the Book of Psalms, Psalm 83. I call it the ugly duckling because hardly anyone pays any attention to it. I once suggested to some Christian leaders that maybe Psalm 83 would be a good Scripture passage to do as a choral reading in church, and the response was a guffaw; one man said, “No hope there,” and that was that.
To be sure, Psalm 83 doesn’t offer the comfort that we get from Psalm 23 or the down-to-earth wisdom of Psalm 1, and Handel didn’t include it in his Messiah, as he did Psalm 2, but it’s in the Bible for a reason. It’s what’s called an imprecatory psalm, a psalm that calls on God to harm people. It’s asking God to curse people. As Christians, we are called to bless, not to curse, yet Jesus also says that he has come to fulfill all Scripture, not to do away with it. So imprecatory psalms do have a place in the New Covenant, and I’ll try to explain what that is.
So let’s see how Jesus, God’s ugly duckling, fulfills this ugly duckling of the Book of Psalms.
83 A song, a psalm of Asaph. O God, do not be silent! Do not ignore us! Do not be inactive, O God! For look, your enemies are making a commotion; those who hate you are hostile. They carefully plot against your people, and make plans to harm the ones you cherish. They say, “Come on, let’s annihilate them so they are no longer a nation! Then the name of Israel will be remembered no more.” Yes, they devise a unified strategy; they form an alliance against you.
Here we are back in the world of Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations so furiously rage together?”):
The kings of the earth form a united front; the rulers collaborate against the Lord and his anointed king. They say, “Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us! Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!”
We are in the world of Psalm 2, and we see that the emphasis is on the kings of the earth wanting to get out from under the Lord’s rule. In Ps 83, though, the surrounding nations are out to do active harm to God’s people. In Ps 2 we’re reminded that we live in a world full of rebels. Every human being wants to do his own thing, to determine by himself and for himself what is wrong and what is right. No one wants God looking over his shoulder and keeping track of everything we do.
Here in Ps 83, though, the rebels are not content to turn their backs on God. Now they want to go after God’s people. We see that in places where people who leave Islam to follow Jesus are disowned by their families, fired from their jobs, imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. We see it in animist villages, where the other villagers are convinced that the local spirits dispense good crops or whatever on an all-or-nothing basis; the spirits say, “Unless everyone in this village does as we say, we won’t do good things for anybody,” and they get angry at the whole village because some of the villagers are Christian and don’t obey the spirit’s rules. And we see it here in the USA when Christians are fined and lose their livelihoods because they refuse to profit from—not tolerate, not participate in, but profit from—activities they consider immoral.
People these days complain that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is intolerant, that he unashamedly proclaims himself a jealous God who punishes those who rebel against him—as if a totally good God is somehow supposed to tolerate rebellion against what is good—but the other gods out there are just as intolerant, just as jealous, and just as vengeful against those who will not serve them.
So here in Ps 83, we have God’s people being attacked precisely because they belong to God. “Your enemies are making a commotion; those who hate you are hostile. They carefully plot against your people, and make plans to harm the ones you cherish.” Rule number one for imprecations, for calling down curses on enemies: they have to be God’s enemies, and they have to be causing harm to God’s people and God’s causes. He doesn’t want us calling down curses on whoever the Eagles are playing.
And we have to remember that even the godless rulers of this world, the ones we hear about in Ps 2 or Rom 13 or 1 Pet 2, are “God’s servants to do [us] good.” They may “do [us] good” by cutting our heads off or crucifying us upside-down, as they did to the men who wrote Rom 13 and 1 Pet 2, but Rom 8:28 says that God works all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose, so we have to be willing to follow our commander’s orders, even when he sends us on suicide missions. We have to believe that “Precious in the Lord’s sight is the death of his holy ones,” and that he will reward those who are willing to die for his causes. (That includes putting up with inconveniences, which is sometimes harder than dying.)
[This united front] includes the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites, Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek, Philistia and the inhabitants of Tyre. Even Assyria has allied with them, lending its strength to the descendants of Lot.
Here the list of enemies begins with those who should have been Israel’s friends. The Edomites were descendants of Esau, the brother of the Israelites’ patriarch Jacob. The Ishmaelites were descendants of Jacob’s father’s half-brother. The Moabites were descendants of Jacob’s second cousin. Jesus promised us that “a man’s enemies will be the members of his household,” and that’s why he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” We have no guarantee that these people who are close to us are not going to turn against God’s causes, and we have to be willing to pray imprecatory prayers against them if they do. At the very least, we have to be willing to accept what happens to them if God decides to punish them.
It’s one thing when the Philistines and Assyrians oppose us. They were people groups before the time of Abraham, so we expect them to be nasty, and we’re glad to call down curses on them because they’re not our people. But our own families can be God’s enemies just as those we have no peaceful dealings with. Are we willing to call curses down on those we love?
Does it hurt yet? It hurts me. There are many people who have been good to me who are rebels against God. Do I love God more than I love them? Am I willing to pray what the psalmist prays? It gets harder:
Do to them as you did to Midian – as you did to Sisera and Jabin at the Kishon River! They were destroyed at Endor; their corpses were like manure on the ground. Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, and all their rulers like Zebah and Zalmunna, who said, “Let’s take over the pastures of God!”
Here the psalmist recounts some of the great victories that God supernaturally gave Israel over the Midianites, enemies that were much stronger than they were. We hear of the victory over Sisera and Jabin, where a woman put the commander of the enemy’s army to sleep in her tent and then ran a tent peg through his head. Oreb and Zeeb were the commanders of the army that Gideon’s small band of men were able to defeat because the Midianite soldiers killed each other, and Zebah and Zalmunna were the kings whom Gideon executed. Again, they weren’t just personal enemies. They were enemies of God, who said, “Let’s take over the pastures of God!” They not only wanted God to leave them alone, they wanted to displace God’s people.
O my God, make them like dead thistles, like dead weeds blown away by the wind! Like the fire that burns down the forest, or the flames that consume the mountainsides, chase them with your gale winds, and terrify them with your windstorm. Cover their faces with shame, so they might seek you, O Lord. May they be humiliated and continually terrified! May they die in shame! Then they will know that you alone are the Lord, the sovereign king over all the earth.
Here we have more of the blood and guts this psalm is famous for: “make them like dead thistles … dead weeds … chase them … terrify them … Cover their faces with shame … May they be humiliated and continually terrified! May they die in shame!” Blood and guts! No hope here!
Not so fast. Maybe you caught the two rays of hope in this passage? “Cover their faces with shame”—Why?—“so they might seek you. … Then they will know that you alone are the Lord, the sovereign king over all the earth.”
This psalm is a prayer that is prompted by the danger that God’s people find themselves in, and it does urge God to use lethal force, but it is ultimately a prayer that God will vindicate himself, that people will know who he really is. He’s not an ugly duckling; he’s a swan. If you’re looking for a good-looking duckling, you won’t find God. (I don’t have time to go into this, but good-looking duckling religions are those that give you a bunch of rules that you can follow to curry favor with whatever is in charge.) But if you take God on his own terms, you’ll find a thing of beauty.
And, of course, we are all rebels against God. We are all guilty of opposing what God is doing. We all deserve to have Jesus pray Ps 83 against us. But he doesn’t. Instead, he allowed us to act out our rebellion by calling him the ultimate ugly duckling and killing him. He did that so that his people would not have to suffer the curses we’ve been talking about. And we deserve to suffer even worse curses, but God raised him from the dead to show that he really is the ultimate swan and to let us know that we can still seek God, that we can know for sure that he is the sovereign king over all the earth, and that he can forgive our rebellion against him and bless us rather than curse us if we repent, and we can be not only his subjects but his children.
May God grant us such repentant hearts. Amen.