Psalm 98 | Easter 3B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

A psalm.
1 Sing to YHWH a new song,
    for he has done miraculous things;
    his right hand and his holy arm
    have worked his salvation.
2 YHWH has made his salvation known
    and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
3 He has remembered his covenant loyalty
    his faithfulness to Israel;
   all the ends of the earth have seen
    the salvation of our God.

4 Shout for joy to YHWH, all the earth,
   burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to YHWH with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before YHWH, the King.

7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before YHWH,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
   He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the nations with equity.

Psalm 98

We’ll be in Psalm 98 this morning so please turn there in your Bible, device or prayerbook. All things considered, Psalm 98 is a very busy psalm. It’s one of the psalms used by the third stream in the Anglican realignment – the charismatic wing –  to construct the popular song “Our God Reigns” (others 47, 93, 96, 97, 99 and Isa. 52). It’s distinctive literary form, descriptive praise, situates it in the Jewish library as acknowledging who YHWH is, for what he does and how he does it. It’s a regular visitor to the Evening Prayer rotation between Mary’s and Simeon’s prayers. It’s read in all three lectionary years on the 3rd day after Christmas and it’s the psalm pre-set to the last Sunday in year C – Christ the King. On this Sunday, the lectionary sages have set Psalm 98 into the space between the resurrection and the ascension – the authorizing of Jesus to be King and Judge. 

The psalms were an early, formative part of my repentant redirection to Christian faith. In those ancient days there were recording devices called cassettes. Not sure where or how but I came into possession of three cassettes with the Psalms read from the King James translation by a voice actor – Alexander Scourby. Daily for close to three years in the truck I was amazed by the sounds, the rhythms, the lyrical qualities and ease with which those words were committed to memory.

But it took two other events, a few years later, before the seeds of those early plantings bloomed. The first actually had a profound effect on my entire educational experience – what I understand education intends to accomplish – broaden your horizon and amaze you with the jaw dropping wonder of it all. 

Stan and Laurie Grace were parishioners in Half Moon Bay Community Church. One Sunday after service, they asked if I would like to go flying with him some Saturday.  When that day came we drove to the airport between Moss Beach and the lighthouse at Pillar point. When he came out of the airport office, he had a large clipboard. It was a 5 page pre-flight checklist. About 20 mins into the checklist, he turned to me saying “you never want to fly higher than you want to fall”.  The deep breath I took was heard in the airport office!  I had only ever been in an airplane once but I noticed right off that I was looking out the front windshield of this plane. The best was yet to come. We circled Half Moon Bay before turning North. Flying along the cliffs, we seemed so small but I got a good look at Mavericks, the not-so-secret big wave surfing spot. Rounding the So. San Francisco peninsula – in the dazzling morning sun – suddenly, the Golden Gate bridge, the city’s skyline pierced by the Transamerica building, Oakland across the bay, over yonder the Pacific Ocean’s horizon and up ahead Marin – all this filled the windshield. From that day Stan delighted in telling anyone who would listen what a goof-ball I was – eyes wide open like a deer in the headlights, smiling like the Cheshire cat, foot thumping like Peter Rabbit’s, head turning ‘round like an owl, mouth twittering like a parakeet – Oh my, I was in love!

Some years later I was seated in a classroom with a bunch of high, maybe over-achievers under the watchful checklist of a rabbinic scholar learning Hebrew. Although the Joseph narrative was quite enough of a language challenge, thank you very much, twice a week he would turn to the psalms. Stressing the vocal character of the Jewish scriptures, he read and taught us to read out loud. I was amazed by the sounds, the rhythms, the lyrical qualities. Oh my, I was in love! 

In seminary, before I could fly, I had to turn the pages of the Hebrew language checklist for any given text: vocabulary, grammar, linguistics, reading aloud, literature and theology. The psalms became the runway of my graduate education – the subject of my dissertation. 

The horizon, the skyline, the golden bridge of the Word of God opened before me. It was deja vu, all over again. Oh my, I was in love! 

One of the first things I learned from my reading about and writing on the psalms  in seminary was:  praise in Israel is vocal, public prayer and congregationally intimate. But I am far from the first to know this. In the Easter Vigil message, I quoted the 4th cent. church leader Athanasius from a letter he wrote “the one who takes up the Psalms recognizes the words as being his/her own words. And the one who hears is deeply moved, as though he/she were speaking, and is affected by the words of the songs, as if they were his/her own songs” (Letter to Marcellinius).

Well, old scouts walk in old scouted paths. Here is some of what reading the Word of God, especially the Psalms, out loud has taught me. Reading out loud takes me back to the simplicity of those early, formative days listening to Scourby reading to me and the only thing expected of me was to take it in.  Although I now add in Hebrew, I haven’t laid aside English-ed versions, specifically the KJV. This translation’s beautiful verbal form involves harmonious, emotive, pleasing, at times, inspiring expressions. All the king’s men who translated the psalms were from Cambridge. They had a wonderful feel for rhythm, spacing and sounds. It’s my contention that sonic dimension is an important aspect of scripture’s overall “meaning”. So may I encourage you to take up your King James Bible and read the psalms aloud. Walk around your kitchen, your living room, your backyard. Take them in. Other things can come later. Along the scouted path, I learned reading aloud, even better, being read to, makes me a better listener. It takes effort to listen, taking each word and sentence captive. As someone who sometimes puts speed into the checklist, I often forget what pleasure I miss by not reading at a more leisurely pace. Sure reading out loud takes more time. But reading the Word of God aloud, as Athanasius notes, is intimate. Both the reader, listener and author share their words.  This is why from the very beginnings of my teaching Greek and Hebrew to students I have emphasised reading out loud. It opens up your vision to the word of God like sitting in a plane looking out of the windshield. It’s breathtaking. And here is for me one of the highlights of Anglican liturgy, we as a congregation reading aloud the psalms. Reading the Word of God out loud together creates in our liturgies a closeness, an intimacy not found in any other setting. Oh my, I’m in love. 

Well, why should Israel, the nations and all creation join in a celebration of YHWH’s kingship? The theme of Psalm 98’s majestic cadences enunciating the praise of YHWH is: he brings covenant faithfulness to the governance of Israel and the nations in the sight of all creation. The grandeur of the soundtrack plays out this way: vs. 1 is an imperative summons to people gathered in the Temple. They are invited to prayerfully rejoice at a summary of king YHWH’s saving acts for Israel in the sight of the Nations, vs. 2-3; vs. 4-8 widen the boundaries of acknowledgement to animate creation in an immense chorus of praise and, then, the psalmist closes with a theological lesson about the certainty of YHWH’s judgement, vs. 9.

In a world saturated with sin, oppression, confusion, and disorientation, Israel could be easily jolted out of rhythm with God, out of tune with others, and troubled by jarring discordant harmonies within themselves. The psalmist reminds the gathered people – the Lord’s hand and arm “have done miraculous things” (vs. 1). The public nature of YHWH’s “armed salvation” is a moving target, however. It’s not specified. And when we look closely at Israel’s historical/theological narrative we conclude that YHWH has “history” with Israel – intervening in events like the Exodus, the Wilderness, the conquest of Canaan, the united and divided Monarchy, the Exile and the Return. But on the other hand, we might be hard pressed to find a song in these stories.

Remember this Psalm’s theme – YHWH brings covenant faithfulness to the governance of Israel and the nations in the sight of creation. The theological vocabulary presented in word-pairs: salvation-righteousness (vs. 2); covenant loyalty-faithfulness-salvation(vs. 3); judgement-righteousness-equity(vs. 9) frame the psalm’s content and build a concert hall from the Sinai Covenant. In the Sinai Covenant, YHWH made an abiding, committed relationship of fidelity to Israel (Ex. 19.1-Num. 10.10; Deut.). Mutual promises/commitments, commands and stipulations stake out the ground of behavioral norms lived in accord with YHWH’s instruction and will. Every part of Israel’s life comes under YHWH’s governance and life giving purposes. He chose Israel and then remained loyal through thick and thin. Israel gave YHWH ever so many reasons to cut the strings that bound Him to them, but He never did. Israel’s every setback was repurposed for their eventual redemption. In the “covenant theatre” YHWH’s faithfulness, his righteousness, his public rescue gives Israel victory over themselves and their enemies. 

But the concert hall is bigger than we imagined. YHWH has demonstrated his faithfulness to Israel to “the ends of the earth”––which is a way of including “the nations” (v. 2). But the invitations to creation praise in vs. 4 -8 throw the doors wide open. Here come the boys in the band and the backup singers. As the dancers fill the floor, creation begins to jump and swing, rejoicing at YHWH’s saving faithfulness and righteousness.

Creation’s praise rightly celebrates YHWH’s saving acts. But the psalmist turns down the volume in the Temple and creation: Sing but don’t lose sight of this theological lesson – YHWH comes to judge the earth and the nations in righteousness with equity (vs. 9). His righteous, equitable judgment will be a welcome relief for Israel, the nations and creation. We benefit by plugging these words into the covenant relationship not politicised legal systems. Both righteousness and judgement spotlight “to govern”, that is, effective covenantally guided actions bringing about order and appropriate behaviors. All the stuff of integrity. And note this – equity is part of the rich word group in Israel’s Wisdom literature. YHWH’s kingly rule is not crooked, but evenhanded, balanced with a firm sense of right and wrong. There is nothing capricious or arbitrary about the Lord’s governance. 

Now how do we move from vocal public congregational Temple praise to vocal public congregational Christian praise?  Well, let’s start at vs. 3:  “He (YHWH) has remembered his covenant loyalty, his faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God”. YHWH  has proven faithful to covenant obligations made to Israel and demonstrates that faithfulness even further in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Davidic Messiah. And then let’s factor in the psalmist’s lesson in vs. 9 “let them sing before YHWH, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the nations with equity”.  After the resurrection, the vindicated messiah, Jesus, becomes Lord and Judge at the Ascension (Lk. 24.50-53; Ac. 1.9-11). At the Ascension, Jesus is “lifted up” for the third time. In contrast to the cross’s “lifting up” now the words over his throne are entirely appropriate “Lord of All”. And it’s not a zealot next to him but he is seated at the right hand of the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7). In line with the resurrection’s “lifted up”, the Ascension’s “lifted up” acknowledges Jesus’ many sided redemptive victory gives him authority to govern and to judge. I am aware of the tension between the present and the future. There will come a day, an eternally serious day, when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. And there is an eternally serious present. The ascension positions Jesus to do deeply profound actions. 

So I want to address some of the activities of Jesus’ ascension. The ascension sets in motion the powerful presence of the Spirit as told in Luke-Acts (Lk. 24.50-51; Ac. 1.7-9). By the Spirit Jesus empowers and guides believers in everyday events.

Judgment, power, authority – not very popular topics in church culture. Again, here is where we need to factor in the biblical worldview set up in the NT. The seating of a victorious Jesus on a throne is a subversion of popular notions of power. And we see that imaged for us in Revelation 5 where John the revelator is told to “Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed”. But when he looks all he sees is a Lamb, looking as if it had been sacrificed, now standing, alive, at the center of a throne. And then he sees the Numinous and the Noble encircling the throne bowing and singing: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and praise! To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor, glory and power, for ever and ever! (Rev. 5: 5, 6, 9, 12-13). In the biblical worldview, Jesus as King and Judge is not just another overpowering authority. On the throne, King Jesus judges Israel, the nations, that’s us, with authority derived from salvation acts, sacrificial obedience, forgiveness, reconciliation.The intention is to open our hearts to experience the guidance of the living God.

But few of us understand how compromised we are, how stained by sin, how self-promoting, self-interested we are, how bent out of shape our human identity really is. So how does Jesus’ power get to a person’s heart? Because Jesus – the Word of God, the creator – is wrapped in humanity (Jn. 1.1-3, 14). By the victory of the cross/resurrection, by forgiveness, Jesus has reconciled individuals to God (2 Cor. 5.16-21). He is seated as the reality of what it means to be fully human -male and female- in the divine presence. There is an ascended  savior, a real human person, sitting in the presence of nuclear holiness, advocating, defending, rescuing, faithfully pleading forgiveness (1 Jn. 2.1-2, Heb. 7.26-8.2). The ascension, then, is not a power play but intended to transform a heart, intended to produce a lightness in a believer’s step in a conflicted world, intended to put lives before the throne of the Lord of All and ask him to judge, that is, to remove all those problematic bits and pieces and to gift believers with the Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control so we can live life to the fullest (Gal. 5.22). 

A Christian’s confidence and assurance are grounded in Jesus’ ascension.  Believer’s are assured of welcome, encouraged to trust in Jesus’s faithfulness to transform their lives to live in holiness. This relationship is open to anyone for the asking. Once you accept that relationship, you come face to face with the person who covenantally guides relationships, face to face with the person behind the cross and the resurrection, face to face with the Spirit behind the gift giving. Now you can grasp why Christians gather with others. Corporate Christian worship is an expression of deeply embedded gratitude and humility, erupting out of forgiven hearts as we pray and worship the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Oh my, I’m in love!

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