Psalm 68.1-20 | Sunday after the Ascension B

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

1 May God arise, may his enemies be scattered;
    may his foes flee before him.
2 May you blow them away like smoke—
    as wax melts before the fire,
    may the wicked perish before God.
3 But may the righteous be glad
    and rejoice before God;
    may they be happy and joyful.

4 Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
    extol him who rides on the clouds;
    rejoice before him—his name is the Lord.
5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
    is God in his holy dwelling.
6 God sets the lonely in families,
    he leads out the prisoners with singing;
    but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

7 When you, God, went out before your people,
    when you marched through the wilderness,
8 the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain,
    before God, the One of Sinai,
    before God, the God of Israel.
9 You gave abundant showers, O God;
    you refreshed your weary inheritance.
10 Your people settled in it,
    and from your bounty, God, you provided for the poor.

11 The Lord announces the word,
    and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng:
12 “Kings and armies flee in haste;
    the women at home divide the plunder.
13 Even while you sleep among the sheep pens,
    the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver,
    its feathers with shining gold.”
14 When the Almighty scattered the kings in the land,
    it was like snow fallen on Mount Zalmon.

15 Mount Bashan, majestic mountain,
    Mount Bashan, rugged mountain,
16 why gaze in envy, you rugged mountain,
    at the mountain where God chooses to reign,
    where the Lord himself will dwell forever?
17 The chariots of God are tens of thousands
    and thousands of thousands;
    the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary.
18 When you ascended on high,
    you took many captives;
    you received gifts from people,
even from the rebellious—
    that you, Lord God, might dwell there.

19 Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
    who daily bears our burdens.
20 Our God is a God who saves;
    from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.

Psalm 68.1-20

I invite you this morning to put a tab, marker or a finger in Psalm 68.1-20 and in the NT letter to the Ephesians, ch. 4.8-11 .

Reading Psalm 68 closely has always been for me an attempt to hold a lot of  basketballs underwater at one time. It takes a lot of effort and there’s always a lot of splashing. There are two prominent forms of literature in the Jewish Scriptures – story and poetry. Psalm 68 retells Israel’s long, long salvation story prayerfully engaged in poetry. Here’s some more basketballs for starters. There are 13 words in this Psalm that occur nowhere else in classical biblical literature. The unusual words are used to grab and hold the reader’s attention “Say, What?” then the psalmist says “Made you look! Now that I’ve got your attention…..” And there was a lot of splashing between competing gods and authorities in the ancient world. So here’s some more basketballs – actually over 45 more.  This psalm is full of names and descriptions supporting Israel’s contention YHWH is incomparable both in character and actions. In this psalm the proper name YHWH is paired with Elohim (26x), Master (7x), the patriarchal name Almighty (1x), ones of a kind “the One of Sinai, Rider of the clouds” (vs.5), Sky rider (vs. 34), some well-known ones – God of our Salvation (vs. 20), God of deliverance (vs. 21), God of Israel (vs. 36) and even an abbreviation of YH (vs. 19). A long time ago, one of the basketballs popped up out of the water and bonked me on the head.  I’m far from the first to get bonked on the head. That honor belongs to the rabbis who view the Lord in vs. 5-6 as a matchmaker without equal, intimately involved in marriage (B. Sotah 2a). Allow me to illustrate the rabbi’s thinking from my second most favorite movie of all time: Fiddler on the Roof.  While pinning clothes to the lines to dry, Tevye and Golde’s daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava sing about the matchmaker Yente choosing a partner for them. Although excited about their future marriages, Tzeitel warns that, as they are from a poor family, they’ll have to marry whoever Yente brings. Regardless if it’s an unhappy marriage. As the song ends, the sisters quickly realise that they might rather remain on their own than marry just anyone. On the other hand, for the rabbis, the beauty, the mystery of marriage is imaged in “Father of the fatherless, defender of widows….God sets the lonely in families” (vs. 5-6). They pictured the Lord as Patriarch-Matchmaker lovingly bringing together lonely strangers, that is, different persons with different backgrounds, different personalities, with different preferences and divinely, intimately fashioning them into a couple, a family. Wonder of wonders, Miracle of miracles.

Now here’s some more basketballs.  There’s a lot of walking in this psalm, a lot of walking through historical-theological events. The Psalm begins in the Wilderness when the clans were called to pack up the camp, get up and walk (vs. 1-3). A call to follow after the Lord’s presence in the lighted cloud, the moveable sanctuary and the covenant chest. It was a call to walk in obedience with others in the covenant pattern. It’s not a walk to improve their health but a walk to improve their ethical moral behavior, their conduct. Each of the clans is to walk gracefully, patiently, lovingly in order not to impact the overall unity of the Nation. There’s walking out of the cataclysmic upheavals of slavery. There’s ascending to the high mountain into the sunlight of unsurpassed covenant revelation. There’s walking through lowlands, deserts and the Land in failure, doubt and obedience. There’s satisfaction at arriving at the end of a walk – the city of Jerusalem (vs. 16ff). Walking, then, is used skillfully, prayerfully, poetically to express the outworking of covenant revelation. A transformed Israel walking as the Chosen, the treasured possession. A nation of priests walking obediently to YHWH’s summons. YHWH “walked” Israel slowly and deliberately so that they would sense his presence and guidance in every step. The Lord was arranging Israel’s life to make them fit for life with him.

So let’s throw a few more basketballs into the water as we turn to Ephesians but keep your place in the psalm. There’ll be some splashing. But we’ll try to keep them submerged. Liturgically, Psalm 68 is a Jewish Pentecostal psalm commemorating the covenant at Sinai (Jubl 1.5; 6.11, 17; 15.1-24). Liturgically, for us, this morning occurs after Jesus’ ascension – this last Thursday. So this psalm can become pentecostal to us by anticipating the descent of the Spirit to give gifts to the Church. In the message from Psalm 98, 4 weeks ago I asked this question: how do we move from vocal public congregational Temple praise to vocal public congregational Christian praise? At first glance, this might seem easily answered this morning because two lines from Psalm 68.18 seem to be quoted in Ephesians 4.8 “when he ascended on high, he led captives in his procession and distributed gifts to the people”. So that helps us. Right? Maybe. More about this momentarily. First, let me ask the question this way. Of all the lines, in all of the psalms, in all of biblical literature, how/why does Paul choose these two poetic lines from this psalm for Christian instruction for the Ephesus church? One of the things I realized early on and continues to amaze me to this day is how saturated NT writers were in the Bible’s thinking and practice. It seems to me NT writers had a working knowledge of their Bible. And it seems to me their expectation is that we are working on getting a working knowledge also.

So a few introductory words about Ephesians and Paul seem to be in order.  Paul, first arrested in Jerusalem, has now descended to the depths of a Roman prison. From there, this mostly unknown captive ascended to the occasion, composing and sending letters by a revolving door of colleagues to Philippi by Epaphroditus ( 4:18); to Ephesus by Tychicus (6:21); to Colossae by Epaphras (4:12) and to Philemon by his slave Onesimus. All with similar, overlapping messages, collectively, these letters are identified as the prison letters.

Is it stating the obvious that an imprisoned Paul had a lot of time to think about things? Well it seems to me, Jesus’ ascension prompted Paul to think through how this is worked out in his life, his ministry and how the ascension is worked out in these churches. Broadly, the seating of Jesus at the right hand of the Father puts an exclamation mark on the completeness of Jesus as the Davidic messiah. Jesus is Lord, Caesar, not so much.  Paul was no stranger to a militarized triumphal procession in the Greco-Roman world with its wagons full of tribute and lines of shackled captives. Imprisoned as he was, it seems to me, the more important victory march for him was Jesus’ ascension with himself a captive “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ, we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God” (2 Cor. 2. 14-17). And in these letters he portrayed the outworking of that procession as the descent of the Spirit to the churches with “gifts” (charismata) and “gifted ones” (charismenoi). And this gives us an insight into why Paul rewrites the psalm. Notice how Psalm 68.18 reads  “when you (YHWH) ascended on high, you took many captives, you received tribute from the nations”. Now read Eph. 4.8 “when he (Jesus) ascended on high, he led captives in his procession and distributed gifts to the people”.  

Paul situates the Psalm’s lines in an extended section of ethical, moral instruction (4.1-6.18).  The rewritten citation forwards Israel’s perspective in the psalm to that of the inner life of the church in two ways. First about the gifting of the church at large and second, about a more specific gifting of some persons.  In Pauline theology the essence, the scope, the function of ministry is charismatic (cf. 1 Cor. 12; Rom 12). The Spirit is the ministerial Spirit. The Spirit gives gifts to every believer for the good of the whole community. By the Spirit, the ascended Lord seizes us and brings us into the captivity of his service. There is no divine gift which does not bring with it a task. He reminds the Ephesians all of them have a responsibility inside and outside of the church to live distinctively. 

There’s also a lot of walking in this letter. Just as Israel’s clans walked gracefully, patiently, lovingly in order not to impact the unity of the Nation so also the Epheisans are to walk gracefully in unity and order guided by the ascended Lord and the descended Spirit. The ministry of Spirit-gifted service is the outworking, the realization of Christ’s ascension. As in Israel, the quality of a church’s corporate life has everything to do with fulfilling its ministry, its mission in society. The seven exhortations “to walk in unity”, strategically placed in the letter (2.1-3, 8-10; 4.1-3, 17-19; 5.1-2, 5-17) appeal to the readers to play their part with grace, humility, patience and love. “Walking in unity” reinforces the significance and privileges of our calling as a way of living. When you accept Jesus as savior, there’s “no sitting on the curb”. You’re automatically captive in Christ’s procession to the right hand of the Father. The ascended Lord and the descended Spirit guide a believing community slowly and deliberately so that we sense their presence in every step. They’re arranging our life to make us fit for life with them.The goals of charismatic gifting, then, is for a church to walk. As the seated Lord, each and every Christian is gifted for service. Spirit gifts are the common endowment of all who call upon the name of the Lord and are saved. Each believer is to work out their discipleship from the Spirit’s gifts in order to bind themselves to the Lord and to others so they can be both his captives and the servants of all.

We read earlier in 2 Cor. Paul described himself and his co-workers as captives in Christ’s procession. But let’s take a closer look at  Paul’s rewriting of the Psalm. In place of the psalm’s tribute, Paul inserts “captive gifted persons”  (charismenoi) whose ministries involve the proclamation of the Word “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” (4.11). These “gifted ones”, distributed by the ascended Christ to his church, have a vital cohesive role in maintenance, unity and preservation. They’re tasked with bringing believers to states of holiness and maturity.  As captives of the ascended Christ, charismatically endowed persons are under obligation to serve the church to the measure of their gift to the building up of the church. As St. Paul says: “And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ, we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God” (2 Cor. 2.16-17). 

In  the 7th grade at St. John of God parish school, in Bible speak, “I found favor in the eyes of” two assistant priests. For two years they trained me to assist them both in/out of the parish. One Friday, in 8th grade, they arranged for me, that is, got me past the long reach of Sister Elizabeth for the day, to go with them to an ordination at St. Vibiana Cathedral in LA. I piled into Fr. Johnson’s VW bug and we headed out. Fr. Gelb was already there. Fr. Johnson took me up to the choir loft at the rear of the cathedral and sat me in the far right hand corner. I rested my arms and chin on the handrail. St. Vibiana’s didn’t look anything like St. John’s! The center aisle was high, with suspended lights, flanked by columns and arches. Shafts of light cut through stained glass, through dark shadows, lighting marble on the floors and walls. Soon folk began to arrive and fill the pews. The organist and choir began to fill the loft. Latin chant began to flow over me filling the sanctuary. Adding to the mystical setting, clouds of incense began to rise from just below me. Following an acclamation everyone rose to their feet. A dramatic procession began. Crucifier, followed by acolytes, followed by brightly robed clerics, followed by five men in white albs, followed by other priests in cassocks, including Fr.s Gelb and Johnson. They walked together down the aisle to the altar. Once everyone was in place, the five men laid face down on the floor. Their ordination service was underway. Even to a 13 year old, there was a unity, an eloquence, a mystical grandeur in the ceremony. This was a procession revealing their profound captivity – a road less travelled. These were “gifted ones” being given to the church. All these years later, I believe St. Paul would have nodded his head approvingly. 

The Ascension, then, provides the framework for understanding charismatic ministerial functions. Being a captive is the basic role for ministerial service (cf. Mk. 9.35; 10.42-45). “Gifted ones” proclaim the Word and follow the Lord’s lead. Spirit-ized servant authority resides within the act of ministry as they obey the Lord. They are appointed missionaries, church planters, mediators of divine revelation and gospel proclamation, church teaching and leadership. Their function is preserving, transmitting, interpreting and applying the Gospel. Their ministry is to crochet Biblical wisdom, knowledge, norms and values into appropriate conduct. A church’s gifted life is from the ascended Lord and is only to be had in the shadow of the crucified/risen Lord. A Christian community exists insofar as the Spirit’s gifts from the ascension lay hold of us creating us as instruments of service.  

Talk about holding basketballs underwater!

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