Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 105 and The Cure of Memory

I had the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel at the Church of the Nazarene College Hill this last Sunday. The congregation was quite warm and welcoming. I thank them for the opportunity and hope to be back with them in August. For certain, my daughter will again partake of their VBS.

The sermon is titled the "Cure of Memory" and is taken from Psalms 105-106. As always, some differences appear between my text below and the actual given sermon.


This weekend, every year, we celebrate Memorial Day, a day to remember the men and women who have lost their lives in military combat. However, even though I have veterans in my family tree, we rarely celebrated with that intent. To do so would require a certain somberness, a solemnity, towards those men and woman. What did we do (and I don’t think my family was alone in this)? Barbeque, party, and the like. The same with the Fourth of July as well, although then we added fireworks. For many Americans, Memorial Day is the day that pools open and the vacation season starts, to be ended with that other great national holiday, Labor Day. These sorts of seasons, just like the Christmas Shopping season that starts around Halloween nowadays, are formative in our cultural and national consciousness: they help to define, implicitly to us and explicitly to foreigners looking in, what it means to be American. Since these seasons are grouped around holidays honoring military service, industrious productivity, and the birth of Jesus Christ, you’d think we were patriotic, hard-working, and intensely religious people. And that may be true. But more than that, we celebrate these days without memory of what they are for. Rather, we commemorate the start of our vacations and our splurges of consumerism. We have forgotten what the days were for, even though, on an intellectual level, we know their true meaning.

This forgetfulness, though, is not an exclusively American problem. It is, rather, a human problem, inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. Reading Genesis 2 and 3, we can get the picture that they had short memories even before the Fall: Adam apparently never told Eve about the command of God, nor did he remember to stop her while in the midst of temptation. Adam and Eve forgot that communion with the God in whose “image and likeness” they were made was better than forcing a likeness based on illicit knowledge. Cain quickly forgot that animal sacrifice was better than vegetal, just as animal skins were a better covering than fig leaves. And so it goes.

But how do we turn this around? The Scriptures are full of calls to us to ‘remember’; but what shall we remember? How shall we make sure that our faulty memories have what they need to overcome, in the Spirit, this inherited proclivity? Psalm 105 begins to answer this question for us in the first 6 verses:

Oh, give thanks to the Lord; call upon His Name;
Make known His deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to Him;
tell of all His wondrous works!
Glory in His holy Name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!
Seek the Lord and His strength;
seek His presence continually!
Remember the wondrous works that He has done,
His miracles, and the judgments He uttered,
O offspring of Abraham, His servant,
children of Jacob, His chosen ones!

To engage in remembrance is to worship, to call on His Name, to sing praises to Him, to tell of all His wondrous works, and – most importantly – to seek His presence continually. Psalm 105 and 106, working as one psalm in two parts, proceed to do just this: to tell the story of God’s gracious and longsuffering dealings with the “offspring of Abraham” throughout their tumultuous history all the way from the Patriarchs to the end of the period of the Judges. Why include this retelling of Israel’s history in the Psalms? Don’t we already have an account of this in Exodus through Judges? Yes, but here is a condensed version, easily memorized through the chanting or singing of it. Here is a musical way to always keep the remembrance of God in your heart, in your mind, and on your lips. St. Paul encourages us to “address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19) as a way of being “filled with the Spirit” so that we might produce His fruits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). This recitation of history in the context of corporate worship is a spiritual pedagogy, a discipline towards becoming what we are predestined to be, that is, “conformed to the image of [the] Son,” our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we might “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

This pedagogy of Christlikeness gives meaning to the rest of these two Psalms. Why ‘call to mind’ Old Testament history? St. Paul again comes to our aid, telling us in 1Corinthians 10 that “these things [he is speaking of the wilderness wandering period of the Exodus] took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as types, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (6-13). All things are given to us, we who have been joined to Christ by faith and baptism, as Paul says here. The events are interesting as history, but they are more than just a mere recording of events in the past for antiquarian interests. Rather, they are the stories that form us in Christ, giving us tools to fall back in our fight against sin, corruption, and the Devil. Since we are in Christ and have the Spirit, though, the difference between us and the types is that where they failed, we have the chance to succeed or escape without failing.

This reminds us, then, of the true purposes of worship. How easily we forget that our God is “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, [who] does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as if He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25)! Our worship is not for God’s sake, as if He were lacking in glory or honor, since He is the very Creator of all things! Nor is it to placate Him, as if He had thunderbolts at the ready: such is an image of Zeus, not the true God who rules the storm and the sea and the earth, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, [who] is good to all, and His mercy is over all that He has made” (Ps. 145:8-9). Rather, worship – the proper giving of thanks and honor to the God whom it is due – is for our sakes to reorient us back to the God who made us and who redeemed us by taking on human nature in Christ Jesus. To worship God is to become truly and properly human, to become more like Jesus Christ, the One who through entering into our corrupted existence has fully conquered all the forces that have set themselves towards our destruction.

Let us note this further by returning to Psalm 105. The Psalmist instructs us right away, as the first part of our memory work, to “give thanks to the Lord.” What happens to us when we forget to do this? “For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, rather they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:21-23). At this point, we can see that this is more than just a human lapse in memory, to ‘forget’ in the Scriptures has a more forceful connotation, it is an active neglect and a conscious turning away from God. Forgetting, in this sense, makes us less human, since it leads to “envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness…gossip, slander, God-hating, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, evil-invention, parental disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, and ruthlessness” (1:29-32, slightly modified for rhetorical purposes). Instead of being filled with the Holy Spirit who is God’s Life, we become filled with “all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice” (1:29). Giving thanks acts as an antidote to the corruption in the world.

St. Peter puts it this way: “[Jesus our Lord’s] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you for being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pt. 1:3-8). “Giving thanks,” that is, turning to God in worship, is participating in the ‘divine nature’ by becoming like Christ, the one who is faithful and virtuous, knowledgeable of God and self-controlled, steadfast and godly, brotherly affectionate and Love in Himself. It is the exercise of becoming truly human by being joined to Christ Himself. No wonder the Lord’s Supper is called the Eucharist, which roughly translated means “the Thanksgiving.” In our thanksgiving, we join to Christ and our nourished and strengthened to become more and more like Him.

At this point, we must bring in the last piece of the puzzle for the healing of our memories. If we are to become like Christ by ‘calling Him to mind’ in worship, we cannot go it alone. Psalm 105 gives its rich commands to the “offspring of Abraham” and the “children of Jacob” (v. 6). As a community, bonded together through the covenantal promises given to their righteous forefather, they were to gather and accomplish this great and holy task. We, as the inheritors of Abraham’s promises through Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:9), have the same command: “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25). In this assembly, in this place, you have a holy purpose. As you glorify God, giving praise and thanks, remembering His mighty works of redemption in Israel and, especially, through Christ, you are “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, being transformed into the same Image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Together you are becoming more like Christ, shining the glory that man “falls short of” (Rom. 3:23) out to the world as a City set on a hill, letting “your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16), that is so that they may be turned from the way of destruction and brought into Christ’s light and love which He gives for the salvation of the whole world. Amen.