“A PSALM FOR THE SABBATH”
Psalm 92; John 15:1-8
May 3, 2015
Growing up in the 1950s, it
was common to hear Sundays referred to as the “Sabbath.” What’s more, in small
towns all over America, it was frowned upon for businesses to even be open on
Sunday, since according to the Old Testament one was not supposed to work on
the Sabbath. I think it was not until I was around twelve that someone pointed
out to me that the Sabbath was actually the Jewish day of worship that ran from
sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. Somehow Christians had
appropriated all the restrictiveness of the Old Testament Sabbath without
worrying too much about the fine print.
Some of you may
remember the movie Chariots of Fire, which won the Oscar for Best Picture
of the Year in 1981. It’s the true story of the Olympic runner, Eric Liddell,
who refused to run in a race during the 1924 Olympics because it was scheduled
on a Sunday. There’s a touching scene early in the movie that prepares the
viewer for this choice. Eric is walking home after attending a Sunday service
in his home town in Scotland, and along the way he gently chides a small boy
for kicking a soccer ball on the “Sabbath.” It’s a signal that for these
Scottish Presbyterians, Sabbath keeping had truly become “the tail that wags
And so I’m personally glad
that this kind of thinking about the Sabbath is largely a thing of the past.
As Jesus taught, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It
was meant to be a means to an end and not an end in itself. It was meant to be
a deeply spiritual, healing experience and not just another obligatory burden.
True Sabbath was meant to be a joyous time of worship—a worship that would
restore a wholesome sense of reality in the midst of a harsh, insecure, and
often painful world.
And so to help us understand
what this means, there is actually a psalm in our Bibles that has the subtitle,
“A Psalm for the Sabbath”—Psalm 92. In fact Psalm 92 became over the centuries
part of the liturgy of the Jewish Sabbath. It is one of the first psalms
recited on Friday evening at the very beginning of the celebration. It
captures the joy, praise, and thanksgiving that ought to underlie all worship,
including our Sunday Christian practice. So let’s listen to this wonderful
psalm, and see if it has something to say to us individually and corporately.
is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High,
proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night,
music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp.
These opening words are an
invocation, a call to worship based on who God actually is. God is both the “Most High God”—transcendent, holy, all powerful, and ultimately beyond our
comprehension—and yet he is a God of infinite love and faithfulness,
a God who draws near to us. Both of these realities about God
are essential to a truly healthy worship, for they create both a deep
reverence for his majesty and yet a hunger for his presence in our lives.
And if we approach God this way, we will bring all the skill and energy we
possess to our worship, including our musical gifts (“the music of the
ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp”).
It’s important to
acknowledge that in both the Old and New Testaments, music is frequently
associated with genuine worship. Why is this? Well, for starters, music is an
intrinsic part of what makes us human in the first place. Music brings
together all the essential components of human personality—the head, the heart,
and the feet. What I means is that good music combines intellectual
content with our deepest emotions while at the same time involving our whole
body—our voices, our sense of rhythm, and (if we are so bold) even our hands
lifted in praise. In short, music engages all of us, which is a prototype of
what true worship is all about: giving ourselves over completely to God.
And what do we encounter
when we open ourselves up to God as he actually is? Listen to what
follows next, beginning with verse 4:
you make me glad by your deeds, O Lord;
for joy at the works of your hands.
great are your works, O Lord, how profound your thoughts!
When the worshiper
comes before God, he is reminded of certain things, for worship begins with remembering. Three things are specifically mentioned here, but
they ultimately overlap and coverage into one single reality. The psalmist
mentions God’s deeds, works, and thoughts. By “deeds” he is doubtlessly
referring to the many historical interventions of God in human history, in the
lives of individual people, in the creation of Israel, in the blessings as well
as the disciplines that Israel had experienced over the centuries. And for we
Christians, his ultimate and greatest deed was his coming to us in the flesh,
in the coming of Christ and what he accomplished for the salvation of us all.
But the word “deeds”
also bleeds into that phrase, “the works of your hands.” Most often in
scripture the “works of God’s hands” refer to his creation, to the universe, to
the maintenance of all that exists. God calls out the stars, he makes the
seasons regular, he brings sun and rain, and so forth. His works are always
full of power, beauty, and wisdom. The sheer size and complexity and coherence
of this world all sing loudly of the greatness of God. As Psalm 19 puts it
most famously: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work
of his hands.”
But even the phrase,
“the works of your hands,” again bleeds into that third descriptor where the
psalmist adds, “how profound your thoughts!” God hasn’t simply acted
in creation and in history and then left the interpretation of what is meant by
it all completely up in the air. Rather, God has graciously shared his
thoughts with us through law, prophet, and supremely through the very Word of
God made flesh in Christ. Indeed, we Christians are promised that we can
actually share “in the mind of Christ.” All of this adds even more impetus to
But there is an
obstacle to deep worship that haunts every child of God. It’s something that
we carry with us into worship and which seems to bump up against the reality of
a sovereign, good and powerful God. And so wisely the psalmist addresses this
next in verse 6:
senseless man does not know, fools do not understand,
though the wicked spring up like grass and all evildoers flourish,
will be forever destroyed.
What is it that depresses
our worship and our ability to fully trust God? What is it that causes us to
show up at church and not be fully present or not be fully convinced of God’s
power or goodness? Well, there are a number of things, actually, but one of
the most pervasive obstacles to a deep and joyous worship is the simple fact
that we live in a broken, deeply unjust and evil world. When we come
together, we all bring with us the news from the prior week, news of crime,
mass killings, greed, hatred, not to mention all the injustice we experience in
our own private lives. Yes, we’ve come to worship God, but in the back of our
minds we wonder, “Where are you God? Why do you allow such suffering
and evil to triumph?” It’s hard to celebrate God as the “Most High” when
evil seems so much more real and powerful at times than even God himself.
The psalmist does not evade
this problem, but neither does he pull his punches when he calls people
“senseless and foolish“ when they allow evil to paralyze them. In fact the
Hebrew word translated “senseless” in our text is actually a word that is
elsewhere used to describe brute animals that have no capacity for reasoning.
When we become obsessed with the immediate evil around us, we have essentially
taken a very unthinking, primitive view of things. But in worship we are
called to remember the bigger picture. All human evil, this psalm reminds us,
is doomed. Specific evils may seem overwhelming for the moment,
but in hindsight they pass so quickly.
Yes, life is painful,
difficult, and fraught with all kinds of problems, but no one event or
circumstance ought become the defining moment for us (although we
often let suffering and tragedy become our defining moments). Rather we
are called to remember that God rules all people and events. He
is working out his purposes that we cannot always see or understand, but hindsight
does teach us that however strong a particular evil may be today, it always
implodes under the weight of its own evil in the end.
The only lasting
reality is the triumphant goodness of God, as we real next in verse 8:
you, O Lord, are exalted forever.
surely your enemies, O Lord, surely your enemies will perish;
evildoers will be scattered.
I hope I do not come across
today as glib or insensitive if any of you are going through a tough time
because of some great evil in your life. I don’t want to minimize how horrible
it is to be victimized by forces that are clearly unjust and harmful, forces
over which we have no control. What I want to convey is that if you make God
your hope, then a kind of transformation takes place in your own soul as you
suffer under evil. What’s more, eventually, at some point you will be able to
join with psalmist when he says next in verse 10:
You have exalted my horn like that of a wild ox;
oils have been poured upon me.
have seen the defeat of my adversaries; my ears have heard the rout of my
The defeat of evil does not happen when suddenly everything is smooth and easy again. Rather, the defeat
of evil begins with our not giving in to fear or paralysis. Evil
is only defeated when we hold fast our faith in God’s ability to deal
with things in his own time and his own way. Yes, we may suffer physically and
emotionally, and in some cases we may even die. But in our spirits we can
still know God’s powerful joy and peace, even in the midst of suffering. I
love the way the apostle John puts it in his first epistle, “This is
our victory, even our faith.” Evil will always thrive where there is fear
and despair. But it is inevitably destroyed when we refuse to give in to it.
And the result of this kind
of faith is beautifully depicted by the psalmist in his closing words,
beginning with verse 12:
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of
in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God.
will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green,
“The Lord is upright; he is my Rock,
there is no wickedness in him.”
I love the way the psalmist
floods us with a string of images that capture a kind of gracious, strong, and
fruitful life that flows from those who know Sabbath rest and worship. The
palm tree is a powerful image of grace and beauty that can withstand the
strongest winds, while the cedars of Lebanon reflect the deeply rooted strength
and endurance of those planted by God. But notice that both plants “flourish
in the courts of our God.” Only under God’s care do they “stay fresh and
green,” and yes, “they still bear fruit [even] in old age.” At 65, this gives
me great hope. I am not as strong or sharp as I used to be, but underneath all
my aging and decay, there remains this ever-flourishing life of God that still
has vigor and impact and purpose.
And isn’t this the whole
point of our gospel reading this morning? What the Sabbath was in the Old
Testament becomes in the New our “abiding in Christ,” learning to live in him and by him. He shapes our rest and our worship. And the
result, Jesus tells us, is that we will bear fruit, fruit that will remain for
This last winter I joined
Christians from all over the world in daily praying about the Ebola crisis in Africa. It was suggested that for 91 days we would pray Psalm 91, the psalm that precedes
our text for today. This proved to be a wonderful discipline for me, in that
an old and familiar psalm became much more real and personal for me than ever
before. And in particular, I gained an insight from its opening verses that
has really taught me. Many of you are familiar with these opening words that
dwells in the shelter of the Most High,
Will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
Did you hear the cause
and effect relationship between choosing to dwell in God’s shelter and our
truly knowing his rest? Listen again:
dwells in the shelter of the Most High,
Will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
Before we can truly know Sabbath rest and worship, we
first have to enter God’s shelter, to actually give ourselves over to his
care. Otherwise God is just a rabbit’s foot, or a good-luck charm that we pull
out of our pockets whenever we’re in trouble. In doing so we are actually
saying that God can be helpful, but generally we can handle things
ourselves. We can live in this fantasy until evil finally knocks us down for
good, for it’s only those who have come to the end of themselves, who
discover that God is their true shelter, it’s only these who can
finally enter God’s rest, God’s Sabbath.
This was ultimately the
whole point of all those Old Testament Sabbath laws. They were intended to
break people of their natural, compulsive drive to control their lives. This
is one of the great delusions in life, that we think we are in control. But to
weekly stop working for a day, to give oneself over to the reminder that it’s
God who gives us “life and breadth and everything else” (to borrow the words of
the apostle Paul), this is the beginning of how we learn to live all our lives, seven days a week, in Sabbath rest and worship.