Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Source of Joy

Source of Joy
Psalm 96[1]
I think it would be hard to dispute the assertion that we are the most-entertained generation in the history of the world. The vast changes in communications technology over the last decades has opened up means of entertainment that many of us could never have imagined. Growing up in a home with a color TV, I was content with the half a dozen channels we could get (when the antenna was adjusted the right way). Now, not only do we have access to hundreds of channels on our TV’s, there are many more options as well. We can stream just about anything we want to watch any time we want to watch it through Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube. And we’re not restricted to a TV; we can watch all of that on a tablet, or even a mobile phone. I’d have to say we are the most-entertained generation in the history of the world!
But I wouldn’t say that instant entertainment has translated into our being the happiest generation in the history of the world. In fact, I would say that many of us use those entertainment options primarily as a substitute for real happiness. It’s very easy to fall into the pattern of using the entertainment choices we have available to distract ourselves from what’s really going on in our lives. We would rather lose ourselves in something playing out on a screen, whether a movie, a TV program, a video, or a game, than face the sometimes lonely and empty places in our lives. But the catch is that whatever we may be trying to avoid is still there after we turn off the screen.
Because of the popularity of that approach to finding a way to enjoy life—or at least to distract ourselves from not enjoying it—I think our lesson from the Psalms for today must seem strange. The psalmist calls upon all creation and every creature in it to rejoice because of who God is and what God has done and will do. I’m not sure that even comes up on the radar screen for many of us. We’re used to instant gratification, immediate results, and a pay-off with no delay. The approach of the Scripture lesson requires us to take a longer look at life, at what it means to truly be happy, and how to find that happiness.
The psalmist calls all creation to be joyful about the fact that “The LORD reigns! The world stands firm and cannot be shaken” (Ps. 96:10, NLT). That sounds like good news. It is reassuring to be told that the world in which we live is established on the firm foundation of God’s reign.[2] That can be good news for those of us who are aware of how vulnerable our lives seem to be in the face of the constant changes all around us. The psalmist calls us to rejoice over the fact that “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” even when our circumstances might not appear to back that up.[3]
But the psalmist also calls us to join with all creation in celebrating the promise that God is coming to judge the world and all the peoples in it.[4] That might not make sense to us. We tend to associate judgment with punishment, so why would we want to celebrate that? And yet, I think we have a basic misunderstanding about the nature and purpose of God’s judgment. The psalmist says, “He will judge the peoples with equity” (Ps. 96:10). He restates it at the end by saying, “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth” (Ps. 96:13). At first glance, that might not look like a reason for joy.
But the idea here is not primarily one of punishment.[5] God exercises his reign in our world through setting right everything that does not line up with the way God intends for things to be. That’s what God’s role of “judging” is about. It’s a matter of relieving those who have been oppressed and defending those who have been falsely accused. The end result of God’s role of “judging” is a fair share for every one.[6] I like Gene Peterson’s translation in The Message: “he comes to set everything right on earth, Set everything right, treat everyone fair” (Ps. 96:13).[7]
In fact, the psalmist is so enthusiastic in his insistence that God’s reign in our lives is a source of joy that he expresses that idea in a variety of ways. He uses five different Hebrew words to describe the joy of all creation over God’s reign. We are invited to join in celebrating, rejoicing, reveling, and shouting for joy with the whole created order over the promise that God will set things right in this world where “the wrong seems oft so strong.” We are called on to worship God with joy because of the promise that he will see to it that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.[8]
Happiness is an elusive quality for most of us. It seems like just when you get your life on track in one area, everything flies apart somewhere else. When our happiness depends mainly on our circumstances, our experience of life can be up or down depending on what each day brings. To some extent, that’s just life. But the psalmist offers us a source of joy that is beyond the constantly changing conditions of our lives. The psalmist invites us to join with the whole of creation in finding joy in the promise that the God who reigns over all things will one day right every wrong, heal all that is broken, and wipe away every tear. That is the outcome of God’s “judgment.” But this is more than a “pie in the sky” promise for the future. Because the truth is that even now God “has the whole world in his hands,” and he is working in all of our lives to set things right. If we can hold onto that essential faith, then perhaps we can begin to find in God’s constant presence and work in our lives a true source of joy.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/29/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 309, where he says that on the basis of the affirmation that the Lord reigns, the Psalm insists that “the world is reliable, the earth is stable, the human home is dependable. Life does not need to be lived in anxiety. So the very elements of the world are summoned to rejoice before the LORD because of the stability his power establishes (vv. 11-12).”
[3] It is interesting to note, as J. Clinton McCann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms” New Interpreters Bible IV:1065, does, that it is possible that Psalm 96 was written in response to Israel’s deliverance from captivity in Babylon. He says, “The ‘new song’ may also be understood as the response to a historical event, such as the return of the exiles from Babylonian captivity. In this regard, it is significant that Isaiah 40–55, which originated as a response to exile, also invites the people to ‘sing to the LORD a new song’ (Isa 42:10 NRSV) in response to the ‘new thing’ (Isa 43:19; see 42:9) that God is doing in returning the exiles to their land.” He also points out (ibid.) that “Both texts are concerned with the proclamation of “good tidings” or “good news” (Isa 40:9; 41:27; 42:7; … Ps 96:2b) involving the reign of God (Ps 96:10; Isa 52:7), the proper response to which is singing for joy (Ps 96:12; Isa 52:8). And in both texts, God’s purpose is justice (Ps 96:10, 13; Isa 42:1, 3-4) for the earth and its peoples (Ps 96:7, 10, 13; Isa 42:1; 45:22-23; 49:1-6; 52:10; 55:4-5).”
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 309, where he says that the idea of the Lord’s reign also points toward the affirmation that “the affairs of people will be ordered according to equity. History and society are not left to the capriciousness of fickle gods or the arbitrary decisions of human rulers. Instead, the LORD will rule with righteousness and faithfulness. There is power that sets things right, a might that can be trusted.”
[5] Cf. F. Hossfeld & E. Zenger, Psalms 2: A commentary on Psalms 51-100, 466: “In v. 13b the manner of judging is described: “with justice and in his faithfulness.” We find here an unusual pair of words for the characteristics of YHWH through which a judgment applied to the rejoicing world—thus not a judgment for punishment—is described [Cf. Deut 32:4; Isa 11:5; Pss 33:4; 40:11; 143:1].”
[6] Cf. McCann, “The Book Of Psalms” NIB IV:1066: “the establishment of justice and righteousness is the hallmark of God’s reign (see Pss 97:2; 98:9; 99:4). God’s justice and righteousness mean “equity” (see Pss 9:8; 98:9; 99:4) rather than partiality (see Ps 82:2), faithfulness (v. 13; see also Pss 89:49; 92:2 …) rather than neglect (see Ps 82:3-4).”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltman, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77: “The gospel is already understood in the eschatological, universal sense in Deutero-Isaiah and in Psalm 96. ‘Yahweh is king’ means salvation for the world of the nations, beyond the restoration of the people of God: ‘Tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous works among all the peoples!… Say among the nations, “Yahweh reigns!” ’ (Ps. 96:2ff.).” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, 142: “Ps. 96:10–13 gives a wonderful description of the ‘last judgment’ as an image of hope.”
[8] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1066: “The invitation to praise in Ps 96:7-9 is essentially the same as that in Ps 29:1-2, except that the invitation in 96:7 is extended to the ‘families of the peoples’ rather than to the ‘heavenly beings.’ This difference suggests at least that God’s sovereignty is to be effective on earth as well as in heaven. To hear Psalms 96 and 29 together is to be taught to pray, in effect, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Like Psalm 96, the perspective of the Lord’s Prayer is eschatological. Reciting it, we both affirm the present reality of God’s reign—‘thine is the kingdom’—and pray for the coming of God’s reign—‘thy kingdom come.’”

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