Psalm 147:1-11 (LXX Psalm 146)
Text: Introit Psalm for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Series B
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
I think it goes without saying that sometimes we all are stubborn. Oftentimes we can be so stubborn that we bring harm to ourselves. Have you or someone you know been seriously sick and refused to get help or medical treatment? Why do you think that is? Why do some of us just refuse to see the seriousness of our sickness and get help for it? It comes down to pride. Sometimes it’s a confidence in our own strength. When faced with sickness, we often just like to “power through it”. We don’t want to ask for help. Asking for help means admitting weakness and no one likes that. It’s humiliating! Of course, this can be very harmful. If you try to ignore the sickness and “power through it” you could be wasting valuable time. If you catch the illness soon enough, the doctors may be able to save you, but try to “Power through it”, and it could be too late. That’s the point of course. If you have a serious disease, the earlier you seek medical attention, the better your chances, the more hope you have.
Sin: Our Need for Hope
Our hope as Christians is more than just hope for the correct medical treatment. It isn’t a kind of hope which may or may not come to pass. (Like how some people hope the Eagles will win the Superbowl today.) The Psalm for today is a hymn of praise to God and the Psalmist has reason to have hope. What is hope?Hope is confidence that we will receive what God has promised us.
The Psalmist begins by speaking of the “broken-hearted.” In today’s culture a broken heart is an emotional thing. If Bobby dumps Sally, and Sally spends the rest of the day crying, eating profuse amounts of chocolate and listening to depressing break-up music, she is said to have “a broken heart”. That is not what our Psalm means when it talks about the broken-hearted. The idea is being so overwhelmed by troubles that you have no confidence or courage left. Someone who is broken-hearted has a complete loss of hope. A broken-hearted person is the exact opposite of the self-made, hard hearted person. The main difference between these two types of people is shown by their reactions when confronted with their own sins. How did Pharaoh react when shown his sin? He hardened his heart and refused to repent. How did David react when shown his sin? The difference is that the broken-hearted person repents.
Our Old Testament lesson helps us see the context of this Psalm. The city of Jerusalem and God’s temple there were destroyed, and many of its people were exiled in Babylon. Over time they became broken-hearted, that is, they lost all hope and found it hard to believe that God was ever going to be involved with them again. Why did this happen? The sin of idolatry had infected Judah. It was like a gaping and festering wound. Such a wounded condition made them repulsive to God. They were unclean and not allowed to be in God’s presence anymore. And so, God punished them.
Have you realized that the condition which afflicted Judah also afflicts us? At one time we were separated from Christ. We were exiles from the Kingdom of God. We were slaves to sin. God was a stranger to us and we did not know his promises. We were without hope and totally alone. (Eph. 2:12) Sin is like a terminal illness which has infected all humanity. We all still suffer the symptoms of its presence in us. So, what changed? What happened? If our condition was so hopeless, why do we suddenly have reason to have hope?
God: Foundation of Our Hope
The reason our Psalm gives for us to have hope is a simple one: God. Consider for a moment some of the imagery the Psalmist uses. God counts the stars and gives them their names. While a mother of more than one child may confuse her children’s names, God has no such problem! Each of the countless stars has a name and a number and God knows each. Not only so, but his understanding is without measure. The Greek here is literally “His intelligence is without number.” Or to put it in today’s language, His IQ is off the charts!
What’s more, God is in complete control of the universe. The clouds are under God’s control, each raindrop lands precisely where he wants it, and the grass on the hills grows because of God’s almighty hand. God is all powerful, but he doesn’t wield this power without purpose. No, he makes the rain come down and the grass grow for everyone, just and unjust. God even feeds the wild beasts and the baby ravens who cry out to him for food! This all knowing, all powerful God is all caring.
This gives the Psalmist—and us— a sure foundation for hope. Because God is all knowing, he knows exactly what our condition is. Indeed, he knows our condition far better than even we do. He’s like that doctor from our illustration. The doctor knows the patient’s condition better than the patient himself does. The patient perhaps doesn’t understand all the implications this disease will entail. But the doctor knows and is ready to assist. In the same way, God knows our condition. He knows our sin down to the dirtiest, most hidden, most incriminating detail.
Now, that doesn’t sound like good news, but we must remember that because God is also all powerful, he has the ability and strength to do something about our condition. If he can make it rain wherever and whenever he wills, then he has the ability to fix our sad and broken condition. And we know what kind of God we have, because if he cares for the baby ravens who need food, why wouldn’t he care for us? So, we can see that God is the foundation for our hope. He has the knowledge, power, and desire to do something for us, to rescue, deliver, and heal us.
Pride: The False Hope of Trusting Ourselves
But there’s a real danger for us to have a false hope. That false hope comes from an overestimation of our own strength: pride. We think too much of ourselves and our abilities.
Our Psalm says that God is not pleased with those who trust in their own strength. Judah and Israel tended to trust in their military might, instead of the Lord. They thought they could do it on their own. They were certain that through military might they could defeat the invading Babylonians. With the right military alliances and numbers, they were certain that they could win their battles by their own might.
The same is true of us. We think we can deliver ourselves from our problems. Think back to our illustration at the beginning. We’ve got a debilitating illness, yet we just go on ignoring our symptoms and think that we will get better if we just “power through it.” Sometimes we think that if we just do enough things or give enough time and money, then God will be pleased with us. And just like our illustration, that will not go well. God is not pleased when you trust in yourself.
Instead, God wants you to recognize your condition. In order to have any hope you need to see yourself for what you really are: sick, powerless, enslaved to sin. Left to yourself you have not one drop of hope: you are already dead in trespasses and sins. You need to have the same realization as St. Paul who wrote, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.”
God is not pleased with sinners who trust in themselves. Instead, the Lord is pleased with those who fear him. That’s an interesting phrase isn’t it? The Fear of the Lord. What does it mean? The fear of the Lord here is not the fear of punishment. Being afraid of God because he might send you to hell is ultimately very selfish. It’s self-preservation. The fear of the Lord, however, is motivated by love, not self-preservation. It is the fear of disappointing or offending a person whom we respect and love. When you have someone you love, maybe a friend or spouse, you never want to do anything which the loved one dislikes, or which would damage the relationship. It’s the same with the fear of the Lord. Because of the great love which God has shown to us, because in holy baptism He has adopted us as his children, we do not want to do anything which would displease Him.
Mercy: Christ is our Hope
Jesus echoes our Psalm when he says, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The Lord lifts up the humble. Do you feel broken-hearted? Has your own situation in life left you feeling without hope? Perhaps it’s an illness or medical condition you have. Maybe it’s money or employment issues. Feelings of hopelessness can come to all of us. Remember then that God is our father who takes us into his arms. The Lord lifts up the humble. He wants us to cry out to him like children. God will lift us up, care for us, and bring us to himself when we cry to him. Where he is there we shall be. That’s our hope.
Those Judean exiles in Babylon were forgiven. Their land and their city were restored. They composed this Psalm in thanksgiving and praise to God who had restored their hope. Like them, we were exiled from God and his Kingdom, but now, through Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near. Through Christ we are made heirs of this kingdom. We get to be citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem! A place without sorrow, dying, sickness, or death. A place of everlasting blessedness.
Perhaps you are conscious of your own sinfulness. Maybe there’s a lingering sin in your life, much like a sickness you just can’t seem to beat. Remember then,God has shown us his mercy, and repent. Sin has infected and wounded us. Sin is restless even in us who are baptized, but since we have come to see just how wounded and sick we are, we shall be shown mercy. While we remain in this life, we are tended to by the best physician, that is, by Christ. The Church is the great hospital for sinners. Christ the mighty physician continues to apply bandages to our wounds through his Word, and through the Sacraments. We should to pray daily, hear and meditate on the Word daily, receive the sacraments, and purge the poison and rottenness in us. We should to use these means, so that we are purged, cleansed of the poison of sin, which is never finished in this life. God is willing and able to do it, and he has accomplished this for us through the crucifixion and resurrection of his Son. Christ is God’s mercy. Christ is our hope.
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your and your minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.