A Sermon Preached: Psalm 111 A sermon preached in Chautauqua Institute Baptist House
We are new to one another this morning as preacher to congregation, but l wanted to let you in on a secret about me.
Though I’ve been ordained for almost 10 years, this is the only second time in my preaching life I’ve ever selected a Psalm for the focus text of a sermon.
The first and only other time I’ve preached on a Psalm, it was #51, the famed confession text from King David “For against you and you alone have I sinned” after his affair with Bathsheba.
And because Psalm 51 so closely aligns with a story from the historical books, I don’t think it really counts . . .
For the Psalm are lovely and beautiful prayers, make good texts for choral anthems, and are texts that we hold close to us when times get rough.
But as far as preaching, from my perspective, it’s a whole other story.
My fear of what to do with Psalm passages that go from “Great is the Lord, the whole earth is full of his glory” in one breath to the “O God go down and smite my enemies in the next” has kept me from them.
For some of the Psalter passages can feel a bit bipolar if we you sit with them long enough. And being an organized sort of person confusing texts are really not my thing.
This morning, though, just for you, I’m taking the plunge in response to sitting with the words of Psalm 111 this week.
It’s a Psalm that gives us language to speak about God. It’s a Psalm that gives us a description of how God both exists and dwells with us. And, it’s a Psalm that most commentators say could be summarized, as “God’s resume” if there’s ever was such a passage.
And most of all it’s a Psalm that leads us to the word: wisdom.
Have you ever been asked to give an introductory speech for someone who was going to win an award or give a presentation?
It can be quite a daunting task can’t it? Especially if it was someone whom you really like (or you don’t)
It’s difficult to know what direction to take the speech. Should you start with a joke? Should you tell an anecdotal story? Should you make something up if you don’t have anything nice to say?
For nothing is worse than a bad or most of TOO LONG introductory speech, right? Times when you just want to cue the “get off the stage” orchestra music in your head . . .
I can imagine similar pressure faced the original writer of Psalm 111. Though we do not know the identity of the one who penned this text, we do know its purpose: a litany for worship. This text like countless other Psalms like it existed as a corporate song/ prayer for worship.
And for the Psalmist, only just the right words would do.
The Lord needed to be praised rightly! Everyone needed to know of God’s splendor.
And as we begin reading what we hear is of some of his efforts to put thoughts into words:
“Great are the works of the Lord . . . full of honor and majesty . . . He has gained renowned by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.”
The Psalmist wants us to know that the Lord is a good God who shows love through actions.
There is no need too small of ours too small that does not concern the Lord. For example, we are told that according to verse 5, the Lord gives food.
In the same way that Jesus would later ask us to depend on God in prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” We learn that God cares about our daily nourishment.
Moreover, in verse 6 the Psalmist also wants us to know the vastness of who God is!
Proclaiming: “He has shown his people the power of his works.”
For, God is not someone who is like us, who is limited by the confines of time and space. No, God is full of glory. God can do whatever God wills.
And most of all, the Psalmist writes of how God longs to be close to us!
We are told in verse 9 that “He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.”
Our God is invested in relationships. God is not a deity that lives out there far away who is untouchable for us mere humans, but our God longs to know US individually.
God longs for peace among the nations. This is why “He sent us redemption.” God cares about our life together in community, both with God and with each other. We are not left alone on earth to simply fend for ourselves. God helps us love each other.
So with all of this true, the climax to the Psalter comes in verse 10 when we hear these words that probably are familiar to you, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Or, in other words, congregation: listen up, here’s the important thing you can do in life: know God. Why? Because your outlook on life depends on it!
Let me say it again, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Wisdom, though it’s one of those words, at least in church circles I run in that is associated with God’s character. What about yours?
When I say wisdom, what first comes to mind?
For me it’s a picture of someone with grey hair.
As a Proverb goes, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness.”
But maybe we have the whole grey thing wrong . . .
Wisdom might be something more.
When I was a child, I looked forward to the weeks in the summer, I would travel from my home in Chattanooga, TN to Nashville, TN to spend time with my grandparents: Gran and Granddaddy, two of the kindest most generous people I’ve ever known in my life.
I’d come visit them without my sister in tow (such a treat) then I’d go to swimming lessons at their YMCA or attend basketball camp at Vanderbilt, hoping to be the next college star player one day (which of course didn’t happen but I still had fun).
I loved how special Gran and Granddaddy would make me feel.
They’d buy me all my favorite foods. My grandmother would even iron the sheets on my bed, making it feel heavenly to go to sleep at night. (Who does that?) I especially loved how she’s come tuck me in at night rubbing my back till I fell asleep and talking to me about whatever I most felt like saying.
I can remember one such chats when we got on the subject of grey hair. In my childish innocence, I asked Gran about her salt shaker, black and white hair and why it was so “two toned.”
No look of horror came over her face (God bless her soul) for my strange question.
But she went on to describe that the grey in people’s hair often came as they got older. Still, I was curious about how you “got it.” I’d heard from someone who grey hair equaled smarts.
And this is what she said: “Grey hair is not only about getting older, sweetheart. But when I look at my grey hair in the mirror, I think about how God has watched over me my whole life. God is good.”
I heard her that night: age does not necessarily equal wisdom, nor does a head of grey hair.
But wisdom had everything to do with whom God is and how we’ve come to know God in our lives.
Most of all wisdom gives us perspective.
Several years ago, I read a Huffington Post article by popular Christian blogger and author, Momastary otherwise known as Glennon Doyle Melton, a young mom in her 30s.
She wrote about a time in her life when everything was crumbling around her. Her marriage headed toward separation She’d not fully overcome her battle with bulimia and her faith felt just as unstable as she looked on the outside.
Yet, one day she found herself in church sitting with a group of women who were all at least 20 or 30 years older than her.
Being an extremely outgoing person, Glennon was first to speak up and spew out the details of her troubles when one of the church ladies looked at her and said, “Girl, what is going on with you?”
Glennon talked and talked. Every panic of her heart came out almost without a breath.
She writes of one of the women, Bette:
She was not listening to me with wide eyes and OMGs! And NO HE DIDN'TS! like friends my own age do. I was getting very little feedback from her and in fact -- she looked sort of bored.
So I said, "Bette, are you listening to me?"
And she said "Oh, honey. Yes. I'm listening. And I'm sorry I'm not getting worked up with you. But the thing is that this stuff isn't personal sweetheart- it's just LIFE. You'll make it through."
She gestured toward a circle of her white-haired friends and added, "all of us have." Then she squeezed my arm and went to pour us some coffee.
They knew life and life with God in a way in which Glennon did not. It was a shock back into reality the bigger picture of all her trouble.
Such was the experience of being with wisdom: perspective.
And so yes, she would find her way through this difficult time. All would be well. All matter of things would be well.
The wisdom of these older friends helped her to see.
Such is exactly what the Psalmist is hoping that his congregation will realize.
That when we know who God is we become wise. And it is this wisdom that helps us take the experiences our lives offer us and move through them with a different kind of being.
Or as one very good friend of mine often says to me when I get stuck in life (which is a lot):
“Know God, Elizabeth. Start there. And then you’ll see what to do next. You really will!”
This week, we’re all gathered at this beautiful place called Chautauqua, a week that is so many us of a highlight—a week to learn, and a week to take in knowledge from some of the best teachers that this world has to offer.
And it’s a week when we get to walk these ground where scholars, teachers and world changers have walked before us and gone forth from this place doing amazing things for the good of others.
I have to think that we’re all ready on this Sunday morning to gather as much knowledge that we can in the days ahead.
But, as we begin might be good to stop and consider HOW we are beginning. What are we really here for? What is the real source of this wisdom that we all crave?
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
BUT, is truth is such is all rubbish in comparison to the One is Lord of all.
The one in whom we are asked to praise, we are asked to say thank you to, the one that we are to name as our Creator God.
Do we want to be wise?
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
And wisdom is not just for grandmas after all. It’s available to us all.