August 3, 2014 Seventh Sunday After Trinity
Hosea 14, Psalm 18:1-20, Romans 6:19-23, St. Mark 8:1-9
If a day can wear a color, this one wears rose. It shimmers with the promise of an everlasting kingdom. King David is at the height of his powers as he sits to compose Psalm 18. We read of this period in 2 Samuel 8:
“And David made himself a name when he returned from killing eighteen thousand Syrians in the Valley of Salt. He also put garrisons in Edom; throughout all Edom he put garrisons, and all the Edomites became David’s servants.
“And the Lord preserved David wherever he went. So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered judgment and justice to all his people” (vv. 13-15).
When the king surveys his life, he blesses his Lord. He can do no other. The most powerful man in the kingdom of God is the most humble as well.
Lamentably, this will change. His great sin will leave its stain on him and cast its long shadow over both his kingdom and his legacy. But if we could freeze the moment of this poem’s composition, we would capture an image of a kingdom ideal:
He who has the most – whether honor or wealth or authority – owes the most . . . to God. Because all blessing comes from Him, our pride should be in inverse proportion to our fame, fortune or power. The one who is covered in blessings should be bloated with humility.
No one understood this kingdom precept better than David before his fall from grace. Psalm 18 celebrates the end of strife with enemies both foreign and domestic, but more than anything else it exults in the One on high who gave the Psalmist his great victories.
It opens on a tide of passion: “I will love You, O Lord,” and rides a surge of metaphors. “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer . . .” His predecessor on the throne, King Saul, had hunted him like a jackal in the wilderness; God had been his refuge.
“My shield and the horn of my salvation . . .” His Lord had defended him and had gone before him when he attacked his enemies. The horn of an animal, particularly a wild ox, speaks of power to assail those foes.
David is marshalling images not only of his personal history but of the nation’s as well – the cliff in the Desert of Maon, the Crags of the Wild Goats in the Desert of En Gedi, the Cave of Adullam. All are places in the southern wilderness, places he visited when Saul was persecuting him, places where he called out to God.
Yet these same places hold memories of Israel’s flight from Egypt. The God of Moses, the God of the Exodus, has come to David’s aid and delivered him by way of a personal exodus.
I wonder if you have had one. Or will have one. It might look very different from David’s, as David’s exodus looked different from that of Moses, but the God of Moses and David still delivers those who wait for Him, crying out in their need.
I think of inmates I have known who have journeyed through the depths of despair until they finally spilled out their anguish in a desperate plea for the Lord’s help. We don’t think much about a broad place, you and I. But David did.
“He also brought me out into a broad place,” he tells us, revealing God’s deliverance from that place where “pangs of death” and “sorrows of Sheol surrounded me.” These terrors engulfed him. He ached for an open space where he could breathe freely.
A prisoner named Richard once told me of his first experience of incarceration. He was in a facility called a “state jail,” a place for first-time offenders. The idea is to segregate them from the hardened criminals who populate the penitentiaries – and make them institutions of higher learning in crime.
We must not, alas, equate youthful offenders with a tranquil environment. Richard got caught on the wrong side of the room when the riot broke out. It got ugly in a hurry. A stranger to prison riots, he did the first thing that came to mind. He went down on the floor on his belly.
And he began inching his way back across the room to his bunk . . . because that’s where his boots were. This was back when prisoners who had certain jobs were issued steel-toed boots. They were made for protection in field or factory . . . but they were not without utility in a riot.
The thought that seized Richard and would not let go was that he would be safe – all right, safer -- if he could get back to his steel-toed boots.
As the melee raged around him he crept across the room and reached his bunk without injury. He holed up there in his cubicle, clutching his steel-toed boots, waiting for the fury to subside. As he watched, two large men carried a smaller inmate to the nearest wall.
In a riot, Richard explained, weapons are merely luxuries. Everything in a prison is made of metal or concrete. The two men stopped at a window and then reared back, each holding one arm of the poor soul between them, and slammed him with sickening force into the bars over the window. Then they did it again . . . and again.
They let go and the man slid down the wall as his legs gave way. Richard was reminded of a scene from a cartoon. But the smear of blood on the window made this frame all too real.
I asked if the man lived. Richard looked at me as though I was a Martian. You don’t ask. The man disappeared. That’s all you know. That’s all you need to know. For a convict, the idea of a broad place resonates.
Riot is the way of man;
He’ll have no part of order.
Order is the godly plan,
The mind of the Creator.
With all our might
We stake our claim;
We claw and fight
To make a name.
Our Lord above holds the key
To a life of truth and beauty,
If only we would pause to see
His summons as our duty.
For David, exultant in the deliverance of his Lord, the broad place means even more. The “sorrows of Sheol” had suffocated him. Now he can breathe freely as Israel inhaled deeply after leaving Egypt, first in the wilderness, then in the land of promise.
For who was Israel? “God’s servant.” The “firstborn in whom He delights.” The “anointed,” as a nation of kings and priests.
And who is David? The heading of our psalm calls him “God’s servant.” And from v. 19, the one in whom He delights. And from v. 50, the “anointed.”
In the broad place, the soul takes flight to find its Maker. Derek Kidner wrote, “In God’s hands, absolute power serves the ends of perfect freedom.”
But we are such earth-bound creatures that we stuff the eternity God’s world reveals into the stuff of the here and now.
A Scottish preacher told of the lowlands farmer who trapped a young eagle and tethered him out in the yard. Ere long, he was pecking around in the dirt with the chickens.
A shepherd came down from the highlands, where the eagles live, and saw this young eagle scratching around like a chicken. He told the farmer this was no way to treat an eagle and asked him to release him. The farmer agreed.
But what do you suppose happened? After the restraints were removed the eagle continued to act like a chicken. Finally, the shepherd set the eagle on a high stone wall. He remembered then who he was and flew away in a spiral, heading for the heights where eagles soar.
The Scriptures, if we let them, will release us to fly into the heavens to come face-to-face with God.
We huddle in our muddle,
Captives to our pretense.
Says God above His bubble,
“Arise and smell My incense.”
Yet we His earth-bound creatures
Want none of this ascent.
We dare not e’en to feature
A life of light and scent.
But suppose, just suppose,
We tore down all our fences
And leapt and flew and rose
And sought Him with our senses.
The Psalmist proceeds:
"The Lord thundered from heaven,
And the Most High uttered His voice,
Hailstones and coals of fire.
He sent out His arrows and scattered the foe,
Lightnings in abundance, and He vanquished them.
Then the channels of the sea were seen,
The foundations of the world were uncovered
At Your rebuke, O Lord,
At the blast of the breath of Your nostrils."
The Greeks, who liked their gods shiny and sleek, would have found the image of a God with nostrils puffing smoke and a mouth belching coals uproarious.
Those Jews of old, on the other hand, thought not in terms of such vivid pictures but rather of a one-off imagery that conveyed a sense of their God’s fury with those who attack His anointed.
God’s people are blessed for His sake – think again of Moses – as the church will be blessed for Christ’s sake.
Smoke depicts the reaction of holiness to sin. In Hebrew, the nostrils are the organs of wrath.
David found safety, then freedom, then honor, then kingship. God not only saved him but exalted him to the highest place in the nation, where he could breathe deeply. For as God blesses peoples, so He blesses persons.
He deals with groups on a covenant basis but He cares deeply for each soul. He spews forth such wrath in reaction to His servant’s plea because a God of life and order cannot but rise in defense of His servant who is threatened with death and disorder.
Life and death are personal; order and disorder are cosmic. God’s covenant love for His covenant people, His personal love for His personal creations, are matters of His honor. God’s enemy sows death – separation from God – to reap disorder, which is anathema in God’s sight.
Deliverance of His servant from death is God’s answer to both personal destruction and cosmic disorder. Whom will He save? His servant is the one who makes God’s enemy his enemy.
David looked back to the Israel of Moses’ day; Another looked back to him. The king was the anointed one. Another term was “Messiah.” That nation called Israel was the first manifestation of the kingdom of God. Another lay ahead.
With it would come the blessing of ultimate forgiveness in God’s anointed, Messiah. St. Paul would help himself to v. 49 of our psalm and treat it as a prophecy of the Messiah called Jesus Christ:
“For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles, and sing to Your name” (Romans 15:9). So it is that John Calvin would declare that much in Psalm 18 “agrees better with Christ” than with David.
Is not the Lord Jesus God’s Servant, the One in whom He delights, the Anointed?
Did not He, the highest of the high, exalted to the right hand of God, make Himself the lowest of the low, humbled even unto death upon a cross? Was He not called out again into a broad place, restored to His glory at the Father’s side?
Does not the New Testament seize upon the truth that the most blessed must be the most humble and develop it in a way suited to the second, and perfect, manifestation of the kingdom of God? Who is most blessed? He who is most forgiven. It is he who should be most thankful.
Of all men, 21st-century Americans should take copious notes. We are blessed beyond measure. And David, ancestor of Jesus, did not have his Lord for an exemplar . . . but we do. David was a servant of God, to be sure . . . but we know the Suffering Servant.
I wonder if you have had a personal exodus. Or will have one. It might look very different from David’s, as David’s exodus looked different from that of Moses, but the God of Moses and David still delivers those who wait for Him, crying out in their need.
From what do we who have so much, who inhabit the land of the free and the home of the brave, need deliverance? From pride and anger and self-pity and self-absorption. From the guilt, not so much of sinning but of having gone on sinning. From scratching in the dirt rather than spiraling up into the realm of God.
For we are David and David is we. That is why he speaks so eloquently to us, who despise our blessings and wallow in our woes. Our kingdom stretches out before us; we need only step into it and adore the One who created it.
Let us bless His holy name.
In the broad place
The soul takes flight,
Off into the realms of space,
Off to soar where’er it might.
Angels revel in its arc,
Men stand below attendant.
It matters not, light or dark,
The spirit climbs transcendent.
God applauds this escapade,
Celebrates its zenith.
His creature treads the esplanade
The deity revealeth.