Updated: Aug 8
Jesus prayed the Psalms. Of course he did.
We’ve talked about how the psalms are the songs of a people – the Hebrew people – the Jewish people. The Psalms were written over an expanse of time out of the experience of a community living life with God. They sing the memory of slavery and freedom and wilderness wandering. They sing the experience of exile and longing and return – and also of planting and harvest and celebration. The Psalms sing the whole of life – life lived by a people – together, over time: This is how we have experienced God across the whole of life, from generation to generation.
Jesus prayed the Psalms. Jesus sang the Psalms.
He was, after all, a good Jewish boy. The Gospel of Luke gives us a few glimpses of his childhood. On the eighth day after he’s born, Jesus is brought to the Temple and circumcised, according to tradition written in the Law. Every year, his parents take Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover feast – and Luke tells us of that time the young Jesus wanders off, only to be found among the teachers of the Law, listening and asking them questions. (Luke 2:41-52). And when he begins his ministry, Jesus goes to a synagogue, unrolls the scroll, and reads from Isaiah – good news to the poor, release for the captive, freedom for the oppressed. We get glimpses throughout the Gospels: Jesus was immersed in the traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Jesus prayed the Psalms. Jesus sang the Psalms.
They were the songs he knew by heart.
Now – when we come to the Hebrew Scriptures – and the Psalms – as Christian readers, there is some complexity. Within our Christian traditions, there is an approach to the Psalms that looks to the Psalms and reads Christ back into them – that hears the resonances – and says this is how the Psalms were always pointing us to Christ. That is a longstanding approach across the breadth of our tradition – you can pick up the earliest strands of it, I think, even in the Gospel of Matthew.
I was trained in a somewhat different approach, as were a number of the preachers you’ve heard in this space. My training – and one of my passions – is to approach the Hebrew Scriptures – first and fundamentally – as Hebrew texts. We do that thing we do – where we read these ancient texts that come to us down through the generations from an ancient culture so different from our own, and we listen for a word for today. We listen to what our siblings back then had to say about how they experienced God in their world, in their lives – all the trouble, all the grace. We take them seriously. And then, we think of where we might see God’s loving, gracious work like that today, in our world, and in our lives. So, for the Psalms, we listen for what those songs might have meant sung out of the context of slavery and freedom, of wilderness wandering, of exile and return – and of all the life lived in between.
We hear their longing – take it seriously – and also, as those who follow Christ, we have come to hear that same deeply human longing – and God’s loving action – also expressed in the experience of Jesus Christ. There is resonance – and for us, continuity. And at the same time, we don’t want to lose what each testament has to say to us – the life each has to sing.
Jesus cries out from the cross, the cry of lament he knew from Psalm 22. Both that Psalm and that moment on the cross plunge us into the depths of human experience. They take us down into the pit.
The Psalmist doesn’t hold back. Those first words of the Psalm arrest us – they stand us still. They are meant to do the same to God – “God – my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Psalmist’s pain couldn’t be more intense, more vivid. Bulls surround them, snarling with open mouths like a ravenous lion. The Psalmist feels it in their body. Their bones are out of joint; their life poured out like water. Their heart melts like wax, their mouth dried out with the dust of death. We don’t know precisely what the Psalmist’s peril is. But their tormentors surround them like a pack of dogs – they bind the Psalmist up; they cast lots, and divide the Psalmist’s clothing.
God is nowhere to be found; there is no one to help. And so the Psalmist cries out – what is – not only a cry of pain – but what also is, essentially, a challenge to God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Psalmist challenges God: Here I am in my pain, God. And you are my God. So, what will it be? Will you be God? Or not.
On the cross, it is the Psalmist’s cry that comes to Jesus, and with his voice Jesus joins and embodies the lament. We know his suffering: Just after his last supper with his disciples, Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and abandoned by his friends. He is tried, bound up, and beaten. His tormentors strip him, crucify him, and cast lots to divide up his clothing. As he hangs there on the cross, those who pass by hurl insults at him.
And as this morning’s Scripture opens up, Jesus cries out with the lament that opens Psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus enters into the lament – not only of the Psalmist, but of all those who have gone before – the lament of all who have ever cried out – cried out from the suffering of being bound up or pushed down, abandoned, far from the places and the people we call home, broken in spirit, aching in our bodies – the suffering of all those, as Howard Thurman puts it, “whose backs are up against the wall.” Jesus enters the lament – embodies it in his body, in his voice – all that suffering is right there with Jesus on the cross.
Both the Psalm and Jesus’s words from the cross plunge us into the depths of human experience – or maybe better yet, they meet us there – in the pit. But neither of them leaves us there.
Did you notice that in the Psalm? The Psalmist cries out, again and again: God do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Come! Deliver! Save! But then, there’s a shift. Something has happened. The Psalmist has been crying out, utterly alone, and then suddenly, there the Psalmist is singing in the midst of the congregation – in the midst of community. Something has happened, “For God did not despise the affliction of the afflicted,” the Psalmist sings, “I will sing to my sisters and brothers – my family.” And the song goes out – to all the ends of the earth, to all the families of all the nations – even those who sleep in the earth join the song – those who have come before – and then even those yet to be born. The poor will eat and be satisfied. God has done it. Something has happened. The Psalmist’s lament, becomes a song that the whole world sings.
In the Gospel reading, something has happened on the cross, too. As Jesus cries out, and breathes his last, his last breath going out into the world – the world of suffering – the world of oppression and power-over – comes crashing down. The temple curtain is torn in two. The earth shakes – the rocks split. The Roman soldiers watching in their imperial armor, see all this and say, “Surely he was the Son of God!” This is the end – of the old Order – the end of everything that does us harm – of every power over – of every system that hurts and harms.
This is the moment that Jesus announced at the very beginning – the very beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Do you remember – way back in January – when we talked about the Beatitudes? At the very beginning of his ministry, in the midst of the crumbling Old Order, Jesus announces a Brave New World – Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn and cry out, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the peacemakers – not the tormentors – for the peacemakers will be called the children of God.
The crumbling Old Order has done its worst, and as that old world dies, a new world comes to life. Jesus births it on the cross. As Jesus breathes out his last breath, all creation breathes it in – and comes to life. I’ve never noticed that moment before – where it says that the tombs break open, and the holy people who had gone before are raised to life. Right then. The first glimpse of this new world – this new creation.
Jesus brings to the cross the cry that opens Psalm 22, and with it all the suffering. But Jesus doesn’t bring just that first verse – he brings the whole of the Psalm – this song he knew by heart: (1) the depth of the suffering – our suffering; (2) the cry for the presence, the nearness of God; and (3) the new song that the whole world sings – those who have gone before, those living now, and those still yet to come.
As we’ve traveled together through this summer of the Psalms, think of the people we have met along the way:
· Think back to Juneteenth, to the enslaved people of Texas, as word of liberation finally arrives, with the power to back it up: “All those who have been enslaved are now free.”
· Think of the exiles long ago – taken captive to a strange land, who have hung their harps up in the tree, as word finally comes: It is time to come home – and “their mouths are filled with laughter; their tongues with songs of joy.”
· Think back to Pride – as the LGBTQIA+ community, for far too long pushed back into the confines of the closet ventures out into the streets singing the songs we too know by heart, loudly and proudly.
· Think of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized – who hear in the Psalms God’s word for them.
· Think of all those who have said “Yes” to the nearness of God, “God, you have searched me and know me, You knitted me together, I am fearfully and wonderfully made. When I rise on the wings of the dawn, when I cry out to you from the depths of the pit, you are there.”
· Think of those moments when we cry out and realize we are not alone.
· Think of those moments when we glimpse the goodness of God planted more deeply than all that is wrong.
Those are the songs the Psalms sing to us and in us, again and again. Those are the songs of a Brave New World.
I wish I had a story that could wrap this all up – out of all the stories that have been written, and sung, and lived, of all the stories of how we have cried out, and then come to encounter God – some story for today.
But I’ve come to realize that there’s only one story that will do:
In the deep dawn of the third day – when Jesus’ cry from the cross has given way to silence – the women come to the tomb, bewildered and bereft. And the earth quakes again – the heavens open and a fiery angel comes, rolls the stone away from the tomb, and tells them: “Do not be afraid. You are looking for Jesus – but he is not here in a tomb. He has risen, just as he said – and he’s going ahead of you into Galilee, and he will meet you there.” And Jesus does – meet them there – and the one who had cried out on the cross, in the bright morning of this new day, says to them, “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.”
Both the Psalm and the Gospel invite us to be honest about our pain – and to say it plain – to not hold back.
The Psalm invites us, in that lament, to draw near to God, and near to each other.
The Gospel invites us, out of that lament, to live this Brave New World, and to live it now.
Together, the Psalm and the Gospel bring us up out of the pit, and into the broad expanse of life – where we stand and sing together the song that comes to us at the dawn of a brand new day.
© 2023 Scott Clark
 See https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/the-songs-we-know-by-heart-psalms-121-23-pride-sunday-4th-sunday-after-pentecost  My reading of Matthew 27:45-54 (and earlier passages in the Gospel of Matthew) is informed by and draws from M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Amy-Jill Levine, Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2020); Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Cincinnati, OH: St Andrew Messenger Press, 1996); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976); see also C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego, CA: Harvest/Harcourt, 1958), pp. 99-138, on second meanings in the Psalms.  For background on this psalm and the psalms of lament generally, see J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. iv (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), pp. 762-66; Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.249-58; Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Lanham, MD; Roman Littlefield Publishers, 2001), pp.14-22; Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, David T. Shannon & David T. Adamo, “Psalms” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010).  See January/February sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount: https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/a-brave-new-world-matthew-5-1-12-4th-sunday-of-epiphany ; https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/let-salt-be-salty-matthew-5-13-20-5th-sunday-of-epiphany ; https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/and-then-some-matthew-5-17-18-21-37-6th-sunday-of-epiphany .  See Waetjen, pp.247-49  See id.
Photo credit: Yannick Pulver, used with permission via Unsplash