Psalm 147:1-11, 20c – 5th Sunday after Epiphany – for February 5, 2012
“The Lord God builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.” (Psalm 147:2)
When or where, and from whom, did I first hear . . . I don’t read the Bible literally, but I take it seriously?
A mentor? Perhaps. Was it a gem discovered in a now-recycled magazine article? Could’ve been. Did a renowned theologian first tease me with these words? Possible. This I’m confident about: I’ve quoted it since Jimmy Carter sat in the Oval Office, wondering why no one liked him anymore. Therefore, before the easily plucked quotations from the digital realms of Google and Wikipedia, I offered this simple, and oh so true, sentence to readers and listeners.
At least it’s oh so true for me.
While studying a few verses of Psalm 147 the other day, I kept hearing I-don’t-read-the-Bible-literally… nudge my consciousness. Nudge? Actually it felt more like tennis great John McEnroe infamously shouting, “You cannot be serious!”
He heals the brokenhearted… (Ps. 147:3). If that’s true, then why do so many of the people I call for hospice weep, sound anguished, speak with voices as if worn out by shouting in a storm?
He determines the number of stars… (Ps. 147:4). Please. In Biblical times they thought the sky was a fixed dome, and the sun moved just above the clouds each day. It’s the Bible that claims Joshua made the sun stand still (Joshua 10). So pardon me if I don’t equate ancient theological metaphors with modern astronomy.
The Lord lifts up the downtrodden… (Ps. 147:6). Can the good Lord please talk some sense into those forlorn homeless men at the corner of Fresno’s Blackstone and Herndon who brandish signs like: I’m a vetran and hongry, pleas help me? They appear permanently downtrodden.
There are other upbeat promises and platitudinous pablum in Psalm 147, so I’ll let you choose your own to be incredulous about. Or, because my views may not be oh so true for you, you can debate or debunk my feeble (un)beliefs.
Psalms 147 is not the only “problem.” The Bible’s chock-full of stumbling blocks and John McEnroe situations.
Such as, can any modern reader study the Bible and not be unsettled with its treatment of women? When scripture was written, women—all women—were property. Find me a verse empowering women and I’ll find you 10 or 100 belittling them.
Such as, we just survived another Christmas season—or what I sometimes call The Curse of Matthew’s Magi. How many places are the wise men from the east mentioned in the Gospels? One: Matthew.
What if, instead of Matthew 2:11 reading, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh . . .
It instead proclaimed, they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their hearts, they offered him gifts of trust, joy, and love.
Be gone Black Friday! No presents under the tree! No staggering credit card debts at year’s end!
As a young pastor I preached on the magi’s gifts, trying to wow my congregation with the Bible’s real meaning. Those items, I proclaimed, were not pricey things to offer the child of Bethlehem, but priceless symbols for understanding Jesus who became Christ. Gold was a royal gift—Jesus would be a “king.” Priests used frankincense—Jesus would become “priest-like.” The dead were prepared for burial with myrrh—Jesus the royal priest would experience death before life again!
Yes, I preached the real meanings. Often, you can’t take the Bible seriously at its surface level. You must understand the complex metaphors and symbols if you are an honest believer. You have to learn to ignore the platitudinous pablum of some verses if you’re serious about your faith.
And yet what I didn’t realize as a young preacher, oh so long ago, was that my congregation (how blessed, gulp, they were to have well-educated, insightful me) had already heard all the what-ifs from a score or more of past pastors. I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to admonish them to perceive the truth of the magi’s gifts or to question the veracity of the Psalms’ abundant promises.
Now I know I don’t know much. Still, I don’t take the Bible literally. Some of the Psalms—certainly 147 is one—sound like snappy, upbeat slogans for Yahweh. Not all, though. In the Psalms, and throughout sacred scripture, bad astronomy mixes with breathtaking hope. A day after reading Psalm 147, I read Isaiah 40’s they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint. Isn’t that also “cheerleading” for God? Yes, but—for me—it’s also language inspiring my day-to-day faith.
I take the Bible seriously. If you’ve read this blog before, you know a small slice my time includes making hospice phone calls to “the brokenhearted.” Does God immediately heal those feeling the sword-piercing-the-heart pain of a loved one’s death? No. Not immediately. And more than a few may never know solace after devastating loss.
Still, I call.
Why? Because, in spite of sometimes not being able to keep a smile off my face when I read the Psalms—the upbeat or the downbeat ones—they are serious invitations for me to be God’s voice, hands and ears. Some of them cause me to roll my eyes. All of them demand I keep my eyes open to the opportunities God gifts to me.
Today, before or after you read this, you will have an opportunity to feed, clothe, shelter, embrace, challenge, listen and cheerlead another person. You will. Do it because of, or even in spite of, the Psalmist’s laugh-out-loud optimism.