a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, UCC
May 29, 2022
Psalm 97 NRSV
1 The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!
2 Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice
are the foundation of his throne.
3 Fire goes before him, and consumes his adversaries on every side.
4 His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles.
5 The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth.
6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory.
7 All worshipers of images are put to shame, those who make their boast in worthless idols;
all gods bow down before him.
8 Zion hears and is glad, and the towns of Judah rejoice, because of your judgments, O God.
9 For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.
10 The LORD loves those who hate evil; he guards the lives of his faithful;
he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
11 Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.
12 Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name!
It is worth remembering those whose lives were taken from them in war. On a
Memorial Day Sunday I have no qualms about doing so. What I have qualms about
is where I go from there.
So let me pull back the sermon preparation curtain. Here’s the internal prayer
debate in preparation for this sermon. Me: Do I ignore yet another mass shooting of
school children to avoid offending anyone? I chose this Psalm long before the
shooting in Texas happened because I believe it says something well worth
remembering. God: I have always called out injustice and idolatry. Me: yeah but I
have to be careful not to offend anyone! God: Your nation is suffering from a
terrible idolatry, and your people seem to be unwilling to turn from that idolatry. Me
to you all: Idolatry, by definition, is making something or someone more valuable
and sacred than God. I don’t know if our idolatry is violence in general or guns
specifically. Me to God: There’s probably some gun advocates, gun owners, people
who may believe they need a gun to be safe. I don’t want to hurt their feelings! God:
The fact is in America you have less than a 1 in 100,000 chance of being a victim of a
Me: I don’t want to just offer opinions when this is a monologue. People
don’t have a chance to respond! God: Your Governor appointed a Secretary of State
that said he wants your state to be known as the “Gunshine State” by removing any
need for gun permits. Me: But God we are the gunshine state! God: It is worth
remembering that no other nation on earth has as many mass shootings as the United
States. Great Britain has not had a school or mass shooting since 1997 after they
effectively banned the ownership of handguns by law. They had a school shooting in
1996. 15 children and one teacher were shot dead by one man in possession of over
740 rounds of ammunition. And no the bad guys aren’t getting guns and using them,
and neither are those with mental illness.
Me: What does all this have to do with the Scripture I just read? God: You
read out loud that I am the Ruler over all things and that “ 7 All worshipers of images
are put to shame, those who make their boast in worthless idols; all gods bow down
before me.” Me: Ok God you said the stuff I thought you wanted me to… let me get
to MY sermon! Sheesh!
I found it interesting that in commenting on this passage, Rev. James Howell,
[ Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, December 25, 2013, ] talks about how this
Psalm is at the heart of the Christmas worship of monks all around the world. Maybe
talking about Christmas will make us all feel better, huh? Let me share Rev.
“On Christmas Day, when families in pajamas unwrap gifts under their trees,
monks in monasteries all around the world rise to chant Psalm 97. This psalm might
even be recited in a few churches, and perhaps even heard by the handful of the
zealous who leave the presents behind to show up for worship.”
I changed our reading of the Psalm from “King” to “Sovereign over all,”
because the title King summons a lot of images for God we no longer look at as
helpful. That said, there is a “little cluster of Psalms (93 through 99) whose primary
theme is “The Lord reigns! The Lord is King!” The word “Lord” here is the
translation of the specific name of this God the Hebrew people worship: YAHWEH.
Their point is that YAHWEH – THIS God - is the only real God, the only ruler over
Rev. Howell says, “Worshippers in ancient Israel must have had considerable
hutzpah to travel for miles in caravans over rocky, dangerous terrain to press with the
crowd into the temple to shout ‘The Lord is King!’ History seemed not to be on their
Lord’s side, as all the vast territories, tax revenues and military victories were
concentrated in the hands of the gods of Babylon, or Egypt, or Greece, or Rome, or
any of a long parade of the truly high and mighty.
“On the first Christmas Day, it was the mighty Caesar Augustus who reigned;
the angels didn’t sing loudly enough for the echoes to reach his palace in Rome. The
shepherds heard the ‘heavens proclaiming God’s righteousness’ (97:6) — but they
were more startled than moved to deep faith.
“The God of the Psalmist and the shepherds (this ‘Yahweh’) must have seemed
like a weakling on the playground of bigger, more impressive deities (like Marduk or
Ea of the mighty Babylonians, or Osiris or Horus of the wealthy Egyptians). All other
gods could boast of military triumphs, vast hordes of gold, shinier cultic objects; if
success was the measure, the gods of the Assyrians or the Phoenicians or just about
anybody else had superior reasons to elicit praise from their subjects. Psalm 97:1 says
“Let the earth rejoice” — but I imagine the rest of the earth smirked, chuckled in
ridicule, when Israel gathered to sing that Israel’s Lord was King. “Why this foolishness in Israel? Was it lunacy or a profound faith that could stand boldly in the face of being small, puny, a laughingstock, and still affirm that “Our Lord is King! — and yours isn’t”? Did they understand the true nature of the true God? I suspect they did, although it was when Jesus arrived that the world was treated to the ultimate display of exactly what a King looks like.” Jesus was and is the living image of how YAHWEH, our God, uses power.
“Jesus lay in a manger instead of a palace. Instead of issuing edicts, Jesus
simply let out a cry only his mother could hear. Jesus surrounded himself with poor
clueless fishermen instead of slick bureaucrats. Jesus recruited an army of grateful
lepers instead of well-drilled regiments. Jesus rode a wobbly donkey instead of a
sprightly stallion. Jesus assumed a cross instead of a throne, and a crown of thorns,
not gold and jewels.
“Laugh out loud when the Wise Men tell King Herod, ‘We have come to
worship the king’(Matthew 2:2) — a rather rude affront to the guy sitting in the
palace. Furrow your brow when Pontius Pilate snidely asks Jesus, ‘Are you a king?’
(John 18:37). He commands no regiments, he calls down no heavenly power to
defend himself, he says not a single word. In his entourage were not senators and
oligarchs, but lepers, prostitutes, the unlettered, the nobodies. At a crossroads [of a
nowhere village in a nowhere nation] he hangs on an olive shaft, a placard of
mockery posted above his head in multiple languages so all can chuckle, or scratch
their heads in wonder, or perhaps even believe. Let earth receive her king.
“Christians who strive for power in America or any other place on earth
misconstrue the heart of our faith. [The true heart of Biblical faith is always] wary of
power: when J.R.R. Tolkien told his stories of hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, and
their quest not to possess the ring of power but to destroy it, he articulated in fable
form the essence of Christianity, which is not about us wielding power; we yield to
the power of God, which is itself a small, paradoxical power, the power of humble
“Want to see power? Watch Jesus touch the untouchables, or wash the feet of
those who would gladly have washed his. Watch Jesus surrender his very life, so
powerful was his love. Watch Jesus forgive the very people who just spat on him and
drove nails into his flesh. Watch Jesus breathe his last — and then quite fantastically
show up three days later. ‘The Lord is King! Let the earth rejoice.’
“The world still mockingly laughs — or yawns. But we know, and we pray,
and praise the [One] who is Sovereign. ‘Let the earth rejoice’: we pray that they will,
and until they do, we rejoice for them, on their behalf, raising a chorus of ‘Joy to the
world; let earth receive her King’ on behalf of those who are tone deaf, who have not
yet grasped the true nature of power and the wonder of love become flesh.”
This morning I want to invite you to have the kind of conversation with God
that I had as I prepared this sermon. Maybe you already do that all the time. In that
conversation I hope you will ask what God would have you do about the idolatry of
our age. It is tempting, living in paradise, to ignore all these problems and pretend
we can’t change things. But on this day, a day of remembering, it is worth
remembering who is Sovereign over all things, who demands we turn from idols we
worship instead of this Sovereign God.
This strange God has shown us in Jesus Christ that power is humbly serving
those less powerful, profitable, or perfect. It is worth remembering that God’s
presence and power is demonstrated in compassion and justice for the poorest, the
weakest, the one outcast by others, the most vulnerable. Let us not only remember,
let us – as Jesus did – use his example to shape our decisions, our actions, and our
whole lives. There is one God, and the world rejoices! These are the ancient words
of truth that still teach us today. I pray we will learn from them before it is too late. I
pray we will see that they are worth remembering. AMEN.