Here’s my sermon from this weekend. While we’ve been taking a look this summer at how Paul uses the Psalms in his letter to the Romans, I thought the Psalm he uses in Romans 11, Psalm 94, warranted exclusive focus.
It ends with the verse ‘The Lord our God, the Lord will wipe our enemies out’ for goodness sake.
You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.
‘Just what the hell is your problem?! Reverend?!’
Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.
Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.
‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.
Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.
She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.
I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.
It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th.
The day after.
I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.
Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.
I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.
‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.
The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.
My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems not present at all.
The other scripture passage I used as the opening prayer: Psalm 94, a clench-fisted communal cry for vengeance.
Vengeance against our enemies.
I remember I had to print the psalm in the bulletin because the United Methodist Hymnal Committee chose not to include it in the hymnal.
Because I used it as the opening prayer not the scripture reading, we didn’t follow the final verse ‘the Lord our God will wipe our enemies out’ with ‘This the Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God.’
But we did say ‘Amen.’
As in: ‘May it be so.’
It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.
So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: ‘What in the…is your problem?!’
‘Um, excuse me?’ I replied.
‘Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!’
I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.
So I said: ‘Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘wipe out’ in the psalm, daka, it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’
I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.
‘Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!’ she shouted softly. ‘They’re supposed to love everybody.’
Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:
‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?’
She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.
As in, you and me. Christians.
What do we do with a scripture passage like this? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?
We believe in Jesus, the one who in his Magna Carter on the Mount commanded us to LOVE our enemies.
Would Jesus really approve of this psalm?
What do we do with it?
Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Psalm 94.
Dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.
Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.
Psalm 94- we could say it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.
The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.
So what do we do?
Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?
Do we say that this prayer, Psalm 94, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?
It is. And it does.
So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who prayed this weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.
At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.
People not like us at all.
And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like this.
Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.
No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.
But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.
It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.
Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.
Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.
And so we could say that a passage like Psalm 94 isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it. That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.
I think there’s something to be said for that.
But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they: ‘The Lord our God will wipe them out.’
Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy. It’s hard to imagine the Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the defeat of our enemies.
‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’
She asked me a second time.
She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.
But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.
So I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing, I simply told the truth:
“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”
She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.
But it’s true.
As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.
3 times a day.
And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 psalm. At the very least, Jesus prayed this prayer every 50 days. At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.
So when you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.
That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed ‘Lord, how long shall the wicked exult’ in the past month.
That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, ‘they crush your people, Lord’ had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.
And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed ‘God will repay our enemies for their sin; the Lord our God will wipe them out.’
Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had it memorized.
So when Jesus throws his Temple tantrum and screams ‘you’ve turned my Father’s House into a den of thieves,’ it wasn’t too long previous that he’d prayed ‘the proud and wicked say ‘the Lord does not see.’
And when Jesus takes bread and wine and tells the 12 that he’s like Moses delivering the slaves from Pharaoh, it couldn’t have been that long since all 13 of them had prayed ‘O Lord, you God of vengeance, shine forth!’
It hadn’t been very long. At the most: 50 days.
Maybe that day Jesus prayed this prayer.
For the defeat of his enemies.
“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”
But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.
Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed this prayer, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:
Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed this psalm?
Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?
It’s the better question.
Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.
I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.
Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation. Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.
So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.
To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.
For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.
You see, it’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.
Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.
And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.
And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.
It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.
But maybe we don’t want to hear it.
Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.
For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.
And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.
He doesn’t retaliate.
He turns the other cheek.
And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’
He dies rather than kill.
He doesn’t resist evil with evil. He suffers it. He dies to it.
And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them. Destroys them, scripture says. Triumphs over them.
When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Psalm 94.
We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New. But the confusion we feel about a passage like Psalm 94 is really our confusion about Jesus.
Because it’s not that the prayer in Psalm 94 is antithetical to Jesus. No, Jesus is God’s answer to the prayer in Psalm 94.
Pay attention, this is everything.
Jesus doesn’t replace Psalm 94.
Jesus enacts it.
It’s not that the prayer for our enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.
No, it’s that love of enemies is the way we defeat them.
We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.
Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.
The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.
The way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.
The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the way we ‘wipe them out.’
And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.
But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.
And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.
So you tell me what’s more effective.
After the woman with the short hair and glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.
His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.
When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.
And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’
‘Here we go again’ I thought.
‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’
‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.
He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’
And he stormed out.
If our discomfort with a psalm like #94, if our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.
I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.
Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus.