Psalm 98: Joy, Judgment and Advent

(A meditation on Psalm 98 shared with the Wine Before Breakfast community on the second Tuesday of Advent, December 9, 2014)

Whether you sit or stand, sometimes matters.

When the choir sings,

The kingdoms of this world
have become
the Kingdom of our God,
and of his Christ,
and of his Christ.

And he shall reign forever and ever.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

… the audience at Handel’s “Messiah” rises to their feet.

It’s what you do when royalty enters the room.
It’s what you do when you make a joyful noise before Yahweh, the King.

And so we remained standing this morning for Psalm 98.

Maybe you need to stand to sing a new song, in order to give breathing space
for your diaphragm.

When the band starts to play
the seas start to roar,
the floods are clapping their hands,
and the hills are singing at the top of their hill-like voices,
when you’ve got that kind of praise,
that kind of over-the-top joy,
that kind of a creation-wide party going on,
you don’t stay glued to a chair or a pew.

When all of creation is breaking forth in the joy of liberation,
when all creatures have been set free from oppression to be who they really are,
when the shofar-trumpet has been blown declaring Jubilee to the whole world,
well, it is party time,
it is put-on-your-dancing-shoes time,
it is new-song time.

Psalm 98 is a song of victory that calls the community to a victory party.

And make no mistake, dear friends,
where there is a victory, there has been a contest,
where there is a victory, a battle of some sort has been fought and won.

Or to put it differently,
when ancient Israel makes a joyful noise before Yahweh the King,
they do so in the face of
other claims to sovereignty,
conflicting claims to kingship.

To say that Yahweh is King,
to sing an enthronement song of Yahweh’s Kingship,
is to say that Pharaoh and Marduk are not kings,
and their rule is fraudulent.

And so the psalmist, in a few deft lines tells the story
of Yahweh’s kingship.

He doesn’t have to tell the whole story,
all he has to do is say that
“his right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory”
and everyone knows that he is talking about the exodus.

Pharaoh’s army got drownded,
O Mary don’t you weep.

That is when he made known his victory,
that is when he revealed his vindication to the nations,
that is when he heard their cry and remembered
his steadfast love and faithfulness.

Everybody knows that!
My goodness, the very ends of the earth have seen this victory!

So the psalmist calls the community to praise, rooted in memory.

Without memory there is no hope.
Without a memory of the past, there is no future.
And in that memory of liberation,
that memory of revolutionary overthrow of the empire,
that memory of creation’s rebellion against Egypt and partnership in exodus salvation,
the band strikes up a new tune
and we join our voices with all of creation.

Present praise rooted in past faithfulness.

And yet … the psalmist knows that the reality of the past is not the reality of the present.
The psalmist isn’t engaging in cheap cover up here.
The psalmist isn’t calling for a new song just to find
a fresh expression of old verities.

The psalmist isn’t calling for praise that will smooth over
the pain and disappointment.

No, this psalmist knows that we are still in the midst
of real life and death struggles.

This psalmist calls us to sing with all of creation to Yahweh the King,
even though this is a rule that is hard to see being exercised,
even though Pharaoh and Marduk still seem to be in control,
even though Caesar is Lord,
even though environmental desecration chokes the voice of creation,
even though racism is systemic and it is hard to sing praise when you can’t breathe,
even though the global markets and the consumptive imperative has us by the throat,
even though the best most of us can do is to sing “joy to the world” through our tears.

You can hear this pain, this captivity, this longing that
the kingdoms of this world really would become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ,
whispering through the last verses of our psalm:

let the floods clap their hands,
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
                        to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

Sing, all of creation at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming.

The Lord who is present, doesn’t seem too present.
The King of all of creation, doesn’t seem to be ruling too much.

And when you painfully recognize that absence,
then you have to be careful that praise doesn’t numb you to the pain.

But this psalmist knows the tension, knows the struggle,
and so, rooted in the memory of a mighty arm of judgment in the past,
he proclaims a judgment to come.

And while we might not like the imagery of a God who judges,
it would seem that the sea, the rivers, the hills, the earth,
– indeed all of creation –
responds to God’s judgment with praise and thanksgiving.

God’s judgment of righteousness and equity banishes oppression and injustice!

God’s judgment of righteousness and equity sets creation free to sing anew.

God’s judgment of righteousness and equity brings creation’s groaning in travail
into the ecstatic rejoicing of new birth.

God’s judgment of righteousness and equity opens up the throats of the oppressed.

God’s judgment of righteousness and equity replaces the cacophony
of creational mourning with a new symphony of joy.

God’s judgment of righteousness and equity dethrones all idols
and overthrows all false principalities and powers.
God’s judgment of righteousness and equity is gospel to a suffering world.

That, my friends, is the judgment of God that we long and wait for during Advent!

But here’s the thing.
The king who will come in judgment,
the king who will rule with steadfast love and faithfulness,
will accomplish his victory with his right hand and his holy arm,
but that hand and that arm will be stretched out on a cross.

Only there will the King be enthroned,
only there will the Jubilee be accomplished,
only there will all of creation be set free to sing anew.

And that is why, dear sisters and brothers, we sing Psalm 98,
in the presence of a table set with bread and wine,
longing for the Kingdom,
longing for a new song,
longing for righteous judgment,
and knowing that this Kingdom, this song, and this judgment
come at a cost.

Come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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