The Psalmist and Thomas
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.’
As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
in whom is all my delight.
Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink-offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names upon my lips.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
I have defended Thomas for years. “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands and put my hand in his side I will not believe.” While some may dismiss Thomas as doubting Jesus’ resurrection, I understand him to be one of the few people closest to Jesus to actually give voice to his needs. No one needs to ask Thomas what he is feeling or thinking at any particular moment; he is clear. More than many of us, Thomas is honest with his feelings, and unashamed to voice them. It was Thomas who said, after hearing Jesus’ plan to return to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead: “Let’s go too, that we may die with Jesus.” Jesus didn't die that day, but he went to the Cross not long after. On the night Jesus was arrested, Jesus assures the disciples that though he is going away, they will see him again. He says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas speaks up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus answered. “Not one of you comes to the Father except through me.”
We’re starting a new sermon series on the Psalms today. Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the prayer book, or hymnal, of the Bible. There will also be a companion Bible study offered on Tuesday nights via Zoom, an online video conferencing tool. It’s free, and your participation is not limited by geography. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll send you the participant guide, plus every Monday throughout the study you will receive a video and letter from the author. Why the Psalms?
Well, like Thomas, the Psalms are honest. They express all human emotions. Fear, love, dread, desire for vengeance, hope, forgiveness, confidence. Did you know the Psalms are quoted in the New Testament more than any other Old Testament book? Why is that? As hymns, they can be set to music and memorized. Sung over and over in worship, it’s natural to draw from those words to construct a narrative, offer a prayer, or preach a sermon. From the Cross, Jesus cries out: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those aren’t random words; they are the first words of Psalm 22, a psalm of lament. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon recorded in Acts Chapter 2, he quotes from today’s text, Psalm 16:
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,
‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’”
Colossians 3:16 encourages these spiritual practices: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” Ephesians 5:18-19 says, “...be filled with the Spirit as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Many of the 150 psalms were sung in collective worship services in the Temple. Many of them are not hymns at all, but personal prayers, expressing everything from fear and doubt to hope and redemption.
So the psalms are very personal. CS Lewis had this to say:
“The psalms were written by many poets and at many different dates. Some, I believe are allowed to go back to the reign of David. What must be said, however, is that the psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung; not doctrinal treatises, or even sermons...Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than the logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.”
It’s been said that most of scripture has God speaking to us, but that in the psalms we speak to God. That’s partially the case. And while I agree that poetry or prayers or hymns are personal, that doesn't exclude them from being preached or taught. While the Psalms are a hymnal or prayer book, they are also the Word of God, for the people of God-- they are scripture-- and it is still appropriate for us to respond to the hearing by saying, “Thanks be to God.”
Over the upcoming weeks, we will explore different kinds of psalms. Psalm 16 is a petition; but not in the sense of “sign this petition to achieve such and such goal.” Petition here implies protection: “Protect me God, because I take refuge in you.” The psalmist uses the most intimate and personal title for God: “I say to the Lord, You are my Lord!” What did Thomas say to the resurrected Jesus? “My Lord and my God!” Lord is not just a title, but a relationship. Affirming God as Lord means we abide by God’s promises. The psalmist dismisses the practices of those who worship false gods: “I will not participate in their blood offerings; I won’t let their names cross my lips. You, Lord, are my portion, my cup, you control my destiny.”
When we fully offer ourselves to God, proclaiming Jesus as Lord, our whole self becomes an offering: “In your presence is total celebration. Beautiful things are always at your right hand.” True happiness becomes possible when we acknowledge God’s lordship and we respond by taking refuge under God’s wings. “I always put the Lord in front of me; I will not stumble because he is on my right side.”
Where does this kind of faith originate? How is it possible? How can we achieve it? We can’t. True faith is not achieved, it’s received. There’s a difference between saying God’s grace is rewarded versus awarded. Rewarded implies we have done something to be loved by God. We have earned something. A bonus at work. A medal at the end of a race. Awarded means it’s a gift. There is no competition, no winners and losers. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life. Not one of you gets to the Father except by my action.” It’s all a gift. Receiving the gift begins with affirming Christ as Lord.
I found this brilliant affirmation in Prayers and Litanies for the Christian Seasons:
We find our faith in Jesus,
Who lives among us,
Who calls us together to understand
Life and love as radical commitment to others.
We have faith in one God,
Who created and claimed all creatures,
Who enters our lives with hope and
Redemption and courage to act on our beliefs.
We know that God’s presence
Comes to us in community,
Wherever we seek to know God
By doing justice and loving mercy.
Once we were no people,
But now we are God’s people.
Once we had not received mercy,
but now we have received mercy.
Because all things are possible through God’s love,
We proclaim the gospel in this world
Where God is still creating and redeeming
And making things whole.
“Let’s go too, that we may die with Jesus.”
“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
“Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands and put my hand in his side I will not believe.”
This is who Thomas is. He is honest. He is vulnerable. He is still searching.
So knowing all this about him, and realizing Thomas was not present the first time he appeared to the others, the resurrected Jesus enters the house, walks right up to Thomas, and before the disciple can say anything, Jesus offers the wounds of his hands and side. “Do not doubt; only believe.” “My Lord and my God!” Thomas cheers. Jesus says, “You have seen and believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet still believe.” Then the narrator chimes in: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Turns out the entire encounter with Thomas, and all the baggage we normally associate with his questioning, isn’t the point of the story at all. The focus is on the people of God, the witnesses to faith in Jesus who gather in his name for worship and service, none of whom have actually been in the physical presence of the risen Christ. As 1 Peter 1:8-9 says, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
It’s us; the church built upon the witness of the first apostles like Thomas, who, Christian tradition teaches, was the first Christian missionary to India. We haven’t seen Jesus face to face. We haven’t seen the wounds of his hands nor touched his side. But we’re here, with gratitude in our hearts singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. We are filled with the Spirit as we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among ourselves. Even spread apart as we must be to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy. The early disciples were shut up in a house with doors and windows locked shut out of fear; but the risen Jesus still appeared among them, offering peace. Three times he shows up, greeting them with the words, “Peace be with you.” We are temporarily sheltered in place, not out of fear, but out of concern for our neighbors. Jesus still appears, over Facebook and telephone calls and emails and websites.
“That’s why my heart celebrates and my mood is joyous; yes, my whole body will rest in safety because you won’t abandon my life to the grave; you won’t let your faithful follower see the pit.” The psalmist was comfortable in declaring God as Lord. What about us? “Peace be with you.” We respond to Jesus’ offer of peace: “My Lord and my God!”
Let us pray. Lord, forgive us when you have called us into the world, but find us away from the world, windows closed and doors locked, out of fear. Give us the honesty and vulnerability of Thomas and the psalmist, laying all of our needs before you in faith. You already know our needs before we ask, you love us that much. May we be found ready to be your witnesses to the world when our time of social distancing is over. In the space between that day and today, remind us of your faithfulness and promise to be with us always. Show us the path of life. Help us find fullness of joy in your presence and pleasures for evermore at your right hand. amen.