Date: August 8, 2021
Festival: Pentecost 11 (Proper 14)
Text: Psalm 34:1-10
Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI and Christ the King Lutheran Chapel
Earlier in the service, when we spoke the introit together, we read verses 8-10 from Psalm 34. Let us pray the preceding verses: “I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together! I sought the LORD, and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to Him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them. Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints, for those who fear Him have no lack! The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.” Amen.
What does it mean to “bless the Lord”? How can we bless the Lord? Isn’t the Lord the one who blesses us? As is usually the case, the meaning of certain words depends on the context. In the Scriptures, there are two typical usages for “bless.” The first is the imparting “of vital strengths on an addressee—usually with divine cooperation,” which is the blessing Yahweh does for us; and the second is “liturgical-priestly thanksgiving—whether spontaneous or in a cultic-ritual praise of Yhwh” [Hossfeld, 34], such as what we have here in the Psalm and what we ourselves do in the liturgy every Sunday. It is in this second sense, then, that we bless the Lord—that we praise and give thanks to God—and it is this sense with which David begins Psalm 34.
I invite you to open your Bibles to follow along. In the first section—vv. 1-3—David begins with the exhortation to bless, or to praise, the Lord. He begins with a personal account. “I will bless the LORD at all times,” he says. “His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD.” He’s setting himself up as the example. Therefore, he says, “let the humble hear and be glad.” Let the humble—or let the lowly—look to David as their example. As their example, he offers an invitation, “Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together!”
Remember who David is. He’s king of Israel, yet in the next section of vv. 4-7 he does not do what many religious leaders do. He does not say, “Hey, look at me and how great I am! Therefore, let me be your paradigm of piety and sainthood because I’m so great!” No, instead, he identifies himself as one of the lowly people of Israel. Even though David is king, he identifies with peasants. After all, he was a shepherd once and he’s the youngest son of his father, so he knows what it’s like to be lowly. He hasn’t forgotten his roots.
In this second section, he draws from personal experience again to explain his earlier exhortation, saying the Lord answered him and delivered him from his fears when he sought the Lord. According to David, it wasn’t because of some royal or divine status that God answered him. Instead, it was because of his own lowly state. “This poor man cried,” he says, “and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.” It is because of this, he writes, that “the angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them.”
Essentially, he’s saying, “You and I are in the same boat. The Lord answered and delivered me not because I’m a king and prophet. No, I am one of you. If the Lord heard me, He will hear and deliver you.” Therefore, in the third and final section of our consideration, vv. 8-10, he exhorts you and me, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints, for those who fear Him have no lack! The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.”
Now, if you’re anything like me, maybe this final exhortation was troubling to hear. How can David claim that those who fear God will not suffer any lack? Especially when God’s people do experience lack, even severely? In his Psalms commentary, Rev. Dr. Timothy Saleska in his wisdom remarks we can make two reasonable assumptions. The first is “that the psalmist’s words are not to be understood in an absolute sense, as if he is promising limitless earthly wealth and prosperity, but rather, relatively speaking, he is promising Yhwh’s responsible care… Or better,” Dr. Saleska continues, “[David] reminds his hearers to see in the ordinary provision for their lives the extraordinary provision of Yhwh. He is the one who provides the good that his people need” [Saleska, 550]. Therefore, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray knowing God will give us this day our daily bread.
The second reasonable assumption we can make, in Saleska’s words, is that “the psalmist is not so blind that he does not also know this ‘good life’ is not inevitably the lived experience of all God’s people. Many of God’s people suffer broken lives in a broken world. Distinctions in the daily fortunes of God’s people are still painfully obvious” [Saleska, 550]. There are rich Christians and there are poor Christians; and there are those of us in the middle who are middle class.
That’s why, if we continue reading the rest of the psalm, David speaks the way he does in the last sections, for example. vv. 17-19, “When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.” Here, David maintains that “even in the face of extensive visible evidence to the contrary… stands Yhwh, who is in control of all things and who works things out for the good of his people” [Saleska, 550-551].
Consider the prophet Elijah from our Old Testament reading this morning. After Elijah did as the Lord had commanded and killed the prophets of Baal, the wicked queen Jezebel promised Elijah that she would kill him the very next day. Being terrified of her curse, he ran for his life. While he was wandering in the desert, he was in severe lack to the point that he desired to die, and the Lord miraculously provided him food and water to survive.
We can also consider the author of this psalm, King David. Many times, David found himself in severe lacking but finding the Lord’s deliverance at the end of the tunnel: when King Saul sought his life but God rescued him, when David had to hide in the desert from Saul but God provided for him the oasis of En Gedi, when his own son Absalom tried to usurp his throne but the Lord preserved him, and other occasions.
Elijah and David are two wonderful examples of God’s provision when His saints are in dire need but perhaps because these are such great figures in our Christian heritage, they are difficult for us to relate to. Elijah was one of the greatest Prophets of the Old Testament! Even though David identifies himself with the lowly people of Israel, he is still king and, therefore, has the privilege of wealth and an army at his disposal! “So,” we might think, “David is king of Israel and Elijah is a great prophet. Of course God’s delivered them! Why wouldn’t He? What about lowly, ordinary people like me?”
Now, I can stand here and theologise for you how, despite their offices of prophet and king, they truly were lowly, ordinary men. But those offices they held still set themselves apart from us insofar as common human experience is concerned. Not everybody is a prophet and, therefore, not everybody has the wealth of the knowledge and wisdom of a prophet. Neither is everybody a king and, therefore, not everybody has wealthy privilege. I could use myself as an example by telling some anecdote from my past when I personally suffered lack at various points in my life and God provided, but I fear even that would be difficult to relate to because not everybody is a pastor. I could also tell you how even though ordination is a high calling, I’m still just a lowly, ordinary man; but again, not everybody is a pastor. So, can we think of any examples of ordinary, average people whom God has cared and provided for despite their severe lacking?
If you’d like, you can sit and try to think of someone you know who was in severe lacking and the Lord provided, and maybe such a person is you, but allow me to tell you a story. Now, this story does come from my past, but it’s not about me and I was hardly involved.
Meet Elaina. One frigid December morning in the icy wind of Missouri, a 20-year-old woman named Elaina was wandering the streets of a small town called Union. Elaina was an orphan. Just two years after being released from the foster care system, Elaina worked part-time as a cook for Union’s school system. Unfortunately, the foster care system failed her because she never learnt how to manage her finances. So, she was homeless. That’s why she found herself wandering around one icy December morning simply looking for a place to keep warm. That’s all she needed: a warm place to stay for a while.
As she was wandering the streets desperately looking for a place to get warm at 7:30 in the morning, she found my vicarage congregation: St. Paul Lutheran Church. We were the only place that was open at that time of day on a Sunday. Now, before the service started, I had noticed her outside already. As I was greeting our members while they entered the church, I saw her standing on the corner of our street, searching. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, though I do admit now that it was strange to see a thin, young woman walking the streets at 7:15am when it was at least 20 below freezing.
I was also preaching that day. I don’t remember what I preached on, but I remember looking out into the pews as I was preaching when I noticed her again, sitting all the way in the back left pew, alone. I made a mental note to talk to her after the service. So, during the last stanza of the closing hymn, I made my way to the back where I normally greet everyone and shake their h ands. I tried keeping my eye out for her so I could talk with her but being the “popular vicar” whom everybody wants to talk to, I was distracted and lost track of her.
Fortunately, St. Paul Lutheran Church is a compassionate and caring flock because she came back to the church later that evening for our chili cook-off competition. It is there that I learnt a couple things. The first is that two of our women lay leaders had spoken with her after the service. They did what I tried to do but couldn’t—they introduced themselves, learnt her name, and had a short conversation with her where they learnt that she came to the church simply to find a warm place for a while because she’s homeless. So, the ladies did what we Lutherans do best—they invited her back to the church to have some really good food!
And she showed up. It wasn’t until after the chili cook-off was over and we started putting the leftovers away in Tupperware, but she came back. The same two ladies were there, and it wasn’t until I was about to leave that one of them, Tari, told me about Elaina. Tari came up to me privately, in tears, and she said, “Vicar, you see that young woman over there? Her name’s Elaina and she was at church earlier. She’s homeless, so we invited her to come back for chili cook-off tonight and we just gave her a bunch of leftovers. But she doesn’t have a place to sleep tonight.” And sniffling back some tears she said, “What do we do?
I was just a vicar, so I had no idea what to do! My bishop wasn’t there because, as he was also the circuit visitor, he was at a pastor’s installation that evening. So, I did what any vicar would do: I called by bishop! I explained to him the situation and he came as quickly as he could.
We got her a place to sleep that night, but the story doesn’t end there. The following morning, Tari and her husband had a long conversation with their pastor about what they decided to do as a family for Elaina. With their pastor, they all agreed that Tari and her husband would take in Elaina until they helped her get back on her feet. Throughout the next several months, Elaina would learn how to manage her finances, she got a better job, and she eventually moved out of their house and got her own place. She now lives with her foster care sister where she can now afford rent, food, and heating & cooling.
Elaina walked into the church simply looking for a place to stay warm for a while, and what she found instead was God’s providential care. Through His people, she got more than just an hour of warmth—she received the warmth of God’s love and, through His people, received everything she needed although she was severely lacking. She walked into the church without a warm home, and she walked out of the church with two warm homes: her own apartment, and now a church. She is by no means wealthy, but the Lord has given Elaina her daily bread, just as He promises in the Lord’s Prayer.
I hope this story encourages you with David to “taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints, for those who fear Him have no lack! The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing!” This word is for ordinary people like Elaina—for ordinary people like you and me.
I also hope her story helps you take to heart Jesus’ words from our Gospel reading this morning, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst… All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out” [John 6:35, 37]. I don’t know where Elaina’s faith is at right now, but I pray she realises Christ’s words for herself. She came to church bodily cold and hungry, and she left bodily warm and full. But even more she came to church spiritually cold and hungry—not even realising she was seeking the Lord—and she left spiritually warm and full; and I pray that one day she becomes full of the body and blood of Christ. What I do know is that, after sharing in David’s lowly experience of severe lacking, she has blessed the Lord with thanksgiving.
The same is true for you as you approach the Lord’s Table this morning. Come, taste and see that the Lord is good! Here, you will not lack any good thing. Before we receive the Lord’s Supper, we will pray the Lord’s Prayer asking the Lord to give us this day our daily bread. Such a prayer is not a 50/50 chance; it comes not at the flip of a coin. Rather, it is the Lord’s promise. In Luther’s words from the catechism, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realise this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving,” with blessing the Lord.
Elaina didn’t even pray for her daily bread that one cold December morning, but because of the Lord’s love for her and the love and hospitality of His church, she received abundantly more than what she came looking for when she was severely lacking. So, of course God will provide when you are in daily need, just as dear children ask their father.
In ordinary ways, the Lord provides your ordinary needs, even when you are in dire need. And, even more, you will partake of the heavenly bread—the body and blood of our Lord Christ—who was given over to death for you so that you might have life to the full, which is nothing less than life everlasting. Therefore, come to the Table. Taste and see that the Lord is good; and let us bless the Lord and sing His praise, telling everyone what He has done in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Hossfeld, Frank-Lothar and Erich Zenger. Psalm 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150. Edited by Klaus Baltzer. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.
Saleska, Timothy E. Psalms 1-50. Concordia Commentary. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2020.