03.26.17 Let’s be Honest and Tell the Truth Psalm 22 Sermon Summary
For Christians, Psalm 22 is most famous because Jesus quotes it. Then we make the mistake of making it all about him. It isn’t.
- Two most influential passages in the story of Jesus
- Psalm 22 in Handel’s Messiah and the Gospels
- Characteristics of Psalm 22
- Why Psalm 22 isn’t all about Jesus
Psalm 22 comes to us in two parts, complaint and praise. In fact, the psalm covers the continuum from extreme complaint from the depths of the earth to extravagant praise like a firework, rising ever higher until it explodes in a testimony that can be seen by many far away.
Psalm 22 is one of two passages that helped the first Christians understand Jesus’ death. The other is Isaiah 53. The writers of the Newer Testament found these passages so helpful in interpreting Jesus’ death that they influence how the story is told. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 may have supplied details, even some of the events, of the Passion narrative. For this reason Psalm 22 has been called by one commentator “the 5th Gospel account.”
Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 both appear in Part II of Handel’s Messiah. Part I contains the prophecies and the birth narratives. This is why the Messiah is so popular during Advent. It ends with the chorus from Matthew 11, “His yoke is easy and the burden is light.” Part II seeks to explain why following Jesus is “easy” and “light” for his disciples. It is because Jesus, the Lamb of God, has removed the heavy burden of sin. In putting Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 right in the middle of the Messiah, Handel is simply following the Gospel example making these two passages foundational for understanding Jesus in this way.
Not only does Jesus quote the first verse of Psalm 22 from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the Gospel writers allude to Psalm 22 when soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing and in the taunt about God’s recuing him. Handel captures it well in the chorus “Let him deliver him.” The “li” is sung dripping with sarcasm. The scorn of the bystanders also appears to come from Psalm 22.
It was natural that the Gospel writers, and centuries of Christians after them, would identify Jesus with this psalm. The problem is that doing so contradicts the point both of the psalm’s author and of Jesus!
Psalm 22 is a Psalm of Lament. There are more lament psalms than any other genre. Lament testifies of God as savior: If God is not a savior then there is no point in lamenting.
Psalm 22 is also a piece of liturgy. It is personal but not private, like a blues song. It is not the recitation of a single person’s history but a ritual drama inviting participation by the members of the worshiping community.
This is the author’s intent: Liturgical participation in lament. What the author is trying to say is, “Life will include some suffering. God wants you to turn to him in suffering, remembering how God has saved ancestors in the past. God will also save you, and when he does, praise God and share the story.”
This is also Jesus’ intent in quoting it: “I know your life includes suffering. I suffer just like you suffer. I am with you in your suffering. I also believe God is with me, and so God is also with you in your suffering. You and I together can lament with Psalm 22.”
This is good news. This is the Gospel—that we don’t suffer alone. What is more, our suffering, like Jesus’ suffering will be redeemed.
Lament is very popular in Judaism (and other traditions). So it’s ironic that one of the most profound and exemplary expressions of faith by Jesus himself is so unpopular in Christian worship. Why has Christian worship eschewed lament? Is it because Christians no longer suffer? Hardly. It’s because another aspect of the Gospel has obscured it.
This other aspect of the Gospel asserts that Jesus suffered not in solidarity with others who suffer, but as the payment for sin. This is the emphasis of the Apostle Paul. Jesus’ suffering and death is a one-time, once-for-all, once-in-history payment for sin. From this perspective, Jesus’ suffering is not as one of us, but as unique among us.
From this perspective Psalm 22 becomes a prophecy that is fulfilled uniquely by Jesus. It applies only to Jesus. Lost is the invitation by the psalm to all who suffer. Some Christians even feel a little guilty praying Psalm 22 for themselves because they “know” it applies only to Jesus. This is exactly opposite of the author and Jesus’ intent. Their intent is to include us by being one with us, not exclude us by being so unique.
This is of the reasons Jesus gave us the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in order that we not forget his suffering as one of us. It’s also why frequent celebration of the sacrament is crucial to Christian formation. The Table holds together suffering and redemption, death and resurrection, presence and promise—for all people, not just for one—just like Psalm 22. Verse 26 says, “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek God shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!”
For if Jesus’ suffering is unique among us and not in solidarity with us, then he is alone in his suffering—and so are we. And that is bad news.
But “God does not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted. God does not hide his face from them.” We who are afflicted and who experience suffering can give thanks. And we who follow Christ shall not hide our faces either.