Sermon for 17 Pentecost Yr B

17 Pentecost Yr B, 19/09/2021

Ps 54 & Jer 11:18-20

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Help God! Enemies want to kill me!”

Psalm 54 has the following superscription: To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, “David is hiding among us.” The background of this psalm then is described in 1 Samuel 23 and 26. David and Saul are on the outs, David is fleeing from Saul. He goes into hiding in the wilderness of Ziph. The Ziphites betray David by telling Saul where he is hiding. Saul pursues David. However, at the last moment, Saul gets word that the Philistines raided the land, so he stops pursuing David. In 1 Samuel 26, Saul and his army are also pursuing David in the wilderness of Ziph and again the Ziphites betray David by telling Saul where David is hiding. This time, one night David and Abishai sneak into Saul’s camp. Saul is sleeping, and Abishai wants to kill him. David prevents him from doing so, however he steals Saul’s spear and water jar. He tells Abishai that eventually the LORD will deal with Saul. Later, when Saul finds out that David could have killed him, but did not, he and David made peace. Eventually however, Saul was wounded in battle, and then took his own life. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 54 the following title: “Prayer for Vindication,” and the Good News Bible has this title: “A Prayer for Protection from Enemies.” The Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849) identifies Psalm 54 as a prayer for help. It also has elements of a psalm of trust, a lament, a liturgy, and a prayer of individual thanks. 

In verses 1 and 2, David is desperate, and he asks God to listen to him and vindicate him. The Messagecaptures David’s emotionally desperate state, by rendering verse 2 like this: “Listen, God—I’m desperate. Don’t be too busy to hear me.” 

Verse 3 tells us why David is desperate, again The Message captures how David feels a sense of betrayal: “Outlaws are out to get me, hit men are trying to kill me. Nothing will stop them; God means nothing to them.” 

Just as David felt betrayed by the Ziphites, so too does Jeremiah in today’s first lesson. He has been faithful as God’s prophet and preached to his own people in his hometown of Anathoth. He predicted their destruction, it was a message most likely difficult for him to preach, and the people did not like it one bit, because it was not a message they wanted to hear or accept. So they betray their own hometown prophet and threaten to kill him. 

That reminds me of the following story. MacLean died in early March 1983, he died in Russia. Maclean was actually British. He had gone to the University of Cambridge in the 1930s there, and had joined a circle promoting communism. 

From this circle came many of the most notorious spies for the Soviet Union. In 1951, MacLean was tipped off that he was about to be exposed as a spy. He fled behind the Iron Curtain, where he lived in obscurity.

In Britain at the time of exposure, there was a sense of disbelief that one of their own citizens educated, and part of the aristocracy would be a traitor. Later, other such traitors were also exposed. Some having given the Soviets some of Britain’s and the American’s most sensitive secrets.

Betrayals, of course, can have tragic consequences, they can be a matter of life and death. In some cases even thousands, perhaps millions or even billions of lives may hang in the balance. Of course, the ultimate story of betrayal involved Judas betraying Jesus. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus led to his death on the cross. 

However, David and Jeremiah did not respond to their betrayals like Jesus. True, they did turn to God for help when their lives were threatened. Unlike Jesus, they did not pray or wish for forgiveness for their enemies. Rather, they asked God for vindication, vengeance, revenge, retribution. The Good News Bible renders verses 4 and 5 like this: “But God is my helper. The Lord is my defender. May God use their own evil to punish my enemies. He will destroy them because he is faithful.” 

That reminds me of the following story. Three burly fellows on huge motorcycles pulled up to a highway cafe where a truck driver, just a little guy, was perched on a stool quietly eating his lunch. As the three fellows came in, they spotted him, grabbed his food away from him and laughed in his face. The truck driver said nothing. He got up, paid for his food, and walked out. One of the three cyclists, unhappy that they hadn’t succeeded in provoking the little man into a fight, commented to the waitress: “Boy, he sure wasn’t much of a man, was he?” The waitress replied, “Well, I guess not.” Then, looking out the window, she added, “I guess he’s not much of a truck driver, either. He just ran over three motorcycles.”1

Like David and Jeremiah, perhaps our reaction to the story of the truck driver running over the three motorcycles is that the three cyclists got what they deserved because of the way they treated the truck driver. In our humanness, in our sinful state, emotionally, we may be tempted to get angry and take revenge on those who threaten us or treat us badly, cruelly, and unjustly. Or even worse, we may say what David said in verse 7 of our psalm, as the REB translates it: “I look with delight on the downfall of my enemies.” 

There are several examples in the Psalter of what are called imprecatory psalms—i.e., psalms that call for vengeance. As Christians, I think we struggle with these imprecatory psalms. They depict a “Go get em!” God. A God who likes to punish and destroy people rather than have mercy on them and forgive them. As Christians, Jesus is our perfect example of how we are to deal with our enemies. We are called to love, pray for, and forgive them—which is much easier to say than to do. 

There is much wisdom in what Lutheran theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to say about the imprecatory psalms. Thus the imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him. Thus the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all [people] in Jesus Christ.

Even today I can believe the love of God and forgive my enemies only by going back to the cross of Christ, to the carrying out of the wrath of God. The cross of Jesus is valid for all [people].2

God is both a just and merciful God. There are consequences for our sinful and evil actions. Sometimes our sinful and evil actions will be subject to cause and effect consequences—we reap what we sow, we dig a pit of sin and evil and the that same pit will be our undoing, those who live by violence will die by violence, and so on. God always wants what is best for each one of us. Therefore, even though we may think that someone deserves to be punished by God may not be punished by God. God’s ways are not our ways. When Jesus was dying on the cross he prayed for enemies: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34) 

May God’s grace direct our thoughts, words and actions in such a way that we, like Jesus, may be able to pray for, love, and forgive even our enemies. 

1 James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 486.

2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, psalms: the prayer book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970, 1974), pp. 58-60.