Sermon for 12 Pentecost Yr B

12 Pentecost Yr B, 15/08/2021

1 Sam 21 & Ps 34:9-14

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Revere God, don’t tell lies, and enjoy life”

Psalm 34 has the following superscription: “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” This superscription has a background story involving David in 1 Samuel 21. David is on the run, fleeing from Saul, fearing for his life. He flees to the city of Nob, which is located between Gibeah, Saul’s hometown, and Jerusalem. Nob was a city of priests, and David approaches the priest Ahimelech, who gives the holy bread to David and his men. David then continued to flee from Saul, going into enemy territory, to the Philistine King Achish of Gath—perhaps he was hoping he’d be safe there, and offer his services as a soldier. At any rate, David, wondering how the Philistine king will receive him, puts on an insanity act, scratching the doors of the gate and letting spittle run down his beard. King Achish has no time for such insane behaviour, he has too many other crazy folks to deal with, and so David continues to flee from Gath, escaping to the cave of Adullam. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible, with this background story in mind, gives Psalm 34 the following title: “Praise for Deliverance from Trouble,” the deliverance from trouble being the threat of Saul and the enemy King Achish. So, David would have praised and thanked God for such a deliverance. The Good News Bible has this title: “In Praise of God’s Goodness.” At any rate, Psalm 34 is a song of thanksgiving. However, it is also an acrostic poem, meaning that each line or section begins with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition to it being a song of thanksgiving and an acrostic poem, our verses for today, 9-14, contain similarities to wisdom psalms. 

Verse 9 begins with a major theme of the Bible’s wisdom writings in both the psalms and the Book of Proverbs—namely, an admonition to “fear the LORD.” The Good News Bible renders verse 9 like this: “Have reverence for the LORD, all his people; those who obey him have all they need.” The REB, translates it like this: “Fear the LORD, you his holy people; those who fear him lack for nothing.” To fear the LORD involves being in a close and healthy relationship with God by worshipping, loving, obeying, respecting, and revering God. 

When we fear the LORD, by being in reverence of God and obeying God, our psalmist goes on to spell out the consequences, the blessings that go along with fearing the LORD, revering and obeying God. Verses 12 to 14 highlight the consequences, the blessings. Basically the psalmist is saying: “Revere God, don’t tell lies, and enjoy life.” Or, to put it another way, these verses of Psalm 34 are a commentary on the commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour,” (Exodus 20:16).

That reminds me of two stories that I’d like to share with you today. The first one goes like this: A man went to his rabbi with a question. “Rabbi,” he said, “I understand almost all of the law. I understand the commandment not to kill. I understand the commandment not to steal. What I don’t understand is why there is a commandment against slandering the neighbour.”

The rabbi looked at the man and said, “I will give you an answer, but first I have a task for you. I would like you to gather a sack of feathers and place a single feather on the doorstep of each house in the village. When you have finished, return for your answer.” 

The man did as was told and soon returned to the rabbi to announce that the task was complete. “Now, Rabbi, give me the answer to my question. Why is it wrong to slander my neighbour?” 

“Ah,” the rabbi said. “One more thing. I want you to go back and collect all the feathers before I give you the answer.” 

“But Rabbi,” the man protested, “the feathers will be impossible to collect. The wind will have blown them away.” 

“So it is with the lies we tell about our neighbours,” the rabbi said. “They can never be retrieved. They are like feathers in the wind.”1 If one tells lies about others and others find out the lies are not true, the liar can end up losing their respect, as well as losing a friend or neighbour, or the liar may even end up losing their means of making a living. There is also the Jewish tradition of linking illness caused by speaking evil of someone or telling lies. For example, Moses’ sister Miriam criticized Moses for marrying a Cushite wife, and Miriam ended up with a skin disease, her skin turned as white as snow (Numbers 12:10). 

That reminds me of the following story: The People’s Power revolt that toppled Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in February, 1986, was perhaps the most thoroughly chronicled popular uprising in modern times. Legions of foreign journalists covered it, and each scene of the unfolding drama was instantly broadcast around the world. Yet remarkably few details emerged about how the rebellion began and why Marcos failed to overcome the lightly armed rebel forces once it was under way. The result, says Bryan Johnson, who was in Manila for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, is a “massive misunderstanding” of the revolt that brought President Corazon Aquino to power. 

According to Johnson, the rebellion’s most durable myth concerns the role of Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defence minister, and the reformist military officers who supported his challenge to Marcos. After Enrile barricaded himself in Manila’s Camp Aguinaldo along with Deputy Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Fidel Ramos and 200 armed men, Marcos went on national T.V. to accuse his colleague of planning a coup. At the time, most Filipinos dismissed Marcos’s charges as another charade by a pathological liar. But those involved now admit that before Marcos discovered their plot, they had planned to attack the presidential palace, imprison the first family and set up a provisional ruling council. “For once in his life, Marcos was telling the truth,” says one of the cabal. “And nobody believed him.”

This is a tragic example of someone who ruined their reputation because of their lies. Marcos had lied to the Philippine people so much that the people had totally lost their trust in him. They believed he was no longer capable of speaking the truth.2 Marcos’s lying led him to take refuge in Hawaii. Perhaps all of his lying was linked to his death in Honolulu of kidney, heart and lung failure. Over the years, there have been several law suits, and many victims and victims’ families of Marcos’s brutal dictatorship have been compensated. 

So, as the psalmist so wisely teaches: “Would you like to enjoy life? Then fear the LORD, revere and obey God, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies.” Then you do not have to worry about looking for feathers that have blown away in the wind; or having to flee to another country for refuge because of the consequences of telling lies. Your life will be blessed, and you will be a blessing for others as well. Amen—by God’s grace, may it be so for each one of us! 

1 Wm. R. White, Stories For Telling: A Treasury for Christian Storytellers (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p. 73.

2 Maclean’s, May 18, 1987, p. 54.