A PASSING GUEST
Text: Psalm 39
Some psalms soar. “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there.” Some psalms make you want to dance. “Praise God with clanging cymbals. Praise God with loud clashing cymbals. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.” Some psalms wrap their arms around you like a loving parent: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Some psalms’ haunting words echo their way even into the mouth of Jesus. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Then there is Psalm 39. It is not my favorite psalm, not even close. When it appears in my daily devotions, I read it quickly on the way to more treasured psalms. Its images are ragged and edgy. Some of its theology – the way that it imagines God – simply makes me cringe. Its ending never approaches the notion of “soar.”
So, why devote an entire sermon to this less-than-favorite psalm when there are so many other treasured psalms from which to choose? Hopefully, that question will get answered by the time this sermon is over. Hopefully.
To get into the mood of this psalm, imagine Jerry Garcia or Allison Krause covering the old folk song, “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” The song begins, “I am a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe” and then in the second verse, it sings, “I know dark clouds will gather round me. I know my way is rough and steep.” The only hope offered in this old folk song is hope on the other side of the Jordan, beyond this fleeting, miserable life. When you sink into that mood or life thrusts you into that mood, you are ready to sing Psalm 39.
After the past pandemic years, an unending war in Ukraine, a looming recession, mass shooting nearly every weekend, and a Supreme Court decision on Friday that I find punitive and perplexing, some of us are ready to sing Psalm 39 right now. Indeed, in the middle of a hot Virginia June, you may find that this psalm matches your vocal range better than any other psalm in the Psalter.
“I will keep a muzzle on my mouth,” speaks the Psalmist in Psalm 39. He tries to keep it all inside, not to say anything to God that he will later regret. He tries to keep a stiff upper lip, but the Psalmist has learned, “I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me.” The Psalmist knew that some questions just won’t wait, “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.”
As you woke this morning, you may have noticed how quickly this year is passing, how quickly each day is passing, how quickly your life is passing. In your travels this summer, when you see family and friends, you may notice a certain frailty in someone that wasn’t there on the last visit. In the weeks and months ahead, you may start regular vigils for radiation or chemo or start keeping company with those who do.
The Psalmist reminds us of something no one wants to remember, that every human being is a mere breath, a puff of wind.” In Hebrew, “mere breath” is hebel or as the old Preacher repeats in Ecclesiastes, it is “vanity.” It is not always gazing at ourselves in the mirror; it is grasping how short and fleeting life really is.
Do you remember the parable of the rich, old fool in Luke’s Gospel? The fool is someone who never learns the “mere breath” lesson, who keeps building new silos, opening new IRAs, setting up new tax shelters, buying more and more stuff because life goes on and on and on. In this parable, the rich old fool dies never the wiser that life is fleeting no matter deep your pockets, no matter what your home address, no matter how many degrees hang in your study.
In Psalm 39, the Psalmist may whine with the best of them, but at least, he is no fool. He knows that life is fleeting and hard. I track with his understanding of life often more than his understanding of God. The Psalmist does not hesitate to lay all his misfortunes at the feet of God. Stung by a crippling illness or struck down by an unexpected lay-off or crushed by the end of a cherished romance or accused falsely of a horrendous crime or stripped of the right to make your own reproductive choice, it is easy to think, if not speak to God, “I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it . . . I am worn out by the blows you deal me.” The Psalmist has no doubt that life is hard and he has no doubt that life is hard because God has made it so.
People of faith have long been tempted to interpret their suffering as punishment or testing by God. This Psalmist wails at God, “Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand.” I do not believe that the Psalmist has his theology right here, but if he’s wrong about the nature of God, he stands in centuries of good company of those who have viewed and still view God this way.
You hear this view of God in the Gospel of John when the disciples speak of God as the cosmic tester and punisher? They ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parent that he was born blind?” In this brand of theology, every sin has its direct consequence and God stands ready to make sure that we suffer for every single sin. Jesus puts a dent in or at least introduces a question about this theology when he responds, “Neither has sinned.”
Whether right or not about God being the source of his affliction, who can argue with the Psalmist’s lament about the fleeting nature of life? Long before the folk tune was crafted, the Psalmist could have sung with gusto, “I am a poor wayfaring stranger.” In Psalm 39, the Psalmist sings, “I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” On this note, he and Jesus sing the same tune, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).
No matter how much we might like control and order, life will not finally be controlled or ordered and there is no extended life warranty that any of us can purchase, even rich fools. The sentiment of Psalm 39 is echoed in Psalm 90, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
As I get older, Psalm 39 hits closer to home. I do not share many of the Psalmist’s beliefs about a harsh, disciplinary God but his observations about the brevity of life hit far too close to home. Don’t you tire of looking in the mirror and knowing that no amount of Botox or Rogaine or “Just for Men” will change the fact that life is fleeting for you and for those you love?
“For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” That was the song sung by the sojourner Abraham as he left his home for a place unknown. That was the song sung by the Egyptian born Moses who sojourned in Midian. That was surely the song sung by Jesus as he resisted the call to stay in any one town and listen to an adoring crowd, but instead set his face to Jerusalem.
Psalm 39 can leave us depressed, yearning for more days on this earth and knowing that no amount of yearning finally matters. Read in conjunction with Luke’s parable of the rich fool, though, this Psalm can also set us free to embrace each new day as a treasured gift from God.
This Psalm can stir us to act now rather than assume we can act later, on a day when we have more time, more money, more energy. This Psalm can inspire us to speak out right now rather than wait until we have perfected the right words and the right strategy. This Psalm can dare us to live out our faith in Jesus rather than deferring to those who claim to follow a Jesus I do not know, a Jesus who looks and acts remarkably like they do.
Psalm 39 does not invite us into a careless life, devoid of planning or an unappreciative life, unable to feast in each new day, but it does invite us to sing to God with each day, both that “My hope is in you” and “I am your passing guest.” Psalm 39 invites us to celebrate today and not to presume on tomorrow, to sing a song that knows what the rich fool never lived long enough to learn.
I doubt if Psalm 39 will ever make my list of favorite psalms, but when I am tempted to buy one more thing because this latest thing will finally make me happy, I’ll thank the Psalmist and put the money back in my pocket. When I am tempted to hoard more stuff than I will ever use in ten lifetimes, I’ll thank the Psalmist and begin to give my stuff away. When I am tempted to think that my life has some sort of magical shield around it to protect me from the march of time and the harsh winds of adversity that sometimes blow, I’ll thank the Psalmist that each year, each month, each week, each night, each day that arrives on my doorstep is a treasured gift from God even to a passing guest like me.
Most importantly, when I am tempted to think that I can wait until tomorrow to work for God’s justice in the world, to defy injustice, and to demand a full measure of God’s mercy for those without resources and who cannot demand it for themselves, I’ll thank the Psalmist and get to work.
On second thought, maybe I appreciate Psalm 39 more today than I ever have before.