You know it is going to be an interesting week of sermon preparation when you open a commentary on the Gospel lesson and read this, “The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is hardly a text one would spontaneously choose for a sermon.”
Fortunately, that is not the only scripture reading we heard today.
In fact, it seems ironic that on this day when we hear one of the most gruesome and grisly stories in the Bible, we also hear some of the most beautiful verses in all of scripture.
They are in Psalm 85:
“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
To fully appreciate the beauty and meaning of this poetic verse it needs to be put in context. If you were paying close attention you may have noticed that the lectionary did not include the first seven verses of the psalm. Those verses shed light on what we did read today.
Scholars think that Psalm 85 was written after the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from almost 60 years of exile in Babylon, after the Babylonians laid siege to the holy city. Those who were not killed were captured and forced into exile.
Now Babylon has fallen to Persia, and the Israelites are finally allowed to return home.
It should be a happy time, but the Jerusalem they return to bears little resemblance to the holy city where they once lived. The Temple, the heartbeat and center of Jewish life, considered the very dwelling place of God, is in ruins. So is the rest of the city.
The Israelites may have returned home, but their struggles are not over. They have exchanged a life in exile for a life of uncertainty, fear, and doubt. They are crying out to God for help.
Psalm 85 is written to address a community in crisis.
The psalm begins with a reminder of how God has helped Israel in the past.
“You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, you have restored the good fortune of Jacob. You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins. You have withdrawn from your fury.”
The people are remembering, and perhaps reminding God, of their history, how in past difficult times God has responded with graciousness and forgiveness.
Then the psalm moves to the present with a cry for help.
“Restore us then, O God, let your anger depart from us. Will you be displeased with us for ever? Will you not give us life again, that we may rejoice in you?”
You’ve forgiven us and helped us in the past, please do so again, they plead.
Then, after hearing about God’s work in the past, and pleas to God in the present, we get to the part of the psalm we read today — a hope for a future of restored relationship between God and God’s people, and an imagining of the world as God would have it.
First, a promise on behalf of the people: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people, and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, God’s salvation is very near to those who fear him, and to those who turn their hearts to him.”
We’re listening God, and we’ll do what you want.
And then comes the message of hope. When the people turn toward God, and when God forgives them then “mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
Prosperity, truth, and peace will reign in the land.
This psalm was written 2,500 years ago to a particular people in a particular place. But one of the reasons scripture has stayed alive for centuries is that its ancient words so often speak truth to contemporary people and places.
We are hearing these words today as we return from an exile of sorts.
For almost 15 months, as the pandemic raged around us, most of us were separated from family and friends, from our offices and classrooms and churches, from restaurants and theaters, sporting events and concerts.
We were, indeed, in captivity of sorts. Our lives were turned upside down, surrounded by illness, death, and grief.
Now, thanks to God’s gift of scientists and vaccines, our exile is slowly ending. We’ve been reunited with family and friends. We’re back in church; classrooms will be open in the fall. Restaurants and concerts and baseball games are flourishing.
But like the Israelites, we may find that things have changed since we were forced into exile. The pandemic laid bare many of the other issues with which we as a nation struggle — access to health care, systemic racism, the growing disparity between rich and poor, threats to our democracy. Our buildings are standing, but at times it does feel like our society is crumbling.
We, too, are living with uncertainty, fear, and doubt.
We, too, hope for a time when mercy and truth meet together, when righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Mercy, truth, righteousness, and peace are all attributes of God. For a community, or a nation, to live according to God’s plan, then these same attributes must be a part of our common life.
If God is merciful, then we, too must show mercy. That means having compassion, especially for those who differ from us, or those in need. Mercy includes loving kindness, and forgiveness. It is at the core of how God’s people are to treat one another.
If God is truth, and values truth, then we also must value it. That means there is no place in God’s kingdom for outlandish conspiracy theories or lies. If we treat another as less than a child of God we are denying the truth of who they are. God has sent the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth.
God’s righteousness is shown in the divine faithfulness to the covenant God has made with creation and God’s people. We as a nation are righteous when we live as God would have us live — when there is true justice in the land, when all of God’s people have what they need not only to survive, but to thrive; when every person’s voice is heard; where there are no outcasts.
Righteousness is a key part of God’s peace. In Hebrew the word for peace is shalom. Shalom is not just the absence of war, but the presence of justice and righteousness.
Mercy, truth, righteousness, and peace. These are our guideposts; the things that will always point us toward God and bring us to God’s kingdom on earth.
Our first president, George Washington, cited these guideposts in his prayer for the new nation, which ends with these words:
“Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, love mercy, and to demean ourselves with the charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion….without which we can never hope to be a happy nation. Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”