A friend once told me, “The lectionary is a great servant and a terrible master.” This wisdom can be applied at all sorts of times—when you’re sensing God prompting you to break from the lectionary all together on a Sunday or set of Sundays; or when the lectionary has conveniently cut out the most difficult aspects of a passage that must not be ignored; or when the lectionary text seems to cut right through the central thrust or core of a passage. If you’re preaching from Psalm 86 this week, you may want to consider the wisdom of allowing the lectionary to be your servant and expand the text to include the whole of Psalm 86 and not simply verses 11-17. This is because if you begin with verse 11, you will find you’ve cut the center of the psalm in two.
The structure of Psalm 86 points to core found in verses 10-11. “For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God. Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.” Many have noted the basic chiastic structure of Psalm 86. This structure like a “greater than” sign (>) narrows the focus of the psalmist’s prayer right to this central thought, focusing our attention on who God is and who God has shown God’s self to be. The scriptural allusions throughout the psalm draw us to the stories of God’s work in creation and with God’s people. Particularly, the psalmist points us to Exodus 34 and the story of God carving out the commandments of the covenant a second time and renewing the covenant with the people of Israel. With God’s gracious, covenant-making and keeping identity at the center, the psalmist seeks God’s guidance, help, and provision.
This psalm is well suited for a sermon that follows the text in form and function. Beginning with the experiences of your people within your local community (be that your church or otherwise), you may find it helpful to express the complaints and petitions that are close to the hearts of your people. Just as the psalmist expresses these things in the context of a relationship with God, so too might a sermon express complaints and cries for help within the context of relationship. Moving from complaint to the identity of God who has been proven to be faithful and true is crucial to the logic of the psalm and is essential for a sermon preached from it. This psalm provides a powerful opportunity to focus your people’s attention on the identity of our God whose past faithfulness, current presence, and future promises provide the ground on which our faith and trust may stand. When you’ve done this well and God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are shining, a return to the complaints and petitions allows for deeper trust and a greater confidence in walking in the ways of the Lord with an undivided and whole heart (vv. 11-12).
Of course, there are other ways you may want to structure a sermon based on Psalm 86, and in this psalm there are opportunities for sermons focused on discipleship, sanctification, and trusting God in times of trouble, just to name a few. Yet any sermon that desires to be faithful to the text must be sure to focus more on God and who God is than on any invitation to have an undivided heart, walk in God’s ways, or trust the Lord in the midst of trouble. The story of God’s covenantal faithfulness, graciousness, and steadfast love—and the invitation through Jesus to be part of that story—is both more compelling and more at the heart of this psalm than any focus on our devotion (v. 2), trust (v. 2) , prayers (vv.6-7), praise (v. 12), or long-lasting commitment (v.16).
Like the lectionary, commentary on the biblical text is a good servant and a terrible master. I hope you will find this guide to preaching this week a helpful servant in your homiletical preparations. Blessings on your preparation and proclamation.