I have an odd mix of feelings when I read the first few verses of Psalm 97 (LXX):
Sing unto the Lord a new song, for the Lord has done wondrous things. His right hand and His holy arm have worked salvation for Him. The Lord has made known His salvation; in the sight of the nations He has revealed His righteousness.
My first feeling when reading these verses is somewhat along the line of what the psalmist probably intended to invoke when he first wrote them. It is a feeling that I used to have when as a Protestant many years ago I would sing these words to a triumphant melody. It is the feeling of winning, or of being sure that you are going to win. It is like having all the trump cards, or like getting picked (even if last) to be on the team with all the best players in a school-yard game of kickball. As far as feelings go, it feels great.
The psalmist is prophesying, though he may not have realized it at the time. He probably thought that he was merely rehearsing the events of Gods deliverance of Israel from Egypt. God’s right hand and holy arm did specific acts (in the sight of the nations) to make Israel “win”: God parted the Red Sea, God sent plagues on Egypt and destroyed Pharaohs’ army, God drove out the inhabitants of Canaan. God was on Israel’s team. God is on the team of those devoted to Him! Ah, what a glorious feeling.
The prophetic significance of these words, however, were not revealed until they were fulfilled in Christ. Christ, the Right Hand of God, works salvation by destroying death by death. The salvation shown to all the nations through the preaching of the Gospel is that death has been destroyed by the death and resurrection of Christ. All are invited to enter into this life of resurrection by being united to Christ in Baptism and thus being united to His death. Here’s where the feelings start to get mixed up.
The salvation of resurrection comes by joining Christ in His death. But death sure doesn’t feel like anything close to winning. In fact, death feels an awful lot like losing. I don’t like that feeling.
Of course, feelings are tricky things. They are not only fickle, but feelings can also be trained; they can be guided. For example, if one’s goal is to get his or her own way, then losing will always feel pretty miserable. However, if one’s goal is God’s will (as in “nevertheless not my will but thine be done”), then winning or losing become irrelevant. However, “God’s will” is a slippery concept, so let me concretize it a little.
God’s plan, or the specific sequence of events that God “wants” to take place, is really beyond my ability to figure out. It is impossible for a human being to know with complete certainty whether the left or right path is God’s will. If it were possible, there would be no place for faith. However, certain aspects of God’s will are pretty clear. It is generally God’s will that I take the lower seat. It is God’s will that I consider others as better than myself. It is God’s will that I be the servant of all. We can be certain that whether we take the left or right path, all of the injunctions of the Gospel remain God’s will. God’s will is that I become like Christ. And so, if my goal is to become like Christ, then however the circumstances play out–whether I win or lose in the various encounters of life–I win, if in the process I maintain the fruit of the Spirit in my heart. And that feels neither like winning nor losing. It feels like love, joy and peace; it feels like faith and hope; it feels not like God is on my side, but that I am on God’s.
The feeling of triumph is conflicted within me when the words of the psalmist pass through the prophetic prism. I confront what someone has called “the bad news of the Good News.” Life is in death. But death is not the end; it is the beginning, and not a beginning that starts sometime later (as in pie in the sky). It is a death and beginning that start right now: Today is the day of salvation. Today I begin dying–in small ways, nothing heroic–and today I experience the resurrection. Winning or losing mean a little less to me today. The joy of the resurrection trumps all.