Sunday, June 28, 2015

Out of the Depths (a sermon on Psalm 130)

When I was in college my Old Testament professor used to say, ‘the rest of the Bible speaks to us, but the Psalms speak for us’. I think this is true, and I’m really glad that we use them week by week in our Anglican worship.

The Book of Psalms is a book of prayers written by Old Testament people; some of them perhaps date as far back as the time of David, a thousand years before Jesus, while others are more recent. In the psalms we’ll find the whole breadth of human experience and emotion – joy and suffering, praise and anger, love and hate – every part of our human life, even the nasty parts, all presented to God in prayer. I hope you’re getting to know the psalms, and I hope you read them regularly.  This extraordinary collection of prayers is telling us that every part of our human life can be prayed; there’s no experience, and no emotion, that can’t be brought up in our conversations with God. The psalms invite us to be honest and to be ourselves in our prayers. God knows all about us anyway, so we may as well tell him the truth!

Today’s psalm, Psalm 130, is definitely speaking for us in our troubles. It speaks of a painful aspect of our human experience, when we say to ourselves, “I’m in trouble, and it’s my fault: I’m the one that caused it”. So we’re not only dealing with despair and difficulty, but guilt as well. If we’re religious people, we may find ourselves thinking “God must be punishing me for what I did”.

This was a common view in Old Testament times: the idea that if you were suffering, you had obviously done something wrong, and God was punishing you for it. I say this was a common Old Testament view, but of course it’s still with us; we still hear people who are going through hardship asking, “What have I done to deserve this?”

But even in the Old Testament not everyone agrees with this, and when we turn to the New Testament we come across a completely different view. In John chapter 9, Jesus’ disciples looked at a man who had been born blind, and they asked Jesus, “Who sinned – him or his parents?” Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Throughout the gospels Jesus lives out a message of grace, which is God’s unconditional love for all people, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the woman caught in the act of adultery at the beginning of John chapter 8, and even his own friend Peter, who denied him three times. In each case, instead of sending trouble on the sinner to punish them, Jesus is reaching out to them with the message of God’s steadfast love, and is calling them to come home to a God who is more than ready to welcome them.

Psalm 130 is one of those places in the Old Testament where we catch a glimpse of this truth as well. Let’s explore it together. I’m going to use the pew Bibles, the NRSV translation, rather than the BAS which we prayed a few minutes ago, because there’s one word that I think is translated much better in the NRSV; I’ll point it out when we get to it!

So let’s start by asking ourselves, what is the writer of this psalm experiencing? Look at verses 1-2:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
The ‘depths’ are a common Old Testament metaphor for suffering, despair, and depression. The writer is talking about the ocean depths, or maybe the floods: ‘Lord, I’m drowning in despair here!’ There’s another example of it in Psalm 69 where we read these words:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God (Psalm 69:1-3).

Our readings for today give us examples of these depths. In our first lesson, David is crying out to God in grief for his dear friend Jonathan, who has been killed in battle with the Philistines. Grief, we know, is one of the hardest things we go through as humans – the death of someone we love, and the continual experience of their absence, is something we never really get over. And of course, the more we loved them, the harder it is to deal with.

In our gospel one of the characters in the story is going to deal with that as well. Jairus has a little daughter, and he’s frantic with worry about her; she’s very ill, and indeed is at the point of death. The serious illness of a much-loved child is one of the great fears of all parents, isn’t it? And if you’ve lost a child, you know how black those particular depths can be.

There’s also a woman who has been suffering hemorrhages for twelve years; she’s spent a lot of money on doctors, and we can guess that she’s prayed a lot too, but nothing has changed. Twelve years is the age of Jairus’ little girl; all the time that Jairus and his family have been enjoying their dear daughter, this woman has been suffering, and there has been no relief. A long, chronic illness, and years of unanswered prayer: that’s a very, very dark valley.

In 2 Corinthians 8 there are hints of another dark valley. Paul is organizing a relief fund in all his Gentile churches to help the Christians back in Jerusalem, who for some reason are going through a time of severe economic hardship. Very few of us have to deal with that sort of thing; even if we’ve been out of work for a while, we usually haven’t had to worry about where our next meal is coming from. But of course, there are people in the world who are overwhelmed with worry about that; they have no idea whether or not they’ll be able to eat today.

So these are some of the ‘depths’ that Bible people experienced – bereavement, chronic illness, unanswered prayer, crushing poverty. They are with us still, of course, along with many other hard circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us.

I wonder what ‘depths’ you have experienced, that have led you to cry out to God in fear or desperation? Maybe it was the depths of grief at the loss of a loved one, or maybe it was panic when you found yourself in serious financial difficulties, or maybe lost a job that you were depending on. Maybe it was the pain of the breakup of a marriage, or conflict with children or parents. Maybe it was the unexpected diagnosis of a serious illness. Or maybe it was a sense of guilt at some things you had done, and a fear that God had turned his back on you and abandoned you.

These are all common human experiences; we all go through them, whether we’re Christian or not. Sometimes it’s harder for us as Christians, because we’ve been told that if we follow Christ, God will always bless us and look after us. So we find ourselves asking, “Have I done something wrong that he’s punishing me for?” Or again, we’ve been taught that we’ll always be joyful if the Holy Spirit lives in us, and now we’re not feeling that joy.

So how does the writer of Psalm 130 deal with this experience? What does he have to say to God? Where does he find hope in the midst of despair? Let me point out a few things to you.

First, the writer arrives at what seems to us to be a blindingly obvious conclusion, but it’s surprising how many people don’t seem to get there without some help. What’s the conclusion? Simply this: If God was sending thunderbolts to strike sinners dead, there’d be no one left standing. Look at verses 3-4:
If you, O Yahweh, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
Of course, we tend to think of ‘sinners’ as being people who are guilty of some particularly heinous sin. What we classify as a ‘heinous’ sin, of course, changes with our culture. To some people, it’s anything to do with sex; to others, it’s anything to do with social injustice. In the Middle Ages, it was daring to charge interest when you lent money to anyone!

But we Christians can’t be so selective in our definition of sin, can we? In most of our services we confess our sins together, saying “We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves”. This, of course, is based on Jesus’ two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If we’ve neglected to do this, then we are sinners. And as soon as you start defining sin to include the good things we don’t do, then we know we’re all nailed! As Paul says in Romans 3, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ – which is pretty much a New Testament Christian way of saying exactly what our psalm writer said.

So that’s the first thing the writer reflects on: everyone is a sinner, so whatever else my troubles might be, they can’t be God’s punishment for my sins, because if they were, everyone would be going through the same punishment. The writer then goes on to reflect on three aspects of God’s character that give us hope.

First, God is a God of forgiveness. Verse 4 says, ‘But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered’. The wording seems a little strange to us, but if we read the psalm as a whole, we can see that this ‘with you’ language is the writer’s way of pointing out different aspects of God’s character; he might say ‘there is courage with you’ or ‘there is patience with you’. So in verse 4 we have ‘forgiveness’, and in verse 7 we read ‘For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem’. And these three ‘with you’ characteristics turn out to be just the things that give us hope in our despair.

So – first, forgiveness. We who follow Jesus, of course, don’t need to be in doubt about that. Over and over, Jesus met people who were in despair over their guilt and assured them of God’s forgiveness. He reached out to people who were considered to be the worst sinners, to the point that he was even described by his enemies as the ‘friend of sinners’ (hint: they didn’t think that was a compliment!). He taught us that God is like the father who welcomes the prodigal son home after he’s wasted all his property, or like a king who forgives an embezzling servant a debt bigger than the entire revenue of the kingdom. Paul says, ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). ‘There is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered’.

Secondly, God is a God of steadfast love. This is why I like the NRSV better than the BAS translation of this psalm. The BAS says, ‘for with the Lord there is mercy’; the NIV says ‘for with the Lord there is unfailing love’, which is a little better. The Hebrew word is ‘chesed’, which I think means ‘love with muscles attached to it’, ‘stubborn love’, ‘love that never gives up’. And so the NRSV has this wonderful phrase, ‘steadfast love’.

What’s it telling us? It’s saying that God has made a covenant with us that he will not break. In that covenant, he has adopted us as his children, forgiven our sins, given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and promised that nothing can ever separate us from his love. His love for us is patient, stubborn, steadfast and sure, and we can count on it. His love will never let us go. Never.

So God is a God of forgiveness, and God is a God of steadfast love. Thirdly, God is a God who comes to the rescue. The NRSV uses the old word ‘redeem’; it says in verses 7-8, ‘…and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’.

The word ‘redeem’ is often used in the Bible to mean paying a price to set slaves free, or rescue them. But it’s also used in a military sense: God rescuing his people from a hopeless situation by what the Bible calls ‘the strength of his right hand’. Our psalm writer asks the question ‘What enemies are too strong for me to defeat all by myself?’ and comes up with the surprising answer, ‘My sins’:
‘…with (Yahweh) there is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’ (vv.7b-8).

Yes, our own sins, or ‘iniquities’ as the psalm calls them, can be our worst enemies. How many times have we made New Year’s resolutions about dealing with our bad habits, and how many times have we broken them? And, on a less humorous note, how many times have we said of someone, “He’s his own worst enemy?” Positive change is very, very difficult for us humans; if eternal life is a reward for good behaviour, we’re in a desperate situation indeed.

So once again, we’re back to forgiveness. Jesus says in Mark’s gospel, ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). In the original language, the word ‘ransom’ comes from the same root as ‘redeem’ or ‘redemption’. Jesus is using the illustration of the slave market: we are slaves of evil and sin, but he’s given himself on the cross to ransom us from slavery, so that we can be forgiven and go free.

We’ve seen that God is a God of forgiveness, a God of steadfast love, and a God who rescues us from our sins. What’s the conclusion? The conclusion is two words: ‘Hope’, and ‘wait’. Look at verses 5-6:
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
This is honest and realistic; the writer isn’t promising that the answer to our prayers is going to come instantly. Whatever this ‘flood’ is that’s threatening to overwhelm him, he’s not expecting that God will instantly taking it away. Far from it: he’s expecting to have to wait.

And this lines up very much with life as I experience it. My Dad told me once, “I’ve been impatient all my life, so every time I’ve really wanted something, the Lord has made me wait for it!” And I remember that in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells us a parable to encourage us ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’ (Luke 18:1); there would have been no need for him to tell that parable if we always got everything we asked for right away!

So – keep on praying, and don’t lose heart. ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope’. Whatever trouble we’re going through, let’s keep bringing it to God in prayer, confident that God is not punishing us, because he’s a God of forgiveness and steadfast love. This trouble we’re going through isn’t a big stick he’s using to beat us up or punish us. Rather, he’s walking through our dark place with us, just as he came and lived and died as one of us in Jesus, experiencing all the trouble that we go through as human beings, all the way to death on a cross. So we can come to him with confidence, knowing that nothing can ever change his steadfast love for us.


As we finish, why don’t you put your own name in the last two verses of this psalm? ‘O Tim, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him there is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem me from all my iniquities’. Amen.

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