Sunday, July 1, 2018

Out of the Depths (a sermon on Psalm 130)


The Book of Psalms is a book of prayer songs written by Old Testament people. Some of them perhaps date as far back as the time of David, a thousand years before Jesus; others are more recent. In the psalms we 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 everypart 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 behonest and beourselves 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. Of course, this view  is 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 look at a man who was born blind, and they ask Jesus, “Who sinned – him or his parents?” Jesus replies, “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- God’s unconditional love for all people - people like Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the bandit who was crucified with Jesus, and even Peter who denied three times that he even knew Jesus. In each case, instead of sending trouble on the sinner to punish them, Jesus reaches out to them with the message of God’s steadfast love.

Psalm 130 is one of those places in the Old Testament where we catch a glimpse of this truth. Let’s explore it together. I’m going to base my comments on the NRSV translation in our pew Bibles.

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 need your help! I’m in the depths of despair here!’

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. We know that grief 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 find it very hard to get through.

In our Gospel reading, one of the characters in the story is about to experience that grief. Jairus has a little daughter, and he’s frantic with worry about her; she’s very ill - at the point of death. The serious illness of a much-loved child is one of the great fears of all parents; if you’ve ever 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 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 lovely daughter, this poor woman has been suffering, and there’s been no relief. A long, chronic illness, and years of unanswered prayer - that’s a very, very dark valley. Some of you here today have been walking that 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 in this church 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.

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

I wonder what ‘depths’ youare experiencing that are causing you to cry out to God in fear or desperation? Maybe it’s the depths of grief at the loss of a loved one, or panic as you find yourself in serious financial difficulties. Maybe it’s the pain of the breakup of a marriage, or conflict with children or parents. Maybe it’s the unexpected diagnosis of a serious illness - perhaps a mental illness - that you just can’t find relief from. Maybe it’s a sense of guilt at some things you’ve done, and a fear that God has turned his back on you and abandoned you.

These are all common human experiences that many people go through, whether they’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 is it? 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 LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.

We tend to think of ‘sinners’ as people who are guilty of some particularly heinous sin – and what we classify as a ‘heinous’ sin 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 can’t be so selective in our definition of sin. In most of our services we confess our sins together: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves”. This 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’re sinners. And as soon as you start defining sin to include the good things we don’tdo, then we know we’re all included. As Paul says in Romans 3, ‘Allhave 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.

That’s the first thing the psalmist reflects on: everyoneis a sinner, so whatever else my troubles might be, they can’t be God’s punishment for my sins - 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 strange to us, but this ‘with you’ language is actually 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 Lordthere is steadfast love, and with himis 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. Of all people, we who follow Jesus don’t need to be in any doubt about that. Over and over Jesus met people who were in despair over their guilt, and he 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’ (they didn’t mean that as a compliment, by the way!). He taught us that God is like a father who welcomes his 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 forgivenesswith you, so that you may be revered’.

Secondly, God is a God of steadfast love.The Hebrew word is ‘chesed’, which means ‘stubborn love’, or ‘love that never gives up’. And so the NRSV has this wonderful translation, ‘steadfast love’.

What’s it telling us? It’s saying that God has made a covenantwith us that he will not break. In that covenant he’s 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 are the enemies that are too strong for me to defeat all by myself?’ And the surprising answer is, ‘My sins’:
‘…and with (the Lord) is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities’ (vv.7b-8).

In other words, 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.

Very, very difficult – but not impossible – at least, not with God. Jesus says, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God’ (Luke 18.27). ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6). Sometimes the Spirit’s power delivers us from the things that are binding us. Sometimes the Spirit gives us the strength to keep going, even though we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes the greatest gift the Spirit give us is the sense that we’re not alone - that God is with us – that right down here in the depths, when we’re tempted to despair, God will never let us go.

We’ve seen that God is a God of forgiveness, a God of steadfast love, and a God who rescues us from the sins that bind us. What’s the conclusion? The conclusion is two words: ‘Hope’, and ‘wait’. Look at verses 5-6:
waitfor the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waitsfor 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.

This lines up very much with life as I experience it. My Dad once said to me, “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.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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