The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Aug. 9, 2015
Today’s psalm must have been written by someone who was afraid of water. He didn’t grow up in the land of lakes like I did in Michigan, or along the Gulf of Mexico here in Florida. Palestine is a land of stones and stubborn soil, mountain crags, dry gulches, plastered cisterns, and gritty winds. In some places the season’s entire rainfall comes in a single gully-washer. Alas for you if you are downstream from that cloudburst. In the language of Psalm 69, you may enter “the depths of the water,” and be “swept away” by the flood.
Palestine’s western boarder is the Mediterranean Sea, but Israel never became a seafaring nation. They never controlled the coastline and generally left marine adventures to the Phoenicians who lived to their north. The ocean remained an unfamiliar place to Israel. Its stormy waters became a symbol of chaos. It is a mark of Jonah’s desperation that he went to Joppa and boarded a ship thinking that in the chaos of the sea he could escape the presence of God. It became a metaphor for deep distress, for turmoil of every kind, for whatever peril, physical or spiritual.
Many commentators think that today’s Psalm was written by King David when he began to experience the judgment that the prophet Nathan predicted would come upon him. We heard the story of David’s sin in last week’s Old Testament lesson. He had seen Bathsheba sunbathing naked on her rooftop near the King's palace in Jerusalem. He decided he had to have her. Who can resist the king’s command? When she got pregnant with his child he called Uriah, one of his chief officers, to return from battle on furlough, hoping Uriah would think the child was his when the baby was born.
Things didn’t work out as David had hoped. Uriah, a man of great integrity, felt it improper to have relations with his wife while his men were risking their lives in battle.
So when David learned of this, he had Uriah placed in the head of the next skirmish where Uriah was killed. Judgment fell. Bathsheba’s child died. David was devastated. In the opening line of today’s psalm he wrote: “Out of the depths have I cried to you O Lord”
But it is not only in response to judgment, that we find ourselves “in the depths.”
In today’s Old Testament reading, Elijah the prophet finds himself all alone in the wilderness under a broom tree. He had just fled for his life from the pagan queen Jezebel. He is depressed and asks God to let him die. “It is enough now, O Lord, Take away my life for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he went to sleep hoping he would never wake up.
Have you ever felt that way? Often, we feel trapped by life’s circumstances. We are in the depths. If you feel that way this morning this psalm’s for you!
Hear its words again:
Out of the depths have I cried unto you, O Lord.
Lord hear my voice:
Let your ears be attentive
To my plea for mercy.
If you keep account of sins, O Lord,
Who will survive?
Yours is the power to forgive
So that you may be held in awe.
I look to the Lord
I look to him:
I await His word
I am more eager for the Lord
Than the watchman for the morning,
I say more than they that watch for the morning.
Let Israel hope in the Lord
For with the Lord is steadfast love
And great power to redeem it. It is he who will redeed Israel
From all their iniquities.
The psalm falls into three parts. I want to reflect briefly this morning on each section. The parts can be summarized in three words: Prayer, Hope, Redemption.
A.“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
When we are in the depths, we pray. This seems obvious and easy. I remember once I was in a plane. I looked out the window and saw flames coming out of one of the jet’s engine. Just then the pilot’s voice came over the loud speaker telling us that we were about to make an emergency landing. I don’t think I prayed so hard in all my life as I did during the next ten minutes. Relief flooded over me when we were safely on the ground and fire trucks were coming toward us in all directions. We pray in such circumstances, or rather we bargain with God, “Lord if you get me to the land in safety, I will serve you more faithfully.”
But what about the disorder that goes on and on? What if someone you love doesn’t come out of a coma? What if it looks like you're trapped in life for a long time? What if nothing changes, and despair becomes pervasive? It is in this kind of circumstance—when we are in the depths—that prayer is most timely, most urgent and most difficult.
Spiritual fatigue begins to set in. We need to find ways to sustain the life of faith and devotion. Scripture passages or prayers that express your need become vital. When the pressure is great, you can say them over and over again.
Today’s psalm is a good example. “Out of the depths I cry to you O God. Lord hear my voice, let your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.” These words and others like them, spoken from the heart, will hold your spirit steady. They will deflect despair. They will lift your mind Godward. The Bible abounds in such sustaining passages. Allow them to sustain you!
B. “If you keep account of sins, O Lord, who will survive?”
The prayer continues, but it disappoints us by talking about sin and forgiveness. “If you keep account of sins, O Lord, who will survive?” Remember the paralytic who was let down through the roof into the room where Jesus was teaching. Jesus brushed the sand and plaster out of his hair and said, “Son your sins are forgiven!” At this point it is a wonder the man did not explode, “Forgiven?” “Hell no, I don’t want to be forgiven, I want to be healed!”
It is human nature that when we are in despair we want to be rescued. We cry out “Why me, Lord? “What did I do to deserve this? Get me out of this mess!” But this psalm does not go there. It shifts our attention from our distressing circumstances to our utter dependence upon God’s mercy. “If you keep account of sins, O God, who will survive?” It is a rhetorical question. The answer is of course, that no one will survive.
When we measure ourselves by the sovereign holiness of God who makes covenant with us we can only say with St. Paul, all of us have sinned and have fallen short of His glory.
That is why, in the depths, we appeal to God’s mercy. That is why, in distress, what we most need to do is to get rid of the idea that we have some kind of right to be better off.
Of course, life is often unfair. But on the other hand, if God were totally fair with us, who could survive?
C. “with you there is forgiveness.”
And that is how the prayer continues: “with you there is forgiveness.” God doesn’t keep account of sins, Abraham believed God, that is he trusted God, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. He does not insist that our sins and mistakes be charged to our account, but freely and graciously forgives.
While the mood of the first segment of Psalm 130 is subdued and somber, the mood of the second segment shifts to eagerness and hopefulness. Listen to the passage.
“I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait. And in his word do I hope. I am more eager for the Lord than are watchmen for the morning.”
Just what does the Bible mean by hope? Two other words come to my mind immediately. Expectancy, Waiting.
If we are confident something will happen we expect it. Suppose, for example, that you are a contractor. You bid on a big job, and when the bids are opened, yours is the lowest bid. You are told to expect a signed contract by the end of the week.
On the other hand we sometimes have the experience of waiting. An uncle of mine had surgery for prostrate cancer. He then had radiation treatment and chemotherapy. Now he is waiting to see if this treatment has been successful. That was over 15 years ago. Today at 90 years old and is still going strong!
In between expecting and waiting is hope. Someone at your firm has just resigned unexpectedly. You are next in line. Suddenly you have reason to hope for advancement.
These three experiences differ in their emotional intensity. Both expecting and waiting tend to have low intensity. In waiting we are often merely marking time, allowing the hours and days to pass. With expecting, the emotional tension is also low because we have confidence that it will happen. We can simply relax until it takes place. Hoping, on the other hand, is marked by high intensity. The goal has an emotional hold on us. It is like a drawn bow, with the energy raised to its peak potential and held there.
Is this highly intense expectant waiting what the Bible means by hope? Not quite. For one thing the distinction between waiting and hoping is less clear. For another, hope is not the drawn bow of emotional intensity based on whether we think it will happen.
Biblical hope is first of all eager trust in God. Its object is God, not rescue from the depths. It is one of life’s best-kept secrets. If you shift your longing from hoping for changed circumstances to desiring to experience God’s presence and power, you inevitably experience freedom and peace.
The psalm uses the image of a “watchmen eager for the morning” to express this. In today’s language, this is the night security guard making his rounds, punching in at every station, shining his flashlight into dark corners and murky nooks. He pays attention to his job—he better or he may get a bad surprise—but he also thinks about the end of the shift, the end of sleepiness, the end of the boring routine, the end of uncertainty around every corner and the risk in every shadow, the freedom daylight will bring. He pays attention to his job, but he is eager for the morning.
This should characterize our longing for God. We reach out. We open our lives. We desire Him beside us. We give ourselves away in trust and confidence. We are more eager for God than watchers are for the morning.
Finally, comes redemption. The psalm goes on to say: “O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with Him is steadfast love and great power to redeem. It is He who will redeem Israel.”
The psalm closes with a move from the individual “I,” to the community of faith, the church. All that is true of us as individual believers in this psalm is also true of the Church. We pray in our distress, and we give ourselves to God in eager longing. We also wait for the redemption yet to come in God’s plan for us.
The Church’s hope—the hope of God’s people together—also grows out of our hope as individuals, but its power and strength is multiplied. As a single believer, I look to God with eager longing. I expect immediacy and nearness. God’s great power to forgive is at hand. But when I join with Christians in worship and service, the power of the Church’s hope returns strength to us that we can never get on our own. We receive gifts of confidence from our gathering together which we cannot find alone. Today I declare that it is true for each us as individual Christians, it is also true for us as “St. Paul’s Episcopal Church!
As I once heard Martin Luther King say: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles they shall run and not be weary they shall walk and not faint.” Thanks be to God. Amen.