A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Lent 5 ~ Psalm 130
I don’t know about you, but I’ve really been enjoying our journey through the psalms this Lent. We’ve had the privilege of spending some real quality time with some of the most beautiful and moving passages in the bible. This week is no exception. We get Psalm 130 this week, and the first line is one of those verses that just reverberates through time – “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice.” So much emotion, so much honesty, so much vulnerability, so much trust, so much faith, all crammed into so few words.
It’s said that John Wesley heard this psalm performed as a choir anthem in church on a certain morning, and that it was one of the influences that attuned his heart to God’s presence which he felt so profoundly later that same day – the day he famously said his “heart was strangely warmed” and he came to his own, personal, real awareness of God’s presence. The day he really came to deep faith – a day years after he’d been ordained. Yes, he was hearing Luther’s introduction to Romans being read that night when the warmth came, but his heart was softened up by this psalm. In other words, Psalm 130 helped to prepare him to be ready to hear God’s word and experience God’s presence in a deeper way than he had ever known before.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice.” You get the sense that the writer is in trouble and they’re desperately calling out for help – and yet you also get the sense that they have every expectation that God will, in fact, hear, and respond.
The structure of the psalm is quite beautiful too. It moves from sadness, and humility, and lament, and plea, to faith, and hope, and trust. And not only is there a movement from darkness to light, there’s also a movement from the individual to the communal – from one person’s experience of God to all the people. v.7 “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” The psalmist’s journey is paralleled by the nation’s journey. Henri Nouwen once wrote, “That which is most personal is most universal.”
Perhaps what attracts us to writing like this is that it doesn’t pretend to start with sunshine and flowers, but rather begins in the gritty reality of life. Out of the depths the psalmist cries to God. That’s pretty universal. We’ve all been there. We all know the murky, chaotic, cold waters of the depths: Times that feel like they’ll last forever when you’re in them with no relief in sight; Times when you’re at the absolute end of your rope and you’re not sure where to turn. But then you remember, and you turn to God.
The first four verses really lay out some heavy duty theological ideas – the reality of darkness, the assurance of faith, and the character of God.
Verses 1-2 – I’m in trouble – I cry out – I know and trust that God hears me.
Verses 3-4 – Why do I trust? Because I know God doesn’t keep score – that God’s character is forgiveness, wholeness, blessing, and shalom. And so I’m in awe – I revere God for being who God is. (Some translations say “fear God” there, but it really means to be awestruck.)
Indeed, despite some very loud (but, for me, very poor) theology out there, God does not keep score – not of the bad stuff that might prevent you from thinking you qualify to seek wholeness and harmony with God – and not of the good stuff either (!) in order to prevent you from thinking you’re earning points with God by being good. So if it’s not about losing or earning points, what’s it about? We know this – it’s about Presence.
Are any of you scuba divers? I’ve snorkelled but I’ve never scuba-ed. I’ve heard stories about people who get down really deep in a dive and they lose their bearings, and feel claustrophobic and disoriented, and they start to panic. Their imagination tells them that they don’t have any air to breathe, even though their tanks are full and functioning properly. Their mind, in a way, gets engulfed by the darkness – the depths – and they convince themselves that they’re in peril – so they wildly and desperately try to get to the surface as fast as they can and in doing so can cause themselves all sorts of trouble.
What they need to do is to relax – to trust that even though they’re in the depths that they still actually have air, and that to get themselves ‘right’ again they need to patiently float up to the surface – even if it feels counter-intuitive. Trusting that the air is there is critical.
This psalmist is a person of deep, mature faith. Even in the darkest depths they had the presence of mind to reach out to God’s presence (which, of course, was there in the depths to be reached out to all along) and trust – waiting – realizing that no Santa Claus god was going to pop up and make everything better with a wave of a magic wand. Waiting – waiting – trusting – hoping (and we know that hoping is different from wishing – hope means a trusting assurance that something will happen – it’s expectation, not wishing). Mature faith expects the depths, and is content to wait for light – more than those who watch for the morning.
That’s a really interesting verse. “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” (Psalm 130:6) The imagery is about sentinels or those who have the night watch – those who work the night shift. They carry the burden of being responsible for what happens when no one else is keeping watch – of working through the dark times. They trust that the morning is going to come – they’re certain of it – but when you’re on the night shift morning never comes fast enough.
Have you ever awoken at 3 or 4 in the morning? It can feel like such a lonely, forlorn, sad, dark time. That old saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” is absolutely true. But – for the person of faith – like the psalmist, like you! – mixed in with the waiting is the absolute assurance that the light of the morning is going to be dawning for them very soon. It’s immanent.
And it needs to be said that it isn’t really us waiting on the morning, on the light – it isn’t us sitting around impatiently waiting for God to make an appearance. It’s God actually waiting for us. God is waiting for us!
God is with us in the depths. God is with us while we wait, for God. It’s quite a beautiful paradox. But since God is ever-present – omni-present – then we never actually have to wait for God. But it sure feels that way sometimes.
That scuba diver probably feels like it’s an eternity before they get up to the surface and can finally breathe – even as they’re actually already breathing on the way up. They never stopped – they just thought they did.
And so we speak of yearning for the God who is already present – of finding the God who already resides within us – of hoping for a glimpse of the light that already shines on and in us.
Because we’re people of faith who rely on and expect the fullness of God’s light that we have known, when we experience those chaotic ‘depths’ times it makes us yearn for God’s fullness even more, because we know what we’re missing and we want it back. And as people of faith we also know two key things: 1) you can’t just make it happen – you can’t push the river – you can’t force yourself into light – you have to relax into it and allow it in, and 2) we were probably the ones who walked away from the light, or built barriers between us and the light, in the first place. You might have to kick down some of the barriers you’ve put up to reveal the light – but it was always, and will always be, already there, waiting.
We haven’t talked much about Jesus on our Lenten journey this year, so I want to bring him back into our conversation today. Next week is Palm Sunday when we celebrate or mark Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, on a donkey, in a parade of palms. If you’re new to the rhythms of the Christian year, this is all part of a time of preparation for Holy Week when Jesus has the Last Supper, gets arrested, tried, and convicted, is crucified, dies, is buried, and is experienced as risen two days later. It’s quite a week! In fact, it’s the most important week of the year for followers of Jesus’ Way. Christmas pales in comparison to Easter.
So, are you ready for all this? Because a week from now we’re going to follow Jesus into the depths, so we’d better have our own feet solidly on holy ground so that we never lose sight of the light of the morning (Easter) no matter how dark it seems. The depths are inevitable – either because of our own doing or because of circumstance. There’s no avoiding them. Not even Jesus could avoid the depths.
The matter of faith is how you move through those depths – in fear, in panic, in anger, in confusion, or in confident hope, and trust, and faith – knowing that darkness is not the final word. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!”
Lamenting, or complaining, or crying out, are actually essential to your faith life, because without them you can’t be honest, and open, and real. And here’s another paradox – every time we put on a fake smile and say nothing’s wrong when we’re dying inside – or muster all our strength to hold it together on Sunday morning because we wouldn’t want anyone to see we’re struggling – every time we do that stuff we’re actually building more barriers between ourselves and God – and our depths get darker.
As Plato is thought to have said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And Jesus said, “It’s ok to be last – for in God the last shall be first” – because they’ll stop trying to hide from God, and they’ll strike out or cry out from their depths, breaking down their self-imposed barriers, and allowing our waiting God to be present for them.
Look, sometimes life is hard. It’s ok to lament. It’s ok to worry from time to time. It’s ok to be mad at God when you find yourself in the depths. But never forget that it’s temporary. You’re never alone, or abandoned, or forsaken even though it may feel that way – because there’s light – not at the end of the tunnel, but with you, right where you are. It may be a bit obscured from your perception, but it’s there.
So go ahead and shake your fist at God (God can take it), and cry out from your depths – and know that in the shaking and crying God is Present! – drawing you up from the depths into more light – slowly, gently, sometimes imperceptibly, but it’s happening. You can absolutely trust in that because of one fundamental truth – it’s God’s nature to love – even you, even me.
And know this – if you could hear God say one sentence to you today it would not be “You’re sinful” or “You’re bad” or “You deserve that darkness”. No. Never. It would probably be something more like “I’ve been waiting.” Or, “I miss you.”
Listen carefully here because I’m about to say the best thing you’ll hear all day – maybe all year. As much as you yearn for God’s presence, God yearns for your presence infinitely more. God is waiting.