Some of you know that my father has been in declining health on several fronts. A couple weeks ago I had to make an emergency trip down to Nashville, and I spent four days sitting in his hospital room, waiting for him to be well enough to get discharged to a nursing home short-term. As I sat there, the prayers that initially arose were those instinctive, self-focused pleas that you could sum up in the single word “Help.” Please let Dad be OK. Let them get his blood pressure back up. Please make the social worker answer the phone. Please help me sleep tonight.
We’ve all prayed things like that, which is perfectly appropriate and normal. All human beings have times when we dislike the way things are, and those of us who pray inevitably find ourselves asking God, over and over, to give us what we want instead of what we have. I’m grateful to know that the God who became incarnate in Jesus is a God who listens in love, even when what we say to him is expressing mostly our own desire for control.
But I’m also grateful, over years and years of praying the Psalms in the Daily Office, to have been gently schooled in another way of addressing God in times of pain and powerlessness. And this more Biblical kind of prayer is what I eventually found anchoring me, orienting me, by the hospital bed, rather than those instinctual prayers focused on trying to get my way.
You know, the Psalms give us a model prayer vocabulary; with repeated use, they soak us in the truth that God is there with us when we address him, that all of life can be lived in an open dialogue with God, and that there is a larger horizon and a deeper steadfastness out there in which to trust, even when life has sent us suffering. Today’s Psalm, 130, is a perfect example of that kind of prayer. I’d like you to take a look at it in your bulletin.
It starts: Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication. The Psalmist begins from this point of view, just like anybody: I’m in the depths, hear me, consider my point of view! Listen to me, God. That’s an authentic and normal way to pray. But the text doesn’t stay there.
Let’s read verses 2 and 3. If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand? For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared. Now that’s interesting. As soon as he mentions his own weakness and his own dilemma, the Psalmist is reminded of everyone’s weakness and everyone’s dilemma. The Psalmist remembers that it’s not just him – so much is amiss, and yet God is undaunted by that. With God is forgiveness, with God is the answer for everything that has gone amiss. The Psalmist’s problem, my problem, your problem, is at its root one instance of a bigger problem, the problem of a world in which alienation from God has infected everything and broken people and systems and creation in all kinds of ways.
Any problem we have, any injustice we see, any pain we face, is an example of the world being fallen. If you understand the world the way Scripture does, this is deeply comforting. You’re not alone. The universe is not ganging up on you personally. This is all part of the big picture caused by humanity’s refusal of God, and answered by God’s determination to forgive us and heal us.
So even as the Psalmist bewails the dilemma he and all people are in, we already see this movement of his eyes rising up to a wider horizon. And let’s watch it happen even more. Verses 4-5. I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning. This is the moment the Psalm turns from complaint to hope. From help me/ help us to: My soul waits for the Lord. The gaze moves from me and my problem, to us and our problem, all the way up to God himself, and that changes the game completely.
Psalm 130 is what is called a Lament Psalm, and nearly all lament psalms have that kind of turn in them. There is nearly always a moment where even in the midst of suffering, the reality of God reorients and regrounds the Psalmist. Jerome Creach, an OT scholar at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writes, “Lament… allows the worshipper to complain about injustice and to call on God to hear the cries of those who suffer…. Because lament is offered to [the God with whom we’re] in covenant relationship, however, lament also is praise, and a very important expression of praise at that. It gives evidence of faith worked out in the midst of hardship, hurt, and loss.”
The God with whom we’re in covenant relationship. As the Psalmist looks at God, he remembers a reality bigger than whatever he’s facing, and he reaffirms his attachment to God and his trust in God. So his world is no longer defined by the circumstances he’s lamenting; it’s defined by the God who is so much bigger than our circumstances.
And that’s how it works. If we belong to God, we know who God is. We know what he wants for us and for the world. We know he knows better than us what is needed. So in the hospital, if I can get my eyes off me and onto the God of the universe, I’m no longer waiting to get my way about the social worker or the blood pressure monitor. I’m waiting on the Lord. My hope is no longer in being able to get my control back. My hope is in the Lord.
And beautifully, the last section of the psalm finds the writer so grounded and strengthened by the steady presence and love of the God in whom he hopes, that he has the energy to turn outward and exhort others to receive the assurance and grounding he has received. O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
Mercy is not getting your way. Redemption is not regaining control. Mercy and redemption are located outside us, in the God to whom we belong and with whom we are in a covenant that will never end. God is not a butler, not a wellness coach, not an EMT to be contacted in our time of need, and then ignored the rest of the time. God is God.
And this is such good news. With the God to whom we have access through Jesus, we no longer have to hope in our own control. Even in the bad times, we can let God lead us into a larger, more spacious, more secure reality, assured that whatever happens, it will be OK. It will be OK, because this infinite, merciful, hope-worthy God is our God. Will you take out your bulletin and read the whole Psalm with me again, please?