The Synodical theme and text for the ELCE’s 2018 Synodical Convention raised a few eyebrows in some quarters. Here at Ascension, you were nicely quiet. While the first verse of the psalm was the reference, the synodical theme was summarised as ‘O Lord, what next?’.
I was happy to go with it. I liked its irony considering the changes the ELCE is facing in our structure. I liked that it reflected life from the point of view that we really don’t know what the next phone call / text/ Instagram / WhatsApp / email message might bring. Our world can change in a second. And I liked that it is from a lament psalm and this warms my inner – I hope not cynical but realistic – self that sometimes gets simply tired in church circles – and I mean the whole Christian Church – of success talk, praise only hype, miracles after miracles messages, statistics only mentioned when going up, prosperity gospel messages, success – success – success. I like to think I’m pretty confident that God is good but that doesn’t mean that life at times doesn’t suck!
What do we do when things are rough? Trouble at work? When the bullies are winning? When the doctor gives us news we don’t want to hear? When the young die and the old don’t? When we fail?
We look for help. We do our best to be resilient, to get justice, to be positive. But things still pile up on us. And for the disciples of Jesus – for those not disputing that there is a God – we’re not atheists! – the question becomes ‘God, where are you?!’ or as David said, ‘How long, O LORD?’.
I also like the psalms when we think that the first verse can mean just the first verse but it can also represent or encapsulate the whole psalm – which is possible if you know them. Just as the first line of song gets us singing the whole song, it’s the same with the psalms.
So listen for a moment to Psalm 13 – it’s only 6 verses – and yes, it’s a lament – a personal lament from an individual. You don’t have to own it if it doesn’t reflect your life at the moment. Nevertheless hearing it can give you insight into what others are experiencing and you might draw on it at another time. For some of you, these words may indeed ring true as they begin at least with words you’re saying right now because of what you’re going through. So to us all, let’s listen to this lament and listen for four things – because laments have a style or a structure – they are songs and prayers to God in which there is firstly, a complaint; then a request; then there’s confidence – it’s the why we’re making the request; and finally there is the thanks.
So listen for complaint, request, confidence, and thanks. You might like to read along in the order of service if you wish.
1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:1-6 ESV)
Did you hear the complaint? How long will you forget me, Lord? The psalmist, David, feels that God has turned his face from him and if we think of Jesus on the cross when God turned his face, then we can imagine David feeling abandoned by God. The usual indicators of God’s presence, the usual helps seem absent. David only has his own counsel and sorrow fills him up. And on top of this – and we don’t know the context – David’s enemies are around him gloating. Whatever is going on for David, he seems to see only darkness and death in front of him.
The request is obvious … or is it? We might summarise or think that what David wants is help in his predicament. The enemy, the problem, the darkness to depart. We’d all want that – and David would want it too. However what David specifically asks for is an answer from God. Yes, he doesn’t want to die and he doesn’t want his enemy to ‘win’ but what he is seeking is God to speak to him, to answer him. That is his underlying request.
And I suggest that should God have said to David, ‘David, I am with you but now your time to leave this world, to die, is at hand. Trust me to deal with your enemies’ then David would still have said the rest of psalm. We see this in David’s own life when he prayed for his child born to Bathsheba but God said, ‘No’ in that instance and David stopped his fasting, lamenting and pleading and he washed his face and took food much to the shock of his servants who asked him why he was behaving that way. Why wasn’t David inconsolable? He replied, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22,23 ESV)
Did you hear his confidence? ‘I shall go to him’!! God doesn’t do what David wants – and David recognises his sin and culpability here – and yet he can still say that he will go to his child who is with God – thus David knows he will go to God!
In the psalm, David talks about his confidence when he says, ‘But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation’ (Psalm 13:5). Now David might think of the times God was steadfast to him, how God helped and saved him from tight spots but that’s not helping him in this tight spot! So when he is talking about ‘steadfast love’ and ‘salvation’, he, like all the people who have come out of Egypt, looks back to that event as God’s defining and saving moment – when God made a people for himself through which he would bless the world.
For Christians this exodus story is in our family tree, so to speak, but we focus on Jesus and his rescue of humanity, his fulfilling God’s of intention for all people – that everyone be saved – and the new covenant made through Jesus’ death and resurrection – through his body and blood.
You don’t pray to a god in whom you have no confidence. I suspect you only pray to a god who gives you gifts for as long as he gives them. This lament psalm – remember things are tough and there is a God and he doesn’t seem to be helping – so why pray? why beg? – can still be prayed and sung because for Christians the confidence is anchored in Jesus and his action and his promises and his presence – even – especially when we don’t experience or feel him close by. ‘Lunacy! Delusion!’ shouts the world – and maybe some part of ourselves on the inside does as well – and yet Jesus’ words have this power to draw us back to him, to help us trust him – for another day. Jesus said in the garden just before he prayed and was arrested that he was with us and he would send the Holy Spirit to be with us and help us and then he said, “I have said these
things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 ESV)
And because we have his confidence we can give thanks, ‘I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me’ (Psalm 13:6) because this is true in Christ. How God brings about help in the present situation, that I don’t know, but he will and does act and even in the waiting we are not abandoned which means that this verse can be said even as we wait for God or after God has acted.
Laments are part of life – individually, in a family, for a country, for a congregation – and for Christians, those parts of life that cause us to lament actually can draw us closer to God. It may seem like positive thinking – delusional – think good thoughts in a tough time – but as a song and a prayer, laments are engaging with God who isn’t silent or feeble – but whom I’ll grant can be frustrating. But that’s how life is when things in a relationship don’t go as we want but the relationship is still important.
Complaint, request, confidence, and thanks allow us to be honest about who we are and what we’re going through. It also gives us a pause to consider the one we are calling out to. Who is he? Our genie? Our butler? Or someone else? When we pause and talk to the crucified man who is alive, to Jesus – God’s Word made flesh – then we can be honest and know that God will help us. He always does but it might not be in the way we expect.
And that is true for the individual and for the Church. We live by faith and not by sight and so even in the darkness we are never abandoned, never alone.
- Psalm 13