I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up
and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By your favour, O Lord,
you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cry,
and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me!
O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever! (Psalm 30 ESV)
You might want to open the hymnal to the front and find Psalm 30 and I’m not going to mind if you keep your head down as you read or skim it.
John’s heart attack was unexpected to say the least. He thought it was indigestion at first, feeling uncomfortable, hoping it would all go away quickly. He was quite fit, hadn’t eaten anything he thought disagreed with him, but the figures needed to be done for the report so he kept concentrating on the spreadsheet. But he was feeling tired and a bit light headed. It was only when Sarah came in to get the figures and said that he didn’t look good that he realised that something really was wrong. That thought seemed to switch is body ‘on’ and the indigestion was more severe than he realised and he felt pressure in his neck and shoulders and back. He winced and said, ‘I’m not good, Sarah, something isn’t right’. Fortunately Sarah didn’t hesitate to call for help and within an hour John was in emergency receiving treatment. He hated the fuss being made but his mind also told him not to be an idiot as the pressure and discomfort got worse. ‘I might die’, he thought and that increased his anxiety. ‘Lord, please help me’, he prayed in that jumble of physical, emotional, spiritual cacophony of inner consciousness when you don’t know what is going to happen but you know something is very wrong. In the evening John was praying ‘thank you, Lord, thank you’ for the treatment had progressed well and the prognosis was very good. He knew he had the medical people to thank but he also knew that God was not uninvolved.
Rebecca had been teaching in Africa for a while. It was the first time she’d visited the continent and where she was required many immunisation jabs, bottled water, and more than usual hygiene and food care. She’d been careful but she knew that she’d caught something when the upset tummy began. It wasn’t nice as she got worse and worse. The days moved on and the people – all the other church workers and the classes she was teaching – knew she was ‘under the weather’ but she didn’t let on how seriously. How she did it, she didn’t know but she got through her classes but then spent a lot of time in her room – well, really the bathroom. ‘Come on, God, give me a break, I don’t need this. I believe in you. Fix me.’ She moved from demanding to pleading and back again. It was when the fever struck that she knew she was in trouble. By now she had quietly ascertained that the nearest medical facilities and help were hours away. It was the last day of classes – tomorrow she’d be taken back to the capital – but she didn’t join in the celebrations for the end of the course but hurried to her room. It was when she woke on her bed that she realised she’d actually fainted or passed out and she was burning up. All she could do was crawl to the bathroom and using her breathing as a prayer metronome she prayed, ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ as she breathed in, ‘have mercy on me’ as she breathed out. Breathe in pray out. Pray in breath out. She fell back on the bed wondering how this would end and was unconscious or asleep in seconds. When she awoke again she knew she was still in trouble. Same journey – same prayer – only an hour had passed. She crawled back onto the bed. It was two hours later and she stirred and felt like crying but was too hot – same journey, same prayer. When will the dawn come? Will she see the dawn? She awoke again. No change. More prayers, more water, more sickness, more falling back into oblivion on the bed. She awoke again and immediately knew something was different. Not moving her body she just looked at the ceiling and somehow knew she would be alright. She felt as weak as anything but something was different even as she moved to the bathroom. ‘Lord, you have had mercy on me! Thank you!’.
James sat in church – he was a regular attender – but he oscillated between anger and despair. The doctor’s latest results weren’t good. He looked across the pew at his wife and small children and wondered how long he’d spend with them. Only the pastor and one other person in the congregation knew his situation but he was starting to wonder whether his wife really should tell whom she wanted and start getting support. ‘Maybe the healing will come soon’ she said this morning quietly as they dressed for church. ‘And maybe it won’t’, he replied, ‘Then we’ll be thankful for each day we have’ she replied back. James had found it hard to concentrate in church for months – and often grateful that the service carried him along almost as he wrestled with God because he wanted so much to live and to see his children grow. He felt betrayed and cheated – in hell almost already – tormented by what it seems he wasn’t going to have. Today these thoughts and feelings were still there but muted a little as he laid his hand on his son’s fidgety hands and he them both in his grasp. The four year old looked up and smiled and snuggled in closer. ‘I have today’ he thought. And before he really knew how or why James thought ‘thank you’ as he tried to focus on the sermon aware that we all only live one day at a time.
Each week the people of God gather around the altar and bring their past week with them. For believers, it’s not as if God has not been present during the week but we can and should concentrate on the events and conversations, the expected and unexpected things of the moment and that may mean that God is not consciously in our minds so to speak and we’re happy for we want the surgeon to concentrate on us when she’s operating and people actually listening to us and not having a conversation with another person at the same time. The faith relationship exists but it is often hidden under the minutiae of daily living. Having set times for Bible reading, meditation, and prayer helps us remain in the faith relationship and nothing does it so well as the time in worship where we can think back on the past week just as we can think forward to the coming one. Thus in worship we can pour into the liturgy ourselves and our weeks – our sins to be forgiven, our problems and worries to receive answers from God’s Word, our joys to celebrate, our needs and the needs of others to seek, our hungers to feed, and we want to hear promises from God – we might also call them blessings – for another week out in the world.
Our Introit Psalm today is Psalm 30 and it is a thanksgiving for a deliverance from death. Attributed to David – you have the initial thanksgiving and then the details with a call for those who hear about this to praise God with David who will continue to thank God. There’s the trouble – the pit – being cut off – almost dead or dead-like – certainly not in the full bloom of life – in serious trouble – and then restoration – particularly healing. We have no time frame here for the length of these troubles – it might literally be a night time of tears or much longer but when the help comes, David realises that, for God, his troubles are but a moment. David also realises that his prosperity is part of his problem, a false confidence in assets when one realises how important is health. And so he pleaded for mercy and we don’t know for how long – and with some cockiness – it’s unusual to our ears I think but it shouldn’t be:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness? (Psalm 30:9ESV)
And the help came and the sadness turns to gladness and we sing God’s praises – which means not so much telling God that he’s great (that’s adoration) but telling other people that God is great (that’s what praise is really about – speaking well of someone to a third person – often when the person being praised isn’t around). Hence David wrote the psalm.
We can imagine John and Rebecca echoing David’s sentiments, relating to them, and joining in making the psalm their own. Whether the help came by seen means as with the doctors or unseen as for Rebecca both will give thanks in a particular way with this psalm. But what about James? Is this psalm mocking him and suggesting he doesn’t have enough faith? Is it challenging him to faithfulness? Should the pastor who knows about the situation – the doctor says James’ condition is now terminal – change the psalm? Should he change the Gospel (Mark 5:21-43) with the two healings as well?
All of Scripture is God’s Word. The question when we hear it – any of it – all of it – is ‘How is it God’s Word for me?’. Does it speak to my situation? Specifically? Generally? Does it speak to my knowledge? Does it speak to my emotions? Does it speak to challenge me to action? That is why we need the Holy Spirit who guides us and helps us focus on the one thing needful. The liturgy is largely Scripture and the lectionary obviously is and there are messages for us to hear and the starting point is that they reveal Jesus. Public worship over a year gives us a pattern of following Jesus’ life from Advent to Pentecost and then learning what that means for the other 6 or so months. Privately, personally, pastorally Bible passages are chosen more for our specific situation. In public worship we are more confronted like Samuel who wasn’t sure what he would hear and so we might say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant hears’.
Today James learnt to be thankful for he is in a pit and he came up … for today. How the Holy Spirit works bringing God’s Word to our specific situation is mysterious and hidden as the wind but come into this space and God is active and you are changed in some way. Maybe this is why this psalm was used at the temple’s dedication for in worship we can bring ourselves just as we are and learn that God doesn’t abandon us but is active towards us. Coming to him is about thankfulness – learning thankfulness – sometimes easy, often times not so easy, sometimes really hard but we can learn each day – for what can I give thanks?
Perhaps it always starts with David’s descendant also David’s Lord who was drawn up from pit, who cried to God for help and trusted him as he laid down his life, who was restored, more than that, raised to new life having defeated death and all its tentacles that destroy life? For this one – this Jesus of Nazareth – we can sing praises to God and give thanks to Jesus’ holy name who suffered under Pontius Pilate the mystery of being sin for us and cut off from God – he bore the full force of God’s anger. Because his prosperity and assets were to do the Father’s will, he was not swayed from the way of the cross and yes, in the darkness, he cried out in abandonment. Jesus asked for another way to rescue us but drank the cup to the bitter dregs and the one who was not saved like Isaac is now able to reveal the mercy of God. Yes, it is mysterious and a paradox but then making a cross – a method of torture and death – into a message of forgiveness and love will do that. His empty tomb turns everyone’s grief and despair to dancing and joy. And for this his followers will not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thank to you forever!
- Psalm 30