Monday, September 26, 2016

A New Day

A New Day
Isaiah 58:1-12[1]
Most of us these days are looking for a change. We’re not happy with the way things are, and we want someone or something to come along and make things right. Or at least make them the way we’d like them to be. And we have all kinds of ideas about what that change should look like. If we just had the right job, or the right house, or the right person in our lives, then things would be the way we want them to be. But the hard and sometimes painful truth is that usually things are the way they are not in spite of what we’re doing, but because of what we’re doing. We’d much rather not have to face the fact that we have to be the change we’re looking for.
The people of Israel who were addressed by our lesson from Isaiah for today very likely had some of the same sentiments. They had been sent into exile in Babylon and everything about their former way of life had been destroyed.  Their dreams had been shattered, families had been torn apart, and even the Temple lay in ruins.  Then they saw the light of God’s deliverance and they were able to return to their homeland, only to find that it was still in ruins.  They had left one kind of exile for another! It was too painful for them to admit that they were the cause of what they were unhappy with. They’d much rather blame the Babylonians, or the Samaritans, or the foreigners among them. They were happy to scapegoat anyone rather than face the fact that the change they hoped for was delayed not in spite of what they were doing, but because of what they were doing.
That was the message of our lesson for today. Like the other prophets of his time, Isaiah paints a bleak picture of the spiritual condition of Israel.  They acted “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God” (Isa. 58:2). The people of Israel talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.  They busied themselves with the routines of their worship, and wondered why they didn’t see the changes they hoped for in their society.[2] And yet, the truth of the matter was that while the Jewish people were apparently extremely diligent about worshipping God, it did not make a difference in their lives.
Isaiah spelled this out in rather stinging indictment. Even in their worship they “served their own interest” rather than serving God (Isaiah 58:3). The way they lived their lives betrayed the fact that their profession of devotion to God was a hollow one (Isaiah 58:2). In fact, Isaiah could say that they had completely missed the purpose for their worship—to transform life (Isaiah 58:6-7).[3] Over and over again, the Bible insists that those who truly know God will truly love others by practicing justice and mercy toward the destitute and disenfranchised. If the people of God do not do so, the Bible challenges whether their devotion to him is truly authentic.
Unfortunately, the people of Israel were responsible for their own problems. The conditions of their lives that they hoped would change were so in spite of what they were doing, but because of what they were doing. They made a show of faith but failed to do what was right in the way they actually went about their lives.  The fact that they would withhold fair wages from their workers made it clear that their outward profession of faith did not relate to any inward spiritual reality. Isaiah didn’t let them off the hook with some theoretical ideas about how their lives should be lived.   He was quite specific:  they were to restore justice to the oppressed, they were to feed the hungry, they were to help those who were afflicted, and they were to provide clothing for the naked.[4]
But the picture Isaiah painted was not entirely bleak. He promised that when they repented of their ways, ways that oppressed the poor and denied justice to the weak, then and only then would they experience the change that they were hoping for.[5]  Then and only then would the light “break forth like the dawn,” and their healing will “spring up quickly” (Isa. 58:8).  Then and only then would the “gloom” that blanketed them turn to light (Isa. 58:10). Then and only then would they see the light of a new day dawning for them and for their people. Isaiah was so sure of this promise that he concluded his message with, “the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 58:12).
One of the challenges with reading the prophets is that we don’t always know how things turned out. Did the people of Israel change their ways and find that new day dawning for them and their people? The prophets only delivered the message, they rarely reported the results. We have to look elsewhere to find the answer to that question. If we look at other historical sources to find out what happened to the Jewish people, I think we’d have to say that the results were definitely mixed. There were some—as is usually the case, a minority—who took the prophets words to heart and became the change they were looking for. But the majority of them rocked along, looking for scapegoats, professing their hollow faith, and asking God why he didn’t do anything about their difficulties.
We’re living in a time when a lot of people in our society are looking for change of some kind. Like the people of Israel, we have plenty of ideas about whom to blame for what we think is wrong. And we keep looking for someone to come along and fix what is broken. I’ve got some news for you: the problems in our society run deeper than any one person can change—I don’t care what color house they occupy. Only God can restore our society. But as the prophet Isaiah put it so bluntly, that will only happen when we recognize that things are the way they are because of what we’re doing. We will see the change we’re looking for only when we stop going our own way and start letting our profession of faith sink into our hearts so deeply that it motivates us to actually live out the justice and mercy of God. Then we as a people will see the dawn of a new day.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/21/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 204: ““The problem is not that the people are unreligious. … No, they are hyper correct in their religious observances and delighted to exhibit their piety, but in their very exercise of religion they miss the essential point, God’s order of compassionate justice.” Cf. also William Willimon, “When In Our Music God is Glorified,” a sermon preached 2/7/1999 at Duke Chapel: “What we believe about God is to be put into practice, embodied. As Isaiah tells us, it’s no good just to prattle on about God with our lips; it’s got to take over our lives.” Cf. also J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66 (Revised Edition), 845.
[3] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 205: “This passage locates God’s central concern in the exercise of justice and the practice of compassion. Without these, all the pious motions of religion are mere ‘as ifs.’” He says further, (ibid., 205-206) that the prophet presents “a rigorously moral understanding that places the one who would be true to God on the side of the same ones whom God reached out to help and empower, those suffering injustice at the hands of the authorities, those imprisoned for acts of conscience, those denied their fair share of the land’s produce, those denied housing and proper clothing, those turned away even by their own relatives.” The appeal is an impassioned one to the heart of the community. It is a plea to reclaim authentic humanity by replacing cold, calculating self-interest with acts of loving-kindness that restore genuine communal solidarity
[4] Cf. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 844: “All forms of bondage are distasteful to God, whether economic, political, or social. God’s people were and are intended to promote freedom.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 84: “If we want to be free ourselves, we must free others; if we want to arrive at peace, we must leave other people in peace. True spirituality cannot be a solitary, selfish experience of the self, for every self exists in the network of social and political relationships. … In Israel’s prophecy, the liberation of the oppressed was part of true fasting and belonged to the laws about the Sabbath.”
[5] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40–66” New Interpreter’s Bible VI:499, where he sums up the message of this passage well when he says, “Healing will come, the prophet promises, when the fruit of proper devotion is in evidence.”

Monday, September 05, 2016

Turn Around

Turn Around
Isa 5:1-7; Psalm 80[1]
There are times in our lives when “all’s right with the world and everything’s as it should be.” And then there are times when it seems like life is all wrong. Nothing makes sense, nothing fits, nothing works the way we thought it was supposed to. People of faith can respond to that kind of crisis in one of two ways. We may look to God devotedly, trusting that he will turn things around in his own way and in his own time. Or we may look at ourselves and wonder what we did wrong that we wound up in a place we never wanted to be. We may try to find our mistake so we can turn things around in our lives and make them better. Most of us probably respond to some extent in both ways.
I would say that in the light of Scripture both are right and both are wrong. It is good to recognize that everything in our lives is ultimately in God’s hands, and to trust him with the outcomes. But we can sometimes take that too far, falling into a kind of “magical thinking” that avoids responsibility for our actions. It is also good to acknowledge that we have “made our own beds” in some respects and to take ownership of the consequences of our choices and actions. But life is bigger than we can comprehend, and sometimes things just happen that we have no control over. It does no good to beat ourselves up for everything that is less than we had hoped.
I would say that our Scripture lessons for today encourage us to take an approach that balances the two. Both our lesson from Isaiah and from the Psalms speak of the people of Israel as God’s “vineyard.” In Isaiah, this analogy emphasizes that God was diligent and faithful in making sure that Israel had everything they needed to thrive. He picked a choice plot of land, he prepared the soil, he chose the best of vines, and he protected it with a hedge and a wall. By all rights, it was fair to expect that this vineyard would produce the best of fruit. But that’s not what happened. Instead of sweet, plump grapes, the vineyard produced hard, bitter grapes.
This analogy was meant to confront the people of Israel with the consequences of their own choices and actions. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, the LORD “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isa. 5:7). He had made every preparation to enable the people of Israel to follow his will and his ways, to establish his justice in their land so that all people could thrive together.[2] Instead, what happened was what always happens—the powerful took advantage of the weak, the rich oppressed the poor, and the high and mighty didn’t hesitate to use violence to get what they wanted. Instead of shouts of joy from a people who were blessed with God’s peace, there were cries of distress over the injustice and the oppression they suffered.
Because of this, Isaiah warns the people of Israel that God was going to judge them. In the terms of the vineyard analogy, he was going tear down the wall and the hedge protecting it and leave the vineyard at the mercy of any who happened to pass by. As I’ve said before, the point of judgment in the Bible is not for God to gloat over those who have gone astray. Rather, it is meant to bring them back to the right path. In this case, if the people of Israel wanted to turn things around, they were going to have to turn themselves around. Only then would they truly thrive.
But as I mentioned earlier, some of what happens to us in life is beyond our control. No amount of turning around on our part can change it. We may not like it, but life is bigger than we can manage, and sometimes things just happen. That’s where our lesson from the Psalms comes into play. It is a prayer that comes from the recognition that ultimately our lives are in God’s hands.[3] The only way some things are going to change is if God turns them around. And so the refrain of this Psalm is a prayer for God to do just that: “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Ps. 80:19).
I find it interesting that this Psalm also uses the analogy of a vineyard for the people of Israel.[4] But the point of the analogy is quite different. Here, the psalmist insists that the vineyard has thrived; it has filled the land in which it was planted. In light of that, he gives voice to the painful question, “why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” (Ps. 80:12). Unlike the prophet Isaiah, the psalmist has no answer to this question.[5] There is no rebuke or judgment here. The fate of the people remains a mystery. The only recourse is for them to turn to God and ask God to turn things around.[6] And the hopeful promise is “Then we will never turn back from you” (Ps. 80:18).
The paths that our lives take can make it difficult at times for us to believe that God’s “steadfast love endures forever.” We throw our whole hearts into living out our faith in the best way we can, and sometimes rather than a blessing, life brings us crushing blows. Part of what the Scriptures have to teach us about this is that sometimes this kind of crisis comes because of the choices we’ve made. If we want to turn things around, we have to turn ourselves around. But that’s only part of the lesson. The Scriptures also teach us that there are times when life’s twists and turns simply come, no matter how faithful we may be. Because life is bigger than we can ever understand, in those times we must realize that our lives are ultimately in God’s hands, and only he can turn things around for us.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/14/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” New Interpreters Bible VI:90 “In the biblical perspective, the foundation of all calls for human justice is the conviction that God is just. In Isa 5:1-7, the prophet contrasts the justice and generosity of the Lord with the unjust behavior of God’s people, and justice is understood in relationship to righteousness.” He defines “righteousness” (ibid., 89) as “that relationship with the Lord from which springs loyalty to the Lord’s expectations of justice.” Cf. similarly H. Wildberger,  Isaiah 1-12, 64, 185.
[3] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 262: The prayer of the psalm appeals “to the God who leads his people through the perils of history and saves them from its dangers.” Cf. also J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:999, where he says the language of the Psalm suggests that God is absent or inattentive. Nevertheless, the “designation of God as the one ‘enthroned upon the cherubim’ (see 1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 99:1)” emphasizes God’s sovereignty. He continues, “Despite appearances to the contrary, the people still affirm that God reigns supreme.” Cf. further Artur Weiser, The Psalms, 548, where he says that this Psalm is based on the “faith which knows man’s whole existence to be in the hand of the mighty God.” Cf. at length, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.730-32.
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 263, where he observes, “Isaiah told this parable to express the disappointment of God. The psalm’s parable introduces the anguish and bewilderment of the people over the contrast and contradiction between what God began and what he now has done, leaving it exposed for strangers to gather the fruit of the vine and for wild animals to ravage the vine (vv. 12-13).”
[5] Contrast McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1000, where he says, “The poignant question in v. 12 receives no answer. Instead, the psalmist renews the petition, ‘Turn again’ or ‘Repent, O God of hosts’ (v. 14a). … Thus the renewed request in Ps 80:14 implies that the answer to the question in v. 12 is that God is punishing Israel for its sin.”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 264: “The psalm is a witness that the congregation must in the long last and in its extremity look away from its own repentance to a kind of repentance in God—his turning away from wrath and returning to grace.” Cf. also McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1001: “lest we be tempted to focus on our own efforts in these matters, Psalm 80 proclaims that our lives ultimately depend on God’s gracious willingness to repent.” 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Forget God

Forget God
Psalm 50[1]
We who claim to follow Christ as our Savior and Lord face a constant temptation. It is incredibly easy for us to forget God in the midst of all our religious activities.[2] How often do we lose sight of the basic affirmations of our faith! The Bible teaches us that all that we are and have and ever will be come to us as a gift from God who is the creator of all things and all people. Our faith is in the good news that through Jesus the Christ we have been given the freedom to live our lives without fear or guilt or shame. And the Bible consistently instructs those of us who have received the love of God to relate to other people—all other people—in a manner consistent with that amazing grace.
Despite all that, we have an unsettling tendency to simply “forget God” and go about our lives as we see fit. Of course, given the pace of life these days, even the best of us can lose focus when it comes to our faith. Between our jobs and our homes and our families, it seems like life is a never-ending roller-coaster. But this is more than just a matter of slipping into a routine that empties our religion of any real meaning. I don’t think I have to remind you that when the church has forgotten God, it has been capable of committing horrific atrocities. This is not a matter of ancient history. All you have to do is turn on your TV to see Christian people “forgetting God” and acting in ways that contradict our faith.
That is the point of our Psalm for today. If you read the history of Israel, it’s not too hard to discover that they forgot God many times.[3] And when they did, they fell into a pattern of worship and living that dishonored God. For a time, God would be patient with them, attempting to draw them back to the commitment they had made to him. But when their walk didn’t match their talk, and their standards for living fell to a level where they betrayed the love he had poured into their hearts, he broke silence and called them to account.[4] This psalm is unique in that it constitutes a summons by “The mighty one, God the Lord” to the people who had pledged their love and loyalty to him to answer for the fact that, once again, they had forgotten God.
In the Psalm, God calls his people to account for this in two ways: their worship and their lives. When it came to their worship, it would appear that they had fallen into the pattern that so many have over the ages: thinking that somehow our worship, and specifically our offerings, are a “gift” we give to God. And, of course, we believe we deserve credit for being so generous toward God.[5] But in this Psalm, God reminds his people of all ages once again that because he is the one Creator of all things, “the world and all that is in it is mine” (Ps. 50:12). That includes us and everything we think we own! For that reason, the kind of worship that honors God reflects our ultimate dependence on God for everything—for all that we have and all that we are, for life itself. Anything less constitutes a “trampling” of God’s courts, according to the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 1:12).
Equally problematic was the fact that they had fallen into a pattern of living that contradicted their  profession of faith.[6] And so it was that God’s people had gone from being his “faithful ones” (Ps. 50:5) and had become the “wicked” (Ps. 50:16).[7] That wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. The prophets had repeatedly rebuked Israel for claiming to be God’s people while blatantly violating God’s commands. Here, the psalm singles out the commandments regarding stealing, adultery, and bearing false witness. But as the witness of the whole Bible bears out, any time those of us who have vowed to love and serve God live in a way that betrays our faith, we are guilty of having forgotten God.  And Jesus made it clear that this is not just about our actions, but also about what’s in our hearts. As he interpreted the command against murder, we violate God’s will when we even speak to another human being in a demeaning way.
In this unique Psalm, “the mighty one, God the Lord” calls out to us all to put his justice into practice.  What God wants from us is not ritual or lip service, but a heart that is open to God’s truth, eyes of compassion that see the needs around us, and the will to work for God’s kingdom in the world.[8] It is the same message the prophet Micah had:  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  Throughout the Bible, what God desires from us most of all is compassion and kindness toward the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant are most frequently named in the Bible, but we could add others to the list, like the unjustly convicted or the mentally ill.[9] When we turn our backs on them, we forget God.
We live in a world where God’s name has been invoked to justify some of the worst of atrocities. We live in a world where God’s name is invoked on a regular basis to justify hatred, violence, and injustice. And when we condone that kind of thing, we indict ourselves as those who have forgotten God—or at least the very basic principles the Bible teaches us about God. I think that in these matters it might help us gain clarity if we simplify it. One time-tested principle we can use to measure our lives is whether what we do and say matches what Jesus would do and say. Perhaps, though we need to put it on a more basic level: can we honestly say that our lives match up with what we teach our children? Those are both hard tests for any of us, but I think if we pay more attention to them, it will help us avoid the temptation to forget God.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/7/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:883: “Good faith is always in danger of becoming bad religion—a mechanistic system to put God at our disposal and to give us the illusion of merit and self-control. If we think that we are deserving, and if we think that we have things essentially under control, then there will be no need for us to call upon God or to live in dependence upon God.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, 39: “To say that Israel ‘forgets’ God means that the people are disregarding God’s covenant and precepts; but it also means that they are forgetting God’s history with Israel: Exodus, covenant and election.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 195: “The patience of God with his people, the forbearance of the LORD in the face of misunderstanding and faithlessness, could lead to a terrible conclusion”: they may “think of the LORD as one like themselves” instead of recognizing “the revelation of God and the covenant to be the determination of life”. “For that reason God must break silence in the face of error. God must judge.” Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:882: “we should remember that God’s purpose in judgment is to set right people and things—that is, to establish justice.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1 278: “In sacrifice Israel—fallible, sinful and unfaithful Israel—is summoned to bow beneath the divine judgment, but also to hold fast to the divine grace. Of course, this living meaning of sacrifice can sometimes fade. It may become a mere religious observance. It may be understood as a do ut des [tit for tat]. It may become an attempt on the part of the people to acquire power over God, to assure oneself before him, to hide one’s sin instead of acknowledging it.” Cf. also Mays, Psalms, 195-96: “The indictment of worship is not a rejection of sacrifice as such. … The problem is a misunderstanding and misuse of sacrifice. If sacrifice is brought as a gift to God … and offered as something transferred from their ownership to God’s possession, that sacrifice is rejected. Such a sacrifice denies that God is creator and owner of all … . If sacrifice is brought to God as something that God needs and is dependent upon the people to bring, that denies God’s absolute sovereignty … .”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 196: “The problem with the people is that “there is a disparity … between confession (v. 16) and conduct (v. 17). They recite the statutes and ignore the commandments. They confess the covenant and reject its discipline.” Cf. also McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:881: “The mention of a covenant ‘by sacrifice’ recalls the covenant ceremony following the giving of the Decalogue (Exod 24:1-8), where sacrifice accompanied the reading of ‘the book of the covenant’ (Exod 24:7 NRSV). In that setting, the people promised, ‘We will obey’ (Exod 24:7 NIV). Psalm 50 suggests that God’s people have not obeyed; rather, they have violated the covenant.”
[7] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:882: “it is precisely God’s people who have become ‘the wicked.’ They apparently say the right things (v. 16) but fail to act in accordance with their covenant identity (v. 17).
[8] Cf. H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-59, 495-96: “The judgment speech in vv. 16-21, …, rules out all external piety, even formal lip-confession, as ungodly and godless ‘religiosity.’ Yahweh is not silent over against the hypocritical measures of his covenant partners.”
[9] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

Thursday, August 11, 2016


Psalm 107[1]
The people in this world who have the ability to make us want to be around them are unique. They possess many positive qualities, like kindness, joy, and acceptance. But I think one of key qualities that defines a person like this is that they are grateful. They are grateful for life as it is, not caught up in complaints about life as they wish it would be. They have discovered the secret that gratitude “turns what we have into enough, and more.”[2] Like the Apostle Paul, they have learned “to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11, NIV).[3] It’s not an easy lesson to learn, but it’s one to which I think we all need to pay attention.
One of the ironies about gratitude is that some of the most grateful people you meet may surprise you. Their life stories are not those of one success after another, a life in which all their dreams come true. In fact, I would say some of the most grateful people I’ve ever met are those who have learned to accept life circumstances that are less than ideal, to say the least. And many of them have been through hardships that would astonish the rest of us if we really knew their story. Gratitude is not tied to whether or not we get what we want out of life. It is a mindset that we choose, and it makes all the difference in our ability to live life with peace and joy instead of pain and striving.
Our Psalm lesson for today is all about gratitude. Some suggest that it may have been used as an expression of thanksgiving during a fall harvest festival. Others have pointed out that this Psalm opens the last of the five “books” into which the Psalms are grouped.[4] The fact that the final “chapter” of the Psalms begins with an extensive declaration of Gods’ “steadfast love,” God’s love that never ends, relates to some of the situations that we’ve already talked about. Even if this Psalm was not composed to directly address the crisis of faith that the people of Israel experienced when they were forced into exile, it would seem that it does address some of the questions raised by the trauma they went through.
The Psalm opens with the ultimate reason for gratitude: The Lord is “good” and “his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 107:1).[5] As I’ve mentioned before, this aspect of God’s character is one of the central affirmations of the Hebrew Bible, indeed the whole Bible. God’s love is described with different words in the Bible, but this one emphasizes that God’s love is a love that will never let us go. It is a love that remains faithful, no matter what. The only way for God to stop loving us in this way is for God to stop being God. And so the true foundation for our gratitude is not our circumstances, but the never-ending love that God has for every one of us.[6]
As a result, the Psalmist issues the call to “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so” (Ps. 107:2). He enumerates specific situations in which God has demonstrated his love. The Psalmist reminds us that God’s love is such that “He satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things” (Ps. 107:9).  God’s love means “he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron” to set the prisoners free (Ps. 107:16). God in his love “turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water” (Ps. 107:35). God’s love is such that he “raises up the needy out of distress” (Ps. 107:41). The Psalm leaves the impression that there is no situation in which we may find ourselves that God’s love will not make right.[7]
In fact, there is a kind of refrain that echoes throughout this Psalm. In each of the situations that demonstrate God’s love in action, the Psalmist says, “They cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (Ps. 107:6, 13; 19; 28). Whether the people were lost in desert wastes, hungry and thirsty, confined in prisons of darkness and gloom, or whether they were at their wits’ end due to the dangers they encountered, in each and every circumstance, the Psalmist says “They cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” I think his point is that this is the nature of God’s love that never lets us go, no matter where we find ourselves in life.
One of the potential problems with this Psalm is that it creates the impression that those who faced any kind of trouble cried to the Lord, and he delivered them immediately. Because of that, it may create an expectation on our part that if we pray with enough faith and with the right words, then God will answer our cries for deliverance right now. Yet the Bible is full of examples of people who cried to the Lord and had to wait for their deliverance. Sometimes years. Sometimes decades! I think recognizing that can help correct the false impression that if we pray the right way, God will deliver us on our timetable.
At least part of what this means for us, I think, is that an important aspect of God’s love delivering us from our troubles is found in learning “to be content whatever the circumstances,” as St. Paul could say from his own less than ideal situation: confined under guard in Rome. The truth about prayers for deliverance is that we may not understand what God is doing in our lives through the difficulties we are experiencing. I don’t believe God ever punishes us with our afflictions. Rather, in all our troubles, God’s “steadfast love” is working for our good. At times God does intervene to change the situation. But I think the most important outcome of prayer is the change it produces in us. And I think that means that “deliverance” may come to us in the form of the ability to be grateful right where we are.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/31/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Melodie Beattie, The Language of Letting Go, 218: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Philippians, who like many commentators, mentions the strange tension between Paul’s expression of gratitude for the gift he received from the Philippians and his affirmation of his independence from the need for any support. Craddock says (p. 78), “Paul reminds his friends that he is free. He is able to live with abundance, but it is not necessary that he have it. He is able to live in hunger and want, but it is not necessary that he be poor. He is defined neither by wealth or poverty but by a contentment that transcends both and by a power in Christ which enables him to live in any circumstance. It is important for his friends to see their gift in this context.”
[4] Cf. for example, J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1117: “Book V begins in a manner that suggests that the editors of the psalter intended it, like Book IV …, to serve as a response to Book III and its elaboration of the theological crisis of exile and its aftermath …. Psalm 107, for instance, serves as a pointed response to the question raised in Ps 89:49: ‘Lord, where is your steadfast love of old?’”
[5] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 27: the basis for giving thanks is a focus “not on might or holiness or any other attributes commonly given God in the psalms” but rather on “the goodness of the LORD as the attribute beyond all others that calls for and calls forth praise.”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 344: “Psalm 107 is a song that praises the loyal love (hesed) of the LORD shown in marvelous works of deliverance performed in answer to the cry of those in distress.” Cf. also ibid., 346: ““Hesed is the goodness of the LORD as redeemer. It is at once an everlasting attribute of the character of God and occasional in its manifestation in saving actions. The psalm uses the singular (v. 1) and the plural (v. 43) of hesed as a way of indicating that the eternal reality of God is revealed and can be known in specific temporal acts of salvation.”
[7] Cf. Artur Weiser, The Psalms, 687: “The hymn glorifies the sovereign power of the divine saving rule which … continually manifests itself in the baffling ups and downs of life, in its fluctuations between wealth and poverty, adversity and deliverance, wickedness and faith.”