Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hear Our Cry, O Lord!

Hear Our Cry, O Lord!
Psalm 130[1]
When I was in Seminary, I worked as a Security Guard to help pay bills. The good thing about it was that I could study on the job. The bad thing about it was that when I showed up for work, I never really knew if I would get off on time. There were many a night when a four-to-midnight shift turned into a four-to-midnight-to eight in the morning shift! Of course, I usually brought extra homework in case that happened, but those were some long nights. Talk about watching for the morning to come! It always seemed like the last hour was the longest hour of the night. It felt like eight o’clock, when I would be released to go home and sleep, would take its own sweet time getting there.
Sometimes I think waiting for God to answer our prayers may feel like that. We pour out our hearts to God in the times when we need his help the most, and it can seem like the answer never comes. In fact, I think that our struggle with waiting for God to respond to our prayers may be one of the great challenges of our faith. It seems the exception to the rule when God’s deliverance comes when we think we need it. More often, the answer may come long after we’ve given up on praying, given up even on God. And when it does come, if we’ve given up on God, we may not even notice that God has indeed answered our prayer, if not in the precise way and at the precise time we expected.
Our Psalm for today presents us with an example of someone who is desperate for God to hear his prayer. The specific prayer he cries out is for God to set him free from the consequences of his sin. Though it’s not hard to pick up on the note of distress in this Psalm, we really don’t know much about the circumstances. We don’t know why the psalmist is crying out to God. It would seem that he has somehow sinned against God and is feeling that burden deeply. But we don’t really know what that sin might be. We don’t know how long he may have been praying this prayer for deliverance. This may have been a prayer written at the very beginning of a wrestling match with God. I must say that I doubt that’s the case. The note of distress and desperation sound to me more like an urgent plea from someone who’s been pouring out his heart for quite a while, and is at wit’s end holding on the hope that God will have mercy and release him from his distress.
When I read this Psalm I wonder what it was that kept him praying through such difficult times. I think we could all ask ourselves the same question: what keeps us turning to God when we feeling like we’re drowning in distress? I think the Psalm points us to an answer: it’s God’s character.[2] No matter how long the psalmist has to wait for an answer to his cry, he remains confident that God is the one who forgives sins. Despite the fact that he can describe himself as being “in the depths,” a place where there is precious little hope and one can truly feel lost,[3] he continues to trust that “with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption” (Psalm 130: 7, TNIV). This heartbreaking cry for mercy comes from one who trusts that the God to whom he prays is the God whose love never fails.
In fact, this is the central truth about who God is in the Bible. God is the one who is completely faithful, completely dependable. This is the “revelation” that came to Moses in the cleft of the rock: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).[4] This refrain echoes throughout the Bible over and over again. And the point of it is that God loves us with a love that will never let us go. That remains true no matter what we may do or where we may find ourselves in life. Even in “the depths” we can trust that God is the one we can depend on to love us with a love never lets us go.[5]
And yet, that same gracious and compassionate love is the very thing that can drive us to the kind of distress this Psalm expresses.[6] The reason for this is that God’s grace which never fails also never leaves us in our sins, whether they may be sins of mild neglect or blatant transgressions. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s all too easy for those of us who have been intentional about living out our faith to slip into the pattern of thinking that this kind of distress over sin primarily relates to others, while our failings are only “minor shortcomings.” And yet this Scripture will have none of it. Even if we have become blind to our sins, the Psalmist recognizes that we all are subject to wrongdoing. He says it this way: “If you kept track of sins, LORD— my Lord, who would stand a chance?” (Ps. 130:3 CEB). The implied answer is clear: nobody. The sometimes difficult truth is that God’s steadfast love and unfailing grace creates in us the very distress over sin that finds such moving expression in this Scripture.
But it is also God’s unfailing love and “full redemption” that makes it possible for us all to turn to the Lord and find forgiveness.[7] No matter what we’ve done, no matter where we find ourselves, we can cry out to God in prayer, knowing full well that we can trust him to set us free from our sins. Even if it takes weeks, months, or years of crying out to God, we can continue to hope in his word, which assures us that his love never fails and that he is the one who forgives our sin.[8] No matter how deep our distress may be, no matter how dark the situation may seem, we can turn to God in the assurance that God always hears our prayers.[9] I think this is especially true when we cry out to the Lord with the kind of urgency and fervor found in this Psalm. And the promise is that God does indeed hear our cry.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/7/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1205: “The psalmist’s waiting is based on the conviction that God is fundamentally gracious and forgiving.”
[3] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 406, where he says that the “depths” is a metaphor that “represents drowning in distress, being overwhelmed and sucked down by the bottomless waters of troubles … . To be in the depths is to be where death prevails instead of life as prospect and power, where the authentic word about existence is ‘I am lost’.” Cf. also McCann, Jr., “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1205, where he says that the “depths” “names the chaotic forces that confront human life with destruction, devastation, and death, and are regularly symbolized by water.”
[4] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1205, where he refers to Exodus 34:6-7 and says, “God reveals the divine self to be ‘gracious’ … and ‘abounding in steadfast love’…, and these attributes are manifested concretely in God’s forgiveness … of the people’s ‘iniquity’.”
[5] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1206, where he says, “Israel’s future does not depend on its own worthiness or ability to save itself but on God’s faithful love and ability to redeem. … No sin or setback will be of sufficient depth to separate God’s people from God’s amazing grace and faithful love.” Cf. also Bernhard Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today, 59: “Unlike the capricious gods of the ancient world, the God whom Israel worships is true to promises made, constant in faithfulness, consistent in behavior.” Cf.  further Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 115: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment.”
[6] Cf. H. -J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 467: “Yahweh is the holy God even in his grace.” He quotes from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:361-2 in support: “as the gracious God He affirms Himself over against the one to whom He is gracious by opposing and breaking down his resistance … . … If we refuse to recognize and , as is right, to suffer this His opposition to us, we are also repudiating His grace.”
[7] Cf. Anderson, Out of the Depths, 94: “the presence of the Holy God in the midst of the people is experienced as both inescapable judgment … and gracious acceptance.”
[8] Cf. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 468: “To fear Yahweh means to wait for his word of forgiveness, in straining attentiveness to look forward to the moment in which Yahweh grants salichah [deliverance].”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 76-77: “Wherever the cry from the depths is heard, the Spirit who ‘helps us in our weakness’ is present. … The sighs of fettered creation are taken up by the sighs of the Spirit who dwells in it, and are brought before God. … There is a cry from the depths at the beginning of every experience of God-given salvation … . And God hears the cry from the depths of desolation.”

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