Tuesday, July 12, 2016

God of Wonders

God of Wonders
Psalm 77[1]
Every Sunday we gather to rehearse the great stories of our faith. The stories of Abraham, Joseph, Daniel, Jesus, and Paul are stories that inspire our faith. We rehearse these stories to strengthen and encourage our faith. We do it to build up our own faith, and to encourage each other to continue to hold firmly to the faith. We also rehearse them because we hope and trust that the story of faith is one that is still being written as God continues to work in our lives. But there are times when life just flatly contradicts all that we believe and hope for. We go through experiences so difficult, so painful, that we find it a challenge to even recall those stories, let alone believe them. These are the times in our lives when we go through what can be a make-or-break crisis of faith.
In our Psalm for today, it would seem that the psalmist was living through an experience like that. The opening verses are haunting in the depth of anguish they reflect. The psalmist “cries aloud” to God,” seeking God by “stretching out his hand” to God during the night. And yet, the end result is that “my soul refuses to be comforted. I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.” (Ps. 77:2-3). The psalmist has poured out his heart to God in prayer and instead of finding comfort, he says “I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Ps. 77:4). I don’t know about you, but that’s not the outcome I envision when I pour out my heart in prayer to God![2]
It would seem that the problem that occupies the psalmist is that God’s people have been sent into exile.[3] They were living under the control of the Babylonians, and their hope for restoration was fading. It would seem that the problem was they had held out their hands to God in prayer day after day and night after night, and the response had been silence. It was a silence so deep and so troubling that it left them without words to pray. All they could do was wonder what had happened.
The words that give voice to their questions are troubling, if you pay attention and take them seriously. The Psalmist asks, “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Ps. 77:7-9). These questions are not posed lightly; the terms represent the essential character of God as revealed in the Bible: favor, steadfast love, promise, grace, and compassion.[4] The psalmist summarizes his dilemma when he says “What hurts me most is this - that God is no longer powerful” (Ps. 77:10, TEV). I like the way The Message puts it: “Just my luck, … The High God goes out of business just the moment I need him.”
If you run the race of faith long enough, you are likely to have an experience like this. The truth is that life is hard and can in fact be tragic.[5] And when we have experiences that are so painful they call into question the very character of God, it can feel like we’ve “hit the wall.” Unfortunately, many who “hit the wall” in the race of faith simply give up. I don’t mean that as a put-down, because this kind of experience can crush the best of us. But faith that runs deep enough simply will not let go. And so the psalmist turns from his own attempts to understand why God has apparently turned his back. Instead, he rehearses the great stories of faith again.
The story that he uses is one of the fundamental stories of our faith: the Exodus. It is the original story of God’s saving love. This story inspires the Psalmist to declare: “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who works wonders” (Ps. 77:13-14). And yet, what the psalmist realizes is that there is a mystery to God’s way with us. While he reminds himself that God is the God who works wonders, he also recognizes that God is essentially “holy.” That word is loaded with an incredible amount of meaning. But in this context, the psalmist seems to refer to the fact that God’s ways are beyond our ways.[6] He makes a unique observation about the Exodus that applies to the way God works “wonders.” He says, “Your way was through the sea, …; yet your footprints were unseen” (Ps. 77:19). I think that it dawned on him that even when God is working wonders in our lives, we very likely will not even be aware of it.[7]
We all have stories of our own faith pilgrimage that we can rehearse, and that’s one of the reasons why we gather together. We not only rehearse the great stories of our faith, we also share our own stories. Nevertheless, for many if not all of us, there may come a time when the stories all seem to lose their meaning. We may run into hardships that make it seem that God has changed and “gone out of business.” No simplistic clich├ęs will comfort us in those times. When that happens, we are faced with a decision: do we give up on faith, or to we keep running the race? We may have to run in silence; we may have to run alone; we may have to run without any support. At least as far as we can tell.
But as we do, we can remember that those who experienced the original stories of our faith very likely went through the same challenges. In fact, I would say that in the midst of those stories, the main characters went through their own crisis of faith very much like ours. What they discovered, and what kept them going, was the confidence that God does not change, God does not abandon us. They discovered that while God may not leave any footprints, God is still the one who works wonders in our lives.[8] The story of our faith is still being written, and through it all, God remains the God of wonders.[9]

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/3/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 983: “It is as if the psalmist has become so discouraged that prayer has become impossible.” He also says (ibid.), “The psalmists elsewhere affirm that those who seek God will be answered and satisfied (see Pss 9:10; 22:26; 34:4, 10), but the constant seeking in Psalm 77 (see ‘day’ and ‘night’), including unceasing prayer, has led only to the conclusion that no comfort is possible.”
[3] Scholars cannot be certain that this Psalm comes from the time of the exile, but it very likely comes from that time, or the time after the exile, when those who had returned to their home found it in ruins and found that the “restoration” they had hoped for fell far short of their expectations.
[4] Cf. McCann, “Psalms,” NIB IV:983-84, where he says that the psalmist voices “agonizing questions that strike at the very heart of the biblical faith” because the very wording “questions God’s fundamental character.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 251: “The psalmist puts in words the awful reality that God’s way with his people has changed and raises the awful question whether that means God has changed.”
[5] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 124-25, where he insists that faith always takes place against the backdrop of the evil and suffering and tragedy in life. He says (p. 125), “Faith is faith that there is something that lifts us above the blind force of things, a mind in all this mindlessness. That there is … someone, …, who stands by us when we are up against the worst, who stands by others, by the least among us.” 
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 252: “The LORD’s way is ‘in holiness.’ Holiness is the basic attribute of deity; it is all that contrasts with and transcends the human, the marvelous, the mysterious, the incomprehensible.” Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 116: “He himself, Yahweh, is the Holy One …, the ‘wholly Other.’ His salvific deeds prove his incomparability….”
[7] Cf. McCann, “Psalms,” NIB IV:984: “What the psalmist apparently realizes in the process of recalling the exodus in the light of the experience recounted in vv. 1-10 is that God’s way is not always clearly visible or comprehensible in terms of human ways (see Isa 55:8-9).” Cf. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 117: “Being near ‘without footprints’ (v. 19b)—without visible proofs of his coming—that is God’s way of dealing with his people.”
[8] Cf. McCann, “Psalms,” NIB IV:985: “In every age, the people of God are called to proclaim and to embody the reign of God in the midst of circumstances that make it appear that God does not reign.”
[9] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 254: “The recital of salvation history is always relevant because salvation history is not yet over.”


Lynn and Ellen said...

Thanks, Alan. Still struggling sometimes with our son Leigh's death six months ago, and sometimes faith in a God who walks with us, cries with us and hold us up when otherwise we'd fall on our faces is the only thing that keeps us going.

Alan Brehm said...

Thanks, Lynn and Ellen. I'm so sorry for your loss. As you may know, I've experienced some losses of my own. They are painful, but I hope that through the fires of loss I have drawn closer to God than ever before. Grace and peace to you both.