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.”

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