Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 43

I was very graciously hosted and received at Chippewa United Presbyterian Church this morning.

The words of Psalm 43, along with Psalm 42, comprise one song, held together with the refrain "Why are you cast down, o my soul? and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."  The Psalmist has expressed his desire to worship God, to be attendant to the festivals; yet the Lord's hand -- in the form of enemies -- is heavy upon him.  It feels, he says, as if "all Your breakers and Your waves have gone over me."  He is drowning, he who just a few lines earlier confessed that his soul was parched for God. We come to the center of the poem, then, and it is beautiful: "By day the Lord commands His steadfast love," His hesed, that love expressed through the covenant by which He bound Himself as Husband and Lord to Israel, "and at night His song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life."  Still, though, the enemies taunt, saying, "Where is Your God?"  This causes the Psalmist, at the start of Psalm 43, to call for God's judgment: "Vindicate me, o God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!"  He feels trapped by the enemy, unable to make headway against the accusations of divine abandonment.  The vindication, the defense, and the deliverance are one and the same, found when God sends "out His Light and His Truth" which lead the Psalmist back into the worship of God, where he so longed to be, revealing the Hope his soul had panted after.

There are many ways in which we could interpret and apply this Psalm to our lives.  The most obvious, I think, is the psychological: we've felt the despondency that the Psalmist does -- the crushing weight of intrusive and persistent thoughts that claim the absolute absence of God.  Here the spiritual principle of speaking to our soul, reminding it that He is faithful, just, and good, is appropriate and helpful.  But let us go on to another way of looking at it.  The phrase "an ungodly people" could well be translated as "an impious nation."  We know the current cultural and social moment in which we live.  We've seen, in only a few months time, the normalization of pornography and sexual abuse with 50 Shades of Grey, the cultural exaltation of what Scripture and Church Tradition considers sin (in a number of ways), the continuing plague of racism, and the codification into law of that which leads us away from Christ.  Many Christians are in distress, wondering "where is God?"  It is easy, and arguably right, to be "cast down" and "in turmoil" right now.

The answer, though, is in front of us: prayer.

We often pooh-pooh prayer.  We say, "I feel like all I can do is pray" and other similar sentiments.  All we can do?  St James teaches us that "the effective prayer of a righteous person has great power" (5:16). Why, then, do so many of our prayers seem to go unanswered, especially as we pray for our nation and our culture?  James says, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (4:3), that is, we ask selfishly: we want comfort, security, prosperity, fame, exceptionalism, instead of God's will for ourselves and our nation.  James goes on to say "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."  We must, that is, seek after God's righteousness, who in turn makes us righteous, that our prayers might be effective and powerful.  "Submit yourselves, therefore, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (4:6-10).  There is hope, then, in our collective and persistent repentance.  Repentance is a form of judgment, looking at our own turning away from the Life of God, and turning once more, as the old Shaker song puts it, "for by turning, turning, we come 'round right." The Psalmist, then, surrounded by "an impious nation," does not call for their judgment, but his own: "vindicate me, o God!"  The Hebrew is a bit more striking, "Judge me!"  As St Peter says, "it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God" (4:17).  Once we judge ourselves by God's Spirit, taking particular care to remove the logs from our own eyes before helping to wipe the sawdust from our brother's, then we can pray effectively and powerfully.

What is the content of our prayer?  The Psalmist tells us: "Send out Your Light and Your Truth; let them lead me" (v. 3).  When we pray for the leading of Light and Truth, we are not praying for pious niceties.  So often when we use terms like these, we take them as nothing more than metaphors; the Scriptures instruct us differently.  What is God's Light? "I am the Light of the world; whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of Life," our Lord says in John 8:12.  What is God's Truth?  "If you abide in My Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free," (8:31-32), in which our Lord tells His disciples, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (14:6).  "Send out Your Light and Your Truth" is the language of prayer to ask for the coming of the Son of God into our midst, that He might lead us to salvation.  As we see in the Gospels, though, this is a task best done in fear: the sinners -- prostitutes, tax-collectors, Gentiles -- expected the harsh wrath of God, while the Pharisees believed themselves to be "on the right side of history."  Jesus overturned this: those who were in sin repented, while the religious held on to their own righteousness, instead of seeking God's in Jesus Christ.  If we have humbled ourselves, seeking first God's kingdom and righteousness, He will lead us: where, though?

"Let them bring me to Your Holy Hill and to Your Dwelling!  Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise You with the lyre, O God, my God."  God's Light and Truth, Jesus Christ, leads us to Church, to worship Him "in Spirit and in Truth" (John 4:23).  Why?  Here is where God has made Himself present, in the Body of the Son.  Here is where we can be purified, made clean, forgiven of our sins, saved from the enemy, nurtured to health, and equipped for mission.  Here is where we learn to pray, and learn that prayer is the foundation of all Christian life.  We may not be able to do great works, in fact it is probably better if we don't, as pride can easily creep into our hearts and poison us; but we can, no matter our physical ability, no matter our intellectual attainments, no matter our capacities and capabilities, pray and pray together. It is no wonder, then, that the author of Hebrews admonishes us to "not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (10:25).

It is in the midst of worship, as well, that all things become clear.  We see all that is happening in the world, even our own nation: Ferguson, Baltimore, the burning of churches in the South, the emptiness of churches in the North, Chattanooga, and we are liable to take over the role of the enemy and ask, "Where is your God?"  We might even be tempted to say, "All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence" (Ps. 73:13).  It seems that evil is in the ascendency, what use is living the Christian life?  The Psalmist says, "If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.  But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end" (v. 15-17).  Here, in the Church, we see the end of evil: we see the Cross, where Satan and the demons poured out the worst they are capable of, murdering the Lord of Light and Life; yet this Cross has become, for us, a symbol not of shame or defeat, but of unconditional victory: "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself" (2 Cor. 5:19); "By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3).  Evil is defeated, even if it yet prowls around as a "roaring lion" -- for God's Light and Truth have been sent, leading us to worship Him, Father, Son, and Spirit for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world.  This is why the Psalmist can end, as we should today, by saying: "Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God."  Hallelujah, our God reigns!  Amen.

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