Summit Presbyterian Church
January 23, 2011
What's Your Story?
"The Lord drew me up from the desolate pit, and out of the miry bog," says the psalmist. He - or she - doesn't say what kind of desolate pit or miry bog he was caught in. It was written before the days of Oprah or the modern memoir so we don't know the details of his unhappy past. But we know the desolate pits and miry bogs that people fall into now, and we can be sure there were ancient equivalents. There's the desolate pit of grief: when someone we love dies. When we lose a job, savings, a home or a marriage. There's the desolate pit of loneliness, anxiety or depression, when we feel isolated even in the midst of people. There's the desolate pit of illness, when we're in a dark hole of pain and fear. There's the miry bog of addiction -- to alcohol or drugs, shopping or the internet. There's the miry bog of unwise choices - -- when we wake up and realize we've made promises we can't keep, scary creditors are leaving messages on the phone, or we're caught in a mess of lies that we've been telling our partner. This psalm is one of the psalms of King David: although it was probably not written by David, it could have been! For David knew desolate pits and miry bogs, many of his own making: adultery, murder, being hunted down by enemies, the deaths of his child and closest friend, the loss of power. And he was a chosen one of God.
But whatever the nature of his suffering, the psalmist waited for the Lord. In our english translations it says "I waited patiently" but scholars agree in Hebrew there's an urgent longing in that waiting -- one scholar says it should be translated "I waited impatiently." And then something happened. Perhaps he recovered from an illness. Perhaps a burden of grief or anxiety or depression finally lifted. Perhaps he reconciled with a loved one, or was able see clearly a path he had to take. But whatever happened, the Lord drew him up from the desolate pit. God drew him out of the miry bog where he was sinking, and set his feet upon a rock, making his steps secure. God then put a new song in his mouth, a song of praise. So the psalmist sings God's praise, proclaiming the wondrous deeds that God has done. He gives himself to the Lord, saying "Here I am" and delights in the will of God. He doesn't keep secret the turn his life has taken, and tells the glad news of God's deliverance in the great congregation. Happy are those, says the psalmist, who trust in the Lord.
And the story might have ended there: a sinner lost, then found, who annoys everyone around him by constantly talking about it while singing God's praises. But it doesn't end there. At the close of the passage you may have sensed the mood shifting, when the psalmist says, "Do not O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever." Listen to the rest of psalm 40, verses 12-17:
For evils have encompassed me without number;
my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me.
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me.
Let all those be put to shame and confusion
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who desire my hurt.
Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, "Aha, Aha!"
But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, "Great is the Lord!"
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God.
Do not delay, O my God. We're back full circle. Waiting for the Lord, overcome by sin, encompassed by evil, poor and needy, surrounded by enemies, real or imagined. It's not a happily every after ending: but isn't this the life of faith? At some time in our life, God's grace lifts us up and we can feel our feet stepping onto a firm foundation. We're grateful, we're converted, we have nothing but praise for God. But then life begins to look a lot like it it always did. The same demons, the same ways of sinning, the same struggles, come to challenge us, and even some new ones: a new diagnosis, a new problem with our kid. That experience of God's grace may seem a distant memory. We know we've been saved, things are different, but we're still waiting: waiting for God, waiting for relief, waiting for grace. And we may not be waiting patiently.
So what are we to do? How do we keep from getting discouraged and remain faithful? The psalms offers an answer: keep singing. Remember the wonders that God has done, in our life and in the world, even as we wait for help. Sing God's praises in times of joy and sorrow, sickness and health, in times of peace and times of worry. The psalmist is overcome with evil and iniquity, but he still says "may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation, say continually, "Great is the Lord!" He is poor and needy, but he praises the God who takes thought for him, his help and deliverer. This new song itself, sustains him, this new song put into his mouth by God, as well as the open ear he has been given and the law written on his heart. This new song is not just a song to speak or sing with words -- and I know some of you out there feel you can't sing -- it's a song we live by seeking to do God's will, and by living with gratitude for the blessings we do know. And in those times of personal struggle, when we're waiting for God to show up and make Gods self known in our lives, we can sing of God's wondrous deeds in the world: in the beauty and abundance of creation, in healing that we witness in others, in the life and death of Jesus and in the risen Christ. We can thank God for an honest psalm in the Bible!
The Irish band "U2" - whose lead singer is named Bono- has a song based on this psalm called "40." (Does anyone know it? I only know about it because it was mentioned in a popular book for preachers on the lectionary. I'll bet I'm not the only preacher in the country who's talking about U2). Well, I youtubed the U2 version, and indeed, the words are taken straight form the psalm:
I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay
I will sing, sing a new song
I will sing, sing a new song . . . .
He set my feet upon a rock
And made my footsteps firm
Many will see
Many will see and fear
I will sing, sing a new song.
But then they ask a question that's not in the psalm:
How long to sing this song? How long to sing this song?
How long...how long...how long...
The psalmist would say: as long as we have breath and life. And we're not only to sing the song, but we're to teach it to our children and to sing it in the community, so that those who come after us, "people yet unborn" will sing. The peoples will praise you, it says in psalm 45, forever and ever. God's praise endures forever, it says in psalm 111. But it's not just here on earth the scripture speaks of eternal praise to God. In heaven we'll continue God's praise -- from John's vision in the book of Revelation, and in the hymn we often sing: and the saints adore you, casting their golden crowns upon the glassy sea, singing "Holy, Holy, Holy," "When we've been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun," say the author of Amazing Grace, "we'll no less days to sing God's praise than when we first begun." In the joy of eternal life, when our waiting is over, we'll still sing praises to God.
How long to sing this song? As long as God shall live. For this new song is not something of our creation, a human response to God's blessings. This new song is a gift from God, put into our mouths to bring us joy and peace and to put our feet on rock.
So we sing to say thank you. We sing so others know of God's salvation and to give them hope. We sing because God has created us for praise, and in it we find our deepest joy and peace. We sing with our voices, and with our hands and with our lives. Telling our stories; singing our songs, proclaiming God's love fearlessly to all.