Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
On this, the second Sunday in Lent, we continue with our focus on the psalms. Last Sunday I spoke of the psalms as often embodying a kind of “faith in the raw,” sometimes giving voice to things with a surprising honesty and toughness. At the same time though, I suggested that our psalm for last Sunday—Psalm 130—was very carefully written, and that it maybe even had some sort of liturgical function in the life of ancient Israel. Yet simply because a text is shaped with such care doesn’t mean it is any less honest or raw. Think of how a great songwriter or poet can labour over a particular piece of writing, searching for just the right words and phrases to give voice to his or her own experiences, in the end offering something so authentic and true that it can move us to tears.
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Calvin Seerveld counts Psalm 25 as one of what he calls the “psalms of wrestling,” commenting that, “Wrestling in faith with God for rescue and blessing, knuckles bared, fired up with chutzpah, is what the Lord wants from God’s adopted children.” And yet this particular chutzpah-fired text—a text in which the psalmist writes not only of his own sense of guilt and sin but also of some very real threat posed by violent foes and enemies—this text is extraordinarily carefully composed. It is an acrostic poem, built around the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each new line begins with the next letter of the alphabet, which would suggest that this one didn’t pour straight from the writer’s heart onto the page. In all likelihood the writer painstakingly edited into it this form as a kind of teaching tool, intending it to be committed to memory. Particularly in the opening dozen verses, there is a powerful emphasis on God as the true teacher; the one this psalmist believes he most needs: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me…”
Yet this longing to be taught and led and ultimately be-friended by the Lord—language the writer uses in verse 14—originates in a place of serious disorientation and dislocation. According to the biblical scholar Marshall Johnson,
Guilt dominates the psalmist’s thinking, and it produces loneliness and affliction. The poet feels constricted, confined, caught in a net, and claustrophobic… Guilt has removed the joy of living and has become an obsession.
Guilt. Here we go, some of you might be thinking. Nothing like a solidly guilt-focused sermon text to really get a preacher going, particularly in the season of Lent… And I’m not only going to talk about guilt, but also about the writer’s sense of sin that has him feeling guilty in the first place! Trust me, though. I’ve no intention of leaving anyone wallowing in guilt. And frankly, neither did the psalmist.
Psalm 25 actually uses three different Hebrew words to describe sin, and taken together they should push us beyond a thin sense of sin as being merely a case of moral failure. There is firstly a series of words based in the Hebrew word hata’ , which means “missing the target”—“I have not done what I should have done,” as Gord Johnson writes in his “Song of Confession.” I’ve missed the mark, often in spite of myself and my best intentions. Secondly is the word pasa’, meaning rebellion. Perhaps not insignificantly, the prophet Isaiah uses this word when he writes of how Israel has been so very much like a teenager rebelling against his or her parents; something which I suspect most of us can relate to in some way! And thirdly is the word ‘awon, which James Limberg says has the sense of “being twisted out of shape or bent over [and] bowed down.” “Here, then,” Limberg continues, “are three pictures of life that is not right with God: a life that is not headed in the right direction but is off target, a life of rebellion, and a life twisted out of shape.”
In other words, rather than writing confessionally about some bad things he’s done, here the psalmist is attempting to say something deeper about his whole way of being in the world. He’s living out of a place of profound brokenness and disorientation, which is further compounded by the sense that there are those around him who take delight in his apparent weakness. “Consider how many are my foes / and with what violent hatred they hate me.” You begin to wonder why this poor writer even bothers to get out of bed in the morning…
Well, he bothers to get out of bed in the morning because while he may be profoundly aware of his own powerful sense of guilt and vulnerability, he has also been schooled—there’s that teaching theme again—he has been well schooled in the promise of God’s mercy. “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, / for they have been from of old,” which suggests not only that this writer knows the stories of old, but also is prepared to remind God of God’s merciful character; prepared to give the Lord a solid nudge in the direction of mercy and grace. This is something that happens time and again in the psalms, often with a sense of challenging God to be faithful. “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions”—that’s a prayer request—“according to your steadfast love remember me, / for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”—that’s a challenge.
That kind of challenging of God to actually be God is fair ball in the eyes of many of the psalm writers, just as it was for Abraham and Jacob in the stories of old to which this writer has appealed; just as it is in the book of Job, in which again and again the character of Job looks to the heavens and says “show me, God, anything I’ve done to deserve the losses and agonies I’m experiencing.” “If we take these psalms on our lips, in our mouth, actually to wrestle earnestly with God,” comments Cal Seerveld, “the Lord will indeed give grit to mature our faith.” For Seerveld, the force of this particular psalm is this: “Remember how close we used to be, my Lord… [I] am waiting expectantly for you in your faithfulness to come and let me breathe more freely.”
Here’s something, though, to keep firmly in mind as we consider this psalmist’s words. For all that he is labouring under the weight of guilt and for all that he is aware of the close presence of enemies only too happy to see him crumble, he doesn’t just give up and stay in bed. He looks to the stories and promises of old, and keeps them firmly in view. He doesn’t reject the hope and promises he’s inherited from his forebears, and he doesn’t back away from the practice of prayer. Instead he wrestles with God, and he does so precisely by using the language, the stories, the practices in which he has been formed. In other words, rather than rejecting or cutting himself off, this psalmist continues to keep company with the community that carries this faith and tradition. Maybe in the end that is the most important thing for us to hear, in our own various experiences of spiritual disorientation and dislocation. When guilt becomes oppressive or doubts become overwhelming or circumstance makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning, it is all the more important to not back away, not isolate, not disappear. In those days when it is hard to hope or even believe, you need to keep company with those who can. If it is hard to pray, let us pray for you. If it is hard to worship, stand with us and let our words and songs fill your silence.
Even in the times when you experience life as “not headed in the right direction but off target,” in rebellion, or “twisted out of shape” (that’s James Lindberg again)—there is room for you here.