Psalms for Lent

Sermon for the first Sunday in Lent
Psalm 130

Over the course of the season of Lent we’re going to do something I only very rarely have us do. We’re going to set aside the lectionary cycle of readings, and instead have a psalm for our first lesson, followed by a portion of the Gospel according to John which doesn’t appear in the normal lectionary cycle. I’ve chosen mostly lament psalms for this series—texts that express sorrow, repentance, loss, even anger—as I think they speak to  experiences and give voice to some things that need to be considered during this Lenten time. It will be the psalm that will be my preaching focus over these weeks.

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This evening I want to offer a bit of context for hearing these ancient texts. The Book of Psalms as we have it in our bibles was assembled as the working hymn-book of what is known as “Second Temple Judaism.” Back at home after the Exile in Babylon, with the long slow process of rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple under way, this collection of texts was assembled in all of its variety. Songs old and new. Psalms for the individual and psalms for the community.  Praise, lament, anger, and consolation. It is all there. I once asked Robert Farrar Capon about his take on the psalms, to which he responded, “I’ve read the psalms like mad over the years. And I’ve had all the reactions everyone has had: glorious, problematic, difficult, nasty and snotty and vengeful and just weird. And also totally applicable to me at this point: ‘Forsake me not in my old age.’”

Capon’s characterization of some of the psalms as “nasty and snotty and vengeful” might strike you as a bit overstated or even impious. Robert always had a gift for a kind of bombastic but ultimately helpful overstatement, and here he’s not that far from what Eugene Peterson writes in his introduction to the psalms in his translation, The Message. Peterson says that whenever someone came to him with questions about how to pray, his response was “to put the Psalms in a person’s hand”.

‘Go home and pray these. You’ve got wrong ideas about prayer; the praying you find in these Psalms will dispel the wrong ideas and introduce you to the real thing.’ A common response of those who do what I ask is surprise – they don’t expect this kind of thing in the Bible.  And then I express surprise at their surprise: ‘Did you think these would be the prayers of nice people? Did you think the psalmists’ language would be polished and polite?’

“The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough,” Peterson continues. “They are not genteel.  They are not the prayers of nice people, couched in cultured language.” In other words, many of the psalms are “faith in the raw,” in spite of the fact that our English translations have tended to pretty them up. Peterson can rightly see the psalter as something of a school of prayer, and that is largely because it is not a technical handbook. This is not about technique at all, but rather about honest speech and deeply authentic resources.

When the church chooses to avoid difficult texts and read only the “nice bits” of the bible, it is doing itself a great disservice. In much of contemporary Western Christianity, praise and worship is the primary shared language for church gatherings, yet according to Walter Brueggemann, “Such worship is destructive because it requires persons to engage in enormous denial and pretense about how life really is.” To have a resource like the psalms close at hand—a resource that dares to break the silence and name the other experiences—is a great gift. Speaking the full truth of our story—someone is in trouble, someone is hurting incredibly deeply, someone is struggling with depression, someone is dying—we have taken the first step toward relinquishing any pretense of idolatrous control over the smooth running of our lives.

There are any number of scholarly systems for classifying and categorizing the psalms, many of which are highly technical and frankly a bit irrelevant. Still, I find Walter Brueggemann’s framework to be really very helpful. Working with a deep knowledge of the scholarly literature and with a lived experience as a Christian in the “real world,” Brueggemann proposes that broadly speaking there are three main categories of psalms, reflective of the life of faith itself. “I suggest,” he writes, “in a simple schematic fashion, that our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of,

  1. being securely oriented,
  2. being painfully disoriented, and
  3. being surprisingly reoriented.”

Because life is like that, and because the psalms are born of lives lived and of a willingness to speak the truth, the psalms are like that: there are some that speak primarily of safe orientation, some that reflect painful disorientation, and some that proclaim a new and surprising re-orientation. Not that every single psalm will fit neatly or narrowly within one of those broad categories…  but then of course life itself isn’t so easily organized or systematized.

For most of these Lenten weeks it will be psalms of painful disorientation that I’ll be putting on our plate for consideration and reflection, though for tonight I thought it best to have us work with a psalm that already anticipates the possibility of re-orientation. I’ll leave some of the tougher edged ones—the ones that won’t resolve or that resolve in a way that we might find “problematic, difficult, nasty and snotty and vengeful”— for a bit deeper into the season.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” Psalm 130 begins. “Lord, hear my voice!” The Hebrew word translated as “the depths” refers literally to the depths of the sea, which for a poet of Israel would have represented something deep, dangerous, even chaotic. Israel was an inland nation, and while there was a tradition of fishing the Sea of Galilee—a lake, really—the open seas were not a part of their familiar world. Even the relatively small Sea of Galilee was unpredictable and dangerous, so to write of being in “the depths” was to acknowledge that one is in deep, deep trouble. “Lord, hear my voice!”

And the source of this deep trouble? It would seem that maybe it is at least partly of the writer’s own making. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities / Lord, who could stand?”

And then the writer continues, “But there is forgiveness with you / so that you may be revered.” Already this writer is anticipating the move from dis-orientation to re-orientation, which suggests to me that this is a piece of writing over which the author has done some real reflecting; that maybe this one is a little less immediate, a little less raw than is the case with some of the psalms we’ll consider as the season progresses. That doesn’t make this one any less truthful, though.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in God’s word is my hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

And now it sounds really quite liturgical, doesn’t it? With that repeated final line and the imagery of the watchman standing on the city tower awaiting the dawn so that the community can be summoned from sleep and the Levites can offer the first prayers and sacrifice for the new day. And it culminates in a call to the whole community of Israel to “hope in the Lord” who offers “steadfast love” to “redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” In just eight verses, the poet moves from a personal cry of lostness in the depths to a proclamation of redemption for the whole of the community, clearly aware what the final message would be even as the first word was spoken.

It is not unlike our own pattern of confession each Sunday night. When in a few minutes you are called into a deep stillness in which to speak to God of that in your life which is born of sin and fear and wounds—of the dis-orientation in which we all live—you know what will follow. In the words of absolution spoken each week, I will again pronounce re-orientation over your lives. In other words, often when we speak truthfully about our pain or failings or lostness, we’re basically saying that we’re prepared to be found again; that we trust we’re about to be re-oriented again. That’s precisely the sort of perspective that the writer of this psalm is expressing.

Just know that there are other psalm-writers for whom that isn’t quite so clear, and whose voices we will hear on other Sundays in this season. Just know, in other words, that part of the message of the psalms is that when it comes to prayer it is all fair game. No need to couch things in formal language or to hold back in shame from praying with honesty and rawness, because as you will see so very clearly over the coming weeks, God seems quite able to hear us out even in our most profoundly dis-oriented, disillusioned, and dis-heartened seasons.

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