Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 12, 2018
Psalm 130 Commentary
One of the strangest books I’ve ever read is The Trial/Das Urteil by the German author Franz Kafka. The book’s opening line starkly says, “Someone must have slandered Josef K. because even though he had done nothing bad, one morning he was suddenly arrested.” The police show up at his apartment before breakfast one day to inform Josef K. that he is under indictment for something very serious. They don’t say what, nor do they throw him into jail. He is instead under a kind of house arrest, albeit with the assurance that his trial will one day come. But no one tells Josef K. what the charge against him is. It’s serious, it’s bad, but it is also completely murky. And through ten long chapters neither Josef K. nor we as readers ever find out what his crime was or when (if ever) it would go to trial.
Josef K. tries to carry on with his life and with his job at a bank but everywhere he goes, including the most unlikely of places, he runs into judges, juries, lawyers. He never goes to a formal courthouse but instead suddenly stumbles into courtrooms smack in the middle of apartment buildings and stores. Judges greet him from out of the blue and once again assure him that he is guilty of something huge but they don’t say what. He goes to a lawyer who says that the best strategy would be just to admit his crime and be done with it. But Josef K. says he has no crime to admit. On and on it goes until you have the sense that Josef K’s “trial” is not an event that will take place in a courtroom one day. Instead his whole life is the trial!
Finally one night two black-clad police officers knock on Josef K’s door, escort him down an alley, and execute him for his crime. They stab him through his heart, and as he gasps his final breath, he sees the cops staring at him and saying in the book’s closing line, “‘Like a dog!’ as though the shame of it all should outlive him.”
The Trial makes almost no sense on the surface. But Tim Keller once preached on Psalm 130 (and I owe Keller a debt of gratitude for a lot of what is in this sermon commentary) and he quoted a line from Kafka’s personal diary: a line that unlocks what Josef K. represented. In his diary one day Franz Kafka wrote that the problem with modern people is that we feel like sinners yet independent of guilt.
We sense that something is amiss in our lives, something is wrong. But even while we feel this way, society also tells us to get rid of guilt by getting rid of the idea that there are any objective rules that we should follow in the first place. Guilt comes when you break a rule and you know it. So get rid of the rules and you get rid of guilt. What’s right and what’s wrong is up to the individual to decide.
Years ago on the TV news show 60 Minutes the program’s resident curmudgeon, Andy Rooney, provided a classic example of this. Rooney’s commentary was on a controversy about a Ten Commandments monument in Alabama. At one point Rooney went down the list of the Ten Commandments but in several cases he very flippantly said, “I don’t think God would say something like that so let’s get rid of that commandment.” And there you have it: we are free to decide what’s right and wrong. We don’t receive truth from the outside but make up our own rules as we go along. So there is nothing to feel guilty about in life. Just follow the motto of “To your own self be true!”
But people still don’t feel very happy. We’ve relativized the rules, normalized guilt, but still something is wrong. Despair, shame, restlessness, dissatisfaction are rampant. Since Prozac and its cousins have gone on the market, they have sold at an incredible rate. Mostly these drugs are a wonderful way to treat clinical depression but there is evidence that these have also become what some have called “designer drugs” that are prescribed to people who are not depressed but who still want to feel better about themselves. Millions of people want this precisely because, as it is, they do not feel satisfied with who they are.
Any number of people in society can identify with the person who wrote Psalm 130. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” We feel like we are sinking, like we’re going down, like we have sunk down to a level that feels decidedly out-of-joint and wrong. We are weighed down by shame, by guilt, by feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. We feel like sinners but independent of guilt. Like Josef K. we feel like we’ve done something wrong, but nobody can tell us what. But if we don’t know what’s wrong, we will also never find out how to fix it!
The Bible says and Psalm 130 says that trying to muster our own inner resources to climb up out of the pit will never work. We’re looking in the wrong place for a solution. Psalm 130 says that what we need above all is to know that God forgives us. But you are not going to look for forgiveness (or even want it) until and unless you admit that you need forgiveness. But you won’t admit that need unless you admit first that you are guilty. You need to see yourself measured against some objective standards and rules, confess that you are not in alignment with those standards, and then seek to be forgiven.
Psalm 130 tells us all this. This Hebrew poem has long occupied a central place in the Christian tradition. It became known for a long time by its shorthand Latin title of De Profundis, “out of the depths.” As commentator James Mays notes, few psalms so swiftly summarize the whole human predicament and our utter dependence on God’s grace. Mays also notes that the key to this psalm is how it corrects a common misperception about God.
When you have done something wrong, what is it that keeps you from admitting your guilt? Isn’t it typically a fear of punishment? Yes, someone broke the living room window by tossing a baseball the wrong direction. Your dad may be mighty upset about this, but so long as he doesn’t know that you did it, you won’t get into trouble, won’t get grounded, won’t have to pay for the new window. Similarly, a lot of people resist the notion that they may be guilty of sinning precisely because they don’t want to get into trouble with God because they are convinced that the number one item on God’s agenda is sending people to hell. They picture God as pacing back and forth in heaven with fire in his eyes and a huge rolled-up newspaper in his hand eagerly waiting for the next chance to swat someone.
Psalm 130 says the opposite. God is not eager to punish but he is eager to forgive. Verse 4 gives us the Bible’s single best reason to fear God and it’s not because he is stronger than you and so watch out or else you’ll get squashed. No, the number one reason to fear God (in the sense of honoring and being humbled before God) is because with God there is forgiveness! Giving in to our guilt, admitting that we’ve done it wrong in life, is prelude to grace flooding into us and so getting us out of that pit into which we’ve sunk.
Here is a great irony and paradox: people label guilt as “a downer.” Even some churches have tried to vet worship services of all talk of sin and guilt because it turns people off, it’s a drag, a downer. Do you notice that language: Drag. Downer. That’s the language of De Profundis, getting dragged down into the pit from which the modern world cries. But the paradox, the surprise, is that as it turns out, acknowledging guilt is the opposite of a downer: it’s an upper because recognizing the need for forgiveness is what brings us up out of the pit! Because God does not delight in keeping a record of our sins, because our Redeemer through Christ Jesus the Lord is eager to forgive, giving in to our need for forgiveness is not a drag but a lift.
So much of this depends on how we see God. The English translation of Psalm 130 obscures this, but there is a clever play on words here. In verse 3 we are told that God does not keep a record of sins, but what that literally says in Hebrew is that God does not keep his eye on our sins. There is such a thing as sin. That’s the whole point of this psalm. So there is also a record of sins. But verse 3 says that God does not watch that diary of our sins. Speaking of watching, the word for “watchmen” in verse 6 is the same root word as in verse 3. When we watch for God the way watchmen strain to see the eastern horizon pink up with the dawn, what we will see as a result of our watchfulness is a gracious God. So verse 3 says that God does not fix his eye on our sins. As a result, verse 6 says that when we fix our eyes on God, what we see is forgiveness.
So to get out of the pit, we need to know that there is such a thing as sin. We need to acknowledge our own guilt as sinners. But we need to do both with the up-front assurance that all this talk of sin and guilt will not spell our doom but will open us up to the grace that God is so eagerly waiting to dispense.
Now, sin is still real. It still needs to be dealt with. But it is God’s grace that will do that. As Tim Keller points out, the world misses this part. Instead of seeking God, they seek out other people who have the same problems they do. This person feels like he’s sinking into a pit, so does that person and then still other persons, and so they form a support group to talk about it. But sometimes what happens is that all these sinking people get together, grab onto one another, and so just sink faster because they’re still looking in the wrong direction. We can’t pull ourselves out of the pit of guilt and shame into which sin has led us nor can we pull each other out. We need Someone else, a Redeemer, to do the heavy lifting for us.
The Good News of the Gospel is that exactly that Redeemer exists. Thanks be to God!
While I was a seminary intern, I experienced for the first time what it is like as a pastor to walk with someone through cancer, the rigors of chemotherapy, and the final succumbing to the disease. Especially as the end drew near, what worried this dear Christian man more than anything was what was going to happen on judgment day. He had in his mind an image with which perhaps many of us grew up: the image of some giant movie screen on which God would play the film of our lives including all those greasy moments of secret sin. And my dying friend fretted terribly about this, and maybe some of us do, too. How could we endure the shame of having the whole human race see us literally with our pants down or with our mouths full of swear words or with our hearts filled with dark thoughts of envy, anger, pride, and lust? Worse, how could God ever welcome us into his kingdom given all the sins that would be projected onto that movie screen of judgment?
If you, O Lord God, kept a record of sins; if you, O God, fixed your eyes ever and only on what we’ve done wrong, who could stand? The answer is no one. So instead of that grim movie screen of judgment, God long ago fixed his eyes on the cross of his Son and our Savior, Jesus. When we admit our need for the forgiving grace that streams from the cross like a mighty river of mercy, we discover that with God there is forgiveness, and that is the end of the story.
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