Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 14, 2018
Psalm 22:1-15 Commentary
It seems odd that Psalm 22 should crop up in the lectionary at this time of year. We tend to associate it with Lent and Holy Week, not the middle of autumn. Lots of you will probably turn to another of the lections for your text for that reason alone.
But hold it. Psalm 22 in October actually offers the preacher options for a couple of important reasons. First, it liberates Psalm 22 from being merely a prophecy about Christ’s death on the cross. It’s hard not to see all the uncanny direct parallels with what happened on the cross. While that’s a legitimate and important use of the text, it neglects another equally important one.
Psalm 22 is a lament, at least the section we read here. Someone wrote these words, not with Jesus in mind, but out of the crucible of their personal experience. Centuries before Jesus quoted these words from the cross, someone in mortal pain cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Which brings me to the second reason why you might want to choose this text that seems so out of season. It challenges us with one of the main reasons why people might lose faith in God. He seems too often like an absent deity. Too often, when we cry out in need or pain, there is nothing but silence and absence. It embarrasses us, it angers us, it casts the shadow of doubt over many people’s already tenuous faith, and not least, your own.
The remarkable thing is that the Bible itself is not reticent on the subject. You can find those doubts and struggles with God’s absence all over the Bible. Of course, almost every Psalm of lament, like this one, expresses the pain of God’s absence, but beyond that it crops up all over, especially in the Old Testament.
There’s Job, where God seems absent to the suffering Job, while we get to look behind the curtain to see something of what God is up to, and it’s not very nice. There’s Isaiah 45:15, where, right in the middle of a series of staggering promises, the prophet admits, almost as an aside, “Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself.”
It’s a big theme in the prophet Habakkuk:
How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds. (1: 1-2)
And a little further:
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (1:13)
But, more relevant to pastors, it’s the experience of your people all the time. When grief overwhelms, when death snatches a loved one, when cancer strikes a teenager, when tsunamis hit killing thousands, we are right back there with the Psalmist, feeling forsaken, and shaking our fists at the silent heavens.
The first thing people need to hear, I think, is that this is not merely a problem pointed out by atheists or those who have “lost their faith.” It’s not as though the Bible has tried to hide this issue from us, and now the critics have discovered a loophole. The Bible openly acknowledges that this is a real problem for believers. It asks often and agonizingly, why is God absent; why is God silent?
It’s good to know that our doubts and fears about the hiddenness of God are nothing to be embarrassed about. We don’t have to hide them. They are as biblical as God’s promises. We even hear them on the lips of the Lord himself.
The crux of the matter is the contrast in the Psalm between God’s gracious presence and agonizing absence. After beginning his cry of pain, the Psalmist points out that God is sometimes amazingly present.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But then the Psalmist wonders why is God so far away when I am suffering. “I am a worm and no man.” In other words, it must be that I don’t deserve God’s intervention and help. But no that can’t be; I have known the Lord’s care and experienced his love.
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
With that thought, he returns hopefully to prayer:
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
The Bible confronts us with an uncomfortable and agonizing theological truth. God is hidden from us. He is what Karl Barth called Deus Absconditus, the hidden God. But, as theologian Fleming Rutledge writes, that’s not all of it.
God is not just hidden on general principles. If God is hidden, it is because he hides himself. He means to be hidden. It is God’s nature to be out of the reach of our senses. There is a distance between God and ourselves that cannot be bridged from our side.
This is a hard truth for us to learn. Our Sunday School upbringing has tended to make is think that God is always available, always knowable. always explainable. Well, there comes a time to put away childish things. God is God, and we are not God. The old hymn addresses God in a way that our happy, clappy worship songs tend to miss.
Immortal, invisible God only wise
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most gracious, most glorious, the ancient of days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
God is hidden, but not in darkness, but inaccessible light, light so bright, so heavenly, we are blinded by it.
We cannot understand or know the ways of God simply because we are limited, blind, sinful mortals, and God is the Creator of all things, infinite, omnipotent, almighty, and hidden behind a cloud of unknowing.
Children often get angry at their parents for refusing things, denying things. The reason, as every parent knows, is that the child is a child, and cannot hope to understand the complexities of the world, the limits of reality. When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was “Father Knows Best.” The recurring (patriarchal) theme was that kids don’t get it. They can’t see the big picture. Take that simple reality and multiply it a trillion times, and you have God.
The startling thing the Bible tells us is that we need not suppress our childish frustrations with a God we cannot always understand. God invites us to voice them, even to scream them. And most astonishing of all, we find these words of hurt and frustration, of abandonment and pain, on the lips of God’s own Son.
God has assumed our weak, limited, human ignorance of the God’s own ways. God’s own Son descended into the hell of God’s silence, hiddenness, and seeming abandonment. And he did so at exactly the moment when, in the terrible darkness of Golgotha, God’s holy love was bearing our sin and healing our brokenness.
God remains hidden in inapproachable light; God’s ways are inscrutable to human understanding. We don’t know, we cannot know, the particulars of what God is about in the events of our world and our personal lives. What God has given us is the promise that no matter what happens in the world, God is constantly pursuing his loving purpose, his covenant commitment to make all things new in Jesus Christ. Or, as Paul puts it, “In all things, God works for good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)
Preaching the Text:
1). If we are going to really grapple with the pain of the hiddenness and silence of God, we need to face it squarely, not from a safe perch of theological certainty. One of the darkest and most heartfelt expressions of rage against God’s hiddenness is a in a novel called “The Blood of the Lamb” by Peter Devries, who happens to come from my own Dutch Calvinist tribe, and was an alumnus of my own Calvin College.
Known mostly as a comic writer, he wrote this one uncharacteristically autobiographical novel sometime after the tragic death of his young daughter from leukemia. The blood of the lamb refers this to Christ’s blood, and the tainted, diseased blood of Devries’ little lamb, his daughter.
Here’s the central scene as described by blogger Jonathan Hiskes:
For all of Wanderhope’s (the main character) Job-like arguing with the divine, his climactic action is a wordless gesture. At the false hope of Carol’s last remission, he brings a celebration cake with white icing. Then he learns of the infectious outbreak that finally takes his daughter. Hours later, drunk, he passes the church of Saint Catherine, where he has stopped during the previous months to plead for his daughter’s survival. He sees the cross above the door. He gazes at the crucified figure, considering the impotence of a savior who can suffer but not prevent suffering. He remembers the frosted cake, retrieves it, and hurls it into the face of the dying Christ, an awful twist on the old comic gag. He collapses to the sidewalk in tears.
Devries closes the chapter with these words, “Thus Wanderhope was found at that place which…was said to be the only alternative to the muzzle of pistol: the foot of the cross.” (University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 238)
2). The quote from Fleming Rutledge above comes from an article entitled “Divine Absence and the Light Inaccessible. The entire article powerfully addresses the issue of God’s hiddenness.
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