For many of us, we cannot read the opening verses of Psalm 116 without thinking of the lovely song based on it that has become popular in recent years. What the song gets right is the lyric words of the first two verses because the psalmist swiftly moves from the grateful observation that God heard his cry in one instance and therefore he pledges to continue to call on God for the rest of his days. The psalmist is not hedging his bets here. He is not saying that he will call on God and wait to see what happens on a case by case basis. He is not saying that if there is a failure to heed his cry at some future point then the deal is off.
No, this is a pledge to continue to serve the God who came through for the psalmist when he needed it. There are some clear echoes in this psalm of Jonah 2 and the psalm Jonah sang as he sank to the depths of the sea. Whatever the psalmist’s specific situation it is clear he believed he was going to die. This is one of many psalms that on one level seems to say that God will protect the righteous from all harm and yet on another level makes clear that now and then sore distress—even unto death—will come upon the righteous. Indeed, the fact that the psalmist follows up his opening words of praise to God for having heard his cry with a vow to continue to call on God would imply that in the future, there will also now and again be a real need to call on God.
We are not promised a suffering-free life. And no matter how sunny-sounding many psalms are with promises that God will always protect the righteous, that seems as often as not to be meant in a longer-term sense. In the near-term, situations will arise that will require fresh cries to God for deliverance and help. If we take even other parts of Psalm 116 only at face value, one could conclude that after one act of deliverance by God, the psalmist expects that thenceforth all would be well. But to take these words that way would not be correct.
The last thing any of us should want to do is preach on Psalm 116—or any psalm—in such a way as to prop up some health-and-wealth corruption of the Gospel. We are promised God’s ultimate protection and constant presence but we are not promised that our faith will translate into riches or a pain-free existence. Part of what it means to be a believer is to have a faith that God is with us even if the bottom seems to have dropped out on life. In fact, a little later in this psalm beyond where the Lectionary section stops we are told that the death of God’s saints are precious in God’s sight. True, one could take that “death” to mean those who are old and full of years but there is nothing in the psalm to indicate that the death in question could not be a premature death or a tragic death.
This is the paradox of faith and thus of many of the psalms. We praise God for being with us and for many instances of deliverance from hard times. Yet we have no guarantee that more hard times may not come our way nor any assurance that something could happen from which we are not saved no matter how hard we or others cry to the Lord. Sometimes the Lord hears our cry but does not come through for us in any immediate sense.
This is also why in preaching class I often have to tell students to throttle back just a little bit in case in a sermon they go on and on just a little too long about someone’s miraculous deliverance from what could have been a bad situation. True, if the Smith family had a sick child who the doctors feared would die of a given condition and if the congregation prayed for that child and she recovered, then we are right to give praise for that and give voice to it by way of proxy testimony in a sermon.
But my only advice to seminarians is that they remember that when they celebrate the Smith family’s joyful story of deliverance, don’t forget the Jones family for whose child the congregation prayed with equal fervor but who died anyway. It’s not that you cannot celebrate with the Smiths. Just do it with an awareness that you do so in the presence of the Jones family and see what modulating or nuancing effect that has for your sermon. The last thing in the world any preacher would want to do is do or say anything that would lean—even just a little bit—in the direction of suggesting that Smiths had stronger faith than the Jones folks and hence the different result.
Again, this is so much the paradox of faith. There are no guarantees that every cry will not only be heard by the Lord but be acted upon in just the way we wish for in the moment. But perhaps that is why we sing another song in the church: Christus Paradox. Christ Jesus entered into the paradoxes of our lives—even unto the paradox of the living Son of God dying on a cross—to open up God’s ultimate deliverance of all of us in answer to the sum total of all the cries of God’s people across history.
For this reason above all we join the psalmist in saying, “I love the Lord for he heard my cry. I will call on him for as long as I live.”
When I have preached on the topic of suffering and looking to God for deliverance as Psalm 116 does, I have opened the sermon with two contrasting vignettes from the world of literature. The first comes from Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World where we see a future world in which life is engineered to avoid all suffering. But somehow or another this doesn’t quite lead to a complete human existence. The residents of this brave new world require monthly injections of adrenalin to make up for their bodies’ not producing adrenalin the usual way when we are fearful, startled, or in pain. Huxley seems to be saying that to deny all suffering is not quite human.
On the other hand is the character of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations. Many years before, Miss Havisham had been jilted on the day of her wedding. The groom just never showed up. Ever since, Miss Havisham has locked herself in the room where the wedding reception was to have taken place. The clock on the wall is stopped at the hour and minute when the wedding was to have begun. The long-since desiccated and rat-eaten wedding cake still sits on a buffet. And Miss Havisham still wears her wedding dress, now tattered and yellowed with age. Miss Havisham is trapped by her suffering.
Denial of suffering. Being frozen in one’s suffering. Are these the only two alternatives for dealing with the fact that sooner or later we all suffer in some way? The Bible suggests a fruitful third way: relying on God, crying to God, looking to God in all things. We don’t need to be trapped in our suffering and so let it have the last word on our lives nor do we need to deny its reality but we do look to the God who is with us in all things.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 12, 2021
Psalm 116:1-9 Commentary