Out of the Depths

Sermon delivered on Trinity 11B, Sunday, August 12, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4.25-5.2; John 6.35, 41-51.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

“Out of the depths, O Lord, I cry to you.” How many of us have prayed this prayer in one form or another in our lives? Like King David in our OT lesson, we are often afflicted by tragedy and other darkness. As Christians, what should be our response? Does the Bible have anything to say about the despair we all feel from time to time? This is what I want us to look at today.

So what can we learn from our psalm lesson this morning, with its cry of despair along with its embedded hope? As we read in our OT lesson, if David didn’t actually pray this prayer, he surely felt its emotion as he grieved the death of his beloved son. Likewise with us. While we may not have lost children to violent death, we have suffered betrayal and loss and hurt and sickness. We have been afflicted by fear over our health, our financial security, the uncertainty of living in a world going increasingly mad by the day, and by the unknowns in our life that afflict and oppress us. We may not have prayed Psalm 130 explicitly, but we understand the despair contained in it all too well. So what can this psalm teach us?

First, it reminds us that our cries of despair are not signs of faithlessness. Some of us believe that to have feelings of fear and anger and despair over the darkness and evil in our lives are signs that we don’t trust God. But that belief would surprise the psalmists who wrote prayers like the one in our lesson this morning. Rather, our cries of despair indicate a much-needed humility that recognizes we do not have the power to overcome everything that life throws our way and that we do need to cry out to the One who has the power to make all things right. Just as Jesus rebuked the crowds in our gospel lesson for their hard-hearted rejection of how God operated in their lives, the psalmist acknowledges that we are incapable of solving all our problems and must turn to God with a humble trust to rescue us when life overwhelms us. That is the essence of real faith. This is not easy for us to do because we much prefer our own delusional narratives that make us equal or superior to God. 

Second, the psalmist reminds us that Sin and the evil it has unleashed in God’s good world are at the root of all that afflicts us and here we must be very careful. The psalmist is not saying that all that afflicts and oppresses us is our fault. As we saw last week, while God forgives our sins, sometimes God allows the consequences of our sin to remain like he did with David, and we saw that tragically played out in our OT lesson this morning. So sometimes the darkness in our lives that causes us to despair is caused by our own sin and folly. But as the book of Job powerfully reminds us, sometimes the affliction we suffer is not our fault. Mysteriously and enigmatically, sometimes really bad things happen to innocent people. For example, innocents are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Terrible accidents happen that cause permanent wounds and alter lives forever. Innocent babies are born with horrible defects and deadly diseases. Whether we are responsible for that which afflicts us or not, the fact remains that we live in a sin-sick and evil-infested world and we are all afflicted by that, directly or otherwise. The psalmist recognizes correctly that only when Sin and Evil are properly dealt with by God can we expect to be truly healed and liberated from all that makes us despair. That is why we cry out to God from the depths, i.e., when we are overwhelmed, because we realize that only God has the power to deal with the darkness of Sin and the evil it unleashes. More about that in a moment.

Third, we need to be careful that we don’t misunderstand the key terms of hope and waiting on God contained in our psalm. As we have seen before, hope as it is used in both the OT and NT is more than an attitude. It’s much more than keeping good thoughts. Hope as the psalmists and NT writers use it is better translated as a confident expectation. Both terms require an object: We expect something or wait for someone. And so just as a guard waits for the morning to come, and with it an end to the dangers and threats of the night, so does the psalmist wait for the Lord to act on his behalf. 

And while there is an attitude of patience in our psalm, we must not be misled by its implications. While we might think that waiting patiently suggests a calmness or having a mellow attitude, this is not the attitude of the OT and NT writers. For them, waiting is impatient and urgent. Listen to them now (all translations from the NLT).

I am sick at heart. How long, O Lord, until you restore me? (Ps 6.3); O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?/How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? (Ps 13.1-2); How long, O Lord, will you look on and do nothing? Rescue me from their fierce attacks. Protect my life from these lions! (Ps 35.17);  How long, O God, will you allow our enemies to insult you? Will you let them dishonor your name forever? (Ps 74.10); O Lord, how long will you be angry with us? Forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire? (Ps 79.5); O Lord, how long will this go on? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your anger burn like fire? (Ps 89.46); O Lord, come back to us! How long will you delay? Take pity on your servants! (Ps 90.13); How long, O Lord? How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat? (Ps 94.3); How long must I wait? When will you punish those who persecute me? (Ps 119.84). 

Do you hear and feel the sense of urgency and impatience for God to act on behalf of his people who cry out to him from the depths? Now listen to these final two verses of the NT. 

The one who testifies to these things [Jesus] says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! [And until you do, t]he grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen (Rev 22.20-21, NRSV). 

St. John has just finished recounting the vision given him in Revelation regarding how God will finally defeat Satan and his minions, i.e., the forces of evil, both spiritual and human, so we are meant to read these closing words with impatient longing and expectation. Of course there would be no impatient expectation if God were not faithful to his promises and/or lacked the power to deliver. Thus when we are overwhelmed by the darkness in our lives that afflicts or oppresses us, we too are called to have the same impatient longing for God to act on our behalf. This is part of living out our faith.

I can hear some of you grumbling right now. That’s all well and good, Father Maney, but here’s a newsflash for you. God doesn’t always answer our desperate prayers. We or our loved ones don’t always get healed. Injustice still runs rampant in our lives and society. The wicked seem to be having a field day mocking God and his word. I prayed for a job and didn’t get it. There’s much more but you get the point.

All of this is true, my snarky ones. Sometimes God seemingly doesn’t answer our prayers, at least in the immediate way we ask him, and all this remains an impenetrable mystery for us. I do not know why that is because God has chosen not to reveal why he sometimes acts while at other times he apparently doesn’t. But in acknowledging there is the mystery of unanswered prayer, as faithful Christians, we must also acknowledge that God answers far more prayers than he apparently doesn’t, and we must be thankful for that. Whatever the reasons for unanswered prayer, they remain above our pay grade and we must therefore have enough humility and wisdom to trust God’s promises to heal and redeem us, believing that God can, does, and will act on our behalf to answer our prayers uttered from the depths of despair. To be able to do this, the biblical writers exhort us to remember God’s goodness, faithfulness, mercy, and love for us, as well as God’s ability to act on behalf of God’s people (cf. Psalm 77).

And now we are ready to turn to our gospel and epistle lessons because they provide us with the hope needed to deal with the darkness that afflicts us. They remind us of what God is doing about it all, regardless of whether we get the hoped-for response to our prayers. As Jesus reminded the crowds, God was not at their beck and call, nor is he at ours. God did not call them (or us) because we are special or somehow deserving of God’s love and mercy. We’re not, much as we love to think we are. Nobody is. And because all are hopelessly sin-sick and incapable of self-healing, we are utterly dependent on God to act on our behalf to heal and restore us to health. And how has God chosen to do that? By becoming human to die for our sins, to execute his justice on himself. It is God who calls us, not the other way around. And only God has the power to heal us from our internal sickness and external afflictions. This is why the Father sent the Son, because only in and through the Son do we find God and the resulting healing and redemption we so desperately seek. And while the claim of Jesus is exclusive (only he can save because only he has seen the Father and knows the Father’s will), the invitation to be healed (saved) is open to everyone. God calls us, pulls us, and cajoles us to him. God invites us to know Jesus because only then can we have eternal life. In turn, Jesus promises to raise up those who believe in him—those who believe that Jesus is the only way to God and that only in his Name is there salvation and forgiveness of sins—on the last day. That is why Jesus is the true bread of life who came down from heaven (who came from God). He has given his body and blood for the life of the world. In other words, in his death, Jesus has broken the power of Evil over us and redeemed us from our slavery to Sin and the death that results. Amen?

Our Lord said something similar to Martha and Mary when he came to raise Lazarus from the dead and give us a foretaste of his own resurrection. He didn’t answer their why questions (why didn’t you come earlier to heal our brother, Lord?). Instead, Jesus gave them an answer that, while demanding patient (and sometimes impatient) waiting and expectation, was ultimately more satisfying. Jesus told them he is the resurrection and the life, that those who live and believe in him will live forever, even though they suffer mortal death (John 11.27-27, 32).

And what is this eternal life about which Jesus speaks? It doesn’t mean dying and going to heaven as many Christians have been incorrectly taught (shame on the church and its leaders who have done that). Eternal life as Jesus used it meant two things. First, it refers to quality of life when we share in the inner life of Jesus. It means we choose, with the help of the Spirit who lives in us and who is given to us by the Father and the Son, to live like Christ. This is where our epistle lesson is helpful. In it, St. Paul lays out what Christlike living looks like. It means, for example, that we look out for the other, especially our fellow Christians, like Christ looks out for us. How did Christ do that? He gave himself for us and bore our punishment so we could be forgiven and healed of our sin-sickness. So St. Paul tells us to stop lying to each other, because lying causes hurt, heartache, bitterness, and distrust. We belong to each other in Christ so why would we want to act evilly toward the other? St. Paul tells us to not let our anger control us so that it does not open the door for us to eventually hate the other. Out of mutual love, we are to work hard so that we can support those amongst us who cannot legitimately do so, and we are never to abuse others’ generosity. We are to stop our evil speaking, where we criticize each other and speak wickedly about them. We are to put away wrath, anger, and abusive language and behavior toward each other, especially toward those we dislike. We are to build each other up and be kind to each other. We do this because this is exactly what Christ has done for us. We dare not judge those whom Christ has already redeemed by his body and blood. 

Wise Christians will immediately see that St. Paul is not laying out a bunch of rules for us to follow slavishly to get our tickets punched. Instead, they will recognize that he is urging us to put away our sins and wickedness because they lead to death and will not be allowed to exist in God’s new world when Christ returns. When we realize this, we realize that by choosing to live right now as Christ lived, always with the help of the Spirit, we align ourselves with God and find life as God intends us to live it. This is what Jesus had in mind when he talked about having eternal life in him. And second, this eternal life that we enter now will extend beyond our mortal death and last forever, imperfect and flawed as we are. The life we live in God’s new world will be a perfect version of the imperfect life we live now as new creations in Christ.

This is the answer to our concerns about unanswered prayer and the problem of Evil. As Christians we remember that God has acted decisively in Christ to defeat the dark powers that afflict us and cause us to cry out from the depths. We are healed and forgiven completely by the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. How that works, I couldn’t tell you completely. I just know that is does. This is the Father calling us to himself. This is why only Jesus, the true bread of life, can satisfy completely. When we give our lives to him and trust his promise that he has healed and redeemed us by his death, our fears about sin and punishment dissipate. On the cross, God has defeated the twin powers of Sin and Evil and in Jesus’ resurrection we have the promise that it’s all true, even if the promise remains partially unfulfilled. So when we cry out from the depths and wait expectantly and impatiently for God to act, we do so because as Christians we know Jesus has a job to finish and he will do so one day when he returns to consummate his saving work begun in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. In the meantime we are his right now, warts and all, even in our affliction, and will be forever. We know this because we believe the story in Scripture and see God’s work in our lives and the lives of others, despite the darkness that descends on us from time to time. This is the only hope that can truly sustain us.

When we find ourselves threatened to be overwhelmed by the depths, we are called to remember God’s plan of salvation revealed ultimately in Christ. God will use our remembering to help strengthen our belief that God has acted decisively on our behalf and is present with us in the power of the Spirit to walk with us so we won’t be overwhelmed by the darkness. Knowing this gives us patience and the confident expectation that victory is ours, even as we cry out impatiently for God to consummate his great and saving work. When we believe this, really believe this, it won’t save us from moments of darkness and sometimes despair. But it will have the power to sustain us, even in death, because we know that we are God’s beloved children, despite who we are, and that we have the Good News of Jesus Christ who holds the key to not only our own healing but the restoration of all creation, now and for all eternity. Take hope and be renewed in this knowledge, my beloved, as you come to the Table to feed on the bread of heaven and drink the cup of salvation, the Lord Jesus himself. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.