Sermon delivered on Trinity 2C, Sunday, June 26, 2022 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 texts below, click here.
Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; St. Luke 9.51-62.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning I want to focus on our psalm lesson. What can we learn from it? How can it help us in our faith journey? Before we answer these questions, I want to read the first part of the psalm again from a different translation as I think it brings added clarity to the psalmist’s complaint:
I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me!/ When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted./ I think of God, and I moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help./ You don’t let me sleep. I am too distressed even to pray!/ I think of the good old days, long since ended,/ when my nights were filled with joyful songs. I search my soul and ponder the difference now./ Has the Lord rejected me forever? Will he never again be kind to me?/ Is his unfailing love gone forever? Have his promises permanently failed?/ Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he slammed the door on his compassion?/ And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me” (Psalm 77.1-10, NLT).
So have you ever cried out to Lord in despair? If you are old enough you surely have. Some of us cry out to the Lord in despair over the state of our nation and the strident voices and lawlessness that are becoming increasingly prevalent. Some of us cry out to the Lord in despair over the “joys” of aging or over a catastrophic illness or over the desperate situation in which we might find ourselves or our loved ones. Whatever the reason for our cries, like the psalmist we who have a relationship with God search for him in hopes that God will comfort us or heal us or relieve our despair. After all, God is all-powerful, right? He raises the dead and creates things out of nothing. Nothing is too hard for him! And indeed, oftentimes God answers our prayers and we then proceed to go about our business acting like we don’t need God at all. But sometimes like the psalmist experiences, God seems to be strangely or even terrifyingly absent. We search for healing or peace or comfort or a sense of God’s presence and find none. If God’s perceived absence lasts too long our doubts and fears can grow like the psalmist’s did. We can’t sleep. We are overwhelmed with longing, desperately wanting God to answer his prayers. And then we ask the awful questions. Has God abandoned us forever? Has God rejected us forever? And more personally, has God stopped loving me because I am so rotten? In the past God has answered my prayers for help and has comforted me. But now? Where is God? Why doesn’t he hear my desperate prayers? Why will God not show me any compassion? All these questions can lead the psalmist and us to this terrible conclusion (not to mention a crisis of faith): God has turned his hand against me, i.e., God finally sees me as I really am, a sinner undeserving of his love and grace, and refuses to help me. Anyone here ever gotten to this point in your relationship with God? I did 22 years ago and I almost took my life as a result. This is very serious stuff about which we are talking and if you are in that boat right now, I encourage you to reach out to your priest, your family, and/or your friends, especially if they are Christians, because God can and does use human agency to heal and comfort us.
St. Paul understood how this all works. In our epistle lesson he reminds us in no uncertain terms that our sin-sickness causes alienation between God and his image-bearers and that alienation can produce the kind of emotional and spiritually dark state the psalmist experienced and we experience, whatever the issue was and is. So what to do? The psalmist along with the rest of Scripture tell us. We are to remember. We are to remember God’s promises to his image-bearing creatures in general and his people Israel in particular, promises to act on our behalf, to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin and our own fallen nature with its corrupted desires. St. Paul catalogues a sample of the fruit of our sinful nature in our epistle lesson: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and all the other fruit of our alienation from God and each other that our slavery to Sin produces. But the psalmist remembers God’s power to act on our behalf, to free us from all kinds of slavery, and that’s why he remembers. He remembers especially God’s mighty act of deliverance for his people Israel when he brought them out of their slavery in Egypt and through the dark and terrible waters of the Red Sea to eventual freedom. God did this. God acted in Israel’s history because God loves his people and is gracious to them, even though they are unworthy of his great gifts. Likewise with us as God’s people in Christ, the reconstituted Israel.
Why else would the psalmist in his desperation seek to remember God’s mighty acts in the past? Why must we do likewise? Because they are proof positive that God does not abandon his people; rather, God acts on our behalf, undeserving as we are, because God loves us and is gracious toward us. Israel did not deserve its liberation. The people demonstrated that when they started grumbling about wanting to return to their slavery almost immediately after God liberated them! You can read that sad and compelling story in Exodus and Numbers. Nevertheless, God acted to free them, even though God knew beforehand what they were going to do.
For Christians, of course, we are to remember God’s mighty acts of love and power demonstrated enigmatically on Calvary but definitively when God raised Christ from the dead. In Christ’s Death and Resurrection, God did a much greater thing than he did for Israel at the Exodus, jaw-dropping as the latter was. In Christ’s Death and Resurrection God freed us from our slavery to Sin’s power, the stuff St. Paul spoke about above, and defeated the darkest, most evil power of all—Death. But God the Father did not stop there. As Christ told his disciples at the Last Supper, after he had Ascended, he would not leave them (or us) as orphans and without hope or God’s power in this mortal life. No, we have the unseen Risen and Ascended Christ interceding for us at God’s right hand, NT language that proclaims Jesus is Lord over all, as well as the Holy Spirit who makes Christ available to us and intercedes on our behalf, even when we can only groan in desperation, not knowing what to pray for or how to ask for something. All of these gifts from God are real and they demonstrate God’s love for us and his willingness to act on our behalf.
As a result we are no longer slaves to our fallen, sinful selves. To be sure our fallen nature rears its ugly head from time to time. After all, the very act of doubting God’s love for us is a product of our alienation between God and each other! But as St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, God does not leave us to our own devices. No, we are set free from our slavery to Sin and ruled by the Holy Spirit who empowers us and helps us to live and be as God created us to live and be, surely the mightiest of all God’s acts! The proof is in the pudding of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Whenever these fruit manifest themselves in our lives, we have proof that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in us, i.e., God is present and active in our lives, even when we consciously experience his absence. So like the psalmist, we as God’s people in Christ need to remember how God has acted on our behalf and how God continues to manifest his power in our lives, unlikely as that power appears to the unbelieving world. This is why the psalmist and the rest of Scripture tell us to remember. Why God seems to be strangely absent in our lives at times nobody knows. Why God doesn’t answer our prayers as we ask or seems to ignore our desperate situations nobody knows. What Scripture does tell us is that in all the ambiguities and mysteries and unanswered questions, God’s absence isn’t necessarily a sign God has abandoned us or is punishing us, although the latter is sometimes true, especially when we go off the rails for extended periods of time. But God never rejects a humble and contrite heart. Ever. God never rejects our sincere penance. Ever. God never ultimately rejects us unless we ultimately reject God. Christ’s Death on the cross is proof of that, thanks be to God!
So what do we do when we are in desperate times, wondering if God has abandoned us? Well, many of us try to tough it out on our own. Instead of remembering that God is faithful to his people, we seek human solutions to alleviate our desperation. How’s that working out for you? I know it never has worked for me. No, as we have seen, we are called to remember, both collectively and individually, and then to rely on each other to remind ourselves that God never leaves us alone. In other words, we are to love each other and be there for each other when we sense God’s absence, just the way all healthy families help each other in good times and bad. Never underestimate the power of godly folk to help lighten your load as they walk with you through the dark valleys of life. The very act of remembering and relying on each other help us focus on God instead of ourselves. It reminds us to be patient and to trust God to act on our behalf in God’s good time and ways. That’s not easy for us god-wannabes but it is the only real option we have if we are not to totally lose heart and hope. When we remember, we are reminded that God is not some inconsistent ogre who delights in torturing us or who behaves erratically toward us as we do toward God and each other. God loved us enough to become human and die for us to free us from his just condemnation and an eternity apart from him, even while we were still sinners and his enemies. If God loves us that much, why would God abandon us now in our darkest hours? St. Paul comes to this exact conclusion in his letter to the Romans:
If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since [God] did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? [Therefore] I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.31-32, 38-39, NLT).
In this mortal life there are always going to be desperate times. When those desperate times occur in our lives Scripture tells us to double down in our efforts to focus on God and put our trust in him, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how dark the valley. God may not rescue us as we expect or hope, but we all have the assurance that God has indeed rescued us from the gravest danger of all: Death and eternal separation from him. God has broken the power of Sin and Death and promises us an eternity with him in his new world, a world without Evil or Sin or Death, a world that is full of perfect life and health forever. Don’t let your fears and weaknesses rob you of the spectacular hope contained in this promise, my beloved. Remember instead God’s willingness and ability to act on our behalf and for our benefit. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.