Eldon Fry, guest preacher and Messiah College Pastor
Called to Hope
We are all on a journey! Pulitzer prize winning author, Frederick Buechner calls it
“The Sacred Journey.”
Last week we observed that a creative God, turned an amorphous, purposeless existence into a meaningful creation which gives us significance even in our chaotic realities. This morning we turn to a group of Psalms known as Psalms of Ascent.
These Psalms are centuries removed from the creation story. Fifteen Psalms have been identified as the songs travelers would sing as they gathered to journey upwards toward Jerusalem and specifically the temple for one of the three annual festival processions.
Perhaps, it carried similarities to the Orthodox Christian journeys to Bethlehem for their Christmas celebrations. Deep lines of people gathered to watch the procession which reminded me of a celebrative parade.
There is an air of movement, anticipation and even satisfaction expressed in these Psalms not unlike the feelings we express as we begin a long anticipated summer vacation that we hope will meet/exceed all of our expectations. These are songs of anticipation as “God followers” recognized God at work and identified God’s signposts of hope. Their precarious lives might work out well after all, if God continued to work as they had seen Him or hoped for based on His promises. With a sense of anticipation, the committed would pack the necessities for the journey and join the throng and sing in anticipation of the joyous celebration at the end of the journey. They would return with stories to share! Christianity has a history of Pilgrimages. Some were brief journeys like our trip to church today; others took years to complete and become sagas written about in books. But always the person returned with a story to share.
If we treat this passage as a travelogue snapshot, where we look back in retrospect, this song of lament begins the journey of ascent at a challenging interesting point. One could call it depressive. The author of this Psalm desperately needs renewal. It is time for a much needed break…a vacation! Like many among us.
In the first couplet (vss. 1, 2) the author begins overwhelmed by life. The Hebrew concept of “depths” conjures up a picture from the story of Jonah, needing help in the belly of the great fish. This is a common metaphor in the scriptures of deep trouble. Note, even in last week’s text (Genesis 1:2) “darkness was over the face of the deep.” In many ways this speaks to the deepest fears, the darkest nights, the unimaginable for Israel. Hope does not remove us from the chaos of life. It really does not even remove us from honest feelings of hopelessness and pain. But, in the ‘depths” of life, my hope lies in the listening ears of my Creator.
My wife and I listened to “Larry King Live” Thursday evening as he interviewed contemporary Christian artist, Steven Curtis Chapman and his family. As many of you are aware, tragedy struck their family this year when their youngest son hit one of their daughters in a tragic accident that killed this beautiful four-year-old child. Carefully and honestly they spoke of the depths of struggle and their source of hope in this tragic circumstance.
This is the sense of this first couplet. Life is out of control. It is overwhelming chaos. The author is buried in the depths of the sea and raises a cry for help that he is not even certain can be heard from this low point in life. Such cries emanate from life circumstances and are common in all of our lives.
Last week, Pauline mentioned I worked at Focus. A major portion of my work was on the phone with pastors and spouses. Pastor, priest, spouse from all backgrounds called saying they were functioning in their roles but were drowning in the dread depths of the sea of despair. Even spiritual leaders experience such overwhelming moments.
Just this week I received a call from someone crying out from the depths of depression, but fearful that no one was hearing her voice. She was dealing with suicidal thoughts.
I stopped as I walked around our block to talk with a neighbor deeply touched by the drowning death of one our students this July. My father was hospitalized with the very serious MRSA infection this week. My point is that sometimes our outward appearance and our words seem orderly but underneath the beautiful calm is a raging struggle.
Below, that serene reply “Fine” to your question, “How are you?” may rage a battle threatening our very lives.
As strange as it may seem, the beginning point of this Psalm is the chaos of our lives.
We are thrilled with the stories of the Olympics and how people have overcome the tremendous odds against them; we rise to our feet with collective cheers and celebration.
The Psalmist acknowledges our reality. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” How could triumph ever come from such tragic defeat?
This personal cry for help from the Psalmist is to his Creator, God of creation, but even in this brief couplet turns to the “Lord” (Adonai) a personally related “master” of life for help. This journey through the inner space of our hearts is beyond just today and tomorrow but is a journey into eternity…ordinary issues but a sacred journey.
I would like to draw your attention to the second couplet in this snapshot of life. It is a confession of not only where the Psalmist is located but how he arrived at that depth. It is personal. It is a journey of failure, imperfections and sins. Once confessed, the Psalmist experiences/realizes “forgiveness” (vs. 4) that allows the restoration of a relationship that God intended for each of us from the very beginning. Who would want to restore a relationship with someone in the depths? Only God! It is difficult to believe. That sense of fear/respect the Psalmist identifies comes as we realize not everyone could do this. This is a God sighting. Even when I cannot forgive myself, God forgives.
There is a new sense of hope in my ascent. I do not have to remain in the depths of despair. God does hear my voice. That is the challenge of this snapshot. Do I become a partner with this great God by voicing the hope I have found in forgiveness?
Forgiveness is not just a New Testament issue. It is the very heart of the Biblical view (Daniel 9:9) “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him.”
So close to the very celebration of creation, Adam and Eve fall into rebellion and then to blame of each other and even Satan. Then they would experience forgiveness.
N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham and prolific author, notes that this is to be viewed as more than “what God does in and for us.”(p. 200 Surprised by Hope) but rather viewed as “what God does through us.” It is not “pie-in-the-sky” future but the reality of the personal, within the community of travelers. While they were like the nomadic people of surrounding peoples, they came to view life through a different lens. A people reunited with their creator God. They began to see the sacredness of everyday life. The amorphous void is now the everyday made meaningful.
But the value of everyday is not to imply that Israel was somehow made special above all nations. This act of grace in Israel’s experience was to make them voices of hope to others caught in the cycle of hopelessness of desperate and marginalized survival.
In that sense the Hebrews did not split good and evil, happiness and suffering into separate categories. All of life was considered sacred/holy. They realized that God was present in all of life, once again bringing light to the darkness of the depths. They could recall the very spirit of God once again “hovering over the [darkness and chaos of the] waters” (Gen. 1:2): of their lives!
When they realized God’s presence at all times, praise was natural. Somehow out of the depths of tragedy, God at work resulted in praise. Not that all circumstances were changed or difficulties removed but knowing God is present in the journey…our journey…brings value and meaning to the most desperate situations and calls for praise.
Now, we can look at the third couplet in this snapshot. (vss. 5, 6) Waiting! “I wait” “my soul waits.” “Wait” is in the imperative. Faith, hope and even love is not about my timing. It is God at work in my circumstances; or even more importantly my soul. Waiting is personal and implies a hope of resolution…even if it is not my resolution. The author is looking for a positive sign and is patiently, actively and eagerly watching to see what God will do. He is fully aware that he will probably be returning to the same circumstance he left, but he is a changed person within.
The Psalmist looks for God to work like “watchmen” whether guarding a city with no walls around it from predators of the night or Levitical leaders waiting for the morning offerings looking for the first streak of dawn to cross the sky announcing time to sacrifice. The night is over. Dawn has come, morning has broken, a new day’s arrival is announced.
Some of you asked how my cancer story of last week worked out. This week I went to the doctor and took a blood test. I wait until next week for the results. I anticipate a good report, but I must wait for that to be confirmed. The dawn allows me to see that God is at work and very present in the darkness. Whatever the report God has sustained me.
In many ways, I have problems with this third couplet. I am not good in the waiting room of life. I become anxious. I worry. I am anything but peaceful at times. Annie Dillard calls “…waiting itself a wonder….” It is a wonder; and all the time I wonder what is going to happen.
But the God of creation reminds us to wait (Psalm 27:14), the prophet Isaiah says “Blessed are all who wait for him[God]!” and the very first act of the birth of the Church at Pentecost in Acts is waiting. This is not passive. It is during the journey (we still get up and go through our traveling routines) but waiting nevertheless.
It is like the baby robins in the nest on our front porch. They finally climbed to the edge of the nest and one by one were nudged out of the nest and flew off. A day earlier, it could have been a very different story. They might have needed to crash land.
We are on a journey. We wait. There is a time for emergence. The biblical story speaks of queen Esther being raised “for such a time as this”; Jesus arrives “in the fullness of time.” Although God is not bound by time as I am; God works within the framework of my time and space.
Like the butterflies’ emerging from the chrysalis of our granddaughter’s 4-H project, we end the waiting. We emerge. It is time to do what the waiting has prepared us for. Redemption (restoration of purpose and meaning and relationship) is near at hand.
When we join the spiritual journey, God always takes us beyond where we currently are. It is in that movement that we can sense what seems like the “abandonment” of this God of mystery. It is not unlike the wobbly robin chick on the edge of the nest unaware that mother robin is not far away and will ultimately give that final push. Then it is time to fly.
This passage of ascent is hopeful. God is calling me towards something new to me. It is a hopeful confidence. The steps seem to be going up to somewhere, but what is at the end of the stairway? These steps do not lead to utopia. That literally means “no place.” We do have purpose, direction and meaning. But it may not be what we expected.
Let’s look at the final couplet.
Sue Monk Kidd in When the Heart Waits (p. 196) refers to a wonderful Hasidic story.
A rabbi named Zusya died and came before the judgment seat of God. He grew nervous waiting for God and began thinking seriously about his life. He began to imagine God asking him why he was not the leader Moses was or the wise person like Solomon was…
Finally God appeared and God’s only question was “Why weren’t you Zusya?”
This Psalm of Ascent, this snapshot of hope, tells me that we can be ourselves as we are drawn out of the darkness and the fearful depths to the light. God responds out of love to who we are. Really are. No need for masks, we have ascended into God’s presence and that is always, always filled with love. Not soft, soapy, sentimentality but genuine love from the very one who created for purpose and meaning and redeems our total self so that He can declare once again that we are “very good.” This is the God who would liken himself to the father of the prodigal. Genuinely delighted he returned!
Kirk Franklin, as I mentioned last week, called it necessary storms of life. Francois Fenelon speaks of unconquerable imperfections to teach us lessons of grace.
I am on a journey and so are you. We have not arrived, but the train has left the station.
Ultimately we are ascending like the ancient Israelites to worship/celebrate God. It is a journey of uncertainties but a destination certain in the mind of God. God is a God of the verbs. Whether active tense or state of being, God is at work bringing purpose to chaos through the journey.
We are people on the way. We are on a journey.
We are called to hope (verb, imperative, active).
Join the throng, those singing their way of ascent. It is a pathway of hope.
We are called to hope.