June 27, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, July 2, 2017. From an ongoing series: “Psalms: The Prayers of the Saints.”
The text is Psalm 30.
Resources used for this sermon include:
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984. 19-23; 126-28.
John Goldingay, Psalms, Volume 1: Psalms 1 – 41. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, ed. Tremper Longman III. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006. 423-33.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
Inviting friends to pray
A couple of Sundays ago, I was sitting in my office. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I was beginning a new week.
The phone rang. It was one of the local hospitals. I panicked for a few seconds. I was afraid something had happened to one of you. I was incredibly relieved when I picked up the phone and learned the call wasn’t about anyone in this congregation.
Still, my presence was requested. There was an urgent crisis. The family involved had asked for a minister, but didn’t know any personally. So one of the nurses was going down the Yellow Pages listings, cold-calling churches to see if they could find a preacher. They found me. All the nurse could tell me over the phone is, It doesn’t look good.
As I left my office for the hospital, I imagined myself trying to fit through a door that was shaped like a giant question mark. And I knew that as I passed through that question mark, I’d be met by strangers in deep need. I prayed, but I also went on Facebook and asked people to pray with me. Before the afternoon was over, I’d stood with two young men, watching and praying and reading scripture and listening as their mother passed away. That was a completely new experience for me. Believe it or not, there’s no class in seminary that trains you to watch a stranger dying while her sons stand helplessly beside you.
When I got home, I saw that more than a hundred people from coast to coast had joined me in prayer as I went into the unknown to minister to complete strangers. That felt so reassuring, to know that not only was I being cocooned in prayer as I ministered to this family in crisis—they were, too.
One of the sons told me, This is not how I imagined today going. I was thinking the same thing. God had sent me into the valley of the shadow of death, and I felt entirely unready and unprepared. That’s why I invited other people of faith to pray with me. Whoever first prayed Psalm 30—our Psalm today—also invited his friends to pray with him. But for a very different reason. I invited my friends to join me in prayer because I was going into a troubled situation with sketchy details and felt inadequate. But the Psalmist invited his friends to join him in prayer because he had come out of a time of trouble and deep distress. He called out to everyone who could hear:
You who are faithful to the Lord,
sing praises to him;
give thanks to his holy name!
He wanted everyone else to join him in thanking God and singing God’s praises. Because God listened to his cries for help and saved him.
That got me to thinking: We often invite our friends to pray with us when we’re sick, in trouble, hurting, or confused. But how often do we invite others to join with us in prayers of celebration when God has answered our cries for help?
The Psalms teach us to call our friends to thank God with us when God has answered our personal prayers. And they call us to offer prayers of thanks with our friends whose prayers for help have been answered. The Psalms teach us both to cry with those who are crying and to be happy with those who are happy (Rom. 12.15). And praying in community is one important way we do that.
The geography of prayer
When we first began this series, we talked about Walter Brueggemann’s helpful way of classifying the Psalms. According to Brueggemann, there are three kinds of Psalms. There are psalms of orientation. Prayers of simple, trusting faith. When all is right with the world. But these also tend to be prayers of people whose faith has never really been tested or challenged by harsh circumstances. These are prayers from people who see the world as just and orderly, because God is good and just.
Then there are psalms of disorientation. These are anguished prayers, crying out when you’ve been punched in the gut by life. The world seems random and chaotic, and you question if God is really good. Or if God is even paying attention. We heard one of those a couple of weeks ago. Psalm 13 begins by asking: How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
Finally, there are psalms of new orientation. These prayers are for when you’ve gone through hell and back and lived to tell about it. You see that life is not as simple as you once thought. The world is sometimes chaotic and random, and there’s plenty of injustice in the world. But you’ve also learned that God really is good and faithful. Like we heard last week from Psalm 23, even when we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us. God’s beauty and love are chasing after us, every day of our lives.
The Psalm we heard today—Psalm 30—is one of those kinds of Psalms. A psalm of new orientation. Whoever first prayed it has been rescued from death’s door. He says: Lord, you brought me up from the grave, brought me back to life from among those going down to the pit.
The Psalmist’s life has been given back to him, and he wants everyone to know about it and celebrate with him. He wants all his friends to join him in prayers and songs of thanksgiving to the God who answered his prayers.
All three kinds of Psalms—orientation, disorientation, and reorientation—are good and necessary for a healthy, well-rounded prayer life. They teach us how to pray in different seasons of our lives. But what’s interesting about Psalm 30 is it actually shows us the movement from orientation to disorientation to new orientation in one prayer. Whoever first prayed it records their journey from one realm of faith to another.
In this prayer, the Psalmist remembers his initial orientation. He looks back on a time: When I was comfortable, [and] I said, “I will never stumble.” He was so confident in God’s faithful love and care, so convinced that there was justice and order in the universe, he believed: It can’t happen here! It won’t happen to me! It’s awesome to be confident in God’s goodness. It’s also really easy to believe God works all things together for good for the ones who love God (Rom. 8.28) when most things work out in your favor. But there’s a dark side to it, too. You might lose empathy for people who are in trouble, who’ve never had a good day in their life, who struggle to survive in this world. You might start to think it’s all their fault, they’d be better off if they made good choices like you. You might even get to thinking God likes you better than them. One of the psalms of orientation even says: I have never seen the righteous left all alone, have never seen their children begging for bread (Ps. 37.25). It’s good to affirm that God takes care of his people. But the danger is seeing someone with their back against a wall, and their children going hungry; and then thinking, Well, God takes care of the righteous; so if this person is alone and hungry, they must not be righteous.
That’s when you become self-righteous, too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good. You can cocoon yourself in a protective faith bubble that makes you oblivious to the struggles of others, and unable to see that God loves them just as he loves you. If that happens, you need to be disoriented. You need the rug pulled out from under you. You need to feel godforsaken, so that you can learn to cry with those who are crying. If God could inject empathy into us any other way, he would. But we typically only learn empathy for others who suffer by suffering ourselves. So our Psalmist records how the rug was pulled from under him, how he prayed the prayer of the godforsaken:
But then you hid your presence.
I was terrified.
I cried out to you, Lord.
I begged my Lord for mercy: …
“Lord, listen and have mercy on me!
Lord, be my helper!”
That’s the prayer of disorientation. The bad thing the Psalmist thought could never happen to him did. He felt abandoned and let down by God. What did he do wrong? Why did God let this happen? He had believed the righteous were never forsaken, and never had to beg. But here he was, all alone and begging. His world was shaken to its core.
But then, out of nowhere, when all hope had run out, God surprised him with grace. God gave him a future when it seemed like he had no future. So the Psalmist, awed by God’s mercy, tells his story:
Lord, my God, I cried out to you for help,
and you healed me …
You changed my mourning into dancing.
You took off my funeral clothes
and dressed me up in joy.
Now the Psalmist has a new perspective—a new orientation. And he wants the memory of his journey preserved in a prayer. And he wants others to join with him—to hear his story, and how it was God who rescued him. He was on top of the world, then he fell. But God picked him up. Because he’s personally experienced good and evil, he’s learned how to both be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying.
There’s a geography to the life of faith, and there’s also a geography to prayer. There’s the safe, lush parks and playgrounds and sunny meadows of a young, untested faith. But this eventually gives way to bone-dry deserts; or barren, icy tundras; or dark, stormy seas of danger, distress, disease, or depression. Sometimes you go through those a long time and you wonder if you’re ever going to make it through. But sometimes, suddenly, the sun rises. The landscape changes. God has brought you to a wide-open field, with orchards and streams of cool water. The Psalms give us prayers for all the spiritual terrains we may encounter. They teach us how to speak to God, and listen for God, wherever we are on our journey. Better yet, they show us how other saints have been on this journey before us, and God brought them through. Psalm 30 is probably one of the best resources for showing us that.
The gifts of Psalm 30
When we began this series, we talked about how prayer doesn’t come natural to us. We need to be taught to pray. The Psalms come alongside us as teachers, mentors, and friends—guiding us in prayer, shaping our prayers, giving us new ways to experience God. What are some things Psalm 30 teaches us about prayer?
First, just like you can repurpose the headboard and frame of a bed to make a chair; or wine bottles as candle holders, great prayers can be repurposed. Look at the title of this Psalm. A song for the temple dedication. Of David. I talked last week about how the titles were added later. And how of David doesn’t necessarily mean David wrote it. It could have been written in David’s honor. That’s obviously the case with this Psalm. David didn’t live to see the temple dedicated. His son Solomon built the first temple. Anyway, this Psalm tells the story of someone God rescued from disaster or disease—someone who thought their life was over. That doesn’t fit the dedication of Solomon’s temple. You know what it does fit, though? When the new temple was dedicated after the remnant returned for exile in Babylon. Or when it was rededicated during the days of the Maccabees, after enemy armies had defiled it. See what our ancestors in the faith did? They repurposed an old prayer for a new use. Like the one who first prayed this prayer, they thought everything was lost. But then God rescued them by his grace and mercy. So they joined together as a community to celebrate. In the same way, we can repurpose these old prayers by praying the Psalms. We can express contentment with the psalms of orientation. We can protest and cry for help with the psalms of disorientation. And we can celebrate God’s grace and mercy with the psalms of new orientation. God has given us these prayers to use. We can sample them, recycle, and even upcycle them.
Second, the Psalmist says: Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever; and calls on his neighbors to give thanks to his holy name. In the Bible, thanksgiving is more than just gratitude. It surely involves being thankful for God’s good gifts. But it’s also a commitment to live in a new way because God has blessed you. If God has shown you grace and mercy, you ought to show others grace and mercy. If God has shown up in your darkness and comforted you, you show your thankfulness by comforting others in their distress. Then your whole life becomes a prayer to God for grace and mercy and healing.
Third, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples: when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place (Matt. 6.6). Yet, in Psalm 30 all the Psalmist’s neighbors are invited to join him in prayers of thanksgiving and songs of praise to celebrate God’s rescue. There are times when community prayer and praise are not only appropriate, but necessary. Remember Luke 15? Jesus told stories about a shepherd who lost a sheep; a poor woman who lost a coin; and a father who lost a son. But when the sheep, the coin, and the son are found, they invite their neighbors to come celebrate with them. We need to be more intentional about inviting others into our joy, so the prayer life of the church community is well-rounded and affirms every aspect of the human experience.
Psalm 30 takes us on a spiritual and emotional rollercoaster. From the mountaintop, to the edge of the pit, to God acting to raise the Psalmist again. This is the reality of life—the whole geography of the life of faith. And as we wander through all the terrains and seasons of life, the Psalms reassure us we aren’t alone. God is with us. And we have a community of saints—present and past—to walk with us. Psalm 30 is an important gift for God’s people through the ages. It gives us perspective on troubled times, and teaches us to invite God and one another to share all the struggles and seasons of life. Together.