Psalm 30: Lamentations 3.19-33: Matthew 20.17-19, 29-34
The default language to describe God is often expressed in terms of God’s majesty, or God’s transcendence, or the all-powerful heavenly Father dwelling in ethereal realms. It seems God lives in a far-off place. God never seems close. The relational God, the God who made us in God’s image and breathed us into life seems only accessible by escalator.
The biblical narrative is filled with examples of when God seemed not only above the world but against the world. And there are other times when God appeared to be in a perpetual struggle to transform the world.
Yet many of us will have experienced occasions when God has become real in a most powerful way. More generally, in the humdrum day to day life, our encounter with God can be messy. We hear examples of this in the psalms. The majority of psalms are psalms of lament and the one I want to focus on is the one we had this evening, Psalm 30.
Psalm 30 reflects the dynamics of a relationship, between an individual and a powerful loving God. In poetic form, the psalmist is writing from the vantage point of thanksgiving. It tells of the divine action of deliverance of the psalmist from his enemies that brings forth his praise and turns his ‘mourning into dancing’. But the psalmist’s praise is more than this. It is about divine involvement in all parts his life. The holy space between the heavenly and earthly dimensions have been bridged, adversity has eventually been overcome and the sackcloth has been cast off for party clothes.
It’s a short psalm but it has the power to resonate deeply. To bear witness to the experiences of many people who suffer. We are left in no doubt that there have been times when the psalmist has suffered hugely. Yet nowhere do we have the sense that the psalmist is being punished by God. His suffering seems to be more in terms of the absence of God, when God’s face has been hidden.
How often do we find ourselves in this situation? What do we do, and how do we carry on in faith when platitudes ring hollow or when they taste like ashes in our mouths when we utter them? How do we persist in faith when pain continues unabated, when God does not answer, when our life seems to collapse in ruins, when we are struck by personal tragedy and we find it difficult to believe all we have cherished?
The writer of Lamentations, who seems to have suffered times when God has not been moved to act and indeed the end of the book speaks of the divine silence. Although the poet seems to be left without answers, there is a certain determination in his writing. He has not lost his faith. His hope comes from beyond his current experience. Atheists cannot experience the absence of God because they do not believe in God. Conversely, believers experience the absence of God precisely because they do believe in God. And the poet here focuses on a hope in the true God whose compassion is never exhausted.
And we know this from the reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Our assurance is that we have a Saviour who worries about us even when his own life is in mortal danger. As his own imminent crisis draws near, Jesus puts aside his own concerns and against the expectations of the crowd he is “moved with compassion”. He finds time to restore the sight of the two blind men sitting by the roadside. This aspect of the ministry of Jesus is something we encounter endlessly, ultimately in the Garden of Gethsemane and beyond to Calvary.
Often the problem is that we get caught up in the rubble of of our seemingly ruined lives; we lose track of where we are going in the desolate scene before us. We are trying to find a way out but we are relying solely on our human reason.
The poetic imagination of the poet in Lamentations however takes him beyond where he is focusing, on the limitations of the present moment and lifts him up out of the mess, and reminds him of the God he really believes in,
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’ [vv.22-24]
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ When we try to be too self-sufficient; when we want to take control of our lives; when we insist on sorting out our own problems. These are the times when we may call ourselves names, lament our shortcomings, even feel ashamed of ourselves. The problem is that it what may begin as a short-term gloom becomes a vicious circle and we fall into a spiral of depression.
So what I take from these readings is that we should try to remember the confidence of the poets and find our own voice to pray. When we pray we come consciously into the presence of God and have a sense of walking closely with God. Faith is not just about creeds and dogmas. It’s about the kind of God we believe in. And we do not need to be articulate. Our grunts and groans and wails of lamentation will be heard.
That great, sometimes doubting, poet-priest, R S Thomas, in his poem ‘Folk Tale’, compares praying to throwing gravel at a window.
Prayers like gravel
flung at the sky’s
window, hoping to attract
the loved one’s
attention. But without
visible plaits to let
down for the believer
to climb up,
to what purpose open
I would have refrained long since
But that peering once
Through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
the movement of a curtain.