A sermon on Psalm 79
The world does not need another stained glass saint. They need faith that lives in the real world. The world hurts. And when they hurt, they want something more than a sympathetic smile and, “I’ll pray for you.” We know, because we’ve been there. We’ve heard the niceties. We’ve read the sympathy cards. Some of us are there, right now, walking wounded. And when we are walking wounded, we don’t need trite sympathies. We need lament.
We still know the word, vaguely. It’s not something we say very often. Lament is an act of worship. That sad, angry Psalm we read today, that’s a lament from the Hebrew Hymnal. They would sing that in church.
We barely read the Psalms in church any more because we’re ashamed of them. They’re violent, they’re emotional, they argue with God, and that’s just not very nice. “You can’t say that, you’re a Christian.” So we set the Psalms aside. Which is too bad, because they offer some amazing mental ammunition.
Want to feel blood boiling rage? We have a Psalm for that. How about soul bending sadness? Got plenty of that. How about gut wrenching guilt, or fear, or loss, or shame? How about doubt or confusion? You probably won’t hear it on Christian pop radio, but it’s in the Psalms.
Asaph, the Psalmist, surveys the field of battle, and writes “O God. They have invaded and defiled your city. They have reduced it to rubble. They left the bodies of your people in the fields where they fell. Your people are food for vultures and dogs. Blood flows like water, and there is no one left to bury the dead. We are the objects of contempt, scorn, and derision to those around us.”
Can you imagine singing that in church?! Can you imagine Asaph comes walking back from the battlefield, and he hands that to the choir. “Here. This is the new song for Sunday.” “You can’t say that. You’re a priest!”
But he did. And here’s the beauty of Lament. Look what the he does next. “How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like a fire?”
Did you see it? Did you hear it? Don’t miss it. This is important. This will help you. The Psalmist took all the pain. All the rage and confusion and sadness. All the blood and the bodies, and dumped them all at God’s feet. “How long, God? How long are you going to punish us?”
Lament takes the pain of life and places it in the presence of God. Lament takes the helplessness of victimization and places it in the hands of God. Lament takes the randomness of natural disaster and places it in the hands of God. Lament takes the paralyzing self-hatred of shame and places it in the hands of God.
Those people didn’t beat us. That forest fire didn’t beat us. That cancer didn’t beat us. That sicko didn’t beat us. That horrible thing we did in the past, that didn’t beat us. We’re taking all of that, softening none of it, we’re taking all of it into God’s throne room and we’re dropping it on the floor. “How long, God? How long before wrongs are righted and hearts are mended? How long before war and poverty are over? How long before death is done? How long, God?”
Do you hear the power in that? That alone would be worth the price of admission. But Jesus took it further. It’s just like we talked about last week. It’s a good start, but it’s half-baked. If that’s what it takes to get you through the day, great! God is big enough to take your tears. God is strong enough to handle your anger. But you can’t live there.
Suppose you tried. Suppose you decided that every horrible thing that happens to you is God’s unknowable plan, and then something horrible happened to someone you love. Like they got cancer, and then their house burned down, they got run over by a car and then somebody kicked their puppy. And you say. “Don’t cry. It’s OK. It’s all part of God’s plan.”
“God never gives us more than we can bear.”
“God just needed another angel in heaven.”
This is why Protestant American Christians have pretty much given up on the Psalms. They don’t square with the God we know through Jesus Christ. Did you notice we didn’t read the whole Psalm? The end is even worse!
“Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord. Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will proclaim your praise.”
Jesus said forgive your enemies seven times seventy. The Psalm says, “Dear God, please take everything that happened to us, multiply it times seven, and drop it on their heads. Then we’ll sing about it in church.” Huh?
This little bit right here. This is why we’re a Congregational Church. This is why we go to association meetings even though no one can force us to. We want to, we choose to, we love to, because that is where we get ideas like this. If I hadn’t gone to our regional association meeting yesterday, I wouldn’t have been able to give you this, because I learned it there.
Just because that’s what it meant to them, doesn’t mean that’s what it has to mean for us. Clear as mud, right? When we read the Psalms, we try to understand what they originally meant. And that’s good. It tells us that God is big enough to handle our real feelings. But just because they imagined God as their own personal angel of vengeance doesn’t mean we have to.
Jesus didn’t read the Psalms that way. He took those old words and filled them full of new meaning. When he hung on the cross and said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” He was quoting Psalm 22. When he called himself the good shepherd, he was quoting Psalm 23. But he wasn’t quoting them for their original meaning. He was claiming those Psalms were about him.
The Gospel writers did the same thing. So did Peter and Paul. All of them quoted the Psalms and all of them read them, not in the light of their original intent, but in the light of the cross. Our battle is not with flesh and blood. We don’t win with swords. Our enemy is not those people over there.
Jesus didn’t leave us that option any more. Our enemy is violence. Our enemy is hatred. Our enemy is poverty, and lust, and greed, and all the things in ourselves and our culture that push us to love things and use people. That’s the fight we’re in, and if we choose to, we can do like Jesus and reinterpret the Psalms, to make them about that fight.
“O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple,” Jesus says that this entire world belongs to God, and that our bodies are the temple of God. And yet the nations, the powers of this present age have invaded the world. Our bodies which were meant to be holy temples dedicated to God have been defiled by the things of this world. We are not dedicated whole-heartedly to God. We are double-minded, half-hearted, and addicted. And this battle doesn’t end in the temple courts, or in the city streets. It spills out into the world, and the fields flow with blood. Vultures and dogs pick the bones of God’s children. This didn’t happen four thousand years ago. It’s happening right now!
So we turn our eyes to the sky and we cry, “How long, God? May your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. Deliver us and forgive us. May the groans of the prisoners come before you; with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die.”
And now we reach the end of the Psalm, and once again we can give it new meaning. We’re not praying God’s vengeance on some person over there. We’re praying peace over violence, justice over corruption. Healing over brokenness. Freedom over chains. We are praying life over death. May God take every horrible thing that ever was or ever will be, multiply it by seven and turn it back on itself. Amen!
That is how you pray the Psalms. We do not worship some ancient book. We worship the living God who stands behind it and speaks through it. God is not done with this book any more than he is done with you. So be every inch of who you are, and then go be more.