Has God Forgotten?

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Thu, 05/25/2017 - 12:00pm

Psalm 77, Steve Hollaway Harbor Church, May 21, 2017



            The Bible is more honest with us than we are with each other. That’s especially true of the psalms. American Christianity tends to use smiley-face emoji as if they were the message of the cross, but the ancient Jews who wrote the songs of lament faced the dark side of life. They were honest about the ebb and flow of faith. And God himself opted to include songs of doubt in the Bible, so we could hear the melodies of struggle, so we could hear the most spiritual people singing the blues and so come to admit that we have those thoughts, too.

            Last week I talked about depression and mental illness, but I don’t think Psalm 77 is talking about depression of that sort. This song could be sung by someone in clinical depression, but here it is an example of the spiritual depression all believers face at some point as they go through hard times and God seems silent. We have no idea what the poet’s crisis was—a personal one, a social one like the Babylonian exile, a theological one. We fall into this funk when we are grieving a loss, or feel that we’ve failed, or when we have been attacked unjustly, or when we lack any sense of direction. Add your own situation to that list.

            Listen to how he starts: “I cry out loud to God so that he can hear me,” but, the subtext is, “he doesn’t hear me.” I’m in trouble and I seek the Lord. In Hebrew fashion, I hold my hands up to pray in the night, but I don’t find any comfort. I am touched by verse 3: “I think of God, and I moan”—or the NIV says “I think of God, and I groan,” as Paul says in Romans we are all groaning, and the whole creation is groaning, waiting for the day when God will redeem us and transform us. I want to pray, the psalmist says, but all I have to do is to think of God and it makes me unspeakably sad. I meditate, and my spirit feels faint. I remember a time when thinking of God was sweet to me, a time when I had confidence, and I was sure I would never lose that confidence in God. But now things have changed for me. I think of God, and I moan. I can’t sleep. I can’t speak.

            Have you ever been in that place? You probably didn’t want to speak about it. If you did, someone would tell you to cheer up, as if you chose this state of mind and soul. If you did, you probably thought something was wrong with you, that your faith was inadequate, that this would not happen to a better Christian. But the truth is that this experience has happened to many of the deepest and wisest Christians; it was a dark night, but it did not last forever.

            Charles Spurgeon was the most famous preacher in Victorian England. He could be full of strong statements of faith and his own faith led countless people to Christ. But he knew what the Psalm 77 experience was like. Listen to what he says in his comments on the psalm:

It was not his body alone which smarted, but his noblest nature writhed in pain, his life itself seemed crushed into the earth. It is in such a case that death is coveted as a relief, for life becomes an intolerable burden. With no spirit left in us to sustain our infirmity, our case becomes forlorn; like man in a tangle of briars who is stripped of his clothes, every hook of the thorns becomes a lancet, and we bleed with ten thousand wounds. Alas, my God, the writer of this exposition [me!] well knows what [the psalmist] meant, for his soul is familiar with the way of grief. Deep glens and lonely caves of soul depressions, my spirit knows full well your awful glooms! Selah. Let the song go softly; this is no merry dance for the swift feet of the daughters of music, pause ye awhile, and let sorrow take breath between her sighs.

That is what the psalm almost forces us to do, and what this sermon intends: “Pause awhile, and let sorrow take breath between her sighs.”

            We might think that such sorrow separates us from God. That is what the psalmist thinks at the beginning. But another psalm reminds us that God is not far from the despondent. Psalm 34:18 says “The Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Let that sink in. The Lord is near us when we are near despair and he saves—not those who are full of confidence, but those who are crushed.

            Beginning with verse 7, the poet asks a series of theological questions that reveal his worst fears. These questions are not directed to God. As he communes with his own heart in the night, and as he meditates, these are the things that come to mind. These are questions we might be afraid even to ask. We certainly would not ask them in church. “I know,” he thinks, “that God sometimes withdraws or lets us go through hard times to teach us. But what if this is forever? What if God never comes back? What if he will never love me again?”

            I don’t get sick very often, Becca says that when I do, I assume it will be forever. If I have a sore throat and lose my voice, I think I will never preach again. When chicken pox drove me crazy with itching, I couldn’t help but think that I could not endure this for weeks and months without drowning myself in my oatmeal bath. Becca asked the doctor to give me some kind of sedative.

            But sometimes periods of doubt and darkness can make us think that it’s all over. We’ll never have faith again. Or worse, God really has turned his back on me. God knows I deserve it, but I never thought he would, but now, maybe… Here’s the list of questions from the psalmist:

  • Will God reject me forever?
  • Will God never be favorable to me again?
  • Has God’s faithful love ended forever?
  • Are God’s promises at an end for all time?
  • Has God forgotten to be gracious?
  • Is God so mad at me that he has shut off his compassion?

Those are scary thoughts. Catastrophic thinking, worst-case thinking, maybe, but scary. The King James version of verse 8 is memorable: “Is his mercy clean gone forever?” It’s the Elizabethan English of Jed Clampett: “It’s clean gone.” And it’s forever.

            So stuck in that state of mind, what does the psalmist do? What he does is a pattern for all of us. The turning point is verse 11, when he says, “I will remember.” I am going to shift my focus from my own sadness and my fears, and I am going to focus on the deeds of Yahweh. I’m going to remember what God has done in history. Speaking, finally, to God, as if God is listening, he says, “I will meditate on all your works and muse on your mighty deeds.”

            What do I know about God from the history of my people? You are a God who works wonders. You have done miracles that have shown your power to other nations. It was you who brought the descendants of Jacob and Joseph, countless victims of racism enslaved by the economic system of Egypt, out of Egypt. That’s a fact. Here we are in the Promised Land. There is no denying that it happened. There’s no way we could have gotten out of Egypt on our own.

            Then he launches into an extremely poetic description of what happened when God parted the waters of the sea so the Israelites could escape. In his imagination, God attacked the waters with a mighty storm and scared them into parting. The waters were afraid when they saw you, and the ocean deep trembled. Even the mighty ocean—which Israelites always feared as something chaotic—was afraid of their God Yahweh.

            Here’s how the attack went: Clouds poured out water; there was loud thunder; God’s arrows (lightning bolts) flashed on every side. The crash of God’s thunder was in the tornado and there was so much lightning that it lit up the world. The earth itself trembled and shook in fear. There is no God as mighty as you.

            Then he says, making clear he is talking about the passage to freedom, “Your way was through the sea”—not around it, but through it. Repeating this: “Your path was through the mighty waters.” Yet—and please get this!—“Yet your footprints were unseen.” Now that I think about it, even though you acted in power, even though you showed such love for us, your footprints were invisible. You gently led us as your flock; you used the hands of Moses and Aaron to lead us. But you yourself remained unseen. We did not see you and you left no evidence. It’s almost the opposite of the familiar story of “Footprints,” where he says, “Those were the times I carried you.” In this story, God carried us but he left no footprints in the sand. When God seems invisible to us, he may still be leading us and rescuing us.

            The message from the psalm this morning is that when we think God has forgotten us, we need to remember what God has done. There are two kinds of remembering. The first is remembering what God has done for you personally—also known as “Counting your blessings.” When you feel that God is not there for you, ask yourself what blessings you have received today, this week, this month. Who has God brought into your life? When has God answered a prayer? When has God made a way when there seemed to be no way?

            But the second kind of remembering—and this is the kind in Psalm 77—is remembering what God has done for us as a people in history. We are not used to thinking corporately, collectively, about our blessings as a people. For the psalmist, and for Jews generally, the salvation event in history is the exodus from Egypt. That is the defining event in their history and where God was seen most clearly. And it can’t be explained away, because Israel exists as a nation.

            For Christians, what is the story? Our defining story is that Jesus died and rose again and reigns as Lord. Look at the symbols on our walls in Eastertide! The Easter message is the story of the mighty deed of God in raising Jesus from the dead. And that event can’t be explained away, because the church exists as a movement. How else can you explain a group of fearful students of Jesus shifting gears from running away to charging through the world with the story of Jesus’ resurrection and reign? Both stories—the Jewish one and the Christian one—are about the triumph of God over the forces of evil and the current world order. Both stories are about the breaking into history of the reign of God.

            The story of God’s salvation is one that we affirm together as a people in our creeds and hymns, not something we affirm all by ourselves. This communal memory becomes in a moment of pain a personal, powerful hope [Walter Brueggemann]. One Baptist scholar [Marvin Tate] has said that Psalm 77 is a call to a decision:

The people of God are called to proclaim and embody the reign of God in the midst of circumstances that make it appear that God does not reign.

When the present moment may make us feel that God has turned away from us, we need to say—together—that the kingdom of God is real and really coming. Not that everything happens for a good reason or that God has caused all our troubles, but that God’s power and reign are at work in this evil world, sometimes in spite of appearances. Even though we don’t see his footprints, that doesn’t mean that he is not leading us through the waters.

            William Cowper was a poet in the 18th century who struggled with darkness and madness. On one foggy night in London, he was near the edge. He hailed a horse-drawn cab and asked to be taken to the London Bridge. “Why would you want to go there on a cold night like this?” the cabbie asked. Cowper did not answer. But the fog was so thick that the cabbie could not see beyond his horse’s nose, and what should have been a 20-minute ride turned into an hour. Cowper told the cab to pull over and let him out. As the cab pulled away, the poet realized that he was standing back in front of his own house. “God!” he said, “you did answer my prayer!” He went inside and began to read Psalm 77. From that psalm he was inspired to write a poem that is still sung today:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.