Sermon for August 1st, 2021
A Song of Ascents. 1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! 3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. 5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; 6 my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. 8 It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.
Psummer of Psalms: 130 - What Are You Waiting For?
Psalm 130 is a psalm about (among other things) waiting. I'm reminded of the story about two young brothers who were waiting at breakfast time, and arguing over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson, and told them, "If Jesus were sitting here, he would say 'Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.'"
The boys thought about this for a moment, and then the younger boy turned to his older brother and said, "Ok... you be Jesus."
We aren't very good at waiting, are we? We live in a world of instant gratification--if you want to watch a movie, you can find it streaming "on demand." If you have a random question, you can ask Siri, or Google, or Alexa, and get an immediate answer. If you want to talk to a friend in another country, you can send an email or a text message and get an instantaneous response. If you want to go somewhere, you can take a car or even an airplane and go faster and farther than anyone could have dreamed about for most of human history. And if, God forbid, you do actually have to wait in a line, or in that speedy car or airplane, there are plenty of diversions to occupy your time while you wait.
Interestingly, Psalm 130 may have been something kind of like that, too. The ascription right at the beginning of the Psalm tells us that it is a "Song of Ascents" or in Hebrew, a שִׁ֥ירהַֽמַּעֲל֑וֹת (sir ha ma-alot) which literally means a song of "going up." There are 15 of these going-up songs in the Book of Psalms, and they were probably sung by ancient travelers while making an annual pilgrimage up to the Holy City of Jerusalem, up to the Temple on Mount Zion.
But where we often use our songs, our games, and our movies to distract us from the long journey, these ancient songs (and especially Psalm 130) would have worked in the opposite way--to focus the travelers on their destination, and the reason for their journey, which was to come into the presence of God.
Psalm 130 begins with the words "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!" And this cry has a beautiful double meaning. On a literal level, the Journey to Jerusalem begins at a lower elevation, perhaps somewhere near the "depths" of the sea, and far away from the visible manifestation of God's presence, the temple. On a poetic level, the "depths" can also refer to our human condition--our despair and our suffering--the time and place in our lives where we feel most distant from God, and where we realize that a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage, is necessary to put things right again.
The Psalmist continues in verse 2:
"Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!"
And this is the only prayer, the only request, in the entire Psalm. It is a simple prayer. Unlike other psalms, it doesn't ask God to intervene, to rescue the psalmist, or to rain down vengeance on his enemies. He just wants God to be aware that he exists. That's not a bad place to start, in our own prayers and on our own journeys.
But sometimes the hardest part of a journey--spiritual or otherwise--is getting out the door. We know we need to go, but there's always something holding us back. Fear of leaving something important behind. Fear of unknown dangers waiting on the road. Fear that perhaps our destination will not live up to expectations--or worse yet, fear that WE will not live up to expectations.
For the Psalmist, the fear is that he is not worthy of his destination, of standing in the presence of God. He says in verse 3:
"If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?" In other words, if you keep track of all our flaws and failings, God, I'll never get there. No one will.
But then in the very next verse, he reminds himself (and God!) that "there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered." There's a really interesting connection here between worship and forgiveness. Basically, the psalmist is saying, "God, you have asked us to come into your presence, to worship you. But since you are holy and we are not, the only way this 'worship' thing is ever going to work is if you forgive us, if you wipe the slate clean for us, because we can't do it on our own.
Going back to the metaphor of a journey--you don't get in your car and drive down the road with your primary focus on the rear view mirror. You can't move forward if you are chained to the past, and all your mistakes and regrets. Yes, you can distract yourself from these things so that you forget about them for a time. But only God can truly make them fade into oblivion. And that's exactly what God does when you set your course to come into his presence.
So what's next? You're out the door; you're on the road; you're forgiven; you're excited about the journey! Are we there yet? What now?
Verse 5: "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope."
And...we're not really very good at waiting, right?
A man was praying to God, and he asked God, “How long is a million years to you?” God replied, “It is like one minute to you.” The next day the man asked God, “God, how much is a million dollars to you?” And God replied, “It is like one penny to you.” Then the man said, “God, can I have one of your pennies?” And God replied, “Sure. Wait just a minute."
Journeys take time. Personal transformation takes time. Some journeys take an entire lifetime. But verse 5 of Psalm 130 gives us two essential hints on how to pass that time, and not wander off the path.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.
The first hint comes in the Hebrew word translated as "soul," נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh). When we think of the "soul" we often think of it as some ethereal part of us that is detachable and distinct from our bodies. But that would have been a pretty strange concept to ancient Hebrew people, one that came into our thinking much later, from Greek and Roman beliefs.
A better translation of Nephesh is "self"--all of it. Your body, your mind, your emotions and everything that altogether adds up to you. And that's what the Psalmist means when he says "my soul waits for the Lord." All of me waits! This is not a distracted waiting--my brain doing one thing, my hands doing something else, my mood somewhere in between--but rather a focused, directed, and poised waiting. This is the kind of waiting you do in the split second between the time when you trip over something and when you hit the ground. Your brain and your body are completely and totally united in anticipating (and preparing for!) what is about to happen.
I'm not going to lie--waiting for the Lord with that kind of unified focus is difficult to do, and even more difficult to sustain over a long period of time. But I think we can approach it, when we start to cut out the distractions and the inner divisions that we subject ourselves to. And in any case, the second hint from verse five can help with the first:
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.
If you want to find your way, it helps to have a map (or these days, a GPS, which is a digital map). If you want your business to succeed, it helps to have a strategic plan. If you want your relationships to succeed, it helps to have a basic knowledge of those you are relating to.
And if you want to focus your entire self on coming into God's presence, he has given you the map, the plan, the collected knowledge and wisdom of those who have embarked on the same journey for thousands of years. And that is God's word, in which the Psalmist places his hope.
Prayer is great. Coming to church is great. Being a good person and doing good things is great. But if you really want to move forward in your journey to be closer to God, then commit yourself to being a student of God's word. Not just for one hour on Sunday morning, but every day, and with all your heart, mind and self. What are you waiting for?
Verse 6 repeats the refrain and offers a contrast:
"My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning."
I think that "those who watch for the morning" here is a poetic way of saying "those who focus merely on reacting to what happens next" or those who are overly concerned with what the next day will bring. Jesus said something very similar in Luke chapter 12, when he told his followers "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear . . . For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well."
Wait for the Lord, and place your hope in the promises of his word, not in the promises of the world.
Psalm 130 concludes with the Psalmist looking beyond himself, beyond his own journey to the collective journey of his people:
"O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities."
We, too, should remember that our own journeys intersect and intertwine with countless others around us. And if we find hope and redemption in God's steadfast love, that's something worth sharing with others along the way.
Psalm 130 ends with hope, but I want you to notice that it doesn't end with the Psalmist arriving at his destination. There are other psalms that reflect that joyful entrance into Jerusalem, but not this one. This is a song for the road, for the journey.
Here at First Presbyterian Church we like to say that we are a church for Wanderers, Wonderers, and Wisdom Seekers. All of those things imply that we are imperfect, unfinished people on a journey together, helping each other and encouraging each other along the way. We don't always agree on how to get there, what kind of shoes to wear, or where to stop along the way. But we all have the same set of instructions, and we are all headed to the same destination.
If you find yourself out in the depths, and longing to be closer to God, longing for the kind of love and forgiveness that only God can offer, then I hope you'll wander with us for a little while. At the very least, I hope you'll ask yourself, "What (or who) am I waiting for?"