Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 26, 2023
Sometimes I talk about unsung heroes in my sermons. And I hope you don’t think I’m stretching that expression too far when I say that the 130th Psalm is one of those unsung heroes. It’s a beautiful psalm, both in its poetry and its theology, and its beginning is probably the deepest of any psalm—quite literally: Out of the depths I cry to you, O God; hear my voice!
The psalmist is beyond help. The deeps bring to mind a watery grave, a place beneath the chaos of the churning sea, a place the Hebrew Bible elsewhere calls sheol. The depths are a place where life cannot survive, and thus the voice of the psalmist should not be heard—because the psalmist should have no voice, should have no prayer. So the one who’s praying doesn’t have a prayer.
And yet, they pray. By the grace of God, their prayer goes up—not by any power of their own, but only by the power of the One who hears prayer, the One who also has the power to answer prayer.
And what is the prayer of the one who prays? It is simply that their prayer be heard. The person who is dead in the water (spiritually speaking) is still able to pray. We see this here in Psalm 130, and Paul seems to be talking about something similar in Romans 8: Even when we’re too weak to pray, God’s Spirit within us prays on our behalf.
When you think about it, this is not depressing. Not at all. To feel like you’re on the outs with God, but to still pray, means that God’s Spirit is still alive within you. To love God, but to be unable to pray—perhaps you’re too weak, too sick, or not even conscious—means that God’s Spirit within you is actively praying. To my way of thinking, this weakness can also be emotional or spiritual: We’re not where we feel like we ought to be, and yet we still desire what we don’t have, that means God is still working on us and in us—it means God’s Spirit is still praying for us.
We say, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” And this is always true. But when God is involved, where there’s lifelessness, there’s still hope. For we cry to God from the depths. And the Holy Spirit prays for us even when we cannot form the words.
In the case of the psalmist here in Psalm 130, they seem to be saying that it’s because of their own wrongdoing that they’re in the depths. Whatever it is they’ve done, they’re in deep and they don’t know how to get themselves out of the mess they’re in. But they at least have the wisdom to know that what they’re experiencing is part of the human condition. If God used our sins as a reason to punish us, we’d all be laid low, they say.
But as depressed as the psalmist may be, they’re absolutely confident of one thing, and that’s the forgiveness of God. They’re counting on God. It’s not something they’re fantasizing about—their hope is grounded in what they’ve learned about God in God’s word.
Now there are some these days—there have probably been such people in every age—who’ll take a Bible verse out of context and claim it as a promise of God intended just for them. I believe they refer to their teachings as “word of faith.” But we have another name for their belief system. It’s called “name-it-claim-it theology.”
It often surrounds scriptures that deal with physical healing. But it’s been used by many of today’s famous TV preachers to not only deny physical suffering, but also to encourage selfishness. They teach that a true believer will never experience pain and always have all the money and luxuries they desire. All they have to do is find a Bible verse that supports them in what they want, and if their faith is strong enough, they can claim it as their own. There are many problems with this way of thinking. And the suffering of the apostles—of Jesus himself—is the best argument against it.
I read an exchange not too long ago in novel by Cormac McCarthy called Outer Dark. The book’s almost as old as I am, and I don’t necessarily recommend it. It’s sort of a Pilgrim’s Progress gone horribly wrong. But it had an interesting exchange between one of the main characters (called Holme) and a nameless old man. The conversation was about beliefs, and the old man said, “The more I study a thing, the more I get it backwards. Study long and you study wrong… I know things I ain’t never studied. I know things I ain’t never even thought of.”
There’s something to be said for common sense and instinct. But I think what he’s talking about here is something that happens to many of us when we think about religion. We have our beliefs, and when they’re challenged, our minds protest. We want what are the equivalent of brief sound clips. We don’t have the patience to read whole chapters of the Bible—let alone whole books—and then meditate on them and pray for understanding. We won’t wait for insight because we often think we already have it. God’s word is there only to confirm what we think we’ve known all along.
But Psalm 130 is here to disabuse us of this notion. It tells us that there really are some promises that can be claimed by studying the word—not just an individual Bible verse taken out of context, but big chunks of the Bible that describe people’s experiences of God. And one of those promises is forgiveness. Time and again, we see God’s love poured out on people who did the wrong thing. And God’s forgiveness changed their lives.
So this is the promise being claimed here in Psalm 130. But it’s not being claimed by opening the Bible to some random page and putting a finger on a verse. It’s claimed by hoping and praying, watching and waiting. “I long for the Lord,” the New Living Translation says, “more than sentries long for the dawn—yes, more than sentries long for the dawn.”
That translation uses the verb to long for, while others use the verb to wait: My soul waits more than watchers watch, for example. This disagreement among translations is fine and shouldn’t trouble us, because the Hebrew is very unclear in this verse. Whatever it is the psalmist’s soul is doing, it’s doing it more diligently—more tirelessly—than the night watch does its job. Robert Alter—a professor of Hebrew at the University of California—published his long-awaited translation of the Old Testament about five years ago. And here’s how he translated this verse:
My being for the Master—more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn.
His version sounds rather vague to us, but it’s much closer not just to the meaning, but also the rhythm and the feeling of the original Hebrew. But the information we really need is there: Whatever it is that the night watch does before dawn, the psalmist’s soul is doing more of it (and doing a better job at it)!
When the Bible tells us over and over again to wait for the Lord—and this is especially common in the psalms—it’s not talking about just sitting around, bored, waiting for something to happen. It’s as active—more active, really—than the job of a person on watch duty, guarding a city. When we wait for God, we are truly engaged, plugged in to whatever situation we’re in. We’re actively doing what we already know to be God’s will. We are loving our neighbor and praying for those who need prayer. We are bringing about the good we can with the gifts that we’ve been given. God has been revealed to us in the word. So awaiting more revelation from God cannot mean boredom or apathy.
So here is the movement we find so far in this little chapter of the Bible: A cry for God’s attention (probably to ask for forgiveness), an acknowledgment of God’s forgiving nature, and then a waiting for, longing for, or hoping in God. There’s not just confusion here because the verb in the Hebrew is only implied. It’s that the verb that follows in the 7th verse—the one we assume they were talking about in the 6th verse—does double duty. It doesn’t in English, but you’d see it if you read this in Spanish, because the verb can mean either hope or wait.
So here in the 7th verse, the psalmist says, O Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is unfailing (or steadfast) love. And here, it’s pretty much universally agreed that hope is the correct verb. The psalm starts out in ardent prayer—and it’s a prayer for forgiveness. And of all the promises made in the Bible, the one that is surest, the one that’ll never fail, is the prayer for forgiveness.
The sincere prayer for forgiveness is always answered, and it’s answered with a Yes. This promise is as unfailing as God’s love is constant. If you’re new to prayer, or if your prayer life is rusty; if you don’t think prayer works, or don’t trust you’ll be answered, then pray for forgiveness. God loves us, even though all of us have gone astray. Just as any good parent lovingly forgives their child and can’t wait to embrace them after they mess up, so God makes everything right with us and welcomes us back into the fold. Earlier, I said that where there’s life there’s hope and there’s even hope where there’s lifelessness. In closing, let me just say that where there’s God, there’s hope. O people of faith, hope in God, for with God there is unfailing love.
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.