The Questions That Keep Us Awake At Night:
I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak.
If we can be perfectly honest, most of us would admit to asking questions that keep us awake at night. We might call it stress or too much coffee, but there are terrors, fears and doubts that strike in our most vulnerable hours. We pace the floor or lay awake with our eyes wide open staring into the empty dark. The quiet intimidates us. We find it difficult to even name our feelings or the exact reason why we are distressed. It is there, but we cannot speak about it.
3,000 years after the Psalms we have available to us a variety of remedies: The "quick-fixes" of our age - some of them are socially unacceptable (alcohol, drug abuse, pornography). Some are less controversial (anti-depressants, TV, chocolate and carbs). Yet, the "quick-fixes" of all sorts have a tendency to fail - if we can be perfectly honest with one another. Even the religious "quick-fixes" fail us - these are the pat answers that attempt to repair our grief and distress:
It's hard to know what to say to those who hurt - (sometimes I think we err to the other extreme by saying nothing at all - thus alienating those who hurt.) But, if we are perfectly honest with one another, we all hurt, don't we? Now I know that it is considered presumptuous to say to the grieving - "I know how you feel" when in fact we cannot ever know exactly how someone else feels - and it is meaningless to say "I know how you feel" it doesn't really do any good. But "everybody hurts, sometimes." Right?
The Psalms are not an attempt to fix the hurt. They are the perfect honesty of God's people who are experiencing grief, fear, doubt. They are a proclamation that those who hurt are not alone. We have seen how each psalmist pours out his heart in anguish and despair. He doesn't express it simply for one verse or two verses or three verses, he goes on and on and on with his grief. But more still, the Psalms are perfectly honest before God.
In Psalm 77, the perfect honesty of the hurting soul gets right to the core of matter - Has God turned against me? "Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?"
Then the moment of perfect honesty: I will say it, "What really wounds me is that the right hand of God Most High (El-Elyon) has changed." - 77:10 [In my opinion, the NIV translation of this verse (v. 10 in English, v. 11 in Hebrew) does not communicate the sense of the Hebrew, which communicates honest disappointment and hurt (chalôthî) and concern that the Right Hand (yemin) of the Most High (Elyon) has changed (enôth). See the Contemporary English Version translation of this verse.]
Right Hand of God Most High: God is supposed to be watching over us with his strong right hand of power. He is the Most High - the ultimate power. But it seems like all that has changed. That's not right. It seems disrespectful, we ought to know our place - but the question is "Is God in his place?"
And ironically, false humility cannot do what perfect honesty does: the honest admission - the anger and disappointment with God opens a door to a new hope. It is as if there is a breakthrough in the relationship.
The Psalmist also decides to dredge the past - to remember who God is and what God has done in the past. He pulls out the old albums and scrapbooks of his memory ... I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.
The Faith that Gives Us Hope Day and Night
Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples.
The movie, "The Story of Us" is about a couple planning to divorce. In the end they resolve to stay together because they have a story - they have a history both good and bad and they just can't start over with someone else. For no one else shares their story. (For more information see http://www.smartmarriages.com/story.of.us.html Note: "The Story of Us" is rated R by the MPAA. Do not assume that mention of this movie or the SmartMarriages Impact award constitutes an endorsement of the film. You are urged to use your own judgment in deciding whether to see this or any movie.)
The movie realizes something so often missed in the real world: that knowing someone involves a lot more than just being happy with him or her. Knowing someone involves much more. It involves time, trust & faith.
Relationships - How do we really know someone? [To explore the concept of knowing God, I recommend Phillip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).] It takes time. Taking someone for granted seems bad, but there is something wonderful about the stability of a long term relationship for it is the unnoticed, ordinary, everyday things that make all the difference. These are the core substance of the relationship. Certainly we always want to honor and show grace to those we love (because we certainly need it! - and this is where trust is important), but what sort of a relationship is built on having to continually make progressive effort to maintain it lest it collapse - with that in mind it will at some point break down - because we are breaking down!
Now, if even our best human relationships are built on time, trust and faith, then isn't that true of our relationship with God?
If we are perfectly honest as we look over our history with God we see that there is much we have taken for granted. Things we may not have noticed that are in fact the substance of the relationship. We discover all over again that God's ways are holy and there is no one else like him - we just don't have a story or history with any other God.
Ok, but relationships change and what if God has changed? The days of miracles and power have ceased, right? - What if we really just cannot expect much from God anymore? That's the tragedy of it isn't it. In our effort to make faith reasonable and then to prevent God from being the magic power of hucksters and well-intentioned people who want to put a claim on God so he will grant three wishes - maybe we reduced God to a code of ethics or an overseer of standards and practices. But this extreme is no better than the one we tried to avoid. If God is limited then is he still God? If we cannot expect greatness and power from God then is he still God? Is he God for us? Magnifying the problem of trust and faith is the fact that God isn't seen. Couldn't he show up a little more often like he did in the old days? Doesn't all of it mean that he changed on us - and not necessarily for the better? I have heard the argument that "this age of reason" is better than "the age of miracles" - but I have never bought it (I would give up ten principles about God for one burning bush, wouldn't you?) - after all God was more visible and near in those days . . . or was he? Was it really all that different? Then and now ...
Was he really all that visible during the Exodus? The Psalmist says that he was still unseen and his footprints were unseen. What was seen was the influence of God's hand that parted the sea and guided the Israelites through Moses and Aaron.
Was God so visible at the cross? To many it seemed the end, they abandoned Christ. They left him. They insulted him. Even at the resurrection there were those who doubted and others who disbelieved despite the evidence - What was seen was the influence of God's hand that shook the earth and raised Jesus from the dead and opened the tomb.
When God seems absent, his influence is there - even as he chooses to remain hidden. The way the psalmist puts it is: in the middle of the churning waters, your footprints were unseen. God was there healing, bringing redemption and hope, but God could not be seen.
To be perfectly honest, God is even nearer than before. He is just as active as always - even more so now that Jesus rules. His fingerprints and footprints are everywhere - and they are fresh! Maybe the absence of God is due to our lack to be perfectly honest with ourselves and others.
We are using the wrong senses to experience God. When we look for God with reason or doubt we are looking with the wrong senses. It's like trying to feel red, touch sour, taste loud. And this isn't a touchy-feel cop-out. For the scientists among us: It is not just that God is at the edge of our sensory range - but we have to keep in mind that this isn't a laboratory experiment - we are participants, not observers - we influence the outcome. God is perceptable to a sense for which we have no name - that closest we come is to call it spirit. It is more than intellect and action. It is more that a sterile, non-participatory gaze.
This sense is honed and developed in relationships of perfect honesty: Relationship with God and with one another. We affirm to one another the experience of the hand of God. Not just all of us here, but the Scripture is the deposit of faith passed on to us - the Bible did not fall out of heaven - no it is inspired of heaven but it has been passed on to us through our cloud of witnesses. People such as Asaph who, like us, have been so disturbed that they stayed awake all night - but in his night musing he beheld the hand of God.
And we also need people like you and me. We need to be perfectly honest with one another - and I regret that we sometimes are not. We put on more than our best clothes for church. And none of us wants to draw undue attention to ourselves - that's a good characteristic. But maybe we are less than honest with God and one another because we are not honest with ourselves.
We are concerned with the problems of burdening one another or fearing what happens if we speak up. Our only category for the invitation is penance and public confession -other wise we bear up privately. But what do we miss if we aren't perfectly honest? Would Psalm 77 be inspired if Asaph had held back and said everything fine? When we are not honest, we miss the opportunity to experience the hand of God in the past, present and future.
We believe that the hand of God is as powerful and as mighty as ever - Why? Jesus is risen, he is living in his church. Now more than ever God is strong and powerful to save. You don't want your story with God to end with the questions that keep you awake at night - do you? Rest in the Hand of God!
Link to next sermon
Link to other sermons of Chris Benjamin