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Waiting and hoping - Psalm 130

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 26th July 2009.

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Although he hadn’t been an outstanding student, he had been a diligent student and had gained a Masters degree in law. That was quite an achievement for the son of a coal miner. He was moderately religious too. As was the custom of his day he had been baptised into the Roman Catholic Church as a baby and attended his first mass as a young boy. But it wasn’t until one dark evening as he was riding his horse in a thunderstorm that he really began to take God seriously. As the rain became more torrential and the sound of thunder more sonorous, suddenly a bolt of lightening struck the ground beside him and his horse threw him to the ground. In blind panic, thinking this was a portent of God’s anger towards him, he cried out ‘St Ann, help me and I will become a monk.’ Why St Ann? Presumably because she was the patron saint of miners and he was of mining stock.

True to his word the 22 year old graduate, much to the disappointment of his father who liked the thought of having a lawyer in the family, became an Augustinian monk. The graduate was a German and his name was Martin Luther, the pioneer of what became known as the Protestant Reformation. It was during this time that Psalm 130 became a favourite psalm for Luther, for he felt keenly that he could identify with the cry of the Psalmist-v1, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; 2O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. 3If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?’ This is the way Luther himself describes his internal struggle and his one great question: ‘How can I find a gracious God? That is, how can a righteous God ever enter into a personal relationship with a sinner like me?’ That was, as he saw it, the fundamental problem facing everyone. And as you look into your own heart this morning and see things there you would rather not see, that may well be the question going through your mind, how on earth could God possibly accept and not simply banish someone like me?

Now, as we have seen these Psalms are called, ‘Song of Ascent’, sung by pilgrims on their way to worship God at one of the great religious festivals in Jerusalem. And you may think this is a strange song to sing. It is hardly inspirational, it is not exactly rousing, all this talk of ‘being in the depths and crying out to the Lord’ and the idea of God ‘keeping a record of our sins’ is enough to crimp anyone’s worship! But if we have that reaction it is only because we live in an age, indeed in a Church, which has lost sight of two very important things which were not lost on our forefathers; the first is a sense of the holiness of God and the second is a sense of the sinfulness of sin. Of course the two are related. If you have a low view of God’s holiness, then you will have low view of sin and wonder what the fuss is all about. As the French Philosopher Voltaire dismissively said, ‘It is God’s business to forgive.’ Not so. As holiness it is God’s business to punish not simply forgive. On the other hand a low view of sin will also lead to a low view of God, and certainly not a biblical view. A number of years ago the Christian psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, ‘Whatever Happened to Sin?’ in which he notes that many former sins have become crimes so that the responsibility for dealing with them has shifted from the priest to the policeman. Others have been dissipated into sickness and so punishment is replaced by treatment. In other instances personal responsibility has been overtaken by ‘collective irresponsibility’ so that the cause of my poor behaviour, if there is such a thing, can be placed squarely upon society’s shoulders- I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the Bible takes sin seriously and views it differently. The writer, Emil Brunner  sums it up in these words: ‘Sin is defiance, arrogance, the desire to be equal with God…the assertion of human independence over and against God,….the constitution of the autonomous reason, morality and culture.’ There you have it- sin is open defiance against our Maker.

Now can you see why this is such a fitting psalm to sing on the way to Jerusalem? For, you have to ask: what awaits the pilgrims in Jerusalem? The answer- the temple. And what does the temple represent? It represents the meeting place between God and man. It was the thought of that happening which causes the psalmist to cry out in horror the way he does- for sinners to come face to face with a holy God means certain death. It is a dreadful prospect unless something can be done about sin. So the plight of this man and indeed, all of us, and how it is met is the subject of this song.

First, we have the heart which makes a plea-v1-2, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; 2 O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.’ He feels as if he is drowning, being plunged deeper and deeper into a dark well with no prospect of clamouring out. And so he cries out to the only one who is able to rescue him, Yahweh- the LORD. This is no perfunctory muttering of a liturgy; it is the heartfelt cry of someone who is falling headlong to his doom. And we are given a clue as to why he felt so overwhelmed to the point of death by looking at what it was he pleaded to God for. Did you spot it? -‘mercy’. Now you don’t ask for mercy unless you have done something wrong, unless there is something to forgive.

And the predicament the psalmist is in is highlighted by the next two verses where we see the condition which is the problem- 3 ‘If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?’ Do you see the cleft stick in which he finds himself?  It is God, Yahweh who is the recorder of sins and so it is God first and foremost who is offended by our sins. And yet paradoxically he is the only one- the one we have offended- that we can turn to for help. It is turning to the one we have made our enemy that we are asking will treat us like a friend. Now what right to we have to expect that? What hope is there that this will happen?

This was in fact Martin Luther’s problem. He wanted to find peace with God, but the God he was introduced to seemed to be anything but peaceful, he was wrathful. After all, the Bible speaks of him as ‘righteous’. Well, if God was righteous and Luther was sinful what hope did he have of coming out alive? And so he became more and more religious in order to alleviate the intense guilt he was feeling. This is how Luther describes his experience: ‘I was a good monk and kept my order so strictly that I could say  that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. All my companions in the monastery would confirm this. And yet my conscience would not give me certainty but always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out in your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions; I daily found it more uncertain, weaker and more troubled.’ You see, Luther couldn’t meet the preconditions for mercy as the church taught it. Oh he tried, he prayed until he was sick, he fasted until he nearly died, he even joined other pilgrims in going to Rome climbing the sacred steps of St Peter on his hands and knees kissing each step on the way, after all hadn’t the church taught that release from purgatory could be obtained by those showing such devotion? But when he got to the top of the stairs to his horror all he was met with was the most appalling doubt. You see he knew that the psalmist was dead right, ‘‘If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” 

Now, I am sure that everyone here has things in their past, if not their present, of which they are thoroughly ashamed. Some cruel words spoken which hurt, some treacherous act which betrayed, some obligation to a loved one which was not fulfilled, but most of all, most of all- a casual disregard for the One who made you and who has heaped blessings upon you without number. Perhaps in the quite moments before you drop off to sleep, if you find sleep possible at all, a memory haunts you; a voice taunts you and you so long for peace. Isn’t that so? Peace of mind, peace of conscience, but underlying both of these is the need for peace with God. But how do you find that peace? That is the fundamental question. Where is such peace to be had? Well, it can only come from the hand which we have bitten- God’s hand-v4, ‘But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.’

Remember where the pilgrim is heading- the Temple. This is the place where God himself has provided the means whereby he deals with our guilt by offering a sacrifice on our behalf. Soon he will be outside the Holy of holies in which on the altar the sacrifice of atonement will be made, by the sprinkling of the blood of a lamb. Human beings are squeamish about blood. God is squeamish about sin. He is repulsed by its stench and stain and the blood on the altar symbolises that repulsion as well as the cost involved in dealing with it. Blood speaks of death. In order for blood to be shed an animal has to die, after all, sin demands death. Forgiveness is freely offered by God but that doesn’t mean that it is cheap, that there is no price which has to be paid. There is and God pays it in full and so he is to be held in awe- he is ‘to be feared.’

For us living this side of the New Testament we now know where the true temple and the true altar are to be found. Jesus described his own body as the ‘temple’ – he is the one we have to come to if we are to meet God and offer true worship. The altar is the cross of Calvary, where Jesus is both priest, offering the sacrifice for sins, and the victim, he is the sacrifice for sins. This was what Luther discovered for himself. In turning to the Bible Luther couldn’t make it past Romans 1 and verses 16-17 which reads ‘For I am not ashamed of the Good News (Gospel message) for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. For in the Good News a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.’ You see he had been brought up with the belief that God’s righteousness demanded the blotting out of sinners like himself in judgement. So how could that be Good news? It sounded like pretty bad news to him. Then the light slowly dawned what Paul actually meant.

This righteousness of God which the Gospel speaks of, is not earned, it is a gift. Instead of  becoming righteous by being good and religious , we are declared righteous - justified- pronounced to be in a right relationship with God by God himself. This is possible not because of anything we have done but because of what God’s Son Jesus has done. We are not put in a personal relationship with God by what he does in us through the sacramental plumbing system, but because of what God has done for us by way of the cross. Luther saw this as a ‘great exchange’- On the cross Jesus takes on our sinfulness and we are given his righteousness. Think of it in terms of having the right clothes to enter the presence of a King. Because of our rebellion and selfishness, in God’s sight it appears that we are wearing sweat laden, flea infested vests. You wouldn’t dream of turning up to the Palace like that would you? You need a change of clothes. Where do you get them? Well, from Jesus Christ, God’s perfect Son.

And this is something worth seeking, hence the desire which leads to patience- vv 5-6, ‘I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. 6My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.’ Do you see what the psalmist is saying? He knows he cannot deal with the guilt which torments him, and so he longs for that time when he will be at the place where it will be dealt with, at the temple and meet the one who will deal with- the LORD himself. He is like a guard on night duty, he can’t wait until the morning when the dangers of the night will be over and he will be at peace once again. During the Vietnam War, it was often said that the Americans ruled the day. They had superiority of numbers and technology, with attack helicopters and the like, but at night, that was the time of the Vietcong, that was when they could use the cover of darkness as a cloak to get close to vulnerable targets and do their worse, which they invariably did. Do you think the US soldiers on duty at night were not straining their eyes to see the first light of dawn? Well, says the Psalmist, that is the kind of longing we are to exhibit in seeking peace with God. And when it comes it is the most liberating experience you can imagine. Just listen to Luther once more, ‘I felt as if had been reborn and had gone through the open doors of paradise. The whole Scripture took on a new meaning and whereas I formerly hated the expression ‘the righteousness of God’ I now began to regard it as an inexpressibly sweet truth, a gate into heaven.’ You see, instead of God being a dark and brooding figure for ever disapproving of him, Luther discovered him to be a kind Father who gave his one and only Son to save people like him. No wonder Luther came back to this psalm time and time again, especially when plagued with a sense of failure-‘If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? 4But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.’

But you might be sitting there thinking, ‘Well, this might be OK for religious types, but I’m not religious. I will stick to my psychotherapy thank you very much- at least my personal self-help form of it!’ But that reaction fails to understand the relation between our sense of lack of peace and our lack of peace with God due to our sin. A number of years ago, Dr Hobart Mowrer who was research Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, drew attention to this connection and wrote: ‘Just so long as a person lives under the shadow of real, unacknowledged, and unexpiated guilt, he cannot…’accept himself’…He will continue to hate himself and to suffer the inevitable consequences of self- hatred. But the moment he….begins to accept his guilt and his sinfulness, the possibility of radical reformation opens up, and with this… a new freedom of self-respect and peace.’ Now could it be that you are here this morning and you are finding it difficult to live with yourself, accept yourself, that in fact, you don’t very much like yourself? If so, could I ask you whether the real, underlying problem is that you have not yet found peace with God? You have never come to him, the one you have offended and hurt the most and admitted your guilt and rebellion and sought the mercy he freely offers to you through the death of his Son? And so why not seek that this morning? At the end of this talk I am going to allow some space of quite so that you can do that, just you and God talking one-to one. Ask for his forgiveness; plead for his acceptance and healing balm by giving your life to the Lord Jesus Christ. Remember Luther’s experience? ‘I felt as if had been reborn and had gone through the open doors of paradise.’ This leads on to our final point:

The experience which issues in proclamation, vv7-8, ‘O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. 8He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.’ The Psalmist isn’t interested in having a private experience of God and the forgiveness and healing he brings- he wants others to know it too, hence this call to the rest of God’s people. That was what happened to Martin Luther; he found the message of free and total forgiveness and redemption so overwhelmingly wonderful that he just had to give his whole life over to telling other people about it. As a result the Gospel swept through Europe like wildfire and people were set free from the tyranny of a corrupt church and given the certainty of heaven. Do you feel your sins are too great? God is greater still. Do you think you are too far gone that no one can possibly reach you? God has gone deeper still- literally to hell and back in Jesus his Son. We live in a world which is wounded and crying out for some form of restoring balm. The problem is it looks in every place but the right place- God.  Just listen to this testimony of a woman who did find the freedom which Christ gives, which is so unlike any of the so called ‘freedoms’ you will read about today, because what is often offered are false freedoms, the freedom to do what you like, whereas Jesus Christ gives true freedom, the freedom to do what you should: ‘Before I came here, I was involved in a life of sexual fun and games and in a real sense I felt good. It was exciting. Since I have decided to truly commit myself to Christ, I’ve found that life ahs become a struggle. The worldly life was easier and happier than the Christian life. But I wouldn’t go back for anything. There’s no turning around. I’ve tasted reality. Painful though it sometimes is, I want more. It’s what life is all about. For the first time in my life, I feel truly alive, tuned in. I’m together. It hurts like blazes, but it’s worth it, because now I’m a person.’ That can be your experience too as we pray.

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