How Long, O Lord?
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We’re going from praise to lament. From joy to pain. What do you think of when you hear the word “lament”? Lament may not be something we’ve heard a lot about in churches. But it has its place in life and has its place in our prayer lives. Let us look at this Psalm of lament this morning and see what God may have to say to our hearts.
I’ve been talking about the Psalms as Israel’s prayer book and Israel’s song book. One of these prayer forms is the lament, or the prayer for help as it’s sometimes called. The prayer of lament is never a bad thing. It’s never a bad thing to name to God what is causing us to lament. I would go so far as to say it’s never a bad idea to complain to God. As I like to say God knows anyway and he wants us to be honest with him. When we’re turning to God in lament, we’re turning to God – not turning away from God. Many of you know that I listen to a lot of blues music, and like to play a lot of blues. Many people will say “How can you listen to that? Doesn’t it make you sad?” The thing is there’s a thing about blues that’s almost kind of triumphant. In the midst of adverse circumstances, you’re still able to sing! It’s much like the Psalm or prayer of lament. In the midst of adverse circumstances, you’re still praying. Still turning to God. So what does the prayer of lament look like?
Psalm 13 is a wonderful concise example of such a prayer. It’s known as a Psalm of David. We don’t know what circumstances surrounded the prayer, but I think that’s fitting. It makes the prayer universal. A timeless model for how to turn toward God in times of trouble. The first section of the prayer is the psalmist’s complaint. Note how the complaint begins. In the first line of the prayer the name of the Lord is invoked. You know that when we see LORD spelled out in caps like this in our NRSV Bibles it signifies “YAHWEH” – the name that God gave way back when Moses asked “Who will I tell them sent me?” The name that signified God’s revelation to the people of Israel. The name that signified God’s saving initiative toward the people of Israel while they were in slavery in Egypt. “How long, O Lord?” How long, O YAHWEH. At the beginning of the prayer, the psalmist is signifying that any such prayer that we bring before God is made possible because of God’s saving initiative toward us. As one writer puts it – “Prayer arises because God has first taken the initiative to call forth faith.”
The fitting and proper response, then, to situations that cause us sorrow or grief, is to come before God with our sorrows and our griefs. This turning toward God - calling God’s name as the one who has reached out to us. This being honest with God about how we are feeling. How necessary is this kind of turning toward God? In the life of our world. What’s going on? What’s gone wrong? Situations will arise in our lives that cause us grief and sorrow. If it hasn’t happened to you already know that it will. I think that’s why we need to talk about lamenting. We need to talk about it in our churches. We need to talk about it with our young people. It’s an honest response to the vicissitudes of life, and there will be vicissitudes in all of our lives. They’re not something for us to ignore or gloss over.
There may even be times when it feels that God is far from us. Christ himself prayed a psalm of lament on the cross. A lot of debate has arisen about whether or not Jesus really was forsaken by God and whether or not that’s even possible (and that will give you something to talk about over lunch if you like) but whatever was going on in those moments on the cross there is no doubt that Christ felt God forsaken. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the prayer of Psalm 22 that he cried out or whispered out or gasped out.
This is the trouble that the Psalmist cries out in Psalm 13. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” How long will you hide your face from me? I don’t understand why this is happening to me. He’s not talking about God forgetting who he is. He’s talking about God showing favour. When we ask this question we don’t ask it expecting a reply necessarily. It’s rather an affirmation that remembering us is what God does. God remembers us. God shows us his favour. In Genesis 8:1 we read that God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him on the ark. Remember the story of Joseph where Pharaoh’s chief cup bearer forgets Joseph after Joseph helps him and gets him out of prison. But God was with Joseph. God didn’t forget. Years later Egypt has a new pharaoh who forgets who Joseph was, but we read “God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The thief dying beside Jesus prayed – “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me because I know that’s what you do. The complaint of the Psalmist is “How long will you hide your face from me?” It feels, Lord, like you are far from me right now. The psalmist is feeling pained because he doesn’t feel God’s presence in his situation.
He’s also feeling pain from within. “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” He’s feeling pain from without. “How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Exalted. The same word we looked at last week to talk about God being lifted up. The psalmist’s enemies are lifted up above him. So, trouble is coming from every conceivable direction - the psalmist’s relationship with God, within himself, and from other people. The psalmist asks “How long?” I don’t think that the psalmist is actually looking for a time frame on this when he asks “How long” or “Will you forget me forever?” any more than we really mean it when we say something is taking “Forever!” The significance of voicing these complaints and questions in prayer is to bring them to God. Not to let perceived alienation from God, trouble in our hearts and minds, or trouble from outside ourselves result in us turning away from God, but rather a turning toward and crying out “How long…” Complaining.
We don’t stop there in our prayer of lament. The complaint is the part of the prayer that’s been called a deep sigh. The next thing we do is ask. The “ask”. The petition. “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God.” “Consider” might be better translated “look.” It’s not simply a passing glance for which the psalmist pleads. Look at me. See me. Gaze on me. Answer me! O Lord – naming YAHWEH again. Calling on God’s name as one who has delivers. This is what you do Lord, you deliver, you redeem, you bring life from death. Calling on the Lord’s name for us, from a post-Easter perspective, means calling on the one who has delivered us though Christ. Calling on the Lord as “mine” – “O Lord, my God!” – not to be selfish or arrogant about it but to affirm in our prayer that we belong to him.
“Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death…” Asking God to give us light when we’re walking in the shadow of death. Affirming that in God is where we find life. In God’s light is our life. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death. In you is life, God, give light to my eyes. There is an OT image of God turning his face toward us, letting the light of his face shine on us. “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.” In the light of God’s face is our life. The psalmist is praying that God would do this for him. Can I tell you something? When you’re asking God this kind of thing, and asking often, it’s going to change you. It might not necessarily change your situation. At the end of the Psalm there’s no indication that the situation has changed. The change has come about in the inner disposition of the one who is praying. To pray “Give light to my eyes or I will sleep the sleep of death” – in other words “Let the light of your face shine upon me because it is only in you that I may find life abundant – fullness of life, life lived the way it was meant for us to live it in loving communion with God and one another and God’s creation.” Praying this will change us. Have you known that? I believe that with all my heart and I’ve seen it.
It’s kind of funny because it looks in this section as if the Psalmist is trying to convince God as to why his prayer should be answered. “If I sleep the sleep of death, then my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.” I don’t tend to think so much it’s because God needs reminding. I think it’s more to remind us. In God there is life. David in this Psalm might be talking about real enemies who would rejoice over his death. Who are our enemies? As I said not long ago our enemies are never people. Despite what you might hear on the news or from political pundits. Our enemies are the powers and principalities. Our enemies are hate, fear, greed, poverty, injustice. Christ has won the victory over these enemies hasn’t he? He’s won the victory, he’s winning the victory, he will win the victory. It’s hard to see sometimes. We need to be reminded. We’re reminded when we pray prayers like these. Look at me Lord. Answer me Lord. Give light to my eyes. Give me life. I don’t want to live a life separate from you, apart from you. I’m yours. Don’t let the enemy say “I have prevailed” and rejoice because I’m shaken. You’ve prevailed. That’s what you do. You’ve promised that those who trust in you will never be put to shame or shaken. Just look at Psalm 125:1-2.
Which leads to the final part of the prayer of lament. Confident trust. “But I trusted in your steadfast love.” This might better be translated “trust in your steadfast love”. It’s an ongoing thing. But I trust in your steadfast love. In the second section the concern was for what the psalmist’s foes might do. Now the psalmist is talking about what’s he’s going to do himself. What his intention is. His intention is to trust in the steadfast love of God. That word hesed again. God’s steadfast love. God’s mercy. God’s loving-kindness. We don’t have one word sufficient to describe it. One commentator says that this lament goes from anguished complaint, to anxious prayer, to calm trust. I love that. Calm trust. Don’t we need this in our days? In the original word order God’s hesed precedes our trust. God has shown the initiative in loving us with a steadfast love. For the psalmist the fitting and proper response to this love is trust. Has your trust in God or God’s promises ever been misplaced? We trust in a God who has time and time again proven himself to be trustworthy, don’t we? We’ve talked about this quite a bit over the past months here. What promises of God have been most meaningful to you? Peace? Accompaniment? Upholding? Transformation? Replacing your heart of stone with a heart of flesh? How have you seen these promises born out in your life? What meaning does this trust take on when we’re finding ourselves in situations in which we’re rightly complaining to God and pleading with him to consider us?
I trusted in your steadfast love. I trust in your steadfast love. My heart will rejoice in your salvation. I know that whatever is causing me to lament is not going to be the last word. I will praise you in advance. It’s like thanking someone in advance. You know how we do that as a subtle signal to get people to do things? I’m going to trust and praise and thank you in advance Lord because I know what you’re like, that you love me with a steadfast love and that you’re going to have the last word. My heart will rejoice in your salvation. This salvation is not just for us personally, it’s for all of creation. I am going to trust that in Christ you have reconciled and are reconciling and one day will reconcile all things to yourself, and my heart will rejoice. I also want to join in on this reconciling action. It’s what’s been going on last week in Lawrence Heights. It’s going to happen this week in Lawrence Heights too. At Horizons For Youth too. We’ll sing too. I will sing to the Lord and I’ll keep turning to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me. This is the God that we serve my friends. May these things be true for us all.