Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a brief introduction to the Book of Psalms. He titled it The Prayerbook of the Bible, because he believed that these prayers form the foundation for all our prayers, especially when we offer them in the name of Jesus. This is what he wrote:
God’s speech in Jesus Christ meets us in the Holy Scriptures. If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God. [Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible, DBW, 5:156].
We approach God with prayers and hymns drawn from Scripture, offering words of praise and thanksgiving, as well as lamentation and complaint.
When you read through the Psalms, you discover that they cover almost every situation under the sun. So, when we go to God, with this book of prayers and hymns as our guide, we find words that help us to speak to God. These hymns and prayers give us permission to speak honestly about our life situations. They speak of joy and love and grace, but also of anger, vengeance, and even abandonment. But, even in those cases where the Psalmist cries out “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” there is an accompanying word of trust and hope. So, in the case of Psalm 22, the prayer concludes with the words:
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it (Ps. 22:30-31).
The Psalms have played an important role in both Jewish and Christian worship down through the ages, and so its worth spending some time with them. So, for much of the summer we will be focusing our attention on the lectionary readings from the Psalms. Since the Psalms require our participation to get the full effect, we will share them responsively, as we did today.
This morning we shared together in the reading from the 138th Psalm, which begins with a declaration of thanksgiving and praise:
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise.
I bow down toward your holy Temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name and your word above everything.
In my mind’s eye, I see the Psalmist bowing before the Temple, singing God’s praise. The Psalmist does this because of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Yes, here is the foundation for all our prayers: God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. That doesn’t mean we get what we ask for on every occasion, but we can trust that God is loving and faithful.
When it comes to prayer, theology comes into play. How we pray depends on how we answer the questions: Who is God and how does God behave? Does God sweep in and take care of business, whenever God pleases? This is the interventionist model that offers a God who seems to answer prayers rather selectively. So, one person is healed of cancer and another dies from it. This makes God seem capricious, and besides, if God has the power to heal, then why doesn’t God heal everyone?
Perhaps the answer lies with a different view of God. Instead of envisioning an interventionist God, who answers some prayers and not others, maybe God is always here, walking with us in the challenging moments of our lives, and partnering with us to achieve mutually desired outcomes. This can be true, even if there are some things God cannot do for us. As the title of a recent book puts it: Does God Always Get What God Wants?
The author wrote this book as a reflection on his struggle with the death of his wife from cancer. As he processed her eventual death, he didn’t give up on God, even though what he prayed for didn’t come to pass. So, how do we stay true to God, even when things don’t go our way? How do we give thanks with grateful hearts in difficult times? While we may struggle with gratitude in these kinds of situations, there are reasons to remain grateful. Even in dark moments, we can see signs of hope.
Diana Butler Bass recently wrote a book about giving thanks called Grateful. Diana confesses that she struggles with gratefulness, and I don’t think she’s alone in this. Even if our parents drilled into us the need to say thank you that doesn’t mean it comes easily. Diana points out that gratitude is experienced through emotions and ethics. Emotions have to do with our feelings when we receive gifts. Ethics has to do with our actions in response to gifts, including the gifts of God. They function in our personal and our public lives—the me and the we. I highly recommend Diana’s book, but I can’t do justice to it in a sermon. What I can say is that it speaks to our times, especially the challenge of giving thanks in the midst of difficult situations. [Grateful
The Psalmist appears to write this Psalm while experiencing one of those challenging moments. The Psalmist confesses that “though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.” This doesn’t mean that God swept in and rescued the Psalmist or us, but I do believe that God is there to partner with us, empowering us to pursue what is right and what is good, even when the forces of evil are at the door.
We hear this word in our opening hymn:
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not, thy compassion, they fail not;
as thou hast been thou forever wilt be.
There is a reason why this hymn is so beloved. It reminds us that God faithful and true. To say that God doesn’t change doesn’t mean that God doesn’t respond to us, but it does mean that God’s character, God’s faithfulness and love, are steadfast and unchanging. That is a good word to hear in times of trouble. So, even in the most difficult of situations, we can sing out: “Great is thy faithfulness.”
Giving thanks in times of trouble doesn’t mean we give thanks for the trouble we experience. I once heard a preacher who told the congregation that they should be thankful when they find themselves in difficult situations. That means that God has confidence in them. He told us that God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, so rejoice always, including when God sends bad things your way. That’s because God knows you can handle it. I must say, that’s really bad theology. I don’t think that God sends cancer, domestic violence, depression, or oppression our way, because God thinks we can handle it. But, I do believe, that God’s love is steadfast and that God is faithful, and that God is present with us even when walk through dark valleys.
Let us hear once again from Diana Butler Bass, who writes:
Gratitude at its deepest and perhaps most transformative level, is not warm feelings about what we have. Instead, gratitude is the deep ability to embrace the gift of who we are, that we are, that in the multibillion-year history of the universe each one of us has been born, can love, grows in awareness, and has a story. Life is a gift. When that mystery fills our hearts, it overwhelms us and a deep river of emotions flows forth—feelings we barely knew we were capable of holding. [Grateful, p. 42-43]
The Psalmist didn’t give thanks for times of trouble or the wrath of enemies. The Psalmist gave thanks because God’s steadfast love endures forever. As one commentator puts it, there is a “fundamental ambiguity that characterizes the Psalm.” The Psalmist seems to recognize that “we shall always find ourselves simultaneously professing God’s deliverance (v. 3) and praying for God’s deliverance (vs. 8c) — ‘thine is the kingdom’ and ‘thy kingdom come.’” [J. Clinton McCann, “Psalms,” NIB, 4:1233].
God has delivered us and God will deliver us, for God’s kingdom is here and yet it is still on the horizon. It’s because there is more to come, that God invites us to participate in acts of kingdom building that will transform the world. When Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ, he envisions the community partnering with God in pursuit of God’s realm. We are, as it has been said, God’s hands and feet. This is our calling, but we do not undertake it alone. We go forth in the power and presence of God’s unfettered Spirit, sharing in God’s work of liberation.
As we experience God’s empowering presence even in times of trouble, we can join the people who head to the Temple to offer words of thanksgiving. Or, as Psalm 100 declares:
Make joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
come into God’s presence with singing.
This act of praise brings with it a word of encouragement:
The Lord will fufill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands. (Ps. 138:8).
Let us give thanks, with grateful hearts, because we are, as part of God’s creation, the work of God’s hands. I believe God will not forsake that work!