In the words of Isaac Watts’ hymn, which we sang earlier this morning, we capture the message
of Psalm 77:
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.
When times of trouble strike, and they will strike, where do you turn? To whom do you look for guidance and protection? Do you turn to God, who is “our help in ages past, our hope for years to come?”
As we have been moving through the Psalms, we’ve discovered that they invite us to cry out in laments. They give us permission to rage and complain. It’s okay that our souls refuse to be comforted. It’s not a sin to have doubts. Here in Psalm 77 the Psalmist cries out to God demanding to be heard. After issuing a torrent of complaints, the Psalmist then remembers that God has been our help in ages past. Recognizing the prospect that life can be challenging, Martin Luther wrote a hymn that picked up on another Psalm, Psalm 46, where he also affirmed God’s strong presence in the face of difficulty. This hymn is a favorite of many, who sing boldly: “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”
I’ve not yet had a chance to hear or read Rick’s sermon from last Sunday, but I’ve heard from several people that he spoke passionately about Orlando and what this event means for people who are gay and lesbian. When we go through times such as these, where do we turn? Cliches that declare “don’t worry, be happy,” simply won’t suffice.
As we read the Psalms, we often get this feeling of divine absence. God appears to be far away. In the verses that were omitted from Psalm 77 by the lectionary we hear the Psalmist cry out:
“Will my Lord reject me forever? Will he never be pleased again?
Has his faithful love come to a complete end?
Is his promise over for future generations?
Has God forgotten how to be gracious?
Has he angrily stopped up his compassion?” (Ps. 77:8-10 CEB)
Nevertheless, even if God seems absent, we’re invited to seek the Lord. We cry out: “in the day of my trouble I seek the Lord.”
While we were spared the rage against God present in verses 3-10, in verse 11 the Psalm acknowledges that God has been present and active. The community is invited to call to mind God’s deeds and “wonders of old.” The Psalmist remembers how God acted powerfully on behalf of the people; how God redeemed the “descendants of Jacob and Joseph.” The Psalmist calls to mind a very specific occasion – the Exodus from Egypt, when God led the people through the waters of the Sea to freedom. God led the people of Israel through the sea, even though God’s footprints remained unseen. So, how did God lead the people through the sea? According to the Psalmist, God used Moses and Aaron — and I would add their sister Miriam — to guide them through the sea, redeeming them from slavery.
Things happen in life that remain unexplainable. Why does a man go into a nightclub and kill forty-nine people and wound fifty-three others? If you’ve been following the story of Orlando, you know that the answers are complicated. There’s a mixture of religion and hatred, perhaps even self-hatred, as well as possible mental health issues, tied into possible terrorist motives. Politics likes to simplify things, but life is anything but simple.
This past week we watched as the Brits decided by a rather small margin to exit the European Union, throwing the financial markets into a tailspin. That one event caused global confusion and anxiety. Many wonder why all this occurred? To whom do we look for guidance?
The Psalmist invites us to turn to God. But, if we do turn to God, how will God answer our request? Quite often when we pray, we expect direct divine intervention. We want God to step in, sort of like Superman, and save us from our dangers. But is this what the Psalmist is thinking of?
Many of us grew up watching one form or another of cartoons and shows about super-heroes ranging from Wonder Woman to Superman, from Spiderman to Batman. Whenever Gotham City was under attack by one villain or another, Commissioner Gordon would put out the bat signal, and Batman would appear to save the day. One of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons growing up was “Underdog.” When trouble appeared, “Shoeshine Boy” turned into “Underdog.” When Underdog appeared on the scene he would declare “Never fear, Underdog is here.” Part of us wants God to be Underdog or Wonder Woman or Superman, but is that how God is present?
I found an interesting clue present near the end of the Psalm – that reference to the unseen footprints of God as God led the people through the sea. God’s footprints might be absent, but the Psalmist acknowledges that God’s presence was seen in the leadership of Moses and Aaron, along with the unnamed leadership of Miriam.
When we find ourselves in times of trouble, it’s important to remember our stories, stories of when we saw God at work. What those stories likely reveal is that God works in partnership with us. Theologian Tom Oord has written about the “uncontrolling love of God
.” He makes the rather uncomfortable suggestion that since love defines God’s nature, God cannot act coercively. Therefore, because of this love, God cannot prevent evil – except as God works in willing partnership with creation. So, when it comes to the sea, the implications of Oord’s theology is that God invites the very elements that make up the sea to part so that Israel can cross on dry land. But God also worked with and through Moses and Aaron and Miriam to redeem Israel.
It’s good to remember that the people of Israel didn’t walk through the Sea and right into the Promised Land. No, they left behind slavery in Egypt, but their journey continued. There were times of trouble ahead. Many wanted to turn back. When faced with the uncertainty of the journey ahead, sometimes the stability of slavery looked attractive. But Moses and Aaron, with fits and starts, kept their focus, and the people continued to move toward the Promised Land, although the journey took a lot longer than it could have!
If we are to seek the Lord in times of trouble, how does God respond to these challenges? Tom Oord speaks of God being an “omnipresent Spirit.” God is ever present, but we may not perceive God through our senses. However, if we pay attention we might catch a glimpse of God at work, and then we can join God in this work. We live in a rather individualist society. We like to think that we can do everything for ourselves. The message of scripture, however, is that God usually works in and through communities – like Israel and the church. Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ. It is through the church as a community that Christ is present and working toward the reconciliation of all things. There is a responsive motto that we use in DRIVE
to express what we’re up to. The leader will declare: “We need each other . . . ” The community will respond: “We are better together!” Then in the second phrase of this call to action, the leader calls out: “What we accomplish . . .” is answered with “We cannot do alone.” In essence, God wants us to understand that we are better together and that what we accomplish we cannot do alone. If Tom Oord is correct, God’s own actions depend on our response. It’s a challenging vision, but it can also be a very worthwhile vision.
When we encounter times of trouble, God is there waiting for us to pursue that relationship. Yes, “God is here! As we your people meet to offer praise and prayer, may we find in fuller measure what it is in Christ we share” (Fred Pratt Green, CH 280).
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 26, 2016