Psalm 116: 1-4, 12-19
I had planned on preaching from 1 Peter during this Easter season, but I’ve been drawn to the Psalms during this pandemic. I would have enjoyed exploring some of the intricacies of 1 Peter, but the Psalms speak to where we are right now. They invite us to pray and even cry out in lament. They offer us opportunities to grieve and even complain. They also invite us to share words of thanksgiving even in difficult times.
Psalm 116 is a song of thanksgiving that begins with a declaration of faith: “I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications.” This song of thanksgiving doesn’t come during a time of abundance. No, the Psalmist makes this declaration of faith even as the “snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” It’s at this point that the Psalmist called on the Lord and prayed, asking God to “save my life.” As we continue this season of uncertainty, when the snares of death seem to encompass us, the Psalmist invites us to draw close to God, who hears our prayers.
The realities of this crisis have hit home this week as we lost one of our own. Jim Bird may have moved away to be closer to his family, but he was still one of our own. Now, he has passed away due to the virus. So, we grieve with his family, even as we cry out, asking God to save us in our time of “distress and anguish.”
The story of Moses’ encounter with the Burning Bush is a good reminder that God hears our cries. When Moses went to check out the bush, he heard God call to him: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings” (Ex 3:1-12
). When it comes to God’s knowledge of suffering, we might give heed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words of wisdom, which he wrote from prison: “The Bible directs people toward the powerlessness and the suffering of God; only the suffering God can help” [Bonhoeffer Works, 8:479
]. It is to the suffering God that we cry out, asking that God would save us.
It’s good to remember that God relied on Moses to deliver the people of God. Yes, God used the one whom Jochabed saved from Pharaoh’s hand by hiding Moses in the reeds along the Nile, and whom Pharaoh’s daughter raised. Yes, the suffering God heard the cries of the people and turned to Moses to save them. How might God be using us in this moment?
As we ponder our own calling at this moment, it’s good to remember that we don’t go on this journey alone. The message of Easter is that the power of death did not reign victorious. We can declare our love of God who hears our prayers, even when the “snares of death encompass me” because we know that the sting of death has been overcome in the resurrection.
While this is true, we still feel the sting of death. The Psalmist reminds us that God continues to feel this sting as well. This truth is revealed in verse 15, which reads in the NRSV as “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” I’m not sure what to make of that translation, but the translation in the Tanakh, seems clearer to me: “The death of his faithful ones is grievous in the LORD’s sight.” Yes, I do believe that God grieves the deaths we are witnessing. That’s because, as one commentator’s alternate translation suggests, “costly in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” Nevertheless, even in the midst of moments like this, the Psalmist invites us to respond to God’s loving embrace with a thank offering. Even as God grieves the deaths we witness, we can sing “Hallelujah ”because we know God hears our prayers.
The call of Moses reminds us that even as we declare our love for God, we’re not to remain passive in the face of our current situation. When Moses heard God’s call, he and his family headed back to Egypt to take on Pharaoh. But before he could do that he had to convince the people that God had heard their cries and had sent him to lead them out of bondage.
The journey ahead is an uncertain one. We may find ourselves wandering for a while longer in the wilderness, but the good news is that God hears us. Because the God who suffers with us hears our prayers, we can declare our love of God and lift up a sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving to God.
As Peter writes in his letter, we can love each other because we have been born anew of “imperishable seed through the enduring word of God”:
Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable, but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Pet. 1:22-23).
As we continue this journey of uncertainty, let us declare our love of God, who loves us deeply. Let us show our love of God by loving one another by doing everything we can to keep each other safe.
Then we can also sing boldly:
“The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!(Chalice Hymnal #221)
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 26, 2020