The glad news

Psalm 40
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Today I'd like to focus on a couple of the things which are at the core of who we are as a Church.

This psalm is rooted in testimony. The Lord heard my cry, he lifted me out of the mire, established me on solid ground, and gave me the gift of praise. There is a new and glorious song in my mouth. And I want to go tell it on the mountain, I want to tell everyone what God has done for me.

Those two words - for me - are so important to our life of faith. For Martin Luther, finally hearing these words in scripture helped him overcome his fears of being unworthy, and believe that God was on his side. God's work and God's love are not an abstract concept of theology - "for me" brings them up close and personal. "For me" takes God's saving action out of the future and makes it immediate, present, here and now.

God has been "gooder than good." God has acted on my behalf, delivering me from whatever pit I was in. While there are real enemies, so often we are complicit in our own destruction. Here we are able to recognize that "my iniquities have overtaken me." The combination of my own faults and those who wish me evil have brought me to despair: "my heart fails me."

We've talked enough that I've heard some of your stories, and God knows I've got some of my own. So many things can lead us astray, to believe we are isolated, shamed, which block our access to hope. The death of a loved one, loss of a home, pain, addiction, illness, legal troubles, persecution... Most of us have had times when things were bleak, when we felt we could not go on.

"Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me..." And so she did. The psalm does not detail the precise form of rescue. But it repeats, in multiple dimensions, God's personal act of salvation. I may have been in the depths - but you did not require me to be right. You did not ask me to act pious or perform rituals for you to draw near, to listen to my misery and hear my plea. You did not requre me to be better than I was, or better than I am, for you to reach out and lift me up.

You know how bad it was. My sins took over me. I suffered trouble after trouble. Against that, I have only your steadfast love. And that is everything.

You are changing my sight and my insight. No longer can I give any credit to what the world worships. Your Word has become part of me. And I can't hide that even if I wanted to.

You, O God, are what I proclaim. Your mercy, your power, your wonders-worked. I cannot forget, nor keep silent about, how you delivered me. For no reason other than your love.

This is the story the church tells over and over again, the old old story that is new again each time we stand up and declare God's salvation, made real in our sight and in our lives. This is what awakens hope, what quickens faith, whether we are heading it for the first time, or as our thousandth drink from this ever-flowing spring.

Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who turn not to billionaires or political "saviors," not to drug or drink or lottery tickets, not to fake news or false hopes. God is the One who is worthy of our trust. Who God is, is for us.

Yet this is not a "one and done" story. One of the interesting features of this psalm is the way in which it moves back and forth, between praise and thanks for the deliverance which has already been achieved, and also makes a plea for help in the present tense. My need for your help, O Lord, continues in real time. I am still poor and needy. And still, the Lord "takes thought for me."

The Lord is my help. The Lord is my healer. The Lord is my shepherd, my guide, my protector. And the Lord is my Salvation.

So let me sing that new song from my heart, again this day. God has done this all for me. How great thou art!

[The congregation moved directly into singing the hymn "How Great Thou Art.]

NOTE: The bulk of this sermon comes from a reflection on Psalm 40, on my blog, Praying the Psalms, which at this writing includes pieces on 103 psalms.

Credits:
Chris Hunkeler, Belting Out the Vocals, Reuben M. Koroma of the Refugee All Stars, August 10, 2012. Used under (CC BY 2.0). The Refugee All Stars is a band formed by already accomplished musicians when war forced them from their homeland into the border camps of Guinea. Discovering one another and forging a musical family, they began entertaining other camp residents. Since their return to Sierra Leone after the civil war, they band has toured to raise awareness for humanitarian causes.

"The Message" translation, by Eugene Peterson, was particularly helpful for me in shifting how I heard the psalm.

* New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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