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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 3/8

“You who fear the Lord, give praise!  All you of Jacob’s line, give glory.”  That seems a long way from “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  If you saw Psalm 22 in the bulletin this morning and thought, that number rings a bell, it is perhaps because Psalm 22 is the Maundy Thursday Psalm, the one that is chanted during the stripping of the altar at the end of that service, for those who are there, one of the most moving moments of the church year.  If you go to the Good Friday Seven Last Words service, “My God my God; why have you forsaken me?” is one of the words that Jesus speaks from the cross as he uses this quote from Psalm 22.

As the verses appointed for today were chanted though, you perhaps noticed that they are essentially a hymn of praise; “In the midst of the congregation I will praise you; You who fear the Lord, give praise; from you comes my praise in the great assembly; let those who seek the Lord give praise, all the families of nations shall bow down before God.”  Again, it seems a long way from “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?”  We seem to be out of the wilderness I talked about last week, fully at that Psalm 150 point of absolute praise.

The question is, how did the psalmist get there, from forsakenness to praise?  In this psalm it happens very abruptly so that instead of the scorn of others and the threat of evil doers, he is now surrounded by brothers and sisters in praise and in faith.  Instead of fear of death there is hope for eternal life.  How did he get from a prayer for help to praise?  How did that happen?  How did he move from agony to ecstasy?

There is no one answer to that question.  In the experience of many of the psalmists though, it did happen and from our own experience we too know that it does happen.  We do move from those times when the world seems to have crumbled around us, when losses are experienced that seem unfair and make us angry with God, lost in the wilderness, but then…something happens; something changes that brings us back to that point of praise.  Maybe the genius of a psalm like Psalm 22 is that it doesn’t tell us how it happened; instead it allows us to fill in the blank, in this case a blank that occurs in the middle of verse 21, where suddenly it seems that the prayer of lament is answered. 

The truth of it is though, when we experience this move from lament to praise, a lot of the time I don’t think we can articulate just what it was that caused the change.  Most likely it’s a gradual thing, it happens over time, but at some point you do suddenly realize that the world looks different.  You can smile again; you can laugh again; you can praise God again and it’s real, it’s honest. 

What a psalm like Psalm 22 suggests though, is that lament is part of the process, because God’s response comes in the midst of the affliction not just after it’s over.  So there is a need to honestly acknowledge the pain and its source, even if the source is perceived to be God.  This acknowledgement and complaint constitute an act of faith.  It’s recognition that God is involved, God is a player and God is able to change the situation.  Lament is part of the process, but popular Christian piety that says that we should praise God no matter what, makes it hard for many to do this though even though the psalms show us how.

It also makes it hard for some to be part of the congregation and another thing that Psalm 22 suggests is that the congregation is important in the movement from lament to praise.  The community has a role to play.  We gather together to hear the stories of God’s salvation and to experience Christ in the bread and wine of Holy Communion because we are a community not of perfect people but imperfect people, all with our own struggles, all at different points on the journey from lament to praise. It’s important to know that even if you feel all alone in your lament, you’re not; others are with you; while everyone’s experience is unique, there are common elements.  And in the community that gathers there are also those who have made it out of the wilderness of grief and lament and we draw strength from their experiences.  And we all draw strength from remembering and hearing again about God’s promises.

Perhaps it is remembrance of God’s promises that moves the psalmist from lament to praise.  Again, we don’t really know but those promises are central to our faith and they are prominent in today’s first lesson from Genesis and in the second reading where Paul reviews the same promises made to Abraham and to Sarah, promises to be exceedingly fruitful and to make nations of you which is about the promise of land; but in today’s verses from Genesis, as we think about today’s psalm, what we might pay closest attention to is the promise “to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” 

A lot of what we have in the psalms is the writers of them going back to this promise “to be God to you.”  When they complain it is a call for God to be God to them, to be who you are supposed to be…and note their understanding of who God is supposed to be.  The psalms fully recognize the potential for God’s anger and punishment, that side of God is there in the text; but their complaint and ultimately their praise is for the God who is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love (hesed).  That’s the God they turn to.  It’s praise for the God who hears and who answers prayers.  Don’t underestimate that. 

Much of the praise in the psalms is praise simply for the fact that God hears prayer especially when things are at their worst.   “For the Lord does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty neither is the Lord’s face hidden from them, but when they cry out, the Lord hears them.”  Conversely there is anguish when God seems not to hear, “O my God I cry by day, but you do not answer.”  For the psalmist God’s absence is unbearable but when Psalm 22 is uttered by Jesus from the cross he shows that faith includes holding the worst of life up to God because of God’s promise to be God, to hear and to answer.

Psalms like Psalm 22 that move from agony to ecstasy, from lament to praise are evidence of a central conviction of our faith that such change does happen.  The psalms in their entirety witness to the fact that life is transformed, which is one reason they have been called the gospel in a nutshell.  In Christian language the psalms witness to the truth of the move from Friday to Sunday, from death to resurrection, the move that is at the center of our faith, a move that our Lenten journey will finally bring us to in a few more weeks.

The psalms however are not naïve about this move.  It’s not a simple, straight line process where once you’re out of the wilderness and at that point of honest praise that you’ll never be back in the wilderness again.  It’s not that simple.  In talking about another psalm similar to this one Martin Luther said it creates a mood in which “hope despairs and despair hopes all at the same time.”  I think we can find our identity in those words wherever we might be in the journey; hope despairs and despair hopes.

Simultaneously we are the anxious, fearful, dying person at the beginning of Psalm 22, a person who can’t find God where he thinks God should be, but we’re also the person who knows that he or she is called and named by God, in Christ, the person who shares resurrection life with Christ, the person who can say with the psalmist “I will proclaim your deliverance to a people yet unborn saying to them, ‘The Lord has acted!’”

A psalm like Psalm 22 witnesses to the reality of life that agony and ecstasy go together, suffering and hope go together.  It tells us that the crucified Jesus is the risen Lord and the risen Lord is the crucified Jesus.  It tells us that like Jesus, we don’t get to Sunday without going through Friday, without taking up our cross.  The psalms take us on this journey of faith, sometimes in lament, sometimes in praise, but always with the promise of God to be God to us.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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