April 18, 2014: Psalm 22

April 21, 2014

Year A, Good Friday                                    
            It has been a dark week.  It started with the shooting at a Jewish Community Center.  The motivation is not completely transparent, but it would seem that it was murder motivated by hate.  This week was also the anniversary of the shooting at Virginia Tech and the bombing at the Boston Marathon only one year ago.  Then there is the Korean ferry that sunk leaving almost 300 trapped and most likely dead.  Unfortunately, this is only a piece of the devastating things that are happening around the world.  It seems at times that it is not just a dark week, but a dark time.
            Yet we all know that there have been many dark times in our history.  Psalm 22 speaks eloquently to that darkness.   The Psalm begins with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”  At another point he says, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast…”
            You cannot help but wonder what the author of this Psalm was going through.  Was it a horrible disease, an emotional breakdown, war….? We will probably never know what it was.  What we do know is that it was unrelenting.  Despite the changes in tone throughout the Psalm, there is no evidence that things ever changed for the better. 
            We also know that whatever he was going through led him to believe that he had been utterly abandoned by God. He was calling out to God, but God was not answering.  Verse 1 says, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”  The literal translation for the Hebrew word that is translated to groaning is actually roaring.  This man was literally roaring his prayers, his pleas.  And he was getting no answer. It wasn’t just that he was abandoned.  He was ignored as well.
            In the course of the Psalm he tries to comfort himself with past memories of God’s faithfulness, but it seems as though those memories just remind him of how alone he is now. However, at verse 21, something changes.  “Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.”  The tone changes from desolation to praise.  What happened? Did the people stop mocking him? Were his bones put back into joint? It doesn’t say that.  In fact, the words the Psalmist uses are very subtle.  “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.”  Many scholars say that a better translation for the word rescued is actually answered. I suspect they used rescued because it makes more sense in the context of a verse about wild oxen.  However, in the context of the Psalm as a whole, answered fits a lot better. The root of this man’s suffering was not these horrible things that were happening to him, but God’s response to his pleas, his roars was silence.  Finally, God had listened and answered. Or perhaps, finally, this man was desperate enough to listen.
            I cannot help but wonder that if nothing in his life changed, how he suddenly knew that God was listening.  Was there a voice from the heavens?  Was there a sudden peace that overwhelmed him? Or maybe something small, seemingly inconsequential changed, just enough to give him that space for hope.  In times of darkness like this when all we see is hate and violence, we look for a ray of light, something that indicates that good will overcome evil.  Yet if we keep looking for something that tangible, we will probably get very discouraged. 
            Each one of us has some darkness in our life.  It might not be as dramatic as the things that are happening in our nation and our world, but as Christians, we carry that worldly darkness with us, even when we think we already have enough in our own lives.  It can be overwhelming and heartbreaking at times.  I often hear Christians called “Easter people or people of the resurrection.”  That may be true, but we are Easter people living in Good Friday.   The challenge of living in Good Friday/living in these dark times is discovering God’s devotion to us, even in the midst of despair and suffering.  
            The moment that the psalmist transitions to more praise and hope is also the moment when he discovers the support of his faith community…or perhaps the existence of his faith community.  Right after he talks about being saved from the horns of the wild oxen, he writes, “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you…”  It is immensely difficult to be Easter people when Good Friday seems to last forever.  That is why we have the community of the faithful, to remind us that God is with us even in the darkest of times.  Before the service started on Palm Sunday, we had to move the cross into the sanctuary.  I said to the person doing it, “I will help you, we can do it together.”  He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “You can’t carry this cross with 2 people.”  It’s true.  That cross requires 4 or 5 people to carry it.  We are Easter people living in Good Friday, and we are carrying that cross, anticipating the resurrection together.