Grace Presbyterian Church
February 25, 2018, Lent 2B
Psalm 22:23-31 (because so much of the psalm is cited, the whole psalm is linked)
A Psalm of Presence
Today’s reading comes from one of the most well-known lament psalms to be found in this whole collection. You wouldn’t know it from what we read together, though.
It is true, though. Psalm 22 is most well known for its opening words – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words were among the “seven last words,” the different things Jesus was recorded as having said while on the cross, according to the different gospel accounts. This particular saying is recorded both in Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 (the latter probably borrowing from the former).
It isn’t just that first verse that makes Psalm 22 stand out. Many of the images evoked in this psalm give pause, so full they are of sorrow, fear, desperation, degradation, and even horror. Listen to some of these found in the first two-thirds of this chapter:
Verse 2: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest…”
Verse 6: “But I am a worm, and not human…”
Verses 14-15: “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; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”
Verse 16-18: “My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. … they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (You might also recognize that last phrase from the crucifixion accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John.)
Even for psalms of lament, those are striking and even overwhelming images of everything bad that can happen to a human being, and some we can’t even imagine, really. “I am poured out like water”? It stretches the mind beyond its capacity to imagine. There are those halfhearted attempts at faithful talk, in verses 3-5, and again in 9-11. But overwhelmingly, this is a dark, harrowing psalm.
And yet… and yet, and yet, and yet: “You who fear the Lord, praise him!”
Where did that come from?
There are, upon closer observation, two major differences (besides the emotional tone) between the early, lamenting two-thirds of the psalm and the rejoicing final third. Both of those differences, in fact, can be captured in one word: presence, or its opposite, absence.
The first parts of the psalm are about absence. Clearly, in the mind of the psalmist, God is absent. That famous first verse makes that clear – “why have you forsaken me?” – and the psalm continues in that vein; “why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” Even when the psalmist tries to sing of God’s deeds, it’s all in the distance, as in verse 3 – “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” – lofty and far off. Or it’s all in the past, as in verse 9: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth…” Finally in verse 11 is the plea for return: “Do not be far from me…” God is not present, at least in the eyes or the mind or the heart of the psalmist.
God is not present, nor is anyone else. Notice all the first-person pronouns in this first part of the psalm; all either “I” or “me.” “…why have you forsaken me?” “I cry by day, but you do not hear…” “But I am a worm…” “Many bulls encircle me…” You get the idea; the sufferer is alone in his suffering. There is no community to which the psalmist is able to turn, apparently.
All of this changes starting, actually, in the last half of verse 21. God is present now, and acting to save: “from the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me…” or even more explicitly “he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” We don’t know what specifically happened, but somehow the singer has seen the Lord’s intervention and is no longer wallowing in misery; God is present, God has come, and the singer is restored.
Not just restored to the presence of God, but also restored to the presence of community. Suddenly the psalmist who was all ‘woe is me’ with the emphasis on the singular ‘me’ has practically turned into the choir director.
Verse 22: “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters” – where have they been all this time? and “in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
Verse 23: “You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him…”
Verse 25: “From you comes my praise in the great congregation … “
Finally the community expands out to “All the ends of the earth” in verse 27, and even into the future: “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord” in verse 30.
Presence of and with God, yes, but also presence of and with the people of God are the end result. It’s not so much a question of which is more important; in the end, the two inevitably come together. It is when both are restored that the singer is restored, drawn back from the precipice of despair and death.
Lent is one of those times in the life of the church that, for good or ill, puts a lot of emphasis on the individual and that person’s discipleship, repentance, self-examination and confession. Those should not be ignored; all of them are necessary and vital parts of not just Lenten observance, but any kind of growing and deepening spiritual life. But in the end, even those individual pursuits play out not as Lone Ranger-style quests, but as part of the church, part of the body of Christ, seeking to be bound together in worship and service and discipleship. Even when we go it alone, we don’t really go it alone after all. In the presence of God and the presence of the people of God, our joy is restored, and our praise can be sung.
This psalm, especially the opening verses, does return in the lectionary on Good Friday. That’s fitting, as both that opening sentence and the evocation of casting lots turn up in Good Friday gospel readings. But we won’t hear only that lamenting, despairing part of the psalm; the Good Friday lectionary reading includes the whole psalm, right down to this song of praise. And when Jesus cries out that awful cry on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – that isn’t the only part of the psalm that rings in the air. A good Jewish listener of that time would have read this account and brought to mind not just that opening sentence, but the whole psalm, the progress from lament to praise. May it be even so with us, from lament to praise, knowing the presence of God in the presence of the people of God.
For knowing both kinds of presence, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #543, God Be the Love to Search and Keep Me; #165, The Glory of These Forty Days
(For the curious: the picture is of a roseate spoonbill in the midst of a group of great egrets, the collective term for which is apparently “congregation.” Therefore, “in the midst of the congregation…” I promise the pun is way better than the sappy oversentimentalized claptrap you can normally find to go with phrases from Psalm 22…)