Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 6th October 2010
“The Lord has heard my supplication: the Lord will receive my prayer” Psalm 6:9
During my days of ordination training, we had a tutor called Bill Browne. Bill was a quiet, unassuming man who taught us solid, down-to earth lessons that would be useful for years and years to come. One of Bill’s favourite books in the Bible was the book of Psalms and one of the themes in Bill’s teaching was the psalms and human life. Bill believed there was something in the Psalms for every situation, that every thought and feeling, that every emotion could find expression in the Psalms. We read through and we find a huge range of feelings, from the greatest rejoicing to the deepest despair.
This evening’s Psalm, Psalm 6, is a statement of confidence in God, confidence that the righteous man, though troubled by suffering and affliction has not been forgotten, that God will somehow intervene in some positive and tangible way to remedy the situation. It is an ancient psalm with a modern theme: the 20th Century was the worst in history for human suffering, how do we explain the horrific plight of millions and millions of people?
There is the centuries old conundrum about the existence of evil in our world, we are posed with the question of whether God cannot destroy evil or he will not: if he cannot, then he is not all powerful; if he will not, then he is not all loving. How do we answer? We will have met people who say that they simply cannot believe in God, either because of the suffering they have been through, or because of the suffering they have seen others endure. I remember meeting a staff member of an aid agency who said the only faith he had left was development; his faith in God had been destroyed by the appalling scenes he had encountered.
Perhaps finding an answer for that man is not possible, there is nothing worse than patronising Christians who talk in platitudes, but we do need to find an answer that satisfies ourselves. Psalm 6 can help us, but we need to understand what is going on in the mind of the writer.
In early Hebrew thought, the history of the nation, and of people’s relationship with God was seen in terms of a cycle. From having a right relationship with God, the people lapsed into sin. To draw attention to this sin, God allowed them to endure suffering and oppression. When they repented and cried for help, he would deliver them.
We see the influence of that traditional understanding in the first verse of the psalm, ‘O Lord, rebuke me not in your wrath; neither chasten me in your fierce anger’. The writer speaks of suffering a ‘rebuke’ in God’s ‘wrath’, as being chastened as a sign of God’s anger. However, this psalm bears the mark of later, more complex Hebrew ideas. In early thinking, the penitent would cry out because he has recognized his sin or failing; he sees the cause of his punishment and he seeks to make amends. Yet we read these verses and we get an impression of confusion and despair, ‘My soul also shakes with terror’, he says in verse three. The psalmist ascribes his suffering to God, ’Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am weak’ , but he doesn’t know what he has done to deserve it. He doesn’t accept the old view; he wants to know why and how long, ‘I am weary with my groaning’, he complains in verse six. The people thought in terms of the whole person; there was no division between body and soul, physical sickness would be as readily ascribed to God as emotional anxiety.
The key to the psalmist’s sense of despair is found in verse five, ‘For in death no one remembers you; and who can give you thanks in the grave?’ The Hebrew place of the dead Sheol, was an underworld where it was believed people went after death. People did not believe in rewards in the world to come; the only reward you might receive would be in the here and now.
As Christians, we read this psalm in a different perspective, we believe that everyone will eventually receive their just reward, so perhaps the issue of the suffering of the righteous appears differently to us, but what we must never do is to just dismiss it, as I have heard some Christians do.
We have to have something to say. We have to have something to say to the hundreds of millions of people whose daily existence is a struggle. I once spent two whole days in a jeep going across Tanzania. There were no bright spots; there was absolute grinding poverty for every mile of that journey. What do we say to those people as they struggle to earn a few pence a day, as their children die from the simplest diseases, what do we say?
The psalmist’s faith in a just God carries him from the first part of the psalm to the second; from the resignation of verse seven, ‘My eyes are wasted with grief and worn away because of all my enemies; to the hope of verse eight, ‘Depart from me, all you that do evil, for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping’.
We can share this hope, but we should never misread Scripture and ascribe everything to God. There is a difference between believing in ultimate justice and unthinkingly accepting everything that comes along as God’s will.
Nothing is beyond the power of God and all thing can be conformed to his will, ‘we know that all things work together for good to them that love God’, writes Saint Paul in Romans 8:28; but we should not hold God responsible for that which is evil, that which is unjust, that which is wrong. It would be a strange and malicious god who desired the suffering of his children.
If we believe in God as we describe him in the creed, we would say that God has the power to intervene, but there are clearly times when he does not and we simply do not know why.
What do we say to the person who cries out as the psalmist does in Psalm 6? What do we say to those who despair? What do we say to those who, with reason, feel bitter towards God?
We can say that our hope goes beyond this world; we can say that God has given us freedom and tragedy seems to be part of what it means to be free; but we should never slip into the easy and last answer that suffering is God’s will. Remember Jesus’ words to his enemies in Gethsemane, ‘this is your hour-when darkness reigns’. There are many moments in our world when darkness reigns.
In the end, as Christians, we turn to Jesus. In the end, we hold on to the hand of the crucified Lord. In the end, we trust the innocent one who endured the most awful suffering for our sake and who defeated the power of death and darkness.
‘The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer’, says the psalmist in Psalm 6:9.
He will hear us; he will.