... a prayer to the God of my life
| Psalms 42
||Sun, June 24, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|The testimony that the Bible makes from the witness stand of the pulpit is clear. The Bible always voices the risky claim that God is the maker of heaven and earth, that God calls a people into relationship, that God commands a life of faithfulness, that God hears the cry of the poor and oppressed, that God’s judgment is sure, and that God’s steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to know that the Bible announces to the world the reality of a living God who must always be taken into account. Why, you don’t even have to go to church to know this! Everyone knows that the Bible is all about the living presence of God. Remember the familiar song of God’s presence: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul”(Psalm 23). Or notice this morning’s story of Elijah waiting for the voice of God … a voice that comes not in earthquake, wind or fire but out of the sound of “sheer silence” (I Kings 19). The voice of God is not always thunderous or earth shattering or overwhelming … but it is no less a reality. And hear Paul reminding the church in Galatia of the power of God that is being revealed in Christ. He says that there can be no denying the creative handiwork of God in their life together. He points to the miraculous ways in which they are being built up into a people whose life together confounds the inevitable boundary lines of politics, class, race and religion: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of your are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The sworn testimony of the Bible is clear: God lives. God creates. God commands. God promises. God sees. God hears. God remembers. God answers. God acts.
But then the Bible is cross-examined. Questions are raised: “Is God always present? Does God always hear? Does God always answer?” And the truth is told. The Bible speaks not only about God’s presence but also about God’s absence … God’s hiddenness … God’s silence. The evidence for God’s presence is, to say the least, mixed. If the Bible is to be trusted … if we are to offer it to our children as a book that tells the truth about God … then the Bible cannot hide when cross-examined under oath. And, notice this, when asked about God’s absence the Bible does not equivocate or cover-up or mince words. It tells the truth ... it
records the cross-examination. Psalm 10: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”. Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”. Psalm 44: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?”. And, you must have noticed, today’s Psalm – Psalm 42 with its blunt questions: “When shall I come and behold the face of God? Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?… my adversaries taunt me while they say to me continually “Where is your God?”.
Why? When? Where? These are the frank questions asked of anyone who dares to testify that God is real and present and trustworthy. They are asked of me when one of you suddenly loses faith … when, no longer sensing the living presence of God, you call the pastor for help. These questions are asked of you when a friend or colleague or family member wonders how it is that you have come to trust in the presence and promises of God. And here these questions are, asked aloud in the heart of the Bible itself. Asked … but not easily resolved. At the end of Psalm 42 there is no proof that has put an end to the cross-examination. God’s face does not appear as conclusive evidence. God’s voice does not speak in answer to the bold challenges that name God’s silence.
Psalm 42 is a song … a Bible song … that sings of God’s absence. It is the song of a longing, thirsting, weeping soul … the song of one who is desperate to see and hear the God who was once so real, so present, so faithful. Yet few of us have been taught the words or the melody of this ancient song. We have learned the rhyme and meter of “The Lord is my shepherd … he leads me beside still waters”. But when the waters are not still and there is no shepherd to be found we do not know to sing: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God”. We begin to imagine that our experience of God’s hiddenness is something to be silenced. We suspect that others who seem sure of God’s presence will question our unorthodox testimony. We too often suffer in silence … because we have no song to sing when God is gone.
Today there are those here who easily sing God’s praise, confident of God’s presence. Others of us find ourselves offering prayers to God, trusting that God hears. Yet there are some today who need a song to sing and a prayer to offer when God is nowhere to be found. And others of us who do not need such a song today may need it sooner than we know. So on this Sabbath day we all pause to linger over Psalm 42 ... to learn its stanzas and its refrain. Reading it … singing it … we discover again that truthful testimony about God’s absence can be voiced in this safe sanctuary. In the midst of the hymns of praise and of joy we can also sing a song of longing and of thirst. Even as we sing of God’s glorious presence we also chant questions that name God’s silence. Too often our church has forgotten to sing the songs of absence. Too frequently our parents have neglected to teach us these haunting cries of longing. Finding these songs again restores our memory. In them we rediscover a common language for speaking with one another about the ambiguities of our life with God.
And the song itself … the song of longing and of seeking and of asking … this song is itself the gift of God. Did you notice? The gift is hidden in the midst of Psalm 42. Just when the song describes the overwhelming torrent of trouble that is drowning the singer:“Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me”. Just then the song declares that “at night God’s song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life”. At night God’s song … a prayer to the God of my life. This song – this 42nd song in the hymn book of the Bible – is God’s song for the night. This song that dares to tell the truth and nothing but the truth about God’s absence is itself ‘a prayer to the God of my life’. It is God’s gift to the one who does not know what to do or say or sing when God is gone and seems to be in no hurry to return. The longing for God, the thirst for God, the desire for God is itself the gift of God. It reminds the singer of what once was … and of what can be.
What can be. This is the recurring refrain of the song of longing and absence. Twice the singer asks a question not of God but of herself … of himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”. This seems an odd question in the face of the evidence. Why cast down? Why disquieted? Because God is gone. Because God is silent. Because God is nowhere to be seen, that’s why! And then the song … this prayer which is itself God’s gift to the singer … answers. It answers not with proof of God’s presence. It gives no evidence of God’s voice. Instead, the song testifies that the silence will indeed be broken … that God will yet return … that the thirsting singer will one day drink from flowing streams and, then, behold the face of God. “Hope in God”, we sing to ourselves, “for we shall again praise God, our help and our God.” Hope in God. Even when God is not at hand … especially when God is not at hand. This is what we sing and what we do.
We hope in God. It is the reason, in fact, that we can dare to be so blunt in the face of God’s absence. The longing questions asked of God in the Forty-second Psalm are themselves acts of daring hope … because they imagine that God does, in fact, live … and that God will hear … and will, indeed, answer. Our determined hope remembers a dark Friday when there was only silence. Our unceasing hope has lived through a long, thirsty Saturday of absence. Our enduring hope is grounded in the Risen One who answered our longing prayers with transforming surprise on Sunday. We dare to tell the truth about God’s silence and absence … the whole truth and nothing but the truth … because, finally, we place our hope in the liberating God of the Exodus and the death-defeating God of the Cross … the God who, finally, will not fail to hear and to answer with steadfast love.