The Broken Snare
| Psalms 124
||Sun, August 25, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|If it had not been the LORD who was on our side
- let Israel now say -
if it had not been the LORD who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone the raging waters.
Blessed be the LORD,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
Psalm 124 is the fifth of the fifteen “Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) meant to be sung by pilgrims making their way on the steep ascent up to the Holy City of Jerusalem. You can hear its encouragement for the hard journey in the opening rejoinder that calls on the travellers to join in the song: “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side - let Israel now say”, to which the crowd responds: “if it had not been the LORD who was on our side ...” The Psalm is for pilgrims, for travellers on a sacred journey. Pilgrims travel for a variety of reasons. Some seek a cure. Some hope to be purified and to make amends. Others to come in touch with the holy. All embark seeking to be changed. These pilgrims aren’t simply travellers - though the English word for pilgrim derives from the latin word that means to go “through fields”. These pilgrims are on a journey to recover ancient memory. “If it had not been the LORD” they sing, “if it had not been the LORD ... then they would have swallowed us ... then the flood would have swept us ... then over us would have gone the raging waters.” If not, if not ... then, then, then.
At first glance it seems so distant. Pilgrimages seem such a thing of the past ... of ancient Israel, of the Middle Ages. Then, again, Gerald is about to return to our midst after leading another popular mid-summer pilgrimage through holy sites in Britain. Those journeys are intended as a means for contemporary Christians to recover ancient memories. It strikes me that we are, increasingly, a congregation of pilgrims. Thirty years ago University Hill United Church was still largely - almost exclusively - a congregation that lived here in the neighbourhood. Today most of us travel from some distance to be here on Sunday. There is a real sense in which we make the pilgrimage out to the end of Point Grey, to the site of this Chapel, seeking a cure to what ails us ... seeking to be purified and to make amends ... seeking to come in touch with the Holy ... seeking to be changed. And at the heart of our pilgrimage is the recovery of our ancient memory: “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive.”
Of course, this is loaded language. We know all too well the danger of claiming to have God “on our side” in any argument - whether it be in a theological battle in the church or a military battle between nations or a family battle at the dinner table. The danger in such claims is that they become a kind of habitual rhetoric of war in which God is used to justify one side or the other. Soon such claims of God’s blessing fall on deaf ears. We begin to assume that every claim that God is on “our side” is self-serving, not a statement of the truth. But the Psalm is determined to remind the pilgrims that “if it had not been the LORD who was on our side when our enemies attacked us then ...” The Psalm is to be sung by pilgrims who live in a world that has taught them to forget. They live in a world that has taught them that they cannot trust in anyone or anything but themselves. They have been taught that they only have themselves to rely upon. But the Psalm intends to sing another song into their heart. “If it had not been the LORD who was (literally) for us when our enemies attacked ... then, then, then.” At the heart of the good news that is the goal of all pilgrims is this forgotten memory - that we are here now because the LORD has been for us when we have been attacked.
Do you hear the echoes of the story of creation in this poetry? Listen for the struggle of God with stormy chaos: “When our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive ... then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters.” These enemies are not simply Babylonian armies and modern day terrorists. These are ancient, dark enemies that have threatened the beauty and wonder of life with chaos and tragedy from the very beginning. These enemies that the pilgrims sing of on their way to Jerusalem are fierce and terrifying. They are enemies that threaten to overwhelm, to swallow, to sweep away, to drown. These enemies come in all manner of guises. They come in violence - physical and emotional. They come in despair and loneliness and rejections. They come in addictions and oppressions and cancers that attack and swallow up and sweep away life. The pilgrims travel to Jerusalem - we pilgrims travel here - hoping to overcome the enemies that threaten to overwhelm. The pilgrimage is a journey to the sanctuary of the LORD. It is a trip to safety in the midst of so much danger. And on the way the whole company sings its ancient memory - “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side...”
Now, to be honest, there is a complication involved when we sing such a song beneath a cross. The psalm sounds so simple, almost naive in its faith: God was on our side. Our enemies threatened us. God saved us. Amen. But it is not quite that simple, is it? We know too many stories about too many people - including too many of us - who have prayed to God for help in the face of terrifying enemies, only to be swallowed up and swept away by the raging waters. Tonight in Sacramento our friends Jim and Jean Strathdee will gather with the church there to lament the tragic death of their son Michael. Three years ago Michael accompanied Jim and Jean on the drums here in the Chapel. It was a wonderful night of music and praise to God. But for the past year Michael has fought the demons of despair that accompanied bi-polar syndrome. Last Sunday his most recent attempt at suicide proved successful. One wonders how Psalm 124 sounds this morning in Jim and Jean’s congregation: “If it had not been the LORD on our side when our enemies attacked us ... then over us would have gone the raging waters.” You see, in this company of pilgrims there are more than a few who have been overwhelmed by the darkness in spite of many prayers to the LORD.
Psalm 124 is not so straightforward as we had hoped. Things are complicated. But that is no surprise, is it? By now we have figured out that life is complicated. What is so surprising is that the complication turns out to end in good news. You remember the complication. Jesus - God’s chosen one - makes his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and is threatened by enemies who intend to sweep him away. In Gethsemane he prays to the One who is on his side, to the LORD who is his help. Yet the enemies destroy him. The flood of death sweeps him away. The LORD who made heaven and earth does not save him from the chaos. The raging waters of tragedy are triumphant. For three days. But then the tomb is opened and the LORD of heaven and earth acts to save and to make new. Heather Carlson - once of Uhill, now of Bonnyville, Alberta - just returned from a pilgrimage to Guatemala. There she visited sites that were once used at places of terror and torture. Now they have become chapels, houses of worship. There - at the site of the apparent triumph of terror - pilgrims gather to recover the ancient memory of the power of the LORD to help and to save and to bring life out of death. We are a people who know that the trouble is not simply overcome. We have been snared, caught, trapped in despair. Yet, “we have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.” This is the good news. The snare is broken. The cross is empty. We have escaped like a bird that is now free ... free to love and to serve the LORD.
This is, finally, the memory that is carried forward in Psalm 124. It’s closing refrain sounds so simple, so straightforward: “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” After the terror of Good Friday, the long silent absence of Holy Saturday and the utterly amazing turn of Easter Sunday we know that the help that comes in the name of the LORD has its complications. Notice, though, that our help comes “in the name of the LORD”. This is rich and evocative speech. It reminds we pilgrims that the God we seek is not a generic spirit, but has a particular name. The Hebrew text spells it out - YaHWeH. It is the name learned first by Moses at the burning bush, the name that is the verb: “I am what I am up to”. Those of us who make a weekly pilgrimage to worship at the foot of a cross recognize this LORD in the one crucified and risen. Our help is not simply “in God”. Our help is in the name of YHWH who is up to saving the One who is overtaken by death. Even you. Even me.