Breaking Down Prayer (Sermon)
(Apologies for the audio quality)
Breaking Down Prayer
We need you.
Speak now, for your servants are listening.
We pray these things in the name of your Son, Jesus
who together with you and Holy Spirit,
rules and reigns the universe
one God now and forever,
Our text this evening is Psalm 6, so I invite you to turn there.
Today is the seventh (and last) Sunday of the season of Easter—sometimes called “Eastertide.” Historically, Easter hasn’t just been one day that the church sets aside to celebrate the relentless rumor that Jesus is alive—now. today. and forever.
We DO celebrate that on a particular day,
but it’s more than just a day.
For the last two thousand years, the Church has confessed that
the universe is different than it once was.
The end of history
(when God judges the world and sets it right, banishes death, and restores all things)—
has barged into the middle of history.
The world’s future has invaded the world’s present.
Resurrection has crashed the party.
New creation is already arriving.
This is what Eastertide—the season of Easter—is trying to help us remember.
That Easter is either everything or nothing at all.
Easter is everyday or Easter is no day.
And over the past few months—through advent and all the way through Easter—we’ve been working our way through this collection of art that sits at the middle of Scripture.
This Psalter—this book of psalms—is a compilation of poetry and songs that helps us give voice to our deepest joys, our deepest fears, our deepest pain, and our deepest hopes.
The first two psalms give us an entirely different set of lenses to view the world through.
There we realize that our world is the creation of “the One enthroned in heaven” (2.4)
who has established his reign over the earth through a king, through “his anointed” (2.2).
And there are two ways we can respond to the reign of this king.
We can choose a path of foolishness, death and destruction, (1.6)
viewing this king as constraint and rebelling against Reality itself (2.2-3)
Or we can embrace and kiss this anointed one—this son of God (2.12),
and recognize his kingship as the streams of water that ground us in Life itself (1.3).
And after these first two psalms, we enter into the prayers of psalms.
With these prayers, we’ve been trying to remember one of Christianity’s earliest leaders said:
most of Scripture speaks to us while the psalms speak for us (Athanasius).
God has given us these deeply personal, deeply human prayers,
to shine a searchlight into deep and cavernous reservoirs of the human experience.
What does it mean to be alive?
What does it mean to be human?
How shall we speak to God?
How shall we feel before God?
And I think Psalm 6 shines a light into some of humanity’s deepest questions.
So let’s read it:
Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?
Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?
I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.
Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.
This psalm is gut-wrenching.
Maybe it’s helpful to come to this psalm as we’re finishing up the season of Easter. Because I think this psalm gives us permission to feel and speak and ask some things that any sane person will ask somewhere within them everyday after Easter.
The Church proclaims resurrection
but cancer, addiction, heartache and death seem pretty undisturbed.
God himself has become a human being to and destroyed death from the inside-out,
but his resurrection didn’t whitewash the world the way we would like.
What’s that about?
We confess the resurrection and lordship of Jesus but
our lives and our bodies and our world
still feel like they’re unravelling.
Why is there still massive economic disparity in the world?
Why are groups of people still oppressing and killing each other?
Why are there still suicidal mass shootings and antibiotic-resistant bacteria?
Why does clinical depression ravage the wealthy while chronic hunger ravages the poor?
Why did it fall all apart?
Why didn’t we see that coming?
Why did they leave?
Why did they die?
Why do we suffer?
And it’s in these questions that I think that this psalm is a gift.
We might be tempted to live in denial to try to make Easter feel a little bit more true.
And we need Psalm 6 to help us say:
“My bones are in agony, my soul is in anguish.
My bed is a swamp of sobbing. The couch is just a bog of tears.”
The center of this psalm sounds like someone on the verge of collapse:
“I’m worn out from my groaning.”
The editors of my translation (NIV, 2011) actually have that line just floating alone in the middle of the psalm.
It’s like David is finishing the day,
weeping on the bed
and just about
Psalm 6 is prayer when we’re breaking down.
DAY AND NIGHT
It’s interesting… we’re still at the beginning of the book of psalms,
and (as we saw) the actual prayers of the psalms started in Psalm 3
with a desperate cry to God in the midst of personal and political chaos.
And then after that the psalms have alternated
evening prayer (4.8),
morning prayer (5.3),
evening prayer (6.6).
An evening prayer officially begins the day in ancient Israel,
and then a morning prayer orients us as we enter the day,
and then another evening prayer helps us meet the next day.
Evening and morning,
day after day,
the very arrangement of these psalms seems to be designed to help us to live the truly happy life of Psalm 1—to meditate on the instruction of Yahweh day and night (1.2).
But I find it interesting that the rhythm of meditation—that the ebb and flow of prayer—doesn’t necessarily lead David into a quieted, undisturbed tranquility.
A lot of times, I wish prayer worked a little like Xanax.
Does anyone else wish this?
Pop a prayer and within thirty minutes, you’ll start feeling better—
or at least it will take the edge off.
I think we all wish that in a way. We live in a consumer-driven culture and so it’s almost impossible for us to stop being consumers—even with our spirituality.
We just want to know what works.
Show me the technique,
show me the method,
show me the way to pray
that will give me more confidence,
that will change my circumstances,
that will make me feel better—or at least feel close to God.
Give me something from the Bible that I can “apply to my life” to make things better.
But the psalms don’t seem to be catering to our consumer impulses.
These prayers don’t seem to work.
Or at least they don’t seem to work in the way we want or expect.
Evening prayer follows morning prayer follows evening prayer,
and yet David isn’t feeling close to God.
In fact, David is worried that God’s wrath might be against him (v1).
Remember what we saw in Psalm 5?
God’s hate and wrath are actually good news.
God is actively, aggressively against evil
because God passionately, desperately loves good.
David is worried that God might be actively, aggressively working against him for some reason.
And he doesn’t know why.
David doesn’t seem to have done anything wrong.
There are other prayers of David (e.g. Ps 38.3-4) when he recognizes that the source of his suffering might be God rooting out a kind of evil in his life.
And in those prayers David is quick to admit his wrongdoing.
But here, his suffering seems to have no cause.
He’s suffering some kind of profound emotional or physical pain,
and there’s not a comprehensible explanation close at hand.
So David begins his prayer with some of the exact thoughts that we often wrestle with:
“Is God doing this… Have I somehow caused this?”
“What do I need to fix—what lesson do I need to learn—for this to go away?”
A lot of scholars read the language of verse 5 and think David is on the verge of death.
He says: “No one in Sheol—no one in the the realm of the dead—praises you, God.
I’m about to go there! I’m about die! Have mercy!”
It seems like someone meditating on the instruction of Yahweh day and night,
someone believing all the right things and doing all the right things,
it seems like that kind of person shouldn’t be in this sort of position.
The truly happy life. The truly meaningful life. The life where everything is working out as it should.
That’s what was promised by Psalm 1.
And the promise of Easter is life from the dead.
That death is defeated, that the universe is a different place, that life wins.
If those are the promises, why is the upholstery drenched?
Why the swamp of sobbing? Why the bog of tears?
Our world weeps.
And we proclaim a good God.
There’s some significant tension there.
What do we make of that?
How do we understand true happiness and resurrection life while we walk a weeping world?
WEEPING, HEARING AND HEALING
In the light of this tension, maybe this psalm offers us three reflections.
1) All lives—even lives with God—continue to have pain, struggle and weeping—often with no quick explanations or solutions.
If you read any section of Scripture, you’ll realize pretty quickly
that the people of God are never promised carefree lives with stable retirements.
David is breaking down—
wondering if God’s wrath is burning away something in him,
maybe racking his brain for something to confess but finding nothing,
and asking “How long—O God, how long—are things going to be like this?”
The psalm doesn’t give any kind of explanation for David’s anguish.
And the psalm doesn’t give any solution to stop it.
No explanation. No solution.
In other words, this psalm (and, I think, Scripture as a whole) isn’t chiefly interested in supplying us with what we want to get or to give.
Think about it:
When we’re experiencing moments or seasons of anguish, what do we want to get?
We want an explanation of what’s going on, why it’s happening,
and—preferably—a solution to stop it.
When we see others in anguish—in our homes or across the world—what do we want to give?
We want to give an explanation, to understand what’s causing all of this,
and—again, preferably—a solution to stop the suffering.
Diagnoses and prescriptions.
Explanations and solutions.
That’s what we want to get.
That’s what we want to give.
But God doesn’t seem particularly concerned about giving David (or Job) or us
exhaustive explanations for the anguish of the world
or quick solutions for the anguish of our lives.
Because evidently God doesn’t consider those things our deepest need.
And God is interested in giving us our deepest need.
Maybe that’s why he lets sometimes lets us breakdown.
Maybe breakdown prayer is breakthrough prayer.
Because God wants us to desire something deeper than just explanations or solutions.
Which leads us to our second reflection:
2) Prayer is often an exhausting struggle in learning to genuine hope.
Hope isn’t a care-free confidence that circumstances are going to improve,
that suffering is going to stop, or that things will just fall into place.
To be certain, sometimes we pray and things do fall into place:
The job comes through. The body is healed.
The heart is softened. The fighting stops.
And that encourages us.
We find a certain kind of hope in that.
But sometimes we pray and prayer doesn’t seem to work—nothing seems to change.
The weeping and agony and anguish are still present (whatever form they take).
And, if you’re like me, that’s discouraging.
It feels like it could drive us to the opposite of hope—despair.
But did you notice that at the end of this psalm, there’s a pivot? We catch a glimpse of genuine hope within David—but there’s absolutely no indication that his circumstances have changed at all:
Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
the Lord accepts my prayer. (v8-9)
He’s beginning to glimpse something about God.
This is the birth of genuine hope in prayer.
And like any birth, it’s done through groaning.
Scripture never claims that God has stopped the world’s anguish.
But Scripture does insist that—on the cross—God has made the world’s anguish his own.
And that somehow in his making our weeping and our death his own,
he brings healing and resurrection to us.
The rabbi groaning on the mount of olives,
the prisoner silent before his accusers,
the slave dying on the cross—that’s the place we look to know that God has heard.
He’s heard our weeping. He’s heard our cry.
He knows our rebellion, our guilt and our fear.
And God accepts our prayer.
He just frequently doesn’t respond to my prayer in the way I expect.
And that’s how we know our hope is genuine.
Genuine hope is not that confidence that God will answer particular prayers in particular ways.
It’s not grounded in our circumstances.
It’s not grounded in the way we’re feeling or not feeling at the time.
And it certainly isn’t grounded in how well we praying.
Genuine hope is grounded in the God we’re praying to.
Real hope is rooted in our most elemental convictions about what God is like.
To entrust our lives daily to the living, weeping, healing God revealed in Jesus.
To be trusting him more. To believe his love for us.
And to trust that he is doing right—both in our lives and in the world.
God wants to give us a heart that trusts him.
He knows that that is our deepest need.
3) I think God invites us—especially in our places of weeping and anguish—to join him in healing the world.
One scholar (Derek Kidner) points out that the phrase “away from me” that David uses toward in verse 8 probably isn’t just David lashing out against certain people. This isn’t just a grumpy or impatient outburst—“Just go away!”
The king had both the authority and the responsibility to banish evil and evildoers from the kingdom (e.g. Ps 101). That’s why when Jesus describes the kingdom of God, you’ll often hear these same words being used to banish evil: “away from me” (“you evildoers” Lk 13:27; “I never knew you” Matt 7.23).
The declaration of “away from me” was one of the unique ways that the king could help bring healing and wholeness to the land.
So in Psalm 6, David moves from being trapped in anguish and self-preoccupation
to living out his responsibility vocation to partner with God in helping and healing the world.
He moves from being preoccupation about his death to being a source of life to others.
Here’s the secret:
God’s pressing priority is not that we be comfortable.
God’s pressing priority is that we will be cruciform.
That our lives will be cross-shaped. That we will become Christ-shaped.
In the words of pastor and storyteller George MacDonald: “The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.”
The wounds of Jesus heal the world.
And by his grace, ours can too. (cf. 2 Cor 4.11-12, Col 1.24)
Those who have
…lost what they treasure often learn to show people the meaning of contentment.
…been enslaved to addiction understand cycles of shame in ways that set others free.
…been deeply betrayed can teach others the gifts of loyalty and forgiveness.
…come close to death have a heightened awareness of the unspeakable treasure that is life.
How is your anguish, your weeping, your struggle,
uniquely equipping you to heal others?
Because when we’re willing to volunteer our wounds for the healing of the world,
I think we’re glimpsing what it means to live like Jesus in this world (1Jn 4.17).
I think his Spirit is showing us the life of his resurrection.
I think we’re close to the truly happy life.
So may your breakdown cause God’s hope to breakthrough,
may you abandon your trust in prayer and trust the One you’re praying to,
may you trust that he hears and loves all—even you,
and may this God of unfailing love use his blood and your wounds to heal the world.