Sermon from the 2017 Memorial Service at St Mary's Kemsing, where people come to remember with thanks loved ones who have died.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord.”
So begins Psalm 130.
The psalms are a collection of 150 songs and prayers for the people of God for every season of life. And Psalm 130 is written from a time of great trouble. It’s a cry to God for mercy and for help, written from the depths. It’s a picture of being in deep water. The troubles and the difficulties of life are closing in. It seems there’s no way out, no place from which help could come. And from that place of desperation, comes a cry to God to intervene.
Maybe that’s a feeling you can identify with.
It’s a complete contrast with Psalm 131, which is what we just had read. The two come side by side, 130 and 131. They both end with the same sentence. Psalm 130 verse 7, and Psalm 131 verse 3 both say this: “Israel, put your hope in the Lord.” The two psalms belong together, and are meant to be read as a pair.
But they couldn’t be more different.
The tone, the language, the mood of Psalm 130 is of a person thrashing about in the water, asking God for help. By the time the psalm ends, they’ve come to a point where they’re waiting for a reply. But it remains a noisy psalm, a psalm of urgent plea to God.
Psalm 131 is a millpond. It’s a psalm of quiet, of calm, of peace, a place of stillness, everything in its place.
And yet both are psalms that to be prayed, not only in the good times of life, but also out of the depths. They’re not contradictory. Both psalms describe the person who leans all their weight on God to see them through. Psalm 130 describes what comes out of the lips of the person who trusts God in this way. Psalm 131 describes the character, the emotion, the internal effect of trusting God in this way.
I’d like us to look at Psalm 131 for a few moments. It’s an invitation to us all to put our hope in God. That’s partly what we’re about at this service each year: It’s a chance for us to put our hope, our trust in God. To look to him.
I’d like to draw out of the Psalm two qualities of that kind of hope and trust.
First, in the first verse, we see humility. “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”
In Bible thinking, the “heart” is the inner self. The real me. “My heart is not proud,” he says. When we trust God, we don’t have an over-inflated view of ourselves.
And in Bible thinking, the “eye” is the organ of ambition. It’s where we set our hopes. And he says, “my eyes are not haughty”. When we put our hope in God, we don’t set overly lofty ambitions for ourselves. Because life is not about me; it’s about God and his purposes.
He goes on: “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” In the Bible, God is the one who does great works, and who performs mighty wonders. God. Not me. So I don’t go about trying to carry out great matters, or things too wonderful for me.
In other words, we don’t go around pretending we’re God. We aren’t going to solve all of life’s problems. We aren’t going to solve all of our own problems. We’ve put our hope in God. We’ve pinned all our hopes on him. It’s very liberating when you realise that you’re not God. It’s exhausting trying to fix everything, carry the weight of making sure things turn out OK. It’s wonderfully liberating instead to put our hope in the Lord, to leave things with him.
Even in the storm, out of the depths, this is something we can do. Put our hope in the Lord, which brings about a refreshing humility in us.
Then there’s verse 2, a verse all about contentment.
“But I have calmed and quietened myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.”
This is a wonderful picture. There’s some debate as to exactly what the picture is. Hebrew poetry is very compressed, using as few words as possible, and sometimes that creates some ambiguity.
Perhaps this is a picture of an infant, who’s received all the milk she needs, and can finish her feed, totally content, relaxed, at ease. Perhaps this is a picture of a slightly older child, a toddler, who no longer needs his mother’s milk. He’s on solid food, so enjoys being with his mother, content, not endlessly rooting for the next feed.
The effect is the same whatever the exact picture. It’s a lovely scene of calm and contentment, a small child, too young to speak, and yet knowing that it’s totally safe with its mother.
It’s also ambiguous who the child is, and who the mother is. Perhaps God is being likened to a mother, and the person praying this prayer is like a small child, who knows he or she is totally safe. Or maybe the person praying is the mother, and they’re speaking of their emotions, their state of mind, as like a child that they’ve calmed and comforted and reassured.
Either way, this person trusts God, their hope is in him, so they’re a picture of contentment, of calm.
But remember that this is a prayer for the storm. A prayer to pray in open water, when it feels like life’s difficulties might swallow you up. This is not promising that everything will suddenly be well, that the problems will disappear. Rather, even while the storm is still raging, the person who wrote this had reached the point where they knew they were safe in God’s hands. That he was in control, and they could be still.
A beautiful picture of contentment.
Hope in the Lord
And the psalm ends with an appeal, in verse 3: “Israel, put your hope in the Lord, both now and for evermore.”
If you look carefully, you’ll see that the word “Lord” is printed in capital letters, both here and at the start of the psalm. When our English Bibles do that, they’re signalling that this is something special. It’s not just the word for “lord”, meaning “master”, “boss”, “the one in charge”, or someone noble. They’re translating God’s name. A name that we can’t be sure how to pronounce: the ancient Israelites thought that God’s name was so special that they printed it without any vowels, to stop you saying it by mistake.
It’s the name that by which God uniquely made himself known when he bound himself in a committed relationship to his people. He would be their God, watching over them, looking after them. They would be his people, uniquely treasured by him.
That’s the God that this psalm invites us to put our trust and our hope in. The God who always looks after his own, not by taking away all our hardships, but by standing by us within them. The God that we can have complete confidence in.
This is the same God we meet in the New Testament. In the person of Jesus, we can meet God as a man. A man who is so committed to his people that he laid down his own life to rescue and save us.
Just before he died Jesus taught his followers what to expect after he’s gone. He ended with these words: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
I don’t know whether you feel like you’ve come here tonight in the depths, or whether you’re in calmer waters for the time being. This psalm is an invitation to us all to put our hope in the Lord. To have the humility and the gentle contentment that comes with placing ourselves in his hands. It invites us to make him our trust, today, but also for evermore.