May 24, 2017

Psalms Week: Entering into the Story

Gethsemani Farms Wall, 2014

Save us, O Lord our God,
   and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
   and glory in your praise.

• Psalm 106:47

When we read and pray the Psalms,

  • we enter into the prayers of David and the other psalmists,
  • we enter into the prayers of the exiles who composed, edited, and arranged the Old Testament,
  • we enter into the prayers of Jesus the Christ, the Son of David, the ideal King who brought us salvation,
  • we enter into the Story of the Bible and become part of its flow, praying that God’s Kingdom will come, his will be done on earth as in heaven.

In Psalm 106, for example, we hear clearly the voices of those Babylonian exiles. In this psalm they retrace their history, the consistent failures of their people to trust and worship God, and they pray for God to save them and restore them.

All through the Bible, the theme of “exile” is present. The worst penalty imagined is to be exiled from the good land, separated from home, alienated from God, under enemy rule. Today as an example of how praying the Psalms unites us with the people of God throughout the biblical story, here in Psalm 106 we hear the voices of the exiles who looked back on their family legacy and cried out to God for restoration.

  • At the beginning of the biblical story we hear the voices of Eve and Adam, cast from the Garden because of their transgression to a life east of Eden.
  • We hear the voice of Cain, sentenced to wander the earth after failing to be his brother’s keeper.
  • We hear the voice of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery and exiled in Egypt. We then hear the voices of Jacob’s entire family as they are forced to resettle in Egypt, where eventually they become slaves to the cruel Pharaoh.
  • Reading on, we hear the voices of the people of Israel, wandering through the wilderness until an entire generation died off, because of their unbelief.
  • We hear the cries of women like Naomi, who left the land in time of famine and suffered the loss of her husband and sons.
  • We hear the sad prayers and songs of David, God’s chosen king but also the exiled king, as he dwelt among the rocks and the caves while fleeing King Saul – David, who was later forced from his throne by members of his own family, exiled from Jerusalem.
  • We sit in silence with Elijah the prophet, who hid in the wilderness from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, alone by the brook, fed by ravens.
  • We watch in horror as the Assyrians conquer and scatter the northern tribes of Israel, demolishing their kingdom and dispersing the people far and wide into foreign lands.
  • And then we lament as the Babylonians sack Jerusalem, plunder and destroy the Temple, and then take the people captive, transporting them into exile, where they hang their harps by the waters of Babylon, longing for home.
  • We rejoice when they return to the land by King Cyrus’s edict, but our joy is mixed. For as we pray we remember that, generation after generation, other nations came in to rule over Israel. Though they had returned from literal, geographical exile, they remained captives and slaves in their own land under enemy rule.

And so we pray with those who feel this alienation, this displacement in their own lives as well. We pray for an end to the exile.

Save us, O Lord our God,
   and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
   and glory in your praise.

 

 

And then we see a baby born in Bethlehem, the city of David the psalmist and hear that he is destined for David’s throne.

While just an infant, he and his family are forced to flee in exile to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.

For years, he lives in obscurity, until a man named John comes.

John goes out into self-imposed exile in the wilderness, near the Jordan River, the place where Israel first came from their wanderings and crossed into the Promised Land. He announces that the time has arrived. Israel’s exile is about to end. The Promised One is coming! John calls Israel to once more immerse themselves in the Jordan, to cross over once more from the wilderness of exile into the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom, to welcome their King with repentance and faith.

And so Jesus appears in public. He identifies with the people by being baptized and immediately goes into the wilderness himself to be tested as the people were in their exile.

After successfully resisting the devil and winning where Israel failed, Jesus begins going throughout the land, announcing that the Kingdom is at hand, the day of salvation has dawned, and that God has sent him to announce release to the captives. He shows this by delivering people from sin and sickness and the oppression of evil spirits. He speaks the truth. He restores life and health and peace. He overcomes the powers that hold the people captive.

Then one day, the tables turn and Jesus dies and goes himself into the ultimate exile – the exile of death.

Soon we will mark Holy Saturday, when it appeared that the captors had won and that there was one great power that Jesus could not conquer. On that solemn day, it will feel like there will be no salvation, no restoration from exile.

I can imagine that Jesus’ disciples and friends may have prayed Psalm 106 that day:

Save us, O Lord our God!

This is Lent.

Praying with the exiles.

Recognizing our own captivity, our own exile.

Crying out with them for release and restoration.

Waiting…waiting…until it comes.

Comments

  1. –> “Waiting…waiting…until it comes.”

    An excellent pastor I was once privileged to hear gave a couple of sermons on the “yets” of the Bible, the “not yet”s (the waiting) and the “and yet”s (the praises in midst of waiting). Very illuminating, a good boost to my spirituality during a desert-walk time in my journey.

    • I should add that the beauty of the words “not yet” is the implication that it will eventually be, and the beauty of the words “and yet” is the hope found in that acknowledgement.

  2. When we ‘enter into their prayers’, we become the echo through the ages. When Jesus said, “I have many things to tell you that you cannot now bear,” he meant that there would be a continuation of his presence here in the form of the Holy Spirit. When we are joined to that spirit we are in fact joined to eternity which not only goes forward, so to speak, but also backward in the absence of time. Thus we are the echo of their prayers in a more than symbolic way but as a concrete reality. Our voice and theirs become the same sound in the same utterance.

  3. Dana Ames says:

    In the Eastern Church, the Psalms are considered to be prophecy. The Greek Fathers understood their spiritual meaning to be all about Christ saving us, and our continued life in him. (The imprecatory verses are seen to ultimately be about how we are to treat the thoughts and inclinations that would lead us into sin.)

    If possible, people in an Orthodox parish take turns chanting the whole book of Psalms through and through from the time right after a parish member dies, until the service for the dead, conducted in the church building. We also chant the book of Psalms through and through in front of the large icon of Christ laid out for burial, from after Vespers on Holy Friday until the beginning of the service on Holy Saturday – that is, we give the Lord “a Christian burial”. I’m not sure if that can be traced back to Jewish practice, but I would not be surprised if there were some thread going that way.

    Dana

  4. Ronald Avra says:

    ‘we enter into the Story of the Bible and become part of its flow.’ My understanding of my faith purpose has undergone many changes over the years. Fulfilling my role in the Story of the Bible has now become my principal object.

  5. Robert F says:

    a broken old gate
    in a broken old stone wall
    still leads in….and out