Journey in the Dark

darkness2God delights to transform lives.  There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament.  In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness.  In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.

These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts.  When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing.  It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.

When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!”  Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms.  This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way.  Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together.  So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:

1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives.  In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea.  He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below.  This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God.  It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.

Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation.  Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment.  Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again.  Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless.  If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him.  But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.

God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty.  He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever.  And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving.  Fully forgiven, forever, really?

2. Our hope is in God himself.  The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture.  No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed.  Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be).  God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  God gives us Himself (v6).  And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving.  He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.  And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7).  This is forgiveness-plus!

As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself.  So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn.  Morning always comes.  We live in darkness, but we live with hope.  And our hope is God Himself.

3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now.  As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131.  The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything.  Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child.  How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?

Well this is a weaned child (v2).  That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need.  Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother.  We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there.  We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace.  A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.

A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now.  Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.

From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts.  God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!

Psalms: A Disconnect and a Nudge

Point 1. At a recent preaching seminar the organiser admitted that he had only ever chosen to preach from the Psalms once.  He asked everyone present how much they choose to preach from the Psalms when they have the choice on what to preach.  The general consensus was almost never.

Point 2. Speak to any Christian who has been walking with the Lord for more than a few years.  Ask them what book of the Bible has been dear to them during the most challenging times in their experience.  Times of hurt, of doubt, of grief, of loss, of fear, of insecurity, of loneliness, of pain, of betrayal . . . the times when life was as life often is. The answer, time and again, will be the book of Psalms.

The Disconnect. People come to church in the midst of life in all its colour and complexity.  People are hurting, doubting, experiencing, struggling, suffering.  A significant proportion of people in our churches every Sunday are dealing with a significant level of life’s complexity.  Yet as preachers many of us seldom if ever choose to preach from the book that countless Christians have grown to love precisely because it does engage with the harsh realities of life in a way that we can identify with.  This is a disconnect.  (Not to mention the fact that when some do preach the Psalms, they have a habit of dissecting into theology-sized chunks that feel like an epistle in presentation – that’s something I’ve written about in other posts!)

The Nudge. Why not preach from the Psalms sometime?

The Possibility of Passage Shape

When you study a passage, part of the study is to recognize the shape the passage was given by the author (I’ll use “shape” in this post, but could use “structure” or “flow”).  There may be a logical sequencing of thoughts, or a narrative plot, or a poetic structure.  One possibility is that you can take that passage shape and let it be the primary influence on the message shape.

It may be that you decide to change the shape for the sake of the message.  Maybe the original recipients and your listeners differ significantly so that you have to structure the thought differently for the sake of effective communication.

However, to make such a change, in my thinking, should be a deliberate step away from the default option, which is to reflect the passage shape in the sermon shape.  For example, perhaps you are preparing to preach a Psalm and notice that it has three movements each having the same shape and largely the same content.  It might be tempting to “fix” such a literary “wastefulness” and use a more compact approach to preaching it.  Actually, by doing so, you would lose part of the power of the passage.  Our task as preachers is to communicate what a text says, but also to in some way do what a text does.  What does repetition do?  It reinforces, it allows truth to sink deeper, it builds on itself.  Repetition with variation is a powerful tool in writing Scripture, and consequently in the preaching of Scripture.

One possibility that comes when we recognize the shape of a passage is that we will reflect that shape in our message.  There may sometimes be reasons not to do this, but let this possibility be a strong one, even the default.