PSALM 107:”God to the Rescue”
Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand 02.11.14
When I lived and worked in Milton Keynes, in the UK, there was a well-loved Archdeacon of Buckingham, called David Goldie, who was always down-to-earth and very grounded in his faith. He became seriously ill with cancer, and although he was in remission for about a year, he finally died of the disease. However, during his period of remission, he often talked honestly and bravely about how he had been in danger of losing his faith, how he struggled to find God in his situation, and how he was finally able to come to terms with what was happening. He told of his friend who suggested that he read the Psalms because, as he said, “all human life is there”. David began to read the Psalms every day, even when he could not have felt further from God, and every day it seemed that the Psalm he read spoke deep within, so that when his bones were indeed in agony, he found he had the words that he needed to console him and to remind him that through it all, God is with us, ready to forgive and love – and to heal. In the end David was not healed of the cancer which killed him, but anyone who knew him could see that God had truly made him whole. God had rescued him from the loss of faith that had beset him.
And this is, in part, what the Psalm we read today is about. All human life is here. It is a Psalm of thanksgiving, possibly a Psalm that was sung by the community together, affirming what God had done for them. It recounts different situations – which echo the situations in which the Israelites had found themselves in the past – and it reminds the reader of how God had rescued them from these situations. As a community they would remember their shared history and recognise how God’s goodness had saved them.
And in the same way, we can recognise that our lives are echoed in this Psalm, and we can give thanks for the way in which God has had a hand in our personal salvation history. We have only read a portion of the Psalm today, but in the whole Psalm there are four different situations mentioned, which we can recognise as situations in which we have found – or we will find – ourselves.
The first is that of the wanderers who were lost in the desert, who were hungry and thirsty, whose spirits “languished within them”…And which of us, at one time or another, have not felt that we had lost our way and that our lives were not going in the direction that God desired for us. And it doesn’t need to be an overwhelming sense of —- It can just be a disquieting sense of what I call dis-ease, of not-right-with-God-ness. There was a time a while back when my whole life felt out of kilter; there was nothing specifically wrong, I was generally healthy – although I did feel stressed by a sense of discontent – but nothing felt right. I was not easy with myself, but rather living in a sense of dis-ease. And after some thought, I realised what the problem was: quite simply I had moved away from God, I had wandered away, I had slipped my hand from his and was no longer walking by his side. And just as a wheel whose axel is not true to the centre wobbles and does not drive straight, so I, who had not let God be at the very centre of my life, felt as though things were not right.
In understanding this, I knew that I needed to call on God, to ask him back into my life to guide me once again. This echoes the structure of each section of this Psalm: we face the situation, realising what needs to be done; we call on our Father to save us; he delivers us, and in our thanksgiving we praise him for what he has done, and for who he is.
In the second section, the Psalmist speaks of those who “sat in darkness and deep gloom, bound fast in misery and iron” – a definition of being ground down by a sense of one’s own sin. When reading this I immediately thought of the wonderful Wesley hymn “And can it be?” – there speaks the Methodist of my childhood! In this hymn which we sang a few weeks ago, Wesley paints a picture -surely influenced by this Psalm! – of a soul rescued from the bondage of sin and brought into the light of God’s salvation
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
And whether this reminds us of the first moment when we realised our fundamental need of God’s forgiveness and began our first steps of our Christian journey, or whether this echoes a daily battle with sin, when time after time we need to call on God to save us from ourselves, or perhaps it calls on us to recognise and admit for the first time our desperate need of God’s salvation, these words echo too the structure of the Psalm: we understand the situation we are in, we cry out to God, we accept the deliverance he offers us, and we go forth with thanksgiving.
In the third section, those who are in need of God’s help are described as “foolish”, as those who took to rebellious ways. In some translations this verse reads “Some were sick through their sinful ways,” which reflects the thinking of the ancient world that sin and suffering were related as cause and effect, that there was a direct link between the soul and the body. This is not to say that God gives suffering as a punishment for sin, but rather that, if the mind or spirit is troubled with guilt and unforgiven sin, then the body will manifest this in sickness, and disease. Here we come back to my sense of dis-ease, the idea of not being at ease, not being at one with one’s self. And how can you be at ease with a sense of guilt hanging over you?
We all, I am sure, remember the story of the paralysed man that was lowered through the roof by his friends in order for Jesus to heal him, and maybe you remember too that Jesus did not say to the man “You are healed”, or “Take up your bed and walk” but rather that he said “Your sins are forgiven”. Jesus did not distinguish between the sickness of the body and the soul, but rather took them both as different expressions of one supreme ailment of humanity. He recognised and acknowledged the man’s need to know that his sins were forgiven, and in speaking the words out loud, Jesus enabled the man to move forward both in his everyday life and in his relationship with God.
In this section of the Psalm, following the structure of the previous stanzas, the Psalmist speaks of how God saves us, and in v 20 he uses the words “He sent forth his word and healed them” Maybe at this moment, now, you need to recognise that, through rebelliousness, through foolishness, you have been brought to a sickness of the soul, and that you need to call on God to heal you with his word. When we recognise our situation and call on him, God can –and will – bring us to full spiritual health, and, as we read in verse 20 “save us from the grave”.
The final situation mentioned in the Psalm, is that of sailors, tossed on a storm-wracked sea: not a situation of their own making, but simply faced with the trials of life. And how many of us here have not, at one time or another, just felt that everything was getting on top of us. Life was becoming too much. I have a friend who, a couple of years ago, went through what the Queen once described as an “annus horribilis” – her husband died of lung cancer, her son was diagnosed with another form of cancer, there were problems with her house, her daughter’s OCD suddenly got very much worse as she lost her job…None of this was my friend’s “fault”, none of this could be attributed to her “sinfulness”, it was just the (excuse my language) shittiness that sometimes comes from this condition called “life”. And she later said to me that she could never have got through the year if she had not completely and utterly thrown herself into the arms of God.
So here we have four different situations, all of which we will find ourselves in at some time or other in our lives. And what should we do in these situations? We are reminded in the words used time and again in the Psalm: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble and he delivered them from their distress” We should call on God, we should tell him what we need, and he will rescue us.
But the Psalmist does not leave it there: In the final verse of the Psalm he says “Whoever is wise will ponder these things, and consider well the mercies of the Lord”. He is telling us that thanksgiving for what God has done for us should not be a shallow response, a “Yippee, I’m free!” kind of response. No, it should be, as one commentator says, a prayerful and grateful response. But personally I feel it should be a response that goes further than that.
Throughout my reading of this Psalm, I have had ringing in my ears an echo of what some people call Jesus’s “mission statement”, the words that he spoke in the synagogue at the beginning of his public ministry, the words from Isaiah that so succinctly sum up what Jesus was about:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
In these verses we can hear reiterated those human situations that the Psalmist talked about: those who are blind and lost, those held captive by sin, those who are oppressed by their foolishness, those who, beset by life’s trials, are so in need of good news… Jesus came to bring freedom to us all, to give us the good news that God can rescue us from the oppression of our sin.
And I truly believe that this is not just Jesus’ mission statement, but that it should be ours too. As the man who was forgiven his great debt by his master should have forgiven the smaller debt owed to him by another, so we, who have been released from our sinfulness by God, should show our thanksgiving by sharing this good news with others. Our response to God’s rescue should not just be grateful and prayerful, but it should be active too. As the Psalm reminds us in verse 2:
Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim that he has redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
We have been broken people, held prisoner by our own sin, brought to a sickness of our soul by rebellion, lost and beset by life, but God has taken our brokenness and made us whole. We should now take this good news to the broken, hurting world around us, and proclaim that God can redeem everyone from the hand of the foe.