This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 18th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the eleventh of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 130. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.
For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.
Over the years I’ve taken a number of personality profile tests. You’ll know them. I don’t mean the sort of things you find in the back of magazines; I mean the ones which take your answers to a set of questions and give you a number, a colour, a shape, a series of letters or some such thing to sum you up. They can be of immense value, but they can also be immensely damaging. They are valuable if they give you space to grow into, help you to change and grow and develop and put time and energy into things which actually work. I’ve also seen them used as excuses for not doing things, as tools to bully people with, as a vehicle for saying ‘This is what God says about you’. When that happens it never ends well.
Where these have helped me has been to understand why some things suck the life out of me and the sorts of things I really should get some help with. Planning is one of these – I am not a systematic person. I find it very hard to break things down into logical, achievable steps. So in work and life, that’s something I need help with. That’s something other people at church help me do; it’s what my wife is very good at. When that works well it’s a life-giving synergy for all of us. Knowing strengths and weaknesses like makes life a lot more bearable.
Psalm 130 is one which shows us that it’s good to know who we’re shaped to be – and that planning isn’t always the best thing. That starts in the first two verses with the stark reminder that we can’t plan our way around the ultimate statistic.
Death is real and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can put it off, we can pretend it doesn’t exist, we can hasten our journey towards it – but we can’t do anything about the reality. The Bible’s full of mediations on death; and that’s the language unavoidably used of our status without God. As long as we hold out on God, as long as we keep Him at arm’s length and pretend we don’t need Him, as long as we act as if He doesn’t exist or refuse Him, we are the living dead – physically sentient, dead in every other respect. One rebelled – we all rebel – and death is the logical next step of all who turn their back on life. The first two verses of this Psalm are the cry of someone who knows she’s dead without God; she’s in a mess of her own making and can bring nothing to her situation apart from a shovel to dig herself deeper. Like Jonah, she’s in a pit and all she can do is ask for help. We don’t like moments like this; we want, instinctively, to wrap arms around someone in deep pain, in desperation, on whom the world is caving in and tell them it’s ok. There’s something they can do. It will get better. Only it may not, and they may be able to do nothing. It’s at these points that, if we sit in the dust long enough without offering solutions we can find the hand of God extended. The point of desperation is the very place we often need to find ourselves to discover the mountain-shifting power of the Earth Maker.
We can’t plan our way around death – and neither can we plan our way back into life either.
I once spent some time with a man whose marriage was collapsing. As always there was fault on both sides; he described to me how it felt as if every time he got something wrong, put a foot out of line his then wife wrote it down in a big leather-bound book, a ledger of wrongs done. There was nothing he could do; as quickly as he made amends for one, another was written down. That’s a familiar dynamic because we all do it – for others, for ourselves. We find it very hard to forget. Many of us take the next step and project that onto God – we do it, so He must too. The Psalm-writer acknowledges that reality – verses 3 and 4 speak of the impossibility of standing before a God who would do such a thing. It turns out, much to our surprise, that God is not like this. One man lived and died well; if we accept that, live in that reality, then it’s counted for us. There’s no ledger of wrongs; just a Book of Life. Forgiveness is this God’s speciality. It can’t be planned by the recipient; a truth gloriously offensive to the recipient.
Death and new life can’t be planned out of or into. Neither can God’s great project; or rather, He can and we can’t. Those who have received life from the Giver are alive but surrounded by death, in the dark but holding an oil lamp. We can’t plan the coming dawn, but we can get on with what’s in front of us. That’s how the second half of Psalm 130 pictures the situation. I used to work night shifts in a hostel for young people who were homeless. 10 p.m. – 8:30 a.m. could crawl by. So I filled the time with the work I was given to do – keep an eye on the hostel and residents; clean; administration; feeding myself physically and spiritually; talking with those who couldn’t sleep; dealing with unpredictable incidents which arose. If I didn’t keep reminding myself that 8:30 was coming I could despair. So much to do, so much need. Morning would come, though, and others would pick up what was left. Or conversely the time would creep by if I didn’t fill it with what I was there to do.
I can’t plan, but I’ve learned I can write and speak in public. I can bring vision, others can bring the steps to get there. That’s my lamp. I choose to light it in the presence of one who can make it burn brighter or longer than I can dream of.
That’s what it means to wait for the morning – to get on, to do your job safe in the knowledge that dawn will come whether you work or not. So you might as well do what you’re there for. The world is dark, but we all have things to do; we all have lamps to light, illumination to bring. The catch is we don’t know when the dawn is coming. But is coming. So when it comes, will your lamp be ready to welcome it?
This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 18th August 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.
Also in this series: