A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 30th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the fourth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 123. 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.

Everybody waits for something. A childhood Christmas when the days pass slower the younger you are; a wedding day; healing; Madiba’s long years in a prison cell; release from suffering; a relationship … we all wait. How do we do it, and how do we do it well?

If it’s taking too long we often find ourselves adopting a coping strategy: hurry things along or engaging in distraction activity. Sometimes that might help; often it might not.

Christians, like everyone else, wait. For all the normal things for which everyone waits, and this: for the world that we know is not as it should be to be made right, for ourselves to be know even as we are known. What do we do as we wait? Psalm 123 tells us.

We wait, first, with an upwards glance:

1 I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.

Looking up. We’re not talking geography here. We don’t think of God as ‘up there’ somewhere. We may have inherited that idea that He is, but of course He isn’t. Where is He? We don’t know. Of course we don’t. Where does an omnipotent creator dwell? How could we even begin to know? Jesus ascended to give us picture language – to show us what we can’t wrap our minds around: that He, seated at the right hand of the Father, is over us in the way we say a King is over us. He reigns. We look up to Him in the way we might look up to someone whom we admire for their skill in a given field. They are ahead of us, beyond us, inspiring us, calling us on. Except, of course, this One is more than skilled. He is everything. So we look up.

This is fleshed out in verse 2. Language of slavery and servanthood which doesn’t sit well with liberated 21st-century ears and eyes. But that is what we are. If we believe that the One we look up to is the One we say He is, then what else could we be? Servants, slaves. Lest we fear, lest we think that this is a master who will abuse us and take us for granted, verse 2 throws us a line. We might be waiting in the hope of mercy; in the possibility of it; with the wish for deliverance. There’s no certainty in the sort of waiting to which most of us are accustomed. But this is different. Not in the hope  of mercy; it’s until. Until is certain. Until is dependable. Until is the Christmas Day that will always come; excruciating to wait for it may be, with time seeming to stretch the closer it gets; but it will come. There is no doubt. Until. Martin Luther King said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Certainty. It’s coming. So we can wait.

Waiting is so passive though, isn’t it? Doesn’t a servant, even one knowing that Master will be good, have to wait silently and obediently, unquestioningly,  uncomplainingly for action?

Not a bit of it. We are not those voiceless before an omnipotent power whom will not budge. We are those who wait patiently. But loudly and honestly. Have you read the short second half of this psalm?

3 Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
4 We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud.

We know mercy is coming … so we pour out our hearts and complain to Master about the suffering and the pain and ridicule. We might expect servants to buzz about unseen and unheard doing Master’s bidding. And we should certainly do that last part. But Master has paid an unimaginable price to have us in His presence, and He doesn’t want us to be silent. He wants to hear us. He wants to hear how bad it is to wait, how much we need Him to act, how much we long for the mercy He promises.

The Psalms are full of this sort of thing. Untidy endings, anguished cries, the hurt of hurt people. None of the feel-good here. True Christian spirituality knows nothing of the easy coping of a perma-Instagramed prayer life. No. We know mercy is coming, so we can be joyful, happy, celebrate. We must do that. We must also rant irrationally and tell Master how bad it is and tell Him we need Him to act.

The arc of the universe is bending towards justice. Certainly it is. It is also long. So Master expects us to tell Him to shorten it.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 30th June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)