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Christian’s Recovery in Time of Disorientation

September 22, 2008, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (Psalm 130:1-8) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Psalms
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Ascent, Penitential

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Sermon on Ascent Psalm 130

The Psalm 130 we read just now marks a sharp change of tone in the Songs of Ascent series. The feeling of the previous ten songs (Ps.120 to 129) that we have preached so far has been more of a thankful optimism. Even though we see there are outsiders, enemies who are for war against God’s people (120), who despise Israel (123) and who hate Zion (129); and there have been sinners within the Israelite community who have turned to crooked ways (125), all these psalms’ writers nevertheless express their confidence of God’s deliverance in all kinds of situation. In fact, Psalm 128 even looks forward to blessing, to prosperity and to abundance of children. But when it comes to Psalm 130, the atmosphere has changed completely. Something has happened which drive the psalmist to his knees to beg for a hearing, for forgiveness, for redemption from iniquities, and for mercy. For this Psalm begins with an urgent plea for help: Out of the depth I cry to you, O LORD; O LORD, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. These two beginning verses are an address to God for someone who is in trouble. In fact, the psalmist is crying to God: I am drowning in deep water please help me! The psalmist knows that he himself is responsible for the distress in which he find himself and so every thing for him depends on God’s saving action. Not only that, he felt himself alienated from God. Thus he is pleading for God’s ears to be attentive to his cry for mercy. In short, his life is in total disorientation. He is lost in his human existence and equally lost in his relationship with God. And only God is able to rescue him out of his depth, to re-orientate his life once again to a normal course. So, the topic of my sermon today is: Christian’s recovery in time of disorientation.

In fact, Psalm 130 has a remarkable history in the spiritual life of the church. It is one of the seven penitential psalms (Ps. 6, 32, 38, 51, 106, 130, 143) that were used in church services at times of confession of sin and disciplines of repentance. Luther called it “a proper master and doctor of Scripture,” by which he meant that the psalm teaches the basic truth of the gospel. He even ventured to classify it as Pauline in character and made a hymn of it. This psalm has indeed expressed powerfully the theme that is the heart of Scripture: the human predicament and its dependence on divine grace. Let us now go into details how God’s grace is manifested in time of Christian’s disorientation. The first point we see in this psalm is that: in time of disorientation there is God’s forgiving grace.

(1) In time of disorientation there is God’s forgiving grace
The crisis in the psalmist’s life is described in one word in Hebrew, the opening word of the psalm, translated “Out of the depths”. What is meant by “the depths”? The usage of this word is confined to the figure of a man who is caught in dangerous and deep waters (cf. Ps 40:2; 69:2, 14; Is. 51:10; Ezek.27:34). It thus represents drowning in distress, being overwhelmed and sucked down by the bottomless waters of troubles. Furthermore, “the depths” is often associated with Sheol, the abode of the dead. To be in the depths is thus to be where death prevails. Simply put, he is in hell. Since the use of term is figurative, it allows the reader to think of any and every kind of extremity or danger in which the psalmist may find himself, whether it is physical, mental or spiritual. In short, “the depths” points to the deep trouble and affliction, even a life-threatening situation, in which the psalmist felt himself alienated from God. So, across the centuries people facing their own crisis situations have found it easy to identify with the psalmist, as they cry to the Lord out of their own “depths”. Sometimes it is only when we are in “the depths” that we urgently reach out to God.

Even though the psalmist in verse 1 does not tell us exactly what kind of crisis he is facing, he is simply in great trouble, he nevertheless shows us in verse 3 that he is aware of the fact that sin is deeply involved in his problem. He does not say that sin is the ultimate source and root of all his troubles, but he does seem to realize that sin has much to do with his state. In fact, to him sin is so serious a business that he realizes that, if all his sins were to be recorded against him and dealt with as they deserve, his case would be quite hopeless: “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?” If God is the One whose principal way with human beings is to watch for iniquities, there will be no hope for anyone. If God is to act on our human sins in speedy punishment, none could survive at the bar of divine justice. But the palmist also knows there is an attitude on the part of God which expresses itself in forgiveness: “But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared”.

When the palmist asks, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?” he shows us the shattering perception of the tremendous power of sin. He tells us also the paralyzing powerlessness of man in his bondage to sin. But in realizing the true nature of sin at the same time opens our eyes to the greatness of the divine grace. For in forgiving sin, God proves Himself to be more powerful than sin itself. Sin is essentially a matter of relation to God who alone has the right to forgive, choosing to deal with sinners by grace. But God’s forgiveness does not mean that God says casually “Forget it,” with the psalmist happily going off to do his own thing. God does not simply overlook sin. By forgiving sin, God wants to restore man’s relationship with Him and that sin may no longer control man’s life.

So, forgiving freely does not render the recipient to commit more sins, just because God seems so ready to forgive. The belief in the forgiveness of sins is an entirely serious matter; the grace of God cancels sin, but not its seriousness. In fact, divine forgiveness has its ultimate purpose: to fear God. Thus, divine forgiveness demands from man a response of awe and reverence which will shape his life. Man’s reverence for God, far from being reduced by God’s ready to forgive, only becomes weightier than ever. When man thinks of his own sinfulness and of God’s judgment on sin, he will all the more hold God in reverence and respect, just because God has been so gracious in bestowing pardon. So, “fear of God” implies a positive relationship to Him; a relationship which means finding security in Him. Awe in the presence of God is awe in the presence of the God of mercy.

John Wesley, 18th century Methodist evangelist, was ordained into the ministry in 1728. But by his own admission, he was not personally converted to Christ until 10 years later in 1738. For a full decade, Wesley labored as an evangelist and missionary, preaching on both sides of the Atlantic while lost. Yet, throughout this time, this famed preacher did not consider himself a true believer in Christ. However, on May 24, 1738, Wesley attended St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and heard Psalm 130 as an anthem: “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?” Deep conviction came over his heart. How could he find acceptance with God, who kept perfect records of his many sins? Later that night, Wesley visited a small group of believers where he heard read the introduction to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. His regenerated soul was “strangely warmed,” and John Wesley was converted to Christ.

Yes, brothers and sisters, in the presence of God, there is human equality because of the democracy of sin. High and low, rich and poor, wise and ignorant, come under the power of sin. But all can gather together at the altar of mercy. This is because God is ready to forgive sinners. God desires not the death of a sinner but restoration to life. But God’s forgiveness is not something that comes necessarily or naturally. It is wrong to say that God forgives because that is what is expected of God (i.e. It is God’s business to forgive), or because something in the human situation merits it. Forgiveness is the expression of God’s grace, but it is not “cheap grace”. According to Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.

Just as Verse 4 is saying God’s forgiveness is to evoke the fear of him. The fear intended here is for sinner to begin a new life, a life freshly oriented, finding in obedience a right way to live before God. Yes, brothers and sisters, very often the real enemy is our own self. The “depths” that we are in are the depths of our self-centered attitude or behavior. This self-centerness when overwhelming us would surely endanger our relationship with God and others. As such, our lives are in total disorientation and we create our self-made hell. So, let us examine ourselves before this forgiving God to see what wrongs we have done to God and to others, and cry out to God for mercy. Let us not pretend to God or to ourselves that we have “loved him with all our hearts, soul, mind and strength” and “loved our neighbor as ourselves”. We must strip our pride and be honest with ourselves, for “if you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” but “with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared”. God is to be feared because He forgives!

(2) In time of disorientation there is God’s word of assurance
Yes, in time of disorientation there is God’s forgiveness for us. But in time of disorientation, there is also God’s word for us to draw strength and comfort from. This is the second point we now want to explore.

Although the psalmist is dependent solely on God’s forgiveness of sins and His mercy, his normal serenity has not deserted him: he waits for the LORD, and hopes in His word. In other words, the object of this waiting is God’s word. God’s word of promises made by prophets and other biblical writers was within reach of the people of God and known to them. We can think of words such as Exodus 34:6: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness”. Again in Micah 7:18-19, we read: “Who is God like you, who pardons sin and forgive the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea”. These are God’s word of pardon, the word that bestows forgiveness. We know Psalm 130 is classified as a pilgrimage song to be sung by the pilgrims as a preparation for the festivals to be kept in the Holy City. As it is used in the act of worship, the pronouncement of God’s word of pardon by a priest would lead the congregation back to discover again God’s forgiving grace. So, with feet firmly planted on God’s promises to pardon the iniquities of his people, the palmist together with the pilgrims is thus able to wait confidently for God’s forgiveness to bestow upon them.

But God’s word does not restrict only to the word of pardon, it also involves the word of instruction. Psalm 119 has great things to say about God’s word of instruction. It is the longest psalm in the whole collection of psalms, comprising 176 verses. A few quotations of this psalm would suffice to point to the importance of God’s word of instruction for his people:

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word” (v9)
“My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word” (v28)
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (v67)
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (v105)
“Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me”. (v133)

As I have mentioned before “fear of God” implies a positive relationship to God. This positive relationship expresses itself in the form of our conduct. God’s forgiveness leads us to liberation from sin but this is not an end in itself. Liberation from sin is not yet a full restoration to life. Our life must be transformed through living out the word of God. That is why God’s word is important to us as a lamp to our feet and a light for our path, lest we stumble and fall into our own depths of disorientation. As Bonhoeffer points out correctly, our love for God begins with listening to God’s word. So, brothers and sisters, how keen are we in studying the Bible, the word of God? Paul tells us clearly in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”. In time of disorientation, it is even more so for Christians to turn to God’s word for forgiveness and instruction, so that our lives can once again be freshly re-oriented to God’s way, and base our living on Him without reservation.

(3) In time of disorientation there is hope in God as redeemer
So, Christians in time of disorientation, there is God’s forgiving grace for us. We can be assured of it because God has given His word to us, His word of pardon and instruction. And because we have God’s forgiveness and His word of assurance, we have hope in God that He will redeem us and fully restore our lives. This is the third point we can infer from the testimony of the palmist as recorded in verses 5-8.

For the psalmist states that: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the LORD more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning”. As the psalmist puts his hope in God’s word, he thus waits for God like watchmen wait for the morning. The imagery here used for comparison is that of a watchman, weary after staying at the post through the long hours of the night. The duty of a watchman is to stay on guard throughout the night when his fellow men are exposed to danger. One can imagine the eager watchman waiting for the first rays of morning light and for danger’s end. The palmist says that he is longing for the LORD more than those weary watchmen. By means of this comparison, his waiting-hoping in God thus gains stronger and more powerful expression. But forgiveness had already been granted and received. So, what is the psalmist hoping for waiting for the LORD? He is waiting for a full restoration by God. God’s full restoration or redemption includes not only liberation from guilt and removal of punishment but also from the whole imprisoning network of sin’s effect on life. God does not merely resist evil, for evil is not a “thing” to be resisted. Evil is an activity that has gone wrong. And so God seeks to turn such activity into a creative activity. He does so by loving the sinner, by forgiving him, and by offering him fellowship with Himself. As such, God is able to bring good out of the evil, and man’s life can thus be transformed through His divine power and love.

But on what grounds does the psalmist put his hope in God as his redeemer? He thus puts forward two reasons in verse 7 as to why such hope is to be thought of as well-grounded: “For with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption”. First, God’s unfailing love means God’s steadfast love for His people, the Israelites as He enters into a covenant relationship with them. This covenant relationship is that God will be forever their God and they will be His people. God’s steadfast love towards them is the sort of love that keeps on loving no matter what, just like the prophet Hosea’s love for his wife, even after her unfaithfulness. The steadfast love is also the kind of love that never gives up, like that of the father who never gave up on his rebellious son and kept hoping, waiting, watching for his return. Secondly, there is God’s abundant, plentiful redemption, ready to deliver His people from all sorts of crisis situations. In other words, the psalmist is convinced that because of God steadfast love, his life guided by God’s hand is a way from redemption to redemption until it is fully restored.

After testifying his own personal experience, the palmist in the end turns to the people and urges them to continue the trusting watch for the LORD, in sure hope of His steadfast love and His abundant redemption. For Israel as the people of God, are equally guilty of her continuing rebellious acts against God. What we must remember is that God had already saved Israel by rescuing her from slavery in Egypt. But Israel continued to rebel against God and so had slipped into “hell” again and again. The fact that Israel has lost her home land and put into exile is to the view of the prophets a judgment from God for her sins. As such Israel needs also to be liberated and redeemed by God. Thus, the psalmist concludes: “He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins”. So, we see that Psalm 130 starts with individual concerns, but broadens out to take in Israel as a whole. It begins as an individual’s cry for help. It comes to a close as a call to the gathered community to continue hoping and trusting in the Lord. And it is a song which arises from sorrow (“I cry”) and goes beyond sorrow (“I hope”) to the secure expectation of God’s appearance in loving forgiveness and ultimate redemption. It has also a strong communal setting, imploring God to forgive and restore Israel.

Yes, brothers and sisters, people measure themselves or others by whether they live up to certain ideas or a particular code of behavior. But this is not so for Christians. We live according to God’s word of instruction. God will provide us the strength through the Holy Spirit to help us to live according to His way. But there are times when disorientation may occur in our walk with God. This disorientation in life may be caused by our rebellious acts against God, by our broken relations with our love ones, our friends or colleagues, by our unforgiving heart towards others and to ourselves, by our selfish attitude to serve only our needs first, and even by our prolonged poor health or suffering. Let us remember that God’s mercy is stronger than the power of sin, than the power of evil forces, and than the tormented pain caused by illness. For God will surely look upon us with the eyes of forgiveness and love. His divine power is able to lead us from redemption to redemption, so that we can be reoriented to live out the lives as children of God, to the glory of His name. Lastly, our Christian life does not stop at the individual, but must incorporate the fellowship of all believers. The psalmist has had on his mind the concern of his fellow men beside his own. He has prayed for them while he was engaged in his personal struggle for the assurance of redemption from sin. God’s forgiving grace has prompted him to enter into God’s service, to turn his mind off “self” and to share his life with others with the grace that God has bestowed him. So, what about us? May God continue to look upon us with His eyes of forgiveness and love, and to recover us out of our depths. Like the pilgrims, we can be on “the way up” for the ascent to God.

Psalm 130 (Listen)

A Song of Ascents.

130:1   Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
    O Lord, hear my voice!
  Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
  If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?
  But with you there is forgiveness,
    that you may be feared.
  I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
  my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.
  O Israel, hope in the LORD!
    For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
    and with him is plentiful redemption.
  And he will redeem Israel
    from all his iniquities.

(ESV)