Sunday, April 6, 2014

God still hears the cry of his people...

5th Sunday in Lent 2014
Psalm 130    Hebrews 9:11-15    John 8:46-59
The Promise of the King
The sudden realization that I was absolutely powerless to do anything to save my son and myself was as shocking as the freezing cold water of the Eastern Atlantic. Playtime on the beach with my children and their friends had suddenly turned into a nightmare. A rogue wave had rushed up and snatched our oldest son, Hanno, from the beach. I barely managed to grab hold of his arm before we both were swept out behind the waves in a matter of seconds. Treading water, I found that the undertow kept preventing me (with Hanno on my back) from getting in front of the waves. No Life-Guard, even if there had been one, would have braved the angry sea that day. I was a strong swimmer, but my strokes were no match for the heaving and surging waters all around us and the undertow that tugged me under repeatedly. I cried out to God. This just was not the way I wanted to exit this world. And my son…I cried out for the life of my son.

After struggling for what seemed to be an age, we managed to get in front of a monstrous wave that barreled us into the rocks, but I was so cold and so weak by that time that I simply could not grab hold of anything, much less lift us out of the water that appeared to be reluctant to let us go. And then the dark spots began…I knew I was going to black out soon and then we would both be lost. I summoned every ounce of strength left in me, and thrust Hanno toward a group of young would be rescuers a few feet away from us. When I knew he was safely in their arms, I let go.

The young men turned all their attention to Hanno. They had seen me swept out once again and concluded that my fate was a foregone conclusion. But our neighbor happened to be on the beach that day as well…an older man who knew the sea well. He stood on the rocks watching as my body was sucked under the swirling water and then thrust back up again. As I was no longer conscious, I was no longer resisting the currents, and they eventually burrowed me into a large bed of seaweed adjacent to the rocks. Our neighbor grabbed the only visible part of me – my ankle – and dragged me out of the seaweed, up the rocks, and onto the beach. I was no longer breathing and he could not find a pulse. Initially he thought he would simply clean up my body for my wife’s sake, but then the sun broke through and shone on my ring. For some or other reason the sight of the ring made him pull me up into a sitting position and when he did this, water and sand came gushing out of me and I breathed for the first time. Later he confessed that he did not know what to do so he kept hitting me in the chest to keep me breathing…truth is, he quite literally beat me up! But I was alive and the method of resuscitation surely does not matter.

I retell this story because I believe the powerlessness Hanno and I experienced in the Eastern Atlantic that day is something similar to what the Psalmist was trying to convey in his opening sentence. “Out of the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord.”

From a place where my feet cannot touch the ground…where I cannot save myself…where I am helpless, weak, vulnerable, hopeless. We all know the feeling…we have all vocalized the cry at one point or another. We hear it in the Scriptures time and again…out of the mouth of Job, Habakkuk, Jeremiah…we hear it in the cry of the father on behalf of his son, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” We hear it in the plea of the Syro-Phoenecian woman, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon possessed.” We hear it in the cry of Peter, sinking in the waves, “Lord, save me!” We've all been there before…we recognize that prayer…when a loved one was diagnosed with an incurable disease…when a loved one died…whenever we face irreversible situations or impossible circumstances. We know the cry…we know the despair…we know the depths.

It is at that time when we come face to face with something far greater than ourselves, that we realize that “self-help” is really no answer to the depths of our distress. It is in this dark place that we become aware of our need for someone far larger than this world and the forces that govern it. And so we cry out, “Lord, hear my voice!”

But behind the prayer of the individual Psalmist, we hear the collective cry of the people of God. We first encounter this cry in Egypt where the children of Jacob had been reduced to the status of slaves. When the Lord spoke to Moses out of the burning bush he said, “I have surely seen the oppression of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows.” Then when Israel found herself in bondage once again, this time in exile in Babylon, they looked back to this God who had heard their ancestors for comfort. “Are you not the one,” Isaiah asked, “who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that made the depths of the sea a road for the redeemed to cross over?”

God’s willingness and his ability to help in times past became the foundation upon which the Exiles' hope for future deliverance was based. But more importantly, just as Israel’s delivery from Egypt was not based upon their own worthiness, or upon their ability to keep the Law, or even their own strength to save themselves, so with those in Babylon...their deliverance from exile, the restoration of the Monarchy, and the restoration of the kingdom of Israel, was not based upon anything save God’s merciful intervention…God’s gracious willingness to redeem his people in spite of themselves and their circumstances.

But it seems the Psalmist was concerned with more than just physical redemption. True, Israel had been delivered before and would be delivered again because that is what God had promised and God cannot deny himself. But unless something more than another exodus took place, they would soon find themselves in the same depths out of which they longed to be delivered. So it does not surprise us to hear this cry again in the New Testament. The crowds that flocked to listen to the teachings of Jesus all yearned to see an end to foreign domination…they all wondered when he would restore the kingdom to Israel. The end of the Babylonian Exile or the Medo-Persian, Greek, or Roman occupation brought only temporary relief as there is a greater bondage and a greater exile from which humanity needs to be delivered…an enslavement so powerful that no human can ever free themselves from it…a depth from which only God can extricate us…a claw from which no one is excluded…that of sin itself.

Sin and its devastating results is one of the major themes that runs through the Scriptures from Genesis through to Revelation. But there is an even greater theme that triumphs over sin and its consequences…it is a theme that recognizes our powerlessness to do anything about the predicament we find ourselves in, in a fallen, broken world. It is the theme of unmerited pardon…the theme of unearned forgiveness...the theme of undeserved grace. In the words of the Psalmist: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities (if you should keep tally…if you should keep score), O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.”

This is the ultimate freedom for which every human being strives, whether they know it or not. Freedom from that which binds us…freedom from that which renders us incapable of escape…freedom from that which bars us from Paradise…freedom from sin.

Unfortunately, all too often this freedom is seen only in negative an escape from punishment...but we are not only set free from sin so that we might escape the fires of hell. We are also set free from sin so that we might live as we were originally created to live…in harmony with God, with creation, and with each other.

This is the great hope of Christianity. No other so-called god ever broke into our world to do what we could not do. Genesis through Revelation demonstrates too clearly the fact that humanity cannot help itself. Even though we were given the perfect, holy Law of God, we still fail because we are inherently sinful…we are born in sin as we saw in Psalm 51 and therefore we are doomed to bear the penalty for that sin. Nothing in this world could ever pay the penalty – no sacrifice, whether animal (the blood of bulls and goats could not atone for sin) or human – as everything in this world was under the curse of God because of the sin of our forebears. Nothing outside of this world could pay the penalty because it is ours to pay. That simply would not be just. So we were locked…trapped…sucked under…stuck fast in the mire of our own making and sinking ever deeper and deeper into the depths.

But God in his mercy took upon himself the form of a man so that as a man he could pay what was man’s to pay. He who was without sin…he who was not subject to the curse…he took upon his own sinless self the curse of the world and paid our penalty of death in full so that we…we who are the guilty might be forgiven and set free. 

TITLE: "Sarah's Testimony: Psalm 107ARTIST: Walter Bowen MEDIUM: Oil

Thus when we – we who know our God as deliverer, as rescuer, as savior – when we find ourselves in the depths…whether they are directly related to our own personal sins or not…whether they are the consequences of our own lack of right living or not…when we find ourselves in a place where we simply cannot stand, we suddenly realize that there really is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still…that there is no place so far that God’s hand of mercy and grace cannot reach us, because he loves us and because he wills to forgive us. This is the primary message of the Scriptures – both Old and New Testaments. Remember, it was God who loved the world so much that he sent his one and only Son into the world to forgive sinners such as you and me. And in his Word he progressively reveals to us his plan and his purpose to set his world to rights…to fulfill his promises to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, and to David. And so we may hope in his Word, as his Word is as sure as his deeds…we may actively wait on the Lord with the full assurance that he will rescue us out of the depths.

Now, this conviction that the same God who heard the cries of Israel in Egypt and of Israel in exile, still hears the cry of his people today – this conviction that there is no place or circumstance beyond the reach of his care and concern – this conviction leads us to believe firmly that our God is a God who is moved to compassion by the struggle of his children in a fallen and broken world. This means that although we will have to live with the consequences of sin’s destructive force and with the suffering that is a result of the curse, our God – our rescuer, redeemer, deliverer, savior, liberator, if you will – our God is willing and able to set us free to live as we were intended to live – to set us free so that we might live a life of obedience and faithfulness to his Word. Such is the power of his committed love and grace.

And so, when we approach his throne of mercy and grace to eat as his table, let us remember that there was one who also cried out of the depths, not for his own sins, but for ours. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” His prayer has echoed across the mists of time and saved sinners throughout the ages bear witness to the divine answer to that cry. So, along with the Psalmist, we may boldly declare that our hope is most certainly built on absolutely nothing less than on the broken body and shed blood of our King and our High Priest, Jesus, the Christ.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl 2014

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