Sunday, June 09, 2024
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“The God who Hides”
By Rev. Dr. Patrick McManus
Sunday, June 9, 2024
Reading: Psalm 89


Good morning. I want to thank Jason for inviting me to spend this Sunday morning with you all. It is a real joy to be with you as we dig into these rude prayers in the Scriptures together. What a great summer series for preaching! Unlike your senior pastor, I have not written a book on the psalms, but I do know that these psalms, if we let them, bare their teeth, and show themselves to be something other than the sentimentalized thing they have become in many a mainline tradition. They are not nice prayers. If we attend to them with some intention, we can hear them again as these intimate, hard, guttural, raw, and deeply faithful prayers that can sound rather blasphemous to our modern ears. They are psalms which aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and contend with God to wrestle a blessing out of him.

Now, I’m an Anglican preacher which means I’m a lectionary preacher. I didn’t grow up with the lectionary, so I came to it later in life. I’ve been a lectionary preacher now for the past seventeen years and rarely have I strayed from it. The lectionary, shared by churches around the world is a three-year cycle of selected readings that are assigned for given Sundays throughout the liturgical year. It is a marvel and I think a gift to the church, but lots of Scripture gets ignored. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the rhythm of readings and the care that has gone into producing the selection of readings through the years. And yet, we’re human and there are Scriptures we just don’t like, or portions of Scripture we’d rather avoid. There’s language and images and stories that make us feel uncomfortable, that offend our rather sensitive souls.

So, believe me when I tell you that it is a joy and an adventure to preach off lectionary when I get the chance, and particularly exciting for me to dig into this rude psalm where this faithful song write speaks to God with a tenacity and doggedness with what can come across as an offensive prayer.

Last week in Psalm 2 you all met the God who smashes nations, who in the Son’s cross bears forth the only power that matters, the power of God that spends itself entirely and fully in love. Well, this morning, we meet the God who disappears, the God who hides, the God who is MIA and we meet this psalmist who calls him out on it in prayer.  

I had a lovely professor of theology, David Demson who studied with the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. One day we were dealing with a particularly nasty part of the book of Jeremiah where it spoke of God’s wrath coming upon God’s people and one well-intentioned student piped up and said, “Dr. Demson, Jeremiah just doesn’t speak to me”, to which he responded without missing a beat, “frankly, I don’t blame him.” We tend to approach the Scriptures in the same way: we like what we like, and we don’t what we don’t and what we don’t like, we don’t have the foggiest idea of what to do with, so we tend to ignore and focus on the bits we do like.

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, had a habit of playing at Christianity. He used to sit at his desk with the Scriptures in front of him and he would take a sharp knife and basically cut out bits of text on the page and the parts he liked, he would paste back together, and the rest he left on the cutting room floor, chaff excised for the kernel of what he thought the good stuff. While not many of us sit and try to write our own Bibles, we do tend to ignore or at least flout the parts we don’t like to hear or don’t know what to do with.

Psalm 89—a psalm I’m guessing you’re not too familiar with— only appears in the lectionary twice. Once in Advent and once in Ordinary time. On both occasions, the lectionary is very selective as to what it cuts and pastes and what it leaves out. In the lectionary readings of it we never get verses 38 to the end of the psalm so it comes off as a psalm of wonderful delight in and praise of God and God’s faithfulness. Without the end, the psalm seems pretty rosy, but as we heard this morning, that’s not the whole psalm, that’s not the whole story, that’s not how the psalm ends.

It is a longer psalm that spends two thirds extolling and praising God for his goodness, faithfulness, and trustworthiness. Frankly, it sounds just awesome: “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.”

That’s what we’ve been doing this morning and it’s something you all do very well, you sing of God’s steadfast love. Fitting for us that this psalm is credited to a music leader in the court, to a fellow named Ethan the Ezrahite who was tasked with leading the congregation in song. This is his psalm, his song, his prayer about David and praising God for all the goodness he’s shown in the life of King David. He spends most of the psalm extolling God for God’s promises to uphold and defend David’s rule and his kingdom. He praises God for prospering David and his line: “I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand shall always remain with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him… I will establish his line forever and his throne as long as the heavens endure.” Sounds like a God kind of thing to say, right? The Scriptures are full of these promises.

But. But there’s a but in verse 38 and it’s a pretty big but. Take a look at it. “But” you have abandoned him, “but” you have spurned your anointed, “but” you have rejected your covenant with him and left him alone; “but” you have left his crown in the dust that you put on his head and now he is taunted, scorned by those who pass him by. It’s a pretty big but and the whole psalm turns on it.

Life turns on these big buts doesn’t it? “But” you lost your job, “but” you have cancer, “but” your marriage is in trouble, but, but, but. Buts have amazing power over us; they can devastate us, and they can crush us, making us feel abandoned by God, and they can leave us little where else to turn save to these hard prayers to a hidden God, prayers from a deep place, wondering if we should even give them voice, wondering if God is around to even hear them.

Historically, the best we can tell is that this but has to do with some significant devastating historical occurrence that upended the Davidic line. It could have been the original division of the kingdom and its twelve tribes into two kingdoms between the north and the south, between Israel and Judah, or maybe it was the death of Josiah and the apparent end of the line of David. Whatever it was, for this songwriter, it was devastating, world-altering stuff that hit him and the people of God in the gut. All that David had worked for seemed to be thrown into the wastebin of history. King David, amazing man of God “but” his line is threatened, and he is scorned and spurned.

This is a psalm that the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “a psalm of disorientation”. It is a psalm that gives voice to that feeling of your world being flipped upside-down and not in a good way. It’s the dissonance and disorientation you feel when the floor falls out from underneath you.

Yet, instead of turning his attention to the situation and focussing on the what ifs and what if nots, this psalmist directs his anger and his disorientation directly to God. This is strong language! The psalmist accuses God of disappearing, of exiting stage left of the great narrative of salvation and abandoning them. It's a scene that rivals Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; here’s the psalmist sitting in the midst of the scourges of his life, and he whistles into the dark, dizzying emptiness and cries out to this God who hides, “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”

It is, biblically, a question for those who wrestle with God and who wonder if the Lord is with them, because everything around them looks to be evidence that the Lord is not. But it’s never a complaint into the ether, it’s a complaint directed to God in prayer and there’s a huge difference.

Think about Job who exclaims:
“‘If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”

Or think about Isaiah who says at one point: “You are a God who hides himself”. And unless you think this is simply about our feelings or psychological projections, remember in Isaiah where God tells his people: “For a while I have abandoned you but with great compassion, I will gather you.” God hides.

To pray to a God like this, who hides and leaves the picture—something we particularly feel during dark times of struggle or in the midst of suffering—takes patience, it takes determination, it takes resilience; it takes faith! To pray to God and ask in anger if he’s ever going to show up for you again is not a prayer for the faint of heart, but it is a prayer, prayed by the faithful constantly and consistently. If you haven’t been there in your life needing a prayer like this one, you will be, and I pray that this prayer will be on your lips and in your heart.

To ask the question with this psalmist, “how long O Lord, will you hide yourself forever?” is hard. It’s a difficult question to ask but it is asked by those who genuinely wrestle with God. Just as only a lover can know what it means to be abandoned by their beloved, only a God-obsessed people like the people who pray these psalms can know what it means to be abandoned by God.

The apathetic among us may never come to ask such a question, but when the chips are down and everywhere you look seems to be more evidence of the absence of God, this will become for you a holy question, a question you will ask with those who have gone before you, like Job, like Isaiah, like this Ethan the Ezrahite. Praise the Lord, yes, I know I’m supposed to do that, but where is he? I can’t find him, this wily, hidden God. Our sufferings or the commonplace tragedies of our mundane lives seem at times to be the only thing we see, abandoned to the crush of circumstance, with God nowhere in sight.

Shortly after Mother Teresa died, her journals were published. People were shocked by the depth of despair she expressed in them. She experienced years and years of feeling abandoned by God, asking the question constantly, where are you God? And she got nothing in reply. I think folks were shocked because we tend to falsely associate holiness with certitude. But she kept loving and caring between the answers, learning to wrestle with this question, and loving throughout the silences of her life.

I think that’s what the Christian life is. A wrestling with God. A holy contention. A loving in between the silences. That’s how these psalms teach us to pray: not with the niceties and conventions of our pleasant social interactions but with the passion and grit that it takes to contend with God. Remember that this is where Israel gets her name as Jacob wrestled with God. The whole identity of God’s people is as a people who wrestle, who contend, who struggle with God. And yes, God acts, and yes, God saves but not by erasing the conflict, not by taking them out of it, but by wandering in it with them, by meeting them in the middle of it.

This is a God who will hide under the shadow of the cross, for the foolish and weak to find him there; for the threadbare to be clothed there with the splendid mysteries of God’s grace. “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” “My God, where are you?” Jesus is this Psalm of God prayed finally and fully and faithfully, the one in whom these rude psalms and prayers find their end and their beginning. Because they are on his lips, they ought to be on ours.

To find him in this weakness and discover that it’s God’s strength, to find him in the foolishness of this cross and discover that this is God’s wisdom in the delight of the Christian life, it is the revelation of the grain of the universe! To find out that this God-forsaken place, and this God-forsaken crucified is the fullness of God’s presence for you and for me, for the whole of creation is the power of the gospel for the salvation of this world. This is the hidden God found ruling from a cross; this is the goodness of the good news of the gospel; the Son of God goes the way of this abandonment for us finally, and fully, and faithfully, so that we can go to the god-forsaken people and places of this world, the god-forsaken corners of our lives with the glory of his presence.

So, pray this psalm when God hides from you. Pray this psalm but know that you don’t or ever can pray it alone. It is the psalmist’s prayer, it is the prayer of our Lord from the cross, it is Israel’s prayer, it is the church’s prayer; so pray when you feel abandoned to circumstance, pray this psalm in the midst of whatever crushes you on the daily; friends, struggle with this God and wrestle a blessing from him. Amen.