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The Agony and the Ecstasy

San Williams

March 1, 2015
Psalm 22:23-31

You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

Psalm 22 is perhaps the most profound, disturbing, and ultimately enlightening Psalm in all the Psalter. It intertwines life’s deepest sorrow with life’s most extravagant joy. The Psalm gives voice to the very depths of human desperation, yet concludes with a litany of praise, one that’s as extensive and far-reaching as we find anywhere in the Bible. What are we to make of this strange juxtaposition, this weaving together of lament and praise into a single garment of faith?

One thing for sure, such a joining together of lament and praise is explicit in the life of Jesus. From his birth to his death, Jesus embodied the prophetic vision of God’s suffering servant. As the Philippian hymn puts it, “Although he was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Throughout his life, Jesus identified himself and his ministry with those who were most vulnerable, poor, and hungry.

Of course, his suffering with and for others reached a crescendo on the cross. When the writers of the Gospels attempted to articulate the depths of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, they relied on the images and expressions from Psalm 22. Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”…his desperate words, “I thirst”…the way the onlookers mocked him and cast lots for his clothing—all these expressions of suffering were taken directly from Psalm 22. They indicate that not only did Jesus suffer, but also he suffered the most profound abandonment and degradation humanly possible.

But then, surprisingly, in the section of the Psalm we read this morning, lament turns, inexplicably, to praise. This joining together of lament and praise bewilders us. We understand how praise and thanksgiving arise naturally in times of well-being and good fortune, but it’s harder to grasp how praise can be embraced in periods of suffering. The whole idea is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.

Here’s an example. In recent years, a perverse form of Christianity has emerged, one that celebrates wealth and power as signs of God’s favor. For such Christians, praise of God is linked solely with success, wellbeing, strength, triumph. It’s not surprising that many churches today have praise bands, but I’ve yet to hear of one that also has a lament band.

That’s unfortunate, because in the most profound sense, praise of God is inseparable from suffering. Our willingness to bring to God our pain, disappointment, vulnerability—this very willingness makes up the soil from which praise springs forth! Certainly this is the case in Psalm 22. By some miracle of grace, the one who is afflicted finds God’s presence in the affliction. For this reason, the writer of the Psalm lifts up his voice in praise, declaring, “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” In this Psalm, as in the life of Jesus, lament is accompanied by praise. Suffering becomes a means of grace, and a source of hope.

By now most of us know the name Kayla Mueller. She’s the human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker who was captured by the Islamic state and later killed. In 2011 she wrote to her father on his birthday: “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. I know this is how God is revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek God, and I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering.” After her capture, she again wrote to her parents: “I remember mom always telling me that . . . in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no one else…By God, by your prayers, I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”

From what little we know of her life in captivity through her letters to her parents, this young woman showed no bias or hatred toward her captors. What hurt her most was the knowledge that her capture was causing her parents such grief. It’s striking that at her very young age she had such a profound understanding of God. Like the Psalmist, in her suffering she found herself, in her words, “tenderly cradled in freefall.”

Kayla Mueller is a contemporary witness to the Psalmist’s vision expressed here, the vision that God’s providential care in times of trouble is not limited to any one time or people, but rather it extends to the ends of the earth, to all the families of the nations, and to all future generations.

And did you notice that Psalm 22 ends on yet another surprising note? The Psalmist’s conviction that God cares for the suffering, and delivers the afflicted is, in the Psalmist’s vision, not simply a future hope. It’s a present reality, a done deal. The last line of the Psalm declares, “God has done it.” The future is sealed in the mystery of God’s providential care, a future that is forever coming toward us.

Friends, we encounter God’s future every time we come to this Table. The Lord’s Table is set with symbols of suffering and death: bread for a body broken and wine for blood poured out. Thus at this table we lament all brokenness, suffering, and trouble everything that afflicts people today. But also at this Table, the world’s brokenness is accompanied by great thanksgiving, because the Lord’s Table proclaims God’s future—a future in which the hungry are fed, the poor are given their just due, and all families of the earth, from every nation and race, will sit down and feast together in peace, and plenty. The Lord has done this, the Psalmist declares!

So yes, during this season of Lent we will sound our lament to God, and while we’re at it we will lift up our hearts and our voices in joyful praise.