Sunday, April 17: Psalm 111

Written by Matt Benton, Pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA.

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Christ is Risen!  He is Risen, indeed!

Theologian Kathryn Tanner says that God is the giver of all good gifts.  That God’s essence; who God is and what God does, is to give us good things.  The Psalms are such a gift from God.  We have been looking at different Psalms throughout this Lenten devotional because the Psalms are a good gift given to us by God.

What we have seen as we have looked at different Psalms is simply how different the Psalms can be.  There are Psalms for all of life’s occasions.  Over the last few weeks we have encountered Psalms of praise, Psalms that declare God’s majesty and might and goodness, Psalms of victory, Psalms of pain, Psalms of the afflicted, Psalms for times of tragedy.  We have even seen Psalms that call curses upon our enemies.  

And what’s more we have seen that the Psalms were the prayerbook, not just of the Church, but of Jesus Christ Himself.  These were the words said and prayed by God incarnate.  When God came to be with us and among us in Jesus, the Psalms gave God-in-the-flesh words to narrate life and teach truth.  These same Psalms that Jesus spoke to narrate his experiences can also be used to narrate our experiences; these same Psalms that fit the life of Jesus also fit our lives.  

In the low parts of our lives, the Psalms are there to give words to our experience.  And Jesus is there to pray those words along with us.  To be present with us in moments of pain.  That abiding presence is a good gift given to us by the giver of all good gifts.

And Jesus shares in our moments of triumph too.  When we pray Psalms of praise and victory, Jesus is with us to pray and praise along with us.

But what’s more, not only does Jesus come to pray with us, but we pray along with Jesus.  Not only does Jesus share in our experience of life, but we come to share in his experience, too.

We saw on Good Friday that as we prayed Psalm 22 along with Christ, we were united with him in his suffering.

And today, we pray Psalm 111 with Christ.  And share in his victory.

Psalm 111 is a Psalm of praise to God for God’s amazing works.  Psalm 111 begins, “Praise the Lord. I will extol the Lord with all my heart in the council of the upright and in the assembly. Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them.  Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever.”  Psalm 111 is quoted twice in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel: Mary puts a line from Psalm 111 in the Magnificat as she sings about the greatness of God in coming to be with us in Christ and Zechariah quotes Psalm 111 as he sings about the miracle that is the birth of his son John.

Psalm 111 is a song we sing on Easter as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  We sing this Psalm as God comes to us in Christ and we sing this Psalm as God defeats sin and death in Christ.  We sing great are your works, God.  Majestic are your deeds.  For our God is gracious and compassionate.  Our God hears the cry of those in need.  Our God acts decisively and victoriously on our behalf.  Our God is great.  Our God is good.

We pray this in celebration of Christ’s victory.  And as we celebrate Christ’s victory, we are made to share in that victory.  We are present with Christ in his victory.  

God is the giver of all good gifts.  God has given us the Psalms to be our prayers throughout our lives; God has given us the gift of God’s abiding presence with us all our days.  And God has given us to share in God’s victory in Christ over sin, over death, over evil, over wickedness.  Our God has won!  And because our God has won, we, too, have won.  Because of the resurrection, we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus.  Today is our victory day.

Today we sing:

7 The works of his hands are faithful and just;

    all his precepts are trustworthy.

8 They are established for ever and ever,

    enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.

9 He provided redemption for his people;

    he ordained his covenant forever—

    holy and awesome is his name.

Christ is Risen!  He is Risen, indeed!  Alleluia.  Amen.

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Saturday, April 16: Psalm 88 and Luke 23:49

Saturday, April 16: Psalm 88 and Luke 23:49

Written by Ashleigh Elser, Assistant Professor of Religion, Hampden-Sydney College, Hampden Sydney, VA

Psalm 88 translation by Robert Alter 

A song, a psalm for the Korahites, for the lead player, on the mahalath, to sing out, a maskil for Heman the Ezrahite.

Lord, God of my rescue,

  by day I cried out,

  by night, in your presence. 

May my prayer come before You.

  Incline your ear to my song.

For I am sated with evils

   and my life reached the brink of Sheol. 

I was counted among those who go down to the Pit. 

   I became like a man without strength. 

Among the dead, cast away, 

   like the slain, those who lie in the grave, 

whom you no more recall, 

   and they are cut off by your hand. 

You put me in the nethermost pit, 

   in darkness, in the depths. 

Your wrath lay hard upon me, 

   and all Your breakers You inflicted. 

You distanced my friends from me, 

   You made me disgusting to them; 

   imprisoned, I cannot get out. 

My eyes ache from affliction. 

   I called on You, Lord, every day.

   I stretched out to you my palms.

Will you do wonders for the dead? 

   Will the shades arise and acclaim you?

Will Your kindness be told in the grave?

    Your faithfulness in perdition? 

Will your wonder be known in the darkness?

    Your bounty in the land of oblivion? 

As for me—to You, Lord, I shouted,

    and in the morn my prayer would greet You. 

Why, Lord, do You abandon my life,

    do you hide your face from me? 

Lowly am I and near death from my youth

    I have borne Your terrors, I am fearful. 

Over me Your rage has passed. 

    Your horrors destroy me. 

They surround me like water all day long,

    they encircle me completely.

You distanced lover and neighbor from me.

    my friends—

    utter darkness. 

The eighty-eighth psalm is a psalm of lament. The Psalmist cries out from “the depths”—praying for rescue, questioning the faithfulness of God. Like other psalms of lament, the speaker begins in distress, tired and afraid, “distanced” from friends and family, alone in their despair. They envision their experience in vivid terms: the loneliness of being stranded at the bottom of a pit after dark; the terror of drowning in the sea as waves continue to break overhead. But unlike all of the other lament psalms, Psalm 88 ends there. It refuses movement—there is no turn in the end toward hope or praise, no thanksgiving for deliverance. The speaker and their prayer remain, in the final lines of the psalm, in “utter darkness.” 

In the middle of this prayer, the speaker poses to God a series of what appear to be rhetorical questions: “Will you do wonders for the dead?…Will your kindness be told in the grave, your faithfulness in perdition? Will your wonder be known in the darkness?” Biblical scholars often explain these questions as the Psalmist’s daring attempt at bargaining as they try to make the case that they are of better use to God alive than dead. Within the frame of the psalm, these questions receive no response: God remains “hidden” and the psalmist afraid and alone. 

As bleak as it is, Psalm 88 may still be a comfort to those who find themselves raising their fist at God as they pray. The text canonizes the speaker’s distress together with this series of questions, refusing to sand off the sharp edges in their tone. Together with so many hymns of praise, the psalter makes room for the loneliness and even the anger of unanswered prayer. 

Some commentators make a connection between Psalm 88 and Luke 23:49—a moment in which Luke’s gospel tells its reader that even those few followers of Jesus who didn’t flee the scene when he was arrested stood “at a distance” to witness his crucifixion—leaving him alone, near death, in the strange midday darkness described by this gospel. While the writer of Luke may or may not have been consciously alluding to Psalm 88 when he wrote the phrase “at a distance,” there is something remarkable about this connection. To imagine Jesus in the position of the speaker of Psalm 88—perhaps the bleakest of all the psalms—enables us to reflect on different dimensions of his suffering, what Acts 2:24 terms the agonies (plural) of Jesus’ death. 

But there is yet another possibility here. To see a connection between Psalm 88 and the scene of the crucifixion—to imagine this cry of dereliction together with the one Jesus speaks from the cross—reminds us that in the Christian tradition, the questions raised by the speaker of this prayer (whether the wonders or kindness of God extend to those in the grave) are answered in the very next moment. 

In one of the more mysterious phrases of the Apostles’ Creed, we rehearse the belief that after Christ was crucified and before his resurrection, he “descended to the dead.” The church mediates on this mystery each year during the space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. What might it mean that Jesus descended to the dead? Does Jesus teach in parables and perform miracles for the dead as he did for the living? Does he break the chains of the dead, releasing them from captivity, as 1 Peter 3:9 imagines? Or should we imagine instead that Jesus just remains there for a time, accompanying the dead in death, sharing in another element of human experience? 

However we think about Holy Saturday, the belief that the incarnation of Jesus extends even to death provides a striking response to the barbed questions raised by the writer of this Psalm—questions they raise in protest, confident in their sense both of the limits of power of God and the bounds of human life. Will Your wonder be known in the darkness? Yes. The wonders of God extend even to the grave, even to those prayers that reflect the limits and obscurities of our own understanding.  

Friday April 15: Psalm 22 and Matthew 26:46

Friday April 15: Psalm 22 and Matthew 26:46

Written by Stephanie Kimec Parker, Pastor of the Gathering at Scott Memorial, Virginia Beach, VA

In Matthew 26, after Jesus had been on the cross for 3 hours, Jesus cried out with a loud voice “Eli, Eli Lema Sabbach thani” – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”

This is one of the moments in the Gospels when Jesus is very relatable. How many times have we done the same, cried out to God, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This pandemic has stretched all of us to our limits. I am learning my breaking point, sometimes after I have reached it. The honest cries to God have grown as we all try to navigate life in new ways together. We are not alone. The Bible is full of beautiful stories of people who have cried the same to God, allowing us to know it is ok to be raw and honest with God.

I grew up thinking we could only bring our best to God, that God did not want to hear our complaints but only our praises. This passage shows that God wants to know all of us, the parts that praise and the raw parts that cry out in the middle of despair. God can handle all of us, the parts we put on display and the parts we hide from ourselves until they burst out.

The first readers of Matthew’s gospel would have known that Jesus prayed the entirety of Psalm 22. It changes how we understand Jesus’ cry when we read the entire psalm and imagine Jesus reciting it on the cross. Though this psalm starts out in despair, it does not stay there. The psalm also proclaims God’s goodness and faithfulness. Jesus did not stay in the place of despair. He expressed his despair and he continued through the psalm. Jesus knew that God did not hide, but heard his cries.

Jesus models for us faithfulness, even on a cross. We don’t know what Jesus was experiencing in those final moments of his life. He may have felt abandoned by all. In those final moments of his life, he prayed Psalm 22, a psalm that proclaims God’s holiness even when we do not hear an answer from God.

Psalm 22 ends with proclaiming God’s faithfulness and goodness. One day all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn towards the Lord. Jesus knew that one day God’s kingdom would fully reign. One day Christ will return and all will be restored. One day God will dwell among us. As the Psalmist wrote, I shall live for him.

Thursday April 14: Psalm 42 & Mt. 26:38/Mark 14:34

Thursday April 14: Psalm 42 & Mt. 26:38/Mark 14:34

Written by Elaine Ellis Thomas, Rector of All Saints Episcopal Parish, Hoboken, NJ

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My conversion did not come easy. God had to work hard to entice me, and music was God’s weapon of choice. 

“Here, little girl, sing this solo on Christmas Eve.”

“Here, young teenager, a beautiful organ for you to learn to play.”

“Here, young mother looking for fulfillment, the organist is retiring, and they know you play.”

And before I knew it, I had seven choirs and a flourishing ministry, and that’s when God said, “Over here. This is the chair you need to sit in, not on that organ bench.” 

And that, my friends, is the abridged story of my call to ordained ministry.

Somewhere during that long process, probably when, as a young teenager, I sang in the adult choir where the person closest to me in age had at least four decades on me, I first sang Herbert Howells. It might have been the Gloucester Service for Evensong (for the non-Anglicans among us, that includes the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis). But no Howells piece so wrenched my young soul than Like as the Hart, a setting of Psalm 42 composed in the early years of World War II when England’s survival was not a sure thing. 

The sopranos sing “My tears have been my meat day and night” (the music builds) “while they daily say unto me” (loud d-minor chord) “where is now thy God?”

And when those words repeat, there is the sound of defeat. “My tears have been my meat day and night…” (trailing off).

As a teenager, that just felt like the angst of trying to figure out who I was in a body I didn’t recognize around people who seemed to expect me to be an adult.

But for Jesus, the cry of “Where now is thy God” was part of the anguish to which he willingly subjected himself as the death of his very human body drew near.

Jesus in the garden says, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake” (Mark 14:34).

Where now is thy God, Jesus?

We have heard the cries of the sorrowful hundreds of thousands of times over the past two years. People dying in isolation from those they love, last rites offered on FaceTime, final words of goodbye from a cell phone held up to an as-yet still listening ear.

Where now is thy God?

The Church, for ages quite content to proclaim her longing, “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God” (Psalm 42:1) has been confronted with the cries of abandonment that weave their way through this psalm

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?

I will say to the God of my strength, “Why have you forgotten me?”

Where now is thy God?

Two years of pandemic have confronted us, as individuals and as churches, with our mortality. The longing of our hearts, the thirst for God’s living waters, are the confession that we are nothing without God’s presence, that our thirst will never be quenched until our trust is solely in God “who is the help of my countenance and my God.”

Jesus knew this. Even in his deep grief, begging that the cup might be taken from him, he knew that the cup that he drank would become the cup of our salvation. Wherever God was in that moment, Jesus still prayed. Still called “Abba.” Still understood that God’s will must be done.

God’s will be done, on earth as in heaven, where no cries of “where now is thy God” are heard ever again, because we all dwell in the knowledge and love of God. We all go with the multitude to God’s house, with voices of praise and thanksgiving.

Just as the psalms point to fulfillment of God’s promises to us, so Howells ends Like as the Hart, with a soft, tender E-major resolution to the question, “When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?” There is, even in the questioning, an assurance that we will yet come into God’s presence, that our longing will cease, and our thirst will be quenched with streams of living water.

Monday April 4: Psalm 31

Monday April 4: Psalm 31

Written by Drew Colby, Pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Manassas, VA

One year on Good Friday a friend decided to recite all 150 Psalms out loud while kneeling in front of the cross at his church (a practice I do not recommend, dear reader, because I care about your knees!). I think the idea was to use the Psalms, and a little physical pain and discomfort, as the lens through which he pondered the crucifixion. While he prayed the Psalms he imagined all of them as the words of Christ from the cross.

Psalm 31 is a Psalm of absolute pain and discomfort. It’s a prayer of complete distress.

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;

    my eye wastes away from grief,

    my soul and body also.

For my life is spent with sorrow,

    and my years with sighing;

Christ quotes this Psalm from the cross in Luke in his moment of complete distress (I know, it seems as if Lent has barely begun, and already we find ourselves at the cross!).

I am the scorn of all my adversaries,

    a horror to my neighbors,

an object of dread to my acquaintances;

as they scheme together against me,

    as they plot to take my life.

But none of the above verses is the one Christ chooses to pray aloud in Luke 23. In the midst of ultimate suffering, in the midst of despair, Christ chooses not the verses from Psalm 31 that express the depths of his despair. He chooses verses that express the depths of faith. 

I am in distress, but…

I trust in you, O Lord;

    I say, “You are my God.”

My times are in your hands;

Into your hands I commit my spirit.

I find this level of trust both beautiful and, well, impossible. How could you trust a God who has left you to suffer and die despite your complete and unwavering obedience to this God’s commands? It is impossible, unless… 

Unless you know this God completely… Unless you know this God has not left you at all. It’s an impossible trust unless you know you can trust this God like a Son can trust a Father, unless you know you are not suffering this alone, and that this is not the end. It is an impossible trust… unless you know that this God and you are one. 

And that is the key. 

When Jesus prays this Psalm from the cross he reveals to us the triune life of God into which humanity is being reconciled. Here, at the depths of suffering, the Son entrusts his Spirit into the hands of the Father, and three days later, when he is raised, his trust is vindicated eternally.

This is the good news: by the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, given to us in our baptism by grace through faith, we have become those who, with the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can fully entrust ourselves to the eternal hands of God the Father. And we can do so even and especially in the depths of despair. 

In the cross our despair is revealed to be God’s own despair, and in the resurrection Christ’s trust becomes our own trust, freeing us to rise from our knees, and walk by faith in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.