July 10, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
For this month of July we are looking at psalms. If you didn’t get one last week we have a note card that gives helpful background on the Book of Psalms. There are 150 psalms which came together over 6 centuries. They were written by kings like David as well as other known and unknown composers. The psalms are like a hymn book. They describe the honest feelings and emotions of the writers and show us that we can do the same. We can share with God whatever is going on inside of us—even feelings of anger and revenge.
Today we consider the most popular category of the psalms comprising one-third of all psalms, Lament. And out of these 50 psalms of lament we consider Psalm 22. Let us pray…
In my Friday email devotion this week I shared about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu. It is one of my favorite songs to listen to during Lent, especially in Holy Week. It has such a deep, emotive power to it. Watch this short clip of a boy performing this in a Britain’s Got Talent episode and look at the impact it has on everyone…(video)
Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote this amazing song as a response to two tragedies. A reporter who interviewed him just weeks before dying as a result of IRA violence in Ireland, and the story of a Cambodian boy who was forced to kill his sister or be killed himself. Webber’s grief and questions of Why God? led him to write Pie Jesu. You don’t have to know why the song was written to be impacted by it. The power and emotion of it is communicated through the music and lyrics. It becomes a medium for others to connect with God.
That’s what a psalm does, especially a psalm of lament. The reason for the person composing the words and music is no longer known to us, but it can become our expressions to God. No wonder, that hanging on the cross, Jesus quoted Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is one of the oldest psalms which may go back to King David himself. In quoting it from the cross, Gospel writers would find other parts of the psalm that spoke to Jesus’ suffering, like verses 7-8: “all who see me mock me, they hurl insults shaking their heads…he trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him,” recalling the taunts of religious leaders.
And also verse 18: “They divide my garments and cast lots for my clothing,” recalling the soldiers at the foot of the cross.
Christians have long found power in this psalm for the way it relates to the suffering of Jesus, and even more, for the way it relates to our own suffering.
In the Oberammergau Passion Play which a number of us in the church attended last month, the moment of greatest anguish in the crucifixion scene is when Jesus shouts this line. He is on the cross between the two thieves and suddenly yells out, “Éli, Eli, lama sabachthani” the Hebrew words for “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s a difficult moment to watch, because it is full of such pain and despair. It’s uncomfortable much like being in a public place when someone makes a sudden outburst or begins crying loudly. You want to rush over and say, “Stop, stop. It’s okay.” Because in our world we aren’t very comfortable with such displays of painful emotions, especially in religious company where our pain is directed at God.
Denise Hopkins in her book Journey Through the Psalms, recalls when her 23-year-old brother drowned. She said many well-meaning people came to the funeral home and said to her sobbing mother, “Have faith.” She writes, “Their comments suggested that her sobs and anger and questions of why were unfaithful responses to the pain of her loss. She certainly took the comments that way, which added more anger and guilt to her pain.”
This is what makes Psalm 22, and Jesus use of it on the cross, an important tool for us because it teaches us that Why is an okay question to ask God. Why is the most frequently occurring question in the psalms. It indicates something is wrong and does not make sense. And we are searching for understanding and taking our search to God.
Asking God why does not show a lack of faith. It is an expression of faith. It shows a faith that believes God can do something about our pain. And in bringing our real honest emotions and questions to God we find how God can help us.
We see this hope in Psalm 22. It begins with the writer saying “Why have you forsaken me? But it gets worse before it gets better. Look at some of the following verses:
• Why are you so far from saving me?
• I cry out…but you do not answer.
• I am a worm.
• I am poured out like water.
• My heart has…melted.
• My strength is dried up.
• I can count all my bones.”
This guy is not just having a bad day, he’s having a bad life! But then, out of nowhere, totally unexpected you come to this sudden change in verse 21: “From the horns of the wild oxen, you have rescued me.” And the rest of the psalm becomes an amazing statement of faith and praise. The psalm that started off asking, “My God why have you forsaken me?” Ends with, “Babies not yet conceived will hear the good news: God does what He says!” (Ps. 22:31 The Message)
What happened? What did the psalmist experience? How did God rescue him?
My friend James Harnish calls this the “10:47 effect.” In one of his books he says he and his wife used to watch this weekly show that came on at 10:00pm each week and every episode was the same. The show started off with some kind of problem or tragedy. And things go from bad to worse. Then it looks like there is no way out and they are doomed. Until 10:47 on the dot. Suddenly out of nowhere things change. Some miracle happens, and in less than ten minutes order, peace and happiness is restored.
Is that what happened in Psalm 22. Was it the 10:47 Effect? Or rather, the verse 21 effect? Did some miracle happen to the psalmist that changed his plight and made life well again? If so, it sort of lessens the power of faith. It says we don’t have reason to praise God until God comes through for us. What happens when its 10:48 and the miracle hasn’t occurred?
But that’s not what most Bible scholars believe about Psalm 22. Go back to verse 21 (show verse 21 again on screen). They point out that the word the NRSV translates “rescued” is actually the word “answered.” There’s a big difference between those words. The psalmist wasn’t celebrating a sudden change in circumstances. In fact, his circumstances might not have changed at all. What he’s saying is that he experienced God answering him. How? We don’t know. We don’t know exactly how God answered, but somehow the psalmist felt heard by God and that was enough.
Often our greatest need is not a reason why. It is a comforting hand.
To go back to the Oberammergau Passion Play for a moment, I want to share a scene that was deeply impactful for me. The play is 6 hours long with a 3 hr break in the middle. It is spoken entirely in German, but if you know the story, you can follow it. Except, they add to many of the scenes. It doesn’t make it unbiblical, they just imagine the conversations that would have gone on which we don’t have in the Bible. How might the discussions have gone with religious leaders behind closed doors? What more might the disciples have said to each other and Jesus?
So, to the scene that grabbed me. It’s the Upper Room where Jesus and the disciples share the Last Supper. They enter the stage and I start counting how many there are, because its just a thing I do. I count people. I count 14, and think something is off. There were just 12 disciples and Jesus. Are they confused. And what is odder still, is one of them sits way off to the side, well away from the others and never speaks.
So the scene plays out and I’m just getting annoyed wondering, “Who is this guy?”
Then they go out to Gethsemane where the disciples fall asleep as Jesus prays. And Jesus has another tormenting scene, begging God for things to be different. And he looks at this guy who has been sitting to the side and starts talking directly to him and in a very tough manner. And suddenly I realize who this person is. This is the angel. The Bible said an angel ministered to Jesus in the Garden. They were showing that the angel was there all along. This is the angel.
And so the scene that grabbed me. Jesus is speaking out his anguish and fear to God. And there was something about hearing this in German that made it made it even more emotive. Finally Jesus rolls face down on the ground and begins wailing loudly. And the angel gets up and walks over and lightly puts his hand on Jesus and says, “Rise up.”
I saw the play twice, and that scene was even more meaningful the second time, I suppose, because I have found it to be true in my life. When I have been at my most agonizing moments, it was not having a reason why that changed me. And it was not God changing my situation and providing a 10:47 moment. It was feeling God’s presence saying to me “Rise up. I’m here. I’ve been here all along. You have never been without me. But you have further to go. Rise up.” And I’ve discovered that when I feel forsaken, that’s what I need most.
You don’t get to that place easily. It is a journey that requires honesty. You don’t fake your way there. I encourage you to study Psalm 22 for yourself. Notice all the statements like I pointed out a moment ago. The questions, the hurt, the agony. But notice also what comes between them. There are a number of “yets.” Yet, God I believe you are good. Yet God I know what you have done before. I don’t want to give up on you God.
This is why we had the scripture read as we did. It shows the way the psalmist went back and forth. Its sort of a schizophrenic back and forth. “Why have you left me God?” “Yet, I know I have felt your presence before.” This is the journey that led to the psalmist being able to praise God again. Sometimes our praise is not because of what God got us through, but because we refuse to give up believing God will get us through.
Back on Palm Sunday I presented a monologue of the centurion at the cross. He is the one who made the startling declaration of faith the moment Jesus died saying, “Surely this was the Son of God.” He heard Jesus say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But right before Jesus died he quoted another psalm. He said, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit.” And it was following that statement that the centurion believed. A faith that refused to give up led to faith.
Michael and Lisa Gungor are a couple from Michigan. They are musicians and worked as worship leaders in their church. During a stretch of time it seemed all of their friends in the church were being battered by crises. All kinds of challenges were hitting them making them question their faith and wonder why. And they felt this pain for their friends. And they didn’t have an answer to give, but they did write a song, a song that tried to capture what they believed about God in a way that would comfort.
The song did. Their friends and church not only liked it, the song became a huge hit around the country. A song to help people hold on, inspired faith in others. In fact, it changed their lives. It led to them moving to Los Angeles and taking off with their music career. But then in 2014 something happened that changed their lives again. The Gungors found out they were going to have a second child, but she had Down’s Syndrome. At first they had their own questions of why and what will this mean. But their own song became a source of help. They chose to believe in God and they found God doing something new to them in that experience. Their music career had taken off, but it was also taking them away from what they really wanted in life. This experience, that initially felt like an obstacle in their experience of God, turned out to be just the opposite. In a blog post, Michael Gungor wrote:
(Put up picture of the two girls during the entire quote)
Life is more than salary levels or grade point averages. Life is more than rankings on a chart. Life is about things like love, wonder, and joy. And let me tell you, this girl is going to be loved. While I don’t know much about Down Syndrome yet, the people with Down Syndrome I have seen certainly seem to know how to experience very real joy and wonder. Life is a gift. Lucy is a gift.”
Our laments can be the path that restores our faith. And the experiences that make us feel distant from God, can be God’s way of getting us where we really want to be. Maybe you are going through something that is making you ask why. You are in a season of lament and wondering where God is. If so, see if this song helps. Its called Beautiful Things.