Summary: Our troubled souls can find rest in Jesus, who has delivered us. (17th Sunday After Pentecost, Year C)
Listening is an important skill—and one that is not always easy to find or develop. To listen—to really listen—requires patience and effort. The beauty of listening is that without saying a word, we can communicate to somebody that we really care about them and are interested in them as a person.
Psalm 116, which we heard in our Introit for today, is one of the “Hallel Psalms” that were sung in connection with the feast of the Passover. Psalms 113 and 114 were used before the meal, and Psalm 116 was one of the Psalms that were sung afterward. So, we can think of it as kind of a thank-you prayer to God after a very important meal of remembrance. Jesus and his disciples would have sung it after He instituted the Lord’s Supper and they were about to go to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus would be betrayed and arrested.
The author of this psalm uses very personal language—he (or she) is talking about a personal experience. “I” is used a lot. As we read this Psalm is not difficult to imagine a friend sitting down and telling us about something exciting that just happened, something they can’t wait to share with us. It isn’t difficult to imagine someone standing up in church and doing the same thing! The first thing he (or she) says is, “I love the Lord for he heard my voice. He listened to my cry for mercy.” This introduces the rest of what we are about to hear. It sums up the joyful and thankful theme of the entire Psalm.
A) AN OVERWHELMING PROBLEM—When we are young, we are sometimes under the illusion that there is nothing that we can’t do. The future is bright and we are full of youthful optimism. The older a person gets, though, the more we realize that we’re not as strong, powerful, wise, and invincible as we once thought we were.
-A job that had been so lucrative and rewarding is suddenly put at risk because of layoffs…
-A body that once was so healthy and strong is all at once threatened by disease…
-A house that had been in the family for generations is damaged beyond repair by a flood…
The list could go on. At least once in every person’s life, we face a problem that is so enormous and insurmountable that we feel absolutely and utterly overwhelmed by it.
The Psalmist writes, “The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave was upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.” (v. 3) There is no greater obstacle than death itself. There is no dilemma more universal: “The soul who sins is the one who will die…” (Ezekiel 18:20) “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). There are few feelings as terrible as knowing that something bad is going to happen and being powerless to stop it. To the writer of the Psalm, it seemed as if death itself had become a living being and was reaching up with its cords to entangle him. The anguish, grief and sorrow he felt in his soul was more than he could bear.
When our world is turned upside down by tragic events, it is easy to become cynical and disillusioned with life. When we witness how evil some people can be, it becomes for us to trust anyone. The writer of the Psalm expressed this. In his dismay he said, “All men are liars.” (verse 11)
We have been lied to. The lie is called evolution. The lie says that all we have to do is apply the knowledge and wisdom of our modern minds to the world’s problems, and through the sheer force of our will we can eliminate them one by one. Evolution says that inevitably we will be able to better ourselves. Science becomes the solution. But we have seen time and again that for every new technological or scientific advance there are even more new problems and new dilemmas that crop up. Instead of the story of mankind being that of a constant upward climb, we find ourselves spiraling downward into ever-increasing degrees of evil and wickedness.
This has left us unsure of ourselves. The old assumptions are challenged, the authorities questioned. Can we really be sure of anything? Are there any absolutes left for us to grasp, any solid foundations on which we can safely stand—or is it all just an illusion, a dream that has suddenly turned into a nightmare?
B) A CRY FOR HELP: What do you do in such a situation? How do we handle our predicament? There is nothing we can do. There is no way we can handle it on our own! Our only hope is for someone else to help us. So the writer of the Psalm says, “Then I called on the name of the LORD: ‘O LORD, save me!’” (verse 4).