Summary: I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
I’m doing something a bit radical today and preaching on today’s Psalm!
Some of you might not have even realised that we had a Psalm of the Day. And in truth, in the seventeen years I’ve been at this parish, I think that this is only the second time I’ve preached on the Psalm! But we who follow the church lectionary (which determines what Bible readings we have each week) do actually have a Psalm assigned for each week of the year!
We don’t overlook the concept entirely here. If you read in the rubrics (the small red-letter instructions that you find in the prayer book) you’ll see that in the spot between the readings it says, "a psalm or hymn or anthem may be sung", and we normally just sing a hymn or anthem, and so the Psalm doesn’t get a guernsey.
Well today I’ve decided nonetheless to preach on the allocated Psalm, and it’s Psalm 40.
Now if you’ve just taken the time to read through it, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. You might be fogiven if I’ve given you the impression that we were about to unearth some treasure that’s been kept from you for all these years but now, having seen it brought to the surface, you might feel quite happy to see it buried again. After all, it’s looks like just another Psalm, and if you’ve read through any of the Psalms before at any point in time, the experience of reading through Psalm 40 may not seem particularly exceptional. Psalm 40 reads like any number of other Psalms, and indeed it has elements in it that are found in many Psalms:
* The author of the Psalm is in trouble
* He prays to the Lord for Salvation
* He experiences God’s saving power.
Scholars would classify this sort of Psalm either as a ’Psalm of thanksgiving’ or a ’Psalm of Lament’, and indeed it has elements of both, and along with the more general ’hymns’ and ’liturgical psalms’, these are exactly the standard sorts of psalms that make up the entirety of the book of Psalms.
’Distress’, ’prayer’, ’salvation’, ’thanksgiving’ - these are the common elements that we find interspersed across all the psalms, and frankly, they are the same fundamental elements that we find at the heart of most of our modern hymns and anthems. We struggle. Things go wrong. We pray. We find salvation, healing and hope. Time and time again, this is the Christian experience (thanks be to God) and so we find ourselves regularly celebrating it in song. Clearly too it was an ancient experience as well, for we find the Psalmists of old sang of it with equal regularity.
So what, you might be wondering, so struck me about this particular Psalm that I by-passed the other three readings today to focus on this Psalm? What was it that left me so captivated by it? Well, it’s because this Psalm - which admittedly has all the classic elements in it of distress, prayer, salvation and hope - has them all in the wrong order!
"I waited patiently for the Lord’ and he inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up from the pit of roaring waters, out of the mire and clay, and set my feet upon a rock and made firm my foothold!" (Psalm 40:1-2)
This is a testimony to the saving power of God who has rescued this guy from an impossible situation. This is what we expect to hear in church and expect to find in the Psalms. Things were going bad until I met the Lord, but since I’ve known Jesus I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol, and the girl at the office has dropped the sexual harassment claim (thanks be to God)!
And so we expect to find this word of thanksgiving as a fitting conclusion to the happy ending of the story - a story that started in tragedy but finished in triumph, and yet in this particular psalm these words of thanksgiving kick the whole thing off and it just seems to go downhill from there!
By the time we hit the half-way mark, the psalmist has changed his tune:
"O Lord do not withhold your mercy from me. Let your living kindness and your truth ever preserve me. For innumerable troubles have come upon me. My sins have overtaken me and I cannot see. They are more in number than the hairs of my head Therefore my heart fails."
Our faithful friend is in trouble and, moreover, he is quick to acknowledge that it is trouble of his own making. His sins have caught up with him. The binges of late-night drinking have returned. Indeed, as he looks back now he can only confess with pain that he was never really able to maintain control for long!