Summary: January 1985: The psalmist experiences the absence of God, even to the point of denigrating himself as a "worm." But when he takes inventory, he does see evidence of God's presence, opens up his heart, and dares to hope.
Today I am going to take a somewhat different approach to the reading of the Scripture and the way I will be preaching on it. And in fact I hope this will make it come alive for you and will enable you to follow the thought of the Scripture writer as well as my own thought. What I plan to do today is to do a reading and commentary/or proclamation around what I see as the natural turning points of the Scripture. That is, instead of reading the Scripture and then preaching on it and making continuing references to the text as I usually do, I am going to read a few verses and then attempt to show you what is going on, what is happening in the heart of the Psalmist, and then share a few more verses, verses which teach us something more about his spiritual pilgrimage, and so through our text.
The text I have chosen for today is lengthy, for one thing, and it is complicated, for another. It is without doubt one of the most probing, the most agonizing passages in all of Scripture. If you can read or can hear the words of the 22nd Psalm and not feel something; if you can live into the dark night of this soul and not sense its pain, then I suspect you are just not breathing, you are just not alive. It's just that pointed and just that profound.
I hope that if you have Bibles with you you will turn to the 22nd Psalm and that you will keep the Bible open to that spot, because that will help you to live into these words, these frightening words, these engaging words, these words of a soul deeply troubled.
For you see, Psalm 22 poses a new departure for us. It poses a basic and ultimate issue for us. The issue for this ancient man or woman of faith is this: what if God is absent? What if God is absent, what if God has just not shown up? That's not something you might expect to find in the Bible, not something you might normally expect to find posed in church, but here it is, right here in the Scriptures. Here it is, I would say, because it's a part of life. It's a part of human reality: the absence of God.
Every Sunday since the beginning of Advent we have talked of nothing but the God who is present, the God who is with us. We have sung about and spoken about Immanuel, God with us. We have been glib and ready with our greetings, "God be with you, God be with you." God is present, God is our companion. Maybe some of us have even indulged in a little playing around with the notion of God as our buddy, God as a cosmic bellhop who is always available when we summon Him up. There is nothing in Christian worship more common than the idea of the presence of God; there is nothing more well-established among Christians than the belief that God in Christ has become present to us, that God in the Holy Spirit is a constant companion. That is clear and plain and definite, isn’t it?
But here is the Psalmist, crying out in anguish with an altogether different word. Here is one who bares his soul and shouts to the world, no, shouts to the God who seems not to be there to listen, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?" Why hast thou forsaken, why are you absent, where have you gone? The absence of God; can the human mind imagine anything more distressing? Can the human heart contemplate what this really is? The absence, the utter absence of God.
In all honesty, I do not know that I could ever echo the words and the feelings of this Psalmist. I do not know that I could ever say, in public, with this depth of feeling, that I knew only the absence of God. How do you admit, how do you confess to yourself that you know God in his absence only? How do you say to a waiting world that the God whom you have proclaimed and served and worked for, that God whose name you have bandied about with such reckless abandon, that God is absent? How do you say that? But this the Psalmist did; this confession he made, and I would suggest to you that as he did so, right then and there he began the process which would finally allow him to find God present again.
Are you hearing what I am saying? I am saying that even at that moment at which the most difficult of realities comes crashing in on us, even at the moment at which we finally come clean and say it, come clean and cry out that God is absent, God has abandoned us – that is the moment at which healing begins: That is the moment in which the spirit is so laid bare that God in his mystery can begin to work with us and can begin to heal us. But more of that later.