There is a short story in the Bible, a story of thirty-one verses. This story begins with the words My God, my God why have you forsaken me?, goes on to say I am thirsty and ends with it is finished. Any ideas what that story might be? Of course we instantly recognise what that story is; it is the twenty second psalm. (Did you think I was going to talk about Jesus on the cross?)
Psalm 22 is a familiar story, but not just because it is the story of six hours one dark Friday. The Son of God is not alone among the daughters and sons of men in going through a time of seeming isolation from his God, his mates, and his senses. Abandonment, confusion, embarrassment and doubts assault each of us at times. A recent example of a seemingly God-forsaken people came to my mind this week because last Wednesday marked the International Day of Reflection on the genocide in Rwanda. I’m sure you are all aware that fifteen years civil war broke out and visited atrocities upon that African land. Wednesday was also World Health Day, and again a reminder to pray for all who are sick and sad, many of them alone, many without the hope that the messages of Easter bring.
Let’s look at the psalm…
Do you see the “it is finished” at the end there? The Lord has done it: it has been accomplished long ago and we will keep telling it.
This is a very private psalm, in scholarship terms it is referred to as a personal lament, more plainly it is one person’s whinge against the world. But we have all been there, even Jesus: this is a sulk with good reason.
The biggest question this psalm asks is in verse eight, which the Good News Bible translates as if the Lord likes you, why doesn’t He help you? (Aren’t you the Messiah? Come down off the cross then!) A good question: one I have asked on my own behalf many times. Just because God was silent when Jesus was on the cross doesn’t mean I have to like it when I am feeling tired and emotional. Indeed I remember asking this question in the company of my minister at a time when I was feeling like this, and he told me that it was a season of the Spirit which is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul”. How many of you have heard that term before? It comes from St John of the Cross and his book The Ascent of Mount Carmel. But in actual fact, this dark night is not about being abandoned in blackness; as we have seen in the second part of this psalm God is, and always was, there. The darkness is not about spiritualised depression; rather it is the steeping beyond the known and through the darkness of what is unknown to come to a new knowing. Teachers know about that, this is the journey we guide our students along all the time; but it’s a lot scarier when God is doing it to grown-ups. This process has more to do with Proverbs 3:5-6 and relying solely on God, andPsalm 23:4 and trusting God in the valleys of the shadows, than with our sins separating us from God. In the Contemporary English Version verse 21 says don’t let lions eat me. There’s no point saying that unless you think someone stronger than you is with you where the wild things are.
It is easy to feel confused and overwhelmed, I am sure that Jesus did. But what we go through in these times of darkness is like driving at night along an unknown road, (or even a known road in a rainstorm), rather than choosing to sit the darkness out. We can act in faith, and with conviction sourced from the deep roots of God’s record in our history. Darkness is mysterious, but that is the reality of our mysterious God. Faith is hope without sight: blessed are those who have believed without seeing, as Jesus told Thomas.
We come to understand, when this psalm turns in verse 22 from a lament to a song of deliverance, that the night is darkness in which a person may appear lost, but which actually leads them to the place in which they will find themselves. This darkness is a way of progress, the tunnel at the end of the light that leads to even greater light. It is sad that so often we try to find a refuge from the darkness, and way of avoiding it, rather than learning lessons of faith by walking with God through the valleys of the shadows.
In this week following Easter, and the first week of the season between the rising of the Son and the descending of the Spirit we remember that our nights of faith are not a phase or a season, they are a metaphor for Christian life. Now we see dimly, then we shall see clearly. We live all our lives in the time between times; but we also know that these dark patches come in bouts, and the more we are growing and wanting to learn the more often the bouts will come. It is scary, but like the wildest of rollercoasters it can also be fun when we remember that in God’s hands we may be spinning and ducking, but we are not crashing and burning. When we are out of control, God is fully in control: and that is a good thing. That is the confidence that lead Jesus to stand up in Gethsemane and greet Judas rather than scramble away to hide at Mary and Martha’s place until the soldiers had gone.
The light of God is the only true light. Sometimes God uses the darkness we have taken ourselves into rather than leading us into a dark place Himself. We learn that where He is there is light; false lights will lead us astray. I have heard it said it is better to be in God’s silence, than in the world’s violence; even if the world at least has neon and noise.
Life with God is thrilling: Easter and Pentecost show that, and as Christians we know it ourselves. The God of the gentle whisper that Elijah heard is also the God of the cloud of fire and smoke that Moses saw; so why can’t He also be the God of absence that Jesus experienced on the cross? Easter Sunday reminds us that God always comes through when all hope seems lost and only He can do it. That’s the testimony of my life: regardless of the tuneful talents of fat ladies I have learned that nothing is over until God proclaims it finished. It is finished when God has accomplished all, and that goes as much for His plans for our life and our church as for His plans for universal salvation through Jesus Christ.
What is achieved in darkness will be proclaimed in the light, forever.