This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell and Narracan for Sunday 1st July 2018.
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130
In today’s reading from Jewish history we heard some of the earliest words spoken by David when he became king of Judah. Saul and the sons of Saul, so Saul’s dynastic line and David’s best beloved friend Jonathan, are dead, killed in battle against the Philistines with whom David is allied at this point. Even with himself now king over part of Saul’s realm, and freed at last from the murderous intentions of the now dead ex-king, David composes a song of mourning and not of celebration. This is not a time for praise for David: the king is dead. We read several weeks ago how David had been anointed king by Samuel back in David’s boyhood, but we must remember that Saul remained king over Israel until the day of his death, and that day has only now been reported to David where we take up the story this morning. David had not been present at the battle where Saul and his sons died: unlike David we are able to read in 1 Samuel 31 that Saul dies by suicide. In 2 Samuel 1 we read how David is told that Saul was slain by the very messenger who brings him the news of Saul’s death, a man who was essentially a refugee in Israel at the time. David believes Saul has been murdered, even if it was euthanasia, by an insider. The one who David himself refused to lay a finger on has been assassinated by some gloating random foreigner: David may never have found out the true means of Saul’s death, and in this moment, he is visibly distressed by what has befallen God’s anointed.
David’s way of dealing with his emotions, anger, confusion, grief, horror, is to write a song. In the death of Saul and his heir Jonathan Israel has been humiliated, and David is conscious of the mockery that this news will elicit in the cities and towns of Philistia, today’s Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. Not only prestige but prowess has been lost; Saul may have been a poor king, but he was an excellent swordsman and a decent general, and Jonathan a champion archer. Israel’s potential for greater things has been cut off and Israel should mourn. Even the poor king had brought good things to Israel and now that king is dead.
In Psalm 130 we read a plea for divine redemption, and is widely known by its first line in Latin De Profundis. It is an individual lament and is a prayer of penitence – its theme is “O God I have messed up, I’m in the depths, hear me and come and save me”. God alone can save, and without God’s approval no one can be saved even if God is not the agent of salvation. No one can be saved in spite of God, Psalm 130:3 makes that plain. So, God either allows saving to take place or God actively steps in and does the saving Godself; and this prayer is a plea for the second one. As we heard about last week when we read John 17 together, so this week there is evidence that God’s reputation is at stake: God is glorified or “revered” in today’s wording, when forgiveness is evident. In penitence I will glorify God when I am restored, and others who see me revived by grace will also give God praise for what God is doing for me and in me.
The saving grace of God inspires confidence. Having called to God from the depths, the profoundly dark and deep, I am confident to wait. Psalm 130:5-6 suggest that having cried out to God the work of the sufferer is done, it’s now up to God to do the saving. I like this for many reasons, but mostly because it resonates with me; I have experienced the profound depths and this Psalm speaks directly to my story.
Today my story is that God has restored me this far, to where I am now, and I am confident that will go even higher with God. If I stay close to God-my-Saviour I will be taken even higher in joy, fulfilment, confidence and competency as the work of deliverance continues. I am being restored not to where I was at the point of tripping up, but to the place I should have been at now and would have been had I not gone backward when God called me forward. God continues to restore me, and God has brought me from depths so dark and so deep that I’m sure that I’m not sure that I understand just how low I was, so confused was I at that time. I was in so much trouble that in hindsight I see now that I lost the ability to see then just how messed up I was then, how much in danger I was. God’s deliverance of me began with God’s shielding me from understanding the extent of my peril. So, to read a prayer where the text implies that my job is to cry out and God’s job is to respond comforts me. I am reminded that I do not have the responsibility to improve my situation; not because I am irresponsible but because I have become incapacitated, unwittingly disabled by the situation and I actually cannot to anything, even if I don’t know that and think that I can. It’s like being hurt in a fall and saying to the paramedics “no it’s alright, it’s only my neck that’s broken, not my legs, where would you like me to walk?” Lay down idiot, and let us carry you!!
The most important aspect of this message, I think, is that it relates specifically to sin. This is not the song of a man (or woman) who has been beset by external enemies. This is not the prayer of an innocent victim of robbery or violence, or a stock market collapse or malicious slander. This psalm makes quite clear that the cause of the profound isolation is iniquity. This is not a victim of anything, this is a perpetrator of sin, and sin that has lead to something beyond despair. This is not the prayer of someone in Auschwitz or Nauru: this is the prayer of Judas Iscariot on Good Friday, or Saul on Mt Gilboa, or the other Saul in Damascus, or even David lying next to Bathsheba (although it isn’t literally that last one, David did not write Psalm 130, his actual prayer after Bathsheba is Psalm 51). This is the prayer of “I have massively screwed up and I need major help”: it is the prayer of the penitent perpetrator. And, as I say, that is the most important thing for me about this Psalm – that all of that “I hope for rescue”, and all of that “I can sit here and wait for God to swoop and scoop”, and all of that worship in Psalm 130:7-8 for God’s steadfast love and might to redeem, all of that is said by someone who up Shipwreck Creek because of his/her own poor navigation.
Psalm 130 says that there is grace and salvation for you who is living a life worse than death, even if that situation has come about because you did stupid or evil things. This psalm is not only a prayer for the depressed and deprived, it’s a prayer for the depraved: and with that understanding look at how it is a prayer of hope. Amazing stuff.
Several weeks ago, as you are aware, I lead a funeral for a young man who died by suicide. This man was not a Christian by his own or his family’s understanding; indeed, I was asked to facilitate the service only because the family wanted to make use of the chapel where that man had been married, and that chapel was Narracan Uniting. This man had never been baptised and had not had his son baptised; as far as I know he’d only ever been inside a church building to attend weddings or funerals. And this man had killed himself. So, when a social worker who is assigned to one of the dead man’s brothers asked me how they, the social worker and the brother, could get the dead man out of purgatory, I was faced with an interesting pastoral conundrum. Much as it would be a great anecdote for this morning I can’t actually tell you that I recited Psalm 130 back to the social worker, or that I preached on it at the funeral, because I didn’t. If you’re actually interested to know I will tell you that I recited Psalm 23:4 to the social worker, and I preached on Luke 24:36 at the funeral: you can look those up for yourselves later. But thinking about it today I think that that was a Psalm 130 moment. Not that the deceased man was the greatest of all sinners, because according to 1 Timothy 1:15 he wasn’t; or because he died by suicide and that is the greatest of all sins, because according to Mark 3:29 it isn’t. No, the pastoral response to a grieving and eternally-concerned non-Christian about his non-Christian and dead by suicide friend is that God is eternally gracious even to the stupidly evil, and to the wickedly stupid, so why not to some randomly ordinary human. I’m not here to tell you that everyone goes to Heaven regardless of their life choices, not excluding the means of their death; but I am here to tell you that everyone who dies goes to meet God, and that God is gracious and generous. I did not promise Heaven to the family of that man, but in the name of Christ I did assure them of grace, and in the name of the Church I did assure them of welcome and the embrace of shalom while they were in the pointy-roof, pointy-window building. I assure you today, here, of the same: because that is what Psalm 130 says to me.
I can’t say what God said to Saul on the day of his battlefield suicide, and I can’t say what God said to that young man who died last month and whose life was celebrated here a fortnight ago, but I can tell you what God said to me de profundis, when God swooped to meet me in the depths: You called me, and I answered you. I am here with you to take you out of here, to take you home. You are loved, and forgiven, and loved.