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Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Silence of God (Waiting) (Psalm 143, 130)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 24, 2016
Text: Psalm 143; 130

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Everlasting God (Brenton Brown)
Hymn of Praise: Be Still My Soul (FINLANDIA, arr. Vanderheide)
The Word in Music: The Silence of God (Andrew Peterson; feat. Katie Meeks)
Offering of Music: Near to the Heart of God (arr. don Phillips; Linda Jenkins, organ)
Song of Sending: It is Well with My Soul (VILLA DU HAVRE)
Postlude: Diapason Dialogue (Gordon Young; Linda Jenkins, organ)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

This morning we continue in our series that asks “Where is God in the dark seasons of the soul?” Today we are going to talk about those times when God is ‘silent’ – when we feel cut off and feel like God isn’t listening and isn’t acting. We are going to look at two Psalms (130, 143) at two different approaches to that silence. Both are honest and realistic, though each has a little bit different tone. But in both cases, I want to lift up some healthy and helpful approaches to that waiting.

Psalm 143 is like a road map to healthy, honest struggle with God. I want to break it into three distinct parts, then we’ll briefly look at Psalm 130 for a visual picture of this approach to God’s silence.

Are You There God? It’s Me (vv. 1-2)

Psalm 143 begins with a plea – “Hear my prayer… listen to me… answer me!” Right from the start you get the feeling that this Psalm is one of those prayers where you are desperate to get through. Maybe it’s the tenth time you’ve prayed it. Or maybe your faith is wavering. Or maybe your words seem to not rise above the ceiling. Is God listening? Do your prayers matter? PLEASE God, will you hear me?

And yet also right off the bat – and this will set the tone for the whole prayer that is Psalm 143 – there is a respect and humility. After such a bold start the one praying acknowledges unworthiness to so boldly approach the throne: “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for in your sight no man living is righteous.” (v. 2)

One of the healthiest things we can do is pray HONESTLY, but also HUMBLY. God is not a genie or a cosmic butler to make demands of or issue orders to. Also right off the bat we see that these pleas to be heard are framed in who God is – faithful and righteous (v. 1). We will see all those things repeated and fleshed out as the prayer continues. The Psalmist prays honestly about the situation and the need, frames those prayers in humility as a limited human being coming before an unlimited good and faithful God.

These first two verses serve as a kind of preface to the rest of the prayer, which will elaborate on and expand what was briefly stated up front: hear me and help me, for you are God and I am not!

Naming the Problem (vv. 3-4)

It is important to pray specifically. In verses 3-4, the Psalmist names the problem: “The enemy has persecuted my soul… crushed my life to the ground.” What follows sounds like a description of depression, dwelling in “dark places, like those long dead” and “my spirit is overwhelmed… my heart appalled.”

Sometimes, we are so at the end of our rope, we are out of words or can just gasp out, “Help me, God!” But when you can, one thing that keeps the lines of communication open is to name your struggle, your fear, your problem. Be specific; it’s not that God doesn’t know the details, but it helps us open up to God’s help in a healthy way. Consider the difference, when someone asks you how you are doing, between saying, “Fine” and taking time to let them peek behind the curtain. It takes trust and relationship, to be sure; but where that can happen, it opens you up to help and hope. So it is with God. Our prayers (or lack of prayers) can amount to a “God is good and I’m fine. Amen.” Or, you can really pour yourself out to God. And if there is anyone to trust, is it not God?

Remember, REMEMBER! (vv. 5-6)

I also noted the importance of relationship. And what the Psalmist does next is something we’ve mentioned before. He remembers God’s character and works – how he has known God’s presence in the past. And doesn’t that make sense if God seems distant or absent now? – That remembering when God seemed close and present would be helpful?

So the Psalmist remembers and meditates and muses (vv. 5-6). That remembering is itself a kind of “stretching out my hands” to God. (v. 6) I can’t overstress the importance and helpfulness for the Christian of taking time to remember and think about God’s past presence and faithfulness when you are feeling disconnected. It’s a reminder that God is both faithful and real!

Humble Appeal, Expanded (vv. 7-12)

The rest of the prayer is an extended petition – asking God specifically, pointedly, and honestly for help. But also notice that what could sound like a list of demands (“answer me… don’t hide… let me hear”) becomes something else because each appeal or petition is paired with some reason for the prayer, either rooted in help or change for the one praying (“my spirit is failing”) or in God’s character (“in your righteousness”). Let me list them out:

ANSWER ME                              my spirit fails
DO NOT HIDE                            lest I go to the pit
LET ME HEAR                           I trust you
TEACH ME                                 to you I lift up my soul
DELIVER ME                             I take refuge in you
TEACH ME                                 you are my God
LEAD ME                                    …
    for the sake of your name      REVIVE ME
    in your righteousness             [RESCUE – ‘bring out’] MY SOUL
    in your lovingkindness           CUT OFF MY ENEMIES
DESTROY AFFLICTORS              I am your servant

What is all that? It is an expanded version of what we saw at the beginning: “Hear me and help me! You are God; I am not!”

Wait How? (a picture from Psalm 130)

So what do we take from all that? What can we do when God is silent or seems far away, when we feel like we are in a spiritual holding pattern waiting and waiting?

First, these elements of Psalm 143 are not a recipe for making God speak. There is no magic way to pray that makes it ‘work’ or ‘not work’ – what I am lifting up to you are important components of healthy prayer. In them are ordinary means of cultivating faith and relationship, which is the context when we do experience God’s presence and power. Those elements are:

1) speaking/praying to God with honesty, but also with humility;
2) making your needs and wants known specifically;
3) remembering who God is and what He has done.

You’ll see these elements in Psalm 130 as well. It begins with an honest appeal: “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” It does so in humility, naming God’s holiness and human iniquity, but also recognizing and remembering God’s merciful forgiveness (v. 4), loving kindness (v. 7), and abundant redemption (v. 7).

But what I want to end on is a wonderful picture from Psalm 130. And though it is somewhat removed from our experience, it still frames for us what spiritually healthy waiting is supposed to look like. It’s in verses 5-6. Our waiting is not impatient and demanding, but is hopeful and expectant, like the watchmen waiting for the morning. Most of us have not served as watchmen, in a modern or ancient setting, but you get the picture well enough, right? The watchman must endure the night watch and all the fears and dangers inherent in it. But that same watchman waits for morning with hopeful expectation of its arrival. Sunrise is not something greeted in bitterness, but in celebration. And every so often, the watchman might look to the horizon to see if there are yet pale streaks of dawn about to come.

Those of us who are waiting on God in some time or place in our life find ourselves in a similar situation. You may yet be in the night watches. What does it mean for you to wait for God? It means trusting that God will arrive, just as surely as the sun will rise. It will not be night forever. The silence will not last forever. The darkness will not endure forever. And in the meantime, pour out your soul to God. Be specific and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself! And remember God’s faithfulnesses before. That’s the other wonderful thing about the picture of the watchmen. They faced night and dark and danger again and again; but they can wait hopefully for the sun to rise because they have seen it rise before time and time again.

So with Israel, the Psalmist can say to you and to me with all confidence: “Hope in the Lord”… even in the silence. Amen.

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