April 26, 2020

Calling Upon God in Time of Crisis

Psalm 116


I can remember when I was a teenage boy, and going through a particularly rough patch of braces, pimples and a growth spurt which made me hard to look at and uncoordinated. I went to my mother and let her know I was frustrated and feeling pretty glum.  Mom said, “When I feel that way, I read through the book of psalms. There are a lot of feelings in that book from the Bible.” She then gave me a brightly colored contemporary language book called, “Psalms Now!” Here is a picture of the cover, which I doubt is still in print. You have to remember this was the early 70’sJ  I remember reading a bit each night, and found some of the Psalms were speaking to me and my glum feelings. There were Psalms of overwhelming sorrow, loss, fear, pleading to God for help…


That is the reason why we will be focusing a bit upon the psalms over the next few Sundays in worship: Many of you may be struggling with feeling blue, feeling glum as our social distancing remains in order. This must be difficult especially for those of you who live alone, who can’t see another human face or have much human contact. It is nice to have Zoom and all that, but seeing a person on a computer screen is not the same as sitting directly across from them and looking into their eyes. Many of us are pleading with God for help, are fearful of what may lie ahead.


Today we will go through Psalm 116. This psalm first caught my eye due to the opening couple of verses-“I love the Lord because God has heard my cry and my supplication. Because God has inclined an ear to me, I will, therefore, call upon God for as long as I live. The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me…” This psalm just seems to fit the occasion of this time of pandemic, of fear, death, and facing an unknown future.


This particular psalm is fourth in a group of psalms known as the "Egyptian Hallel" psalms (Psalms 113-118), the psalms recited at the Passover meal on the eighth day of Passover. Psalms 113 and 114 are read before the meal; Psalm 115-118 are read at its conclusion while drinking the fourth cup of salvation.


It is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, in which a psalm singer praises God for deliverance from some trying situation (oppression, war, sickness, etc.). The great psalm scholar Hermann Gunkel describes the occasion on which these songs would have been offered: “A person is saved out of great distress, and now with grateful heart, he brings a thank offering to Yahweh; it was customary that at a certain point in the sacred ceremony he would offer a song in which he expresses his thanks.”


This psalm is also often used on Maundy Thursday, speaking of the roots of Jesus’ Passover meal with the disciples, and connecting us to the beginnings of communion. As in the Passover celebration, so Christians raise a cup of wine in remembrance of all of God's goodness to their ancestors in the faith and to them. The roots of praising God through bread and cup go back much further, however. The cup of salvation mentioned in verse 13, goes back almost 3000 years to the time of Moses setting up God’s place of worship. This cup of salvation was to be poured out over the altar of God to give thanks for being saved from the Egyptians. Exodus 25:29-30 says, “and its flagons to pour your drink-offering; you shall make them pure gold. And you shall set the bread of presence on the table before me always…” As God provided salvation and bread for the Israelites as they fled the Egyptians and wandered through the wilderness, God was to be honored in remembrance through these elements upon God’s altar. Our ancient connections to Passover and communion remind us of God’s provision and faith for thousands of years.  We will be remembering and giving thanks for God’s faithfulness and mercy later as we celebrate communion together.


Here is an overview of the structure of Psalm 116, and I invite you at home to open your Bibles to this psalm as we go through it together.


It begins by listing some of the attributes of God

  1. God is attentive-verses 1-2
  2. God is merciful v 5-6

The psalmist responds with trust in God-, (verses 7,9,11) & worship of God in thanksgiving (v 12-19)


There are four primary sections

  1. The rescue from distress by God and strengthening of the relationship between psalmist and God.
  2. The nature of God revealed in the rescue which I outlined earlier and psalmist’s response.
  3. Resolve by the psalmist to live as a trusting follower of God, and
  4. Resolve by a follower of God to offer ritual thanks.


There are a number of verses that stand out for me while we go through this COVID-19 Pandemic:

  1. “I love the Lord because God has heard my voice and my supplications…and inclined an ear to me…” (v.1-2) The phrase “inclined God’s ear” is a wonderful picture in Hebrew -- it literally says “to stretch out the ear.” The word “supplications” has interesting meaning as well-the action of asking or begging for something earnestly or humbly, as in “He fell to his knees in supplication." This isn’t just a mundane prayer request. This is someone who was in great distress, begging for help.  I can think of a couple of times in my own life pleading with God to hear my supplications while on my knees. I am certain there are people all over the world right now who have cried out, asking God to hear their supplications. This passage reminds us that God HEARS US and stretches out an ear to listen. God is attentive to our supplications.
  2. “The snares of death encompassed me, the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me. I suffered in distress and anguish.” (v.3) Sheol-the underworld, place of the dead was not heaven or hell in the 900’s B.C. Sheol was the place of the dead, all the dead once they die. This concept lasted until approximately 600 B.C. when there was a shift theologically-the wicked dead ended up in Sheol, whereas the righteous dead ended up in paradise-early concepts of heaven and hell. Being encompassed by death certainly rings a bell does it not? Although the cases of COVID-19 are mild in comparison to other states, we are penned in between Washington and California, states hit much harder. Nationally, we are approaching 60,000 dead. We are indeed encompassed by death right now.
  3. “Then I called upon God’s name: “O Lord, save my life!” (v.4) I have specifically prayed that prayer for all of my family, and for my church family during this pandemic. “O Lord, save their lives!” “Name” was an important concept in the ancient Near East. Names reflected the natures and characters of the persons who bore them and were conceptually equal to the very essence of being. To know someone was to possess some part of that person; to speak a name was to speak them into being. There is a closeness to God as we speak God’s name.
  4. “Return O soul to your rest, for God has dealt bountifully with you.”(v.7) Looking back upon God’s faithfulness in difficult times can comfort our souls- returning them to a resting, untroubled state. This is not easy to do in the midst of this pandemic. This theme continues in verse 8.
  5. “For You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” I can identify with such times literally and figuratively. Figuratively, I think our lives have been knocked off-kilter a bit, as we stumble around in this unprecedented time. In such times, I try to remember those times of being near death, eyes full of tears, feet stumbling. In time, I have found deliverance from those times and can give thanks to God for that deliverance. So let me encourage you to spend some time this afternoon contemplating God’s faithfulness to you in the past, remembering those times of great suffering and deliverance from them, helping your soul to be at rest. 
  6. “I kept my faith, even when I said, I am greatly afflicted: I said in my consternation”(v.10,11a)The word Consternation is not one we use too often. The definition of consternation, feelings of anxiety or dismay, typically at something unexpected.”  If you are at all like me, right now, I find myself having many of those feelings. I find myself anxious just out of the blue, and in dismay whenever I tune into the news. In those times, just like we are experiencing, are we able to keep our faith? Are there practices from our faith we can keep to in such times-prayer, reading of scripture, connecting through virtual worship and fellowship, being out in the beauty of God’s creation to help us maintain our faith?
  7. “Everyone is a liar.” (v.11) Wow, does THAT ONE fit right now…China has been spreading false rumors, taking a page from the Russian playbook to sow strife in our nation. According to Friday’s NY Times, Chinese operatives were spreading false rumors about the spread of the virus and our governmental response. They put them on as many web sites as they could, including messages like, “They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” warned one of the messages, which cited a source in the Department of Homeland Security.“He said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.”  This lying, of course, feeds conspiracy theorists. There are hundreds of thousands of Facebook posts being posted daily suggesting the Coronavirus is a hoax, was man-made, that the number of deaths is fake, and that “Social distancing is just another way to control your family and behavior.” Posts are fueling American anxiety over our stay at home lifestyle,” leading to small protests in many states with signs that read, “Give me liberty or give me COVID-19.”  Then there is our president, who is claiming we have enough testing for states to reopen, and that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine works, despite US researchers seeing no benefit, and instead, noting increased deaths from heart failure due to taking the drug this past week.
  8. Precious in the sight of God is the death of God’s faithful ones. (v.15) So many have died, and all are precious to God, especially those who have a relationship with God through faith. They are of great value; not to be wasted or treated carelessly; dear, and invaluable. This is in opposition to what some people are saying politically- that older people’s lives aren’t so valuable, and are in fact are expendable when it comes to saving our national economy. EACH life is precious to God. Your life is precious to God.
  9. I am your servant, the child of your serving girl (v.16) Faith was handed down to the psalmist through his mother, who was also a servant of God and who had faith in God. My faith was handed down through my family, mostly through my mother. My faith is an anchor in this time of unknowing, uncertainty, and death. That faith lineage is helping keep my faith in this time of consternation.


All of those feelings we may have right now have been felt before. May God be with us as we cry out to God in prayer and supplication. May we hold onto our faith, even though we may be greatly afflicted and caught in fits of consternation. May we remember we are precious in God’s sight and give thanks for the faith we have, however it was handed down to us so that we can have our souls return to rest. Alleluia. Amen.

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