Sermon for June 6, 2021: Psalm 130 (The Rev. Steve Sturgeon)

Updated: Jul 31

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Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN


For my sermon this morning I want talk about the psalm we heard today, Psalm 130. Typically we do not focus much attention on the Sunday psalm, but I think this one has a special resonance for all of us as we start to emerge from the pandemic world that we have been living in for the past year. Psalm 130 is part of a collection of fifteen psalms known as the ‘Songs of Ascents,’ which begins with Psalm 120 and runs through Psalm 134. The title ‘Songs of Ascents’ comes from a descriptive line in the original Hebrew text that prefaces each of these psalms. While this phrase is not defined anywhere in the Bible, the scholarly consensus is that these psalms were recited by ancient Jewish pilgrims on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem.


The city of Jerusalem sits on a rocky plateau that is surrounded on three sides by deep ravines, so pilgrims would have ascended as they approached and entered Jerusalem. The Temple, in turn, was located on a large hill within the city, so pilgrims would have continued ascending to reach it, and then within the temple complex they would have walked up several flights of stairs connecting one courtyard to the next. The fact that these psalms make frequent mention of Jerusalem and Zion (the hill on which the Temple sat), further suggests a pilgrimage theme. (J. Clinton McCann Jr., “Commentary and Reflections on the Book of Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, p. 1176.)


Psalm 130 is notable, as well, for its inclusion in another collection, the Penitential Psalms, which consists of seven psalms (Pss. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) that all share a common theme: the expression of sorrow for sin. This collection emerged in the sixth century AD as a devotional focus in the Christian church as part of the sacrament of penance, both for individuals and for the community as a whole. These seven psalms are also psalms of pilgrimage and ascent in their own way. Just as the ‘Songs of Ascents’ led ancient pilgrims on an upward physical journey into the presence of God in the Temple at Jerusalem, so too the Penitential Psalms lead us, as one commentator writes, “from the deep awareness of sin to a sense of pardon and release as we are raised up through our encounter with God. The Penitential Psalms offer us a pathway toward grace.” (Quote paraphrased from Mary Douglas Turner, “Pastoral Perspective on Psalm 130,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 104.)


Psalm 130 begins with one of the most memorable lines in the Bible, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord….” This image evokes the watery chaos that the spirit of God hovered over at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:1), and echoes the cries of the Israelites both when they were trapped as slaves in Egypt (Exodus 3:7), and later during their time of exile in Babylon (Isaiah 30:19). We are not given a specific location for the depths that the psalmist calls out from, but we all know instinctively what those depths are because we have experienced them firsthand ourselves. We are in those depths when we struggle with betrayal at the hands of someone we trust. We are in those depths when we witness the physical or mental illness of someone we love. We are in those depths when we lose our sense of personal, physical, emotional or financial safety. We are in those depths when we can no longer see a future in front of us. We are in those depths when disease ravages our world, and when division ravages our nation. But perhaps the deepest depths we experience in our lives are those we dig for ourselves due to our own failures against God, our loved ones, and our neighbors; depths made all the darker by our regrets. (V. Steven Parrish, “Exegetical Perspective on Psalm 130,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 107; Thomas Edward McGrath, “Pastoral Perspective on Psalm 130,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 130.)


The psalmist, however, does not cry out in vain from the abyss; the psalmist calls out to a god who will listen. The speaker expresses a faith that God is present, God will hear, and God will respond. The psalmist does not even ask for a specific action, but rather simply to be heard. To be truly heard is perhaps one of the greatest gifts a person can ever receive. For those trapped in the depths of despair, it can be a lifeline. Not merely to receive pat answers and false assurances, nor to be told what to do or how to solve a problem, nor to have someone change the topic to something less uncomfortable, nor to have to endure somebody ‘mansplaining’ things to you, but simply to be truly and genuinely heard. That is what the psalmist is seeking from God. (Stephen Farris, “Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 130,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 131.)


The speaker then indirectly acknowledges their own sinfulness, not as an explanation or justification for the suffering that they are experiencing, but as the basis for believing that God will listen, that God does care. If God sought to punish us for every single sin that we ever committed, then there would be no hope for us; we would remain trapped forever in the depths of despair, a hell of our own making. But God does not seek to inflict further pain on our suffering, to punish us or our loved ones in order to get our attention, to treat the brokenness of the world as some sort of divine ‘teachable moment.’ Instead God is a source of infinite mercy, the vastness of which is simply incomprehensible to human minds, and the proper response to which is overwhelming awe. It is this mercy that gives the psalmist confidence that God will listen. (Ibid.; Parrish; Turner, p. 106.)


Having called out to God, the speaker now waits. Waiting is something that we modern Americans are terrible at doing. We are a just-get-out-of-the-way, I’ll-do-it-myself, I-wanted-this-done-yesterday, yes-I-know-what-I’m-doing, no-we-don’t-have-to-pay-someone-for-that, kind of people. We expect instant communication and responses from one another, we use our GPS to avoid waiting in traffic, an app to avoid waiting for coffee, and we pay extra to board the plane first. We do not measure our time in days, weeks, or years, but in nanoseconds. Everything about our society says, “Hurry up!” That is why it is all the more difficult and devastating when a personal crisis forces us to wait. Waiting by the phone hoping to hear from a loved one. Waiting by the phone afraid of what we will hear about a loved one. Hospital waiting rooms have been described as “one of the loneliest places on earth—even when…full of people.” We scan the faces of the doctors and nurses looking for any sign of hope, just as the watchman scans the horizon for any sign of dawn. (Ibid.; McGrath, p. 132.)


If you have even been outside at dawn it is a miraculous transformation that occurs in very small increments. I am not speaking about when the sun rises, but what occurs in the time before the first beams of light cross the horizon. There is a moment (called nautical dawn) when suddenly in the darkness you can distinguish between the land and the sky, and you can see the outline of the objects that are around you. Everything is still shades of gray, and you do not have a full sense of depth yet, but you can begin to move about with a slow sense of confidence. As one writer remarks, “When you are in the dark depths of despair, and you begin to see, however dimly, the dawning light of hope, then you may discover a handhold here, and another one there, that allows you to begin to climb.” This is where I think we are right now as we come out of the pandemic. (Quote paraphrased from Ibid., p. 130.)


In the dawning light of hope, our psalmist shifts from speaking only about their concerns, and now invites the people of Israel (then, now, and forever) to join in waiting for the Lord; waiting in the expectation of the mercy that is to come. It is worth noting, that there is nothing in the psalm to indicate that the speaker has already been rescued from their despair. This is not a psalm of thanksgiving, but one of anticipation. The speaker is confident that God has heard the cry for help. As one commentator notes:

All parts of [this] psalm—the cry, the hope, and the counsel to Israel—should be understood as emanating from the depths. The help has not come as the psalm ends, only the promise of help. That, surely, is where many of us stand. Help may not yet have come, but we have cried out and have heard and even said that with God there is steadfast love. There is a word for that place where we cry out to God and where we speak and hear the promises of redemption. It is called “church.” (Farris, p. 133.)

Amen.