Psalm 85: 1-13
Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us. Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
Our scripture this week is a Psalm and next week we will also read a Psalm. The two in particular address how we hold onto Hope in the midst of trouble, and how God empowers us to make it through. The Psalms, from the first to the last, are all songs offered up in worship to God. Some are happy, some are sad, one even flat out ends in despair. Yet, all 150 of these Psalms tell us one of many ways we can pray to God. They give us words when words simply cannot come into our minds. They are God’s gift to the tongue tied, they are a prayer book given for the benefit of us all.
This Psalm specifically, is ascribed as a “Korahite” song. This was a specific guild among Levites that worked within the Temple. The instructions toward “the Leader,” indicates it was meant to be sung in public worship. Based on these details and a few others contained in the Psalm itself, we can determine it was written or finalized after the greatest disaster in the life of the Jews as recorded in Hebrew Scripture – the Babylonian conquest. After years of vassalage to Assyria, Judah was first conquered and then completely destroyed by Babylon. The Babylonian empire took the nobility and the administrative classes to help run the empire, they enslaved the lower castes for menial labor, and they scattered and disenfranchised the remaining populace of the province. In the midst of this disaster, hope was a precious commodity. Yet, through prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah the people kept the faith, even if that faith asked much of them.
When the return from exile finally came, several generations had already passed. The children of the exile’s children were the ones to re-enter Judea. While we will come, time and time again, to this return from Exile, there is one particular aspect of it we will examine now. This is the simple truth that, despite all hopes, the return to exile was not the end of Judea’s problems. Having struggled for so long, having been separated from their ancestral home, there was an expectation that in the moment they first stepped back into Judea everything would be suddenly perfect. Yet, more than a few troubles were immediately made manifest in their lives.
Buildings needed constructed, conflict between groups needed negotiated, even paperwork is recorded as being sent off and approved of in Scripture’s treatment of the return. The most prolific trouble which our Psalm implies was affecting the community was famine. The crops they had planted were not growing like they should have been. The rains did not come, the dew was not settling on the roots of the crops, and nothing could grow. Without food, there can be no life, and in the midst of our quest to survive we can become desperate, and desperation with it brings many evils.
The prayer of the Psalmist is voiced in the midst of this hardship. They open by calling on God to act as God had acted before. “You were once good to us, be good to us again!” They shift their prayer to question, “Are you made at us? If so for how long?” The questions presume that God is listening, active, interested. The Psalmist speaks as though they will be heard and they beg that God will speak life into the world – that salvation will be made plain in the world. They wanted to see God’s goodness laid out for anyone who sought it to see.
The faith in God that the Psalmist holds is rooted in a few specific qualities of God. God is faithful – literally true to the words which God has spoken. God is righteous – giving to all humanity what is due to them, life and life abundant. Finally, God is described as having, “steadfast love,” toward all of God’s people. God is described consistently through the Hebrew scriptures as having חסד or “loyalty,” toward those in covenant with God. This loyalty is the basis by which God acts in justice and righteousness toward all people.
I would suggest that, while by no means identical, the past year and a half has been similar to the Babylonian captivity in many ways. We all went into March of 2020 with the expectation of quick returns to normalcy after things began shutting down. In the Panhandle, the churches I served were some of the first in the region to close and we earnestly expected to be back by the end of April. That, did not prove to be the case. Each day I collected local, national, and international data and plotted the progression of a devastating pandemic.
All of us faced difficulties across the last year and a half. Some were minor inconveniences – plans (like my honeymoon in Paris,) had to be canceled or postponed. Others were far greater – the loss of loved ones due to the virus or other causes made worse by our inability to mourn them properly. Others of us faced loss of jobs or income things that strain our trust that tomorrow will find us fed and sheltered and healthy. Even joy across that dreadful span of time was diminished, a great weight hung over everything we did.
Like the Judahites, we had a hope that there would be a great rebirth on the other side of the Pandemic, of our own captivity. Like them, we now see it is not so simple. For Judea, building projects and Persian rule kept their post-exile joy from being complete. For us the issues are ever evolving. Vaccines hold great promise to cut off this virus and its variants, but there is still hesitance to receive it that must be overcome. Our love for healthcare workers and “essential workers,” has faded, apathy reigns again. Beyond these, we step out of the cloud of the darkest days of the Pandemic and see that more clouds rumble, another harsh winter could bring any number of new or returning interruptions.
I mentioned a moment ago that hope is a valuable thing. It was valuable in Judea when famine raged at a time when feasts should have been planned. It is valuable now in a world that has one foot in a world beyond COVID and another firmly planted in the midst of it. These are all of us just the problems that we are facing as a group, what about the ones we face individually? The treatment that did not go as planned. The empty dinner table seat. The dream crushed at its beginning. When do we step beyond the trouble we are in and into the joy that comes next?
I do not know. I cannot tell you. I could step down from this podium and suddenly fall over dead, I could live one hundred years. The novel coronavirus, through increased vaccination or other medical intervention could fade away in a few months, or return again and again across years. Anything could get better or it could get worse. We simply do not know, beyond our best intuition and modeling, what lies down the line for us. Tomorrow is a mystery and sometimes it is a scary one.
Yet, we have hope. That precious resource we have chased is not far from us. Our Psalmist, having presented God’s previous acts, after asking about God’s anger, makes a simple request of God. They do not ask for the famine to end or for God to rush them away from it. They ask God to speak. “Lord, tell me things will be ok. Speak peace to us, because if you say it I will believe it. Please, God, just speak.”
I do not know what tomorrow, or next week, or next year will bring. What I do know is God has been good to me and if God did it once I bet God can do it again. That does not mean it won’t be hard. That does not mean that the distance from our bed to the floor won’t feel like the longest distance our feet can travel. What it does mean is that we can take that long hard journey, because we know the person leading us is dependable.
The vision of this Psalm is not just of a world where things are, “Ok.” God’s truth and loyalty are seen as coming together before all people. Peace and Righteousness share a scandalous kiss. The deep waters of the earth and the showers of heaven are overcome, not with life ending floods, but life giving, living waters of grace. God will come, God will save. God will do it.
Next week, we will look at Psalm 23, and specifically its claim that we should “Fear no evil.” Yet, this week, I would ask us all to be honest about our fears and doubts. To see the ways life isn’t quite how we hoped it might be. I give you permission now, if you’ve been seeking it, to not be ok with how things presently are. I also give you this hope, that the God who was good to you before is good to you now, and will be forever. Righteousness goes before our Lord, who brings us peace. Let us trust our God who delivers us from all evil – Amen.