“Justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow.
O LORD, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up O judge of the earth…”
You could imagine hearing these words from a superhero who’s posing for the movie poster. “For the LORD will not forsake the people; God will not abandon us!” There’s something strong, and strident, and stirring about this prayer! All these words are glowing with confidence. But what about the silence between these words, and did you just hear his voice quiver…
Listen carefully and we might hear something unspoken. It gives it away. Psalm Ninety-Four is not really the anthem of a superhero. This is a prayer sung by a human person. “Surely God will come through!” the Psalmist declares, and oh how we want to believe him, but under his breath, there’s a whisper that goes, “God I hope so. God, you have to help us.”
Inside the strident assurance of faith, there’s a shimmering pleading for help: The LORD is my stronghold. The LORD will repay them for their iniquity. Right? You’ll do that, O Holy God? Because we need you.
The same thing happens in the Gospel of Luke when Mary finds out she is pregnant, that she will give birth to the Son of God. She’s not even married! She goes with haste to her cousin Elizabeth. Now, her life is in danger; her situation is desperate. Then out of her mouth comes a song of praise and confidence in the power of God.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!” Mary breaks into singing. It is God who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God brings down the mighty, but lifts up the lowly. God sends the rich away, but fills the hungry with good things. Mary is praising God for this holy power, and under her breath is the prayer, “God help me. Of course, you will come through, O God help me.”
Inside our fearless proclamations of how great thou art, there is a shimmering ribbon of worry.
Inside our ugly desperation, there is a shimmering ribbon of praise.
May we listen for what is unspoken in our own hearts. Listen for what you pray under your breath…
According to Bible scholar Paul Hanson, during the Babylonian exile, there were two main fears which he has named the twin doubts of the exile. Now in Psalm Ninety-Four, and in much of the poetry of the Hebrew Bible, you can hear these fears pouring through and shuddering the bones.
The twin doubts were: One, is the LORD our God really powerful enough to save us? and Two, does God even want to?
Could God actually save us? If so, would she even try?
It makes sense why the people in the exile were wondering this, but come on, who among us hasn’t asked these same questions…
The first one is the question about the power of God. All through the Bible, scores of singers, and prophets, and teenagers keep telling us that God is powerful. What I want to know is, beyond the scriptures, how do you know that is true…
I mean, it’s one thing to notice, hey, that waterfall is beautiful. It is another thing to see the waterfall and find your soul being filled when you didn’t even realize you were hungry.
It is one thing to say the prayers we have always said. It is another thing when the only prayer you have goes “Oh my God!” Behold.
So I’m pretty sure, you have experienced the power of God in your own life.
I’m pretty sure, your soul has been moved by God’s love.
What I’m wondering is whether we could take a minute or two and name some examples. Just a few words, an image, the name of a time when you were moved by the awesome glory of God… What is one sign you could point to that might speak to the question: Is God powerful enough?
The examples mentioned included seeing God’s power:
-in the healing of a newborn baby who was ill
-in the intricacy of a spring flower
-in the rolling thunder
-in the stars covering the night sky
-in surviving a hurricane at sea
Thank you for these examples. If the first question is, Could God save us?, the second question goes, But would he?
Alongside the awesome power of God is the promise that the one who summons the angels and sets the stars to their singing is the same God who gets into our human politics and takes the side of those who are vulnerable and mistreated.
Can you hear this tension…On the one hand, the LORD our God is above the heavens and the earth and certainly above the fray, on the other hand, God gets into the world and takes a side.
You know God has something to say about children at the border who are forcibly taken from their parents by federal agents. God has an opinion on this epidemic of school shootings. God is outraged by overcrowded prisons and underfunded schools and by decisions that value making money over caring for those in need. There is something dazzling and demanding about believing in God who is above all, and beyond all and who, at the same time, loves this world, and gets into this world.
If this is the case, then it’s no surprise that those who kill the widows and the immigrants, those who murder the orphans— what they’re doing is provoking the justice of God. God’s justice pours out in the same breath as compassion.
There’s a story in the gospels where Jesus is healing a man, and the Bible says Jesus was moved, and the footnote in the Bible says Jesus was moved either by compassion or by anger (Mark 1:41); as though it’s unclear in the Greek, as though compassion and anger might flow from the same breath of God.
So just as we named signs of the glory of God, now I’d like to take another moment and name where you see the need for justice… Right now, in our world, who is standing in the need of God’s compassion or outrage?
The examples mentioned included:
-people who go for days without something to eat
-the people who want to build a wall on the border and those who will be affected by this wall
-the victims and survivors of natural disasters such as the volcano in Central America
-the people of Puerto Rico
-people dealing with mental illness and substance abuse
-the discord in our government
-kids who need parents
-people who go from parking lot to parking lot asking for money
-whenever greed is stronger than compassion
Thank you for lifting these up for our prayer. In just a minute, Karen will read the rest of Psalm Ninety-Four. Of course, we can hear the brassy confidence in the words of the singer, but when Karen is reading, and when you are reading it to yourself, I invite you to listen for the voice of God singing back. May we listen for what’s happening between the words. May we hear the shimmering ribbon of grace, the longing of God to be heard. Amen.