June 30, 2019

“Life Songs: Sing a New Song”
Psalm 40:1-10
A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi
June 30, 2019 (Pentecost +3) 

After you’ve come through a difficult time, what kind of song do you sing?  Randy Travis came to mind this week.  I’m not by any means a fan of Country Western music.  But over the years I’d heard bits and pieces of Randy Travis’s story.  He is a giant in the music business, having sold 25 million records, with 22 number one hits.  He has received 7 Grammys and numerous other music awards, including 8 Doves, the Christian music award. 

In spite of his success in the music industry, he has had a number of personal problems and a well-publicized run-in with the law.  In July 2013, while he was in the hospital being treated for a congestive heart failure due to a virus, he suffered a massive stroke and was left in a coma.  He was given a 1% chance of survival.  After brain surgery, he spent five months recovering in the hospital.  He had to learn how to walk again, is paralyzed on his right side and even today has difficulty speaking.  But he can still sing—not as much or as long as before, but he can sing better than he can talk.  In 2016 when Travis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he sang a verse of “Amazing Grace” and brought the house down. 

After you’ve come through a difficult time, what song do you sing?  Randy Travis sang “Amazing Grace.”  David sang Psalm 40, which tells of a time when he was in trouble—deep, deep trouble—and he cried out to the Lord.  It’s a psalm that walks us through the threat David faced, and how he responded to Yahweh’s rescue.  In this psalm, David doesn’t just tell the story and say thank you to God, but he also recounts the lessons he learned and how he will go forward in life. 

The first part of the psalm is the story, told very briefly and simply.  Verse 1 begins, “I waited patiently for the Lord.”  This translation of the Hebrew doesn’t quite express the intensity of feeling.  According to Walter Brueggemann, it reads more like “I hope intensely for Yahweh” (The Message of the Psalms, p. 128).  All other hopes had been exhausted.  This was a deep cry for help in a desperate situation.  Yahweh graciously answered this cry:  “he turned to me and heard my cry.”  This is more than just a turn toward a voice, but Yahweh bending down to give careful attention to this person in trouble. 

Yahweh took action:  “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand” (v. 2).  God heard David’s desperate cry for help.  He was helpless and scared, and God rescued him, setting him on a firm foundation. 

As a result, a new life has begun.  This life is one of praise and testimony, proclaiming what God has done for him.  “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.” (v. 3).  He wants to encourage others to put their trust in the Lord:  “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods” (v. 4). 

Verse 5 is David’s praise to God: 

Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us. 

None can compare with you; were I to speak and tell of your deeds,

  they would be too many to declare.”

There is awe in his voice.  Awe because of all that God has done, and not just the rescue the psalmist experienced.  

The last five verses of our reading are David’s expression of surrender and commitment to Yahweh.  He realized that God wanted a different kind of relationship and worship, not just sacrifices and offerings.  God wanted more than a relationship based on exchange.  God wanted a relationship of trust and obedience.

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
    but my ears you have opened—
    burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—
    it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, my God;
    your law is within my heart.”

Do you hear echoes of other people in the Bible who have responded to God’s call?  “Here I am” (v. 7) reminds us of Isaiah’s response to God’s call.  Later, the sentiment in verse 8, “Your love is within my heart” became the prophet Jeremiah’s call to the new covenant:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they will be my people.
(Jeremiah 31:31) 

Yahweh is more than just the 911 dispatcher who sends the Emergency Medical Technicians or the firefighters or the police.  Yahweh wants relationships that are rooted in the heart, the center of one’s being.  Yahweh is deeply interested in nurturing relationship, in walking with David and everyone else who is ready to place their trust in him. 

As a result of this experience of God’s deliverance, David commits himself to giving testimony about God’s salvation, God’s righteousness and faithfulness, and God’s love with the aim of inviting others to trust in God.

I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
    I do not seal my lips, Lord, as you know.
10 I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
    I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
    from the great assembly.

According to Walter Brueggemann’s classification, this is a psalm of reorientation.  He describes psalms as moving from orientation, when life is good and settled, to disorientation, when life is torn apart or devastated, and one’s balance is off.  Then there is the move to new orientation or reorientation.  According to Brueggemann, psalms of reorientation “bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected.  That new orientation is not a return to the old stable orientation, for there is no such going back.  The psalmists know that we can never go home again.  Once there has been an exchange of real candor, as there is here between Yahweh and Israel, there is no return to the precandor situation” (The Message of the Psalms, pp. 123-124). 

In other words, after having one’s world torn apart and grumbling to God, that disruption and complaint can never be undone.  It’s part of the life and relationship between us and God.  But when God answers our cries, when we experience deliverance and salvation, we are brought to a new place of honesty and a more mature relationship with God, having gone through the time of disorientation.  The trouble or challenge or devastation pushes the relationship to the edge of trust.  God answers in ways that are not always expected or explainable.  In the Bible, dead people are raised to new life, lepers are cleansed, blind people are given sight.  The only thing a person can do in response is give testimony in gratitude and amazement. 

The new song that we sing recognizes God’s presence and activity in our lives during the disruptions, challenges and difficulties.  And having come through it, we can trust that when those disruptions come again, God will be with us.  The new song represents a more mature relationship with God. 

What we didn’t read in Psalm 40, verses 11 to 17, is a lament, a psalm of disorientation.  Listen to the second half of the psalm as it has been translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:

11-12 Now God, don’t hold out on me, don’t hold back your passion.
Your love and truth are all that keeps me together.
When troubles ganged up on me, a mob of sins past counting,
I was so swamped by guilt I couldn’t see my way clear.
More guilt in my heart than hair on my head, so heavy the guilt that my heart gave out.

13-15 Soften up, God, and intervene; hurry and get me some help,
So those who are trying to kidnap my soul will be embarrassed and lose face,
So anyone who gets a kick out of making me miserable will be heckled and disgraced,
So those who pray for my ruin will be booed and jeered without mercy.

16-17 But all who are hunting for you—oh, let them sing and be happy.
Let those who know what you’re all about tell the world you’re great and not quitting.
And me? I’m a mess. I’m nothing and have nothing:  make something of me.
You can do it; you’ve got what it takes—but God, don’t put it off.

Isn’t it interesting that Psalm 40 begins with thanksgiving and praise for God’s deliverance, but ends with a plea for help, as though the triumph was short-lived?  This is real life.  We are not promised lives of ease, painless or trouble-free existences.  We are assured, however, that God will be with us, will walk with us through it all. 

God knows this is what our lives are like because God came to us in Jesus.  He saw the suffering of the people, and tried to alleviate it for some.  His ministry was all about healing and preaching, calling people to relationship with God.  The healing he did was a loving ministry, but I’m sure those who were healed continued to face trials and difficulties in their lives.  And Jesus himself suffered, and cried out to God as he was put on trial, tortured and crucified.  But he was also resurrected to new life, an unexpected answer to the cries for help.  A song of reorientation on Jesus’ lips would have been appropriate after he was resurrected.  And while new life for all resulted from all that Jesus suffered, the suffering did not end.  The pain of this world will not end until he returns.  And until then, our songs will move from disorientation to reorientation and back again.  Psalm 40 is a real life song, acknowledging the ups and downs of our lives. 

Randy Travis’s song of reorientation is “Amazing Grace.”  It is an appropriate song to sing after coming through a life-threatening medical event that he experienced.  It’s a great song to sing because it recognizes God’s generosity and love and how we don’t deserve it.  It also serves as a reminder, an encouragement to us when we face great difficulties that God’s grace will continue to be present in our lives, through the disorientation, and that God will bring us to a new day.  What is your song of reorientation?  How will you sing a new song to the Lord? 

For our time of reflection this morning, we will listen to a song that the rock group U2 has often sung at the end of their concerts.  It is simply called “40” and it is based on Psalm 40:1-3.  It also contains a sense of the longing from the end of the psalm as it asks, “How long?”  I invite you to listen and let this song be your prayer of reorientation, your prayer of thanks to God, your prayer of trust in the Lord.