I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
Imagine you are standing there in the dark, at the foot of the cross. The sun’s light has failed, and through your tears all you can see is this horrible pole stretching up, with Jesus hanging there, his whole body so tortured that you can’t even imagine the level of pain he must be in. You are cold, and afraid, and you hardly know what to do except stay there.
Gradually, slowly, as your eyes get used to the darkness, you find you can see a bit more clearly the upper parts of the cross. You can make out Jesus’ arms, yanked almost out of their sockets, but stretching out in both directions. And then, above his head – though you can hardly bear to look, to see that face so battered and distorted – you can see the top of the central pole, with its sarcastic notice (‘King of the Jews’ – whoever heard of a crucified king!), nevertheless pointing upwards. And you find, coming from somewhere underneath all the sorrow and the sense of utter hopelessness, something else starting to make itself felt. Something about those two outstretched arms, that upward pointing sign. Something that resonates with the Psalm whose first verse Jesus had screamed out in his agony a few minutes ago (Mark 15.34). Something that might just begin to make sense, though a terrible and world-shaking sense, out of it all.
The Psalm verse Jesus had yelled out was of course the opening of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ On and on goes the Psalm, plunging down to the depths of despair, of self-loathing, of helpless suffering. It is a place where many in our world still have to live. It is the place to which Jesus went on that black Friday afternoon. Sometimes it’s all we can do to look at this suffering, going on and on like the cross itself, disappearing into the darkness.
But sometimes, as our eyes adjust, we can just glimpse some-thing beyond, something that doesn’t cancel out the suffering but that seems to grow out of it. Something that corresponds to the final verses of the Psalm, the verses we read today. These verses reach out, like the two arms on the cross; and they reach up, like the sign of the kingdom, pointing to the heavens. You can’t split them off from the long, dark pole of the cross. Verses 22–31 depend entirely on the twenty-one verses that precede them. They are the fruit of the suffering. We read them today, a mere ten days into Lent, as an act, not of respite, as though they cancelled out the earlier part of the Psalm, but of encouragement. This is where it’s all going, even if where we currently stand seems dark, dangerous and sad.
The first outstretched arm speaks of rescue, God’s delivering of his people from all that has oppressed them. God hasn’t abandoned the sufferer (verse 24). Those who are most in need will be given what they require (verse 26). As we stand there in the dark, let’s learn to see that arm outstretched to the world that still needs it so badly.
The second outstretched arm speaks of kingdom. Astonishingly, God’s kingdom is established over the whole world, over all the nations. This is deeply embedded in Israel’s self-understanding. Such a notion is, of course, politically incorrect. There is no room for relativism in the Psalms. Either God is God of all the world or he’s not God at all. ‘All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord’: yes indeed, that is what it’s all about. Only in him are to be found the justice and joy for which the world longs.
But, as we start to see these outstretched arms, we also see, high above the wounded face of Jesus, the cross pointing on upwards in what we now discern as an act of praise. ‘I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters’ (verse 22); ‘from you comes my praise in the great congregation’ (verse 25); ‘future generations’ shall ‘proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn’ (verses 30 and 31). Pilate’s mocking message, announcing Jesus as ‘King of the Jews’, comes true, not in the way he intended or expected but as something far stranger, far more world-shaking. Even when we can see nothing but darkness, the cross still points upwards to the God who makes even human wrath turn to his praise.
This cruel cross, planted roughly in the stony soil of Calvary, will thus bear fruit, fruit that will last: rescue, mission, praise. And we who find ourselves, this Lent, standing at its foot, in darkness and perhaps even despair, must learn to train our ears to hear these verses, not cut off from the rest of the Psalm but precisely growing out of it; must train our eyes to glimpse not just the broken body on the cross but the work of love, justice and worship that will result. Live with this Psalm as you stand by the cross. Watch and pray for the day when these final verses will become as real and obvious in our world as the darkness and suffering is right now.
Help us, gracious Lord, so to stand in faith at the foot of the cross that the light can break through the darkness and guide us on our way.