O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
Some were sick through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
he sent out his word and healed them,
and delivered them from destruction.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.
Please read the whole Psalm. I know: it’s Sunday, you’re busy, nine verses is easier than forty-three. But please read it anyway. We live in an age of snippets: the British radio station Classic FM has got big, these last ten years, by playing one movement of this quartet, one segment of this oratorio, one passage from that suite or symphony. Several of the great composers must be permanently turning in their graves: how can you understand the last movement of Sibelius’s fifth symphony if you haven’t lived through the first two? It’s as though you went for a mountain walk and someone gave you a ride most of the way in a helicopter, so that you could simply stride the last half mile to the summit without doing all the work along the way, without coming to terms with the mountain’s particular ridges and streams. Anyway, please read the whole Psalm.
When you do, you’ll feel, as well as see, the obvious pattern. Things are going badly wrong: wandering in the desert, prisoners in darkness, sick and dying, tossed about on the wild ocean. It comes again and again. ‘Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress . . . Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.’ And then the last ten verses, musing upon it all, and concluding with the invitation to learn wisdom by pondering the whole thing.
Feel the force and sweep of this repeated pattern. Then stand back from it, and hold, within the framework of the Psalm, the different situations you see on the television news, or read about in the newspaper. The different crises and problems you face at work, in your family, in your town. Hunger. Unemployment. Debt. The Middle East. Marriages under threat. Child poverty. And so on. And ask yourself why so few, in today’s world, would regard the urgent advice of the Psalmist as anything other than escapism. Today’s Western world has labelled ‘religion’ as either dangerous or irrelevant, and then has wondered why it finds itself wandering in desert wastes, sitting in darkness and gloom, sick and despairing, and tossed to and fro by the wind and the wave.
Because underneath the glorious poetry is glorious theology: the theology of God the creator, God the life-giver, God the rescuer. This is God’s world, mysterious though that often seems. Those who find themselves lost and in danger, whether through their own fault or not (some, but not all, of those in trouble in this Psalm had brought it upon themselves), need to shout out to their maker for help. Help will not always come in the way we want or expect. Sometimes it may seem as though nothing has changed. But with that cry for help the world tilts a fraction back towards its proper balance, and ways forward can be found – even though people are then left, as in the last ten verses, to reflect wisely on the larger interconnectedness of human behaviour and the power of God.
The particular passage we are instructed to read today, the first three verses and then verses 17–22, highlight thankfulness. Praising God for deliverance is the glad, genuinely human stance which we are invited to take up. And there is special grace and mercy in unexpected places, such as verses 17 and 18. How often do we as pastors hear it said that ‘God won’t help me because it’s my own fault that I’m in this mess’? We sometimes draw back from saying to people ‘you brought it on yourself ’, because that sounds (and sometimes is) cruel. Yet often enough it’s true, too. But the good news is, of course, that while we were still sinners the Messiah died for us (Romans 5.8). Many of us know this in theory; we all need to be surprised by it in practice, again and again. Yes, some of us need to hear, you are in this mess because you knowingly chose to do this, and this. The warning signs were there and you ignored them. So what? God is the creator, and he is also the rescuer. He takes special delight in rescuing the totally undeserving. When he does that, his love and grace are on display all the more powerfully.
The earliest Christians would have spotted, in verse 20, a clear anticipation of the message of John’s gospel. ‘He sent out his word and healed them.’ ‘Your all-powerful word leapt from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed,’ wrote the first-century Jewish sage (Wisdom 18.15). A mind steeped in John’s Prologue will pick up, of course, the reference to Jesus. But we should also see, in the strange interconnectedness of God’s grace, a reference to the healing, rescuing power of the word spoken or written: the word of witness or warning, of comfort or prayer, of challenge or encouragement. Words, after all, reach both heart and mind. And that, again and again, is where healing begins, with thanksgiving as its first fruit.
Be present, merciful and powerful God, to all those who are in despair or desolation this day. May they know your rescuing power, and give you thanks.