A Lament: I’m Sinful
We’re still lamenting these days of the season of Lent, and our focus this morning is another Psalm of Lament, a portion of scripture in the Psalms that was born in some unknown circumstance of deep anguish. We don’t know exactly who wrote it or why it was written, but we surely recognize the sentiments expressed in Psalm 130—a cry of lament not unlike the others we’ve read these past weeks.
Today, though, our lament gets more personal, if it’s even possible to quantify levels of personal pain and distress. This week our Psalm is not the cry of one who is being unfairly pursued, oppressed, victimized; this is not the cry of one looking to be delivered from enemies or relieved of some injustice making life particularly intolerable.
No, the writer of today’s Psalm is in even deeper pain than that, because the oppression he is feeling is coming as a direct result of his own choices and actions.
Whatever it is he’s done, he’s carrying it heavy and hard; it’s filling his perspective of the world; it has pushed him into a dark place of regret and pain and despair…and all he knows for sure is that he needs rescuing, desperately.
I must admit that no one I hang out with generally likes to talk about personal sin. We live in a city of very accomplished individuals who are more likely to lean toward a humanist perspective, a “we’re all good if we try hard enough” kind of view of the world. Even we more free-thinking Baptist-types generally prefer to talk about the brokenness of our world; the way that sin is exhibited in a corporate way; the ways in which the system oppresses and destroys. Talking about personal sin feels uncomfortable!
And, truth be told, there’s something to be said for the practice of distancing ourselves from the traditional view of sin. After all, organized religion as a whole has largely distorted any healthy consideration of our individual, personal need for God by promoting a God who prefers a punitive, punishing, guilt-ridden relationship with his creation.
Christians are by no means the only ones who do this, but just looking within our own tradition, what do we see? The Institutional Church, once it got its footing as powerhouse by about 400 AD; the loudest voices of the Reformation; the Southern Baptist Convention…we’ve heard it from all of these corners and more.
And even if we’re among those who can’t articulate a multi-layered theological argument for an alternative perspective, most of us at least have a vague dis-ease with the idea of God as a punitive tyrant whose favorite thing to do is think up punishments for all of us who can’t get away from breaking the rules.
Given this dynamic, it’s easy to swing to the other extreme and find it really difficult to talk about personal sin, wouldn’t you say? If we just tell each other and ourselves we’re pretty good most of the time, that’s easier. And, if we really have to talk about sin, maybe if we do it in corporate terms, that is, talk about the sin of systems and the brokenness of the world, well, then, that’s a little easier to stomach.
That all sounds very nice, but it doesn’t take away from the reality of sin in our lives. Today’s Psalm gives us some words to say what we all feel from time to time as we struggle with failure and the resulting pain.
So let’s just be brutally honest for a few minutes here. I’d like to ask you to put aside all your bad feelings about John Calvin and Westboro Baptist Church and think about your own struggles with sin.
There, I said it.
After all, we’re lamenting, and if we’re honest and vulnerable, then we have to admit we do have personal sin that really bears lamenting…that there are ways in which we have failed—sinned—in our own lives. We’ve all—all of us—made choices that hurt ourselves or others, taken actions that violate our deepest beliefs, held convictions that are destructive and painful, engineered breaches that are not forgiven…and all of it eats at us, and threatens to spew out of us, and distances us from all that’s good and holy. And it hurts. It hurts….
And because we sin…because we all sin…we have all felt what the writer of today’s Psalm felt when he wrote Psalm 130: the deep need for God to reach over the abyss in which we find ourselves floundering sometimes, and pull us to the safe reassurance of God’s presence, love, and grace.
Psalm 130 can be classified in several different ways, but most specifically is classified as one of the seven penitential Psalms that were used by the Hebrew people and later the Christian church in rituals of repentance. Psalm 130 in particular has taken its place in the history of the church as one of the most gut wrenching, known by the Latin translation of its first line: out of the depths…De Profundis.
Martin Luther hailed Psalm 130 as a staple to the understanding of human relationship with God. John Wesley heard the Psalm sung just before his famous conversion experience. Another reformer, Theodore Beza, was said to recite the Psalm as he lay dying.
The Psalm even makes its appearance in classical literature. From Emily Brönte to John Steinbeck, this sense of distance and despair because of personal sin in Psalm 130 weaves its way through much of great literature. Who among you has heard of the famous Christian allegory written by John Bunyan in 1678: The Pilgrim’s Progress? Written while Bunyan was in jail for opposing the Church of England, the story has been translated into over 200 languages and has never gone out of print.
The book tells the story of an everyman by the name of Christian who is so weighed down by the knowledge of his own failures that he begins an epic journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. On his way he encounters many characters with rather obvious names, like Evangelist or Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and makes his way down the King’s Highway, through the Village of Morality, etc.
In one notable adventure, our hero Christian almost gets sucked down and lost forever in the Slough of Despond. The Slough of Despond is a deep bog into which Christian sinks under the weight of his sin and an inability to let go of his guilt. As he sinks further and further, Christian can’t get out on his own so he calls and calls out for rescue.
You’ll have to go read The Pilgrim’s Progress if you want to know what happens to Christian, but Bunyan surely heard the first line of Psalm 130 ringing in his head as he sat in jail and wrote about the Slough of Despond—the place where you sink with no hope of rescue and call desperately for help.
So many have taken this metaphor and written about the experience. Could it be because the sensation of being stuck in a terrible place, calling desperately for help while having no idea whether anyone will answer or not, is a shared human experience?
What do you think of when you hear the word depths, slough of despond, bog?
I can’t help but recall an experience I had working on a sheep farm for a few weeks in high school. It was hard, dirty, smelly work, but the farmers’ wife would have cold lemonade for us in the middle of the afternoons. On afternoon, instead of walking along the road back up to the house, I had the great idea to take a shortcut that ran behind the chicken coop. The patch of land between where I was and the house via the back to the chicken coop looked a little muddy, it’s true, but I had my big rubber farm boots on. About 45 minutes later, my co-workers had heard my cries for help and finally pulled me out of the disgusting, mucky, sticky pit that was deeper, unfortunately, than the top of my very tall farm boots.
Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord!
If you look carefully at the Psalm you can see with me that it’s fairly straightforward. The first stanza names the distance and the pain the Psalmist is experiencing, and begs God to listen. The second acknowledges sin and declares his faith that God forgives, regardless of the sin we have committed. And, the third declares again the intention to wait, wait, wait for the Lord…as long as it takes…to wait for reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption, peace.
Like the Psalmist, our own cries of desperation are echoed in the weeping of the women who followed Jesus up the hill toward Golgotha, the place of the skull, where he would be crucified. As his battered body dragged that heavy cross up a punishing way, we might imagine that the women following him also carried heavy burdens of sin, regret, guilt, their cries heard over the murmurs of the crowd. We carry heavy sin, too. And, like the women who followed behind Jesus, we can see—even from the depths of our pain—Jesus, up ahead, bearing with us the burden of our sin and walking alongside us so we’re never alone.
Hear the good news this day: the God who has heard our cries from out of the depths does not hold our sins against us. Despite the voices of so many telling us otherwise, our personal sin does not detract from our worth as beloved children of God. Jesus has come to offer us grace, forgiveness, salvation, and peace.
And so, like the Psalmist, we wait. Our entire beings wait for the Lord, with the urgency and anticipation of one who is waiting out a long and painful night. Because God has heard our cries from the depths. The dawn is breaking after a long night of painful waiting. And…we are forgiven.
Thanks be to God.