Epiphany 2A: The Pit of Despair?

Readings

  • Isaiah 49:1-7
  • Psalm 40:1-11
  • 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
  • John 1:29-42

You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translations, here.

Sermon

We’re two weeks deep into a new year.  Does it feel like a new year to you yet?  Are you still writing ‘2016’ on things, or have you made the mental flip and are fully committed to ‘2017’?

January is a fascinating time of year.  If my social media pages are any indication, it is indeed a new year.  There are commitments to resolutions – to get happy, to be healthy, to find the positive, and to discover joy everywhere I look.  Did you make any resolutions?  I don’t normally – primarily because I am particular good at breaking promises to myself.

But, this year, I made a resolution.  I’m learning to play an instrument. And I don’t know how it’s going to go – but as I am writing this sermon I’m feeling pretty good about it.  (at the time that I am preaching this sermon, I will have had my first lesson).  I’m currently in the headspace of feeling that euphoric sense of commitment and dedication – standing firmly on the rock of ‘My Plan.’

I met with the teacher – and got pretty excited by her and her passion and encouragement.  Success is immanently closer on the horizon.

I bought the instrument and lesson book.  Took them home and unpacked the brand new things.  Handled everything with ginger care, and carefully packed it into its carrying case.

As I snapped the lid in place, those first feelings of fear and worry came upon me.  Waves of doubt and fear, lapping at the edges of the rock of ‘My Plan’ – my sturdy place, perhaps not so sturdy.  Darkness creeping in from the corners, but not threatening, and easy enough to shake off.

Looking through the lesson book, I was curious, and then completely taken aback.  I can read music, but this music and notation was terribly unfamiliar to me.  I showed it to my musician spouse, asking: “can you understand this?!”  Unfortunately, mine is an instrument unfamiliar to him.

As I closed the book, that next wave of fear and worry licked at the edges of my standing place.  Doubt that this will be yet another attempt to learn an instrument that will fail.  I had piano lessons when I was a child.  Six years ago I wanted to learn the violin.  I got as far as renting the violin – had it for two months.  I still can’t play the violin. And waves of doubt and fear crash against my legs.  The rock of ‘My Plan’ proves to be a precarious, rather than sturdy place.  Darkness attempts to wrap itself around me and pull me down.

Here’s the thing about previous failures.  They lurk in the dark corners of the mind, waiting to remind us of them.  I think the danger to taking on a new challenge comes in facing previous failures.  We come right up to the reality of how hard doing something new can be.

With that first real struggle, I can quickly go from that euphoric feeling of success on the horizon to running face first into the reality that I am not as smart as I think I am, and suddenly finding myself utterly surrounded in the darkness of despair and negativity.

Now, I recognize that the struggle within my New Year resolution to learn a new instrument hardly compares to real life-threatening struggles that other people are working hard to handle right now.  I don’t want to diminish the pain, fear, and worry that those people are feeling.

I do feel, however, that the failure and struggle can often make all of us feel completely alone, regardless of life’s reality.

The truth about struggle is that sometimes, when I am faced with moments of life that are truly difficult or hard, I can feel like I am sinking into this pit of utter despair.

I begin to feel that I am alone with my very real problems, and life is passing by through the hole of the top of this pit. And no one is looking down.  At those times, the darkness quickly overwhelms the light.

Have you ever felt like that? Ever known anyone close to you who was feeling like that?

It can be all but impossible to climb out of that pit all alone.

Psalm 40 has been an important message in the bible for me for a very long time.  I think that every single one of my bibles has this psalm highlighted, bookmarked, scribbled beside and around.

Because, it is clear that the person who wrote the psalm knew exactly how that pit of utter despair and darkness felt.

The thing we discover when we read this psalm is that the psalmist’s story is one of being pulled from that pit and being placed on a solid ground.

The rock under them would never cave in, would never drop them into the pit again. It is a good rock.  This rock was God’s doing.

Psalm 40 is a story told and written so that others would know that they too were not alone. That God was with them, creating rocks and firm places to stand all over the place.  Moreover, so that those people can stand and sing this song to each other – creating communities of support and light.  Light that pierces the darkness and shows us each other.

Because, eventually, we have to move.  All the people standing on the firm places have to move again because the light calls us to move into the world and spread the light into all the places of darkness.

But, moving might take them off the rock. And that’s a terrifying and paralyzing thought. A person might literally freeze up, begin to weigh their options, and wait.

I think it’s funny that Psalm 40 begins: “I waited patiently upon the Lord…”

Seriously?! “When did anyone ever wait for anything at all without some level of frustration or anxiety? We wait in traffic, wait for things to get better, or wait in the waiting room. We are no good at waiting. We want to get moving, we can’t bear wasting time, and the clock is ticking while we just don’t know what will unfold next.”[1] Waiting with all that anxiety is a bit like being back in the pit.

In not moving off the rock, we start to move backwards, or downwards, and feel that impending sinking feeling.

However, the psalmist tells us: God lifted us up and put us on a rock, making our steps secure, and gives us a vision to see all that God has done and is doing in the world.  The psalmist reminds us to look around – we’re not alone.  Surrounded by a community of others who have been placed on their own rocks, and others who are moving from rock to rock.

One of the reasons I love Psalm 40 is because it speaks about overcoming the struggle of fear and despair with God.  But another reason is because the psalm teaches about the importance of prayer and sharing faith with those around us.

I don’t think that there has ever been a church that I have frequented that did not have some sort of prayer chain – or a collection of people who were known to pray for the needs of others.  We have groups like this in our parish, and when we gather on Sundays we have time in worship to pray for those who have asked for it, and are listed in our bulletin so that you may carry them with prayer through your week.

This is biblically supported behaviour for a community of faith.  “In Bible times, if you were under duress, you would pray and ask others to pray — and then later you would share what that was like, what transpired, and what God had done.”[2]

This is what I believe the writer of the psalm is doing.  Sharing the story of God had done – sharing the story of their faith experience, and doing evangelism.  Not the ‘Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?’ or, the ‘Jesus is coming, are you ready?’ kinds of evangelism, but honest, true, and simple evangelism that is brings attention to what God has done and is doing with a simple invitation to be a part of that meaningful relationship.

Evangelism really is that simple.  The writer of Psalm 40 gets it.

This lament Psalm itself is ancient; handed down over time and translated over and over and over again so that it could be read and interpreted by millions of people who can all relate to the feelings of despair and worry.  The first three verses of this psalm are the retelling of God’s actions in a life in the midst of personal crisis or trauma.  The fourth verse points to life with God for all to see: “Happy are they who trust in the Lord.”

It’s not happy in a happy-clappy sense. The Hebrew אַשְׁרֵי [‘ashre (pronounced: awh’sh-ray)] doesn’t mean “happy” the way modern people conceive of it — feeling good, enjoying things, smiles and fun chumming around.  The word ‘ashre implies a state of the soul – a gift only God can bestow, something steady, not a fleeting emotion or anything that can be ruined by circumstance. The writer of Psalm 40 experienced God in a very real way.

It is an important reminder that God has a particular place in our lives, and not in a ‘God and me against the world’ kind of way.

Through baptism, we are knit together, joined together, connected with others.  God’s work through all of creation is one of community.

The Psalmist knew this, Paul the apostle knew this, John the Baptizer knew this, and so did Jesus.

In the Gospel reading, we hear of how some of the disciples come to be with Jesus.  John the Baptizer sees Jesus and says: “Here is the Lamb of God.”  A little while later John is with some of his own followers and he points to Jesus, and says: “Look! There he is again.”  So, a couple of the followers begin to follow Jesus.  Jesus answers their questions with invitation. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Come and See.” And they did.  Andrew then tells his brother what he and the other disciples saw — the person they believe is the Messiah — and invites Peter to come along and see for himself. At its heart, evangelism is noticing what God is doing in our lives, sharing that with others, and inviting them to come and see for themselves.

This was a roundabout way to get here from a simple New Year resolution. Then again, the way our minds works makes us an interesting people.

It is a new year.  Even though it’s only a few weeks in, there is this sense of ‘clean slate’ to January and to a new year that we are currently living with. Which is nice, because people have a tendency to think that if there isn’t a crisis or big stress and things are pretty calm then we’re doing okay.

We live in a society that tells us over and over that if we are confident and sure, we can move through this world by the power of our own will.  I think this is why we freeze up when life gets a little too unpredictable, or we start to slog through the mud, or things get really bad.  And sometimes, that freezing up means that we start to sink down.  But God created the means to fix that.  God looks beyond the individual and can see the whole – even if we can’t.  Sometimes God steps in and lifts us out – but it is always to point to the whole.  The whole of God’s creation is called to be together.  We are a community knit together in faith.  We are a beacon of light in the lives around us and to the other lives out there who are just like us.  Moving forward at different speeds.

Life could be great. It could be just okay. It could be that we’re feeling desperate, or simply slogging through some crazy mud right now – but when we share ourselves with the community – we get off the rock, move towards each other’s rocks, and we grow.  A stronger community, a deeper well of faith, and a greater sense of what it means to be a child of God.

If you, like the Psalmist and the Disciples and John and Jesus, share your stories with one another, you will strengthen yourselves and your bond as a community.  So, move off your rock. Share your light and stories with those around you, let people know that they are not alone, and invite them into this pretty amazing thing that God is doing, this year and every year.

Let us pray,

Holy One, not only do you hear the cries of all who call out to you, but you lift each of us out of the various pits of despair, doubt, fear, and depression that threaten to overtake us.  You care for each of us so much.  When we are sinking down or feeling alone and abandoned, you break through with lights of hope and love, you lift us up, and you give us communities of support.  Empower us to hold fast to your Light and to move out into the darkness that we might be a light to someone who needs it.  Encourage us to share our stories and strengthen the bonds of community.  Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Jerome Creach. “Commentary on Psalm 40:1-11.”  Preach This Week: Psalm, January 15, 2017.
  2. Nancy deClaissé-Walford. “Commentary on Psalm 40:1-11.”  Preach This Week: Psalm, January 16, 2011.
  3. James Howell. “Commentary on Psalm 40:1-11.” Preach This Week: Psalm, January 19, 2014.  Working Preacher.
  4. Karoline Lewis. “Timely Matters.”  Preach This Week: Dear Working Preacher, January 8, 2017.  Working Preacher.
  5. David Lose. “Notice, Share, Invite.”  Preach This Week: Dear Working Preacher, January 13, 2014.  Working Preacher.

This week’s image is a painting entitled: “Courage, Anxiety, and Despair: Watching the Battle.”  It was created circa 1850 by the artist James Sant.  You can find out more about the painting here, and about the artist who made it here.  The image is public domain and modified slightly for the purpose of this blog.


[1] James Howell.  “Commentary on Psalm 40:1-11” Preach This Week: Gospel, January 19, 2014.  Working Preacher.

[2] James Howell, ibid.

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