Psalm 107

Sunday, March 11th 2018

Psalm 107

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
3 and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.

4 Some wandered in desert wastes,
    finding no way to an inhabited town;
5 hungry and thirsty,
    their soul fainted within them.
6 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress;
7 he led them by a straight way,
    until they reached an inhabited town.
8 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
9 For he satisfies the thirsty,
    and the hungry he fills with good things.

10 Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
    prisoners in misery and in irons,
11 for they had rebelled against the words of God,
    and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
12 Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
    they fell down, with no one to help.
13 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress;
14 he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
    and broke their bonds asunder.
15 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
16 For he shatters the doors of bronze,
    and cuts in two the bars of iron.

17 Some were sick through their sinful ways,
    and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
18 they loathed any kind of food,
    and they drew near to the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress;
20 he sent out his word and healed them,
    and delivered them from destruction.
21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
    and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

23 Some went down to the sea in ships,
    doing business on the mighty waters;
24 they saw the deeds of the Lord,
    his wondrous works in the deep.
25 For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
    which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26 They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
    their courage melted away in their calamity;
27 they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
    and were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he brought them out from their distress;
29 he made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 Then they were glad because they had quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.
31 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
32 Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
    and praise him in the assembly of the elders.

33 He turns rivers into a desert,
    springs of water into thirsty ground,
34 a fruitful land into a salty waste,
    because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
35 He turns a desert into pools of water,
    a parched land into springs of water.
36 And there he lets the hungry live,
    and they establish a town to live in;
37 they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
    and get a fruitful yield.
38 By his blessing they multiply greatly,
    and he does not let their cattle decrease.

39 When they are diminished and brought low
    through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,
40 he pours contempt on princes
    and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
41 but he raises up the needy out of distress,
    and makes their families like flocks.
42 The upright see it and are glad;
    and all wickedness stops its mouth.
43 Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
    and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.
 

Sermon:

          As many of you know, I’ve gotten into the habit of choosing my Sunday lectionary text by coordinating my children’s sermon illustrations with my sermon for the adults. Hence, my choice of a psalm as today’s text. And while some preachers may find the psalms to be easy to preach, I have always found them to be more difficult. Like, the poetry portion of my undergraduate introduction to literature class, I struggle with the psalms. They are, after all, lyrics and poems. Yet, it is my hope that this psalm will speak to us in a way that might edify or strengthen our hearts or even the restless consciousness we might bear.

          Like many psalms, the one we encounter this morning weaves in between the themes of salvation, redemption, and sin. So, before I go any further, I think it might be helpful to address and define some of these topics as they appear in this morning’s passage. The first of these major categories – and the one under which everything else seems to fall – is salvation. The text specifically uses the term “saved”. As a result, we should ask ourselves, “what does it mean to be saved?” 

          In this context, as in many biblical contexts salvation is a bit of an umbrella term that can convey a number of different meanings, which we all may need at different times in our lives. But the psalmist doesn’t just leave us in ambiguity. Throughout psalm 107, he lays out four different images of redemption, which he identifies as a particular form of salvation.

          We encounter the first form of redemption in verses 4-5 which read, “Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; 5 hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.” The imagery here recalls the experience of wandering in the desert. As we know, the children of Israel wandered the desert for forty years and the Lord provided for their needs, even amidst their loss, disillusionment, and fears. The lesson is that redemption gives life to those who are dying and the Lord, out of love, provides us with the means of life. And this is why, in many Christian traditions, this imagery has been associated with the communion table. The idea is that as we partake of the bread and the cup we are spiritually nourished just as the children of Israel were nourished in the desert.

          The second image of redemption that we find this morning comes from verse 10 which reads, “Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons.” It’s an image that casts redemption as a moment of release, in this case a release from cages and shackles – some of which may have been of our own making or the result of the human condition altogether. The imagery of this psalm doesn’t just refer to slavery in Egypt, it also seems to cast an image that suggests that the people are prisoners to their own sin, having rebelled against the counsel of God. Salvation, or redemption, in this instance does not project the idea that God is angry, but rather that some are imprisoned as a consequence of living an unwise life, or rather the universal effect of sin altogether. In this instance, just as in the case of food and water, God responds to these prisoners just as God responded in love, mercy, and deliverance. God releases them and answers their calls of despair. For me, this is an image that reminds me of a passage from Luke 4:18-19 which reads, “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

          For me, this second, image is powerful. It spoke to me in a personal way. Many people often feel a great deal of anxiety about their futures. Some even struggle constantly with a sense of discontentment, perhaps in regard to their achievements or maybe even in the sense that they might feel a sense of detachment or alienation from their community, their job, or even their life itself. Since the latter half of the 19th century many philosophers have addressed these types of feelings and some have referred to them under the term “alienation”. Some think that our alienation from the natural world or from our work relate to increased rates of depression or other forms of mental illness. In others, perhaps most obviously, they can drive people to seek mental solace in hobbies, video games, or sports. Some people run from their own inner demons and other seem to find genuine loves – art, music, philosophy, whatever. Others try to make up for their feeling of powerlessness by trying to control and overcome their surroundings – some philosophers argue that this discontentment is what drives our never ceasing urge to control and dominate the nature which always seems to be beyond our control. So, when I read this psalm’s imagery of emancipation from the darkness and gloom of our self-inflicted enslavement I thought of these things. I thought about the call of our faith in the midst of all these experiences of alienation – from ourselves, from our families, from our communities, from the natural order. I thought about the role that the Holy Spirit might have in helping our hearts to grow into something more at peace with our place in this cosmos. The sin of these prisoners is their mental separation from God and the psalm tells us that God responds to their cries and offers redemption from the shadows that plague the edges of every perception.

          The third image we encounter in this morning’s psalm troubles me in some ways and as a result I’m going to throw a theological caveat at the end of my treatment of it. This image begins at verse 17 which reads, “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.” The end result of this projection is, of course, a message of healing. But, unlike the wanderers who could not find food, these patients loathed the good that was offered to them and were unable to sustain themselves. They are quite literally sick from their sin, but God responds even to these cries and saves them from their afflictions. 

          This is, no doubt, affliction and redemption – salvation of a sort. And yet, I have trouble with the imagery here. I think that the psalmist theological presupposition is flawed. I have a relative who was, in her youth, a very talented gymnast, but like many gymnasts her career ended with a battle against bulimia and anorexia. So, perhaps I am sensitive, but I find the idea that sin leads to physical and mental illness problematic. It can in some instances, but the psalmist makes the same presupposition that we find in Numbers 21:1-4 which reads, 

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

As many of you know, that where the field of medicine gets the image of a serpent attached to a stake. The lesson of this story is a lesson of sin. The people (a) assumed that they knew better than God what should happen, (b) turned away from their reliance on God in order to try and control things themselves, and (c) refused to trust in the God who redeems until they were struck with illness by God. And these are certainly things that we can also be guilty of. 

          However, I think it’s important to caveat and clarify this type of imagery with an answer and response that Jesus himself gave us. In the Gospel of John chapter 9, we hear the story of a man who had been blind since birth. As the Evangelist tells us, “As he [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3 Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned’. So, while sin might be a separation from God, an alienation from self and from others, we should not presume that illness is the result of a person’s individual sin. Sin is always about our failures to grow and care for things beyond ourselves as we should. The Greek term for it, hamartia, is an archery metaphor referring to “missing the mark” something we do if we presume that someone else’s illness is the result of personal or individual sin, rather than a sad consequence of our own fragility or our world’s brokenness. 

          The final image we encounter in today’s psalm begins in verse 23 and sets up an image of sailors helpless at seas. In this image, God’s redemption comes in the form of safety. The message is that life apart from God is like the plight of those who are helpless at sea. The imagery here is not about sin or disobedience, but a loss of courage. In their fear, the sailors begin to stagger like helpless drunks. And yet, like the apostles on the ship with Jesus, they cry out for God’s help and God responded by bringing them out of their distress. In each of these four cases, redemption and salvation are both functions of the steadfast love that God has for us.

          It is my prayer that each of us will be touched by this redemptive love in some way throughout the course of this week. We all need it, perhaps in different ways, just as the psalmist notes, but the need remains nonetheless. So, let us try to remember the small blessings we have been given, hold fast to the moments when we have been redeemed, and find a bit of hope for the powerful acts of love that God has in store for the future. Amen.

Kadin Williams