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“Silently Waiting for God”
Sermon on Psalm 62
“For God alone my soul waits in silence…”
Years ago a Russian Jew named Anatoly Sharansky spent nine years in Soviet prisons and labor camps – as a dissident, the crime that had landed him in these awful places was wanting to emigrate to Israel. During all those years of brutality, of punishing work, forced isolation, and loneliness, what kept him going was a copy of the Psalms he kept with him. The Psalms helped him express his innermost feelings to God, and to persevere under the most appalling circumstances: to “wait in silence” for God’s deliverance. “When he was finally released, and arrived in Jerusalem, he was carried to the Western Wall by his friends and admirers still clasping in his hands his beloved book of Psalms.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence.”
The poet of Psalm 62 may have been persecuted, too, or a social outcast. He appears to be someone who is at odds with his society. It’s clear that he lives in a predatory world, with everyone out for what he can get. He sees a world of competition and conflict, where some get richer and some get poorer. In such a world, people are always grasping for some kind of security, something that will help them hold a position against the uncertainties of life. It’s a losing game, the psalmist sees, because in real life markets rise and fall, political parties come in and out of power, fortunes grow and are lost. Nothing is permanent.
Everywhere the psalmist looks he sees scheming and lying and violence, people who “bless with their mouths but inwardly curse.” The psalmist refuses to join them in their hypocritical speech and self-centered pursuits. It is better to keep silence than to be sucked into their games and values.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence.”
This is the controlling sentence of the entire psalm, the theme the psalmist keeps returning to. But it is not really verbal silence he is talking about. He’s talking about an attitude, a way of being in the world. It is a way that puts trust in God above all others, knowing that his salvation comes from God and no one else. The psalm is about quieting the soul’s desire for things other than God. The question the psalm seeks to answer is this: How do we make our restless, striving, voracious wills settle down?
The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says that everybody, both individuals and societies, has a “script” they live by. The script is what gives us our values and behavior. In America, Bruggemann says, we live by a therapeutic, technological, consumerist script. “Therapeutic” refers to our belief that “there is a product or treatment …to counteract [every kind of] discomfort and trouble,” so that we can live without inconvenience. “Technological” refers to the assumption that our human ingenuity can fix everything; and “consumerist” is the whole complex of beliefs that the world’s resources are available to us without limit, and that “if you want it, you need it.” This script promises to make us happy and keep us safe.
But Brueggemann says it is a failed script: we are not safe and happy after all. Therapy and technology fail to give us the peace we seek. The boom-and-bust cycle of the consumerist economy creates episodes of real misery – and even for those who weather these cycles and remain prosperous, the consumerist lifestyle seems to just breed discontent, a restless desire to build bigger and better barns, like the man in the parable from Luke. And no matter how much we have, we can still wake up in the middle of the night with an unexplainable fear, the fear that our lives don’t add up to much.
The Bible offers an alternative script, a script that is far more life-giving than the one that has been handed to us by the advertising and entertainment media. According to the Bible’s script, “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Life consists of being in loving relationships, with God and each other, giving and receiving without fear or calculation.
“Trust in God at all times,” says the psalmist. “God is a refuge for us.” God is the only true source of security for both rich and poor, for the successful, well-placed, comfortable people as well as the poor and marginalized people. God is a refuge for the victors as well as the victims. The psalmist has no apparent desire to see the wealthy, powerful people brought down to his level, because in the end, he says, it doesn’t matter who you are.
“Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are lighter than a breath.” To understand what the psalmist is talking about we need to visualize the kind of scales, or balances, that were used in the ancient world. Scales consisted of two pans hung from a crossbar balanced on a pivot. If you put a pound of flour in one pan it sinks to the ground -–to balance it you need to put an equal weight of something in the other pan. If someone wants to buy a pound of rice you put a one-pound weight in one pan and keep putting rice in the other until the two pans are level with each other. You can measure anything this way. But something odd happens when you use the image in reference to people, as the psalmist does: the rich, successful, “quality” people have no more weight or substance than the inconsequential nobodies of the world. There is no weight to them: they are a “delusion.” It’s like the rich farmer with all the barns: by putting all his confidence in what he can store up for himself, the farmer has nothing of any lasting value. He is no better off – or just as well off – as one of his hired field hands. As Jesus said in another context, “those who try to make their life secure will lose it.”
The other day I heard a story about William J. Barber II, who has been described as a 21st century successor to Martin Luther King, Jr.[i] A recent recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, Barber is the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in North Carolina and the founder of Repairers of the Breach, which seeks to apply biblical principles of care for the outsider and the stranger. He is also reviving King’s Poor People’s Campaign. Barber has an exhausting schedule by anyone’s standards, as he is in constant demand for speaking engagements and interviews in addition to his pastoral ministry and his advocacy work. But Barber does all this with a severe physical disability, a condition that causes joints and vertebrae to fuse together and causes chronic pain. Asked about how he manages with this, he said that he is thankful for every day that he can still move, because the day may well come when he can’t anymore. His disability keeps him humble, he said. And then he said something interesting about his life and all our lives. Drawing on the words of the prophet Micah, he said, “If you are not doing justice and mercy and walking humbly with your God, what’s the point of living?” At first I thought, “That sounds awfully harsh,” but then it began to seem logical. The point of living is to make a difference in the world.
I think most people are looking for ways to make their lives count, to do something that matters, and they are willing to make personal sacrifices in order to do so.
Over the many years in which I have been officiating at funerals and memorial services, I have heard lots of remembrances of the deceased person by family members, friends, and co-workers. In my experience people rarely talk about their friend or loved one’s professional successes, number of awards, or the size of his or her bank account. What they want to remember are acts of generosity or compassion, ways in which the person has extended himself for the sake of another person, or worked for a noble cause. The qualities that are most often noted are kindness, perseverance, courage and loyalty. In these ways people have made their lives count.
When we make our pledges for the mission of the church, we have an opportunity to make what we do count and to make a statement about our trust in God. We can give as people who know we have been blessed, who know that our ultimate security and happiness depend not on what we can achieve for ourselves, but on how close a relationship we have with the One who created us – the One who is our true source of value.
For God alone may our souls wait in silence, for from God comes our salvation.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
November 4, 2018
[i] “All Things Considered,” National Public Radio, October 31, 2018.