This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on August 9, 2009.
The authors of my seminary textbook in Old Testament survey wrote this statement about the meaning of the psalms: “More than anything, the psalms were declarations of relationship between the people and their Lord.” Whenever we study the psalms we should remember that they are testimonies from people of faith about their relationship with the God of faith. The psalms are “declarations of relationship,” whether they deal with adoration, confession of sin, protests of innocence, complaints about suffering, pleas for deliverance, assurances of being heard, petitions before battle, or thanksgiving afterwards.
Psalm 130 is a personal prayer for forgiveness from someone who is profoundly aware of personal inadequacy. Somehow this person has realized that he or she is not morally clean, pure, whole, or perfect. From that self-awareness, the psalmist pleads to God. Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
People who “cry” for help believe themselves to be in peril. They “cry” for help because they believe they need help, and need it urgently. They “cry” for help because they cannot help themselves. They do not “cry” for help to anyone who cannot or will not help them. People “cry” for help because help is what they need, and there is help to be given.
The Psalmist does not utter an empty or generic “cry” for help. “… I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” The Psalmist wants help that God alone can provide. This “cry” demonstrates the relationship between a penitent soul and the God who is trusted for help despite his or her moral situation. Psalm 130 is a personal confession and plea to God by someone who fundamentally believes that God is forgiving. The pressure and burden of sinfulness has not been able to hide the light of God’s forgiving nature, love, and grace. At verse 3, we read: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?”
When my sister, brother, and I were growing up and discovered each other doing or saying something we thought was offensive to God, we would chastise each other by saying “God is writing this down.” But our relationship with God is not defined by a sins scorecard. As the Psalmist states, if that were the case, none of us has a chance. God is not some Cosmic Sin Score Keeper, but is our forgiving Creator.
The Psalmist has grown past a scorekeeper notion of God. He or she understands that God is holy. He or she is profoundly and acutely aware of personal sinfulness. He or she realizes that human wickedness violates God’s purpose for our creation. Yet, the Psalmist trusts God for forgiveness! The Psalmist believes that God is able to forgive, willing to forgive, and ready to forgive. That trust in the God of forgiveness inspires the Psalmist to act in important ways.
First, because God is forgiving, the Psalmist prays. Consider verses 5 and 6 from The Message: “I pray to God—my life is a prayer—and wait for what He’ll say and do. My life’s on the line before God, my Lord, waiting and watching till morning, waiting and watching till morning.”
We sing a hymn that reminds us that we have “… a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer” (What A Friend We Have in Jesus). Personal awareness of sinfulness is not a reason to hide from God, but a reason to cling to God like a frightened or wounded child might cling to a loving parent. It is a reason to pray, confess, and wait for the healing renewal of the spirit that only comes with forgiveness. Because we are mindful of our sinfulness and know that God is forgiving, we have reason to pray.
Because God is forgiving, the Psalmist worships. The Message Bible reads at verse 4, “As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped.” Prayer is an act of worship, as it demonstrates how highly we value God to forgive and heal our wounded souls. Like Adam and Eve in Genesis, we may try to hide our shame from God. Some people avoid attending religious services out of such a sense of shame. They do not believe themselves to be worthy of participating in worship.
Unfortunately, some religious people appear to enjoy making people feel ashamed of themselves and unworthy to participate in worship. They are wrong! God is worthy to be worshipped by people who know God to be forgiving. Self-righteous religious people have no right to exclude anyone from worshipping the God of all comfort. Whenever we sense the need for forgiveness, we have another good reason to worship God because God is gracious, not a sin score keeper.
Thirdly, because God is forgiving, the Psalmist hopes. At verse 6, The Message Bible reads, “My life’s on the line before God, My Lord, waiting and watching till morning, waiting and watching till morning.” The New Revised Standard Version reads, “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
It is better to wait and watch for God’s forgiving deliverance than to spend sleepless nights and anxious days hiding from God and life in despair, guilt, and shame. Because we trust a forgiving God, believing people live with hope, “waiting and watching”. We hope because we trust our forgiving God to restore us, heal us, deliver us, and renew us. Because we know God to be forgiving, we hope and labor for change, hope and labor for improvement, hope and labor for redemption, and hope and labor for new opportunities to glorify God.
No doubt you have heard the story of the boy who believed that his parents would give him a pony for a birthday gift, but who only found a pile of manure in the barn on his birthday. According to the story, the boy began shoveling the manure in excitement because he believed the manure proved that a pony was somewhere nearby. Hope has the wonderful side effect of making the heart glad and inspiring hopeful redemptive efforts even when circumstances appear bleak or unfavorable.
Psalm 130 begins with a cry to God for forgiveness. It ends with a different kind of call—a call to Israel, the believing community, to hope! Verses 7 and 8 in the New Revised Standard Version read, “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him there is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” “Hope in God!,” is the command that forgiven people have reason to utter to the rest of humanity.
A call to hope cannot be issued by people who live in despair. A call to hope will not be issued by people who live burdened by a sense of failure. A call to hope will never be persuasive when made by religious people who sing about “Amazing Grace” but practice accounting guilt. A call to hope for redemption, new life, new joy, and new fellowship with God can only come from people who know that God is gracious, forgiving, and worthy of being trusted for deliverance from whatever sinful oppression that may burden us.
Martin King had plenty of evidence about the wicked power of bigotry, racism, and discrimination in America. His family lived with constant threats. He presided over the funerals of four girls who were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama when a bomb exploded in their church while they attended Sunday School. He knew that Medgar Evers was shot to death and that three civil rights workers were murdered and buried in an earthen dam in Mississippi. King realized the hellish nature of racism, militarism, our addiction to materialism, and violence as much as anyone else did, if not more so, judging from his words and struggles.
Yet, King lived in the hope that somehow God would deliver our society and world from captivity by those evils. King lived with that hope and stared death in the face. King lived, worked for justice, and died in that hope. Yet Martin King was not a defeated soul, but a soul who refused to cringe in fear and accommodate hate and violence. King lived, struggled, and died in hope because he lived, struggled for justice, and died trusting in God!
King’s hope was inspired by his faith in divine forgiveness and grace. His hope was refined through the discipline of prayer and was reinforced by the ministry of worship. Out of that hope, King lived, struggled, and died as the prophet of hope to our society and world. He refused to believe that a forgiving and gracious God will allow humanity to be held hostage by hellish forces. Everything King understood about the meaning of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ inspired him to live with hope that people can be redeemed out of a hellish world and become instruments of God’s grace and justice.
The hopeful truth about God’s grace that burns through the words of Psalm 130, and which burned in the heart of Martin Luther King, Jr., was personalized in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, we have personal proof that God is forgiving. Because of Jesus, we have personal proof that God will redeem fallen people. Because of Jesus, we have personal proof that the grace of God is more powerful and trustworthy than the forces of sin and hell. Because of the proof God has given us in Jesus, we have reason to appear boldly before God in prayer seeking forgiveness. We have reason to boldly praise God in worship. And, we have reason to boldly call our community and world to hope in God, live in hope, and be part of what God is doing to redeem humanity from captivity to sin and every oppressive thing that goes with it.
Hope in God’s grace gives us strength to love bruised, battered, and oppressed people. That hope gives us strength to challenge entrenched forces of injustice and oppression. Hope in God’s grace lifts us when we fall, strengthens us in times of weakness, quiets our trembling hearts, and gives redemptive meaning to our efforts. When we live in the power of God’s grace with that kind of hope, we are more than witnesses about God’s grace. We are, like Martin King and so many hopeful soldiers of faith, partners with Christ, and instruments of God’s gracious purpose to redeem people and the world from the depths of sin. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.