(It is helpful to read both scriptures before reading this sermon, especially Psalm 22)
What comes to mind for you when you think of the Psalms? Is it a part of the Bible you read? Do you have a favorite Psalm? If I quote, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, God leads me by still waters,” you probably know it is Psalm 23. It might even remind you of a funeral. Psalms often have beautiful and inspiring language like “weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” But not always. In fourth grade, my Baptist church gave prizes for memorizing scripture, and I recited Psalm 137, which ends with an ancient curse,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
You might wonder about reading all of today’s 22nd Psalm. Why should you care about the bulls of Bashan, threatening and encircling us? Is this appropriate worship material to recite words like, “I am a worm and not a man, my bones are out of joint, lions snap at me, my heart melts like wax.” The lectionary snips out all the violent and gory bits from scripture. Is it to protect us from negativity? Don’t they know we will go home and watch Homeland and Game of Thrones? (I think we can handle the Psalms.) Even the great hymn-writer, Isaac Watts (Think “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise), felt many Psalms were irrelevant and belonged to an inferior form of religion. But Jesus didn’t think so. The Psalms were his prayer book.
I came across a wonderful conversation in the Christian Century Magazine between Martin Tell, who teaches the Psalms, and his father. He was an organist during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The Nazis put strict ideological control on the church about what the pastor could preach, Nazi flags were ordered in the church, prayers must be said for the Fuehrer, and they could not sing many hymns, just the Psalms. They thought Psalms were innocuous. Little did the Nazis know that these would become the songs musicians used as resistance.
Rev. Tell’s father remembered leading the congregation at Vespers to sing Psalm 79. The text drips with fear, doubt, anger, and even wishes for revenge. His father then recited in Dutch from memory. “O God, the nations have come into your inheritance . . . they have murdered your people . . . How long, O Lord?. . save those doomed to die . . . repay the people who are doing this to us . . .” After the war, the family emigrated to America, and Tell saw how the church culture for music focused on joy and happiness, much like “Home on the Range” where never is heard a discouraging word.
My preference is to sing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” at least three times as much as any dirge. But it is Lent, and my faith is stronger because of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” I love Psalm 23, but today we have Psalm 22, full of doubt and anguish, set before us.
Jesus quoted the Psalms more than any other book, a total of 16 times. In our Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus cries out his very last words from the cross, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” If we hear those words without knowing Psalm 22, we will miss the meaning. We do not know Jesus’ inner thoughts; we can only imagine. After betrayal, pain, and suffering, did he feel anger, a final existential crisis? Was he wrong, totally misguided about his mission? Does God really care? What is God doing? Is there a God? Those are often our thoughts as we face tragedy, injustice, failure or death. I imagine many people in Texas wondering why they are freezing and boiling snow to survive. We wonder what God is up to while 500,000 die of COVID, while we know people are suffering and yet we can’t go near each other.
Does it bother you that Jesus’s last words in Mark are shouting to God-Why? Did he die feeling forsaken? I think some of the other Gospel writers were uncomfortable with Mark. They have Jesus saying different words at the end. In Luke, Jesus tells the thieves next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” and then before death, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” John gives Jesus as sense of control on the cross. He merely bows his head and says “It is finished,” to signal his work is completed successfully. Dying to save the world, check that off the to-do list! That all feels more comforting, but remember Mark was the first draft of the Gospels and he is sticking with a shout of “Why?”
I’m like how Mark portrays Jesus’s last words. It means we can doubt too. We can shout “Why?” We are allowed to ask the hardest questions and wonder where God is. Mark doesn’t try to make us feel better, he doesn’t go for a happy ever after resurrection appearance. Jesus shouts “Why?”
I don’t want you to miss what Mark’s Gospel does with Psalm 22. From arrest through crucifixion, Mark is working in all the laments of this psalm into the narrative. Jesus being mocked, his garments are divided and people caste lots for them, his hands and feet are pierced…these are all originally from Psalm 22 written centuries before. Mark is using the language and poetry to show us that Jesus suffered the same fate and trials shared by all humanity. He doesn’t get to escape, there is no pillar of fire or parting of the Red Sea. By the forsaken cry in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi lama Sabaccthani!”
I wonder why that is the only thing Mark quotes in Aramaic in his whole Gospel? It was not the primary language of Jerusalem. I wonder if anyone even understood what he was saying. Mark has to translate it to Greek, so his readers know. Roman soldiers probably didn’t speak it. Everyone thinks he is calling for Elijah, but Jesus’ words aren’t about Elijah at all. Mark is giving us a window inside what they miss. Here is Jesus praying in perhaps his first language, what he knew as a boy, as he says his last words. It is an intimate prayer, not to a God, but My God.
When Jesus recites the first verse, Psalm 22, I’m sure he knew it by heart. If he had more breath in his body, would he have recited the whole of it? I think Mark was trying to evoke all the lament. I had two people read the Psalm this morning so you could hear the back and forth. There were a few verses of lament and then a few of praise.
Why have you forsaken me?
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel
All who see me mock at me;
Do not be far from me,
I am poured out like water; my heart melts like wax
Yet you who know the Lord Praise him,
This pattern is standard for Psalms of lament in the Bible. They cry out their pain and suffering and then recount the times God was faithful. They ask that God be God and hope that in God’s time, all shall be well again. They cry pain, and then they cry hope.
We tend to separate our pain and praise, doubting God when things go badly and thinking God is present when all is going well. Laments don’t make this separation. God is still present in our pain. Laments are honest, but the Psalms do not withhold praise while waiting for God to deliver.
Faith does not require us to be happy all the time. Belief and trust in God do not mean burying our questions under a fortress of certitude. Pain is suffering is not a sign we have lost our faith or that God has forgotten us. Nor do I think God wants us to suffer or puts pain in our lives to teach us a lesson. Our suffering is just a consequence of being mortal. We suffer because death is real and we are limited beings mostly out of control. We suffer because we love, and we lose those whom we love. The injustice of the world breaks our hearts. The only alternative to suffering is numbness or living a lie.
What I take from Jesus’ great shout of “Why?” from the cross is that God is present in that moment, not absent. God is present in holy love just as the Psalm moves back and forth between lament and comfort, crying pain and crying hope. So too, I believe God is near in our groans, just as surely as I think God is there in the beauty of a sunrise. I believe God was present to me on the operating table, through my divorce, in the midst of my grief over the worst things I have done, while I rage at injustice, while I say prayers of consecration in a cemetery, and God will be with me in my last breath. Some of us are fortunate enough to die a 23rd Psalm kind of death beside the still waters. Too many of us die a 22nd Psalm death, crying out in anguish, but God is near through all of it, loving us deeply.