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Letting Go of the Past
(Psalm 22)

A Service of Healing, Oklahoma City, OK
April 19, 1997 - Dennis Bratcher

I. Introduction

A. April 19: grief and pain

I don’t have to tell you that today is the second Anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. And I certainly don’t have to tell you how devastating that tragedy was for our community. Hardly anyone in Oklahoma City was not touched in some way by the bombing. I had a student in class who lost her mother. I preached the Sunday after the bombing in a church that lost two members who had worked in the Credit Union.

And I don’t have to say much about the questions that such horrible events raise in our minds. Why? Where was God? How could he let that happen? Why innocent children? Why do good and innocent people die so horribly and hate filled murderers live?

It’s one thing to ask those questions in the abstract about events that only touch us marginally. But what about events and situations in our world that are a part of our lives, of who we are? When it is our son who is the victim of tragedy. When it is our wife who is dying of cancer. When it is our father that we watch slowly deteriorate before our eyes. When it is our daughter who is the victim of rape. When it is ourselves who have been the victim of betrayal by a close friend.

All those things affect who we are, how we see our world, how we live our lives. I sometimes hear some people say that we should just trust God, believe in Him, and it will all be OK. Well, on one level, yes. But it is not quite that easy as we actually live it. That’s certainly the goal. But getting there is the problem. I want to talk tonight about the getting there. I want to talk about how we can let go of the past in real life, in order to grasp a new future.

B. the past and the future

Last night I talked about the possibilities for the future that comes as God gives us his grace, as he chooses us again after we have failed, as he again gives us a calling, a mission to the world in spite of our past failures.

I think such newness that comes from God is the heart of the "Good News" that we as Christians are called to proclaim. And when we have fully experienced that newness, and have embodied in our lives the possibilities opened up by God’s grace, we will be eager to share it with others.

But as much as I want to talk about that newness, and passionately believe it, I realize that for some people, in fact for many people, that newness is difficult to grasp. They can believe it, talk about it, claim it, want it, even try to act like they have it. But somehow it always seems to move just out of reach, and they slip back into a bondage to the burdens of the past.

Now, I’m not talking about salvation here, our basic relationship with God. That is one kind of newness that anyone can accept, in a moment. It is not hard to grasp, although some people have been convinced by distorted theology that they have to work at it. I’ve talked to many who thought they had to get their act together before they could be good enough to become Christian.

No! It is a gift. It is free. As we shall see tomorrow, it is costly in the long run, because it calls us to relinquish everything to God. But there are no entrance requirements beyond accepting the gracious gift of God’s forgiveness that He has already granted to us.

So, I’m not talking about being saved or not being saved. I’m talking about how we begin to live out being the chosen ones, the called ones, those who have been entrusted with a mission to the world. The issue here is: how do we deal with the world the way it is? How do we live in a world that is all too often much too real.

I certainly don’t want to give up talk of heaven and a better place, and a time when our troubles will all be over. But for many, that is a long way in the future. How do we live in the present, in a world that is often hard to comprehend, in a world and society in which we experience so much pain and hurt and disappointment?

II. The Problem

If we are going to be authentically human in a real world, and not just hide behind nice sounding words, if we are going to live life honestly under God, then we may as well go ahead and honestly ask the questions. Why? Why would God allow these things to happen? Where is God at time of our deepest hurts? And how do we live with the burden of all that stuff in our lives?

That question of "Why?" is one that most of us have already asked at one time or another. There are times when we all have wondered where God was. For some, the occasion may have been a tragedy like the Oklahoma City bombing. For others, it may be a personal hurt, large or small: the death of a loved one, a failing marriage, a lost job, a wayward child, a crippling illness, lost dreams, failed ambitions.

All of us are susceptible to the hurts, anxieties, frustrations, worries, grief, that come by being human. We live in a real world. And a real world is sometimes a hurtful place.

Unfortunately, we are deluged today with a multitude of distorted views of God and religion. We are bombarded from all sides with a feel good religion that has little in common with the biblical views of being God’s people in the world. We are told that if we just have enough faith as Christians we can escape the lot of being human. If we would just believe enough, or read our Bible enough, or pray long enough, or ‘praise’ God in the right way, or send in enough seed-faith money, then God will take away all the hurts from our lives. We could live a life of health, wealth and prosperity and never have to worry about the cares of this earth and human existence.

No matter how badly these people want us to believe it, and no matter how badly WE want or need to believe it, it just isn’t so. Scripture never makes such a claim. In fact, the Bible always assumes that we will continue to be human with all the problems that entails even when we are totally committed to God. Christians are not immune from being human. That includes suffering, grief, hurts, pain, anger, frustration.

It doesn’t matter how much faith a person has, how spiritual they are, how much money they give, or whether they experienced God in certain ways or not. They will still experience the hurts and grief, great and small, that all human beings face. The hurts of the past, and the present, haunt us all.

"So, what good does it do to be a Christian?" some might ask. But that’s the wrong way to phrase the question. We do not become Christian and serve God for what we can get out of it! The book of Job raises this very issue, and rejects the notion. And the same issue is dealt with by Jesus as he asks the crowd if they want to make him king only because they had eaten the bread and were filled (John 6). If our motivation is that self-centered, we may as well give up now, because we have missed what relationship with God is all about.

Establishing relationship with God is not some cosmic insurance policy, or, as I have heard it said, spiritual fire insurance. We choose relationship with God because He is God. We serve Him, not for our gain, but because He is God! We serve Him because he has chosen us and called us to be His people and carry out His work, His mission in the world!

So how do we serve God and yet be authentically human beings in God’s world? That is the heart of the question that comes from  tragedies like the bombing!

We may not be able to escape being human as Christians, but that does not mean we are without help. There are resources in Scripture to help us here. Like all the Bible’s answers to our problems, this one does not just fall off the page at us. We have to listen to the message of Scripture as well as read it. And we have to let the Holy Spirit apply the message to our lives as we submit ourselves to His leadership.

There is no magic answer here. There is only God speaking to us through His word. Maybe that will be enough.

III. Psalms and Praise

Even before we read the Scripture, I’m going to give you the climax of the sermon.

The message is simply this: total honesty before God is the deepest expression of faith in Him and is the only way to be authentically human in God’s world. It is the only path to spiritual wholeness, and the only way to heal the hurts of the past.

The means Scripture gives us for doing that is praise.

Here, you need to listen carefully. In our modern culture, I fear that many have developed a distorted idea of what constitutes praise. Often it is identified only with the hand-clapping, arm-waving, warm-fuzzy, feel-good style of worship.

That is not the only kind of praise in the Bible, however. There is an entire Book of the Bible that is a book of praise. It is a real world book. It is a book for people who want to be authentically human. The Book we call "Psalms" is titled "Praises" in Hebrew.

There are three primary modes of praise in the Book of Psalms, all of them in the form of prayers addressed to God. That’s an important point. In biblical thinking, praise is prayer directed to God (See Patterns for Life:  Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms).

Hymn-Doxology is probably the most familiar kind of psalm. These praise God simply for being God. Much of the last quarter of the book of Psalms is hymn and doxology. The fact that it is at the end implies that something else ought to come first.

The second mode of praise in the Book of Psalms is Thanksgiving, prayers thanking God for some immediate experience of His presence. These are concentrated in the middle and end of the book.

The third mode of praise is Lament. About half of the psalms in the Psalter are lament psalms. They comprise much of the first two-thirds of the book. Lament Psalms are not often seen as praise, because we have too often associated praise only with the bright and happy moments in life. Lament psalms are prayers that articulate to God what it is like to live in a real world. They cry out to God from the darkness of the hurts, pains, anger, frustrations of life.

Sometimes lament psalms are strong. Often they offer harsh words to God. Sometimes they are downright irreverent. But they are honest. And they are praise. They are praise because they acknowledge God as God, from the midst of the pain of being human.

Psalm 22 is a good example of such a lament. Maybe today is a good day for a lament psalm.

A. The Reality of Emotions

   1. (1-2) The cry of near despair; feelings and emotion

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but I find no rest.

Did you hear the honesty in this prayer? The psalmist does not tell us what his pain is. But it is intense. It is so intense that he feels God has forsaken him.

Here we need to be sure that our ideas about God are straight. God never abandons people for any reason. We may abandon God, but God does not abandon us. God has not forsaken the psalmist, so matter what the evidence is to the contrary.

Remember Joseph? As he sat in Potiphar’s prison cell all the evidence told him that God had forsaken him. But the "evidence" of circumstances does not always tell the truth!

The psalmist is not expressing fact here. He is expressing feelings. He is articulating his emotions: helplessness, loneliness, futility. What we feel emotionally is not always the same thing as what we really believe or what really is. This works both ways. Sometimes our positive emotions are just as deceiving. That’s why it’s not a good idea to base our relationship with God on how we feel, good OR bad.

This prayer gives us permission to be honest before God with our pain. We do not have to respond to the crises of life with a false piety that denies our humanity. If we hurt, why can we not go to God openly with that hurt?

When I was a youngster, there was a man in our church with that kind of false piety. His idea was that a Christian should respond to everything in life with a happy "Praise the Lord!" If you hit your thumb with a hammer, you should praise the Lord and thank him you weren’t using a saw. Somehow, even then in my immature mind, I knew that something was wrong with that thinking. He was asking me to pretend that my thumb didn’t hurt when it did. To pretend it didn’t hurt did not change that fact. I understood even then that this was a form of dishonesty.

I have heard it said that we should never question God. Yet, here is the question in the mouth of the Psalmist. And a tough question, at that! And many others as well. To have real questions and never ask them for fear of being irreverent is dishonest.

In talking to a large number of pastors, young people, and laymen in the church over the past twenty years, I fear that this kind of dishonesty in the name of God is crippling to the spiritual growth of Christians. How can we embrace new possibilities without facing the pains of the past that follow us, or the pains of the present that are debilitating?

We have hundreds of people who are hurting, who are suffering their own personal torments. And they somehow believe that to admit their pain, to raise their doubts and questions, would be to deny God. We must, along with Scripture, give these people, and often ourselves, permission to hurt. I would like to proclaim as loudly and as passionately as I can that it is OK before God and the church, to be human.

Who are we trying to fool? God? He knows how we feel anyway? The Pastor? The church people?. Our neighbors? They all have the same hurts and frustrations, and the same questions, that we do, if they would admit it!

We may succeed in hiding part of ourselves from them, but at the cost of hindering our own spiritual growth, and losing the chance for newness and healing and restoration. A bad burn bandaged up tightly will never heal properly. I am convinced that this kind of honesty before God is the only route to embracing the newness that lies ahead.

Notice, though, what the psalmist is doing. At the same time that he is questioning God from the depth of his pain, he is praying. Why does he address God as "My God" at the same time he is asking Him where He is? How can we ask Him where He is if He is not there to hear the question?!

Here is a paradox of faith that beautifully illustrates the difference between what we know to be true and how we feel. The Psalmist feels God is not there. Yet he prays. There is no more profound act of faith than to pray to God when you feel He has abandoned you. That means that the darkest of our doubts, the most desperate of our questions from the deepest of our grief can be the most honest and transparent times of our faith!

In those times there is no fašade, no false mask of piety, no pretense. Just faith. A deep belief that God really is there, when all the circumstances of our lives, and all the experiences of our past say He is not! And it is a belief that He really ought to make a difference.

    2. (3-5) Confession of trust in God who has acted

3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not disappointed.

We need to follow carefully what the psalmist does next in the prayer. He expresses trust in God in the standard formula. God is Holy. He is enthroned on the Praises of the people. He has done great things in the past. God has delivered other people when they cried.

All of these things are true. The psalmist is not denying anything about God. He is quite willing to say all the traditional things about God. Yet, he goes on.

   3. (6-8) Feelings of alienation and rejection; honesty in the midst of pain

6 But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; 8 "He committed his cause to the LORD; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!"

Here the honesty breaks through again. He says all the right things. But his emotions have gone in a different direction! The traditional confessions are true. But sometimes they are not enough. As we have seen, sometimes the "Praise the Lord’s" are overshadowed by the reality of life.

We need to note a couple of things here. Verse three is often used as a call for a happy kind of hand-clapping praise. There is a place for that kind of praise. But not here! For the psalmist, that kind of praise, in his situation, is not authentic. He says it, but he doesn’t really feel that way.

Again, we need to be honest enough to admit that we will not always feel like praising God in that way. And that’s OK. We will not always feel happy. If we measure our Christianity by how we feel we will always be disappointed - in God, religion, people, the church, the pastor, ourselves. Serving God is more than how we feel. We can say all the right things that we think people expect us to say, and still feel like a worm.

We also need to note that the psalmist is still dealing with his own perceptions, not with how things really are. This verse has been used to support a "worm" theology that says people are worthless, insignificant, creatures whom God simply tolerates.

There is no doubt that the psalmist, in the depths of his despair, feels exactly that way. But they are only feelings, not reality. Everything in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, contradicts a "worm theology." Human being are of infinite worth to God.

Have you ever felt about as significant as a worm? You’re in good company with the psalmist here. We may feel worthless in our despair. But we are not! God loves us all, no matter how lowly we feel. There are no worms in God’s sight. Just sons and daughters whom he loves.

   4. 9-11 renewed trust in the present

 9 Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you kept me safe upon my mother’s breasts. 10 Upon you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. 11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.

The psalmist now moves to a renewed trust. He has come honestly before God. He has hurled his questions at God. He has poured out his pain to God.

Now he begins his petition before God. Can you detect a slight shift in the tone of the psalm? Where the psalmist began by accusing God of forsaking him, now he asks God to be near. Where before the mood is one of frantic despair, now there is a tone of hope. Before, the psalmist recalled God’s actions in behalf of others. Now he recalls that God has helped him in the past as well.

What is the difference? Has God given him a sign? Has there been some great miracle that has compelled him to believe in God once again? Has God intervened and solved all his problems?

We could speculate a lot here. But Scripture records none of these. Let’s stay with our passage and see if we can catch what causes this emerging shift.

B. The Reality of Suffering

   1. (12-18) his condition

12 Many bulls encompass me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast; 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet-- 17 I can count all my bones-- they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.

The Psalmist returns to his complaint. In very stylized and poetic language he describes his pain. It sounds like he might be facing impending death due to a creeping disease. Anyone who has watched the horrible progression of cancer in a loved one understands the language here, and the feelings of isolation and abandonment! We are still not sure what the problem is. But we know it is serious.

   2. (19-21) his petition

 19 O LORD, be not far off! You who are my help, hasten to my aid! 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen!

Again, the psalmist requests God’s intervention in his present circumstances. Although highly poetic, it is a simple prayer. And it is to the point. He needs help. And he asks for it. No bargains with God. Just honest request.

C. The reality of God’s Presence

   1. (22-24) Move to trust in the midst of pain

22 I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.

Here is the heart of the Psalm. The transformation of the psalmist is complete here. He has moved from the dark despair of verse one to a point where he can talk about embracing a future filled with possibilities, even proclaiming those possibilities to others!

Not only has his own perspective changed, he is now calling on others to praise God. The one who began by questioning where God is now calls on others to stand in His presence! Where he had earlier complained that God had not heard him, he now affirms that God has heard him.

Again we must ask what has happened since verse 1? What great event of deliverance has occurred that caused such a radical turnaround for the Psalmist.

And we will be surprised at the answer. Nothing! Nothing has changed! No miracle. No great vision of God. No promise of a solution. No hint of resolution of the problem. He is still in the midst of his crisis. Nothing has changed.

Except, the Psalmist has worshipped God from the midst of His pain. He has prayed.  He has brought his pain honestly to God. He has asked God to intervene. And he has left his hurt in God’s hands. He has trusted God. He has been totally, authentically human before God. And it has brought healing and a renewed faith.

The change has not come because God has changed, or because circumstances have changed. It has come with the psalmist as he has faced his pain honestly, and released it to God in prayer, with God’s help, and strength, and grace. He has laid his burdens at God’s feet, with all the force that his emotions honestly require. And he has left them there.

He has found newness and hope simply by coming into the presence of God as a needy human being. No pretense. No nice words. Just the psalmist, and his pain. And God! That is praise in its purest form. That is worship at its most honest level. That is being authentically human before God. There God does some of His best work!

   2. (25-31) Concluding doxology

 25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live for ever! 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. 29 Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and he who cannot keep himself alive. 30 Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, 31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.

These verses conclude with an renewed affirmation of trust in God. But the only way to verse 31, is through verses 1 and 2!

IV. The Real World, Past and Present

Barbara was a young lady in her 20s who had returned to school to finish her education. She was a pleasant person, committed to God and an apparently stable Christian. She enrolled for one of my classes in the Fall term. Barbara was single and I had never inquired why she was not married. One day I gave a devotional from a lament psalm about dealing with grief. She hung around after class and said she wanted to talk so we sat up an appointment for later that afternoon.

She had not been in my office five minutes before she began to weep. One of the first things she said to me was, "I hate God." I had heard it before from others so it didn’t shock me. I simply asked her if she wanted to talk about it.

She poured out a story of grief and pain that I could not have imagined. Among other things, she had been sexually abused for years as a child. To get out of a horrible home situation, she had married at sixteen. Her first child had died as an infant two years later. Not long after that her husband, who had beat her regularly, simply walked out one day.

At twenty she had known more hurt than most of us will ever know in a lifetime. Did she really hate God? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I don’t really think it mattered. Hate is an emotion, and she was full of emotion. She felt as if God had forsaken her.

As we talked it became clear that she did not know what to do with her anger, grief and hurt. She thought that to be a Christian meant that she was not supposed to have the feelings she had. She thought that serving God meant that she should somehow just be happy because she was a Christian. But she was not happy. She hurt too deeply. We sat and read Psalm 22 together.

Barbara’s healing did not come at once. Over the next months there were many talks, many prayers, many tears. There were other friends, and a caring pastor, to help. Still, Barbara needed professional counseling to help her deal with her past. But healing came.

I got a call from Barbara not too long ago. She is on a professional career track, and happy for the first time in her life. She told me she discovered one thing that day in the corner chair in my office as we read Psalm 22 together. She found that she could be honest with God. And it was the beginning of her new future.

Like the Psalmist, she began to understand that God is not offended by our honesty, he is not angered when we express our hurts to him. We do not have to treat God like a doddering old man who cannot bear the least little turmoil. God can handle our hurts, our honesty. He can tolerate our irreverence from the midst of our despair.

For you see, there was a time when his own Son was hurting. The incarnate son of God had suffered the worst indignities possible. Mocked, rejected, spat upon, beaten, scourged, tortured, abandoned by his friends, dying, he prayed the prayer of Psalm 22 from the cross: Eli, eli lamah sabachtani. God where are you?

He knew God was there. Yet he hurt. He did not feel very lordly; the pain was too great. So he cried the cry of a human being from the midst of his pain. It was honest. And God could handle it. Because that cry was a cry of faith. If Jesus can be that honest, should we not also?

The message is simply this: total honesty before God is the deepest expression of faith in Him and is the only way to be authentically human in God’s world. It is the only path to spiritual wholeness, and the only way to heal the hurts of the past.

It is human to hurt. As long as we live in these bodies, we will experience grief and pain. We will be human. And that’s OK. But we also know that in the midst of our humanity, in the midst of our hurt, we can praise a God who cares, a God who is there with us, a God who knows how we feel and bears the pain with us.

The praise may not be the hand-clapping kind of praise. But it can be genuine. For in that kind of praise that screams our pain to God, there is healing. And in that healing we begin the move from darkness to light, from despair to hope, death to life, from hurt to joy.

V. Meditation

We have come together here today to offer praise to God. We will not praise because we feel good, because some don’t feel very good this evening. We will not praise because everything is going great, because for some, things aren’t going all that great. We will not praise to persuade God to do something for us, because God does not need to be begged and persuaded to act in our world or to care for us. We will not praise to force God to respond to us, because God is sovereign and is not obligated to jump when we snap our fingers. We will not praise as an act of magic that will automatically cause everything to be put in its proper order, because God is not a god of magic solutions. We will not praise because we are pious or holy or righteous, because we have no merit that earns God’s favor to us.

We come to God with praise simply because HE IS GOD. We come with praise because by His grace and mercy extended to us, we are His people. He is worthy of our praise, even when that praise is a cry of pain from the depths of our being.

There may be those next to you who are hurting. You may be hurting. Or burdened with past pains and frustrations that are keeping you from embracing the future possibilities that God has promised.

We are going to pray together, to praise God together. We are going to be the people of God, the body of Christ. We are going to share each other’s hurts. We are going to weep with each other, if necessary. We are going to intercede for each other. And in so doing, we are worshipping the God who can do exceeding, abundantly above all that we can ask or even think. We are going to worship the God with whom nothing is impossible.

We will worship in faith. But our faith is not in a set of circumstances. Our faith is in God and in Him alone. Our prayer acknowledges that He is Lord, that He is Creator, that He is the only source of life, that He is sovereign in our world. We will come into his presence with a faith like Habakkuk’s (Hab 3:17-19):

17. Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls; 18. Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the my God salvation, 19. God, the Lord, is my strength.

We come with a child-like faith that simply trusts. And in so doing we are willing to turn from our past to God’s future.

Concluding Song: Be Still My Soul

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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