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Praying the Psalms: Psalm 116

November 7, 2010

Sermon: Praying the Psalms:  Psalm 116
Text: Psalm 116

I invite you to join in the Responsive Reading that is our text for today, Psalm 116.

 

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice:  he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.
The LORD is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.
Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.
The cords of death enabled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me;
I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the LORD:  “O LORD, save me!”
The LORD protects the simple-hearted; when I was in great need, he saved me.
For you, O LORD, have delivered my soul from death,
My eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling,
That I may walk before the LORD in the land of the living.
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

 

This psalm may be one of the ones least well known to you, especially in this series, Praying the Psalms.  It is certainly a compelling psalm, one that is most appropriate for today.

As I was preparing for this message, I found what I took to be an incredible connection, one that was totally unexpected.  I stumbled across the information completely by accident, but I want to share it with you in some detail because it really addresses the whole of Psalm 116.  Toward the end of the message, I will focus on one verse that I find unusual.

Steve Beard, in an article in Good News Magazine, writes about the Irish rock band U2.  I am generally not a great fan of rock music, but this particular band’s lead singer, a man named Bono, is a remarkable human being.  I have seen him only once – in a halftime Super Bowl performance.  I find something ironic about Bono and his band.

I understand that Bono has been quite benevolent, often raising money for a number of charities.  He is a Christian but not particularly involved in church.  In fact, he has a rather negative view of church and has even written an introduction to the book entitled They’ve Hijacked God.  Bono has a unique perspective on Scripture.

Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Bono, asking him what books he had read recently.

Bono answered, “There is a translation of Scripture by a guy named Eugene Peterson.  It has been a great strength to me.  He is a poet and scholar.  He has brought the Bible text back to the tone in which the books were originally written.”

This singer has been promoting Peterson’s translation of the Bible we known as The Message, published by NAV Press.  Peterson, a well known theologian and professor, is now Professor Emeritus at Regent College in Vancouver, Columbia.  He has paraphrased the Bible in contemporary language, a task that took him ten years to complete.

Shortly after the death of his father, Bono told an Irish magazine that he had read The Message aloud at his father’s bedside.  Both Bono and his father had drawn strength from the Scriptures.  He went on to recommend Peterson’s translation of the Bible, saying, “It is just incredible stuff.”

Bono’s Elevation Tour included a song entitled “Where the Streets Have No Name.”  I know little about the tour and nothing about the song.  I learned, however, that somewhere in every performance on that worldwide tour, he read from or quoted from Psalm 116, always using the paraphrase from The Message. Each night, Bono gave a slight variation on the text, but his favorite excerpt was “What can I give back to God for the blessings He has poured out on me?  I lift high the cup of salvation a toast to God.  I will pray in the name of God.  I will complete what I promised God I would do.  I will do it together with His people.”

When asked what he knew about Bono and U2, Peterson answered, “Not a thing.  I don’t know anything about the band.  My students know all about them, and some of my younger friends know all about them.  Last year, a chaplain traveling with the band called me and asked if I would come to Chicago to meet the band.  I was not able to get away at the time, but I had a wonderful conversation with this chaplain.  Many of my younger friends and students keep me posted on the latest from U2.  When the Rolling Stone interview was published, I got clippings sent to me from all over the world.”

When asked about his reaction to having The Message quoted in concert arenas around the world, Peterson said, “My reaction?  I am pleased, very pleased.  Bono is singing to the very people I did this work for.  I feel that we are allies in this.  He is helping me get out the message into the company of the very people Jesus spent so much of his time with.”

I find it almost unbelievable that a few years ago, Bono was asked to write a forward to a commentary on the psalms.  He wrote:  “The psalms were the first blues songs. They talk about abandonment and displacement, the stuff of my favorite songs.  This Psalter may be a fount of gospel music, but for me it is the despair of the psalmist that really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God.  He is so honest with God.  ‘How long, O Lord?  Will you hide yourself forever?  Answer me when I call.’”

Bono noted his affection for the psalmist David.  He referred to him as the “Elvis Pressley of the Bible.”  The singer added, “The Scriptures are brim-full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries.  That used to shock me, but now it is a great comfort to me because I see that nobody has been left out.”

When Peterson finished The Message, NAV Press planned a celebration in Colorado Springs.  Bono was invited, but unable to come, he videotaped the following message:  “Hi, Mr. Peterson.  My name is Bono.  I am a singer with the group U2.  I wanted to sort of video a message to you of thanks, of thanks from our band for this remarkable work you have done in translating the Scriptures.  It is really a remarkable work.  As a songwriter, it was very clear to me that you are a poet as well as a scholar.  You brought the musicality of God’s Word that I am sure was there all along but that I had never seen.  There have been some great translations, some very literary translations, but no translation that I have read speaks to me in my own language.  I want to thank you for that.  It has been ten years, and that is a long time.  Take a little rest.  Bye.”

Who could have imagined this kind of connection?  An elderly scholar has spent ten years paraphrasing the Scriptures, and a rock band has gone around the world sharing this message.  God can do anything.  It is good that Eugene Peterson can see the gospel being carried throughout the world through this connection.

Let me read to you just a portion of Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 116.  You will better understand Bono’s comments.

I love God because he listened to me,
listened as I begged for mercy.
He listened so intently
as I laid out my case before him.  Death stared me in the face,
hell was hard on my heels.
Up against it, I didn’t know which way to turn;
then I called out to God for help:
“Please, God,” I cried out.
“Save my life!”
God is gracious – it is he who makes things right,
our most compassionate God.
God takes the side of the helpless;
when I was at the end of my rope, he saved me.
I said to myself, “Relax and rest.
God has showered you with blessings.
Soul, you’ve been rescued from death;
Eye, you’ve been rescued from tears;
And you, Foot, you were kept from stumbling.”
I’m striding in the presence of God,
alive in the land of the living!
I stayed faithful, though bedeviled,
and despite a ton of bad luck,
Despite giving up on the human race,
saying God has been faithful.
What can I give back to God
for the blessings he’s poured out on me?
I’ll lift high the cup of salvation – a toast to God!
I’ll pray in the name of God;
I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do,
and I’ll do it together with his people.”

 

The key line in this great psalm, Verse 15, is one you would miss if you read only Peterson’s paraphrase.  Verse 15 is simple:  “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

I have used that passage a number of times at funerals.  I used it yesterday at the funeral for Kitty Holbert, whose death was precious in many ways.  Kitty had lived a long life, but she had suffered over these past years and months.  She was certainly ready to be with the Lord.  Her death came as a gentle visitor, a quiet blessing.  It is no problem to say “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” at a funeral for someone like Kitty.  I also conducted the funeral for Charlie Snipes recently.  I do not see that his death is precious in anyone’s sight.

How are we to understand this verse?  We must consider it in the context of the psalm.  You will notice that the psalm, written entirely in the first person, conveys the personal relationship between the writer and God.  The psalmist describes events in his life that have been very difficult.  As he does so, he affirms that God has never failed him, that God has been with him every step of the way.

In mid-psalm, the author pauses to give a profound reflection on a verse you have possibly never noticed.  He makes a stunning affirmation about his own death.  How can that be when he is not dead?

If you read carefully Psalm 116, you will see that the psalmist has had what some might call a “near-death experience.”  He writes that he is so entangled in the throes of death.  Believers who have had a similar experience do not fear death again.  They realize that they are not to be afraid when they actually go through this tunnel, this channel, this valley of death.  In the words of the psalmist in Psalm 23, “My shepherd is with me.  I fear not because Thou art with me.”  As the psalmist reflects on his near-death experience, he sees that the actual encounter with death will be precious to him.

The word “precious” can be understood in two ways in the Hebrew language.  It is important to differentiate between those two understandings.  First, “precious” can mean costly, expensive.  Sometimes death is costly and expensive.  A statistic offered by the federal government states that each year, the National Park Service and the United States Coast Guard spend more than $383,000,000 rescuing boaters, bikers, hikers, and climbers who are in peril.  Some of those people die.  You can see from that statistic that sometimes death can be very costly.  “Costly in the sight of God is the death of his saints”?

Some third-world countries say that when an elderly person dies, it is as if a library has burned and been destroyed.  Think about all the wisdom, all the knowledge, that an elderly person has.  When the elderly leave this life, all of that knowledge is lost unless it has been recorded.

The psalmist, as I said, has described a time when the “cords of death entangled” him.  The anguish of the grave came upon him.  He called out because he was so distressed, and God responded, rescuing him from death.  Knowing that God had saved him is certainly not the same New Testament perspective that we have.  The psalmist was living before the coming of Christ.  The psalmist sees that God has to dip into His treasure chest of grace, righteousness, and compassion to save anyone. He was fully aware that costly, in the sight of God, is the death of His saints.

We know, from our New Testament perspective, that salvation is very expensive.  We say that salvation is free, that the grace of God set us free.  Salvation is totally unmerited and totally undeserved.  It is offered to us as a free gift.  You know, of course, that the free gift was quite expensive.  It cost God the life of His Son.  It cost Jesus his own life.  Our death is costly in the sight of God because He is so intent on saving us.

Our death may also be a painful experience for God.  I doubt that Kitty Holbert’s death was painful for God.  God was ready to take her home.  I feel sure that Charlie Snipes’ death was painful for God.  God is hurt when one of His children kills another of His children, when a group of God’s children kills another group of His children.  God, who created every one of us, desires that we know how to share His love.  God’s heart is broken when we choose to share hate instead.

The second meaning of the word “precious” is highly valued, cherished.  When God views the death of one of His saints, He places high value on that experience.  We only have to look at the end of the book of Revelation and read John’s words.  He talks of death as being the end of suffering, sorrow, crying, pain.  “Former things pass away and all things become new” (Revelation 24:1).

Is there any doubt that the ending all of those emotions is a valuable experience?  I think about Ned Hammond.  When he died, he was struggling, struggling, struggling for every breath he took.  After his death, I thought, Ned is now able to breathe the fresh air of heaven.  Nothing could put a price on that valuable experience.

I was at a conference for pastors in Greenville, North Carolina, a week ago.  The group began talking about being with family members at the time of a difficult death.  One of the pastors there commented, “When someone dies, I just tell the family, ‘We prayed for healing.  This is complete healing.  Death is always a complete healing.’”

I agree with that idea, but I would say, “Let’s not be so quick to go there.”  If someone had said to me a few minutes after Erik died, “Don’t worry about this, Kirk.  This is a complete healing for Erik,” I would have wanted to clobber the person.  We must allow others to grieve and get beyond some of their pain before offering an explanation such as this.

When we think about our Christian view of death, it is true that we view death as getting a complete transplant.  We get a whole new body.  Those ailments that we carried for so long in our body of flesh are now put aside.  Upon death, believers leave behind all the effects of sin, all the suffering, all the difficulties.  It is not a stretch at all to say that death is precious in the sight of God.  It is an experience of high value.

As long as we live this life and walk on this earth, we experience some degrees of separation from God.  Paul writes about this when he says, “We see through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12).  Paul adds that “The time will come when we will know him face to face.”  At times we feel the nearness and presence of God so keenly.  My hope and prayer is that we feel that often here in this Sanctuary.  Psalm 27 says that we will seek His face and know the beauty of the Lord.  We will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  The psalmist goes on to tell us that beyond this life, we will have an intimacy with God that we simply cannot know here on earth.  Death will allow us to be closer to God than we have ever been.  Knowing that becomes a valuable experience.

We all know how happy we feel when somebody we love comes home after a long time away?  We look forward to a reunion with children and grandchildren during the holidays.  We want to see family members.  We want to be together.  The Bible talks about death in this way, as if it is a homecoming.  Think of the parable of the prodigal son or the parable of the lost sheep.  Going to heaven is like going home, going to a grand family reunion.  Everybody who has died before us is already in heaven.  We join them with our death.

A ninety-three year old woman asked me to come to her home and help plan her funeral.  I went.  She, of course, had already planned the service, complete with hymns and Scriptures.  She just wanted to tell me what the plan was.  This woman made a comment that took me aback for a moment:  “I’m going to surprise a lot of people when I get to heaven.”

I asked, “Why are they going to be surprised?”

“They all died so long ago.  They have been in heaven so long that they probably think I went to the other place.  Now, Dr. Kirk, I want you to tell that at my funeral.”

I told them, and they laughed just as you did.

I have been talking about this experience of death being precious in the sight of God only from this side.  This side is the only side I know. I have been in the ministry long enough to have spent time standing at many bedsides.  I would not trade all the tea in China for that experience.  We are standing on holy ground.  It is an ineffable experience, an almost mystical experience, one that is beyond my explanation.  It is a Peter Paul/Almond Joy experience – indescribably delicious.

A man who was dying of cancer was quite chatty and wanted to talk with me.  He said, “They tell me I have about a week to live.”

I asked him, “What are you going to do with that week?”

“I am going to make the most of it though I am limited in what I can do.  I am going to talk to all of my family.  I have been thinking a lot about death.  In a strange way, I am kind of looking forward to it.”

I said, “Explain that to me.”

“If someone had said to me when I was born, ‘We are going to give you the choice of being born or not.  You decide,’ I would have said, ‘No thanks.  I do not want to be born.’  I was safe and comfortable in my mother’s womb.  All my needs were met.  I did not even have to bend my elbows to feed myself.  Why would I want to be pushed out into a cold world and greeted with a slap on the bottom?  I can look back on my birth, and I am so glad I was born.  I am so glad I have been able to live this life.  Ask me now if I want to die, and I will tell you, ‘No sir, I don’t want to die.  I like it here with all its pain and suffering.  This is where I want to be.’  I am not going to get a choice.  I have a feeling that when I get on the other side, I am going to look back and say, ‘Boy!  I’m glad I had that experience.  What I know now is so much better than what I knew then.’”

Death has another side.

Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:6-8, “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we at home in the body we are away from the Lord.  We live by faith, not by sight.  We are confident, I say, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

Do you see that death is a homecoming?  It is a highly valued experience that ends the sin in life.  It ends all the pain and suffering.

A play that describes Lazarus after his resurrection has been written, Lazarus Laughed.  In the play, Lazarus is depicted as a man who just laughs.  He cannot contain himself.  He had been through this entanglement with the cords of death and died.  When Jesus brought him back to life, he had been in the tomb for four days.  Following his resurrection, he had a different perspective.  He knew that death was no longer to be feared.  It was an experience to be treasured.  It was costly, to be sure, but highly valued – precious in the sight of the Lord.  Death will be like that for believers.

I simply ask, Do you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior?  If not, could I encourage you to accept Christ?  Make him the Lord of your life.  Invite him to come into your heart and change your life.  If you do that, as you grow older, you will begin to see that the experience of death is precious in the sight of the Lord.  We invite you to respond.

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