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Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: When Joy Overcomes Sorrow

July 23, 2013

Sermon:  Finding Ourselves in the Psalms:  When Joy Overcomes Sorrow

Text:  Psalm 30

I recently pulled into a gasoline station and filled up with gas.  The driver of the car in front of me had actually crossed the state line from North Carolina.  I said to him, “You’ve driven a long way to buy gasoline.”

He answered, “The price difference is worth the trip.  Gas prices are going up, and everyone will be watching their gauge.”

When the weather is as hot as it has been and we are driving to vacation destinations, we will all be watching our gas gauges.

Let me ask you two questions:  If you had a gauge to measure the joy in your life, what would it read?  What is the level of joy in your life?

Many of us would respond, “We are running a little low.  We do not have as much joy as we would like.”

The psalm we come to today addresses joy.  It does not suggest that we merely paste on a happy face.  Instead, it offers the advice, “Let’s take a look at life and see if, in the midst of our circumstances, we can find reason for joy.” This is a wonderful psalm for people facing surgery, for people going through a close experience with death, for people recovering from surgery. 

I must tell you that my primary source for today’s sermon was the volume on Psalms in the Interpreter’s Bible.  I invite you to turn with me to our text, Psalm 30.  The heading, which reads, “A psalm.  A song.  For the dedication of the temple.  Of David,” will be important in our understanding of the psalm.

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths
    and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
    and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down into the pit.

Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people;
    praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
    but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
    but rejoicing comes in the morning.

When I felt secure, I said,
    “I will never be shaken.”
Lord, when you favored me,
    you made my royal mountain stand firm;
but when you hid your face,
    I was dismayed.

To you, Lord, I called;
    to the Lord I cried for mercy:
“What is gained if I am silenced,
    if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
    Will it proclaim your faithfulness?
10 Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me;
    Lord, be my help.”

11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
    you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

In order to understand the importance of Psalm 30 in the life of the people of Israel, we must use a time machine.  I invite you to travel with me backwards through time.  We should go back about 3000 years and consider some high points about this psalm’s role in the liturgy of Israel.

Let’s turn back the clock about 1200 years to a time when Charlemagne was made the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800 A.D.  It was about that time that Psalm 30 was first identified or deemed appropriate during Hanukkah.  We know that the decision made in the 9th century probably had a long history.  It may, in fact, have been more of a reaffirmation that this psalm was intended to be used to celebration the dedication of the temple even though it had long been destroyed.  The spirit of the Psalm indicates that, rather than wallowing in self-pity or misery because the temple had been destroyed, we should find and celebrate the goodness of God in spite of the circumstances.

Why is that decision somewhat surprising?  You remember that the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D., about forty years after the death of Jesus.  All that was left were several columns and the Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall.  If you go to the great temple of Herod now, that is about all you will see of what had once stood there.

At that time the holy hill, called the Temple Mount, had already been occupied by Muslims for three centuries.  A beautiful and elaborate mosque called the Dome of the Rock was built over the sacred spot on the site of the original temple.  It is the centerpiece of old Jerusalem.  That rock is important in three great faith traditions.  Our Jewish-Christian tradition tells us that there Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  The Islamic tradition claims that Abraham’s son Ishmael was offered as the sacrifice.  The Islamic tradition also maintains that it is from that rock that Mohammed leapt into heaven.

Mark Twin, in his wonderful book Innocents Abroad, records his travels with a group of Episcopalians to the Holy Land.  Can you imagine Twain, traveling with Episcopalians to the Holy Land?  They rode on mule back, which made it all the more interesting.  When the group of tourists came to the Dome of the Rock, Twain looked at what is purported to be the footprint of Mohammed and said, “If that was Mohammed’s print, he wore a size seventeen.”  Mark Twain showed little reverence for any topic.

At the time Psalm 30 was deemed appropriate to use for Hanukkah, the temple had been in ruins for centuries.  Why, then, would it be used on that occasion?  If we take a step further back to the time of Jesus, we have a brief description of Jesus celebrating the festival of Hanukkah in the Gospel of John:  “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem.  It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade” (John 10:22-23).  Jesus was a good Jew who went to the temple to celebrate a number of festivals.  You have to ask yourself, Did he hear Psalm 30 read on that occasion?  Did Jesus perhaps sing Psalm 30 on that occasion?

Let’s go back a little further to a time before Jesus was born, to 165 B.C.  Alexander the Great had conquered the entire known world.  The Greek kings placed in power reigned over Judea from Damascus, Syria.  The Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes, who had a Greek name, was absolutely ruthless.  He would not allow Jews to practice any of their festivals, observe Passover, celebrate bar mitzvahs for their sons and bat mitzvahs for their daughters, or worship in the temple.  He actually set up a statue of the pagan god Zeus in the temple and committed what the book of Daniel calls the “abomination of desecration” when he slaughtered a pig on the altar.

In response to this persecution, a man named Judas Maccabeus, whose name meant “the hammer,” organized a group of resistant fighters, including his four brothers.  With steadfast faith in God and tenacity in their decision to take on Antiochus and his army, they pressed and pressed and pressed for three years until they were victorious.  Later when Judas Maccabeus rode triumphantly down the Mount of Olives on a donkey, people, in gratitude, waved palm branches and welcomed him into the city.  He went straight to the temple and cleansed it, removing the statue of Zeus.

Wanting to relight the eternal flame, which represented the presence of God, Judas Maccabeus could find only a small cruse of dedicated oil.  Though the container held only enough oil to keep the flame burning for one day, they lighted the lamp in faith.  The miracle is that the flame burned for eight days, the time needed to re-sanctify more oil.

To this day the Jewish people celebrate the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, usually during the month of December.  Sometimes Hanukkah coincides with our celebration of Christmas.  In their celebration, they light a menorah, which holds eight candles, each representing one of the eight days the oil inexplicably burned.  Why would Psalm 30 still be read in the synagogues and in the homes as a part of that annual celebration, also called the Festival of Lights?  The heading of Psalm 30 told us that it was written “For the dedication of the temple.  The Hebrew word for dedication is Hanukkah.  Perhaps Psalm 30 was read when Judas Maccabeus cleansed and rededicated the temple.

Let’s go further back to the Babylonian captivity and the fall of Jerusalem and the temple, which were left in ruins.  Jeremiah calls the city the “haunt of jackals.”  From Isaiah 64:10-11 we read, “Your sacred cities have become a wasteland; even Zion is a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation.  Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned with fire, and all the treasures are in ruins.”

Then Persia, modern-day Iran, defeated Babylon, modern-day Iraq.  Cyrus, the king of Persia, sent Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the wall surrounding the city.  The people returned to the city and began the rebuilding process with great joy.  Ezra may have actually read Psalm 30 at the dedication of the rebuilt temple, the second temple.  Nehemiah encouraged them by saying, “This is not a time for grief. It is not a time for mourning.  The joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Let’s go further back, to the time of Solomon, the son of David.  Most scholars believe that Solomon built the original temple in 832 B.C.  Solomon may have known about this psalm, said to have been written by his father.  He may have read this psalm at the time he built and dedicated that temple.  That dedication, which we read about in I Kings 8, was certainly a time of great joy.

Let’s go back to the time of King David, who actually composed the psalm.  We read in the heading, which we believe priests added later, that it was intended “For the dedication of the temple.”  Of course at the time, no temple had been built.  Still, something about this psalm led those priests to believe that David had written this song with the temple in mind.  God did not allow David to build the temple because he was a warrior with blood on his hands.  David did see it in his mind’s eye though.  He was forced to leave the construction to his son.

We know from I Chronicles 21 that David must have envisioned a particular location for the temple’s location.  We cannot read that entire chapter, but I want to address the high points.  Verse 1 tells us, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel,” including a calculation of the men in his army.  David’s agreement to Satan’s idea was regarded as a sin, a terrible violation of God’s intentions.  David called Joab, his commander, to “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan…so that I may know how many there are.”  Why would it be an offense for a king to count his army?  The implication here is that David was relying on his own strength instead of placing his trust in God.  This sin was no less than his sin with Bathsheba.

Reluctant, Joab made the decision to exclude from the count the Levites and the Benjaminites.  Still he counted all the others, and we read in Verse 5, “In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword…”  David’s compulsion to note just how strong his army was displeased God.  Verse 7 tells us, “This command was evil in the sight of God; so he punished Israel.”

Another prophet at David’s side, not Nathan this time, was named Gad.  He went to David and told him, “This is what the Lord says. ‘Take your choice:  three years of famine, three months of being swept over before your enemies with their swords overtaking you, or three days of the sword of the Lord – days of plague on the land…”  What a choice!  David responded, “I am in deep distress.  Let me fall into the hands of the Lord.”  Verse 14 says the Lord sent a plague on Israel, killing 70,000 men in Israel in one day.

David clothed himself in sackcloth because of his sorrow and misery.  He fell facedown and prayed, “Lord, let your vengeance fall on me and my family.  I am the shepherd of these people.  Do not put your vengeance on them.  This is my fault.”

Following David’s plea, the prophet Gad told David that it was time to worship.  He instructed David to go to a big flat rock, the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

When Araunah saw David approaching, he bowed down in respect.  Verse 22:  “David said to him, ‘Let me have the site of your threshing floor so I can build an altar to the LORD, that the plague on the people may be stopped.  Sell it to me at full price.”

Araunah’s response would make an excellent sermon on tithing.  He said, “Take it!  Let my lord the king do whatever pleases him.  Look, I will give the oxen for the burnt offerings, the threshing sledges for the wood, and the wheat for the grain offering.  I will give all of this.”  Araunah was willing to give everything he had in an attempt to honor the king.

David answered in Verse 24, “I insist on paying full price.  I am not going to sacrifice for the Lord what I have not paid for.”  David paid the full price for the property and worshipped there, offering sacrifices to God.

Seeing David’s faith, God stayed the hand of the angel waiting at the floor, saying “Enough!  “Withdraw your hand.”  When the angel of the Lord returned his sword to his sheath, in Verse 27, David saw that the Lord had answered him.

Why would this back story be connected to the writing of Psalm 30?  Why would this back story be connected to the dedication of the temple?  That big rock, identified as the threshing floor of Araunah, is the same rock where Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice 1000 years earlier.  That big rock, identified as the threshing floor of Araunah, is the same rock that became the foundation for the temple.  That big rock is now covered by the mosque known as the Dome of the Rock.

Psalm 30 reflects a kind of odyssey in David’s life.  He moves from being very naïve to having a more mature faith.  Look at Verse 6:  “When I felt secure I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ O Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain to stand firm.”  David was basically saying that all was right with the world when he was on the good side of God; but when God turned His face, he was dismayed.  David had passed through a life-threatening experience, something that really tested his mettle.

At one particular point in time we all think we are immortal.  Teenagers do not believe they will die.  Go to any crosswalk at any school, and watch the students cross the street.  They are very biblical in that they neither look to the right or to the left.  If you visit Chicago, like Clare and I did recently, New York, or any of our big cities, you learn quickly the two kinds of pedestrians:  the quick and the dead.  Naiveté leads us to believe that we are immortal.  It is the reason eighteen-year-olds make such good soldiers.

The death of a peer, the death of someone their age, brings the reality of mortality home.  They then understand that if one sixteen-year-old can die in an automobile crash, so can another.  If one soldier can die when he steps on a mine, any soldier can die.  Losing a peer makes us recognize our own mortality.  Facing our own death is difficult.  Only when we come close to death can we know that difficulty.

David’s experience with the severe hardship of the plague, which resulted in the death of 70,000 men, was hard on him.  He then struggled with his own mortality, as we see in Verses 3, 8-9.

3You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down to the pit.
To you, Lord, I called;
    to the Lord I cried for mercy:
“What is gained if I am silenced,
    if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
    Will it proclaim your faithfulness?

David concluded the psalm by saying that he had reason to praise God. 

Now, let’s look back at the beginning of Psalm 30.

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths
    and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
    and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down into the pit.

Does David’s reaction seem to be a bit phony, a kind of knee-jerk piety, a jailhouse religion, a foxhole conversion?  “I am in trouble, so yes, I believe.”  “The bullets are flying, and of course I am going to accept Christ.”  People may offer a shallow religiosity:  “If God is good, of course I will praise him.  If God is not good and things go bad, I will wait and see.”  We hold our questions and our doubts.  We might flippantly say, at any time when the most trivial things happen, “Thank the Lord!”  “Thank the Lord for a glass of iced tea on a hot day!”  “Thank the Lord for an air-conditioned room!”  David, who had faced real tragedy, was sincere. He was not offering a flippant reaction. 

Psalm 30 goes deeper.  David recounts good parts of his life. 

5Weeping may tarry for the night,
   but joy comes in the morning.”
 
To you, Lord, I called;
     to the Lord I cried for mercy:
 
10 Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me;
     Lord, be my help.”
11 You turned my wailing into dancing; 
     you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.

    

We find the real key to understanding the psalm in the very last line: “Lord my God, I will praise you forever.”  Sorrow has now turned to joy.  This outlook is more than just the reversal of circumstances; it is a new mindset.  Sorrow and joy are intertwined. 

A divorcee said to me one time in a divorce recovery group that she vacillated in her emotions.  “I was sad.  Then I was mad.  Then I was sad, then mad.  Finally I was glad.”  We go back and forth and back and forth in our emotions.  Finally, we feel joy.

After Erik died I watched my dear wife, Clare, experience grief that was almost unimaginable.  Clare said she cried in the shower because it was not so messy.  She gave up mascara, asking “What’s the use?” Clare realized that joy and sorrow have the same root.  They emerge unbidden from the same deep place in the human heart.  Clare could grieve, but she could also know joy.  She created the mantra “Party on!”  On Erik’s birthday and on the anniversary of Erik’s death, we celebrate.  We celebrate because we have so much reason for joy. 

Paul, while in prison on death row, wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I will say it.  Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)  He, too, spoke about joy and contentment:  “I have learned the secret.  In whatever state I am in, I can be content” (Philippians 4:12).  Jesus offered the same council to his disciples before he returned to heaven:  “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.  You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy…and no one will take your joy away from you …I have said these things to you because in the world you have tribulation but be of good cheer!  I have overcome the world” (John 16:21-23, 33). 

What do these verses mean?  Joy is a choice.  Some people do not like to hear that statement.  Let me explain that it does not mean we ignore the pain, the heartache, the hurt of the difficult circumstances of life.  Instead, we choose to face life’s tribulations with joy.  That approach goes deeper and requires more than just pasting on a happy face.

As I was preparing this sermon, I read a story about one rabbi.  When people came to him with very difficult problems, he had the custom of recommending that they read Psalm 30.  For a week, from Sabbath to Sabbath, they were to use that passage as their devotion and evaluate their ability to nurture some joy in their soul.  I make the same recommendation to you.  Read Psalm 30 every day for a week.  Nurture joy.  See if it will impact your life. 

I know you want this kind of joy.  You can have it through Jesus Christ.  Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life?  Have you accepted him?  He has made a promise that he will be with us always.  That is reason enough for joy. 

 

Kirk H. Neely

© July 2013

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