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“Psalms for the Summer!" Series - Psalm 77 by Joe Ellis - May 12, 2024

Welcome to our new sermon series that we will journey through over the next several months: “Psalms for the Summer!” Now, this sunny name is slightly deceptive, as the psalms call us to plunge into and face the very depths of our soul. Indeed, the Psalms are a school for prayer. For many of us, the Psalms are an important school because they challenge us to pray in ways that seem off limits and out of bounds. The Psalm writers invite us to pray from a place of total emotional honesty to God. Listen to the way that John Calvin describes the Psalms:

“What various and resplendent riches are contained in this treasure, it were difficult to describe… I have been wont to call this book, not inappropriately, ‘an anatomy of all parts of the soul’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”

The Psalms are such a gift, for they mirror to us all aspects of our emotional life, and the Psalms then invite us to bring these parts of ourselves to God in prayer. Now, praying an honest prayer to God, one that reflects the deepest part of ourselves is far easier said than done — especially amongst spiritual people.

The phrase ‘spiritual bypass’ gets at why it can be difficult for spiritual people to pray honestly. The late psychologist, John Welwood, came up with the concept of “Spiritual Bypassing” to name what he saw happening in a Buddhist community he was a part of. Welwood said, “Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”. Welwood goes on to say that we can use our spirituality as an attempt to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an “occupational hazard” of the spiritual path. The Psalms are the antidote to this occupational hazard.

We know that as Christians we have developed our own tried and true methods of spiritual bypassing these difficult thoughts, feelings, experiences and conversations. We spiritually bypass when we try to sidestep someone’s grief by saying things like, “You know what the Bible says: ‘All things work together for the good of those who love Him.’ And I know you love Him!”

Or we might spiritually bypass our own sadness, disappointment or despair by putting on a smile and saying, “God is good all the times and all the time, God is good!”

Or we might try to bypass difficult conversations with people we love by saying “Jesus blood covers even this”, or “God can change all this through His Spirit,” or “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Notice that all these statements are true to one degree or another, but we can use them as a way of avoiding painful and difficult thoughts, feelings, experiences and conversations. Of course, the fact that we can use aspects of Christian theology to bypass these things doesn’t make our theology bad. In fact, my conviction is that Christian theology can help us face the most difficult and painful aspects of life — and the psalms show us the way to do so.

If Asaph, the one who wrote this Psalm had ‘spiritually bypassed’ his emotions, his Psalm would’ve been much shorter. Psalm 77 would’ve probably started in the same way, saying: “I cried out to God for help: I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord” and then he would’ve skipped to verse 11, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”  What a different Psalm that would be! And we might praise Asaph for his great faith, but that’s because we wouldn’t see the depth of his pain that he was burying.

Asaph, show us a different way than spiritually bypassing our heart. He shows us how to bring the depths of our soul into the presence of God. Here is why it is important. If we bypass the most significant parts of our lives in our prayer life, we will not actually be bringing the most important parts of ourselves before God. That turns into a relational block, where we are attempting to block God’s access to the deepest parts of ourselves. That means that our relationship with God would always feel superficial, never feeling like we could truly know and be known. But, when we really tune into our heart of hearts, and bring that before God, I believe that He becomes truly accessible, responsive and engaged. Asaph, shows us the way to do this.

Asaph’s describes his distress as truly profound. He is so troubled that he has night after night of sleeplessness. “My eye flows at night. It will not stop. I refused to be consoled. I call God to mind and I moan. I speak and my spirit faints. You held open my eyelids. I throbbed and could not speak.” 

Which image grabs you the most? Is it his refusal to be comforted? His constant flowing of tears? His moaning? His experience of God holding open his eyelids so as to prevent him from sleep? Is it a throbbing in his throat that makes speech so difficult, so hard?

After he so viscerally speaks of the way his distress impacts his body, he names his deepest fears:

Will the Master forever abandon me,

and never again look with favour?

Is His kindness gone for all time.

His words done for time without end?

Has God forgotten to show grace,

has He closed off in wrath His compassion?

And I said, it is my failing,

that the High One’s right hand has changed.”

Where does this prayer of Asaph hit you? In your chest? In your stomach? In your throat? Tune into that — Asaph names his deepest fear to God in prayer —his fear and heartache that God has abandoned him. That his failing has put him beyond God’s grace and compassion. His fear that he is beyond God’s help. His state of destitution is beyond redemption.

Maybe you feel angry at hearing Asaph’s prayer. That’s good, too. Maybe you think, I’ve prayed this sort of prayer and God never responded. Notice that anger — can you tell God about this anger?

Or maybe you feel a wall go up, thinking, “this is stupid, all this emotional stuff. We just need to get our doctrine right.” That’s good, too, doctrine is important, but notice that wall going up. Notice how you want to push this stuff away. Can you tell that to God?

After expressing his deepest fears, Asaph moves into another mode of praying. He prays, “I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” 

Then Asaph remembers the greatest act of deliverance in his people’s history: the Exodus, when God led his people out of slavery in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea. Now in a moment of immense distress, why might Asaph want to remember the Exodus? Yes, it was an almighty powerful act of God, but there is another, equally powerful reason why Asaph would want to remember that moment in history. The Exodus was a moment when the people of Israel were in utter despair — and God responded most powerfully.

Let’s transport ourselves to the moment right before their crossing of the Red Sea. These are slaves fleeing from Pharaoh and he shows up with his full army. It's night, a dark night. Exodus 14 tells us: “And Pharaoh drew near, and the Israelites raised their eyes and look, Egypt was advancing toward them, and they were very afraid, and the Israelites cried to the Lord. And they said to Moses, ‘Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this you have done to us to bring us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the thing we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone, that we may serve Egypt, for it is better for us to serve Egypt than for us to die in the wilderness?’”

How does the raw fear hit you? I believe that Asaph was strongly able to relate with that fear and despair, and that is why it was so important for Asaph to remember the Exodus story, a time when God was with His people in their most perilous moment, how God was with His people when they were most afraid. And notice how he saves them — he saves them not by bypassing the Red Sea. He rescues his people by leading them through what terrifies them. He leads the Israelites through their terror, and brings them safely through to the other side. That is the way of our God. It's like the Bear Hunt Story. You can’t go around, You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it — you got to go through it.

So Asaph remembers going through:

The waters saw You, O God,

The waters saw You, they trembled,

The depths themselves shuddered.

The clouds steamed water.

The skies sounded with thunder.

Your bolts, too, flew about.

Your thunder’s sound under the wheel—

Lightning lit up the world.

THe earth shuddered in and shook.

In the sea was your way,

And your path in the mighty waters,

and Your footsteps left no traces.

You led your people like a flock

by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

God led them through. Perhaps, Asaph thinks, “If God can lead them through, he can lead me through as well”. Perhaps this memory gave him courage to continue facing the depths of his distress, trusting that if he faces it instead of running away, perhaps God will be present and lead Him through.

Asaph remembered the Exodus, today we remember the cross. On the Mount of Olives, Jesus prayed his own Psalm, naming His desire to bypass what is ahead, but also trusting the God who leads us through. He prayed: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done.”  In our own moments of impossibility, in fear, in despair, in conflict, in hopelessness — when we fear to face what Asaph faced, what Jesus Himself faced — namely, the depths of our own heart, perhaps we can take courage in the faith of Jesus, who journeyed into the sea of death, and was brought to life again on the other side. He didn’t go around it — He went through it.

Yes, that is what we enact in our baptism. Trusting that we will go through the waters with Christ, and He will lead us out to the other side. The cross is not a means of bypassing what we would rather avoid — Jesus saw to that when He said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”  So, the cross becomes an invitation to move through that which we would rather avoid — trusting that the God of Jesus Christ is the God of the resurrection. The cross assures us that we can trust that He will be with us as we wade into those waters we fear most deeply.

Now, I’d like to point out one more piece of the Psalm. While the focus is on God who leads us not around, but through — notice the last line of Asaph’s, “You led Your people like a flock / by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”  God was with the people of Israel, but so was Moses. God asked Moses to help the people of Israel through their moment of great peril. After the people cried out, “Did you lead us out here to die in the wilderness?”  Moses tenderly say, “Do not be afraid. Take your station and see the Lord’s deliverance that He will do for you today, for as you see the Egyptians today, you shall not see them again for all time. The Lord shall do battle for you, and you, you shall keep still.”

Asaph remembers that Moses and Aaron helped shepherd their people through this very difficult moment. We all need Moses’s, and Aaron’s and Miriam’s in our lives. When our temptation is to just avoid altogether what we would are facing, we all need people to take us by the hand and help us to face that which we would rather avoid. Asaph seems so strong in facing that which most of us would most like to avoid. I wonder who God sent into His life that helped him face those monsters that kept him up at night. And now, He is helping us face our own monsters, so many thousands of years later.

Now, as we close off this reflection, I wonder if you would like to take a moment to share with God what’s been stirring in your heart? Maybe it's even hard to tell him directly what it is. Maybe you want to even say, “It’s hard to tell you about this fear of mine — because I’m afraid that if I tell you, I’ll have to face it, and I just don’t know how I would do that right now.” Perhaps, before we begin singing this next song, we might take a moment to tell the Lord just what you have been noting throughout this time together.


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