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More Than We Can Stand

A sermon preached by Rev. Jay Rowland on Sunday November 19, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.

More Than We Can Stand

 

Text: Psalm 123

 

Back in 1976, the Academy Award-winning film Network created a cultural catchphrase that became part of the national vocabulary at the time.  There’s a scene in which a veteran TV network-news anchor played by actor Peter Finch abruptly goes off-script during a live newscast and delivers a searing rant.  The anchor man, enraged by all the terrible news urges everyone to open their windows and shout: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”   As I watched this scene again on YouTube his rant sounded like he was reacting to life in 2017 not 1976!

Oh there’s nothing like a well-scripted rant to affirm outrage and ease helplessness.  I’m sure we would all love to have professional writers script a good rant for us to share in public forums or private conversations to ease our personal outrage and helplessness these days. But aside from venting frustration, or a proverbial scratching of an itch, ranting accomplishes nothing which was the moral of the film.

When I read (past tense) Psalm 123 in preparation for today, I thought about all of the outrageous things (“news”) happening these days: too many people killed by lone gunmen shooting military-grade assault rifles; too many white supremacists lurking in the shadows; too many men abusing their power sexually harassing and assaulting too many women in entertainment, government, and business; too many wasted opportunities to address climate change while the most vulnerable and exposed suffer the devastation; too much chaos emanating from the executive branch of our government …

And yet, every time I read (present tense) Psalm 123 I also feel something powerful.  Psalm 123 stirs and haunts me spiritually.  Psalm 123 gives me something spiritually that I need to contend with the epic problems swirling around us on a daily basis.  It also reminds me that no matter how bad these problems seem right now, previous generations contended with problems in their own time which provoked hopelessness and fear.

Before I say any more, I want to say a brief bit about its background.  Scholars group Psalms 120-134 together as “Songs (psalms) of Ascent”—that is, songs sung or chanted by faithful Jews who walked in spiritual pilgrimage from distances near and far to Jerusalem and the Temple where believers then felt God’s presence resided.  Psalm 123 is the first actual prayer of the grouping. The opening words describing the lifting of one’s eyes to the Lord’s heavenly throne could have been a prayer of preparation to come into God’s presence sung or spoken while entering the city gates or ascending the Temple stairs.

Psalm 123’s power, like many of the Psalms, radiates at least for me anyway from thousands of years of being prayed by people like us, asking God for help to withstand problems which seemed so insurmountable at the time.  Whenever events and forces beyond our control wreak havoc in our world and in our lives, turn to Psalm 123.  Pray it.  Sing it.  Chant it. Scream it.  Feel its raw energy and passion.  Let Psalm 123 help us do more than merely cope with reality, let it create spiritual space, spiritual ground upon which to stand when all other ground is sinking sand.

The Psalmist prays for eyes to be lifted above our earthly plane, lifted above the dumpster fire of human history, lifted above all the thrones of earthly authority thwarting God’s people on a daily basis.  Psalm 123 is a prayer-song declaring our painful humiliation at the hands of all the earthly thrones of power that obliterate God’s vision for God’s people as we make our way through this wilderness.

Psalm 123 is a prayer for corrective vision:  “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven …”  So much of our collective attention is paid to media and social media, this opening verse is worth repeating.  Media is so fixated upon assigning blame and demanding (immediate) solutions, which feels good when negative patterns repeat without correction.  It’s beyond frustrating that our elected leaders are unwilling or unable to establish the common ground necessary for common-sense correctives.  But my fear is that media-saturation begets reactionary creatures and I worry that we all lose something spiritually (individually and communally) when we become reactive.  I worry that we lift our eyes less and less up to God, while expecting more and more from broken institutions and flawed leaders.  Between the lines of this Psalm I hear a plea to turn off our televisions and our devices and our computers and devote at least the same amount of time to silence, time to sit quietly with God in silence, listening for God’s heartbeat.

Most of us have no idea how to do that, or the desire to understand why this is important.  Our ancestors and religious forebears spent far, far more time in silence than we do.  There’s a cost we’re paying for this deficiency.

Psalm 123 is the prayer of a people who’ve had it, who’ve endured “more than we can stand” … it is the prayer of souls depleted by the contempt of the powerful and the arrogant; a response to every contemptuous taunt of “where’s this God of your’s now?!” (Psalm 42:3,10; Psalm 79:10; Psalm 115:2), the Psalmic equivalent of the schoolyard bully who just pushed you to the ground, standing over you, taunting, “whatcha gonna do about it huh?!”

Psalm 123 gives voice to those who have had it with such taunts (read contempt and ridicule). It connects our muted voices with God’s beloved children from every place and time who have lifted their eyes to the Heavenly King begging for help. Verse 3’s repeated cry “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us” strikes one commentator* to declare “This is not a polite, formal prayer like the lovely Kyrie Eleison” we sing every Sunday, he says.  “This is a passionate, desperate cry” from people who are choking on their anger and their sorrow and their frustration, asking the Lord every day for mercy until God’s mercy prevails.  [*  Stan Mast, Calvin Seminary, Center for Excellence on Preaching]

To pray Psalm 123 is to practice the spiritual “power” of humility and trust in the face of evil, trusting our independent, autonomous, self-determined (sovereign) Lord to deliver every one of God’s beloved children.  In its brevity, Psalm 123 does not specify what God’s mercy means, but it implies trust that our Heavenly King will do the right thing at the right time.  Do note, however, Psalm 124, a prayer of thanksgiving, bears witness to God’s response to Psalm 123’s pleas for mercy.  This is not an accident or coincidence.  By the same token, the commentator I just referred to sees in Paul’s letter to the Colossians an outcome worthy of reflecting upon in response to Psalm 123:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.  For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

(Colossians 3:1-4)

When we’ve had it with the contempt of the world, where shall we find mercy?

When this world grows dark and more troubling, to whom and where shall we look?

James L. Mays offers in his conclusion to his commentary on this Psalm: “When pilgrims from the world’s contempt lift their eyes to behold the one who rules the world, they find the grace that overcomes the world.” †

Lift thine eyes to the sky, to the Lord enthroned in the heavens, whose love for us is beyond measure, whose love for us overcomes the darkness which preys upon our hope.

Psalm 123 is ripped from the headlines.

Psalm 123 is made for life in this world.

To pray Psalm 123 is to pray along with anyone and everyone who has ever suffered and endured more than we can stand.

 

 

†   James L. Mays, Psalms. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press (April 1, 1994), p. 396.

 

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Since Psalm 123 is so brief, here are a few different translations/versions:

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

A Song of Ascents.

To you I lift up my eyes,

O you who are enthroned in the heavens!

As the eyes of servants

look to the hand of their master,

as the eyes of a maid

to the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes look to the Lord our God,

until he has mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,

for we have had more than enough of contempt.

Our soul has had more than its fill

of the scorn of those who are at ease,

of the contempt of the proud.

 

 

Contemporary English Version (CEV)

(A song for worship.)

A Prayer for Mercy

Our Lord and our God,

I turn my eyes to you,

on your throne in heaven.

Servants look to their master,

but we will look to you,

until you have mercy on us.

Please have mercy, Lord!

We have been insulted

more than we can stand,

and we can’t take more abuse

from those proud,

conceited people.

 

New English Translation (NET Bible)

A song of ascents.

I look up toward you,

the one enthroned in heaven.

Look, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,

as the eyes of a female servant look to the hand of her mistress,

so my eyes will look to the Lord, our God, until he shows us favor.

Show us favor, O Lord, show us favor!

For we have had our fill of humiliation, and then some.

We have had our fill

of the taunts of the self-assured,

of the contempt of the proud.

 

Common English Bible (CEB)

A pilgrimage song.

I raise my eyes to you—

you who rule heaven.

Just as the eyes of servants attend to their masters’ hand,

just as the eyes of a female servant attends to her mistress’ hand—

that’s how our eyes attend to the Lord our God

until he has mercy on us.

Have mercy on us, Lord! Have mercy

because we’ve had more than enough shame.

We’ve had more than enough mockery from the self-confident,

more than enough shame from the proud.