Her living room was filled with shadows. The shades were pulled, the curtains were drawn, and no light had entered the room, even though the sun was shining outdoors. There was a solitary lamp on the table with the dim glow of a forty-watt bulb. It's the only light in a room filled with shadows. She looked up and said, "When will I feel better?"
Can you imagine who she is? I haven't told you anything else about her. Is she bearing a long illness, perhaps recovering from surgery? Perhaps that is why there is little light in the room.
Is she a widow, surrounded by empty tissue boxes, still in the numbness of grief? Maybe it's five months after the funeral and everybody else has gone back to their normal lives, and life for her will never be normal again.
Or is she someone who carries a burden that no one ever sees. The son who moved away at seventeen is now in jail, or the daughter has fallen again into thirty days of rehab, or her best friend betrayed her in broad daylight, or some embarrassment puts her on the headlines. It is hard for her to leave the shadows. She wants to know, "When will I feel better?"
The sermon today is for her, because the Psalm is for her. Psalm 30 is filled with joy, but as we get into it, we learn it is hard-earned joy. This ancient poem knows about the reality of trouble, and it doesn't settle on what kind of trouble it is.
The ancient poet mentions some unnamed enemies. We don't know who they are. There is a cry for help and a declaration of physical healing, leading the editor of our English Bible to add the line, "Recovery from a Grave Illness." The poet says, "I was on the verge of death," sharing some worry about falling into The Pit, a euphemism for "Sheol," the resting place of the dead. There is also mention of "sackcloth." the ancient garb for those who were contending with humiliation or grief.
So, what's going on here? The same thing that happens in a lot of the Psalms. The specific details have been sanded away. We have a poem that rings true for anybody who knows how it feels to be in trouble. Woven within each line is the hope that someday life will be better.
Nobody needs to tell us what it's like to fall into the Pit. The Psalmist knows, and so do the rest of us. This ancient poem is a good reminder for all of us that, on any given Sunday morning, we don't know the full story of those sitting around us. They might have climbed out of wreckage to get to worship that day. Thank God they are with us.
The promise of the psalm is that life can be restored, that souls can be lifted up, that healing is possible and enemies will not finally rejoice. It will take a while for anyone to complete that emotional journey, but we do make our way through. And this is the work of God. It is God who heals, God who lifts. Mourning (with a 'u') will lead to morning, the dawn of a new day.
When trouble draws close, it is hard to believe that. For the poet who composed this psalm, it felt like God was angry. He wonders, "Am I being punished? Did I do something wrong?" Is this the kind of God we have, a God who inflicts pain on us?
The questions are real, the emotions are raw, and we have our questions, too. Do we belong to God, yes or no? Where is God, anyway? Sometimes the life of faith feels like a game of Holy Hide-and-Seek, and God is nowhere in sight.
But this is where the poet of Psalm 30 gives us a lesson in good Jewish prayer. He says, "You know, God, you won't get any benefit if I go down to the Pit. If I go back to the dust, that dust will never praise you. The dirt will not be able to tell of your reliability." (30:8-10)
Do you hear what he's saying? He is lifting a line from Father Abraham, "Will you wipe out a sinful city if you can find fifty good people there? Ok, how about forty? All right, then, thirty...twenty, or ten? Come on, Lord, you can't wipe out a few good people if you find them." (Genesis 18:23-33) Now, this is a daring prayer!
Or there's that great Jewish prayer from Moses. God sees the Israelites made a golden calf to worship, and God is so angry there is fire snorting out of the divine nostrils. God threatens to wipe them out until Moses says, "Wait a second, Lord. You are the God who brought your own people out of slavery in Egypt. If you wipe them out now, what will the Egyptians say? They'll say, 'Their own God stole our labor force, only to wipe them out in the mountains.' You can't do that, God. You have a reputation to maintain." (Exodus 32:11-14)
I think this might be a pretty good way to pray. We could say, "God, you went to the trouble to get me baptized, and tell everybody that I belong to you. Do you really think it's a good idea to heap a lot of trouble on me and leave me in despair? Come on, Lord, come and help me." Did you ever imagine we could pray like that? That's how the psalm teaches us to pray.
There is no reason to remain stuck in the shadows when we have a God who separated the light from the darkness. There is no reason to be insulated or isolated when we need God to help. As for those of us who have been carried through the desert on grace, we should tell the stories of how we came through to the other side.
As somebody said about a support group that helped him, "It has been a safe place to talk honestly about my struggles, hear how others have gotten through them, and pursue the grace and courage to begin over again. If the church is not going to be like that, you have to wonder what the big deal is about it."[i]
The second beatitude of Jesus goes like this: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." (Matthew 5:4) That sounds like his commentary on Psalm 30. He doesn't say how it's going to happen, nor does he say how long it's going to take. Yet the promise lingers.
The Psalmist says, "I cried to you for help and you have healed me." The poet who writes those words is testifying to the saving love of God. He or she does not say how long it took or how it happened, only that it's true. For those of us who still wait in the shadows, here is the promise of our own personal Easter. It is true, and it is ahead of us. And some of us know this to be true, and some of us are anticipating what God promises to do. And we certainly don't want God to waste all the time and effort that God has already invested in us!
In December 1988, the world almost lost Dave Brubeck. Yes, that Dave Brubeck, the world-famous jazz musician. He was having a series of heart episodes and under the care of a cardiologist named Lawrence Cohen. Dave kept putting off bypass surgery because of his concert schedule, but the delay was not doing him any favors. Finally, Dr. Cohen ordered him to a hospital in Connecticut.
The night before the surgery, Dr. Cohen stopped in to see his world-famous patient. It was 10:30 at night, and the cardiologist walked in to discover Brubeck with music manuscript paper scattered all over his bed. He was writing a piece of music because he couldn't sleep.
Dr. Cohen said, "What are you doing? It's the night before your surgery!" Dave looked up and said, "I'm writing out one of your psalms. What can you do, Lord? Can the dust praise Thee if you put me down in the pit? And joy will come in the morning.'" Psalm 30.
The next day, the surgery went well, and months later, Dave took Dr. Cohen to the premiere of the piece. It was a large-scale composition for choir and orchestra called, "Joy Comes in the Morning." Brubeck dedicated the piece to his cardiologist. And at one point in the performance, Brubeck began to smirk. Suddenly Dr. Cohen realized why - Dave had created a bass line for the piece from a transcription of his own irregular heartbeat. Right in the middle of the performance, both of them laughed out loud.[ii]
Laughter is possible - do you believe that? Joy can come - do you believe it? Yes. Our God is an Easter God. God will lift our souls from Sheol and turn our mourning into a fresh new day.
Let us pray.
Holy God, be gracious to us and come along side of us to help. Lift us from the dust and the ashes and into the light of your eternal presence. This we ask now and forever. Amen.
[i] Paraphrased from Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary (new York: Harper and Row, 1988) 4-5.
[ii] From a personal conversation, October 2000. Also reported to Hedrick Smith, http://www.pbs.org/brubeck/theMusic/brubeckRediscovers.htm