Sermon: To Share Our Pain ~Psalm 22
Back in the 1960s, Japanese Roman Catholic novelist, Shusaku Endo, told the world a profound story in his book, Silence, set during the Japanese persecution of Christians in the 17th century. At the climax of the story, Father Rodrigues, a Jesuit missionary from Portugal, is in the hands of the Japanese government. He is paraded past several Japanese Christians hanging upside-down in a pit, their faces surrounded by excrement. He is told they will be released if he will only step on an image of Christ. As he stands and stares at the plain image of Jesus nailed to a cross, he ponders the choice he is about to make, to give up his soul for the lives of several Japanese Christians. As he stares, a voice speaks from the image: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
While meditating on this Psalm, I thought of that scene. In Psalm 22, God invites us to give voice to our pain and despair because He can handle it. For this reason, He was born into this world. It was to share our pain that He carried His cross.
The heading of our Psalm identifies this prayer with David. While it does not tell us the Psalm’s exact occasion, it is not hard to picture David on the run for his life, pinned down on all sides. He could be on the run from the paranoid King Saul. It could be his lifelong enemies, the Philistines. Or it could even be his son, Absalom, seeking to claim his father’s throne. As we read this Psalm, I picture the David of 1 Samuel 24, wandering the Desert of En Gedi, trying to stay one step ahead of King Saul. He huddles in the back of a deep cave, with several of his men. They had seen movement in the distance and are waiting, waiting, waiting. It isn’t long before their lookout makes his way down into the cave.
“It’s him,” he says. “David, it’s Saul. And he’s here with a large company of men. I make out about 3,000. Our 600 don’t stand a chance.”
“Let’s just wait it out in here and hope they pass,” David replies.
“What was that?” one of the men whispers, referring to a sound from the other end of the cave.
Another lookout soon appears. “David, it’s Saul. He’s at the mouth of the cave. And that's the only exit.”
And David, overwhelmed, moves to a place by himself and begins to pray to God:
“My God, my God, where are you?! Why have you forsaken me? Why have you left me just when I needed you most? I have been asking for your help, and here I am, high and dry. You came through for our fathers and mothers. Remember how you led them out of slavery in Egypt when they cried out to you? You listened to them. You came through for them. Why not do the same for me? You’re the one that brought me into this world. You knit me together in my mother’s womb and delivered me safely into her arms. You protected my young life and preserved my health. I have had to rely on you since the very day I was born. So don’t be far now when I need you the most. I have no one else here to help me. I’m outnumbered and flanked on all sides. I am already so tired, so weak. My body is sore and my strength is spent. I am so thirsty I can’t feel my tongue or my lips. My hands can’t wield a weapon. My feet can’t carry me any further. I haven’t eaten for days. I have wasted away and can count my bones through my starved frame. My enemies know how close I am to dying. They are betting on who gets to keep my clothes when this is all over. God, don’t be far away! Get here quick! Take me out of this mess! I don’t have any other hope right now! Please, please, don’t leave me. Please, don’t forsake me.”
While thinking about this prayer, I, along with the rest of the world, was transfixed as flames engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. This Cathedral has withstood its share of enemies over its 800-year history: the Albigensian Crusade that covered France for 20 years in the Middle Ages, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror with its rejection of Catholic authority, the wars of Napoleon, the desecrations of two World Wars. Yet within a few hours, this bastion of comfort and hope for generations of French Christians and Christians worldwide was soon surrounded by flames. I too watched in horror as, in a matter of minutes, the iconic spire, pointing towards the blue Parisian sky, normally surrounded by bronze statues of the twelve Apostles, but now surrounded and flanked on all sides by fire and smoke, tilted and tumbled to the ground. As I saw this bastion of comfort and hope for generations of Christians fall, I thought of David’s words: “You came through for our fathers and mothers. You listened to them. You came through for them. Why not do the same now? My God, my God, where are you?!”
We might have never faced the enemies David had, arrows on the bowstring, their swords drawn, yet I know that each person here also understands the prayer of the Psalmist, on days far more ordinary than the destruction of an ancient monument to God’s glory.
“My God, my God, where are you?! Today, the doctor told me my cholesterol, blood pressure, and sugar are all too high. ‘You’re at high risk for a heart attack. You need to start watching what you eat. Cut out the fast food. Go join a gym and lose 50 pounds. Here are three new prescriptions for you. Do exactly what I say, or you won’t live another year.’ I am surrounded. I’m outnumbered and flanked on all sides.”
“My God, my God, where are you?! I made vows, promises to love and cherish my spouse till death do us part. We’ve tried to be faithful, to work it out, but here we are in a lawyer’s office. It seems nothing I’ve done in our marriage has been good enough. I’m outnumbered and flanked on all sides.”
“My God, my God, where are you?! I have poured sweat and tears into this company, but it hasn’t been enough. No matter what I’ve done, no matter how many extra hours I’ve put in, the numbers are lower each quarter. And now here I am, out of a job. I have a family to provide for, a mortgage to pay, medical bills to cover. I have no idea how long it’ll take me to find a job. How will we make it until then? I’m outnumbered and flanked on all sides.”
For David, fleeing from King Saul did not last forever, nor was it the end of him. Years later, David stands as king in his city in Jerusalem. God has delivered him from the hand of King Saul and has given him the kingship. Now, David brings the Ark of the Covenant into the capital. As God’s presence enter’s David’s city, he cannot help but dance and sing for joy before God.
“You have rescued me. I will tell my brothers and sisters, my friends and neighbors. I will tell all Israel, even as they worship, that you have come through for me and saved me. I will sing and shout and praise your name when we gather to worship at the Temple.”
He then turns to his fellow Israelites. “Everyone, gather round and listen! Praise God! Glorify Him! Gaze at Him in wonder. He did not ignore me or not leave me alone in the dust. No, he showed up! He listened to my cries as parents listen to the cries of their children. He turned towards me and paid attention to my groans.”
He then turns back to God. “You gave me something to praise you about. You showed me your power and your love. You showed me why you deserve praise. You will turn every anguished cry into praise for who you are. Your reputation will not just stay in Israel. All the nations will hear about who you are and what you have done and they will turn towards you. Even those who are far away now will worship you.
“God is the one who reigns. Not my enemies, not the kings of the nations. God sits on the throne and has dominion over all peoples. All will bow before you. Even the dead in their graves won’t be able to keep from praising you. Your acts will be retold and even our distant children will know what you have done. Not me, not the nations, not Israel, but you! You have accomplished the salvation of your child. And they will hear your story and praise you for all time.”
As flames continued to engulf the Notre Dame Cathedral into the night, crowds of Parisians stood outside, oddly enough, singing. While I do not know what their beautiful French cadences meant, the faith of these men and women, kneeling, singing, and praying, needs no translation. How can these men and women continue to have such sure faith as their house of worship crumbles before them? Inside, as the beams burned, candles lit in prayer continued to burn as well, reminding us that there is still a God listening.
But the God this Psalm is addressed to and those prayers at Notre Dame were directed towards does not merely listen to this Psalm. He has prayed it Himself. Jesus, the Son of God, bruised, tired, bloodied, hanging from a cross, surrounded by Roman soldiers and religious leaders all out for His blood, outnumbered and flanked on all sides, raises His swollen eyes to heaven and cries out: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, where are you?! Why have you forsaken me?”
The God Psalm 22 is addressed to takes the brokenness of our world seriously enough to step down into it Himself. He does not shy away from it but cries out too. He enters fully into our pain and takes it on Himself. For those Parisian Christians singing, it was Holy Week. They were preparing to remember this moment that God takes on all that is broken, evil, and decaying onto Himself. And He wins. He rises again victorious over all that is broken in this world. We can only sing: “You have done it! Not me, not the nations, not the Church, but you! You have accomplished the salvation of your child. They will hear your story and praise you for all time.”
The answer to the question: “My God, my God, where are you?!” is simply, “I’m right here.” We might not immediately know exactly what He is doing. We might not be able to immediately explain how He works it out, but in His death and resurrection, He is redeeming our pain and brokenness. He is taking our cries of agony and making them His own so that we might be known and loved by the Father. Uncomfortable news from the doctor reminds us of our mortality, but God holds our lives in His hand and will raise us with Jesus at the last day. When loving relationships don’t last the way we expect them to, the love of God will never let us go. When we find ourselves unable to provide, God gives us this day our daily bread.
Brothers and sisters, God is on our side and He has entered into the suffering of this world to share our pain. He can handle it and He will transform it with the Resurrection power of Jesus. It was to share our pain that He carried His cross. As we come to Him in prayer, broken and needy people, He opens His arms, to take our cries of agony as His own and to redeem them in light of His death and resurrection.