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Waiting in the Darkness

The Psalms  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  43:01
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There are times in our lives when it feels like we are surrounded by darkness. In Psalm 88, the writer laments over the fact that he feels completely estranged from God. It is during these difficult times a deep trust in the Lord’s Providence sustains our hope.

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I have entitled this sermon, ‘Waiting in Darkness’ and I entitled it that because we are now in the advent season, which is a season marked by waiting as we anticipate the arrival of our saviour and I was reminded of the Prophet Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 9:2 about the reality of each of our lives before Christ came to redeem us:

Isaiah 9:2 ESV

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

And this picture of waiting in deep darkness is fitting for the psalm we are going to cover this morning and the topic it addresses. We are looking at Psalm 88 today, so if you have your bibles, you can turn there and we will read it together in a few moments.

But, I want to say first that this morning, the sermon I believe that needs to be preached from this psalm is one that I feel rather ill-equipped to tackle. I feel that I am speaking this morning without the years, the experiences, the difficulties and the losses that would be necessary to truly understand this psalm. And I want you to know I recognize that. I don’t speak as an expert on this subject save what I can glean from God’s word. I also recognize that maybe some of you in this room have experienced the type of darkness portrayed in psalm 88 and certainly there are many followers of Christ whom would say psalm 88 hits all to close to home. Personally, I have experienced loss, I have experienced some difficulty, but I have not experienced it anywhere near the level of what is portrayed in this psalm. And, I am of course, thankful for this all the while, I also understand the closeness with the Lord which can come from an experience such as the one portrayed in this psalm. So, knowing I feel I am ill-equipped, at least, experientially to preach this message this morning, I think it is fitting to share what I hope to achieve through it and why I preach it now at the beginning of the Christmas season, apart from the fact that psalm 88 is part of our reading plan this week.

So, what I hope to achieve. I desire for my words this morning, as I do every time I preach, to be from the Lord and I KNOW that in as much as they are from Him, He can use them to plant a seed in all of our hearts that at the right time can grow when it is needed to become a strong foundation that sustains us and roots us in a deep, unshakeable trust in the Lord’s providence. A trust that will remain come whatever may come in our lives. And, Why preach it now at the beginning of the Christmas season? Because I also know, for all of the joy and celebration of the Christmas season, which is good and right in Christ Jesus; the joy of this season, for many men and women is tempered by the reality of difficulty and loss. Loss of life, loss of relationship, loss of closeness; and as we grow older, for many, the wonder of Christmas that was felt as a child and a young person is replaced with the reminder of what was and what is no longer. The painful experiences of life have a tendency to dwell closer in our minds during this season and while such things can and do cause grief, they can also cause us to run to our saviour, to seek comfort in the one whose coming we celebrate this month.

If my desire is for us to be rooted in an unshakeable trust of God’s providence, we must first understand what is meant by the providence of God. Jesus gives us a glimpse of the heart of God’s providence in Matthew 10 when he speaks of the two sparrows:

Matthew 10:29–31 ESV

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Jesus sees the simple truth, that nothing happens to two little sparrows without our Heavenly Father’s knowledge and hand upon it, as something that should be deeply comforting to his people. To know, that nothing happens to the littlest, seemingly insignificant creature apart from our Fathers will gives confidence that we, who are of much more value; so much so, that Jesus came to die for us, can know that nothing happens to us apart from our Father’s orchestration, is deeply comforting becuase it means the one whom loves us, who is for us, from whom all good things come, has purpose in all of our situations. And for the human heart, knowing something has purpose is a great anchor of hope for our soul and strengthens our ability to walk it out. It is when we begin to question, begin to wonder, is there any point, is there any purpose, that our hope and strength begins to fail. The providence of God, is a great encouragement for the human heart, giving us assurance that everything matters.

The Heidelberg Catechism does well to define God’s providence, it reads, God’s providence is:

The almighty and everywhere present power of God, where, by his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth, with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand. That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love, since all creatures are so in his hand that without his will they can not so much as move.

The providence of God is related to God’s sovereignty, in fact, you might say God’s providence governs God’s sovereignty. The sovereignty of God refers to the fact that God has the right and the power to do whatever he wills to do; but providence puts meaning behind God’s sovereignty. It frames God’s sovereignty in His purposes and demonstrates that just because God has the right and the power to do whatever he wills; his sovereignty is meaningful, he is not a baker working without a recipe, fancifully throwing ingredients into a mixture to see what it produces; there is a reason behind every action or inaction, every silent moment and proclamation, every gift and every time something is withheld and it is all done to the completion of his purpose and plan which he has determined before the foundation of the earth. A purpose and plan, which is, as I will always remind us, first: For His Glory and then second, for our good. Today, our focus is on the second thing, that his providence is for our good. And I want to look at two verses that are foundational to the Hiedelberg Catechism’s definition of God’s providence. First, the catechism reads ‘all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.’ This reference to God’s fatherly hand is important becuase it reminds us of the position we hold with Him; a position of close relational intimacy. Jesus speaks of the fatherly hand of God in Matthew 7:9-11

Matthew 7:9–11 ESV

Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Jesus reminds us, if we, who are marred by sin, have a desire within us to give good things to our children. Which is a desire the vast majority of parents share; the naturally desire to give them good things, then how much more does our heavenly father, who is the perfect model of fatherhood, desire to give his children good gifts and along with the desire, has the power to do so.

James 1:17 ESV

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

James echo’s the same sentiment, every good gift and every perfect gift is from our Father. Now, if we have a shallow view of what this means, we will miss James’ point and in turn Jesus’ point in these verses. A shallow view is reading “good gift” and “good things” as solely the things in our life that bring us joy, pleasure and happiness: a raise, a good job, a new house etc..

We must frame our understanding of “every good gift and perfect gift” in the context of the verses around these words. Let’s read them:

James 1:12–13 ESV

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.

James 1:16 ESV

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.

James means for us to understand that painful experiences are as much a good and perfect gift from God as pleasurable ones because God’s love for you as a father is perfect, pure and true.

The second thing is this, in the last sentence of the Heidelberg definition, the catechism proclaims “no creature shall separate us from his love” which mimics Paul’s proclamation in Romans 8:

Romans 8:35–39 ESV

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If nothing can separate us from the love of God, then when affliction and painful experiences come, they must be wrapped up in the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the providene of God.

Now with that foundation, Let’s look at psalm 88 together:

Psalm 88 ESV

A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. To the choirmaster: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite. O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.

Walter Brueggerman, a bible commentator, wrote a paper while in seminary entitled, “Psalms and the Life of Faith”. In it, he classified the psalms through the lens of the writers relationship with God. He had three categories: First, are what he coined psalms of orientation where the psalmist is completely in tune with God, these are the joyous psalms marked by praise and thanskgiving. Second, are psalms of disorientation where the psalmist feels estranged from God; these are marked by lament, mourning and wavering faith.

Third are psalms of reorientation where the psalmist returns to being in tune with God, these are marked by repentance, hope and rejoicing.

Among the psalms of disorientation, Psalm 88 stands out as especially significant because it is the most extreme example amongst all of the 150 psalms recorded for us, of an individual who is thoroughly estranged from the Lord. There is an utter sense of hopelessness in Psalm 88 which at no point lessens. This is unique to psalm 88. The writers of the psalms tended to end even their deepest laments with a word of hope, a word of trust or a word praise in the Lord, having confidence that he would, in fact, deliver them from their plight, but this psalm is completely devoid of such things, it remains utterly dark and hopeless.

Because of this, Psalm 88 is often ignored by the church, what is there to learn from such hopelessness? But, it is God’s word and becuase of this fact alone, I believe we can learn much from it. I also believe, the hopelessness that is found within it can in fact, produce hope for the believer in Jesus. As Brueggerman says:

Psalm 88 stands as a mark of realism of biblical faith…there are situations in which easy, cheap talk of resolution must be avoided.

How I would say it is this: too many followers of Christ have given themselves over to quick nuggets of faith and cutesy one liners from popular speakers. They sound nice, they are easy to remember and they may even help you with surface issues in your life, but they will not and cannot produce the depth tof rust in the Lord that must be had to sustain you through the dark nights of the soul. One of the plagues of western Christianity is that in our relative comfort, we have produced a shallow version of Christianity which cannot sustain souls when we face real and sustained hardships.

Just this past week, we, along with followers of Christ from our area and around Ontario, maybe beyond, were praying for the recovery of young Jude, the son of a Pastor in Hamilton who was struck by a truck while crossing the road. Jude unfortunately succumbed to his injuries and is now with the Lord. The Stricklands began their week very similar to the rest of us and now, are staring into deep darkness. A cute one liner, cheap talk will not ease this sort of pain..

Psalm 88 starts well, in fact, verse one is the most positive verse of the entire psalm. The writer cries out to the ‘Lord, God of my salvation’. This is a cry of immense faith, the writer knows, the Lord Yahweh, is the one who saves and he turns to Him seeking salvation from his troubles. He then laments in verse one and two that he has been crying out to the Lord day and night, yet it seems like the Lord is not hearing his cries. He pleads with God “Let my prayer come before you, incline your ear to my cry”. Please God, listen to my words, hear me, respond to me. This is a cry of desperation.

He then tells the Lord why he needs Him to come to his rescue in verse 3, “my soul is full of troubles, my life draws near to Sheol”. Sheol is the most common word for death in the Old Testament, it is interchangeable with the word ‘grave’ and in the context of this psalm has no reference to the afterlife or hope of eternal life, the psalmist is just staring into the darkness of death. He feels his life is ending. I have no strength anymore, like one who is already dead in the grave, v5, ‘like those whom you remember no more.’ The psalmist is pleeding, God I feel like you have forgotten me completely, like i have been cut off from your hand.

In verse 6 he accuses God of being responsible for his plight, ‘you have put me in the depths of the pit’. he’s telling God, you have done this to me Lord, you have brought me this low, you have ignored my crys, you are the reason my life seems to be ending, v7, “i am overhwelmed by all your waves.”

I remember when I was a kid going to Wasaga Beach which is right on Georgian Bay, with my family. It was shortly after a storm and I remember the waves still to this day. I think they were the biggest waves I have swam in. And it was incredibly fun, I thought it was the greates thing, though I couldn’t wade very far out because they were so strong. I remember having to have perfect timing to play in them, to be perfectly in sync with their rise and fall. I had to jump over each wave, recover and jump again before the next one hit me. I’m sure you have all done this. That recovery time is key, to catch my breath for the next one. I remember on one wave, I came down and instead of recovering, my foot slipped and I wasn’t able to regain my footing before the next wave crashed into me. It hit me hard and knocked me back and down, I remember landing on my back, hitting the sand pretty hard, forced under the wave and swallowing water. Thankfully i was close to shore and able to recover my footing by the next one.

The writer of this psalm is unable to recover. He can’t get his footing as waves repeatedly crash into him and knock him around. He is trying to keep himself upright, orient himself so he knows which way is up in order to reach air to breath before the next wave crashes and sends him reeling again but without success.

He feels utterly alone in his plight, ‘you have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them.’

Verse 9 is heartbreaking: ‘every day I cry to you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you.’, when read in light of the verses that follow up to verse 12, the picture of the psalmists thoughts are clear. In the verses that follow, he speaks of how the dead are unable to praise God, there is nothing but darkness in the “land of oblivion” he says. He’s clutching here, to a last glimmer of hope that maybe the Lord will have regard for him because if he dies the Lord won’t be able to receive his praise becuase the dead can’t praise the Lord. Lord, keep me alive so I can yet praise you.

In verse 13 again he reminds the Lord he is constantly crying out to him and it is God who is not responding: ‘in the morning my prayer comes before you’, ‘why do you hide your face from me?’

As the psalmist brings his lament to a close in verse 15-18, he recounts the major themes in the previous verses. He has suffered for a very long time, “from my youth”, he is completely surrounded by affliction and sees no way out, “i am helpless, your wrath has swept over me, surrounded me like a flood, they close in on me..”, he is exhausted, “your dreadful assaults destroy me”, and he has no close friends to help ‘you have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me’, it is him and God, he has no other recourse.

So, what can we learn from this psalm? What hope is there to be had in such hopelessness?

First, it shows that our relationship with the Lord can be sustained in the midst of the worst circumstances.

Faith ultimately triumphs in this psalm because the psalmist, does not stop praying to “The Lord, the God who is able to save him”. He perseveres in his petitioning of the Lord throughout (v1, v9, v13) and remembers that through all he has gone through, God is still God. Unfortunately, for some individuals, the greatest difficulties dethrone God in their life, but this psalmist shows in the darkest of circumstances, God still reigns.

Second, it shows that immense grief and pain are normal experiences for the follower of Christ, even to the point at times of experiencing depression and we are free to share our greatest frustrations with God in the midst of it all. As followers of Christ, we are undergirded always by joy, joy that comes from Christ himself, but there are times when that joy seems far removed just as the Lord seemed far removed from the psalmist. There are times when desperation and sorrow are our closest companions. Despair in a time of waiting can be very real. I have shared before the despair that was felt in our home wanting and trying and waiting for five years for the Lord to allow us to have another child. This pslam reminds us that such feelings are normal and we can cry out to God with all of our frustrations in the midst of them. The psalmist did not hold back his feelings accusing the Lord several times, “You have made me’, ‘you have done this’, you have caused’

Third, in the darkest of circumstances, trust that God’s hand of providence is over us sustains us. As I said earlier, purpose is a great anchor for the human soul. Knowing there is a reason for every circumstance helps to keep us grounded, focused and able to hope in the outcome of even the most painful situations.

In this psalm, there is no indication of God’s displeasure toward the palmist as a reason for the psalmists suffering. One commentator reflected on psalm 88 saying, “The happy ending of the psalms of this kind (psalms of lament) is seen to be a bonus, not a due”

Last, and of most importance, may this psalm remind us, we have a great high priest who is able to sympathize with us in every way. Jesus understands the depth of sorrow the psalmist is feeling. In fact, in verse 8, the psalmist laments:

Psalm 88:8 ESV

You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

In Luke 23, when Jesus had endured much of the darkness he would endure as a man; he had been betrayed, beaten, mocked, whipped, had a crown of thorns pressed into his skull, nails driven through his wrists and feet, slowly losing life as he gasped for breath on the cross, an unspeakable horror; and Luke tells us:

Luke 23:49 ESV

And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.

Just as the psalmist lost his companions, Jesus’ companions stood at a distance, terrified to be associated with him, they remained far away, not standing with him at his moment of greatest need. Jesus understands the depths of our sorrow. But, I would go so far as to say, Jesus understands sorrow beyond what we will ever know, because unlike the psalmist, unlike any situation a true follower of Christ will find themselves in, Jesus was, at least for a moment, forsaken by God. As the wrath of our sin lay fully upon his shoulders, his Father turned from him and he cried out: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” While staring into the darkness of what he had gone through and the darkness of what was still to come as he faced death, he experienced a depth of sorrow that we will never know because he took our forsakenness and he bore it himself so we would never know the pain of being completely forsaken by God. God had not turned from the psalmist and becuase of Jesus, even in our darkest times, he has not and will not turn from us. “I will never leave you or forsake you”.

I don’t know what some of you have faced or may face, maybe right now, you are in your own distress, the psalm is so general we can plug our own situation into it and along with the psalmist, pray and wrestle and seek God and not grow weary and if you are not facing such a situation, may the Lord grow your trust in his providence so that if and when you find yourself in such distresses, you may face it with full confidence in him.

I leave you with a story:

We are about to sing together, the well-known hymn, “It is well with my soul”. When you hear this hymn of trust in the Lord, which was written by Horatio Spafford, if you don’t know the story behind it, it would be easy to assume Spafford was un-acquainted with the hardships of life. In reality though, Spafford was intimately acquainted with deep sorrow when he wrote this hymn.

In 1871 Spafford lost his four year old son to Scarlett Fever. Then later in the same year, the great Chicago Fire occured, which devastated much of the city of Chicago and destroyed Spafford’s business. He was an attorney and real estate investor and lost a fortune in the fire. After wading through such major losses, Spafford felt a vacation would be a help to his family, to regroup and reorient themselves. He sent his wife, Anna, and three daughters on a ship to England, planning to join them after he completed some pressing business. While in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, their ship was in a devestating collision and sunk. More than 200 people died in the incident, including Spaffords four daughters. His wife, Anna, survived the tragedy and upon reaching England, sent word to Spafford that she alone had been saved.

Horatio immediately set sail for England to be with his wife. At one point in the journey, the captain of the ship Horatio was sailing on, summoned him and informed him they were now passing over the very spot where his four daughters had drowned.

As he thought about the extent of his loss, words of comfort and hope filled his mind and he wrote them down: “When peace like a river, attendeth my way; When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, though hast taught me to know; it is well, it is well with my soul”

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