Sermon given in Lenten Service, 7:00 p.m. April 3, 2019 at Centreville Presbyterian Church, Centreville, Virginia.
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Good evening. Welcome to the CPC Lenten series on the Hallel Psalms. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. Since graduating from seminary in 2013, I have been a Christian author and volunteer in Hispanic ministry.
This evening we focus on Psalm 116, a thanksgiving psalm that celebrates our personal salvation in the midst of a dangerous world.
Let’s begin with prayer.
All praise and honor are yours, because you hear our prayers, comfort us in our afflictions, and rescue us from death itself.
We confess that we are unworthy of your affections and we thank you for teaching us to love.
Draw us now to yourself. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts, illumine our minds, and strengthen our hands in your service. In Jesus precious name, Amen.
What brings you joy? (2X)
In 2012 I worked at Providence Hospital as a chaplain intern and requested assignment to the Alzheimer’s unit in Carroll Manor. There I met a man who I will call Albert.
Albert spent his days wandering up and down the halls in the lock-down unit. Albert would come up to you and attempt to talk, but could only blather incoherently, which disturbed him greatly. Other patients could talk; Albert could only blather.
One Friday afternoon, I recruited some patients to attend Happy Hour. Happy Hour was mostly a punch and cookie affair, but they often invited musicians to entertain the guests.
So being the trouble-maker that I am, I recruited about a dozen patients, including Albert, and headed for the door. As I punched us out, a nurse ran up to me.
Steve, Steve. Where are you going?
We’re going to Happy Hour.
But you can only take three patients.
So, I recruited several reluctant nurses and headed again towards the door.
Again, the nurse approached me. Wait a minute—you can’t take Albert. He will wander off.
I will keep a special eye on Albert!
So finally, with my dozen patients and the reluctant nurses I took the elevator up to Happy Hour.
Well, we had a blast. The jazz saxophonist playing that afternoon was just wonderful. My patients all got up and started dancing to the music, including Albert. Alzheimer’s patients, unlike other seniors, always have fun because they have forgotten what it means to be shy and embarrassed.
Before we were done, Albert had danced with at least three different women and he came back to the unit speaking in complete sentences. (2X) His awakening lasted another six weeks that I know about. His joy at hearing Jazz music again healed him of his former blathering, which I took as a bonified miracle. IT REALLY WAS A MIRACLE.
Well, if a little joy can bring the absent-minded Alzheimer’s patient back to earth, how much more can the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ change human lives, our lives?
What brings joy to our psalmist this evening?
The first four verses of Psalm 116 tell his story—
I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. 2Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. 3The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 4Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!” (Slide 1)
Verse one here explains his joy—“I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” Actually, English translations insert the word, LORD, which does not appear in the original Hebrew or in the Septuagint Greek. The Hebrew simply reads: I have loved because he has heard my voice…We hear an echo of the original Hebrew in John’s first letter: “We love because he first loved us.”(1 John 4:19)
Moving on to verse two, the psalmist reiterates the importance of being heard and takes a vow: “Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.” This vow is interesting because if you pray or sing this psalm, as is the custom, you also repeat this vow.
How many of us haven’t repeated this vow? I certainly have. My call story began back in 1992 when I cried out to the Lord in Georgetown University hospital over my ten-week-old son, Reza, as he waited for risky emergency surgery for a blocked kidney. God heard my prayer. The surgery succeeded; today my son works as an engineer in Phoenix and here I am as a testimony to answered prayer.
Why is listening so important to the psalmist? Verse three reiterates the answer three times: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” In other words,death had surrounded me; hell had opened its doors to pull me in; and I was terrified. The repetition assures us that the psalmist’s vow in verse two is not to be taken lightly.
Verse four then closes the loop by returning to the second half of verse one. Verse one talks of “pleas for mercy, while verse four cites the psalmist’s actual prayer: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”
So what brings joy to the psalmist? The Lord rescued him from death. Commentators believe Psalm 116 is a crib notes version of Psalm 18 where King David recounts his own brush with death. Even more bone-crushing details can be found in 2 Samuel 22.
Let me pivot at this point to reflect on the backstory to Psalm 116. In this respect, let me draw your attention to the pattern in Psalm 116 that relates to the promise of Moses in Deuteronomy 30.
Hear the word of the Lord:
“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.”(Deut. 30:1-3) (Slide 2)
This passage in Deuteronomy is known as the Deuteronomic cycle. The cycle can be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed. This cycle appears repeatedly in the Book of Judges.
Probably the most familiar example in Judges is the story of Gideon. The cycle starts with sin and the resulting curse. In Judges 6:1 we read:
“The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.”(Jdg 6:1) (Slide 3)
After being persecuted by the Midianites, the people cry out to the Lord in verse 6 and the Lord sends an angel to call on Gideon, who is busy hiding wheat from the Midianites in a winepress (verse 11).
Gideon then assembles an elite team of three hundred men to fight against the army of the Midianites described as too numerous to number, like locusts ravaging the land. Responding to a vision in a dream, this team woke the Midianites in the middle of the night with trumpets and torches (2X). Frightened in the night, the Midianites began slaughtering each other in the dark (Jdg 7:22).
In this manner, the Lord freed the Israelite people from the oppression of the Midianites and brought them the joy of salvation.
Interestingly, the Deuteronomic cycle usually applies to the Nation of Israel as a whole and brought salvation from oppression. Following the pattern established in Psalm 18, however, Psalm 116 applies salvation to the individual rather than to the nation (2X).
Note that the Deuteronomic cycle starts with the commission of sin—the curses of Deuteronomy are a consequence of disobeying the Mosaic covenant.Thus, the cycle can once again be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed.
Our redemption in Christ follows this same pattern. We sin; we get into trouble; we ask for forgiveness; Christ offers us redemption.
The key to understanding this parallel is to see sin as a form of oppression (2X). We all experience besetting sins—addictions small and great–that we cannot shake on our own. If gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, it is also a besetting sin that can destroy our self-esteem, ruin our health, and undermine our relationships. Just like the Midianites oppressed Israel, we can be oppressed by besetting sins and we need to cry out to the Lord for our forgiveness and salvation.
Thus, Psalm 116’s personalized the Deuteronomic cycle and directly anticipated the New Testament and our salvation in Christ. In fact, if Jesus and the disciples sang Psalm 116 after the Last Supper, they took this very same vow and, in the resurrection, Jesus experienced God’s deliverance, as the Apostle Paul described in his letter to the Colossians:
“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”(Col. 1:18-19)
What brings you joy?
Thank you for listening to us, forgiving our sin, rescuing us in perilous times, and bringing joy to our lives. Be with us now as we return to our homes and daily work. In Jesus’ precious name. Amen.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Review)
Groseclose, Win. 2015. The Egyptian Hallel Psalms: An Exposition of Psalms 113-118—Observations: Practical, Exegetical, and Theological. New Sewickley Township, PA (Review)
Tucker, W. Dennis Jr. and Jamie A. Grant. 2018. The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
While in the Old Testament salvation focused on the Exodus from Egypt, in the Testament salvation focused on the return of the exiles from Babylon. Judea was a Babylonian vassal nation that had rebelled so the New Testament focus on salvation from the sin of rebellion, which was an analogy to the original sin in Genesis where Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s rule by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In the New Testament, the only citation of Psalm 116 appears in a context of persecution in 2 Corinthians 4:13.
Other ways to connect:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.
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