Anxious Lament

Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 18:55 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 36 isn’t quite a lament like the others we’ve considered, where the psalmist is in the middle of some distressing circumstance and pouring out his complaint to God. This is more like a lament out of anxiety, and if people have felt one emotion more than any other in the past year, it might be anxiety. What’s going to happen? How great is the danger? Am I in danger? Are those I love in danger? How can we keep ourselves and others safe? A question becomes a worry becomes anxiety, and threatens to overwhelm our thoughts and words and actions. The anxiety feels like a band of tight stress that runs from one shoulder to the other, weighing us down.

In Psalm 36, the anxiety is based in the first four verses, but the psalmist doesn’t really come out and say that he is anxious about the wicked and the evil-doer. The lament is indirect, lying under the surface. And sometimes that’s how it is. If the psalmist starts to focus on the wicked, he might get pulled into deep water of anxiety that can come from considering those who do not fear God at all. Isn’t that part of many people’s anxiety today, maybe part of yours? That the tides of belief are turning and who knows how things are going to be in the future—maybe even the near future?

And maybe it’s not with society as a whole, although there’s certainly enough about which to be anxious. Maybe it’s your own health, or something in your family that’s stirring up the anxiety in you. Or maybe it is the possibility that you’ve used up all God’s love or forgiveness; that God has run out of patience with you, as you have with yourself. For any of those reasons, anxiety can run toward despair: who can do anything? I can’t escape. Who can keep the evil from taking over? They mull over their transgression in their hearts; they meditate on it when they’re lying on their beds. They do not reject evil; they walk on the evil road. There is no thought of God’s judgment and the terror that might invoke in a sinner; all they see, instead, is their own self-justification.

The “flattery” of verse 2 is the deceptive and smooth talk by which they convince themselves and others of their own rightness. The one whom the psalmist describes is the one for whom everything he says is right simply because it seems right in his own eyes; the one for whom everything she does is right because it seems like the right thing to do. Whether or not they speak of God, they have domesticated God and put him, or it, in their pockets, so that their god becomes simply their own personal affirmations of themselves.

If the psalmist were to focus on those who do not fear or believe in God, his anxiety might begin to spike. If the psalmist were to focus on the things that are outside his control, he might dip downward into despair. So instead he focuses on the One who is outside everyone’s control. He puts His anxiety into the hands of the God whose name is steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice. The God outside whom there is nothing, because He is the God who made all things. He alone does His will from the highest heavens to the deepest abyss. Even the one who thinks God does not see and God does not judge and God will not make things right—even that one cannot escape this God, cannot go where this God is not.

There is only one constant and unfailing source of life and joy: God Himself. With You is the fountain of life, the fresh and pure and crystal clear water that bubbles up in the midst of a dry and arid wilderness. The psalmist prays, “Prolong, continue—stretch out—Your steadfast love to those who know You, and Your righteousness to the right of heart!” And of course God will do nothing else. He is the source of life, and He wraps Himself in human flesh to bring that living water to us, who are dying of thirst. The Light of the world puts everything in its true light and disperses the darkness tinged with anxiety. Those who cherish evil in their hearts and those who meditate on words of deception will lie fallen, unable to raise themselves up. And yet, even they may find themselves fallen on the edge of the river, given living water by the God they had rejected, tasting and seeing, finally, that God is good.

Psalm 36 doesn’t quite move to lament, but you can feel it, in the margins, around the edges. The wickedness that threatens to overwhelm us is out there, and it is in here, as well. On those edges, in those margins, is where anxiety dwells. But the psalmist turns away from the words of deception, turns away from the way that is not good, and looks to the God who is life and light. He looks to the One who let the foot of arrogance and the hand of the wicked come against Him, in order to put the Evil One and all sin and death into the ground forever, unable to rise. Instead, He rose up in God’s eternal life. It is from the abundance of His house that we drink and are more than satisfied, like the wedding guests in Cana. The river of His delights flows straight from heaven to earth, and it is that river that bubbles up in springs along our road. “’The fountain of life’ symbolizes the sense of joy in surviving day by day” (Terrien, The Psalms, 316). To us, searching among the dry and polluted springs of anxiety, He gives us from the spring of the water of life, freely and without payment. Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! When you are weary and anxious, gather under the shadow of His wings, protected from all things, so that even when you die, you will live.

With Him is the spring of the water of life, so with Him we will lodge our anxieties in the midst of death. “Lord Jesus, think on me, by anxious thoughts oppressed; let me Your loving servant be and taste Your promised rest. Lord Jesus, think on me amid the battle’s strife; in all my pain and misery, O be my health and life! Lord Jesus, think on me nor let me go astray; through darkness and perplexity point out Your chosen way” (LSB 610:2-4). “All praise to You, O Christ, for love whose depth and height, whose length and breadth fill time and space with endless light and life!” (LSB 535:5).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/10/21

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