“Promises, promises. All we get are promises.” Abram and Sarai received a promise, a magnificent promise. Not that there weren’t strings attached. God tells Abram (now Abraham, “father of multitudes”) to “be blameless” and he’ll be blessed. A slightly tall order. And as for Sarai, now Sarah (“princess”), certainly it was a woman’s greatest blessing in that day and age to bear a son, but when you’re upwards of ninety there are a number of physical concerns you just might have. In the end they do have a son, though before and after that there are quite a few ups and downs, mostly downs, and Abraham is anything but blameless in his behavior. But God makes do, and the blessing passes through Isaac on down to all of us. We are the heirs of the promise, as Paul says.
Still, it was a long time coming for Abraham and Sarah. Genesis is very specific about the stages: Abram was 75 years old when God called him and Sarai to leave their home in Haran and journey to the land of Canaan, the land of promise. He was 86 when Ishmael, his son by Hagar, was born. Now he’s 99, and of course Sarah is not far behind, if at all. Twenty-four years this couple have waited for God’s promise to be fulfilled. And yet, though they have tried a couple of ways to make it happen by their own initiative, and failed, they have retained their hope in God’s promise. They have remained faithful, which is why Paul calls Abraham our “father in faith.”
“No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” That statement in Paul’s letter could serve as a synopsis of Psalm 22, part of which we read today, all of which we will read on Maundy Thursday, as we strip the altar, and again on Good Friday at the communion service.
Psalm 22 is one of the most familiar of all the psalms, and it deserves to be. Its dramatic sweep, from lament and outcry to God to triumphant rejoicing, tells the story of every life lived in faith. Not by chance was it the psalm Jesus prayed on the cross—if his strength failed him before he prayed it all out loud, his utterance of the first verse stood for the whole prayer. It tells the story of unyielding trust in God, even through suffering, even through questioning, even when it seems that nothing can go right ever again. The part we read today is the thanksgiving song that closes the psalm. This is the point at which we, like Abraham, can “be strong in our faith as we give glory to God,” for God is enthroned on our praises, as the psalm says earlier. We are lifted out of mire and misery by our hope in God, and God in turn is exalted by our praise.
Jewish tradition associates Psalm 22 with the feast of Purim, the celebration of Queen Esther’s rescue of her people from the murderous plots of Haman when they were in exile. Esther is pictured praying it as she passes through her husband, the king’s, chapel full of idols. It also reflects the practice of the toda, a Jewish custom we infer from the Old Testament, in which someone who has been delivered from danger or suffering brings a sacrifice to the Temple and then shares the sacrificial meal with friends while reciting the story of his or her rescue and calling on all those present to praise God. A witty Jew has summarized the whole of Jewish history and religion as: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” That’s Psalm 22 for you.
Whether Jesus was able to gasp out the whole psalm on the cross or not, the gospel writers made sure that we picture the entire scene in terms of Psalm 22: Jesus crying out to God and receiving no answer (vv. 1-2); “all who see me laugh me to scorn; they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying, ‘He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him’” (vv. 7-8). Those are the taunts Jesus must endure. Matthew echoes them: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to,” say the passersby. “They pierce my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones” (v. 16) is echoed in the descriptions of the crucifixion and in John’s gospel. The next verse, “they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing,” furnishes still another scene in Mark and Matthew. Finally, some say that when, in John’s gospel, the one we will read on Good Friday, Jesus bows his head at the end and says “it is finished,” he is really praying the last line of Psalm 22: “he [God] has done it.”
That is the crucifixion scene, the focus of our Lent. But the second part, the part we read today, is our Easter song, anticipated already as we think today, in the first two readings, about God’s promises. This part calls us back from our isolation, our individual misery, our sense of loneliness and abandonment. It summons us together to praise God, no matter what, because our God is faithful, no matter what. This is what we were born and baptized to do!
And not alone; no, never alone. Loneliness and isolation and abandonment are abolished by Psalm 22. “From you comes my praise in the great congregation.” From you? You’d expect “to you.” But yes, “from you,” because nothing we do is wholly our own, individually or as a group. Our lives are sacraments, which means that every good thing we do is wholly our own doing, and at the same time it is wholly God’s doing. Our rejoicing in God and God’s rejoicing in us are all one—and all done in the company of each other.
Nor is what we do on Sunday, March 4, in the year 2012 of the common era, in Underhill, Vermont, in a cold corner of North America, on a smallish blue planet on the fringe of the Milky Way, simply an isolated event in time and space and human history. “For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations”—and the planets and the spheres. “To him shall all who sleep in the earth bow down . . . and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.” Past, present, and future, all generations of humanity will hear and see and rejoice in God’s doing because of what we do here today.
My friend and Doktorvater has written some searching questions in response to Psalm 22: “Are Christians aware of the history within which they stand? Do our parishes have a living history with God? Where are our assemblies in which God’s deeds are told, and in such a way that the result is a living community? Isn’t there too much discrepancy between the texts of the Bible and the church’s reality?” And yet what a comfort it should be to us to know that we have these texts, that we can read them and live in and with them—always aware that they contain dynamite.
When we live this way, together, for God, we can be sure that God will become more and more visible in the world, that even though Jesus’ promise of the cross for his followers will be fulfilled in us, so, and even more powerfully, God’s deliverance will come for us and for our suffering world. That is my wish and my prayer for you, people of Calvary, as you continue your journey through Lent to Easter.
© Linda M. Maloney
March 4, 2012