Today is our last Sunday in Advent as we move toward Christmas Day next week. Advent refers to those four weeks leading up to Christmas as we rehearse the first coming of the Son of God. While we don’t necessarily participate in the entire church calendar year, we pause for Advent to capture this sense of longing and expectation and waiting that we’re all automatically living out in these days.
If you ask most children what they like about Christmas, it’s the gifts, right? Presents. And so every year, a lot of us set up a Christmas tree somewhere in our home, and a little at a time, gifts start accumulating under the tree. There starts to be a palpable anticipation for them. But it’s usually not just a tree, it’s candles, lights, greenery, and all those sorts of things too.
Personally, I am of the opinion that if you have a Christmas tree and gifts and lights and decorations up in your home and you are listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, that’s totally fine, you’re free to do that – you just shouldn’t be allowed to vote. You can’t be trusted.
For others of you, it’s not the presents you anticipate as much as maybe the family coming to visit, or you traveling to see them. You live in different states or whatever, and it’s at Christmas every year that everyone gets together and shares stories and late night talks and you get to hug your parents… and as the calendar churns closer to Christmas, the anticipation picks up… Picking up food, making sleeping arrangements, coordinating meal times, etc. For others of you, maybe it’s the time off. You’ve been at the grindstone since Labor Day, and between Christmas and New Years, you’re ready for a couple days off to just kick back and relax for a bit.
And, of course, in a fallen world, some of you anticipate Christmas, not with joy but with some sorrow. You anticipate arguing. Distance. Silence. Maybe it’s because sin has been allowed to have its way in your family or because someone isn’t there that should be. Or someone passed away this year, and you anticipate grief. If that’s you – your Heavenly Father wants you to know that you are seen and heard and loved, even in the deepest of your grief. How do I know that? How can I be so confident?
Look at the title of Psalm 102
A prayer of a suffering person who is weak and pours out his lament before the Lord.
The whole reason we talk about Advent at all, this season of waiting, longing, expectation, is because we all face suffering and weakness and sorrow. Maybe you’re not suffering right now, and that’s awesome! Praise God for that. But chances are, for all of us, that at some point we will face suffering, and instead of instinctively giving thanks to God, we’re calling out for answers or for help.
- A prayer of a suffering person who is weak – this prayer is PERFECT for when you don’t know what to pray, or how to pray, or if you’re even praying for the right thing.
- Before we have even looked at one verse of this, It’s like God is already saying to you … I KNOW. I know you’re weak. I’m not asking you to be strong. It’s perfectly human for you to be weak.
- It’s like God is saying to us: I’m not asking you to pull yourself up and form words that are brilliant and have all the right motives behind them…You don’t even have to think about what to say – I’m going to give you the words to pray.
- Pours out his lament before the Lord –
- If you are feeling the weight of the world on you today, this Psalm is God’s way of saying: I’m here. You have my attention. I’m listening.
- Pour out the lament. Don’t hold anything back. There is no need to change the wording to make your prayer sound more spiritual, don’t wrap it up in…just go all the way to the bottom of how you really feel – and if you don’t feel comfortable saying what you really think, here, I’ll write the prayer for you.
If that was the only thing you read about God today, what does that tell you about how he thinks of you? What is he saying to you right now here in his Word? What is God’s heart for those who are suffering?
Let’s listen in on this prayer:
1 Lord, hear my prayer; let my cry for help come before you. 2 Do not hide your face from me in my day of trouble. Listen closely to me; answer me quickly when I call. 3 For my days vanish like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. 4 My heart is suffering, withered like grass; I even forget to eat my food. 5 Because of the sound of my groaning, my flesh sticks to my bones. 6 I am like an eagle owl, like a little owl among the ruins. 7 I stay awake; I am like a solitary bird on a roof. 8 My enemies taunt me all day long; they ridicule and use my name as a curse. 9 I eat ashes like bread and mingle my drinks with tears 10 because of your indignation and wrath; for you have picked me up and thrown me aside. 11 My days are like a lengthening shadow, and I wither away like grass.
Do you feel that? This is a prayer from the gut. The author of Psalm 102 is not thinking about the theological accuracy of what he’s saying – he’s just being honest. Look at all of that “unspiritual” language that God gives you permission to say:
- V2 - it feels like you’re hiding from me, Lord. Like when I need you the most, you’re not listening.
- V4 - My heart is suffering; I’ve got no appetite and I’m physically feeling it.
- V6 - I’m all alone. Feels like there is wreckage everywhere. Everyone else is sleeping and resting…not me. I’m wide awake, watching, listening.
- V10 - It feels like you have angrily picked me up and chucked me to the side.
- V11 - I don’t know how much longer I’ll last.
Here in this Psalm, God gives us permission to be human, not just on the surface where we say nice and true things about God, but all the way down in the depths of our souls where we wonder if God really does love us at all; all the way down in the depths where it feels like he is tossing us aside like old milk. Psalm 102 says God is even there. All the way at the bottom of your exhaustion, your exasperation, all the way at the bottom where all of your scripture memorization and coffee cup cliches about “I know the plans I have for you” run out and it’s just you and your sorrow.
God is present even there. And he’s not afraid of what you’ll say. There is nothing you can say to him there that will make him recoil in shock and turn his back.
How can I be so sure? (Gently) Because he wanted Psalm 102 to be in the Bible! He gives you the words to say to him, even when you’re afraid to say what you really think or feel.
After studying this passage this week, Psalm 102 is another reason why when someone says “God never gives you more than you can handle” it makes my skin crawl. 1 Cor 10:13 says “No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity. But God is faithful; he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to bear it.”
In other words, every time you are tempted to say something, look at something, think something, or do something that is not in line with God’s will or his ways, there is a God-ordained way out.
- It might be a power button: Shut your phone off.
- It might be your own two legs: Walk out of the situation.
- It might be a verse that comes to mind.
- Or a friend that walks up at just the right time.
- Or the fact that your mouth has the ability to close and not say any more words.
When it comes to temptation, God has promised there is always an escape hatch; always a backdoor to run out.
But when it comes to suffering, God makes no such promise. When it comes to sorrow and anguish, God does not promise that there is a back door escape or an override button. Staples has the easy button – following Jesus does not.
Some of you who love Jesus have suffered miscarriages. Some who love Jesus have experienced cancer, either in yourself or in a loved one. Some have sat by the grave of family and friends. King David would say God gave him more than he could handle as he was being hunted like a deer by his own son. The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:8 says … we were completely overwhelmed – beyond our strength – so that we even despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.
That sounds an awful lot like Psalm 102:10-11, doesn’t it? “We felt like God was done with us, and we weren’t sure how much longer we would last.”
And Church, listen to what God is telling us here in this Psalm: When you feel like you have been given too much to handle, you don’t have to talk yourself into any sort of hidden strength. You don’t have to act as if you have some sort of superpower to handle hard things. God doesn’t need you to be strong. At the very, very bottom of your weakness, where you don’t think you can take another step, you can read God’s very own words back to him – It feels like you have thrown me aside.
Maybe you’ve felt that way personally. Maybe you feel that way looking around our country or our world. God I feel like I’m the one awake right now. Is anyone else seeing what’s happening? Is anyone else awake to the seriousness of this? I feel like an owl at midnight. I’m up watching for you to do something, and no one else seems to really care.
Whether you are praying this prayer for yourself or for your country or the world in general, what is the first step out of the pit of despair? When you’re at the bottom of yourself, what is the first thing God wants you to know? Remember, he wrote this prayer for you. So he lets you go all the way to the depths. Then he starts bringing you out. So what words does God put in our mouths to turn us toward hope:
12 But you, Lord, are enthroned forever; your fame endures to all generations. 13 You will rise up and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favor to her—the appointed time has come. 14 For your servants take delight in its stones and favor its dust. 15 Then the nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory, 16 for the Lord will rebuild Zion; he will appear in his glory. 17 He will pay attention to the prayer of the destitute and will not despise their prayer.
The first step out of that pit of despair is to remember who God is. He is eternal, he is the forever King. The first step out is to remember who God is.
Jesus followed suit on this when he taught his disciples to pray. He said, start like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed is your name. Hallowed. Sacred. Set apart. Honored. Adored is your name; your character; your actions; your purposes; your plans; everything about you LORD is to be honored and adored.
It’s not that God needs us to tell him who he is, he already knows. He hasn’t forgotten. But praying like this is to help us remember who he is. He is our Father. Attentive. Interested. Loving.
[Look for kids first] I think some people view prayer like taking your kids to see Santa at the mall. You let your kids sit on the lap of a stranger, and tell him what they want for Christmas. And yet there you stand there taking pictures of your kids sitting with someone who is absolutely powerless to do anything about what your kids have asked them for. At the end of his shift, he goes home and forgets everything and everyone he just talked to. It’s an elaborate ruse and the only one who isn’t in on it is the 6 year old pouring out her heart to him for 2 minutes.
And yet there are so many who are approaching God that way. They say their prayers because their parents taught them to, but sometimes they imagine God is just acting interested for a couple minutes (Oh, okay, oh, oh oh…”) and then he gets up, drops the list on the table, and gets back to running the universe the way he wants to, with no intention of actually listening to you or doing anything you asked for. Or worse, that he hears your requests, but he’s powerless to do anything about it.
But that’s not what this says! Verse 13 says God will have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favor to her… Compassion is not something cold and unmovable. Compassion is something that comes from the heart – it’s the result of a heart that has already been moved. Favor is the same word as grace!
Not only is God interested in you, God’s heart is stirred for his people – he cannot help but act! That’s the promise: God will rebuild Zion (Zion refers to the place where the temple is, where his presence is) which means he’ll appear in glory, he’ll pay attention to prayers. Those are not the actions of a mall Santa – they are the actions of a FATHER!!!
I think that’s why God has to write this prayer for us. He puts these words in the mouth of a suffering person who is weak because we tend to forget that God’s heart burns with love and compassion and tenderness and mercy for his children…and always has!! Yes God loves justice and he won’t let the guilty go unpunished, but that is not at the core of his heart.
Yes God is sovereign and his will ultimately plays out in the universe, but Jesus came as a baby in a manger to show us that before he is a sovereign Creator, before he is King or Lord… Yahweh is our Father.
For eternity past he has existed in an overflowing and undiluted outpouring of love for his Son Jesus, and then he decided to create a world full of humanity and send his Son to us, so that Jesus could outpour that same love and compassion and grace and glory onto us!
The first step out of despair is to remember who God is. And if somehow you’re still thinking, that’s cute, but this doesn’t mean apply me, look at verse 18: This will be written for a later generation, and a people who have not yet been created will praise the Lord: 19 He looked down from his holy heights—the Lord gazed out from heaven to earth—20 to hear a prisoner’s groaning, to set free those condemned to die, 21 so that they might declare the name of the Lord in Zion and his praise in Jerusalem 22 when peoples and kingdoms are assembled to serve the Lord.
A later generation: That’s you and me! God is still giving us a voice in our lowest moments, reminding us that he is eternal and that his heart for us is one of compassion and mercy and action…this was written for you and me, because we need to know that anything God was, he still is! In fact, anything he was, HE WILL STILL BE for our children and their children and their children. God will never stop being what he always was. He still hears the groans of someone who is suffering; he still sets free those who are condemned to die because of their sin.
And so here’s the author’s summary: 23 He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. 24 I say, “My God, do not take me in the middle of my life! Your years continue through all generations. 25 Long ago you established the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 26 They will perish, but you will endure; all of them will wear out like clothing. You will change them like a garment, and they will pass away. 27 But you are the same, and your years will never end. 28 Your servants’ children will dwell securely, and their offspring will be established before you.”
You can feel the tension there, can’t you? That’s the tension of Advent. The tension of waiting/longing/expectation. God, my life is so short, but yours is eternal. God my strength is broken, but you established the earth. You have shortened my days, but yours will continue through all generations.
Even the earth will pass away at one point. Even if all the incredible things God created wear out and fade away – the resort beaches we enjoy, the snow-covered mountains, the waterfalls and gentle rivers, the fields of flowers and corn and wheat, the skies with beautifully painted sunsets and crazy storm clouds, the sun in all of its power, the galaxies of billions and billions of stars that are unfathomable – even if all of it should wear out one day, God you are the same, and your years will never end. We will live securely, established before you.
That’s the hope we can have from the places of the deepest suffering and weakness. The human author of this Psalm didn’t see how it would all pan out, but the Father did. His own Son, God incarnate, would also read this Psalm. Jesus would have grown up learning and praying the Psalms too, including this one.
In fact the author of Hebrews, in chapter 1, quotes Psalm 102:25-27 and says it is talking about Jesus! That Jesus is eternal, that He is Lord, that he is the one who established the earth and the heavens, and that one day though the heavens and the earth will all wear out, Jesus is eternal too!
And the mystery and the amazement of the Lord’s Supper or communion is that the eternal Son of God entered into the first part of Psalm 102 as well as the last. He not only knew the glories of heaven, in the undiluted holiness and perfection of love from the Father, he also knew the depth of sorrow and grief and suffering, a Man (Isaiah writes) of Sorrows, well acquainted with grief. One who carried our sorrows and sicknesses.
That’s the reason God invites us to pray from the depths. Because he’s been there himself.
So today as we participate in Communion, this is not our commitment to God that we will do better at waiting, do better at praying, do better at believing – this is a symbol of God’s commitment to us, that the eternal Son of God, who established the earth and the heavens, whose years will never end, is not a mall Santa. He is a God of compassion and grace, a God who doesn’t simply tolerate you, but loved you enough to give his life for you so that you would know the love of the Father.