Praying from the Depths

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It’s wonderful to be on this side of the worship service; I’m usually on that side. You notice things. First of all, the women really belt it out louder than the men, I’m sorry to tell you that, guys, but the women are outdoing us on that front of things. I also noticed, do you know there is a fire extinguisher underneath this pulpit? [laughter] I hope nothing happens because I don’t know how to use it. I’m thinking Bernie might be able to spring into action if, [laughter] if something goes down.

Christ Covenant has always had a reputation of really loving and caring for its pastors, going all the way back to my time at RTS Charlotte from 2000 to 2004. I would hear about that and for the last two months, Michelle and I and my family, we’ve been able to experience that. It’s been wonderful to be here. We’re getting to know the young families’ community and that’s been a privilege and it’s been a joy, and you have definitely lived up to that reputation of supporting and loving your pastors well. We feel that and we feel the joy of that, so I just want to warmly commend this congregation for your support of your pastors.

When Pastor Kevin asked me to preach on this date, I accepted with fear and with trembling. Reminded me of the time that I made the varsity basketball team when I was only in seventh grade. I went to a private Christian school, don’t get too excited, it was a small school, so making the varsity team in seventh grade was a minor accomplishment, but I was very proud of that accomplishment, and of course I rode the bench, I sat at the edge of the bench, and didn’t get to play. About halfway through the season, I think my coach got tired of watching me be so antsy on the edge of my seat and he finally said “Derek, get in the game.” I almost ran by the scorers’ table and didn’t check in, I was so excited, but I managed to do that correctly and I got in the game and there was in inbound play underneath the goal, and I promptly took the ball and scored for the other team. [laughter] My proudest moment became my most humiliating moment. Now, maybe that’s okay if you’re 6, 7, and 8, but I was in seventh grade. You know, that critical middle school time. Cheerleaders were there, okay? Parents, family, fans, all watched this happen, and I vowed never to share that story with anyone who was not there on that night and now I’m telling all of you. So, if y’all can keep it between us, that’d be great.

All that’s to say this feels a little bit like getting into the varsity game, and I hope you don’t leave here this morning counting this sermon as a point for the other team. [laughter]

We are going to be preaching from Psalm 130 this morning. You can go ahead and take your pew Bibles. If you don’t have a Bible, feel free to take that one and take it home with you. It’s our gift to you. Psalm 130.

Since moving to Charlotte, I’ve used Siri quite a bit more often in navigating the city. And there’s been no small measure of frustration in using Siri, because Siri has guided me to roads that no longer exist and intersections that are not there. We all know that sinking feeling, maybe you know it, of pulling up, maybe in front of a field, there’s no building, there’s no anything, and you hear Siri say “arrived.” [laughter]

Well, I want to tell you about another guide this morning, and that is the Psalms. The Psalms are uniquely situated to guide us to a valuable intersection in the life of faith. And that is the intersection of who God is with where you are. Who God is with where you are currently, right now. Through praise and affirmation, lament, confession, even desperation, the Psalms not only tell us where to go, but they take our hand, as it were, and guide us to the intersection between God’s character and our circumstances. I think that’s why we are so drawn to the Psalms.

Psalm 130 is part of what is called the Psalms or songs of assent, you could find them in chapters 120 through 134. The people of Israel would sing these Psalms three times annually as they would journey to festivals, and they would sing them up the hill to the holy temple of God. These Psalms became songs for their life. They got into their bones. They memorized them. They were part of their physical journey, but they also marked the interior journey of the life of God’s people. As a penitential psalm, Psalm 130 leads God’s people to an essential intersection in our lives, and that is the intersection of repentance.

Martin Luther famously said in his 95 theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said repent, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Now that is striking. The entire life of believers. It is striking because Luther says that repentance was not intended to be a one-time action. It has a definite starting point, but Luther says repentance is to be for the people of God a continual pathway, all of life. So there is never really a time where we put repentance in the past tense. And maybe you’re here this morning and you made a profession of faith and you might say you repented, and that would be true. Or maybe you’re a Covenant child and you went through Communicants class and you got to the end, made a profession of faith, became a full communing member and you repented, and that would be true. But it’s not as though we take repentance and put it into our hip pocket and we’re done with it. That is only the beginning, that your life and that my life should be one of continual repentance.

But how do we walk down that road? How do we walk the road of repentance?

Psalm 130 tells the people of God how to turn to God. How God’s mercy meets us in our deepest needs. So come with me and let’s journey together down that path of repentance this morning. And as we journey, let’s note three things: Where repentance begins, where repentance ascends, and then where repentance ends. Where repentance begins, where repentance ascends, and where repentance ends.

Let’s read from Psalm 130, verse 1 through 8. Hear the Word of the Lord: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy. If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness, that You may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His Word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning, more than the watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is steadfast love and with Him is plentiful redemption, and He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”

Let us pray. Father in heaven, we come to You now and pray that Your Word would go forth into our hearts, that it might find a place to find root and to grow. We pray that Your Word would be declared, that You would give us minds and souls to be open and to receive it and to respond in repentance we pray, in Christ’s name. Amen.

In the first few verses, our psalmist takes us by the hand and guides us into the sea. It begins with “out of the depths.” He finds himself in a deep gulf, and this Hebrew word here for “depths” is said to be a place of extreme danger, whether of body or mind. And this word many times in the Bible is associated with being at the bottom of the sea.

Have you ever been to the bottom of the sea? Perhaps you’ve seen National Geographic explorers where they descend to the bottom of the ocean and they say there is a lot about the ocean they’ve yet to really find out, and they’re still researching. Well, the bottom of the sea, it’s dark, it’s lifeless, only primitive life forms can live there.

I remember a friend of mine invited me to go scuba diving and he hooked me up and he took me down. As we began to descend, I felt the pressure from the water coming in on my head and it felt like my eyeballs were about to pop out of my head, and I had to ascend really quickly.

And today when we think of the sea, we often don’t think of danger, but we think of vacation, right? We usually think of being at the beach, a seaside resort, you know, where your kids are frolicking in the ocean and they’re doing so quietly and peacefully, and they’re allowing you to sit and read books and take long naps and all of those things. That’s how the Wells’ vacations go. [laughter]

We usually don’t think of the danger of the sea. But the sea was very frightful in Hebrew culture. It was a place that you went and many times to die. You can think of the Great Flood that wiped out the population of the earth, or the Egyptian army being wiped out as they attempted to cross the Red Sea. It was a place you went to die. Death by water. This is what we see here.

Our psalmist begins by taking us to the sea to see a picture of a drowning man. Now that doesn’t seem like a very optimistic view of the Christian life, it doesn’t seem like a very optimistic view of repentance. Repentance begins with drowning?

But this picture poses a really important question, and that is this: Does God hear drowning men? Is He there at the bottom of the sea? We also note in this picture of a drowning man that it’s a prayer, it’s a prayer. It’s not a strong prayer, it’s weak, it’s a cry, it’s a confession. I’m in the depths. He tells God exactly where he is.

Now before we pass by this intersection as just some incidental detail, let’s stop and think about that. When Adam and Eve fell in the garden, God went looking for them. And He asked them a penetrating question, and the penetrating question was “where are you?” Where are you? Now God knew full well where they were, but what was He doing in asking that question? He was drawing them out of hiding. And that’s the first question that God poses to us. It’s the first question that He poses to us in terms of repentance. When He calls us to repentance, He asks “where are you?”

There are two kinds of people in the world today. There are people who avoid that question, and there are people who answer that question. Where are you? It’s very easy to avoid that question in our day and time because we can fill our lives with distractions.

As one Christian writer puts it in talking about how technology should really give us more time, it should give us more time for contemplation and meditation, here’s what he says: “Why doesn’t everyone enjoy the leisurely, vacation-y lifestyle of the ancient rich? Why have we killed time instead of saving it?” And here’s what he says: “We want to complexify our lives. We don’t have to; we want to. We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very things that we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great, gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified. Because that hole is so big that only God can fill it.”

Being in the ministry, you often go to hospitals. I’ll tell you the most depressing thing about going to a hospital. It’s not sickness and it’s not death; it’s televisions. Televisions. Thinking of someone just drifting off, spending their last moments in diversion. Diversion is possible on every turn, and we can distract ourselves and never really tell God where we really are. That’s one way.

Another way that we can do that is something that I call “iceberg confessions.” Iceberg confessions, you know, where you tell someone only the tip of the iceberg, but really there’s a huge block underneath that no one can see, right?

I remember the experience of just learning what it was like to be married to an accountant. My wife is a CPA and about six months into our marriage, we had dinner and she made this cake, so we had dinner and a piece of cake and cleaned up dinner and she went in the back to take a shower, and she left me alone with the cake. [laughter] So I thought, “wow, she’s back there, I can maybe steal a second piece,” and so I looked around the corner, she’s not coming out anytime soon, and I opened the cake up and I took the knife and I cut it really carefully, put it on the plate, ate it really fast, cleaned off the plate, put it in the dishwasher, and then went in the bedroom. She got out of the shower and I saw her walk back into the kitchen, and she wasn’t in the kitchen for three seconds and I heard her say “did you get into this cake again?” [laughter] And I thought what did she do? Did she measure the cake? Is that… She said “I can tell, there’s crumbs everywhere.” You know, I thought I was really careful and I said “well, yeah, yeah, I had a sliver, I had a sliver.” Right? There is great elasticity in that word “sliver” right there, [laughter] you know? Just a sliver of cake. It’s an iceberg confession. Confessing to her a half-truth but not the whole truth.

Iceberg confessions to God. You know, “I kind of, sort of, struggle with anger. I kind of, sort of struggle with control. I kind of, sort of struggle with lust,” or something else. I never get to the bottom of it, I never make a full confession, I never actually tell God where I really am.

But this tells us something about repentance and that the people of God are people who do not avoid that question “where are you?” but they answer that question. The people of God are people who tell God exactly where we are.

We answered that first question of repentance.

Look at verse 2. The psalmist cries to God in verse 2. He says “let Your ears be attentive to my cry.” The psalmist begins not only with our honesty, but this question, is God there? Is He in the depths? Can He hear us? And there’s a glimmer of faith in this cry. The psalmist is crying out in the midst of this darkness, and it must be because he believes that even though he can’t see God, God can hear him. And if God can hear him, then He must be nearby. God must be in the depths of the sea.

There’s a well-worn line in Christian literature: “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. And in this psalm, we begin to encounter the sea not merely as a place of death, but as a place where our desperation meets God’s invitation. Sea, a place where our desperation meets God’s invitation.

Why is the psalmist in the sea? Why is he there? How did he get there? Surely, the psalmist is crying out to God because of perhaps some natural disaster, some calamity, something that has befallen him that’s not his fault. What’s causing his problem? What’s the nature of his darkness and his depth?

Look at verse 3. He says “if You, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” We learn the root of the psalmist’s cry here, what’s at the bottom of it. And we might suppose that God would have mercy if he’s suffered some unfortunate accident, or if he is a victim. But that’s the nature of his problem. The problem is his iniquity, the problem is his guilt, the problem is his sin.

And so we respond to that first question of repentance, “Where are you?” not with just telling God where we are, but telling God where we are in relation to our sin. Has it engulfed you? Does it have hold of you? Where are you? The psalmist confesses his guilt to God. And note this: He is not a victim, he is an offender. He’s not a victim, he’s an offender. The chaos that surrounds him is his own sin. Humanly speaking, we might say that God’s compassion is only stirred for us when we’re victims. And we can look and see people who are victims and have our own compassion stirred for them, but such is the nature of God’s love that His compassion is stirred not only for victims, but for offenders.

This is Paul’s logic in Romans chapter 5, verses 7 and 8, where he says very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. The psalmist leads us to the depth of the sea, to the intersection of honesty and the chaos of our sin, to meet someone else. And that is where repentance ascends.

Point number two, where repentance ascends. Our psalmist does not stay in the sea. He’s not looking at himself. He doesn’t stay there staying at his sins. This teaches us something about repentance. Repentance is not morbid introspection. It’s not self-flagellation. It’s not self-loathing. No, the psalmist, what does he do? He lifts his head. How does he lift his head? He goes from confessing where he is to who God is. He goes from confessing where he is to who God is. He says if you are a God who marks iniquities, in the picture of God with a ledger and a permanent marker, or we might say God with a cellphone.

You know, cellphones have changed our world in a number of ways, but one of the main ways it has done so is with that little word “record,” right? Something happens in the mall or some public place, what’s the first thing people do now? Cellphone comes out and they’re recording. Your kid gets in a fight with a sibling, they come down the stairs, and they no longer tell you what they did, but they more or less say “look at what they did, look at what they did. You see? You want me to play it again? They’re guilty.” You see it over and over again. Think about that, you’re guilt can be displayed before the world over and over again, and we might be tempted to think of God as one who is like one who would pull out the cellphone, but the psalmist says that is not what God is like. He is not a record keeper.

Notice he appeals to God on the basis not of his merit, but on the basis of God’s mercy. He does something really important here and that is the psalmist joins honesty with God’s mercy. The psalmist joins honesty with God’s mercy, and that is what true repentance does. Why is not morbid introspection? Why is it not self-flagellation? Why are we not miserable people as the people of God? And when we say that word “repentance” and say repentance is all of life, there’s probably some of you who hear nothing but morbid introspection in that, and that’s the last thing you want to hear in terms of what the Christian life is all about. It’s about repentance? I have to turn from my sin and turn to God? Where’s the joy in that? The psalmist is honest with God. He joins honesty with God’s mercy, that’s that repentance is. The sea has a key to God’s mercy.

Look at verse 4. He says “but with You there is forgiveness, that You may be feared.” Again, the psalmist confesses where he is but he’s not fixated on where he is. He begins to confess God’s mercy and God’s grace, which manifests itself through forgiveness and pardon. He says “with You there is forgiveness.” His hope is not in his merit, but it’s in the merciful action of God Himself. With You there is forgiveness that you may be feared, or some translators would have it “so that we can reverence You and serve You.” The psalmist here combines two things that are seemingly antithetical, and that is forgiveness and fear. And it poses a question: Is this the servile fear of the sea? What kind of fear is he talking about here?

When I was a kid, I really enjoyed kicking field goals in the front yard and I had this tee and football and everything, it was a beautiful thing, and I’d go out there in the afternoon and would often just kick the ball around for hours and one time I set up the ball on the tee and I mean I really nailed it. I nailed it right down the center and the ball just sailed, I mean it sailed right through the living room window. I thought “uh-oh,” and I waited for my dad to get home. And I showed it to him and, uh, I apologized, he could tell I was sorry, and much to both of my older sisters’ dismay, he showed me mercy. I mean, they were rubbing their hands together waiting for me to get it, but he didn’t give it to me. He showed me mercy. And you know what I did, though? I walked around for a few days after that aware, aware that I was guilty but also aware that I was shown mercy. And there was a kind of reverence and awe in that. I was grateful, and I was careful. And that is what it means to experience God’s mercy and grace in our lives. God’s grace and mercy, it gives rise to reverence. It gives rise to awe. This is not servile fear of the sea, no, this is filial fear. He’s walking in relationship with his God.

And what is the psalmist doing here as he’s leading us and guiding us in repentance? The psalmist is leading us from the depth of his cry through the intersection of honesty and the chaos of our own sin to the intersection of forgiveness and reverence. He’s leading us from the depth of the sea to the depth of God. That’s the pathway of repentance.

Look at what it says in verses 5 and 6: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His Word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning, more than the watchmen for the morning.” He leads us to another critical intersection in repentance and that is waiting.

One of the challenges of marriage is whether you are a time-oriented person or a task-oriented person and, and you know what I mean. If you’re a time-oriented person and you marry a task-oriented person, how challenging that is. And if you’re a time-oriented person like me, I know some of you, some of this morning, were sitting in the car, looking at your watch, waiting, what is this task-oriented person doing inside? What could they possibly be doing, you know? And we spend our time waiting. And I can tell you what they were doing—they were doing all the things that we skipped over in order to be on time, right? It’s a challenge, one of the challenges of marriage. We don’t like waiting.

But a repentant life is a waiting life. Waiting on God might cause pain, it might be a trial that you are in and you are wondering when is God going to take this away? When is God going to step into that gap? This trial is a gap. And I’m waiting for God’s presence to fill that gap. Or maybe a struggle with sin, you’ve got a thorn in the flesh, you’re waiting for God to take that away. It doesn’t seem like a good thing to do, to wait on God. The psalmist doesn’t seem to be in a good place, but let me suggest to you that he’s exactly in the place that God wants him to be. Why? Because his head is now lifted.

Notice what he is doing. He is looking for the Lord. He’s not looking at the sea, he’s not looking at himself, he’s looking for his God. And it’s in this passage through the mercy of God and the forgiveness of God and the reverence for God, that he is now out of the darkness of the sea and he can look and he can see.

There is a transformation that’s happened here. The transformation that’s come through forgiveness. He is now completely preoccupied with God. His sins have been swallowed up in the merciful character of God. And so he says more than the watchmen in the morning, I’m looking for Him. It’s a poetic element here, it’s repeated twice for emphasis, to describe the disposition of his waiting.

The watchmen here is probably an allusion to the watchmen of the temple. The watchmen of the temple would have been well-versed in the redemptive history of the nation of Israel. They had specific duties, and namely to be specifically guarding things, diligently guarding things at night, waiting. Waiting for what? Waiting for the drama of redemption to play out with God’s people, as they gathered in the morning and would come to worship and sacrifice.

And keep this in mind. It’s often in this time of waiting that there is this transformation, waiting at night, where darkness turns into light, and the depths of the sea turns into the expanse of the morning. This transformation occurs. What’s going to fill the gap? What’s going to fill the gap for you and me, between our cry and God coming and meeting our need? And just like these watchmen, what’s going to fill that gap is the character of God. Detransformation can happen in that waiting period. You know, go to the doctor’s office. You probably spend more time in the waiting room than with the doctor himself, right? You can learn a lot in the waiting room—they have TVs there now and tell you all about your sickness and all of those things. That can be a time where you really do absorb a lot of information. The time spiritually of waiting in a repentant life, waiting on God to step in that gap. What do we do in that period? We begin like these temple watchmen to rehearse God’s salvation. We begin to roll it over in our minds. And it’s the character of God that fills that gap and gives us that elasticity to wait and to be transformed while we do so, where repentance ascends.

And finally in conclusion, let’s turn to where repentance ends. Look at verse 7. “O Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is steadfast love. With Him is plentiful redemption.” Our psalmist now takes a final turn to the people of God and He gives them this imperative: Hope in the Lord. Why hope in the Lord? He says “for with Him there is steadfast love.” And that Hebrew word there is the word “hesed.” It speaks of God’s faithful character, of God’s faithful love, of God’s activity on behalf of His people throughout history. It speaks of God’s loyalty. And it calls the nation of Israel to anchor their hope. Where are we going to anchor our hope? Not merely by looking forward, but by looking backward as well, over God’s redemptive acts and His character. And He calls them to turn to the riches of God’s Word.

In turning to Israel, the psalmist anticipates that God’s people will find themselves in the sea. This penitential prayer is ultimately for the people of God to remind themselves of God’s saving activity, to lead them in repentance by hope.

And look at verse 8. He says “and He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” And here we see the promise of redemption, for He will redeem or ransom you. What’s God going to ransom His people from? What’s he going to redeem you and me from? He’s going to redeem us from the sea of our guilt, from all of our iniquities, and for many of us, our lives could be marked by the darkness and the guilt of our own sins. Our lives could be marked by death, the sea of our sin.

And you might be here this morning and you might say “you know, if I’m honest with God, the reason I don’t want to be honest with God is because all I see is the sea. I’m engulfed. I can’t get out. Can He hear me? Can He redeem me?” And the answer is yes. We see, we see that in the saving character of God, which finds its fulfillment in Christ. Note that the psalmist’s hope, his expectation, was vindicated in Christ.

Ephesians 1:7 says “in Him we have redemption, through His blood the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.”

Psalm 130 is a prayer of repentance and as such, as a penitential prayer for the people of God, it’s a prayer of transformation. It’s for the people of God on their spiritual pilgrimage. Provides a key, a passage for you and for me, where repentance begins, where it ascends, and where it ends. Where does it end? It ends where the story of your life, and my life, is not engulfed in the sea of sin and death, but in the story of forgiveness and redemption. That is why we should take that pathway. Where does the life of repentance end?

Revelation 21:1 says “then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”

Let us pray. Father in heaven, we thank You that we can be a repentant people , an honest people, and a joyful people. Because we can join where we are, where we truly are, with Your mercy. And we can see in Your saving character the pathway that we should go. It grows our faith, that strengthens our heart, to follow You more deeply. And so Lord we pray for that path of repentance. It would be a well-trodden path for Your people here at Christ Covenant that we would walk down it with gladness and joy and hope because You are our God and You are the One who hears us when we cry. And we pray that in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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