Monday, December 12, 2011

Unanswered Questions

Psalm 89 begins with the words of a cheery tune we sang often in the church I attended growing up.
"I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever, I will sing.... and with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations."  
Those words are basically the whole song.  It was a simple and upbeat chorus that led us in praising God for all the ways he had blessed our lives and the life of our church.  Although it begins with these same words, Psalm 89 is really anything but simple and upbeat.  It is actually one of the longest and most sobering of all the Psalms.

The first 37 verses of the Psalm continue with these words of praise.  V. 3-4 celebrate the covenant that God has made with David while v.5-18 praise Yahweh as the Lord of nature and history.  God is declared to be great both by the heavens and earth he has created as well as by his faithfulness to the people of Israel.  Then in v. 19, the Psalmist returns again specifically to God's covenant with David.  He recalls the promise that God has made to Israel through David that one of David's descendants will always be on Israel's throne (v.29, 2 Samuel 7).  But in v.38, the Psalm takes a dark turn.
"But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed."  
The following verses go on to describe the king's crown being defiled in the dust and the city walls laying in ruins.  Israel's foes are exalted while Israel itself is scorned and plundered.  V. 46 asks the oft repeated question of the Psalms:
"How long, O Lord?  Will you hide your face forever?  How long will your wrath burn like fire?"
It is very likely that this Psalm refers to the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem and the removal of the Davidic king of Israel that results.  This is a time when the people of Israel would have suffered military defeat and the political powerlessness and economic exploitation that would naturally accompany such a defeat.  But Psalm 89 makes clear that this was more than just a political or economic problem; it was a theological one.

The deposing of the Davidic king was a theological problem for Israel because it directly contradicted the promise of God that a descendant of David would always sit on Israel's throne.  This in turn seemed to leave Israel with limited options in its beliefs about Yahweh; either God was powerless against the might of the Babylonians or God simply didn't bother to keep his promises.

I imagine that most of us have faced similar circumstances; perhaps not the invasion of an army and the destruction of our city but nonetheless circumstances that cause us to wonder what God is up to.  We pray and pray and nothing happens and we wonder aloud to God "Are you incompetent or do you just not care about me?  Are you hiding from me, God?  How long will this go on?"  Sometimes we even try to soothe ourselves with simple answers like "God has a plan" or "God is testing me".  There can be a degree of truth in those statements but part of what is interesting about Psalm 89 is that it doesn't offer any answers.  This Psalm ends with a series of unanswered questions and cries for God to remember his people.

Is there room in our faith for unanswered questions?  As I think about our gospel reading for next Sunday, I have to imagine that Mary had a few unanswered questions after her angelic visitation.  She did, of course, have one question answered:  "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"... yet another instance of God's promise seeming to contradict current reality.  Gabriel responds that the Holy Spirit will come upon her.  To me, at least, that seems like the kind of answer that only leads to a lot more questions.

Of course, we know how the story goes.  We know that Mary will give birth and that Jesus will minister, be crucified, and resurrected.  So the temptation for us is to have all the answers, to skip ahead and say everything all at once.  It is, after all, a story worth telling.  But what if the waiting for the story to unfold is a critical part of the story?  What if by rushing to the end with all our reasons and explanations we've actually failed to hear the story rightly?  What if we left church this Sunday recognizing that most of our lives don't fit into neat pre-packaged answers and instead realized how often we find ourselves in Mary's position; finding our faith in the midst of unanswered questions, clinging to the promise that in all of our uncertainty the power of the Most High will overshadow us.

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