We are considering Psalm 130. I want to begin by rearranging, modernizing, and amplifying the voice of the psalmist. In verse 3, he confesses “O Lord, if you should keep a permanent record of our human sin and evil, who could stand?” The Psalmist then cries out from the depths of his own sin and guilt—and the unspoken circumstances into which that sin has cast him, and he ask that the LORD God of Israel might forgive him and restore him
The psalmist based his hope on the word that God had spoken through his prophets, and the Mighty Works God had done on behalf of his people, Israel. When we see others enjoying the benefits of faith—we seek the same for ourselves. The Psalmist had faith. People can always count on sunset and sunrise, that day follows night. The Psalmist said, “My faith in God is stronger than our common faith that sunrise always follows sunset.”
Now, let me ask you, “What do you know about the depths?” I know at least this:
I know that we nearly always think of ourselves on solid ground, just before we fall into the depths. There is always a last good day before the catastrophe. In 1941, December 6th preceded December 7th. In 2001, September 10 preceded, September 11th. Have you ever been in an automobile accident? I have. My friend Tom Ebbert, the owner of an auto body shop once told me that I was on his frequent flyer plan. I know what it is like to be moving along smartly and confidently—just before the crash. Of course, some crashes were not my fault, some were.
Likewise, our fall into the depths is sudden, and sometimes it is not our fault. There are many things in life we simply cannot control—including pandemics, recessions, and our own genetic make-up. When things are hard, we make them worse by looking for reasons that are not there. Many years ago, a pastor I knew lost his wife to a terrible cancer. He was a bit of a genius, and he was never short of words. I often had a hard time understanding him. One day I met him on 4th Street in Downtown Winston-Salem. He said, “Worth, God finally showed me why my wife died.” I paused, and breathed deeply, and braced for a long explanation I did not really want to hear. Then he surprised me by revealing his truth is three simple words, that I have remembered almost every day since. They have become a mainstay of my life and my ministry. He said, “She was human.” Sometimes, that is reason enough. It is not our fault; it is simply our condition.
Sometimes we fall into the depths through no fault of our own. At other times we bring the fall on ourselves. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. There is no vaccine for stupid. Stupidity is not low IQ it is a low tolerance for the truth. To cure it we must seek the truth. Sin often begins with and is more dangerous than following the stupidity of the lie. It is more dangerous than pandemics, recessions, and our genetic make-up. The Bible warns that our sin will always find us out. It warns that whatsoever we sow, that shall we also reap. The Bible even warns that the wages of sin is death—and that death is often preceded by suffering and shame. As Christians, we take solace in 1st John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We can take solace in forgiveness—I’m all for that. Forgiveness is the most therapeutic idea in the world, but forgiveness is primarily a restoration of relationships. It does not always mean a remission of the penalty that sin imposes in and of itself. The best way to avoid the penalty of sin is to avoid the sin. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”
I know that when we fall into the depths, we are following a well-worn path. As Americans, we are free to pursue happiness, but we know there is no guarantee that we will attain it. As Christians, we are not surprised when we suffer, because we know that Christ suffered, too. “Though he were a Son yet learned he obedience through that which he suffered.” “Christ suffered in the flesh—arm yourselves with the same thought.”
I love to watch people. I have noticed that most people who live to advanced age have accumulated a ton of loss and survived a heap of trouble. They have learned to adapt. After a loss, they know that life will never again be the same, yet they believe life can still be good. If we live long enough, life expects us to be heroic. And the heroism we practice is most often the heroism of just keeping on. It means getting up in the morning and putting one foot in front of the other, even when we don’t feel like doing it.
I also love to read biography. I don’t think I have ever read the biography of a successful man or woman who did not experience a series of failures before they achieved success. Indeed, the definition of success to get up just one more time than life knocks you down. Perhaps you will recall the story of Elvis Presley? Everybody knows that Elvis loved his mama. She was precious to him because as a boy he had few friends. He was not particularly popular in school, and he even failed his music classes. While trying to get his musical career off the ground, he worked as a truck driver. After his first paying gig, his manager at the time told him, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ that truck.” Elvis then tried to join a vocal quartet, but the other three members of the quartet told him he couldn’t sing. Elvis tried and failed over and over again–and then, with the Help of Colonel Tom Parker, he sang a song about a hound dog, shook his hips, found success, and became “the King of rock n’ roll.” Elvis had some good advice for people about the depths. He said, “When things go wrong, don’t go with them.”
I know that when we fall into the depths we should not give up, because sometimes help can come from an unlooked-for source. When I was new to the ministry, I used to write out a full manuscript for each sermon and then memorize it word for word. The problem with that is if you forget one word, you often lose the whole thing. I will never forget a Sunday in 1980 when Fries had a church filled with our Girl Scouts and their parents. I was unprepared. Shaken. While preaching, I forgot a word and I lost the whole sermon. I did what I had to do. I apologized, pronounced the benediction, and snuck out the back door. That is when Miss Salley Reed sent me a card with a cat hanging from the knotty end of a rope which read, “When you reach the end of your rope, tie and knot and hold on. Help is on the way.” She was right. Everyone pitched in to help the new pastor, and we had a good partnership for the next eight years. I thought I was here to help the church. The church ended up helping me. During the recent pandemic many people lost the one they loved best, and that one was often the bread-winner of the family. Others lost their businesses and their jobs and they missed many meals, because, unlike most of us, they did not have a safety net. Some made it through the pandemic because of government relief. Others made it through the pandemic because of the kindness of strangers, though you know who you are. Today, we have got to encourage people to tie a knot and hang-on, as we all work toward an emotional and economic recovery for our country and for our world. There are things we can do. We can shop locally. We can make gifts to Sunnyside Ministry and Crisis Control. We can be patient with people and extend to others the same helping hand that others have extended to us.
I know that when we fall into the depths, we cannot give up, because sometimes, with God’s help, we can pull ourselves out. Remember: The secret to success in life is getting up one more time than life knocks us down. For the better part of two decades, Winston Churchill* was the laughingstock of the British Parliament, a lone voice warning his nation against the designs of Hitler. Meanwhile less able men like Anthony Eden and Neville Chamberlain insisted that Hitler wanted peace. “Peace in our time,” they said. Churchill soldiered on until Hitler showed himself. Churchill continued to fight for the truth, and it was his fight that gave Britain the strength to stand alone, against the onslaught of the Nazi war machine. On May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill finally became Prime Minister. When he met his Cabinet on May 13, he told them that “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” When General Ismay told him that the people of Britain were losing hope, Churchill responded, “Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.” 1940 and 1941 were dark years. Yet, Churchill always believed that morning would come, and that the day would still follow the long night of terror. In November of 1942, after America had entered the war and the British had won a major battle at El Alamain, the tide of the war began at last to turn, Churchill gave a speech in which he said, “It is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is, however, the end of the beginning.” What can we say about the pandemic? I hope and pray that we can rightly say we have reached the beginning of the end, and the end may be in sight. And we can pray that God will make it so. Of course, we can also help. One way we can help is by getting vaccinated. If not for ourselves, for everyone else. Just this week, a woman explained to me all the reasons she would not be vaccinated. Some were political, but she argued that it was untested and too risky. I just listened. I wanted to tell her that though a double handful of people in the US had died from the vaccine, and perhaps 3,000 had died of covid after receiving it—out of 170,000,000, 600,000 had died from the virus. I wanted to tell her if she did not do it for herself, do it for others. Now, it is the loving thing to do.
In Psalm 130, the Psalmist had hope because he had confidence in the LORD God of Israel who had called Abraham to leave his country his kindred, and his father’s house, to go to a land of promise. And he had hope because he believed in the LORD God of Israel called upon Moses to deliver the nation from slavery in Egypt. When we are in the depths, we have hope because the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ raised Jesus from death, and vindicated his cause, and gave him a name which is above every name. We have hope because the same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to us, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life. Jesus promised to be with us till the end. He promised that if we believed in him, we would be able to do the things that he did, and even greater things, besides. There is hope in that.
*Today, we know that Churchill was a disappointment in some areas of his life and thought, especially regards race. That does not diminish the fact that he was a key figure–perhaps the key figure, in saving Europe from the facists.