Sunday Services: 9:00am & 10:45am

Sweet & Sour

Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek

Earlier this week I put on Twitter that there was a “Lenten miracle.” What was that miracle? I finished my sermon early. That might not feel so miraculous to you, but I’ve been struggling to finish before Saturday most weeks over the last year. I had to finish early because I had to travel to Philadelphia for two days at end of the week a for conference with other pastors. This was before everything was being canceled—or I should say during when everything was being canceled. I say this because as announcements were made nationally and at the state level by our governor, you could see and feel the attention of all the pastors in the room shift as phones started to vibrate.  

Because I finished the sermon early on Wednesday, looking at my message again at the end of the week feels odd. I wrestled with whether to set everything aside and start a new sermon from scratch or to simply preach what I had already written. I chose something of a middle road. I took what I had already written and, in a few places, I’m augmenting it for where we are as society, which is a society taking precautionary measures prevent the spread of a virus sweeping the globe.  

There are all different temperaments at our church, different backgrounds, different levels of expertise in health care—we actually have at our church a number of people in the medical community—and different levels of day-to-day health challenges. All of you are approaching this differently. If we go back 10 years ago, I got the swine flu, as well as my two-year-old son. And we were in seminary and didn’t have a ton of money and we had travel plans set up, and I do remember the fear associated with being helpfulness to help my son. Some of you are feeling that way now—and it’s scary. Others are less worried.  

Regardless of where you are at, I’m thankful to the Lord we have the technology and ability to record this sermon and share it with you. 

I’m going to continue our series that we began two weeks ago: “How Long, O Lord? Learning the Language of Lament.” As we journey toward Good Friday and Easter, we are preaching through several of what are called Psalms of Lament. One-third of the hundred and fifty psalms in the Bible can be classified as Psalms of Lament. In the series, we’ve tried to grab laments that arise from different causes. Psalm 38 arises as a lament over our sin. If we had known where we would have been as a society, I might have chosen a different Psalm of Lament, but I do think preaching through a Psalm of Lament might be one of the best things we can do. “How long O Lord?” is not simply a cry from those in the past but us in the present. It takes faith to pray Psalms of Lament because it takes faith to turn our cares and concerns to the Lord.  

Scripture Reading

You can follow along with me as I read Psalm 38, or might I suggest you pause the video and read the passage yourself. Or, if people are there with you, designate some to read the passage and pray, and then you can un-pause. I’ll go ahead and read the passage now, and then pray that God would be our teacher as we study this passage together.  

A Psalm of David,  for the memorial offering.

38  O  Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, 
    nor discipline me in your wrath! 
2 For your arrows have sunk into me, 
    and your hand has come down on me. 

3 There is no soundness in my flesh 
    because of your indignation; 
there is no health in my bones 
    because of my sin. 
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; 
    like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. 

5 My wounds stink and fester 
    because of my foolishness, 
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; 
    all the day I go about mourning. 
7 For my sides are filled with burning, 
    and there is no soundness in my flesh. 
8 I am feeble and crushed; 
    I groan because of the tumult of my heart. 

9 O Lord, all my longing is before you; 
    my sighing is not hidden from you. 
10 My heart throbs; my strength fails me, 
    and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. 
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, 
    and my nearest kin stand far off. 

12 Those who seek my life lay their snares; 
    those who seek my hurt speak of ruin 
    and meditate treachery all day long. 

13 But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, 
    like a mute man who does not open his mouth. 
14 I have become like a man who does not hear, 
    and in whose mouth are no rebukes. 

15 But for you, O Lord, do I wait; 
    it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer. 
16 For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me, 
    who boast against me when my foot slips!” 

17 For I am ready to fall, 
    and my pain is ever before me. 
18 I confess my iniquity; 
    I am sorry for my sin. 
19 But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty, 
    and many are those who hate me wrongfully. 
20 Those who render me evil for good 
    accuse me because I follow after good. 

21 Do not forsake me, O Lord! 
    O my God, be not far from me! 
22 Make haste to help me, 
    O Lord, my salvation! 


Introduction 

I wonder if there are parts of the Bible that you read with more ease and joy and comfort. Perhaps when you read certain parts of the Bible, where twenty or thirty minutes go by without difficulty as you read. Maybe the passionate gospel logic from the book of Romans captivates you. Or perhaps the parables of Jesus arrest your attention: the good Samaritan or the story of the father who had two children, one law-keeping older brother and a younger, prodigal brother. You like how simple but profound the parables are. Or maybe you love Old Testament narratives, as in the book of Esther. You love reading about the hidden hand of divine providence that orchestrates events, turning the heart of the king toward his wife and the good of God’s people. This is a helpful reminder for right now: God’s hiddenness does not indicate the absence of his power.  

Some of you feel this way about the Psalms. I hear you talk about them this way. When things are wonderful, I read the Psalms. When things are hard, I read the Psalms. When the Lord feels near, I read the Psalms. When the Lord feels distant, I read the Psalms. That’s good.  

I admire those of you who feel this way. I confess to you that I find the Psalms the most difficult of all portions of Scripture for me to read and enjoy. I’ve tried to think about why. I have a few ideas.  

Years and years ago I got tired of not knowing where in the Bible to read next, so I just decided I’d start at the beginning and go to the end, and when I finished, I’d begin again. I’ve done this most years for the last seventeen years. And in the last few years especially, I’ve struggled to make sense of the Psalms, it least in the same way I’ve made progress at understanding the rest of Scripture.  

Let me use an analogy of novels and short stories to explain what I mean. In a novel, as the author introduces new characters, and many of those characters will journey through the entirety of the novel, while others will come into the plot for a time, serve their purpose, and then exit. But when you begin each new chapter in a novel, the characters may develop, but generally speaking the one, the continuous story unfolds slowly. However, if you read a collection of short stories, each new story has new characters a new plot.  

Some of the Bible is like a novel, and some like an anthology of short stories. 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings read like a novel. However, the Psalms read like an anthology of short stories—each chapter brings a new author, new characters (protagonist and antagonist), new plot, new challenges, new fears, and joys and hopes.  

If you read your Bible about six days a week, you have to read around four chapters of the Bible each day to get through the Bible in a year, which is only about 20 minutes of reading. Right now, I’m in Exodus, and it reads like one story, one novel. But in a few months, when I come to Psalms in my morning Bible reading, each chapter is like a new short story, each morning, four new stories.  

I think I’ve struggled to read and enjoy the Psalms because my method of Bible reading does not cooperate well with the genre of the Psalms. I’ll put it like this. You can drive your car to church on the highway in sixth gear. But if you want to back up out of your driveway, sixth gear is not so helpful. You need reverse. You need to tap the gas pedal gently as you cycle your eyes through your mirrors and glance over your shoulder, constantly adjusting the steering wheel. Psalms demand individual attention. They demand time. They demand a lingering and contemplative approach. That’s true of all of the Bible, but especially so when every chapter is a new story to behold.  

Why do I say all this? I say it because I’m thankful for the sermon series Pastor Ben planned for us during Lent. I’m thankful for the chance to slow down, to linger, to learn to lament. I hope you are too.  

As we linger over Psalm 38, two main themes bubble to the service, the sour taste of sin and sickness, and the sweetness of God’s salvation. Let’s look closer at each of these themes.  

1. The Sour: Sin and Sickness 

Let’s start with the sour, the theme that dominates most of the verses in this psalm. Let me read vv. 3–11 again.  

3 There is no soundness in my flesh 
    because of your indignation; 
there is no health in my bones 
    because of my sin. 
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; 
    like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. 

5 My wounds stink and fester 
    because of my foolishness, 
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; 
    all the day I go about mourning. 
7 For my sides are filled with burning, 
    and there is no soundness in my flesh. 
8 I am feeble and crushed; 
    I groan because of the tumult of my heart. 

9 O Lord, all my longing is before you; 
    my sighing is not hidden from you. 
10 My heart throbs; my strength fails me, 
    and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. 
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, 
    and my nearest kin stand far off. 

The author goes on to describe enemies, who are many and mighty (v. 12, 19), who see his weakened state as an opportunity to pounce upon him. He is fundamentally someone who follows good and who follows God, as vv. 19–20 indicate. In this season, the author knows the sourness of his sin and sickness mingled together: ‘there is no soundness in my flesh, no health in my bones,’ he says, ‘because of the Lord’s indignation and because of my sin’ (v. 3). In v. 5, he says his wounds fester and stink. His sin is like a cut infected, that scabs over, and then bursts with pus and throbs in pain. And because of this, in v. 11, all his friends and family want nothing to do with him, which is a feeling of loneliness that some of you can relate to. Perhaps they are embarrassed by the misery of their friend that won’t heal; perhaps they are overwhelmed, not knowing where to start; perhaps they are scared. Or maybe they are personally hurt by the author’s sin. We don’t know for sure. But we know he is alone, and it’s sour. And when I say sour, I don’t mean sour like candy, like green apple Jolly Ranchers or Sour Patch Kids. I mean sour like spoiled milk.  

Mothers, perhaps some July afternoon you’ve looked under the seats of your minivan and found a baby bottle full of milk that you lost in March. Reluctantly, you grab it and hold it up. You think, “I could put on a hazmat suit and clean this and save the bottle, or I could throw it away.” Some of you guys who live with four other bachelors haven’t seen the back of your fridge since you moved in in September. Right now, as I speak, milk bought before Christmas has turned into Greek yogurt. It’s curdled. It’s putrid. It’s rancid. It stinks to high heaven. Now imagine shaking the carton of milk, removing the lid, and whirling around the living room. The couch becomes soiled. The walls become streaked with globs of moldy milk. It seeps into the pores of the carpet.  

If this is disgusting to you, I’m doing my job well. This is how the author describes sin—his own sin. It stinks something sour and fierce to high heaven.  

We don’t know the exact interplay between sin and sickness in Psalm 38. One commentator noted that the Psalm reads as though he has almost every disease in the book (Craigie quoted by Wilcock). It’s like someone goes to WebMD, cutting, and pasting all sorts of symptoms together. “Woah, I’ve got Crohn’s, cancer, kidney failure, and seasonal depression.”  

The Bible is clear that sin does not always lead to sickness. And to be sick doesn’t always mean that one has sinned (cf. Job and John 9:3). I’ll say that again. The Bible is clear that sin does not always lead to sickness. And to be sick doesn’t always mean that one has sinned. But the Bible also teaches that sometimes the two are related (cf. John 5:14). Occasionally God does send calamity to chasten us, to bring us to a place of humility and repentance and trust. This design seems to be the case in Psalm 38. 

So, on the one hand, the poetic nature of the Psalm inclines me not to overread each of these descriptions of sickness. On the other hand, the very real relationship between guilt and shame and emotions and spiritual realities and our physical experience, incline me to think there is something here, even if we can’t pin it down. I suspect the author couldn’t quite pin down the relationship either. Perhaps you know this ambiguous feeling too. It’s frustrating. Sadness over sin that makes you sick. 

But what we do know is that for the Christian, God’s aim is always redemptive, not vindictive. God’s purpose is to work all things for our ultimate good (cf. Romans 8).  

But that’s not always how it feels, does it? This is why we have Laments. In v. 2, the author says, “For your arrows have sunk into me, / and your hand has come down on me.” In our piety, we would likely be inclined to say, “For it seems like your arrows have sunk into me, / and it seems like your hand has come down on me.” But the Psalms encourage us not to be so tidy with language. Psalms of Lament come from the gut. We shout Psalms of Lament with vocal cords warn raw from groaning.  

What does the author do? In addition to lamenting the sourness, he brings it before God. Look at vv. 9, 18.  

9 O Lord, all my longing is before you; 
    my sighing is not hidden from you. 

18 I confess my iniquity; 
    I am sorry for my sin. 

In v. 9, the author confesses that everything—the good, the bad, the ugly—is not hidden from the Lord. So, why then, do we have, v. 18? Why confess his iniquity and sin? The Lord already knows. Confession is not so much about knowing that God knows, but about telling God that we know, and we are sorry. In humility, when we know our sin, and we can name it and confess it, it’s the place healing can begin. For this reason, it’s really important to know our sin.  

I’ll tell you a made-up story to illustrate. A married couple comes to a counselor’s office. The first twenty minutes are a nearly an unbroken chain of back and forth, of one spouse, starting a paragraph about what one person did and the other spouse interrupting to say what really happened.  

After forty minutes, the counselor raises a hand. A momentary ceasefire begins. “I think I’m beginning to see some of the issues.” Then she looks at the husband. “Sir, in all this, what is it that you think you’ve done to contribute to the problem?” “Well, she did this, and she did that and what was I supposed to do,” he says. The councilor tuns to the wife. “And you, what have you done to contribute to the problem?” “Well, he did this, and he did that and what was I supposed to do,” she says. 

The counselor sighs. She wipes her cheeks with her sleeve. “I want to help you,” she says. “But I can’t.”  

The author of this psalm knows the depths of his sin, and he’s sorry. And knowing sourness of his sin enables him to long for the sweetness of God’s salvation. 

2. The Sweet: The Joy of Salvation 

Two requests bound the psalm. The middle of the psalm is consumed with the present, sour reality. Let me read again those requests that bookend the psalm, vv. 1, 21–22. They hint at the sweetness of salvation.

1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, 
    nor discipline me in your wrath! 
 
21 Do not forsake me, O Lord! 
    O my God, be not far from me! 
22 Make haste to help me, 
    O Lord, my salvation! 

Though the author of this psalm is currently laid low, he still knows a sweetness in God that the proud will never experience. In this way, Psalm 38 is subversive to the ways of our world. We are told to cultivate pride and to rise above our circumstances, to achieve and overcome. Psalm 38 offers something better. Psalm 38 should be seen as a manifesto against smug autonomy. 

There’s the famous poem Invictus, which has a familiar final stanza. The poem concludes, “It matters not how strait the gate,   /   How charged with punishments the scroll,   / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.” The poem “Invictus” portrays one who stands tall before opposition, one self-assured and unbowed before his enemies. I am the master of my fate, he says. Really? Really? Nothing can bring you low? 

Though written by a mighty king, the imagery in Psalm 38 sounds nothing like that. It is for those who know a better reality. It’s for those of us who have tasted the depths of our sin and frailty, and for those God has given the spiritual taste buds necessary to also savor the salvation of Good Friday and Easter. 

I want to call your attention to something that probably went by without notice when I first read the poem. It’s the title of the poem. I’ll read it again: 

A Psalm of David,  for the memorial offering. 

Most English Bibles have many added titles and subheadings. That’s not a bad thing. It’s actually very helpful. Many thoughtful men and women have come up with titles so that our minds are prepared for the themes of what comes in each section. But most of the titles in our English Bibles are not original, like the numbering system, by the way. And like the numbers, the titles are there simply to be helpful.  

However, the titles in the psalms are original. Not every psalm has a title, but many do. If you look at a Hebrew Bible, when a psalm has a title, the verse numbers will be one-off from our English Bibles because Hebrew Bibles set the title as the first verse. Again, they do that so that readers will know the titles of the Psalms are inspired are part of the Bible. The title of Psalm 38 is short but helpful. “A Psalm of David, for the memorial offering,” it reads.  

When you go to Leviticus 2, you can read about memorial offerings. They were a time to remember, just like Memorial Day, which is the last Monday in May, a day in which we remember those who have given their lives in military service. God’s people in the Old Testament had a memorial offering, a time to remember the sourness of sin and the sweetness of God’s salvation.  

When you read Leviticus 2, you learn that the memorial offering was made with frankincense and grains and oil. You burned them on the altar. I don’t know exactly what it smelt like to burn frankincense and grain on an altar, but I suspect it was a sweet smell. I like to think of it like cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven.  

Now, this sweet smell of the memorial offering is in direct contradiction to the smells of v. 5: “My wounds stink and fester,” says the author.  

Behold what this psalm teaches us about our God, about the complexity and beauty of God. God is so holy that our sin sinks like sour milk to him. But it is also true that in his mercy, he has provided a sacrifice to remember the sweetness of his salvation.  

The title of the psalm says “for the memorial offering.” In other words, it’s for a certain time. It’s good for God’s people to gather periodically to reflect on the sourness of our sin and the sweetness of God’s salvation.  

But you might say, “Why have a service, why have a psalm, why have a time of memorial offering? Can’t we just remember our sins as they happen?” Think of our American Memorial Day. We could ask the same question. “Why not make every day a day for remembering with sobriety and solemnity and gratitude our freedom we have by virtue of the sacrifice made on our behalf by others? Why do we need a special day for this? Why can’t every day be a Memorial Day?”  

I think we have a special day for remembering because when all days a special, no days are special. I think we need a day because sometimes we drive through life like we are in the highway in sixth gear, and we need to slow down.  

In the New Testament, we have the Lord’s Supper, which causes us to slow down, which causes us to smell both the sourness of our sin and the sweetness of Christ’s salvation. This is what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 of the Lord’s Supper.  

23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26) 

The author of Psalm 38 pleads with the Lord that the Lord will not forsake him (v. 21). In our remembering of the sacrifice of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that God never will.  

Church, if you see yourself as the master of your fate and the captain of your soul, the communion meal is not for you. But if you know your sin and your need a savior, it is for you. I wish circumstances allowed us this week for us to physically come to inhale the beauty of forgiveness, the joy of sweet salvation, and love the of Christ for you. But though we cannot actually take communion together, I pray the realities will still be felt.  

Download MP3

This entry was posted in How Long O Lord? Learning the Language of Lament, Sermons and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *