Scripture: Psalm 25:1-10
When I was in middle school, several of us were given the opportunity to recite a piece, from memory, at an assembly of the entire school. The piece I had memorized was by E. B. White. It was a satire about the surrender, at the end of the Civil War, of Gen. Lee to Gen. Grant at Appomattox. I had worked hard on it, and very much wanted to do well in front of the whole school. When it was my turn, I stood up and began telling my story. And suddenly I had no idea what came next. My mind was a total blank. As you can imagine, it was awful. Had I known today’s psalm, I’m sure I would have been reciting the words with every fiber of my being: “O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame . . .. [F]or you I wait all day long” (Psalm 25:2, 5). Please, God, get me out of this. Let me remember my words. Make this turn out well. And of course, it didn’t.
This whole act of waiting, of wanting someone or something to make things right, is not an uncommon experience in our lives, is it. Someone here is likely waiting for medical test results. Someone, in loneliness or despair, may well be waiting for a parent or child to call them. Maybe someone, on the dating site Tinder, is hoping against hope that the person of their dreams will swipe right. We know what we want. Please God, please God, please God: make it happen! “O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame. For you I wait all day long.”
And if you’re like me, there may be at least a tinge of disappointment or resentment when the great God of the universe doesn’t answer our prayers and do what we want, what we crave. Hidden somewhere deep within so many of us is the conviction that God is like some great superhero who is just waiting for the right moment to swoop in and make things right. “Here I come to save the day” is the phrase of Mighty Mouse that lingers from my childhood. God, save the day!
So we wait, and we hope, and so often the things we most want don’t come to pass. The biopsy comes back positive, the phone sits silent, our hoped-for beloved swipes left. There can be a kind of agony about all this. And we may well wonder where God is in it all. Isn’t God in the business of bringing fairy tale endings? Doesn’t God want me to be happy—to ace the interview, to avoid the bankruptcy, to make peace with the distant, judgmental parent?
The Supermans and Lara Crofts of the cinematic and video game worlds may well have done us a disservice on this score. They’re the ones who ride to the rescue and solve every problem. So can’t God be at least that good? Can’t God show some of that grit and make things right? “O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame. For you I wait all day long.” This is the season of Advent. Meaning something’s coming. It alerts us to be on the lookout. So we wait. And we wait.
The biblical witness about God, though, is seldom about one who solves our problems. God, in the Bible, isn’t a magician. God isn’t pulling the strings of marionettes to make things come out just right. No, the God of the Bible is merely the One who is there, the One who shows up. The heart of that psalm, in words that are repeated, is mercy, steadfast love, faithfulness. When the psalmist talks about God, that’s what’s at the heart of the Holy One. Mercy—the Hebrew word for which means “womblike affection” or “motherly compassion.” Steadfast love—or never-ending affection. Faithfulness—or relentless and eternal care. Mercy. Steadfast love. Faithfulness.
There’s a common misconception that the Old Testament, or the First Testament, is about a vengeful God, while the New Testament is about a merciful God. This could not be further from the truth. The heart of what are sometimes called the Hebrew scriptures is a divine love that will not let us go. And it is beautifully summed up in a transcendent verse in the book of Exodus, when God says to Moses, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (34:6). That’s the God of both testaments. Please don’t ever let anyone get away with telling you the Old Testament is about a mean and punitive God. The God of the ancient Israelites is the same God as the God of Jesus. And it’s a God whose very identity and purpose is to walk with you and me on the journey of life, a God whose very identity and purpose is to embrace us in arms of mercy, arms of steadfast love, arms of faithfulness. This is the God the psalmist knows. And it’s the God who walks arm in arm with us through every moment of our lives.
Gregory Boyle, the founder and soul behind Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, is a Roman Catholic priest who works with gang members there, to give them jobs and hope. He says that at the root of his work with gangs is the conviction that God is present and alive and watches over all of them all the time. His spiritual director, Bill Cain, took a leave from work when his father was dying from cancer. “His father had become a frail man, dependent on Bill to do everything for him. Though he was physically not what he had been, and the disease was wasting him away, his mind remained alert and lively. In the role reversal common to adult children who care for their dying parents, Bill would put his father to bed and then read him to sleep, exactly as his father had done for him in childhood. Bill would read from some novel, and his father would lie there, staring at his son, smiling. Bill was exhausted from the day’s care and work and would plead with his dad, ‘Look, here’s the idea. I read to you, you fall asleep.’ Bill’s father would impishly apologize and dutifully close his eyes. But this wouldn’t last long. Soon enough, Bill’s father would pop one eye open and smile at his son. Bill would catch him and whine, ‘Now, come on.’ The father would, again, oblige, until he couldn’t anymore, and the other eye would open to catch a glimpse of his son. This went on and on, and after his father’s death, Bill knew that this evening ritual was really a story of a father who just couldn’t take his eyes off his kid.” And Boyle asks, “How much more so God? Anthony De Mello writes, ‘Behold the One beholding you, and smiling’” (Tattoos on the Heart, pp. 19-20).
Indeed, how much more so God? When you’re wondering how much more you can take, remember: God keeps opening an eye to gaze at you and smile. You may still go through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). But as the scriptures say over and over again, “Do not be afraid,” for God is walking that journey with you.
Hannah Kerr sings a simple and moving song about “God with us,” which is what Emmanuel means. In it, she sings so simply, “Emmanuel, he meets you where you are, he holds your heavy heart, our God is with us all.” That’s the heart of the good news of God. The gospel is about God walking the journey with us, and our walking the journey with each other. In the words of Ram Dass, it’s about “walking each other home.”
We’re always on a journey. And as we explore some dimensions of that journey this Advent season, the reminder comes to us that God walks with us every step of the way. And that way is the way of God’s mercy, steadfast love, and faithfulness. What if we lived out of that realization every moment of every day?
“In Louisville,” says the profound Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton, “at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . ..
“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud . . .. I have the immense joy of being [a human being], a member of a race in which God . . . became incarnate. . .. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts . . ., the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp. 140-142).
God loves us with a bottomless love. As we wait and wonder this Advent season, as we seek the face of God, and as we seek to live faithfully in that waiting, may we come back again and again to that mercy, that steadfast love, that faithfulness, and may we share it as widely as we possibly can, in Christ’s name.