In a recent sermon, our pastor spoke of one of the final things Jesus said from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, NRSV). He reminded us that Jesus was quoting the first line of a psalm of David — Psalm 22 — one of the many songs of lament David wrote. In them, we are not only given permission to cry out to God for help, we are encouraged to do so.
That may be just the encouragement we need right now.
As I listened to the sermon (online, of course) I was reminded of a pithy little book by Anne Lamott entitled, Help, Thanks, Wow. These, she suggests, are the three essential prayers of the Christian life: the prayer God’s help, mercy, and deliverance; the prayer of gratitude; the prayer of amazement and praise.
In stressful times like ours, prayers for help, protection, and healing are going up all over the world. We’re trying to remember all the things for which we should remember to be grateful. And for the most part, we’re still waiting for wow.
All three prayers can be found in the psalm. At the outset, David has already been crying out to God, and the answer has not yet come. For a moment, he recalls God’s past faithfulness, then falls quickly back into lament. Back and forth he goes, clinging to the threads of trust, pouring out his despair, begging for God to come near, to help, to deliver him from his enemies: “Do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion!” (Ps 22:19-21). Help!
And then, suddenly, without warning, come the Thanks and the Wow:
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
That gracious rescue becomes cause for the entire world to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and bow in worship:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
At last, David had his Wow. Do we?
Jesus’ cry from the cross is hard to read. Here, apparently, is God’s Son feeling abandoned by his Father, suffering alone. Some have said that because Jesus had become sin on our behalf, the Father in holiness was obliged to turn away, leaving the man Jesus feeling bereft, even if just for a moment.
But a holy God is neither squeamish about nor threatened by the world’s sin. Indeed, he sees our sin in all its ugliness — an ugliness we can scarcely imagine — and still purposes to redeem it, in love.
Moreover, I don’t think we have to take Jesus’ outcry as merely a sign of dereliction or anguish. It is, of course, at least that. But it is also a cry of faith, of a Help that anticipates Wow.
As I’ve said in the past, the Psalms were like the soundtrack to the life of Jesus. He quoted them constantly. And think about it: how deeply must one be steeped in the Psalms for them to be the words one cries out in the agony of crucifixion?
David looks back to the faithfulness of God even in the midst of pouring out his lament, and the psalm itself moves steadily from Help to Thanks to Wow. Surely Jesus knew this. I don’t see him casting about in his mind to come up with a biblical phrase to express his feelings of the moment (as we sometimes use the Psalms). To quote the opening line of Psalm 22 is to imply the entire psalm, to enter faithfully into its worldview, to proclaim both its despair and its hope.
Jesus knew what his terrified disciples had yet to figure out, though he had tried to tell them: Wow was coming, soon.
Another is still coming.
And we must cling to that promise in faith. Even proclaim it. Even as we cry out for help.