Please turn with me in your copy of God’s Word to Psalm 130. And as you all are turning there I would be remiss if I didn’t offer just a few thank-yous as I stand here. First, to the session of this church, it’s a privilege that your session takes serious to guard this pulpit and so your invitation to me to preach here is one I take seriously as your session does. So thank you for that. Secondly, thank you to this church. There was a moment about four weeks ago where my family was driving back into the neighborhood from supper and my wife says, “Sam, what’s that?” and she points to this building and he goes, “That’s First Pres. That’s my church!” And I smiled and I said, “Yeah buddy, it is.” You all have welcomed some folks from out of state quickly. And thirdly, thank you for welcoming our students. I can’t tell you how great it’s been to see during the school year that crowd of Belhaven students over here and for their first impression before they ever walked in the door was, “Well surely that place is too big.” And I smile and say, “Just go! Give it a chance.” And almost every time they come back shocked. “You know, it was the largest church I’ve ever been to in my life but we were greeted by everyone around us.” So thank you for that. That’s a huge thing for college students. It’s already a struggle for them to get up and get to church so that’s huge and I give you thanks for that.
Well let’s turn our attention to God’s Word, but before we do let’s pray.
Sir, Sir, we would see Jesus. For when our weary and wandering gaze finally rests upon Jesus we’d be satisfied. Send the Holy Spirit to give great power to the preaching of Your Word that like those saints of old on the road that our hearts would burn within us as we come face to face with the living God through Your Word. And now may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together always be acceptable in Thy sight, Thou who art our Lord, our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.
“A SONG OF ASCENTS.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”
Amen, and may God add His richest blessing to the reading and hearing of His Word.
I’ve been told that I’m a creature of habit. If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, “Seth, you need to branch out,” I’d be the wealthiest man in the state of Mississippi, no doubt! It must have been so frustrating for my wife back when we met. I can hear you now, “Seth, you do know there’s more than one restaurant to eat lunch at in Greenville, South Carolina, don’t you? Seth, you do know that restaurant has a menu, right, with other items on it?” The poor girl; she’s done so much work on me! But she’s right. I think we’re all guilty of this to some degree. We get into our comfort zones, right, and we define reality based on people, places, and things that we deem safe, that we deem good. No matter what the reality is around us, no matter what the larger world is, we live life based on our comfort zones. This is why my parents expressed great shock when they heard that we were going to go overseas for our honeymoon. It’s why my best friend said to me when I announced to him we were moving to Mississippi, he said, “Seth, you do know Mississippi is not a city in South Carolina, don’t you?” It’s why the RUF committee looked at me and said, “Now you do realize you’re about to go minister to artists who are a little bit on the eccentric side and you do realize you’re going to go minister to male dancers not necessarily football players? You do know that, right?” We all have our comfort zones. We all define life by our experiences.
And here’s the thing. This bleeds over into our understanding of the Christian life. It shouldn’t but it does. This bleeds over into the truths that we’re comfortable with. This bleeds over into the stories we grasp and understand and those we wrestle with. The comfort zones that we live in oftentimes are our definition of Christianity. Tonight, though, we’re sitting under a passage that pulls all of us out of our comfort zones as Christians. It pulls all of us out of the reality that only we are comfortable with. And this is good, because only when we are out of our comfort zones can we understand, can we embrace, can we tell the whole story of Christianity. And that’s what Psalm 130 does. I want us to see this one over-arching principle in the passage tonight and that’s this - the Christian life is a pilgrim journey marked by frequent seasons of desperation as we’re constantly moving towards an eternity of uninterrupted adoration. The Christian life is a pilgrim journey marked by frequent seasons of desperation as we’re constantly moving towards an eternity of uninterrupted adoration. Just two headings this evening for us as we come out of our comfort zone, as we wrestle with what this text has to say. The reality of the depths in the Christian life and the reality of the cross in the Christian life. The depths and the cross.
I. The Reality of the Depths in the Christian Life
Let’s begin then with the reality of the depths in the Christian life, verses 1 and 2. Before we can see what it is we’re being called to wrestle with, before it is that we can see what the psalmist is telling us tonight, we have to try to put ourselves in his shoes. We don’t know the particular occasion that brought about this writing but we have to see if we can understand what the depths are. They’re not the depths that were preached about this morning. These aren’t the depths caused by external realities. No, these depths are, as the 19th century theologian Octavious Winslow describes, “These depths are a place of soul distress arising from the existence and power of indwelling sin in the life of the believer.” In other words, these depths are caused by internal circumstances. These depths are caused by the things that shock us coming from within, not from without. And as we begin to struggle with this tension, as we begin to try to grasp what it means to be out of our comfort zone, as we wrestle with the minor key, as we wrestle with lamentation, as we wrestle with what it means to be sorrowful over sin, the first thing I want us to see as we think about the depths is that it’s a normative part of the Christian life and yet there are so few of us who have experienced it. Let me repeat that. It’s a normative part of the Christian life and yet there are so few of us who have experienced the depths. You see, the psalmist no doubt is praying his own prayer but as inspired by the Holy Spirit, as preserved for the people of God, the psalmist, what he’s doing, is praying on behalf of all the people of God. Beloved in Christ, this is your prayer; this is my prayer. This is our story; this is our struggle. This is our voice of lamentation.
And let me pause. Two reactions to that statement have just happened in this room, two reactions to the statement that the depths, that seasons of desperation are normative. The first reaction is this - some of you just said to yourself, “O thank God. I thought it was just me.” Some of you said to yourself, “I didn’t know the depths were normal.” You’re either one who has been enslaved to an addictive habit at some point in your past, you’re someone who ruined your family, you’re someone who lived under the bondage of sin for a long season and as you looked up there was carnage around you. You know the struggle of the depths. Others of you, you’re what pastors refer to as somebody with a tender conscience. We can tell you you’ve repented all you can repent, we can tell you you’ve confessed that same sin twenty-five times and the next Monday morning you’re still going to want to meet with us because you struggle with assurance. You too were just relieved when I informed us that this text demands a normative experience of the depths.
But the second reaction was this. The other half of this room heard that statement and said, “Young man, I’m going to need some more explanation from the text.” Why? Because as Dan Allender said in his 1994 article, “The Hidden Hope in Lament,” “Christians hold lamentation in low self-esteem.” You and I do not have it as a normal part of our diet, as a normal part of our feeding on Christ, a category for what it means that desperation is supposed to be a part of our story and so you wonder what precisely it means. And here’s why I think we struggle with this passage. Here’s why I think Christians struggle so much to even sing in the minor key. It’s because I’m not sure we understand what sanctification is. I’m not sure, and I’m not saying we’ve been taught poorly - goodness knows you haven’t been taught poorly from this pulpit. But because of our sin, because of our demeanor, because of our baggage, I’m not sure we’ve grasped yet what sanctification is. You see, I’ll be honest with you. Before I started preparing this sermon I would have been those of you who reacted by saying, “I’m not sure about that, preacher.” Because when I hear language of desperation being integral to the Christian life what I hear is, “Are you denying the victorious Christian life? Are you denying progressive sanctification? Are you denying that the Spirit is working in you?” But here’s what I want to say to you and I. The depths are the mechanism of sanctification, not the opposite of it. The depths, this season of desperation, these stops in the journey that bring us to a place of despair, this is precisely how we’re sanctified.
The Westminster Confession of Faith on sanctification says this - “There abides still some remnants of corruption in every part from which arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh.” And at the risk of being too transparent, I have to confess to you that until two years ago I did not know that I was allowed to experience desperation and struggle in the Christian life. Now you do the math; I had been ordained three years at that point. I had a degree from a fine seminary. But I didn’t know that I was allowed to struggle and I certainly didn’t know I was allowed to speak of it openly. Why? Because I thought it must mean I’m not being sanctified. I thought it must mean that I’m just weak. I thought it must mean that I’m grieving the Holy Spirit when if I would have read any of the Scriptures it would have said to me, “No, you are actually confirming that the Spirit is at work in you, sanctifying you, if despair in the Christian life is an experience familiar to you.” Sanctification is likened to a plow that’s turning up the field. In sanctification, God is turning up the decaying soil of our hearts and bringing it before our eyes so that we see the wretchedness of it, we see the offense of it, and we can get rid of it. Exactly what sanctification is, is us and the fertile grounds of desperation coming to grips with the true story, with the harsh story, of what it means to be a Christian, of what it means to be struggling. I think I thought sanctification was simply waking up every day and hoping the Spirit shaved off a few rough edges, forgetting just how much the depths of sin still affected me as a Christian. No longer totally depraved, no doubt, but certainly still the vestiges of depravity all throughout my being.
So we begin wrestling with the reality of the depths by acknowledging that it be normative in the Christian life, but we also wrestle with the startling reality that the depths force us to be honest and urgent about the indwelling sin in our hearts. Listen to the passage. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Hear my voice. Be attentive, the voice of my pleas for mercy.” You see, it was precisely that plow working deep in the psalmist’s heart that made him aware of his predicament and quickly he realized that he was in over his head. Quickly he realized that as he gazed upon his sin he said, “I have no solution. All I can bring to the table is guilt. All I can bring to the table is more of this sin. The solution to my internal problem has to be external. The intervention, the work of another, has to be what frees me from this desperation, what frees me from this predicament.” If you’ll allow me to quote the Westminster Confession again it gives us a beautiful reason to be specific in our repentance. It shows us the beautiful freedom that comes from no longer whitewashing our sins, from no longer being vague about what our guilt is, from no longer being vague about how we’ve been offensive to God. You see, the shorter catechism question, sanctification - “We are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness” - the first way in which that ability to die begins is by honesty about sin. It’s about being honest about who you and I are before a holy God. The Westminster Confession says this. “Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly.”
Y’all, this is the illustration, and if you’ve been in my community group on a Wednesday night that I’ve had the privilege of attending with my wife, this is a used illustration. I’m sorry! But follow me for a minute here. Picture a house that’s being prepared for company. Here’s what we do as Christians a lot of times when we go to the business of repentance. It’s as if we are opening the front door of a house that’s been perfectly cleaned for company and we’re looking at the first room that will be presented to the guests and we’re saying, “Oh there’s nothing to see here. It’s all tidied up.” That’s all for what we do for repentance; we only look at the main rooms. Beloved, repentance is walking up into the attic and saying, “What can I find up here?” Repentance is going down into the basement, going into the mudroom, going into that closet that’s been on the Spring cleaning list since 1978 and repentance is going to that place and saying, “With God’s hand on the plow, what would He be turning up in the depths, in the crevices of my heart?”
I heard a local PCA pastor say to his congregation a few weeks ago, “Stop being southern with God.” And I’ll admit, my reaction initially to him is the same as it is any time I hear somebody saying “Stop being southern.” I immediately grow suspicious of them and I pity their ignorance! But it was too convicting and too true for me to be angry long for I am a southerner and I knew exactly what he meant. When it comes to repentance, when it comes to us in a season of desperation looking up to God, looking up to our Father, the last thing we need to do is be vague, the last thing we need to do is exchange pleasantries. And here’s a perfect example of how this is supposed to work. I’ve seen it on the college campuses; I do one-on-ones. Students will come to me and say, “You know I was at a wedding reception this weekend and I was over-served by the bar tender.” Or an engaged couple comes to me and says, “We were struggling physically last night.” Or I could say of myself, “That traffic got me a little flustered.” This is what specific repentance looks like. Instead of, “I was over-served,” you say, “I was a drunk.” Instead of saying, “We struggled physically,” you say, “I was sexually immoral.” Instead of saying, “That traffic got me a little flustered,” you say, “I had an anger problem.” And beloved, what you will find is far from despair and depression being heaped upon you when you exercise this, you will find great freedom. You will find great freedom as you cry out with urgency, “Hear my pleas for mercy.”
Well the depths of reality - they’re a place of soul distress, a normative place, and a place that creates a healthy presence of honesty and urgency concerning our reality but remember this. A Christian life is a pilgrim journey marked by frequent seasons of desperation but we’re constantly moving forward to an eternity of uninterrupted adoration. You see, this is the reality that we start with but it’s only the beginning of the story, not the end. We don’t stay in the minor key; we only begin there.
II. The Reality of the Cross in the Christian Life
So let’s turn our attention then to the second heading - the reality of the cross in the Christian life. This takes up the remainder of our passage this evening. And beloved, I want you to see quickly this reality of the cross is meant to overwhelm and outshine and out-glory the depths. That is the design. The cross, firstly, jogs our memory. Look with me at verse 3 and 4. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” What is it that pulled the psalmist out of the depths? What is it that finally freed him from this frequent season of desperation? Why, it’s the cross of course. It’s Jesus Himself. I wouldn’t deny for a minute the place of loyalty, the place of duty, the place of devotion and obedience. I wouldn’t deny for a minute that loyalty, duty, and devotion are sometimes means given in Scripture by which a people turn from their sin and to God. I wouldn’t deny their existence. But I will say to you that nothing, nothing will bring us out of unhelpful introspection and back to the foot of the cross like having our hearts and our affections stirred up by the living God. Nothing can bring us out of darkness and back into light, nothing can bring us out of desperation and moving towards adoration like love, like love. Hearts and minds that have been stirred up by the love of God, exemplified in the grace of the cross, when that captures our affections, when that gets a hold of the entirety of our being, when that is how we start seeing life, when that is how we start thinking about the realities of Christianity then, then we will come face to face with the living God crying out, “Mercy.”
Beloved, don’t you see something? You and I will never be honest about our sin before the living God if there’s any part inside of us that doesn’t trust Him. You and I will never be honest about our sin and come before the living God if there’s any part of us that thinks He’s going to crush us because of our guilt. This is why we have to insist that the chief, the primary, the most effective and the most Biblically exemplified motivation for repentance, for penance, for confession, for lamentation is the love of God in Christ. The Scriptures call for more than duty. The Scriptures call for more than loyalty. The Scriptures call for more than devotion. The Scriptures call us to love. It’s as he looks at his guilt in light of the goodness of God and he says, “Of course, if you would mark iniquities this man could not stand. But with you there is forgiveness.”
I want to make sure that in all the facts and in all the references to the Confession tonight you don’t miss this. You cannot be infatuated with the cross and infatuated with the depths. You cannot be constantly introspective and looking inward at your sin if you’re not looking to the cross. The depths are not supposed to be a permanent place of residence. The depths are supposed to drive us to the cross. The depths are supposed to drive us to the feet of Jesus with our sins, with our baggage, with our iniquity, with the fullness of our guilt and shame and it’s there we’re supposed to lay it before Him and say, “Thank you God that you do not keep count of my iniquities.” And let’s not miss how this is possible. The reason verses 3 and 4 can be a comfort to God’s people is that Jesus did not stand under the wrath of God. Jesus was crushed. Our iniquities were counted against Him. There was not forgiveness for Him. He suffered, He died, He was under the full wrath of God so that sinners like you and I can look at this passage and say, “You no longer count my iniquities against me.” The glorious, scandalous cross. Does it not stir up our hearts tonight? Does it not stir up our affections tonight to return to the Lord, to return to the reality of the cross? Does it not give us the allowance, does it not give us the freedom and the permission to be honest about our sin, to be honest about the condition of our hearts, to go up into the attic and down into the basement and bring it all to Calvary thankful that He doesn’t keep track of iniquities. The cross jogs our memory.
The cross enables our waiting. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” Waiting is a hard reality. We want it now. I can’t imagine what I was like as a child because we have almost a three year old and he wants it now always. And you can explain to him until you’re blue in the face, “Buddy, buddy, we’ve got to get home first. We’re about to…” but he wants it now. We’re born terrible at waiting. And yet when we fully understand the desperation that comes as part of the Christian life, we’re actually happy to wait because we know that on the other side is a beautiful restoration. We know that on the other side is beautiful hope. We know that on the other side are promises abounding. We know that on the other side that we say every promise is yes and amen in Jesus Christ. For you see, when we’ve acknowledged that our communion, not union, when we’ve acknowledged that our communion with the Lord Jesus Christ is affected by our indwelling sin, we cannot wait to return to the sweetness of what it means to be in open fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot wait to dine with that King. We cannot wait to sup with that Friend of sinners because we’ve seen that we’re guilty and yet somehow, wonder upon wonders, He declares us not so, because we’ve seen that we deserve to be crushed because of our iniquities but instead Jesus was.
And that’s how he’s able to work through this passage and use the language. He doesn’t just say there’s love with the Lord. No, it’s steadfast love. He doesn’t just say there’s redemption. No, there’s plentiful redemption. This man is completely overwhelmed, no longer in despair but adoration. This man is completely overwhelmed. The psalms of ascent were the songs the Israelites would sing as they were going to worship. This man, as he was preparing to worship God, was completely overwhelmed with the thought that even he in all his sin, even he in the full weightiness of his iniquity could be forgiven, could be loved, could be accepted, could be enjoyed by Jesus. And so his trust was founded solely in the Lord.
I mentioned earlier that there are always present in a room this size people who, for all practical purposes, have destroyed aspects, seasons, relationships in their life because of the heinousness of their sin, because of seasons of unrepentance. You often wonder, “Can the damage be undone?” You often wonder, “Is there hope for me?” Beloved, the words “steadfast love” and “plentiful redemption” need to be cemented across the front of your minds that the guilty are loved, that there is pleasure taken over the sinner who in truth calls out his sin and who in truth waits for the Lord with great urgency and with great hope. Yes, the cross enables our waiting; the cross secures our eternal dwelling. You see, this passage is driving us somewhere. As I told you, this passage is driving us to the eternity that comes when there are no longer going to be seasons of desperation, only uninterrupted adoration. And so we see, beloved, that the waiting is worth it.
I didn’t mind waiting for one minute in the hospital room as we were waiting for both of our sons to be born because I knew the joy that was awaiting. Next time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper right here at this table I want you to take a long, hard look at that table and I want you to think to yourself, “This season of despair that I’m in will one day be replaced with an unending banquet that the King invited us to.” I want you to pause for a minute and I want you to think, “Is the waiting worth it? Is the pilgrim journey worth it?” I want you to pause and I want you to think to yourself that “One day I’ll be with Jesus,” that, “One day I won’t struggle with temptation,” that “One day ‘I’m sorry’ won’t need to be in my vocabulary,” that “One day I won’t have to know the experience of the watchman waiting for the morning. There will be no night. There will be no despair. There will be no cries for mercy. Only worship. Only adoration.”
I’ll end with a quote. “However profound these depths, they are not the depths of hell, draped with its mist of darkness and lured with its quenchless flames. There is in them no curse nor wrath nor condemnation. Sink as the gracious soul may it ever find the Rock of Ages beneath upon which faith firmly and securely stands. There is not an angel in heaven so divinely related, so beauteously attired or who stands so near and is so dear to God as the accepted believer in Christ. The immovable favor of God secured to you and me by the blood of Jesus.” Always, always underneath the depths of despair we find Christ the Solid Rock. Always in the outskirts and the back forties of the pilgrim journey we find Jesus sufficient. We find Jesus lovely. We find in Jesus a balm for our souls. We find in Jesus perfect righteousness, forgiveness, and an invitation to come and feast with Him in a land of adoration for all eternity in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Let’s pray.
And now Father do the hard work of putting the plow in our hearts for we know to be painful for a season but what we desire is that despair would lead to adoration and what we desire is that the depths would be overshadowed by the cross in our life, in this place, in this day. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
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