“Oh, God! two-word prayer… Aunt Margaret’s sons/diagnosis/death of loved one…we cry out!
Prayer can be a challenge for many of us. We struggle with the idea of laying our souls bare, even before an all-powerful God. We don’t mind the desperate prayers – thrown up to heaven hoping something good will come of them. But the long, patient listening prayers come hard for us.
Psalm 3 models this more challenging kind of prayer. This is an individual lament. The inscription is an interpretive clue for us, rather than a historical note. This psalm became associated with David’s story at the point where he is fleeing from his son Absalom. It was the worst kind of civil war, and a low point in David’s life. Connecting the psalm with that story helps us understand that the psalmist is a person whose life is in jeopardy.
Troubles are real. Sometimes, if you aren’t discouraged and depressed, you aren’t in touch with reality. This psalm is a reminder that just because you are a pious person, and you honor God doesn’t mean that all is well or all will be well. Associating this psalm with one of the low points in David’s life points out the reality that even kings chosen and anointed by God have serious problems. There’s real trouble in life and real suffering. It isn’t a matter of “having enough faith” so that troubles bypass us. Nor will a naïve idea that everything will magically come out the way it is supposed to hold up to the reality of life. This is raw, honest stuff: Life is hard, enemies sometimes surround us, and survival is sometimes uncertain. Evil and enemies are sometimes a part of life and there is no getting around them.
Crisis is a good time to pray. Because sometimes life is uncertain …AND YET there is a God to whom we may turn in hope. The psalmist lays out the problem and then remembers God’s actions in the past until faith grows stronger and they connect with the Almighty. The petition is to ask God to move into the situation of trouble with transformative power to change what is unbearable.[i] Because God is stronger than the forces that threaten.
There’s a song written by Scott Krippayne that might help us understand.
All who sail the sea of faith Find out before too long How quickly blue skies can grow dark And gentle winds grow strong Suddenly fear is like white water Pounding on the soul Still we sail on knowing That our Lord is in control
Sometimes He calms the storm With a whispered peace be still He can settle any sea But it doesn't mean He will Sometimes He holds us close And lets the wind and waves go wild Sometimes He calms the storm And other times He calms His child[ii]
This kind of prayer isn’t easy. It requires being willing for God to move in our lives, and even change us. After all, “Sometimes (God) calls the storm – and other times (God) calms the child.”[iii] And it requires enough faith to take the problem to God instead of trying to conquer it ourselves. Not easy.
Temptation is another kind of trouble that comes. This is a different kind of enemy – one that doesn’t surround us with force, but rather whispers in our ears. Temptation appears often when we are weak and tired, when our boundaries are weak, and life is not handing out trophies or roses.
This is clearly a story that Jesus told to the Disciples. It was just Jesus and Satan (Hebrew) or diabalos (Greek) – no witnesses. All three temptations are variations on the theme: to treat God as less than God. They also are reminiscent of the tests of the people of Israel in the wilderness, but Jesus doesn’t fail the tests.
The first test suggests that Jesus turn stones into bread when he has been fasting for 40 days and nights and is weak and hungry. Will he rely on himself to meet his needs instead of depending on God to provide? Israel did not trust God. God provided manna in the wilderness each morning – and some tried to hoard what they gathered. “Since you are God’s son…you can do this,” Satan suggested. But Jesus answered that spiritual food and trust in God is more important than physical food. That’s a tough statement to make when you are really hungry. Score 1 for Jesus.
The second test suggests that Jesus rely on God, but force God to act by throwing himself off a high place. This would test God’s care for him. “Since you are God’s son…”This relates to the test at Massah when Israel was thirsty. Jesus says not to test God, but instead ask for faith when you need it. This is one we often fail. We say to God, “I’ll believe you or follow you as long as you help me out with this one thing…” or “Show me you love me by doing this and I’ll serve you…” (pause) Jesus says, “I won’t test God.” Score 2 for Jesus.
The third test is really an enticement to take the easy way with his mission – to actually displace God in the plan. Satan has the kingdoms and offers them to Jesus – if Jesus will worship Satan instead of God. There’s an easier way to get to the world, Satan whispers. You don’t have to do this the hard way. But Jesus answers, “I will worship YHWH only.” Score 3 for Jesus.
All three tests are trying to get Jesus to betray his identity as the Son of God – and to take action – take control -- instead of trusting God. But Jesus uses scripture to assert his trust in God. Jesus continues to live responsibly in the middle of the temptations that are put before him.[iv]
Henri Nouwen in his book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership interprets these temptations as to be relevant(Bread), to be spectacular(Miracle), and to be powerful(World). At least one of those temptations probably finds its way to our ears occasionally as a whisper. Sometimes the need of the moment suggests that we compromise our values and beliefs. We too wrestle in the wilderness.
All of these temptations or tests suggest to Jesus that he can take care of things on his own. He can displace God – make the food he needs, and perhaps feed the world. He can be a miracle worker and show everyone how special he is. He could rule the kingdoms of the world – without God’s action. Satan whispers, “God helps them that help themselves. You have power and know how to use it.” But that is the way to fail the test. Only relying on God – trusting God – will enable us to pass.
Both Psalm 3 and this story of Jesus’ Temptation suggest something fairly radical in our world: that we don’t have to simply rely on ourselves in times of trouble. We can turn to God knowing that we ARE NOT self-sufficient. We pray because we KNOW we need help. Eugene Peterson said, “Prayer is the language of people who are in trouble and know it, and who believe that God can get them out.” He also quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer, “I only pray when I’m in trouble, but I’m in trouble all the time.”[v] That’s trust – winning the challenge and passing the test.
[i] Brueggeman, Psalms. 37. [ii] Sometimes He Calms the Storm,” Scott Krippayne. https://www.metrolyrics.com/sometimes-he-calms-the-storm-lyrics-scott-krippayne.html [iii] “Sometimes He Calms the Storm,” Scott Krippayne. https://www.metrolyrics.com/sometimes-he-calms-the-storm-lyrics-scott-krippayne.html [iv] Alyce McKenzie, Matthew. (Interpretation Bible Study). [v] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, 36. In NIBC, on Psalms, 695. Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash