Did you purchase your “I survived the Polar Vortex of 2019” t-shirt? The Polar Vortex that brutally attacked the Midwest during the last week of January 2019 will certainly persist in the memories and stories of people for years to come. With closed schools, broken records, and ridiculously chilly temps, the Polar Vortex made quite an impact…even on our church. Encouraged by a young man passionate about demonstrating God’s love, our urban church opened its doors for three nights and two days to become a temporary warming shelter for the houseless in Indianapolis.
The church rallied, bringing blankets, snacks, jackets, prepared meals, and even themselves. People cooked, cleaned, listened, organized, drove, reached out to partner organizations, and simply said, “Yes!” to sharing God’s love. Thoroughly absent were any suggestions the houseless somehow “deserved” their living situation because of sin. No one worried whether our overnight guests’ life circumstances would somehow “rub off” or “infect” the church. Guided by God’s love, our people gave no reason for our guests to exclaim the words of Psalm 31:11-13:
Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors and an object of dread to my closest friends— those who see me on the street flee from me. I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery. For I hear many whispering, “Terror on every side!” They conspire against me and plot to take my life.
Yet these are the words of David the Psalmist, facing terror and anguish in the midst of trouble. In the opening verses of our Psalm passage this week, we hear David crying out to the Lord (vs 9-10).
Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak.
The passage might seem out of place this Sunday, when our churches will be filled with palm-waving children and adults, joyfully proclaiming, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Today is Palm Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem, a glorious foreshadowing of his triumphant return. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. But today is also Passion Sunday, the end of our 40-day Lenten journey focused on being discipled in the way of Jesus. And it is here Psalm 31:9-16 fits.
David’s psalm, echoing other psalms, Jeremiah and Job, reflects the honor-shame culture of ancient Israel seen throughout the Scriptures. An individual’s suffering and affliction was assumed to be the result of God’s divine punishment for wrongdoing. Job’s friends repeatedly challenged Job to repent of his sins, prompting his response, “How long will you torment me and crush me with words? Ten times now you have reproached me; shamelessly you attack me” (Job 19:2-3). Jesus’ disciples questioned Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
And as if the chastisement and assumptions were not enough, those who suffered also faced rejection from friends and family. The honor-shame culture suggested acquaintances of wrong-doers were also guilty and shamed by association. Psalm 31 echoes Job 19:19, “All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me” and Psalm 22:7, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.” We also observe the reality of Psalm 31 as the crowds and male disciples abandon Jesus at his trial and crucifixion; the sentiment may even be detected on the lips of Jesus at the end of Holy Week, as he quotes Psalm 22:5 (Matthew 27:45-46).
Yet God’s ways do not conform to the honor-shame culture. God transforms culture and demonstrates a new way. Jesus challenged his followers, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16: 24). Hebrews, quoting Proverbs 3:11-12, reminded those facing difficulty, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son” (Hebrews 12:5b-6). The early church rejoiced in being considered worthy to suffer for Christ (Acts 5:41), and Peter encouraged the church, “But if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1 Pet 4:16).
Just as this Sunday is a turning point in Jesus’ story – from Lenten discipleship to the passion of Holy Week – so too is this psalm. Suffering and affliction do not necessarily imply sin, moral failure and God’s displeasure. Suffering and affliction are the way of Christ. They can draw us closer to the Lord, and we can respond with trust and faith as David did in verses 14-16.
But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me. Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.
But the challenge is not just given to us individually as we face trials. We also must respond appropriately – as individuals and corporately as the Church – to others who face trials. Will we reject honor-shame tendencies? Will we “mourn with those who mourn” and “be willing to associate with people of low position” (Rom 12:15-16)? Or will we turn away, concerned more about our reputations and the sins of those who struggle?
Opportunities like the recent Polar Vortex arrive at our doorsteps each week. How will we respond?