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Psalm 40:1-11

If we have been journeying through the Christian year, we sit this week in the middle of the season of Epiphany and not far from the abrupt transition to Ordinary Time. Here in Epiphany we watch God revealing God’s self to foreigners from the east, holding his own as a young boy in conversation with the academics in the Temple, showing up in front of a watching world at Jesus’ baptism. However, as I watch these things unfold, it is not unusual for me to begin to find myself in a somewhat liminal space as I personally am not receiving any epiphanies, no light bulbs flicking on in my own darkness, no change in my own situation. I have a hunch I am not alone in this.

We have walked through the darkness and longing of Advent. We have sat with only the light of a candle and practiced lament and longing. After a month of shadows, we have finally lit the Christ candle and rejoiced at God’s coming to us. If we have practiced Christmas well, we have celebrated for 12 days how God has appeared to be with us, to make all things new. We have had shiny lights and gifts and songs of gladness to overwhelm our senses with goodness. But what now?

I am coming to have a love/hate relationship with the word “liminal.” The word is a good one because it names a space we have felt but for which we had no words. To be in a liminal space is to stand on the threshold of a door through which we are passing—and not just a door like the one to the kitchen or the laundry room that we pass through multiple times a day. This door—this door with the liminal threshold—is one that we approach knowing when we go through it we will never be able to go back again. We are passing into a new reality. The world “liminal” always reminds me of that day after a funeral when all the rest of the world goes back to work and life goes on for everyone else, except for the lives of those closest to the deceased, for whom life will never be the same.

So here we are in a liminal time. The tree has come down. The ornaments are packed away in tissue. The wreath is off the door. Our playlists have returned to normal. Now we go back to ordinary, and for most of us, there is some pain that fills that ordinary.

All of this is why Psalm 40 is a good one to put in our coat pocket–next to the lip balm and cough drops and the few coins we have left– as we head back to work and winter and ordinary and pain. Psalm 40 reverses the movement from Advent waiting to Christmas joy, but in a way that doesn’t strip us of the good news of Christmas. It gives us words for crossing this threshold. How do we enter back into the real situations of our lives and change our prayers back to lament in a way that is marked by what we celebrated at Christ’s coming?

Most psalms of lament move from pain to joy, from disorientation to new orientation, from despair to a new trust in God. They say, “I needed rescue and you rescued me.” But not Psalm 40. In backwards fashion, this psalm begins with thanksgiving. It begins on the other side of lament. It begins with testimony to dramatic rescue. And then it takes an abrupt turn and goes a way we weren’t expecting. In verse 11, the author moves from joy to lament and stays there for the rest of the chapter. The Psalm, at its most basic, says,

You came to my rescue

and I didn’t hold back my praise.

I celebrated in a huge way and in public.

Now rescue me, and do it quickly!

There is no transition between the two parts. Just a step across a threshold. Just a door banging shut. Just the bitter chill of wind and cold on our faces after the warmth that was inside.

There is something true about this Psalm for me today. Coming off of the high of Christmas, I still have people I love who need rescue. I need rescue. Like most people I have too many things on my “to do” list, but those aren’t the real issues. The things that make me cry out, the things that make me lose sleep—these are the things I would love to put on my “to do” list but can’t. There isn’t anything I can do to fix them. I am at the end of my rope and my resources. “My heart fails me” (v. 12). Time for a little Psalm 40 work.

Psalm 40 gives a way to shift back after a season of extraordinary good news to the ordinary, but we come to this shift fortified by the season through which we have just passed. Our desperate prayer now is still desperate, but it is for the kind of rescue we have witnessed recently.

I fly a lot, but I never fly first class. One day last summer, however, I ended up in first class for a long-haul, transatlantic flight. There were certain amenities that were obvious from the beginning – more leg room, a nicer meal, more attention. However, it wasn’t till I was stretching my legs in the forward service area that I witnessed something amazing. A young businessman came forward and asked the attendant for a Kit Kat – a Kit Kat! The chocaholic in me paid attention. Without batting an eye, the attendant opened a cabinet where every kind of candy and snack known to man was lined up in a bountiful display and handed the man his Kit Kat. It was free for the asking. I remember thinking, who knew? I returned to my seat and told my seatmate, and very soon after that, we each requested our favorite candy bars. They were ours for the asking all along, but we hadn’t known exactly what we could hope for.

As the psalmist shifts back from thanksgiving to lament in Psalm 40, I get this same impression. Yes, life brings us back to a season of desperate need for rescue. Yes, we can’t live in the shininess of Christmas all year long, and we have to step back to some days where the cold takes our breath away. But here is the difference – now we know what’s in the cabinet. Now we know the kind of rescue for which we can ask. We go back into lament with a deeper understanding of God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” (v. 11). We groan and pray now enveloped by the new knowledge that “though we are poor and needy, the Lord takes thought of us” (v. 17). We know the bounty in God’s cabinet, and we can trust that the rescue we need is coming.

Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.