Between graduating from Christian college in May of 1975 and starting seminary in the fall of 1976, I got married and worked as a youth minister at our church in Pocatello, Idaho. Now, in Idaho they think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t hunt and fish, backpack and camp, snowmobile and ski. And so part of my job description at the church in Pocatello was to serve as the assistant Scout Master for the church’s troop. That’s what I was doing at 7800 feet in the Grand Tetons camped next to Hechtman Lake in the shadow of Mt. Berry.
I was with my Boy Scout troop one day out on a scheduled weeklong trek through the backcountry. It had taken the better part of that first day just to get from the trail head up to Hechtman Lake, and on the second day we were planning to go up and over the Mt. Berry pass into the high Alpine Meadows beyond it. We pitched camp, caught our dinner – dozens and dozens of small Dolly Varden trout that went straight from the frigid lake into our frying pans and then into our bellies, and then we sat around the camp fire telling stories and talking about how hard the next day’s climb was going to be. A few hours after dark everybody was fast asleep in their tents.
The storm came up suddenly and violently as they do high in the mountains. There was a flash of lightening followed almost instantly by a clap of thunder and then it began to pour. Too late did we realize that we had pitched out tents in a natural runoff for the rain from the granite peaks above us to the lake below us. And thus began the longest and most desperate night of my life.
I was awakened by the screams of some of my boys being washed into the lake in their tents with all of their stuff. There was a mad scramble to get the boys untangled from their tents and out of the water. And then once everybody was accounted for, the next critical task was to get out of the rain and to save our campfire for some warmth. We quickly rigged a canopy over it and slowly fed it firewood that was just barely dry enough to burn. We unzipped the sleeping bags that we still had to make blankets that we draped over little clusters of boys who looked like drowned rats and then we huddled around the fire against the dark, and the cold, and the rain, impatiently waiting for the sun to rise.
Psalm 130:5-6 says –
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.
My terrible night on that mountain with those boys helps me appreciate what the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote these words. The trouble he was in that prompted him to write this familiar prayer is unspecified in the text. Lots of interpreters say that they appreciate this ambiguity because it allows each reader to fill in the blank with his or her own particular crisis. Our “depths” are different, and this cry from “out of the depths” is vague enough to be able to take them all in. This is a prayer that anybody can pray no matter what it is that is threatening to undo them.
What drives the spirituality of this Psalm is the experience of waiting. Simone Weil, one of the great Christian mystics of the 20th century, said that the experience of “waiting patiently with expectation” is the “essence” of the spiritual life in the Bible, and I think that’s right. The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), and that means that faithful people are going to have to get comfortable with waiting because it concerns things that are “hoped for,” things that are “not yet seen.”
The God of the Bible hears our prayers and acts on our cries for help, to be sure, but always on His terms and in His time. And so, in this Psalm, we who believe get compared with “watchmen for the morning” who wait for the rising of the sun. That’s literally what I did with my Boy Scouts high up on that mountain in Wyoming back in 1976. We watched and we waited for the rising of the morning sun. We understood that with the coming of its light and warmth that everything would get better for us, and this is why the Bible frequently uses the image of dawn as a way of talking about salvation.
The Christmas Canticle that Mark preached on last Sunday morning, the “Benedictus” (Luke 67-70), is the hymn of praise that Zechariah sang to God on the day when his son, the baby who would grow up to be John the Baptist, was born. This is a song that gets sung in many parts of the church every single day as part of Morning Prayer, at the beginning of the day, just as the sun is rising. From personal experience I can tell you that there’s some real power in saying – “Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” – as the first streaks of light are crossing a dark night sky. The sunrise – the “day spring” – is a good picture of the true meaning of Christmas. Just as the first streaks of light on the far horizon signal the start of a new day, so the humble birth of Christ in Bethlehem’s stable signaled the fulfillment of a promise, the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, the coming of God’s Savior to begin the work of repairing all of creation. But it takes faith to see, and it takes time to unfold.
I know that we are living in a time of real “depths” – personal, social, political, and cosmic. And I understand the very real feelings that many of us have that God has inexplicably absented Himself from the very real struggle in which we find ourselves these days. “Where is God?” is our cry in the face of terrorism, and natural catastrophe, and glaring injustice, and inconceivable violence, and abusive power, and blatant greed. Why, there’s even a theological category for this feeling, it’s called “Deus Absconditus,” and it refers to the way that God so often appears hidden in our experience and world. Reflecting on this, theologian Peter Leithart says that it’s when the world spins out of control and our instincts are to “rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” what we need to remember is that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we can know that “confusion is not the final word… that confusion will itself ultimately be confused and dispelled.” That’s the promise of Scripture.
No matter how dark the night, or chaotic the storm, God’s got this. And this is the kind of trust that the faithful waiting of Advent is meant to activate in us. It’s by crying out from our depths, and then watching and waiting for God’s tender mercy to break upon us from on high like the dawn that we enter into the spiritual experience of Psalm 130, and the spiritual meaning of the season of Advent, and will wind up with hearts that are truly prepared for the celebration of the coming of Christ at Christmas. DBS +