Print This Post

Sermon – August 9, 2009

Sermon for Sunday, August 9 , 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Out of the Depths

Psalm 130; Ephesians 4: 25- 5: 2; John 6: 35, 41-51

When you drive toward town past RiverWoods you can see the steeples of the

neighboring Methodist church and this church side-by-side. From there, and from other long

views, this one clearly is taller. It isn’t hard to see that this is higher, but it requires a little effort,

and an open mind, because there are places you can stand from which the Methodist steeple

may seem to top this one. That, plus a desire, perhaps, to see it that way, have led my

counterparts at Beaver to ask me which is taller.

What does that prove? It reminds us that the view you get depends on where you’re

coming from. Your perspective has to do with outer things, like whether you’re across the river

at Mays looking toward town or whether you’re sizing things up from next to Graham

Showalter’s office. Your view also has to do with inner things, with spiritual elements like pride

or fear or prejudice. Those are the types of static which interfere with our impressions of reality,

and can undermine our efforts to establish the way things really are.

Of the three points of view represented in today’s scriptures I want to emphasize that

of being on the bottom, being down, being depressed, being reduced to your most

fundamental resources, however you want to understand the psalm which begins, “Out of the

depths I cry to you, O Lord.” The depths give a characteristic quality to one’s impression of

reality. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed from that vantage point. I want to spend most of the

sermon talking about being in a low place, especially spiritually, and how God looks from

there, and how God helps.

The other two perspectives in the scriptures are those of the communities responsible

for the gospel of John and for the letter to the Ephesians. John’s gospel is addressed to

people in particular circumstances, and that gives the gospel its emphases. The same is true

for the letter to the Ephesians. Again, because I want to spend some time on calling to God

out of the depths, I’ll oversimplify dealing with the other scriptures, but I think we can see that

the theme of where people are coming from is illustrated in each of them, too.

John’s gospel is written at a time when the Jewish establishment, after having initially

incorporated and tolerated those who recognized Jesus as Messiah, has decided to put such

people out of the synagogues. Traditional Jews feel it’s all a mistake, and one which will

mislead a Judaism rebuilding itself on a new basis following the destruction of the Temple

during the Jewish revolts against Rome. The Christ-affirming community, of course, feels like

they are the ones who are right.

The gospel of John makes its case for the convictions of its community. One result is

that it is anti-Semitic, it singles out Jews as mistaken, hostile, and more concerned with

expediency than the truth. Believers, on the other hand, see Jesus for who he is, and that is

the One Sent by God. Jesus’ role as emissary and as embodiment of God is underlined by

a series of statements he makes throughout the gospel which begin with the words “I am.”

In the Old Testament when Moses asks God’s name God answers with “I am,” so a Jewish

hearer of the gospel understands the “I am” statements as divine claims. The circumstances of

the gospel community mean that a lot in the gospel has to do with Jewish theological notions

and their being used to defend Christian claims. This morning’s “I am the Bread of Life,” and

the resulting contrast or continuity–depending on which side you’re on–of Moses and Jesus is

intended to portray the gulf between established Judaism and John’s community as tragic

misunderstanding on the part of those critical of Jesus’ followers.

Even though John’s gospel gives us Jesus’ commandment to love one another, it is

much less interested in Christian behaviors than in Christian claims. It is about recognition,

seeing Jesus for who he is. It is about accepting Jesus, with the expectation that everything

else about Christianity results from that acceptance.

The church at Ephesus gets its letter from a different perspective. This is a group of

people who have accepted that Jesus is Lord, and the apostle wants them to turn that

acknowledgment of Christ into appropriate actions. The point here is not reinforcing how right

believers have been and how wrong their opponents have been. The point in the Ephesus

church is, now that you are Christians, how do you live? Let the thief no longer steal, but get

an honest job– and why? for self-respect, or the respect of others? No; in order to be able to

share with the needy. Christianity is a not-about-me way of living, and the reason for the thief

to work honestly is a good reminder of that.

Being depressed is an about-me life situation. I’m not saying it’s an unChristian

circumstance, because it afflicts Christians along with all sorts of people. It may be especially

difficult for Christians whose self-understanding includes their compassionate engagement in

other people’s lives, because depression is an illness which enervates and isolates, which

robs people of the will to get up and get out, and stands in the way of constructive sociability

and productivity.

It’s possible that a psalm which begins “out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord,” may

not be meant as an expression of the terrible experience of depression, but that’s my take on

it for us today. There are few afflictions so widespread, and so it’s good to have the

opportunity to talk about being down and to be reminded that though it is a very difficult place

to be coming from, it remains a place from which to call upon God.

It is not so that a well person always will be cheerful, or that being blue is always

inappropriate. Life contains some great difficulties, and some people’s lot is harder than

others’. Lack of motivation, resistance to social interaction, avoidance of exercise and light, all

are symptoms of depression which we can have when we are sad for good reasons.

People, after expressing concern and offering help, may need to let us stew a little when we

are miserable, because there are some things one simply must go through. Repressed or

avoided emotion has a way of asserting itself sooner or later, so it may be healthy for us to

weep, to mourn, to suffer as comes naturally to us, provided it’s a matter of getting something

out of our system. People who have known real loss need to be allowed to have it hurt them.

People may differ about what they consider adequate grounds for such unhappiness,

and it may be easier to feel terrible at seventeen than at thirty-seven, since perspective

changes from within as well as circumstances varying from without. My point is that there is a

kind of depression which is a problem the same way a skinned knee is a problem–something

painful and touchy which will heal. That’s different from the kind of depression which is like a

chronic disease. Just as some people have stiff joints or troublesome digestion, and have to

approach life a little differently for those reasons, there are people who find it impossible

not sometimes to sink into despair, and find it difficult to recover.

It is an especially difficult condition because, just as if it were a virus battling antibodies in

order to preserve its own life in the diseased host, the condition of depression is selfperpetuating.

The things which would weaken its hold on a person, such as vigorous exercise

or sunlight or having to pay attention to someone else, it makes its victims avoid. They’ll find it

hard to leave their beds. They’ll move slowly and reluctantly. They may avoid other people.

This is very dangerous, too, because by withdrawing from the rest of life they focus all

the more on the unhappy self at the center of everything. They may try to numb their

experience of themselves with alcohol or other drugs, or prescribe themselves other

desperate efforts, including doing away with themselves altogether.

It is not that some people only get depressed when they should, and others only

when they shouldn’t. Mental illness is like physical illness, in that everybody gets brief bouts

with it, including psychologically-based depression. Those prone to melancholy, on the other

hand, also have heartbreaking things happen.

It is better for the depressed than it once was. The condition is recognized as part of

human experience and doesn’t have the same stigma it once did. That partly is the result of

the other thing which is true, and that is that there are better remedies than our grandparents

knew. The self-contentment which frees people to focus on other people and other things,

and encourages achievement and comfortable rest, can be assisted pharmaceutically, and

that’s a good thing. The person who takes an aspirin daily to make heart disease less

destructive of his or her well being is accepted, and so is the person who takes medicine on a

regular basis to keep constitutional melancholy at bay.

A philosopher once suggested that this condition of listless surrender to miserable

feelings is a “sickness unto death.” A self who has given up is a challenge to help, and anyone

who has been depressed or cared about someone who has been depressed knows this.

This is where the psalm offers help. God may seem especially distant, God may

seem even more deaf than otherwise, when a person is low. Yet God is still there, and still

cares, and God’s power to bring something out of nothing remains potent. Prayers from the

bottom can operate very powerfully. A self stripped of every resource can learn to know

God more directly than otherwise, so that prayers such as the one in today’s psalm, though oft

repeated with no evident answer, sometimes are answered with that plenteous redemption

the psalmist seeks. The beginning of a cure always may be in a prayer, as it reaches beyond

circumstances which are confining and controlling. Especially when one suffers from low spirits,

God’s spirit is both promise and power, to raise up and restore.