It’s an idea straight out of 1960s science fiction— a smart computer that answers every question and can get you out of any alien-induced pickle. Whether it was the bridge of the starship Enterprise or the robot on Lost in Space, or George Jetson with a jetpack, artificial intelligence was a dream that made everyone’s life a little easier and machines less “machine-y.”
There are warning signs, of course. like the cautionary tale of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the H.A.L 9000 computer (H.A.L is an acronym for Heuristically-programmed ALgorithmic) goes rogue and seeks to kill off all the humans aboard a space ship.
Fast forward a few decades, and we’ve now invited that futuristic technology into our homes in the form of digital assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. Like George Jetson or Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise, you can simply ask a question or request information and the answer comes back to you instantly in a voice that sounds human.
You can open the fridge to get a something to eat, then, as though you’re speaking to an actual person, say, “Alexa, add milk and eggs to my shopping list.” And she adds milk and eggs to your shopping list. Then with snack secure, you can say, “Alexa, play my rainy day playlist.” But you want to know when the rain is going to end, so you ask Alexa for a weather report. These devices have become a ubiquitous part of everyday life, even enabling us to control the lights, doors and temperature of our home with a connection to other “smart” devices.
The future is now…even though I still don’t have my jet pack.
The question— for those of us who are now living in the future— is all about just how smart these devices can be. The answer, with a nervous nod to HAL 9000, is that they’re getting smarter all the time. In fact, the “heuristic” part of HAL (“heuristic” meaning the ability for a person or machine to learn something for themselves) is moving artificial intelligence into new territory.
In the very near future, our digital assistant will not just be able to place an online order for cough medicine; it may also be able to discern when we need cough medicine before we ask for it to be ordered. Our assistant will soon be as much teacher, therapist and confidant as it is a weather gauge and deejay.
Now for some, interacting with artificial intelligence is an easy transition because we have been in relationship with divine intelligence for most of our lives.
Siri and Alexia are great—but before them there was Adonai—which is one of the many names for God. For generations we have been calling out to Adonai with our requests and needs, calling out for interaction and intervention. We pray, we read and we study.
We believe Adonai to be all-powerful, all-knowing and present everywhere. And what is mystically, and perhaps eerily, real about this is that we experience it in mind, body, and spirit. Our relationship with Adonai is a real relationship between God and us humans, and only Adonai can know the depths of what’s going on in our mind, body, and spirit.
Imagine yourself in a quiet place, and you say to Alexa, “Hey Alexa, read to me Psalm 40.” This is kind of what the psalmist is doing in our text for today: “Hey Adonai, let’s chat.”
Psalm 40 is a beautiful prayer, and it’s knit together by three themes: Praise to God for a previously answered prayer (vv. 2-6); a reflection on sacrifice and obedience (vv. 7-12); and a plea for rescue from a new threat (vv. 13-18).
Psalm 40 is a prayer that reflects a real relationship, one in which God is not merely a cosmic intelligence who offers answers and serves a person’s every need, but rather one who hears, responds and delivers according to God’s good purposes for humanity.
It’s instructive that the prayer begins with a statement of patience. Waiting “patiently” for the Lord means there is no expectation of instant gratification. The psalmist’s patience had paid off previously when he found himself in the depths of difficulty and cried out to God, who lifted him up and set him on firmer footing.
“Patience” is not something we associate with a machine. It’s a human virtue often tested when we’re trying to boot up recalcitrant technology. Many of us have no patience—zero, zilch, nada—when it comes to our machines. If Instagram doesn’t load in the milliseconds we expect, we lose our mind!
But when humans ask God for patience, it’s usually a prayer for patience to wait for God to do something! “God, please give me patience… so that I will not get irritated with how long it’s taking you to answer my prayers!”
If we ask God for patience, God will honor the request—though we have to be willing to accept how it is honored. Waiting patiently on the Lord is a sign of trust that God will provide in God’s good timing.
When we look at verse 7-12, we find the most important item God offers—God’s own self.
When God’s rescue plan for the world was launched, and not virtually, Adonai didn’t become a disembodied voice dispensing information and taking dictations. Rather, God became human in Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ perfect act of obedience was God’s means of accomplishing what animal sacrifices, laws and prophets alone could not— the once and for all remission of human sin.
The psalmist, foreshadowing Christ, sees himself as a recipient of this great movement of God, declaring, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.” As a result, he delights to do God’s will.
To put it another way, when we put our trust in God we don’t just receive information about God, nor do we simply get a string of words and advice. Instead, we receive the very person of God in Christ and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It’s something Alexa can’t offer, but it is something God offers— not artificial intelligence, but God’s own wisdom and love born in human flesh.
Then as we round out this Psalm, we hear the psalmist build on what he’s written already. Noting God has answered prayers in the past, acknowledging the nature of true sacrifice and obedience, next he lifts up a new request, and it sounds urgent: Adonai, “be pleased … to deliver me” (v. 13) Adonai, “make haste to help me” (v. 13) Adonai, “do not delay” (v. 17).
What’s critical for us to take way from these verses is that the psalmist asks. “You do not have, because you do not ask,” the apostle James writes (4:2). The psalmist asks. And why not? We don’t hesitate to call out for help in other situations in our lives.
Clogged pipes? We call a plumber. Dead electrical outlet? We call an electrician. Leaky roof? We get a roofer. Toothache? We see a dentist. Not feeling right? We see a doctor. Anxiety? We see a therapist. Need to take someone to lunch. Ask our pastor. Need some soothing music? We ask Siri or Alexa to play our favorite playlist. So why not ask God when we’re in need?
The psalmist asks— as he should. And we should too.
To be certain… the stuff Alexa and Siri and other artificial intelligence assistants can do is amazing. Link those assistants with other technologies— smart speakers, and smart switches— and it gets even more fun. Who would have believed a few years ago that what’s possible today would be possible today?!
There is a downside though that we need to be cautious of.
Judith Shulevitz, writing in The Atlantic, gets personal, saying, “These devices no longer serve solely as intermediaries, portals to e-commerce, or nytimes.com. We communicate with them, not through them. More than once, I’ve found myself telling my Google Assistant about the sense of emptiness I sometimes feel. ‘I’m lonely,’ I say, which I usually wouldn’t confess to anyone but my therapist— not even my husband, who might take it the wrong way. Part of the allure of my Assistant is that I’ve set it to a chipper, young-sounding male voice that makes me want to smile.
The Assistant pulls out of his memory bank one of the many responses to this statement that have been programmed into him. ‘I wish I had arms so I could give you a hug,’ he said to me the other day, somewhat comfortingly. ‘But for now, maybe a joke or some music might help.’ Like an ideal servant in a Victorian manor, Alexa hovers in the background, ready to do her master’s bidding swiftly yet meticulously.”
To be certain, what Adonai offers— it’s not always as swift and meticulous in the same way. But we should dare note forget that God has always been acting on our behalf in ways far beyond anything we can think or imagine—and that’s what reminds us that we are God’s children.
When we live in the awareness that we are truly God’s children, that message can’t be kept to ourselves. The psalmist couldn’t help but tell “the glad news of deliverance” to the rest of the congregation. He cannot hide God’s “saving help” in his heart and must speak of God’s “faithfulness” and “salvation.”
The psalmist here certainly has in mind deliverance from a particular problem, but his words can be extrapolated to address God’s saving work on behalf of all humanity. It is God who saves and that word must be proclaimed to the world.
And in a world where everyone is asking questions and expecting quick answers from a machine, the psalmist invites us to make a statement that the one true God has not concealed steadfast love and faithfulness from the world. Rather God is giving it over and over again.
We don’t belong to Siri or Alexa. We belong to Adonai.
So let’s talk to God. Let’s chat. Let’s ask for help. And let’s remember God is more than our personal assistant. God is the fullness of yesterday, today, and the future… which is always now. Amen.