Monday, October 4, 2010

Back into the valleys

This past Saturday, courtesy of George and Annette being out of town and not wanting their tickets to go to waste, Karen and I were able to attend the Quad-Cities Symphony. I think the last time she and I had made it to a Symphony was PK, as in pre-kids. As I was listening to the work of Beethoven, in particular, I was reminded just how magnificent a composer God truly is. You may wonder what Beethoven has to do with God or what classical music has to do with our readings this week, but I found both to be magnificent as I made my way through the week.
Over the course of the past few weeks, I have felt more called to preach on the Gospel lessons. Given the lively discussions in Bible Study, in the office, over the phone or by e-mail, I think I did a fair job discerning our needs as a congregation. This week, however, we are sort of forced to move on by the selections of Scripture. As a couple people asked, not in these words exactly, but are we not in danger of slipping into triumphalism which can cause others to miss the Good News of Christ. By this they meant that our focus on the eternal perspectives, the call of God on all our lives, our double share inheritances as His adopted children, His demand that we do everything to His glory might seem to ignore the real world around us where people have lost jobs, people are beaten and murdered, where cancer and other diseases run rampant, where relationships fail, and things are simply overwhelming. Truthfully, the criticism would have been valid, particularly for anyone who has just joined us or just visited a couple times. Over the past few weeks we have not looked very much as the vicissitudes of life. Fortunately for us, our Father in heaven moves us along like a magnificent composer as we study His Word. Just like Beethoven, who works lead us through good times and joy through anger and sadness and back again to joy, God leads us through the peaks and valleys of life. And few readings speak more to the valleys in life than our Old Testament selections this week. But, God does not leave us in the valleys. Though He acknowledges the hurt, the anger, the pain, the suffering we often experience in this world, He reminds us of the joy to which we are called, the hope which only He can provide.
Both our selection from Lamentations and the Psalm speak to the bitterness of life. The author of these selections points out just how far Jerusalem has fallen. The city that was the jewel of the world during Solomon’s reign, is now the butt of jokes. Her people have been carried off into slavery, her allies deserted her in her greatest hour of need, no one pilgrimages to the city, her enemies mock her with impunity, there is no singing, there is no laughter. Has there ever been a tragedy like this? You and I have nothing with which to compare it, at least on this scale. The destruction of the Twin Towers, for all the trauma that it caused, did not cause DC to be razed or us to be carried off into slavery. We are here, so to speak, to fight another day. And, unless we spent some time travelling to NYC, we might not even realize how much even the skyline of that city has changed.
Of course, the author of Lamentations reminds us why this has happened. “The Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her sins.” God’s judgment is upon Jerusalem, just as He promised. When given the choice to love and serve only Him, Israel has rejected Him over and over again in lieu of false idols. When given chance after chance to repent and return to the Lord, Israel has chosen to seek her own destiny. And, in faithful observance of the Covenant which He made with Israel, God allows His bride to be kicked out of the Land, to be sold into slavery, to be mocked and ridiculed. Her people are gone, her treasures are gone, and, seemingly, even her God has deserted her.
Perhaps we can relate to that frustration, that anger, and that desperation. Many of us here have any number of events which have caused us to wonder where God was in our life. Jobs have been lost, relationships have ended, lives have been taken all too soon, diseases have robbed us of some of our dignity—heck, we have been reduced to praying for some whose only chance at life means that someone else must die to provide organs. Life is sometimes far too bitter.
Not surprisingly, in the midst of this anger, this grief, this desolation, God reminds us that He is in charge. As bad as the authors’ grief and anger are, they are not without hope. The Psalmist, in particular in this week’s selection, reminds God to deal with His enemies. Though life seems anything but promising, the author calls upon God to judge justly those who have destroyed Jerusalem. Those who have betrayed her need to be taught that they betrayed God! Those who killed Israel’s babes need to experience what they inflicted upon His people!
Significantly, the authors trust God to judge and repay evil for evil. The authors are angry; they cry out for justice. But they also remember that God is in charge. Only He can truly repay suffering. Only He can truly judge without error. Only He is powerful enough to accomplish his purpose. In life, you and I are often impotent to solve the vicissitudes of life. We might rail against the murder of a Big Paul, but how do we truly atone for his death and the loss in that homeless community. You and I might have to choke out prayers for Bin Laden because of the 9-11 attacks, but how can we make right the death, the destruction, and the loss of innocence that accompanied the attacks. You and I might give thanks for successful organ transplants, until we realize that another family is grieving the death of a loved one in the midst of our thanksgiving. On and on the list goes, but against Him only have they truly sinned. In fact, this past week in our parish life was filled with far too many sermon illustrations of anger, grief, impotence and struggle. Those of you who had cause know of which I speak. How do we, you and I, make it right? How do we, you and I, fix what has gone wrong on your life? The truth is, we can’t. Only He can. And to prove to us He can accomplish all things, He raised His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord from the dead. The empty tomb stands as a bold reminder of His unlimited power and His unmatched compassion. His grace can accomplish all things not only in our lives but in the lives of those around us.
You might have heard it said that such readings are beneath God or beneath Christians. Some may go as far to say that they are certain such passages were not inspired by God or are unfit to be read in Christian worship. And yet each one of us is reminded throughout the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, that we should pray for God’s just judgment. Who wants to be here when heaven awaits? Who wants these diseased and sore bodies when the New Created bodies are waiting for us? Who wants these crumbs when we are promised a feast? The martyrs’ cry goes up “how long?” And we ourselves often pray to Him to come again, perhaps forgetting the revelation that His return will be a Day of joy and celebration for His children and a Day of anguish and lament for those who reject Him. Yes, in many ways, 2 Thessalonians and much of Revelation echo the cry of Psalm 137. Pray that the Day of His return finds the whole world waiting in anticipation and not at enmity with His love or His power, anxious to participate in those choirs and choruses which sing His praises into eternity!

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