Tuesday, July 04, 2006

“From the Depths”[1]

Lamentations 3:21-36; Mark 5:21-43

There will come a time in every person’s life when it will seem that everything you’ve believed in is gone. You look around at the world, and everything seems to go from bad to worse—the economy, the drug problem, violence, government. You can go on and on. Like David mourning for the death of Saul and Jonathan, you may want to cry, “How the mighty have fallen!”

Is God Against Us? The prophet of Lamentations was in a position like that. Everything that prophet believed in had been destroyed—his whole life had been turned upside down. His nation was in ruins, his beloved city of Jerusalem was besieged, and it seemed as if God had abandoned his people.

To the prophet, it seemed as if all of this was the result of “the rod of God’s wrath” (Lam 3:1). Indeed, he could say that it was God who besieged them, not the Babylonians (3:5)! He describes God like a bear or a lion, and says “he led me off my way and tore me to pieces” (3:11). He also portrays God as an enemy archer with deadly aim (3:12-13). He likens God to a conquering warrior who made him drink bitter poison or who beat him mercilessly to the point of breaking his teeth in the gravel (3:15-16). At the end of it all, it seems that all the prophet has is his bitter heartache over his beloved nation and city: “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord’” (3:17-18).

Turning a Corner. And yet, right in the midst of this bitter lament, the prophet turns a corner. He affirms that he maintains hope with the thought that “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:22-23).

It’s an amazing turn in this otherwise desperate situation. Everything the prophet loved was destroyed, and he believed that God was the one who had destroyed it. Yet somehow he managed to keep believing that God’s steadfast love never fails, no matter what the circumstances. He managed to keep believing that God is a God whose faithfulness never ends!

If you’re like me, you may very well wonder how in the world the prophet got from “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord” to “Great is your faithfulness”! How can you go from total devastation and hopelessness to trusting faith?

Perhaps he gives us a clue when he says, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (3:26). At first glance, that might not sound like much help. We think of waiting as a nuisance, the experience we have when we’d rather be doing just about anything rather than waiting. “Waiting” is what we do when we’re helpless to change the situation, when it’s the only option. We “wait” only when we’re forced to.

Waiting. But what we need to understand is that the kind of waiting he’s talking about is different from what we normally think of as “waiting.” In the OT, the term “wait” is a word of faith. It refers to a posture of trust, not one of anxiety or helplessness. To “wait” for the Lord in the Psalms refers over and over again to trusting God’s steadfast and faithful love when everything in life seems to have given way.[2]

Beyond that, we also have to understand what waiting is for in the Christian life. When we find ourselves in the “waiting places” of life, the temptation is to think that we’ll never get out of there. The temptation is to think that whatever it was that we once had but has been taken away from us is gone for good—love, joy, hope, all of it.

But the reality is that when we find ourselves having to wait, that’s when our faith is growing the most. The waiting place is the place where faith grows. “Waiting … is the foundation of the spiritual life”.[3] Like a tree that is dormant in winter so that its roots can grow deeper, like a field that is left fallow so that the soil can grow richer, waiting makes faith stronger, deeper, and richer. Waiting develops in us a level of faith that we may never have dreamed we could reach. It’s not easy. It’s not necessarily pleasant. But we don’t have to fight it, or fix it. We can rest in the knowledge that we are safely in God’s hands.

God is For Us! The waiting place is where we learn that God is faithful. And what does that mean? It means God loves us with a never-ending love, no matter what happens to us. It means God is always for us, never against us.[4] It means that no matter how much life may devastate us, God is always working to bring life out of death, to bring good from evil.[5]

[1] A sermon preached 7/2/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Ps. 27:14; 31:24; 37:7, 9; 62:1, 5; 130:5; James L. Mays, Psalms, 407 (on Ps. 130).

[3] Henri Nouwen, from Reaching Out, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 259; quoted from Simone Weil, First and Last Notebook.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, 385: “[God] is wholly Himself and true to Himself in the fact that he is true to us”; see also Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116.

[5] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 275.

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