Tag Archives: lament

A God who laments

I had already written this sermon on Lament before the horror of Christchurch on Friday. We heard the statement from the President of the Uniting Church and prayed together; but I left the sermon unchanged apart from one small paragraph.

Reading
Luke 13.31–35

Lament is a complex language of complaint, protest, and appeal directed to God. At times, lament may be subdued in tone as a poet wrestles with trouble; at other times, lament may be as loud and vigorous as any praise song.… laments share one commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain. — Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God, p.30

…the merciful humility of God [is] the most powerful force imaginable. — Jane Williams, The Merciful Humility of God.

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Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s already told the disciples why, though they will not listen:

Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands. But they did not understand this saying… (Luke 9.44–45a)

Jesus is going to the last great confrontation with the powers that be, a confrontation that ends with his death. 

In his mind’s eye Jesus sees Jerusalem, and he laments over the city: 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

We can say that a lament is a faithful expression of grief. In lament, we ask for God’s help. We know things should be different, we want God’s justice. We may even accuse God, like the Psalm 77 (verses 8–10): 

Has [God’s] steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High
  has changed.’

Here, Jesus is continuing this tradition of lament. He is pouring his heart out to God. Why does Jerusalem, the home of God’s great Temple, turn its back on God’s prophets? 

Jesus wants to embrace the people of Jerusalem as a mother hen embraces her chicks under her wings. In this queer imagery, Jesus shows what is in his heart: it is the salvation of Jerusalem. Jesus loves the people as a mother loves her children. 

And Jesus will do whatever is needed to protect her children. 

Jesus laments for Jerusalem. Jesus grieves, all the more so because Jesus knows just what Jerusalem needs: to welcome God into their midst. 

Anyone who laments is aware of their powerlessness. We have grieved over the boys and girls who suffered abuse at the hands of ministers and priests, and not only in the Catholic Church. We have grieved the choice of the special conference of the United Methodist Church in the USA to turn its back on its queer members. We have grieved because we care for the people involved; because we want a safe church; because we want an inclusive church; because we are powerless to bring it about ourselves. 

Most recently, we have grieved over the horror of Muslim believers killed while at prayer in Christchurch. We have asked ‘How long, O God?’

Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? But surely God is almighty, not powerless? Couldn’t almighty God just fix things like *that*? And if God can fix everything but doesn’t, what good is God? 

What do you think about that?

I ask this question about God because the New Testament says things like this about the risen Jesus:

…the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity… (Colossians 2.9 GNB)

Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…’ (Hebrews 1.3)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… (John 1.1, 14)

In Jesus, in his humanity, we are met by ‘the full content of divine nature’. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say, “Show us the Father”?’ (John 14.9)

So, that question again: Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? 

There are plenty of people with a pagan idea of the Christian God: that is, the central thing about God is that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing. Oh, apart from that, and reassuringly, God does love us.

Yet perhaps the most profound statement about God in the scriptures is found in 1 John 4.16: ‘God is love’. 

That’s the first thing and the last thing we should ever say about God. Can God do anything? No! God cannot act against God’s nature. God is love—God cannot be unloving. 

So the way forward for Jesus is the way of love. Not to gather an army together. Not to plot and scheme. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Self-giving Love. 

So Jesus laments, and in Jesus God laments too. Is God almighty? Yes, if we are talking about the love of God. God is almighty in love, but love waits, loves serves, love gives and gives again to the beloved. And we, dear friends, are God’s beloved. 

A lot of people who say to me they can’t believe in God mean that pagan God, the all-powerful being who can slay, and punish, and put people in hell for eternity. Some parts of the Bible talk that way, but we see God in and through Jesus Christ. 

And anyway, I don’t believe in that pagan God either. 

The clear image of God our faith gives us is Jesus Christ. In him ‘the full content of divine nature lives…in his humanity’. 

We see God in the humanity of Jesus Christ. A God who loves to the end, who laments when God’s beloved turn away. A justice-bringing God, but only by the narrow way, the Way of self-giving love, the Way of the cross. 

One more thing to add, and it’s the end of Jesus’ lament. Jesus cries out,

I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Do you recognise that? We sing it every week: 

Blessed is the One who comes
  in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We welcome Jesus as he comes to us in the Holy Meal of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion. 

Jesus (and we) are quoting Psalm 118.26:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

This psalm was a thanksgiving for a returning hero. But Jesus turns it upside down. When he comes to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, people are shouting these words; but Jesus is coming on a donkey, not a war horse. He is coming to the cross, which is the only throne he gets. He comes in peace. 

When we sing these words in church, we welcome Jesus into our hearts, we prepare to receive him in bread and wine. Not as a hero, but as the very love of God made flesh. We commit ourselves to follow his Way of self-giving love. 

And yes, we often grieve for the world that turns its back on the ways of peace, the ways of love, the Way of Christ. And we lament, keeping our hope in God, whose ‘almightiness’ is the Way of Jesus. Amen. 

 

West End Uniting Church, 17 March 2019

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The God who serves (Year B, 17 October 2015)

Readings
Job 38.1–11 (Psalm 104.1–9, 24, 35c)
Hebrews 5.1–10
Mark 10.35–45

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you… Job 42.5

Two weeks ago, we encountered Job whose whole world collapsed on one day. Not only did he lose his 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, and his servants; he also lost his seven sons and three daughters. And then he lost his health.

We saw that suffering is not a problem that can be solved, but that it may become an invitation to trust in God more and more. We also saw that there is no real answer to the question ‘Why me?’

Then last week, we saw that suffering can lead to lament; and that the question ‘Why me?’ is itself a lament. We also saw that lament is very common in the scriptures. 58 out of 150 psalms are laments. That’s over a third.

And we saw that lament in the Bible has a simple shape:

  1. We cry out to God in our distress;
  2. We remember God’s goodness and mercy;
  3. We hope in God once more; or at least, we hope to hope in God again.

Today, Job has done lamenting. He finally gets an audience with God.

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Natural Disasters: Lament, community and the death of theodicy

Last week, I came across an article by Rev Dr Andrew Dutney, President-elect of the Uniting Church in Australia, with the provocative title: Does God hate Queensland? This was before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power disasters of Japan.

We had a bad summer with floods and cyclones; the photo at the top of the page was taken across the road from our house to show how high the water came during the flood. Japan is faring far worse than us.

How do Christians respond?

Theologians have classically gone for theodicy, the justification of God in the face of evil and disaster. Why does God let these things happen?

There are two broad kinds of theodicy: one which says with Augustine that the creation fell from perfection with Adam; the others says with Irenaeus that the world began in an immature state, and that suffering is necessary for us to mature.

Dutney points out that

theodicy works for some but not all cases. There are far too many examples of suffering which are so grotesque or so excessive that they make it impossible to devise an explanation that is both rational and morally tolerable. In any case, it would be offensive even to try to explain such suffering away.

He also makes the very important point that ordinary Christians haven’t gone all the way with the theologians in trying to justify God’s ways. Rather for them,

the experience of suffering does not challenge belief in God as such, but rather forces the question, Where in this suffering is the God in whom I believe?

Theodicy has a limited place. The scriptures allow far more lament than we have allowed for ourselves in our services until recently. Thumb through the Psalms for example upon example, or read Lamentations; Uniting in Worship 2 has put lament into the ‘mainstream’ of the Church’s worship. For Dutney it is simply that:

There is suffering which will not be explained into quietness by church leaders, philosophers or theologians.

In the floods in Brisbane, people were bowled over by the number of people who came to help. And community is another discovery in disaster:

It turns out that our possessions are less important than our family, friends and neighbours. It turns out that we can trust strangers to enter our (shattered) homes and deal gently with our treasures – in fact we rely on them to do so. It turns out that my neighbours need does matter more to me than my own in this situation. It turns out that sitting in the rubble of the lives that we’d worked so hard to create we can laugh and experience genuine joy in the inexplicable gift of being alive – together. It turns out that when we look up and see what natural disaster means in Haiti and Pakistan we do recognize in a new way the responsibilities – the opportunities to help – that go with the advantages enjoyed by Australians and New Zealanders even in times of devastation. Who knew?

None of this justifies or minimises human suffering. But we survive—and we survive together.

Read Andrew’s article for yourself.

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Filed under Church & world, Liturgy, Lord have mercy, reflection, Uniting Church in Australia