English Service on October 18, 2020
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
Meeting God in Grief (Part II)
You may remember that last month when I stood here before you, I began speaking about “Meeting God in Grief.” In the days since then, our church family has learned in ways none of us expected just what it means to encounter the Lord through the deep pain of loss. Losing a precious member of our family of faith has tested and tried us all. Yet it seems clear that it has also brought a sense of closeness that can only come through suffering together. The awareness of how much we need our Lord—and each other—as we go through hard times has never been stronger, to me. Have you sensed that, too?
Today we receive the next section of this message from the book of laments, the collection of five “Lamentations” over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in the sixth century, B.C. As I mentioned last time, God has used this book over the centuries to teach His people how to react to the troubles life brings. It can help us to respond in ways that pass through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4a, King James Version) but lead in the end to life, health, and hope.
We could say there are two parts to the message of Lamentations: “let it out” and “let it in.” Last month’s message focused on letting out the bad feelings that naturally come to our hearts when terrible things happen. God teaches us to be honest with Him and each other and share our pain. He takes our suffering seriously and joins with us in it, taking it as His own. In this way, we come to know His deep love in grief in ways we cannot otherwise.
By the way, the words of Lamentations have been used by Jewish people for many centuries at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (You may have heard it called the “Wailing Wall,” but that name is seen by many people as a rude name given by non-Jews to this important place. In Jerusalem it is normally called the Western Wall, as that one part of the wall around the Temple remains after its destruction in A.D. 70 by the Romans.) People cry there in prayer to God to express their sadness in losing the place of worship, the house of God, which Lamentations describes. They pray for His salvation and for the Temple to be built there once again.
Today, let’s look on the more positive side of God’s teaching, the “let it in” part. Once God has helped us go far enough through the hard, painful work of expressing the pain of loss, in the right time, He helps us begin to receive again the hope and courage that we need to move ahead. He calls us to rebuild a life without the person or dream or resources that we have lost. We may feel great resistance to that. We don’t want to go ahead—we want to go back to the way it was before that break-up, that illness, that failure, or whatever it may be. Yet God calls us to move ahead with Him and with each other. The life He calls us to rebuild is not the old one. It is a new, different one, yet the one we need to envision and pursue now if we are going to face the real world and deal with it in a healthy way.
We may know this is true, at least in our heads, but it is still amazingly difficult to accept. We really need God’s help if it is going to happen. What can make it possible, actually? The writer, probably Jeremiah, tells us what helps him. In v. 21, he says, “. . . This I call to mind and therefore I have hope. . . .” In the end, he falls back on the unchanging love of God to help him through the darkness. But before we get there, let’s notice what he has just said: “This I call to mind. . . .” In his struggle with grief and despair, he isn’t finding hope in his circumstances—they are bad all the way around, it seems. He isn’t finding hope in his feelings—they are dark and aren’t getting brighter. Just expressing his feelings doesn’t seem to be enough. Denying how he felt or ignoring his emotions or trying to force them to be different—all these approaches would probably just make things worse in the long run.
But he does find one effective thing he can do, with God’s repeated help. He can change what he chooses to focus his mind on. So much has happened, and he has a choice. He can “call to mind” nothing but the terrible things going on around him, or he can turn his thoughts toward God’s character, His nature, His heart. When he sets his mind on God, the clouds begin to part, and he realizes that they are not the whole picture. There has been a sun behind them, shining the whole time as troubles have covered his
view of it. His inability to see God and feel the warmth of His presence doesn’t mean that He is not there. He is. He always has been. He always will be. In that unchanging reality, the writer can plant his hope, even now, even before he sees his situation changing for the better some day.
Turning the eyes of his heart toward God helps him keep a sense of proportion as he looks at his troubles. They can seem to be the only thing in his life, and it may feel like they will never leave, things will never get better. But focusing on God helps him keep a sense of perspective. He says in v. 22, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, . . .” God has let some terrible things happen, but it could have been even worse—He could have wiped us out altogether. Of course an almighty God could do that. If He didn’t love us, we would not even be here. So the fact that we’re here at all is a sign that God is holding out hope for us. We’re not here in the first place because we put ourselves here, because we deserve to be, or any other reason. Our lives are a gift of God, start to finish. We live by grace, by God’s mercy and compassion. So the author writes (v. 22b-23a), “. . . His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. . . .”
We may get the idea somehow from our cultures that we have the right to constant pleasure. Something is wrong if you suffer, and someone should take the blame for it. But the Bible gives us a different view of the world. Verse 39 asks, “Why should the living complain when punished for their sins?” After all, God did not want to let this suffering come on Jerusalem. But He eventually saw it as necessary to uphold justice and give His people a chance to repent—to change their hearts, see the damage they had done in breaking their covenant with Him, and return to a right relationship with Him. It’s the same today, too. Whether the times are good or bad, we have no right to make demands of God, but we have every reason to give Him thanks and praise for the chance to be here in His world.
Now the writer speaks directly to God and confesses, (v. 23b) “. . . Great is your faithfulness.” It may not be so clear exactly what faithfulness means. Last week Pastor Sasaki led us in reading Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for. It is being certain of what we do not see.” In saying God is faithful, do we mean He can’t see some things but hopes for them anyway? No, that doesn’t match with the Bible’s teachings about God. Probably faithfulness is closer to reliable or trustworthy or dependable. In other words, God keeps His promises. A faithful pet or friend or marriage partner won’t leave you and go away with someone else. People may be unfaithful in that way, but God will not.
When we were singing the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” recently, you may have noticed that the Japanese version of faithfulness was makoto (「父の神よ 汝がまことは」). That sounded kind of different, and it got me interested, so I went to www.biblestudytools.com and looked in the interlinear Bible (in the Bible menu). Many of the words are linked to a Bible dictionary, so I checked that Hebrew word that gets translated faithfulness in v. 23. I was interested to see that the same word is sometimes translated truth. So I guess it’s not really basically different when you think about it. Do you remember the story of Moses at the battle with the Amalekites in Exodus 17? Moses was watching over the Israelites’ fight with the soldiers from Amalek. When his hands were held up, the Israelites were winning, but when he got tired and let them down, they started losing. So Aaron and Hur held his hands up for him (v. 12) “so that his hands remained steady until sunset.” Steady—there’s the same Hebrew word translated one more way. That’s it—that’s what God is. Steady, not going anywhere. Even when everything around us is falling apart, there He is. Faithful. Thank you, Lord, for staying with us in crazy times. Stand strong beside us, God, today and every day.
Do you notice what is happening as the writer shares his thoughts and feelings with us? He’s been talking to his readers. It’s not so clear who he thought they would be. Maybe he felt no need to limit it to anyone in particular but wanted as many people as possible to hear what was on his heart. Pretty soon he’s going to say (v. 24), “I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion. . . .’” So he’s speaking to himself, too. And he’s just now suddenly turned to God and confessed to Him, “Great is your faithfulness.” So in this process of lamenting, there’s a community getting involved. By choosing not to keep his suffering private, he’s letting God use it for something that can be of great help to people in grief today, too—keeping and deepening relationships of support with the people around us and with Himself.
That’s one of the good things our God is in the habit of raising up out of horrible situations. I think we’ve also been experiencing it here at Open Door in the past few weeks especially. Thank you, Lord, for using bad times to teach us to live as members of your family. Please continue to do that as we move ahead together.
A moment ago, I mentioned v. 24b, “The Lord is my portion. . . .” Do you see what that means? Actually, I’ve read phrases like that throughout the Bible, but I’ve had trouble understanding the real meaning there. In English I hear people say things like “The portions of food in restaurants in the U.S. are huge compared to the ones in Japan. When I’m in the U.S., I can barely eat all that food, and if I do, I overeat.” So I looked at some Japanese translations, and all three of the modern translations I found call it ukerubun 「受ける分」. When I look at the way the Bible uses that word, I see that what one receives often has to do with land, property, the home that God has given a person or a nation.
The point I hear the Lord making to us is that He Himself is what we need when trouble comes. He does not just offer us a lecture, a program to follow, self-help techniques to practice, or other resources like land or food or money. He gives Himself. Lamentations is about a disaster in about 586 B.C., but it points forward to the cross. Jesus Christ, in the same city, entered into the pain of all people of all times. We, too, as Lamentations says the people of Jerusalem had, bring much of our suffering on ourselves through refusing to live as God teaches us. But because of His deep love for us as His very own creations, He came into our world in the person of His Son, Jesus. He lived, died, and returned to life to make a way for us to be forgiven, restored, brought back into a relationship of love and trust with Him as our Heavenly Father.
That means that we can live in the Good News of Christ. As vv. 31b-32 of Lamentations say, “. . . No one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” That’s the greatest love I know. We have the opportunity to receive it. The first step is simply choosing to place our hope in the God who loves us enough to give Himself. That’s what Lamentations calls saying from our hearts, “The Lord is my portion.”
So how do we respond to that kind of love? The author says (v. 24b), “. . . I will wait for him. . . .” We can choose to believe that the troubles we face are not the whole story of our lives. God has much to say about them, and He will act when the time is right—in His time and His way. We can choose to wait in faith for Him to do that. We receive the rich promise in v. 25, “The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him.” So we can ask, “Father in Heaven, I choose today to place my hope for today, tomorrow, this week, this problem, this need, and all the days ahead, in you. Help me seek not only escape from trouble and a solution to my problems. Help me to seek you because Jesus has promised, “Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). If I truly seek, I will find you, so help me to do that day by day. Lamentations tells us (3:40), “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the LORD.” So let’s do that through prayer right now.
Father of unchanging love, your people across the years have known your heart and your character even when they could not see your hand at work in the troubles around them. We join with them in trusting that, in the end, you will act in our lives according to your goodness, your truth, your beauty, and most of all your forgiving, redeeming love. Today through your word you have told us again that even if everything else is falling apart around us, sooner or later, you will be moved to action by your deep kindness and care. So we ask in faith that when we are in trouble, you will lift us up, put us back on the path, and walk with us on it moment by moment, until we reach our home with you in heaven one day. This is our prayer for each of us, for all those we love, and all people in our divided, broken, hurting world. In Christ’s name, amen.
Bible Project, The. (2016, July 1). Lamentations. Retrieved October 12, 2020 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8GDFPdaQZQ
Bible Study Tools. (2020). Book of Lamentations. Salem Web Network. Salem Media Group. Retrieved September 30, 2020 from https://www.biblestudytools.com/lamentations/
Peterson, E. H. (1992). Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.