Monday, March 25, 2019

Sermon: “Rock of Ages: God’s Faithfulness”, Psalm 40:1-12/Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-41 (March 24, 2019)

(This sermon is the second in our Lenten Series, "Rock of Ages", in which we're exploring how rocks can symbolize different characteristics of God and of ourselves.)


In my pre-Lenten planning, I designated this week as the one for preaching about God’s faithfulness. My plan was, of course, to focus on God: how like a rock God is in God’s reliability and steadfastness. It was going to be a comforting, feel-good sermon. But of course, “best laid plans” and all that; as I was doing my preparation and study this week, I found my thoughts going in a different direction than I’d anticipated. You see, scripture contains more examples of God’s faithfulness than anyone could possibly hope for. But what might surprise you is that many of these references aren’t joyful proclamations erupting out of praise or thanksgiving; more often, these references to God’s faithfulness are made in the context of biblical lament.

“Lament?” you might be thinking. “Isn’t God’s faithfulness the CURE for lament?” A great deal of modern Christianity has been predicated on this assumption. Because God is faithful, we think, there’s no reason for us to be sad anymore. The life of a Christian is one of joy, right? After all, we trust that God is with us, so what could we possibly have to complain about? As Dr. Dan Allender, a therapist specializing in trauma, observes, “The assumption is that trust precludes struggle; faith erases doubt; hope removes despair. Therefore, lament is unnecessary if one trusts, loves, and obeys God.”[1]

However much we may want this to be true, the fact is that it doesn’t reflect reality. We’re a sinful, broken people living in a sinful, broken world. There’ll always be struggle, doubt, and despair; to deny this is to deny the human condition. Lament is a way to deal with these emotions in a productive and healthy way; it’s an outlet for grief that gives us the space to acknowledge it without either letting it consume us or rushing past it in denial. Lament is a way for human beings to live into the hardest parts of the human condition faithfully, honestly, and authentically. God understands and embraces this—meeting us where we are—which is why lament is such a huge part of Scripture. Heck, we have an entire book called “Lamentations”!

We need this space desperately in order have a genuine relationship with God, and yet we’ve been socialized to avoid it. We all grieve, we all mourn, we all hurt, and yet we don’t always allow ourselves or others the space for that pain. How many times at a funeral have you heard (or perhaps even found yourself saying) “He’s in a better place now,” or “At least she’s not in pain anymore”? Or told a friend who’s encountered a devastating personal setback, “We can fix this,” or “This is just an opportunity to start fresh”? Where’s the space to feel the sorrow, to experience the very real pain and loss? Where’s the space to feel human, instead of plowing ahead like an unfeeling machine?

Lent is a particularly good time to explore this tendency in ourselves. I often refer to Lent as the season of reflection and repentance, because it’s a time for us to set aside our exuberant joy in Christ and remember the other aspects of what it means to be humans in relationship with the divine: our inevitable sinfulness, failure, infidelity, hubris, and ignorance. In this respect, it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to consider Lent a season of lament. It’s a liturgical space for us to admit the pieces of ourselves that separate us from God, to dwell in that awareness, and to mourn. As with any lament, the point isn’t to get trapped in cycles of self-blame or endless depression. If we’re doing it properly, we’re also not rushing ahead to Easter—that’s why many traditions “fast” from using the word “Alleluia” during this season. We’re simply taking the time and allowing the space to be present with our lament.

As we work to figure out how to accept and incorporate lament into our lives, we can look to this passage from Lamentations as a helpful example of what healthy lament looks like in practice. The writer doesn’t try to cover up their grief with words of praise and exultation to God. They describe their suffering and affliction in painstaking, gruesome detail: we can picture their flesh wasting away in darkness, we can feel the heavy chains weighing them down, we can hear their unanswered cries of anguish echoing in the silence. There’s no mincing of words here. Eventually, the writer remembers God’s steadfast love and places hope in God’s faithfulness…but doesn’t use them as an excuse to move on past the suffering. It’s still there; it’s still painful and it’s still very real. The knowledge of God’s goodness and faithfulness does nothing to nullify the grief of the one lamenting…nor should it. Because that’s not the purpose of God’s faithfulness.

See, if we accept that this passage represents is an example of healthy lament, it can give us so much insight as to what God’s faithfulness actually looks like in our lives. The temptation can be to think that God’s faithfulness is a cure-all and will magically overcome any trouble that we might encounter. But that’s not what the author of Lamentations is describing. God isn’t faithful in a way that undoes or takes away the pain of being human. God is faithful in a way that gets us through it.

Listen to the way the psalmist describes God’s faithfulness: “God lifted me out of the pit of death, out of the mud and filth, and set my feet on solid rock.”[2] God doesn’t hide the psalmist from or negate their grief. God doesn’t wash the mud of their despair away and make it as if they’d never been in the filth. What God does is keep them from drowning in it and steady their legs so that they can endure. God gives them somewhere solid to put their feet. When I imagine “setting my feet upon rock” in the midst of lament, I don’t imagine shipwreck survivors finally sighting land where they can finally settle down comfortably. When I picture it, I see myself more like a small child who’s ventured too far into the ocean, to a place where the water is over my head. I flail and sputter, wearing myself out with the struggle to keep from drowning, when suddenly my toes find a rock that’s just tall enough to hold my head above water. For the moment, I can rest and feel safe, until I’m ready to face the ocean’s challenge again.

To me, THAT’S what God’s faithfulness is like. It’s not a solution that ties everything together in a neat bow; it’s a promise that we will never be alone as we muddle through the most difficult parts life. A promise that even though things feel chaotic and out of control, life keeps marching forward, and God is with us at every step. To reinforce this, parts of Lamentations—including the third chapter—are written as an acrostic using the Hebrew alphabet. Even in the midst of unbearable sorrow and grief, even when it feels like your agony will never end, there’s still a way forward…God provides a way to keep going, and although it may not feel like it, God will help us to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

This is where, I think, the rock metaphor for God’s faithfulness is particularly useful. Think about it: a rock is firm and reliable. It’s a good, solid place to stand and find your footing. But a rock isn’t a place where you can lie down and settle in. It’s not a place where you can relax and forget about your worries. God can be that for us, too, but in the context of lament and grief, it’s not what we need. We need something that we can trust and depend on…and we need something that will keep us going.

The point of recognizing God’s faithfulness through our Lament, then, isn’t to find a resting place that takes away the pain, but to have the support and love we need to get through it. God promises us a solid place to stand until we’re able to sing those songs of praise again. God’s faithfulness keeps us upright when we feel like collapsing, keeps us working towards justice when it feels impossible, and keeps holding us close when everything feels unbearable.

This is so, so crucial to understand, because if we see God’s faithfulness as the panacea that will miraculously overcome all our tribulations, then we’re (ironically) placing our faith on shaky ground instead of the rock that God offers to us. What happens when our faith isn’t enough to overcome our pain? What happens when God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we expect? What happens if our situation doesn’t magically improve? If our understanding of God’s faithfulness hinges on a complete cure for what ails us, we’ll inevitably find ourselves feeling utterly alone in a place of doubt and fear, adrift in our own grief without any sense of grounding. That’s not what God wants for us at all. In fact, this is a worst-case scenario—God wants to be the rock under our feet keeping our heads above the water, but because we’re looking for something else, we can’t find our footing at all. If God isn’t taking away our pain, perhaps it’s not because God is faithless, but because God’s faithfulness is in meeting us exactly where we are.

The world can be a scary, painful place to live sometimes. Especially these days, as humanity wrestles with issues of racism, sexism, nationalism, and countless other expressions of hate that threaten to overwhelm us. So feel your grief. Be present in your pain and your fear. Lament loud and long, if that’s what you need. God will be there. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. But don’t look for it overhead to lift you up and away from everything. Look for it under your feet. Look for it down in the muck and the mud with you. Look for it in the brief glimmer of hope that you feel for a just moment, fleeting but real. Look for it in the prayers that others lift for you. Look for it in the small but significant steps that you find yourself able to take. Look for it in your own determination. Look for it in the knowledge that tomorrow will represent another day that you made it through, another day closer to wholeness and healing. Look for it at the cross, the ultimate promise that God is with us in our grief. And before long—not now, but sooner than we believe—we’ll be able to look for it in the empty tomb. Amen.

[2] Psalm 40:2 (CEB).

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