Texts: Isaiah 64. 1-9; Psalm 80. 1-7, 17-19; 1 Cor 1.3-9; Mark 13. 24-37
I hope there are some Monty Python fans amongst you this morning, because I want to begin by recalling a scene from one of their funniest movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Perhaps you will remember it. King Arthur and his brave companions have just been done over by an incredibly well-educated peasant on one of the King’s estates, and are feeling a little despondent about being part of the aristocracy. Arthur decides to seek divine guidance. Afterall, there’s not a great deal for a king to do if even the peasants won’t obey you! But before his prayer has progressed very far at all, Arthur is suddenly interrupted by a trap-door which opens in one of the clouds above, and a rather grumpy-looking God appears. Immediately the whole company falls to its knees in eager-to-please obeisance and fear. But God tells them to stop grovelling. “Oh please”, he says, “stop all that silly grovelling. ‘Forgive me’ this, and ‘I’m sorry for’ that. It really gets on my nerves”. “Sorry, Lord” says Arthur. “Don’t say sorry!”, says God, rather angrily, “I’m sick of people being sorry. All those grovelling Psalms really are very boring !” And after God calms down a bit, they finally receive their mission to seek the holy grail.
Now, like a lot of good comedy, Pythonesque comedy is strong on hyperbole. That is, overdoing things in order to make a rather modest point. And whether they knew they were engaging in theological reflection or not, the Python managed to make a rather spot-on theological point in this particular sketch. And that is that many Christians are far too concerned about being sorry about their sins. You might be surprised that I say that. Afterall, we said a rather stark confessional prayer this morning, and clearly I do see a confessional moment as quite essential to our worship of God, whether that be at Sunday service or elsewhere. We are sinners. We really do need to acknowledge our guilt before our Maker. Nevertheless, I also believe that there is a very real danger in becoming too much concerned with confession. For if we are forever thinking about our sins, we might even become inclined to invent sins to be sorry about—to blame ourselves, and no-body else, for all that seems to go wrong in life. This kind of attitude seems particularly prevalent amongst Protestants who, consciously or unconsciously, are followers of Luther or Calvin. Both these venerable gentleman had, on occasion, a rather morbid approach to the sinfulness of human beings. But I shan’t go into that now.
Instead, I will simply point out that the things that go wrong in life are not always our fault. Sometimes they are someone else’s fault. Sometimes they are no-one’s fault. And sometimes, sometimes, the things that go wrong in life may well be God’s doing. That is most certainly the view of the prophet in our reading from Isaiah. In speaking with God about the sins which led to
Judah’s captivity in , the prophet says
You were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself, we transgressed.
Earlier in this same prayer, in chapter 63 verse 17, the prophet says something similar:
Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from our ways
and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?
What an alarming suggestion! We are used to thinking, are we not, that God gets angry because we sin, that God hides Godself from us because we have departed from the terms of the covenant? Yet here the prophet claims that the opposite may be the case sometimes as well: that we sin because we experience God’s anger, and it feels cruel and unfair. Sometimes, he suggests, we fall into a gutter of despair and sin because we find that God has disappeared, and is no longer there to support us, which leaves us with a sense of having been abandoned. What are we to make of these claims? How do we make sense of them? Can we really hold God responsible for some of the chaos in our lives? Could we dare? Is God really one who sends calamity without regard to justice?
Well, I shall not be answering that question in full this morning. There is no time. But I would ask you to notice that whatever God may be up to “objectively”, as it were, the particular passages we are examining this morning show absolutely no interest, no interest whatsoever, in justifying the ways of God to human beings. What the passages are interested to do, however, is acknowledge and validate the legitimacy of that experience we have been examining i.e. that sense one occasionally gets that God has abandoned us for no reason that we can readily identify. Now, of course, when everything appears to be collapsing and life has fallen into a great big pit from which there appears to be very little chance of escape, we are right to search ourselves for character flaws, or sins. We are also right to search our families, our culture, or even the world economic order for the effects of sin, for patterns of repression or evil intent. But after all that can be known is known, after all the truth-telling and repenting has been done, it may still be the case that the sky is falling in and it is simply impossible to see any decent reason why. In that moment, we can only really see ourselves as powerless before forces which seem indifferent to our very real, very present, and very personal pain. At such moments the words of the psalmist come easily to our lips: “How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.” (80.4). Indeed, at times like this, our prayers seem to bounce off a God who, far from being indifferent, actually seems to have it in for us!
When life is like that, what are we to do? Well, this is not a time for confession. Confession is something we do when we can actually identify and acknowledge what we have done wrong ourselves, or in acquiescence with someone else’s wrongdoing. Having searched ourselves long and hard, having confessed whatever there is to confess already, there’s no point in going on to invent sins that aren’t actually there. Inventing sins for ourselves has another name. Masochism. And Christians are not called to masochism, which is a form of fantasy and reality-denial. Rather, we are called to lament what has happened to us, and claim the promise of God’s salvation. Which is precisely what the prophet does in the passage we are reading.
The kind of language we are investigating is called LAMENT. Lament is what you do when disaster has come and you’ve confessed until your mouth is dry. You’ve confessed and repented of everything you can find, but the disaster just keeps on coming. The best example of lament in the bible is the aptly named Book of Lamentations, which reflects on the destruction of
and the exile of
its inhabitants. But the two Old
Testament passages set for today are good examples as well. Here the writers tell God that life is pretty
much in the gutter, and that God had better do something about it. Lament is what you do when there’s nothing
else you can do. As a key part of their
lamentations, our psalmist and our prophet both point out that God actually has
an obligation to do something for
them, to rescue them. And they base that claim on two things that they know
about God already: (1) God is a
compassionate creator; (2) God has made
a covenant with them, in which salvation is promised to all who abandon their
sin and cling to God. I want to spend a
few moments looking at each of these in turn, because I think they give us some
important clues for how we might do our own lamenting. Jerusalem
When the bottom falls out of life, I first encourage you to call on God as the Compassionate Creator. The prophet says:
Look down from heaven and see,
from your holy and glorious habitation.
Where are your zeal and your might?
The yearning of your heart and your compassion? (Is 63. 15)
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Here God is imaged as a father who is also a potter. The point is clear. God did not create us with indifference, but with compassion, love, and father-like affection. Therefore we may count on God to eventually let go of his anger and relent. We are his own beloved people, the extraordinary products of his own tender imagination. No matter what we may do, God will not destroy, absolutely, what God has made.
When the tidal wave hits, I would also encourage you to call on God as the senior signatory to a rather special covenant. The Psalmist says this:
You brought a vine out of
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sends out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the river.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? . . .
Turn again, O God of hosts,
look from heaven and see.
Have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted . . .
Restore us, O Lord, God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
This allegory of a vine is the story of
in miniature. It speaks of the history of the relationship
between God and Israel . How God created the Hebrew nation in Israel , and
rescued it from slavery. How God cleared
a land for the people to live in. How
they prospered and bore much fruit because of God’s guidance and care. And yet now, with Egypt destroyed and the land in ruins,
the fruitful nation has become plunder for others. In telling this story, the Psalmist emphasises
the role of God in the relationship. God
is the primary actor, the protagonist who makes things happen. That’s how it was with ancient,
middle-eastern, covenants. One party,
the stronger party, takes the initiative to grace the other with its protection
and care. All the weaker party is asked
for in return is trust and loyalty. And
in the case of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel, even if Israel withdrew
its loyalty for a time, the terms of the covenant could be reactivated with a
genuine renewal of Israel’s faith. Here
the Psalmist is arguing that Israel has indeed renewed its trust so that, under
the terms of the covenant, God should now jolly-well offer his care and
protection once more. And immediately. Jerusalem
As Christians we are members of a ‘new’ covenant that nevertheless owes a great deal to the ‘old’ covenant between
and Yahweh. In Jesus, we are privileged to have witnessed
just how seriously God takes his side of the bargain made with Israel . Through the life and death of Christ, God has
shown us clearly and unambiguously that disloyalty need be no impediment. In Christ, all is forgiven. This is so not only for the Hebrew people,
but for all who are called into the community of God created by Jesus. As the book of 1 Corinthians tells us, ‘He
will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of Lord
Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him
you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1. 8,
9). On that basis, when the bombs fall
on you from the sky and the ground opens up beneath you, you have every right
to call on God and demand what is yours: Salvation! Not just the salvation of your soul, but the
salvation of your body and your planet as well.
This is God’s promise and God’s gift to all who are joined to
Christ. So don’t be backward in coming
forward. If life is giving you a hard
time, if GOD is giving you a hard time, and you’ve run out of honest
confessions, then call on God to honour the promises God has made. Pour out your lament, and don’t hold back. Ask for what is yours as a child of God: your
salvation, your healing, the liberation of the world from its bondage to decay. Israel
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with pleading for what is already yours in the gift of God.