The audio is available here: The Gospel of Lament
“The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man. Wherefore they are not to be heard which feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet, notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”
Sounds strange, doesn’t it. Do you know where that language comes from? It’s Article 7 of the Thirty-Nine Articles—the Anglican Confession of Faith and I want to start with it as a way of getting us to think about our new sermon series that starts today, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ According to the Old Testament.”
The article is a good reminder for the many of us who are not quite sure what to do with the Old Testament—after all, it’s full of strange laws—if you find mold in your dwelling, burn it down—strange stories—the Sons of God saw how beautiful were the daughters of men and came down and fathered the giants—strange visions—Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels or Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne room. Jesus is much more accessible, we might want to think. We can at least work at understanding some of what he has to say to us. And Paul—well, even if we don’t like Paul, we can follow his argument most of the time. But the Old Testament? Perhaps it’s best to just leave its earthy, morally questionable, and just plain weird content behind.
If you have thought that from time to time, you’re in a long line of Christian thinkers that can trace their lineage to a Christian thinker of the second century named Marcion. Marcion didn’t quite know what to do with the Old Testament either. So he excised it. Cut it out. Said it told the story of a different god (small-g). But then he found himself with a problem—so much of the NT was in fact quoting the OT. So that had to go, too. Out went Matthew. Out went Mark. Out went John. Out went parts of the Gospel of Luke. In fact, by the time Marcion was done cutting, his New Testament consisted of one (edited) Gospel—Luke and edited versions of Paul’s letters. It was very small indeed.
Marcion’s great opponent was Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp and witness of John the Apostle. It was Irenaeus who insisted that indeed, the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob was the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That the Old Testament was the church’s book, told the church’s story, was the church’s Holy Scripture. It is in the Irenaean tradition (and indeed, the tradition of classical Christianity, that Article VII and the Anglican churches stand).
And that’s where we need to begin our series. This weird collection of earthy events and fantastic visions and odd ordinances is the Holy Scripture to which St. Paul appealed when he argued with his fellow Jews in the synagogues. It is the Holy Scripture to which our Lord opened the eyes of the disciples when he said to them, “These are my words,” in Luke 24. And they remain our Holy Scriptures, too.
Not only that, but if we consistently neglect them, our understanding of the new testament will soon wither. For, as the great Episcopalian preacher Fleming Rutledge has put it in a new book, The Old Testament is the New Testament’s operating system. The software won’t run properly without it. Or, +Stephen said last week, when he quoted Augustine: The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.
So, with that in mind, we are going to launch our summer sermon series, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ According to the Old Testament.” We will be following the weekly OT lections so you’ll be able to check-in and check-out and check-in again as your holiday schedule permits. Today’s reading is the lament of David upon hearing the news of the suicide of Saul and the death of Saul’s son, Jonathan in battle. This is perhaps one of the most poignant pieces of poetry in the entire Bible.
And it is more than a little complicated by the history that lies behind it. Saul was King in Israel, anointed by God through the prophet Samuel to rule God’s people. At the height of his career, Saul meets a young boy, David, who through his music can lift his troubled spirits and through his devotion to God, killed the Philistine giant, Goliath.
With this heroic act, David inadvertently shames Saul. It was Saul who should have championed the Israelites against the strong man from Gath, Saul who should have bested him in combat and taken his head, Saul who, as the Lord’s own anointed, should have delivered his people. But it wasn’t Saul. It was David. This poet. This shepherd. This messenger-boy sent by his father to bring food to this brothers. No soldier he. But when Saul failed to stand, he did. And God through David delivered his people.
And Saul became jealous. So jealous that he began to look for ways to take David’s life.
For his part, David took up the role of guerilla warrior to Saul’s tyrant. He gathered to himself a group of “mighty men,” galloping around the country side, generally trying to evade or avoid or elude the enraged Saul’s soldiers. For a time, he even became a mercenary, hiring himself and his band out to the sworn enemies of Israel, the Philistines. And all the while, he was married to Saul’s daughter, Michal.
And to make things even more provocative, Samuel, the old prophet who had poured the oil on Saul’s head, did the same to David and said he, not Jonathan, would be the next king.
Jonathan—where Saul was jealous of David, Jonathan was David’s kindred spirit. They’re friendship, David said, went deeper than the love he had for women. So deep was their friendship that Jonathan tried to mitigate his father’s anger and save David’s life, that they actually formalized their friendship in covenantal way. Jonathan who managed to remain loyal to his father throughout, and did so in a way without ever betraying his friend.
The whole story is told in the first book of Samuel and it is riveting reading!
And now we come to the lament.
It is no surprise that David is able to craft powerful words fittingly to express his grief at the loss of his dear friend. When David says, “Jonathan lies slain upon your high places! I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women,” we can hear the pain in his voice.
This is not some far away document that fails to speak to the tragedies of our time. It is immediately present, giving voice to all of us who have lost friends , husbands, wives, brothers, sisters. It is easy for us to make David’s words our words, and so to enter into his suffering.
What is especially striking is the words David utters for his old enemy, Saul. “Saul and Jonathan together, beloved and lovely! In life and death they were not divided . . . . O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who closed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.” Saul, the man who hounded David up and down the countryside, who would have killed David given the opportunity. Who missed pinning David to a wall with a spear by mere inches! This is the man David mourns. The man for whom he weeps.
Jamie Howison, rector of st. benedict’s table in Winnipeg, expresses our reaction to David’s words well: “What’s going on here? Has David forgotten the last several years? Is he just glossing over Saul’s madness, Saul’s desperation, Saul’s failure? No. David here gives voice to what is truly lamentable, namely the tragedy of Saul, and the loss of what could have been. David’s act of public lament is a powerful acknowledgment of lost hope and shattered dreams. Saul had been a king of great promise. He was chosen and anointed, and he brought the potential of greatness to his role as the first king of Israel. But he turned out to be something of the classic Shakespearean tragic hero; seemingly destined for greatness, yet bearing within himself a fatal flaw to which he apparently could not but succumb.”
Ancient Israel knew – and David knew – that life was not always easy, and that to pretend otherwise and to only and always sing praise is a lie. Lament tells the truth about the way things often really are, which is something the contemporary church has all too often forgotten, as we opt to sing only music that is thought to be uplifting. Maybe done in the name of keeping upbeat, faithful and positive – the attitude of “always look on the bright side of life” parodied so scathingly in Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian – Christians are sometimes convinced that we should really only sing alleluia. To do otherwise is to appear untrusting or unfaithful in our relationship to God.
But life is not like that. We do get sick, we do face death, we do fail and fall short, we do hurt each other, we do lose jobs, and we do fall out with friends and lovers. We just do.
And even the death of an enemy can be the occasion for lament for the consequences it will inevitably bring upon us and our friends.
So what are we to do with David’s lament at the loss of his enemy Saul and his friend Jonathan? How do these words impinge upon our lives as followers of Jesus, great David’s greater Son?
Listen to what Walter Brueggemann writes in his commentary on this lament passage:
“(W)ords matter. Sound religion is so often a matter of finding the right words, words that will let us genuinely experience, process, and embrace the edges of our life. The cruciality of words needs to be at the center of the church’s life, for we live in a culture that grows mute by our commitment to technique. The dominant ideology of our culture wants to silence all serious speech, cover over all serious loss, and deny all real grief. Such a silencing is accomplished through the reduction of life to technique that promises satiation. But such a muteness will leave us numb, unable to hope or to care. Against such an ideological urging, speech like this poem is a bold, daring, subversive alternative.”
So it is that David’s lament reminds us that the good news of the Gospel—and it is good news!—is not given to us as a panacea. It is not a sugar coating of the world’s ills. It is a message that comes to a world that is fallen, and in many ways, accentuates its fallenness all the more. It comes to us not to take our grief away, as much as to give us the words with which to express it, to allow it to spill from our hearts and lips with full-throated conviction.
So that, when we hear of a friend’s death or an enemy’s, we can say with David, “How the mighty have fallen! I am distressed.” So that when we hear of the suffering of those close to us or perhaps far away, we can say with the psalmists, “How long, O Lord? Will you abandon us forever?” So that when our lives seem to be ripped out from under us, we can say with Job, “I go about in sunless gloom; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. . . . Let the Almighty answer me!”
For the good news of the Gospel is not that we shy away from those words, but that even those words are heard. Heard by one who himself prayed them as he prayed the Psalms from his cross. Heard by one who is not ashamed of us in our suffering, and our grief, but has chosen to call us his brothers and sisters. Heard by the One who is God’s answer. By the one whom, we pray, will utter a final answer and on that day, wipe every tear from our eyes.