Audio is available here: Sermon: How Long?
How many of us this week have had our minds distressed and our hearts torn open by the events of last Friday? I know I did. I was reminded, in fact, of a Scripture passage from the OT, but quoted by Matthew as he sums up Herod’s attempt to eliminate his competition–the one born King of the Jews—by killing all the boys of Bethlehem: “A voice was heard in Ramah, waling and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more.” We are bombarded by images of modern day Rachels—moms and dads, grandparents, and other family members—weeping for children who are no more. Weeping no words of consolation can staunch.
Indeed, it was because an absence of words seemed the best response that I deliberately avoided talking about the shooting last week. Sometimes, the best thing to do is sit in silence with those who mourn. And yet, we cannot remain silent. At a personal level, I can’t remain silent because I’m a dad with three young kids, one of whom looks very like the ones who died. And as your pastor, I can’t remain silent for to do so would proclaim that the Gospel has confronted a manifestation of evil so great that it has no words. And that would be a denial of the Good News that the Word of God entered into our world—a world which includes Newtown—to rescue and redeem and reconcile it.
So I’m caught in a dilemma: I cannot speak before this evil. (Not mental illness and its treatment, not lax gun laws and their strengthening—there will be time for that. But a rush to explanation—that is what such words are—a rush to explanation now is only an attempt to shield ourselves from the full horror of what happened. What happened, before we soften it for ourselves with half-explanations, was and is evil.) I cannot speak before this evil any words of consolation. To do so would be just another clichéd explanation which serves no purpose except to excuse us from entering fully into the suffering of all those who, with the Gospel-writer’s “Rachel,” mourn and cannot be consoled. And at the same time, I must speak. The Gospel—the Good News—comes to us as a person, yes, and also as words about that person. The Good News—as person and . words—comes to this world. It has something to say. It should especially have something to say in Advent, when our longing for the coming of the Lord is to both lift us with anticipation and weigh us with an aching desire.
I have no words; I must speak. That is my dilemma. That is our dilemma as a community of faith. When we have no words and we must speak, we are wise if we turn to the Psalms, for there, God gives us words. And the words of our Psalm today offer no short-cuts to consolation. No “closure,” or “going forward,” talk about empty phrases. No. The Psalm offers words to people on the knife edge of despair, not to console them, but to give them words to pray. And so we pray them today.
“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim.” Our Psalm begins with a command. A command directed to God: “Hear Us!” Listen! Give your ear to us! That is how the Psalmist begins. The Psalmist does not flower-coat his imprecation. He does not try to butter God up as we sometimes do, as though the eloquence of our prayers would somehow compel God to respond to us. No. The Psalmist is desperate. “Give ear!” Listen to us, God. Hear us! He gets immediately to the point.
He knows, though just who God is. He is the Shepherd of Israel—a dual image that evokes pastoral images of care and kingly images of rule. He is enthroned on the cherubim—he sits, literally, on the seat of the Ark in the Holy of Holies. He’s the King, in other words. This God is not weak, not powerless. He does not look upon his children in impotence as they are devoured by their enemies. He can act. And it is because he can act that the Psalmist turns to him in his imprecation. Listen!
He continues. “Shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we may be saved.” Do you hear the frustration in the paslmist’s prayer? Listen, Shepherd of Israel. Hear me, King. Rescue us! “Turn your face toward us that we may be saved.”
What an image. As far as the Psalmist can see, God had turned away his face from his people. God was absent. God was gone. God was not weakly standing by while his people suffered, as far as the Psalmist was concerned. God had the power to intervene. And the Psalmist simply cannot understand why God does not! When we cannot understand why God does not intervene, no flowery words about God’s powerlessness will do. The Psalmist is not about to look for some kind of divine escape clause and neither should we. The Psalmist words are frustrated words, but they are also daring words. Turn your face toward us! Save us!
Is there any accounting for God’s refusal to do so? Is there any making sense of God turning his face away from his people as they suffer? The Psalmist doesn’t have a theory. He just has another question: “Oh Lord God of hosts, how long 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.” A lot of ink has been spilled, a lot of pixels pressed into service, trying to explain where God was and where God was not on Friday. The Psalmist here has not fallen from his imprecation to explanation. He does not offer God’s anger as an explanation that would justify God’s not acting. He’s telling God—quite bluntly—that he’s had enough of whatever it is that God is up to. Stop feeding us with tears! Stop making us drink cup after cup of tears! We’ve had full measure! We’ve had enough! How long O Lord?
And then the refrain is repeated. “Restore us O God of hosts. Let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
What are we to notice, as we seek to make these words our own? The first thing to notice is that they are not words of consolation. They are not words directed to those who suffer at all. They are words directed to God. They are words of complaint. They are words of imprecation. It never ceases to amaze me that, when we are confronted with evil, some of us want to do whatever we can to shield God from our anger, our frustration, our grief. We say terrible things like, this is what happens when you kick God out of school, or God was there weeping with every child. So, we saddle people nearly overwhelmed by their encounter with God’s enemy—and let me tell you if anyone was there on that awful Friday morning, it was the devil—with an image of God who’s off sulking in his corner, an idol who frees us to be holier-than-thou, or we saddle them with a God who’s present and cannot change the outcome. An idol who frees us to remain on the sidelines, observing the suffering of others from a distance. Both images of God are false. Damnable idols even. For both give us permission to remain aloof from the pain of these moms and dads whose children are no more.
The Psalmist has no such scruples. He has no need to explain. He has no desire to justify God’s inaction in the face of evil. Because he’s not removed from that evil. He is confronted by it. He is trapped in it. From the inside, he calls on God to act. From the inside, indeed, he declares to God his frustration at God’s inaction. He insists that God needs to listen to his prayer, God needs to intervene to save his people. Indeed, were we to read further on in the Psalm, we would see that the Psalmist is unafraid to remind God of what’s at stake: “God your enemies are laughing at us, and you!” he will say.
No these are not words of explanation. They are words of imprecation. They are words of complaint. And they are not directed to those who suffer to some sort of consolation. They are directed instead to God.
The second thing to notice is that we are given these words to make them our own. God, we might even say, has given us these words to say back to him. If there is any Gospel to be found for this horrific act, anything to be said to all who are beyond consolation, it is simply, let me pray these words with you, for you, and instead of you. These words give voice to our grief. These words give voice to our anger. These words give voice to our desperation. These words give voice to the deep ache of loss that we might learn to cope with, but which never will abate.
The church, it has been wisely said, has no theodicy. It has no justification for God in the face of evil. Philosophers do. Some of them are Christian philosophers. And some of their arguments are interesting. But the church has no theodicy. The church has her Psalms. And the Church has at its center, the message of God so passionately in love with this sin-scarred and evil-enslaved world that he entered into it “even to death on the cross” to save it.
And so it is with the Cross fixed in our imaginations and with Psalm 80 on our lips that we offer ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters in Newtown, and in Kabul, and in Aleppo, and everywhere a child suffers. And we pray, “Give ear O Shepherd of Israel! Stir up your might and come to save us! We have eaten enough of the bread of affliction. We have drunk enough the cup of our own grief. How long will you be angry with our prayers. Turn your face toward us and save us!”
This is the only prayer we can pray at Advent 2012. Come quickly Lord Jesus.