Our Turn For Tragedy

Sunday closest to June 29 Lamentations 3:21-33, Psalm 30, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15,Mark 5:21-43

In the year 587BC Jerusalem fell to King Nebuchadnezzar II. The palace, temple, and city were sacked and burned, and the rulers and leaders were captured and taken to Babylon.

Assyria, who were eventually taken over by Babylon in Old Testament history, were one of the most successful and long lasting empires in antiquity. Nearly 200 years before Jerusalem fell, the Kingdom of Israel had seen the Assyrians coming for them and attempted to placate them with money (2 Kings 15:19-20), yet just a few year later the Assyrians destroyed their society by carrying off all their rulers to distant lands and installing their own government in their place (v29). Israel’s fall was as slow as game of chess and ended just as suddenly, when there was no longer any way to buy off the Assyrians and nothing left to give them, they took Israel’s land and exiled their rulers.

The Assyrians were excellent at making an empire work. This scheme of extracting cash from smaller nations ensured that there was never enough money to pay for an army, and it allowed them to fill the government with their own officials until the day came when there was no longer anything distinctive enough to resist Assyrian rule.

The Southern kingdom of Judah manages to hold out for a few more generations. Though their neighbors to the north had fallen, and their faith had become corrupted by strange foreign gods the people of Judah still had the sacred city of Jerusalem, with its temple and priesthood. Surely God is still protecting them. Surely God has favoured Judah over all the other tribes. Surely Israel must have sinned terribly for them to be carted off into exile. But not us! Not Judah!

One of the Prophets who is active in ministry during the fall of Jerusalem is Jeremiah, who was imprisoned by Zedekiah for prophesying that Babylon would take the city and carry them all off captive. Zedekiah had made an alliance with Egypt, believing that together they could withstand the advance of the rapidly expanding Babylonian empire. Repeatedly the Prophets of the Old Testament had warned the people of God that trusting in military might would not save them. In fact, it was their desperate attempts to cling to their land and their cities which further eroded the strength of the People of God as they gave away all their convictions in order to purchase security.

It seems after seeing their northern neighbors lose their land and their way of life, Judah would stop at nothing to ensure they were safe, and sometimes fussy old religious morals and laws get in the way. If they could keep dwelling in their promised land – by any means – then they would be faithful the to calling God had for them to be Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. The Prophets tirelessly preached that this was not the case, that the kings of Israel and Judah were mistaken, but no one would listen to them.

And then in 589 BC Nebuchadnezzar the second marches his army to Judah and lays siege to Jerusalem. For two years the city is blockaded, with the time-tested scheme of starving the people into submission. Jerusalem falls not with a shout but the pitiful whimper of people who have watched their elderly die of disease, their young people waste away, and have seen parents cannibalise their own children to survive. The people of God, so sure that everything would be well if they clung to their city, their sacred place, watch as their temple is sacked and their princes and priests marched off into exile. Another civilisation, crushed under the boot of a marching Empire.

This is where the desperately sad 137th Psalm begins – By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

All of God’s chosen people now are subjugated under foreign rule. Their line of kings has come to an end. The temple is in ruins. The priests have nowhere to offer sacrifices.

How can we call ourselves God’s people after this? Hasn’t everything we thought we were, fallen to ashes?

The great poetry of Lamentations is a kind of funeral dirge, mourning the death of a nation. Or first reading this morning comes almost right in the middle, as is the only hopeful passage in the book.

But what kind of hope is there for a people who have lost everything that mattered to them? This chapter begins with these chilling words:

I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.

This writer claims that all that has befallen him and all his people, is God’s doing. The invasion. The seige. The famine. The deaths of innocent children. All of it – God’s doing. God struck him in anger, punished him in wrath and here he is as a witness, telling the world all about God.

Isn’t this a far cry from how the story is supposed to go? Don’t we hear the Psalmist so often praise God for delivering his people from the egyptians, or bringing them through some danger, healing them from illness, providing them with good crops and healthy families? Isn’t the story of God’s people the story of a people who used to be bound in misery but now are free to live abundantly? Surely if God’s people lose their land and their wealth, doesn’t that mean all the promises they believed in were lies, and that the God they worshipped was false?

I have seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath.

He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

The poet comes to the outer most limits of his faith. Deprived of all the benefits of God’s goodness, what will the people of Israel say?

Will Israel become another civilisation only remembered in shards of pottery dug up in thousands of years? Will they be a byword in a song sung by someone else? Is their faith meaningless and false? By the rivers of Babylon, will they bow down instead to Baal and the God-Kings of the Empire?

At the very edge of his faith, when all hope for a return to the old ways is gone, there is an ember of a prayer which we can hear if we listen closely.

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.

Remember. Remember my pain. I cannot forget it, it marks by body and the bodies of my people, who are riddled with disease, who are skin-and-bones, whose bodies have been broken in battle, whose minds are warped from desperation and grief. I cannot forget that God’s actions against his rebellious people have ruined me.

This prayer, addressed to anyone who can hear, is answered by the memory of a song which he cannot forget, even as he cannot forget his pain.

the Psalmist sings with the poet, in Psalm 42

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

And Psalm 73

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

In his dirge the man of affliction believes he is utterly alone, but for these sacred songs. Long ago he was caught on a hook with an invisible line, and at the right time a twitch upon the thread brings him back to God.

The God who this poet cannot forget is not the God of his imagination, but rather is the God of faithful, covenant love. And though he seeks to absolve himself and reject the faith, he cannot escape that he already knows all the disaster which has come upon him and his people was their just recompense for their unfaithfulness. God’s people entered a covenant with God, a covenant sung about in the Psalms and warned about in the Prophets. The Man of Affliction bows down his soul in surrender – he admits defeat. I am reaping what I have sown, I am gathering what I have scattered. My people lived in rebellion against the covenant we swore to uphold.

But this moment of surrender is not a rolling over and accepting whatever may now come. The Man of Affliction confesses that the steadfast love of God never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning.

And that means there is always time to begin again.

They thought that they needed their land, their kings, and their priests to keep them safe and they gave up everything they were called to be in order to have them.

But these things are not their portion.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

And now perhaps our Man of Affliction will rise up, he will encourage his sisters and brothers to take up clubs and swords and spark rebellion and violence in every place where they have been taken. Babylon might have dragged them into captivity, but now by the rivers and in the towns and palaces and all the places they have been sent, by the screams of their oppressors and overlords Babylon WILL know that there is a God who saves the children of Abraham. And they will take back their land. And they will tear down the false gods. And they will march back to Jerusalem and celebrate the greatest Passover feast ever seen.

Isn’t that what faith does? Isn’t that how God saves us?

The Man of Affliction does not do this. All that had been before, he lets it all go.

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

From his lowly place, mourning by the river, or serving in the palace of some foreign lord, this poet discovers a kind of faithfulness which asks not for payback, but only for patience. It is impossible for him in this moment to imagine a way back through the terrible path he has trod, and no way to gain back all that he has lost. But rather he fixes his hope on God’s ability to work out his good purposes in his time. This, the testimony of ancient songs, somehow becomes for him enough evidence to give him a moment of peace and clarity in the midst of tragedy.

God is steadfast in his love, he says, and so he will not abandon his people. Though everything we had has been taken away, we will endure because God protects us. He has acted faithfully to the Covenant, which stipulated that through our sins we would lose our land, but our sins will never cause him to abandon us. The Poet is able to endure the difficulty of a life in exile because he remembered that this is not God’s abandoning of him, but is God’s faithfulness to make his people holy.

Now this is a hard thing to consider: That a relationship with God can somehow exist when all signs of God’s presence are gone, when disaster comes to our lives and our communities, when ‘somewhere else’ becomes ‘across the street’, when our bodies fail us and our young precious ones suffer.

In the Gospel today we meet a woman who has lived with a condition for many years, the kind of thing which might make her never be able to stick around very long, or make sudden changes of plan, or really abandon herself to the joy of living. The kind of affliction which she has somehow learned to live with. Yet after 12 years, she has not given up her hope of deliverance. She, like so many of the people of God before her, has heard through song and story of a God who restores that which is lost and heals that which is injured. And so, without attracting attention to herself or announcing her presence, she quietly believes that Christ is the one who can help her. She doesn’t know how, but that’s not important.

In that busy crowd, she touches him faith, and that faith heals her without Jesus ever acting. This woman does something no one else in the Gospels is capable of doing, she receives a miracle without ever once speaking to Jesus. I suppose she would have been quite content to go about with her life, but Jesus wants to know who this woman is, to look her in the face and hear her story.

Only, this woman didn’t know that she was interrupting Jesus on a very important mission, see he had been asked by a pious and devout man to come and heal his sick daughter. Its urgent. She’s on death’s door.

This was the moment the woman who had suffered for twelve years seized the opportunity to have faith and be healed. But in the time it took Jesus to listen to her, poor Jairus’ daughter passed away.

Do not trouble the Teacher any more. The time has passed. Hope is lost. The miracle went to someone else.

But Jesus will not accept this. He will not accept that there is only a finite amount of goodness in a world of suffering, goodness which can only be gotten by those who seize it. Today, that day, the day Jesus came was the day of salvation and everyone- everyone who calls on him will be saved: The woman who waited twelve years, and the twelve year old girl who has no time left to wait. Israel, like the Man of Affliction, has waited patiently for God’s rescue and at the right time it has come. God in Jesus is determined to bring salvation to his people, both to those who know they need him, and to those who never thought they would need to ask.

I suppose in our city today we who call ourselves Christians are the ones who have been waiting with a wound for Christ to pass us by. Today, there are many who suddenly realise they need help. Let’s remember that Jesus came both for those who have waited and prepared, and for those who have lost hope and live in despair.

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