When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing God, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to God when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
Those are the words of C.S. Lewis, well known author, lay theologian and Christian apologist as he struggles with God during the illness and death of his wife Joy. He wrote about that struggle in the the book A Grief Observed. His words could be paraphrased by the first two verses of today’s text:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.
Psalm 22 is a Psalm of Lament. More than one third of the Psalms can be categorized as Laments. The function of a Lament is to provide a structure for crisis, hurt, grief, or despair; to move a worshipper from hurt to joy, from darkness to light, from desperation to hope. This movement from hurt to joy is not a psychological or liturgical experience only, although it includes those. And it is not a physical deliverance from the crisis, although that is often anticipated. The movement “out of the depths” from hurt to joy is a profoundly spiritual one.
The theological significance of a lament is that it expresses a trust in God in the absence of any evidence that He is active in the world. Through a sequential and deliberate structure, the lament moves from articulation of the emotion of the crisis, to petition for God to intervene, to an affirmation of trust in God even though there has been no immediate deliverance from the crisis
Our text this morning is the introductory cry and address of this lament. We hear the cry of the psalmist out of his suffering followed by words that direct that cry to a God who has been present and has saved His people in the past.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel. [a]
4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
The psalmist recognizes that God has “shown up” in the past and that everyone knows that He can do it. The rest of the psalm, elaborates on the complaint of the writer and ends with an affirmation of faith in God.
We don’t really encourage this sort of behaviour in our churches, do we? Some how, to question the presence of God seems to be just wrong. To cry out to God in such a complaining tone, accusing God of not listening to us, not paying attention to our needs, not lifting us out of our despair, feels like there may be a lack of faith showing through,
The American Old testament scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann contends that the Psalms of lament should become part of the liturgical fabric of our churches. He further states that
By not using these psalms, we have given people two messages: either you mustn’t feel “that” way (angry with God, for example) or, if you feel “that” way, you must do something about it somewhere else—but not here. (Bruegemann, 1993)
In his forward to Ann Weem’s Psalms of Lament Brueggeman points out that
“we should not miss the courageous and daring act of faith that is constituted and enacted in such utterance. The lamentation-complaint, perhaps Israel’s most characteristic and vigorous mode of faith, introduces us to a “spirituality of protest”. That is, Israel boldly recognizes that all is not right in the world. This against our easy gentile way of denial, pretending in each other’s presence and in the presence of God that “all is well” when it is not” (Weems (1995), pg xii)
And that is what we do, isn’t it? We pretend in each other’s presence and the presence of God that all is well when it is not. Some how we regard stoic quiet suffering as a more “Christlike” and faith filled response to the things going on around us than the sort of noisy cry of complaint that is modeled in this Psalm. A cry of complaint to a God we all profess exists and has power over every thing that goes on in our world.
You will do it here again today. Mostly you will discuss how God is working in this classis and in your churches. It is exciting stuff. God is blessing many of our endeavors, we see Him at work in many areas of our ministries. He is faithful. Virtually no one will stand at that microphone today and say “Right now…God seems to be gone from our church. So many bad things are happening. We seem to be losing the battle. We are really struggling to find our way and God just seems to be ignoring us.” If it does happen, there will be an uncomfortable silence. We would be hard pressed to recognize those statements as statements of faith.
We really don’t recognize this sort of talk as a sign of a strong faith in our fellow believers either. Complaining and accusing God of not paying attention to our needs, not caring for us doesn’t seem right. And yet, our Savoir did it:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Our Savior, Jesus Christ,, whose relationship with the Father was closer than you and I will ever experience on this earth accuses him of walking away, forsaking him.
Our world is a place filled with pain, suffering, and loss. Our Savior, Jesus Christ knew that. He walked among us and saw the suffering in his world. In his last hours he cries out with a loud voice, and what does he cry? He cries the first words of Psalm 22:1:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
He could have, if he had been able to draw enough breath, quoted the next 18 verses as well. Verses which describe the worst things that men do to each other. Verses which describe the agonies that our Savior suffers on our behalf.
Just as the psalmist does, Jesus ends his lament with a statement of faith. Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ cry of lament at the ninth hour followed by a second loud cry as he dies. Luke records the words of that cry in Chapter 23:46
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
In our Savior’s words we have moved from Lament to Faith. From a cry of loss to a coming home. From abandonment to comfort.
To wrestle with God, to present our complaints to him, to cry out in despair when the entire world seems to be crashing down around us, is in fact an act of faith. You don’t swim furiously toward a lifeline unless you believe that it is there. You also don’t contend with a God who doesn’t exist. The cry of lament is a cry to a God who we know is there, a God we know can save us, a God we know can comfort us.
What can we say to these crying, lost struggling souls? What have we to offer baffled men and women in our congregations and here in our classis who stand face to face with curtains through which they cannot see, and doors which are closed and apparently double bolted to which they find no key? How do we aid them in their time of lament? Well, we have this at least: We can offer a wonderful Saviour who has walked just their road and who is, therefore, able to enter into full sympathy with them.
18Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18)
We can assure them that our Christ is not angry with them because they question. He himself said “Why?”
We can assure them further that this Christ of ours, when he was felt abandoned, alone, forsaken, brought his lament to God and that God did not fail him, but brought him through in triumph. Then we can add with confidence that this understanding Christ is infinitely able and infinitely eager to do the same for them, even the weakest. He will not fail us.
We need to, using the analogy of the life line, point them toward that line, remind them that the lifeline is real. We likely need to swim beside them, assuring them that their conviction that there is a life line is correct. We need to remind them and ourselves that at other times in our lives we have relied on that same life line and found safety, rest, found ourselves in the arms of a loving, caring, real God. And if they would just stop flailing for a moment they will likely realize that they are already securely tied to the line, a line tied with divine knots..
As we look back on our lives we see God’s hand at work, we see how he has saved us in the past and our lament, over time moves to become a song of praise. Our lament grows out of sorrow out of trouble into a stronger faith that recognizes a God of grace, a faith that can say Father into your hand I commit my life.
C.S Lewis begins his Grief Observed struggling to find God, to hear God’s voice, to feel that God is anywhere nearby in his time of need. He ends by understanding that God was there, in fact wasn’t really ever gone. The pain of loss is still there, but faith grows up beside it and through it.
Lament, it’s not an act of weakness. It is part of a life of faithfulness. A life that expects to see God show up. A faith modeled by the psalmist and the Son.
Let us pray
Lord, we fear being honest with you about our pain. Too often, we somehow feel we can hide it from you, yet we know we cannot. Today, we know that part of how we can praise you is by trusting that you will hear that anguish within our hearts. We know Lord, that as Jesus cried to you in pain, we can too. And we know, Oh Holy Spirit, that you will work in our lives, so that, as you raised Jesus from the dead, you will bring to us new life.