February 28, 2021 Genesis 17;1-7, 15-17, Romans 4;13-25, Mark 8:31-38 Lament
Last Sunday’s sermon title was: Complain or Proclaim? The gist of the sermon was that God’s people, in spite of difficult circumstances should not complain for we have more than enough reason to find joy in life. The source of our joy is of course God’s promises and presence.
Christian theological reflection is often dialectical. This means that one has to take multiple perspectives into account. For example: God is transcendent, that means God is removed from us. God, however is also immanent, God is with us. We are saved by grace, not our doing, but we also have to act as people who have been saved.
God gives us joy, but there are times when we are sad, when we lament. Let’s be clear though: lamenting and complaining are not the same. A complaint has to do with expressing displeasure in someone or something. A lament is a prayer to God. A complaint is a gripe, pointing out a fault, and an expression of anger or concern. Lamenting is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.
In a theological sense lament is expressed in an honest prayer to God. Lament follows suffering, death or deep disappointment. And I think that modern western Christians have done everything possible to ignore the reality of suffering and lamenting.
Claus Westerman writes: “It would be a worthwhile task to ascertain how it happened that in Western Christendom, the lament has been totally excluded from our relationship with God, with the result that it has completely disappeared from prayer and worship. We must ask whether the exclusion is actually based on the message of the New Testament, or whether it is in part attributable to the influence of Greek thought, since it is so thoroughly consistent with the ethics of Stoicism”. Being stoic is of course being calm and almost without any emotion. When you’re stoic, you don’t show what you’re feeling and you also accept whatever is happening. Being stoic in the western world is viewed in a positive light.
In spite of the fact that the Book of Psalms provide us with many honest lament Psalms, the church has disguised these “emotionally vulnerable” Psalms in lovely music so “that no one notices and no one is bothered”. The general consequence is that the modern church pays no attention to lamenting and suffering, with the notable exception of Good Friday. Discouraging words are not well received, references to suffering and death are frowned upon or viewed as “negative or depressing”.
No wonder that Walther Brueggemann writes: “Theological certitude plus cultural self-sufficiency together caused a disregard of one third of the Psalter.”
I could add to this that many branches of Christianity prefer to focus solely on feeling good about life, about yourself, about becoming the “best you can be.”
The true question is: How honest is such an approach that ignore the reality of suffering, death, and lamenting? How authentic is a church and her message if she pretends that life is always good, fun, prosperous, and exciting? Isn’t the Biblical message exactly meant, in the words of Psalm 147:2-3 to “gather the outcasts, to heal the brokenhearted, and to bind up their wounds”?
Let us face the truth: No-one is comfortable with pain, suffering, and death. It is painful to be reminded that we are mortal. The most disturbing realities of life are that our bodies over time break down, our loved ones fall sick, our children don’t always follow our advice, we disappoint others and ourselves, our high hopes and ideals are dashed, our world is broken, and, yes, let me say this: we all are going to die!
Ignoring these realities may be convenient, but is not truthful and honest. Many (most?) people do their best to ignore these realities. However, they can only do so for a while because, as the saying goes, life happens.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is honest, it is helpful, it provides hope in spite of pain and suffering, and it enables us to live a joyful and authentic life. An authentic life includes rejoicing and lamenting.
The book of Deuteronomy 21:23 states that “…. any one hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Jesus Christ hanging on the cross was under God’s curse. His suffering and death on the cross were a scandal. And yet, from very early on the Church disguised the scandal of the cross and turned it into a triumphant sign. An icon of power, a symbol of glory, a mark of honor!
The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, in his book called, “The Crucified God” writes: “The Cross is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom, which change the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded a scandal and as foolishness. Today too it is considered old fashioned to put it (the cross) in the center of Christian faith and of theology. Yet only when we are reminded of him (on the cross), however untimely this may be, can we be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history and be offered a future which will never grow dark again. Today the church and theology must turn to the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom that it offers”.
We need to turn to the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom that it offers! We need to face the cross and its place in the life of Christ and in the lives of his followers!
And this is a problem! We are not comfortable with the cross. We don’t want to talk about suffering and death.
Peter was not comfortable with the cross and everything it represented either. Peter loved the idea of Jesus being the Messiah of God! The idea of Jesus with triumphant power was attractive. Peter wanted to be part of that! He relished the idea of Jesus opposing the Romans with divine power and authority.
But Peter did not like the idea of Jesus undergoing great suffering; he hated the thought of Jesus being rejected. It was completely unacceptable to him that Jesus would lose his life!
That was why Peter spoke up! He rebuked Jesus. Rebuke as you know could also be translated as “reprimanded, scolded, admonished or even censured”. You see Peter’s expectation of Jesus did not match the purpose of the ministry of Jesus. Peter was interested in a victorious Jesus and not in a suffering Jesus.
Jesus’ response to Peter is one of the harshest in the Bible: “Get behind me Satan! You set your mind not on divine things but on human things!”
And then Jesus makes it clear what the Gospel was all about and what it means to be a disciple of Christ. It is not about power, glory, demands or militant and arrogant ultimatums. It is not a recipe or self-help book for being happy, healthy, prosperous and popular. The message is first of all about lamenting, about suffering, and about denying yourself. It is about taking up your cross, and it is about following Christ, who leads!
And these words of Jesus define what it means to call yourself a Christian – it is about a cross and not about glory; it is about being the least and not the center of the universe; it is about service and not about my rights; it is about walking another mile instead of demanding more. It is about giving up instead of preserving. It is about knowing that ALL aspects of my life belongs to God – in times of joy and sadness, when I feel on top of the mountain and when I am in the valley. When I rejoice and when I lament! And this is never easy.
The Church, that focuses on the cross as a status symbol, or a symbol of power and significance, instead of a scandal, is not able be present when people are suffering and lamenting. A church who is focused on status and might won’t have a message to people who are in the gutters, or to people who are in ashes and who are lamenting. A church who is focused on status and power feels at home in the halls of power and not in the slums.
The cross of Christ is a reminder that Jesus, suffered as an innocent man on my behalf. The cross reminds me that God is the suffering and present God, when life is turned upside down, when more than 500 thousand are dead, and thousands more are dying every day in a raging pandemic, when life is plain painful and unpredictable. In such a suffering world God is there!
When apparent successful Christian leaders and mega-churches promote a feel-good-theology with promises of prosperity, wealth, happiness, and good health, we need to remind ourselves of the cross of Jesus. When Christians blame people for a lack of faith if their lives show any sign of brokenness and suffering, we need to remind ourselves that God knows what suffering is.
Instead of being tempted to ignore lamenting and suffering, we need to think about Peter. We need to remember that he wanted to remove suffering from the cross and in the process stood in the way of Christ’s work.
In this suffering world many people have nowhere to go with their pain and suffering. There are Christians who don’t know what to do with a suffering Christ hanging on a cross. Mark’s Gospel is telling us is that there is a place where everyone can take their suffering, their pain, and their lamenting. It is to the One who suffered himself. The One on the cross.
Jesus, God-incarnate was sent to suffer and serve, to give and to die. If there is one who really and truly understand our suffering it is He. When our words are not enough to express our pain and fears, God’s Spirit intercedes for us. He meets us where we are.
Moltmann said: “…the crucified Christ shows the world the freedom that Jesus offers”. There at the cross is freedom – freedom for all, especially freedom for those who are prisoners of their deep pain and their immense suffering.
The image of taking up your cross in the Bible is from the Roman world. Condemned criminals were required to carry their own crosses to the place of their execution. Taking up the cross was not their decision, it was their sentence.
The expression “carry your cross” today means to handle a difficult responsibility or burden on one’s own.
The truth is that because Christ carried his cross to the end, we will never ever have to carry our painful burdens alone. We are not alone when we suffer and when we lament. The One on the cross will be with us – and as I said, he understands our suffering for he suffered for us! This is Good News! Amen.