Wednesday, September 11, 2019

“Sing Us One of the Songs of Zion” Psalm 137.1–6; Jer. 29.4–13, Proper 18, Sept. ‘19

1.                Please pray with me.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Redeemer.  Amen.  The message from God’s Word today is taken from Psalm 137.1-6 & Jeremiah 29:4-13 (READ TEXT).  The message is entitled, “Sing Us One of the Songs of Zion,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2.                Disaster, destruction, deportation—Judah suffered all of these at the hands of the Babylonians. The Babylonian captivity was a terrible time in the history of God’s people. In Babylon the captives sat, far from home, wondering how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. You and I are also strangers and pilgrims in this world. We can learn from this sermon’s two texts, written at the time of the Babylonian captivity, how to sing the Lord’s song in our strange land. The key lies in the old and true saying that the Lord wants his people to be in the world, yet not of it.  This is especially important for us today as we reflect on Christian Education Sunday. 
3.                There’s no question that we’re in the world, just as there was no question that the exiles were in Babylon. The familiar sights of home were hundreds of miles away. Still worse, so was the temple—until the Babylonians destroyed it. How could the exiles continue to worship? Their Babylonian captors didn’t make things any easier, either. Mocking, they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” They were suggesting that these songs were oldies, but no longer goodies. The Babylonian taunts amounted to saying that the Lord had proven either unable or unwilling to help his people. It’s always easier to believe something when everyone else around seems to believe it, or at least when they don’t fight against it. Belief becomes much harder when you have to stand alone, and when those around you are trying to tug you away from those beliefs. 
4.                This remains so for us today, just as Judah’s captives in Babylon discovered it to be true. For centuries, the Church enjoyed a cushy place in Western culture, dating back to the time when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. That relationship had its flaws and problems, but it’s been breaking up for a while now. Maybe a few of us have only recently been waking up to realize that it’s all but gone. Now instead of the “Charlie Brown” Christmas TV special, with the reading of Luke 2 and “Hark, the Herald Angels” at the end, we have the “Arthur” Christmas special—it’s called the “holiday” special—which makes room to acknowledge several different religious traditions. 
5.                First, we’re learning how much harder it seems to believe when the people around us don’t reinforce our beliefs. These days, there seems to be more reason than ever to echo the hymn writer who wrote of having an unsteady heart that is, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love” (LSB 686:3).  We can complain about our circumstances or get frustrated about them, but we aren’t always able to change them. The Lord has given us a difficult situation in which to live as his people. While we may be irritated at this state of affairs, did we really think we sinners had a right to an easy time? The days in which we live increasingly resemble those of Judah’s captivity in Babylon, or maybe those through which the Church lived during the first couple of centuries after Jesus died and rose. No question about it, we are here. 
6.                And here we can be constructive, for the Lord is here too. The exiles in Babylon didn’t have to go without the presence of the Lord. To be sure, he had vowed to be present at the temple, where the sacrifices proclaimed to people the forgiveness of their sins in the promised Messiah. But, the Lord didn’t need the temple in order to be present with his people. He had been with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph, even before the temple was built, or the tabernacle before it. Wherever they went, the Lord went with them to bless. So it was for the exiles. The Lord God remained present with them, present to bless, through his Word. See David L. Adams, “The Present God: A Framework for Biblical Theology,” Concordia Journal 22 (July 1996): 279–94. 
7.                In the fullness of time, God’s presence at a particular place and his presence accompanying his people came together, in the Person of our Lord Jesus. He’s the Word made flesh, Immanuel, God with us. He challenged people to destroy this temple and he would raise it up in three days, meaning the temple of his body, God present among men. He promised that he would be with his Church always, to the end of the age. This Lord, crucified and risen, is the One who paid for our sins.  Christ brings us the presence of God to forgive and to save. He brings it through his Word. That was all the captives in Babylon had, but it proved more than enough. It was all the prophets and patriarchs had, too—God, his Word, and his promise not to let that Word return to him empty. Ultimately, it’s all we have. But you weren’t planning to live on bread alone, were you?
8.                God does things through his Word. You might say he’s constructive. He certainly wants his people to be constructive where they are. Therefore Jeremiah, still in Judah, wrote to the exiles in Babylon. He told them to build homes, have children, and seek the welfare of the place where they were. God’s people have done much the same thing at other times. In the days of the Early Church, Christians were noted for their discipline and self-control. One pagan Roman emperor noted that Christians not only cared for their own poor, but took in other poor people and cared for them too. Christian slave girls remained with their Christian mistresses who were imprisoned or tortured.2 All of that and much more amounted to being constructive in this world. See William C. Weinrich, “Evangelism in the Early Church,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 45 (Jan.–Apr. 1981): 61–75, especially 71–73. 
9.                We can be constructive, too, for the Lord remains with us. He cares about this world, which he created and sent Christ to redeem, and he uses us to spread his love and care. We should care for children, help the poor, pray for governing officials, vote responsibly, value the good and the noble. All of these things, and many more, can amount to being constructive in this world. 
10.             Yet while we’re being constructive, let us not grow too comfortable. For although we’re in this world, we’re just as certainly not of it. We’re not here for the long run. Therefore, let us look beyond this world, to the future that Christ himself has opened up by his resurrection from the dead.  Our stay here is temporary. By way of the letter Jeremiah wrote the exiles in Babylon, they found out that their captivity would last for a definite period of time— 70 years. Light shone at the end of the tunnel, as it were. That made all the difference in the world for the exiles, not only at the end of the 70 years but also at the very time when Jeremiah wrote. They had hope. 
11.             An old catechism pictures God sending Christians to an “island colony,” the world, and saying: “The greatest danger is that you may fall in love with this island so that you will not care to return to the home-kingdom. Love the island because it is My possession, but do not love it because it is your home. It is not your home! Your home is here in the palace with Me.  Someday I will call you back. How soon, I shall not tell you. But one day I will usher you up to a doorway called death. Be not afraid of it, because on the other side of the threshold is Life. I will take you by the hand and lead you across. Then you shall see Me, face to face.  Meanwhile, My peace I give you.” 3 Alvin N. Rogness, On the Way (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1942), n.p. 
12.             The analogy in this old catechism breaks down in several places. For instance, God doesn’t really “brief” Christians before we are born. But, the point comes through all the same, that we won’t remain here. Christ shed his blood to buy and pay for us, but not so we would continue to live in this fallen, sinful world. He prepares for us an eternity that’s so much better, and we will have the privilege of spending it with the Lord who bought us.  Often people ask the question, “Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?” Maybe the world dares to ask about 5 years into the future, but it doesn’t bring up eternity very often. The world’s eternal prospect is too scary. But, by faith in Christ, ours shines bright. As surely as we’re in this world now, we’re not staying. For we are not of this world. 
13.             Therefore, let us look beyond. That’s what the psalmist did. Maybe he seems only to be looking back, if anything, in saying, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!” In fact, he was remembering all the promises of redemption and rescue the Lord had given. He was remembering them in God-given faith. We do exactly that in church.  That reminds of something I read recently from a Lutheran theologian Chad Bird, he writes, “When the elderly struggle with memory, they can often still sing along with the liturgy or a beloved hymn.  Put yourself at that advanced age.  What do you want to remember when you’ve forgetting virtually everything else? Sing that.”   When you find yourself in troubled waters, all you can do is lash yourself tightly to the mast. We need to lash ourselves tightly to God’s Word and to the Church that’s created by this Word. In Church, the Lord puts his truth into us by his Word and Sacraments. With the truth in us, we can see beyond this world. We can look at the evil around us, refuse to believe its lies, and give people something better.  We can tell the Good News about Jesus. 
14.             For our time in this world is short. In 2012, earlier in my ministry down in Southern Illinois near the St. Louis, MO metro area, I remember baptizing a man named Rudolph Sommer, who was in his 80s.  He was on his death bed.  Rudolph died a couple of days later. He knew that his days in this world were numbered, though he had no idea what that number was. He had problems with his health, and a number of other problems compounding the health issues. Rudolph’s body was failing him, and in many ways the world wasn’t looking like a nice place. But, during the last few days of his life, this man, who had been unchurched for years, was singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. He heard Christ’s forgiving word and took comfort in his baptism. This man, Rudolph, had become a saint in Christ. He knew that he was in the world, but not of it, so he was looking forward to being with his Lord. 
15.             Your days and mine are numbered too. We just don’t know what the number is. We, too, are in the world, not of it. So long as we find ourselves in the world, let us be constructive as the Lord wants us to be. Since we’re not staying here, though, let us look beyond in faith and hope. Then we, too, will break forth in singing the Lord’s song, even in a strange land.  Now the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until life everlasting Amen.

“Learning to Lament” Lamentations 3.22-33, Proper 17, Sept. ‘19

1.                Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.  The message from God’s Word today is taken from Lamentations 3:22-33 (READ TEXT), it’s entitled, “Learning to Lament,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2.                A pastor was giving counsel to a lady who experienced periodic bouts of depression.  He would visit her in her home, read God’s Word to her and apply it to her life, and pray with her. She would often say that she felt better, and she meant it. But, sooner or later the dark cloud would envelop her again. On one such day she asked the pastor to visit her yet another time. When he did, he surprised her a bit. He offered her his apologies. “I’ve been treating you as though you are ill somehow,” he said, “but perhaps that is not the trouble. Could it be that you are in grief? Are you sorrowing over the loss of something, even something you never had?” As they went on talking, it seemed that it was grief that she had been feeling. When she recognized this fact, she was ready to begin moving on. William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 92–93.
3.                There is a lesson for us to derive from this story, and there is one not to derive. The good lesson has to do with the value of suffering, grief, and lament. We live in what has been well-called a “therapeutic society.” It tends to see all human need in terms of illness, and it tries to counter illness as quickly as possible. The therapeutic society can’t imagine anything good or constructive about suffering. Its impulse is to get in there and fix things, certainly to alleviate pain as much as possible. That can be a mistake, though. The good lesson to learn from the story of the pastor and the woman is that her pain was serving a purpose. It had been a mistake for people to simply try to make her feel better. As the pastor realized, he had been wrong to conclude that he had done his job if he spoke with her and she did feel better. There was no way around this woman’s grief. She had to go through it. 
4.                God gives us words for the times when we are grieving, frustrated, confused, angry, and hurting. Some of the psalms provide great cases in point. Our text is from another such part of the Bible, the Book of Lamentations. When this book was written by Jeremiah, Jerusalem had just been invaded, the temple destroyed, and many people taken off into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah was writing in the wake of considerable bloodshed and loss of life. The weeping, groaning, wailing, lamenting of Lamentations come as no surprise. There was no getting around any of it, no alternative but to go through it.
5.                Biblical lamentation marks a faith that is neither plastic nor Pollyanna-like. No, it is a faith that faces the real world. The Church in our culture often runs the risk of turning Christianity into a superficial religion of smiles. It positions itself to serve people who are well, not the sick; those who are whole, not the broken. People eventually get fed up with approaches that put bandages on cancer, though. Have you ever heard someone say he wants honest Christianity? Reed Lessing, “Living with the Laments,” Concordia Journal 31 (July 2005): 218–19.  One of the things such a person very likely wants is biblical lament. He may well have grown tired of trying to go around things he needs to go through. Our text says, “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” (Lamentations 3:27).
6.                This brings us to a lesson we shouldn’t derive from the story of the pastor and the depressed woman. Biblical-type laments don’t simply amount to getting something off your chest. They don’t make for ways we can advertise problems to sympathetic hearers so our misery can love their company. Biblical lamenting can be corporate as well as individual, but in either case the lament isn’t directed to other people. It’s directed to God, the Lord who is very much alive and active in this world. In the verses prior to our text, Lamentations 3 says that God had mutilated the body and broken the spirit. He left no way of escape. The Lord had treated his people like prey to be hunted. It seemed that everything they hoped for was gone. The yoke can be heavy indeed.
7.                When the words of lament have been spoken or cried, then there is . . . silence. Never underestimate the importance of this silence. Through the psalmist the Lord says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Our text puts it this way: “Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust” (Lamentations 3:28– 29a). You see, another lesson we should not derive is the idea that our courage in bearing up under suffering forms a reason for God to rescue us from it. Rather, our silence acknowledges that we stand defenseless before him, the One against whom we have sinned. He stops every mouth and holds all the world accountable (Romans 3:19). We don’t presume upon his grace. As the text says, “There may yet be hope” (Lamentations 3:29b).
8.                There is hope. This hope for sinners stands out as better than any relief to our troubles that we could possibly imagine. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3:22). Despite the fact that we’ve not deserved any of it, the Lord has an abundant supply of steadfast love and mercies that are new every morning. He remains loyal and faithful to his Word and his people, and so he acts for our good and our salvation. The Lord, no less, is our portion (Lamentations 3:24). We can dare to hope in this loving and merciful Lord precisely because his compassion does come. Quietly we can wait for his salvation, confident that he won’t disappoint us. Yes, we stand defenseless before him, but he himself comes to our defense in Christ.
9.                Maybe we’re prone to think that our own yokes of suffering and lamentation are heavier than any other. But, no one has ever uttered more profound laments than Jesus. There was no reason for him to be afflicted, tortured, stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God. That is, there was no reason but Christ’s own love for us and his steadfastly keeping to the plan of salvation. He saw it all the way through.  He remained our Substitute in life and lament, in dirge and death. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46). When he spoke those words, this wasn’t the lament of a sinner who had it coming. This was God forsaking God, the eternal Father forsaking the eternal Son he had loved from all eternity. Impossible as this act is for us ever completely to understand, nonetheless it is what God has done for us in his strong, loyal, steadfast love. Jesus was the suffering Messiah of Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and other passages. He acted as our Substitute, our Sacrifice, the Ransom paid for our release. For his part, God the Father “has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted” (Psalm 22:24). He heard Christ’s call and raised him from the dead. He made him Victor over sin, the devil, death—and anything else that could ever cause us to lament.
10.             As with Jesus, so also with those who are baptized into Christ—so, that is, for you and me! When God wants to make alive, he does it through death. When he wants to make right, he proclaims guilt first and crushes. When he wants to take to heaven, he makes a path leading through hell. Biblical-type lament believes, because of Christ, that God “will not cast off forever” (Lamentations 3:31), that “he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33). The work he is really interested in doing is blessing and saving people, and this he does in Christ.
11.             Biblical-style lament knows that when it comes to our status before God, the important word isn’t therefore but despite. The world thinks in terms of the therefore: you please God, therefore you get good things; you displease him, therefore you get suffering. It’s that simple, open and shut. But this isn’t the way God operates. Instead, his strong love and tender mercies come to us on a despite basis. Despite our complete lack of worthiness, the Lord loves. He redeems.3 Robert Rosin, Concordia Journal 17 (April 1991): 202–5. Christ himself forms the Key to this “despite.” Despite our sufferings, we hope in the One who died and rose for us. He continues to invite you and me, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. . . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28, 30).
12.             A newborn child turned out to have Down Syndrome and a respiratory condition. The respiratory condition was correctible, but as the doctor consulted with the newborn’s parents, he didn’t advise correcting it. Let nature take its course, the doctor said, and in a few days the problem would take care of itself. The parents recoiled in horror at his suggestion, insisting that he do everything possible for the baby. The doctor pointed out that in cases like these marital distress often ensues, and worse things still. He asked why these people would risk such things for themselves and their other two children. The mother replied that the family would be fine. She told the doctor, “I could certainly see why it would make sense for a child like this to be born into a family like ours.” Her other two kids had not experienced much suffering, she said, but this situation really formed an opportunity for the whole family. On his way out of the hospital room, the doctor said to the family’s pastor, “I hope you can talk some reason into them.” 4 Willimon, 99
13.             The family actually had a great reason for reacting in this confident and hopeful way. It wells up from the depths of biblical-type lament. Such lament cries before the Lord, then is silent and waits upon him. It knows that his steadfast love never ceases and his mercies are new every morning. So it’s equipped to go through hard times, not try to tiptoe around them. Despite the yoke of suffering, and on account of Christ, the eyes of faith see good coming from God.  Now the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until life everlasting.  Amen.