Psalm 137; John 11;23-25
PRAYER: God of compassion and mercy, you are with us all the days of our lives, and we trust in you. Be among us today and center our lives that we may receive the hope you offer and then, in turn, offer it to others.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
There are a lot of common clichés that people offer when bad things happen that demonstrate a fundamental truth: we don’t always know what to say. Things like “heaven needed another angel” or “We can’t see it now, but we’ll realize someday that this terrible thing happened for the best… God has a plan.” These are terrible things to say. In the face of human suffering, they are unsatisfactory in explaining or maintaining a belief in a loving, good, all-powerful God. Some of these clichés can cause more harm than good when people are hurting. When we turn to scripture, we may find that there really are no easy answers to human suffering, but still, what scripture does is it helps us to ask different more helpful questions and provide comfort along the way.
About one third of the psalms are classified as psalms of lament. Psalm 137 is definitely one that falls into that category. The Israelites have been sent out of their homeland (Jerusalem) after the ruin of their temple by the Babylonians. They are living under enemy rule.
Imagine what it must have been like for them: they were far from their home, having no idea whether or not they would ever return. Their captors taunted them. They were isolated and alone. I would imagine that there was an overall sense that they had been abandoned by God. Wouldn’t it make sense if they would ask themselves, “How could God let this happen to us when we are supposed to be God’s chosen people?”
And isn’t that a question we’ve all asked at some point: How could God let this happen? How could God let this happen to us? How could God let this happen to me?
Can there be a more lonely question?
We have been taught in our culture that it is wrong to question or complain to God. The presence of this psalm and others like it in scripture, however, show that lament is a valid and expected response to suffering. It’s natural if not perfectly normal. When we read this psalm, it is not explained away or edited out of the story. There are no clichés offered to explain anything away or sweep our sorrow under the rug. God can handle our anger and sorrow.
That last two verses in the psalm are quite striking in its brutality. Certainly not anything we expect when we open the Bible. “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The writer of the psalm is advocating for revenge – a horrific revenge at that – against their enemies. It demonstrates for us the brutal honesty of the pain being expressed in the psalms. The inclusion of this graphic verse does not mean God will answer this prayer for revenge or that God condones the attitude of vengeance. But God is able to bear even our most difficult or painful emotions. How many of us had had those painful – almost embarrassing emotions where we just want to lash out at someone?
Notice the psalm does not attempt to answer the question of why God’s chosen people are experiencing exile and oppression. God is not depicted as a puppet master who pulls the strings to make good and bad things happen to people. So, what does God do and what is God’s role in relation to human suffering?
Well, in order to answer that, we have to take a more wide-angle view of scripture and of God’s role in human suffering. As God’s people face oppression and different challenges through their history, God is always there and faithful to them. God cares when people suffer. And God responds, although God’s response is not always in the way or on the timeline people might want. God’s response is based in compassion and kindness. Even when the psalmist is praying for Babylonian children to be dashed against the rock, God’s response is compassion.
We see an example of this pattern in the New Testament in John 11:23-44. Mary and Martha are grieving their brother Lazarus’ death and tell Jesus if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. You can almost feel the anger in their words. Jesus does not rebuke them for their sadness or for blaming him. Instead, he joins them in their grief. He weeps with them. Jesus, God with us, feels our pain with and alongside us.
God responds to people’s suffering. In the case of Lazarus, Jesus raises him from the dead. For the people of Israel in Babylonian captivity, they were eventually allowed to return to Jerusalem. Eventually, the temple that had been destroyed was rebuilt. At some point, it would be destroyed again. The point is not that “everything will turn out well in the end,” or that God will step in and reverse our pain and suffering. Rather, God comes into our suffering, and brings redemption and goodness out of the midst of it – moments of love, moments of meaning, moments of hope, and so on. It doesn’t make it any less difficult or painful, but God is there in it with us doing what only God can do amid tragedy.
It’s difficult to understand how God could allow the pain and suffering we see in the world and in our own lives. Jesus is Emmanuel “God with Us.” Jesus reminds us that a better question to ask ourselves is, “What can I do to help those who are suffering and in pain?”
When you have seen others, whether close to you or not that have been suffering or dealing with some difficult situation, where have you seen God in the midst of that? Have you found yourself questioning God or even angry with God? Have you found yourself doubting God’s goodness? There is space to lament and to grieve and in so doing, find ourselves held within the embrace of God who sits with us, who accompanies us in our most harrowing times. Perhaps instead of asking where is God in the midst of suffering, we should recognize that God is calling us to be with those who are suffering… that’s where God is.
This is what we, as Christians, are called to do. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt why bad things happen. The fact is that what we can often do best is to just walk alongside people in the midst of their despair as an indelible signal that they are not alone. That’s where God is.
I do not believe that God causes suffering, and I certainly hope that you don’t either. Suffering is a part of our human existence and our response to it can be one of faith… or not. A faithful response is one that remembers that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and Jesus reminds us that a faithful question to ask ourselves is, “What can I do to help those who are experiencing suffering and in pain?” “How can I be the heart, hands, and feet of God as others experience despair?”
Lately, I have been contemplating two very specific statements that Jesus said. These two statements have always had a very singular and clear meaning, but lately I have been seeing them both in a different light.
The first is when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prays, “Father, if it is your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However not my will, but your will must be done.” This passage has always represented obedience to me. Obedience to responsibilities, obedience to God… Jesus certainly doesn’t want to suffer; he doesn’t want to experience the horrific and painful death that awaits him.
But lately, I have been noticing the fact that Jesus knows. Jesus knows the suffering that he must endure, because he knows the suffering that others are enduring. He doesn’t want to experience that, but at the same time, he recognizes that if he is truly God with us, Emmanuel, then he knows our suffering.
And the second statement of Jesus that I’ve been contemplating lately comes a day later when he is on the cross. In Luke 23:46, “Then Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.”
I have always always always understood this statement as Jesus surrendering his physical body, his dying words. It is a reference to Psalm 31:5 which says, “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” But lately, I’ve been hearing these words in a much deeper way, as a way of surrendering our suffering to God and trusting in God’s hand accompanying us on our journey. Into your hands, O God, I commit my spirit because I know that we do not suffer alone when we allow God into our midst. God goes with us; God accompanies us. God leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, and surely goodness and mercy shall be with us all the days of our life. By saying “Into your hands I commit my Spirit”, Jesus was not conveying an end to his suffering, but rather an acknowledgement that God is with us in the midst of even the worst moments. It is a statement of trust.
What would it look like if we all spent less energy trying to answer the “why” or the “how could God” of what we’re going through and put that energy instead into compassion towards others and towards ourselves? What would it look like if we spent our energies opening ourselves to the compassion that God wants to offer us amidst our suffering, understanding that God goes with us and feels what we feel? And perhaps most importantly, what would it look like for our church to be the proof for people in our community that God cares when people suffer? That God is not some off-in-the-distance deity that is causing us to suffer as some sort of judgement or test. That the church is not just singularly focused on getting people to sit in our pews on a Sunday morning. But that we are a community that lifts one another up, that sees the suffering of others and responds with compassion and kindness, with hope and love.
As we approach Holy Week in a few weeks, allow God into those troubling times of suffering, and by all means, let your trust in God be manifested in these words: Into your hands O God, I commit my spirit.
To God be the glory.