Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Sermon on 1 Kings 17:17-24 & Luke 7:11-17, for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Comfort in Grief"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in two of our readings we see the nearness of God to those who grieve—in particular, how He raised the dead sons of two widows. The Old Testament reading is about Elijah raising the son of the Widow of Zarephath, and the Gospel reading is about Jesus raising the son of the Widow of Nain. Whether we experience grief from the death of a loved one, or whether our grief stems from something else, one thing stands sure. The words of the Psalmist, as true today as when they were penned some 3,000 years ago by King David, state this lasting truth: “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). Today we’ll reflect on what grief is, and how God brings comfort in grief. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Grief could be described as overwhelming sadness. A deeply felt sorrow, usually over some loss or suffering. Many of the Psalms are songs or prayers of someone experiencing great grief, and calling on God’s help and mercy. Grief is more than just the emotional aspect of tears and sadness, it can have a physical effect as well. The Psalmist was physically exhausted because of his grief—the moaning and the tears wore his body out (Ps 6). Body and soul were filled with grief and weakened by sadness, even his bones ached (Ps. 31). Some of you may know just what this kind of grief feels like, that takes away your energy and leaves you physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. It may seem to cast a dark cloud over everything, and sometimes everything is shadowed by that grief for a long time. It may seem that no one else can understand the grief or loss you feel.

However, it’s also likely that some haven’t yet experienced such deep grief. Or, the grief they’ve experienced may have been much shorter. Some may feel near to another person in their grief, others may feel isolated and alone. Each person deals with grief in their unique way. But in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, it remains true as I quoted before—God is near to the broken-hearted.

What are some of the causes of grief? What griefs have you experienced? The loss of a job? The grief of a broken relationship, perhaps through a divorce or loss of a long-held friendship? The loss of our health? The grief of a wayward child going the way of world? While the griefs we may have experienced may be greater or lesser compared to another, shorter or longer-lasting, our griefs are our own, and affect us each differently. For each of the widows in today’s reading it was the loss of their only son. In those times a widow had almost no other financial means of support apart from her husband or son. The widow of Zarephath, mistakenly thought that this death of her son was God’s punishment on her because of her sin. Was it some particular past sin that grieved her, and she felt that God was punishing her for this? Or was it because she felt aware of her sin in general because of the prophet Elijah, and she thought it was bad luck to have him stay with her and her son?

In any case, I think we can all identify with her feeling, that sometimes we wonder if difficulty or tragedy is God’s punishment for some particular sin. In our grief, we search for a cause and explanation even if there isn’t one available. It’s kind of a “bad luck theology.” It’s kind of superstitious in a way, and it’s so common and easy to fall into. I have often felt that same temptation to think in this way. Lutherans call it the “theology of glory”—which basically means that we think we can read the events of our life like an indicator of whether God is happy or angry with us. Instead of finding those answers in God’s Word, we look at all the events of life, and if things are going well, then we feel God must be pleased and satisfied with us. But if things are going poorly, we begin searching for what’s the hidden cause for this suffering or loss—why is God angry at me? What did I do? This theology of glory, or “bad-luck theology” was just as common in Bible times as today—as the first widow shows.

But part of the reason why we need God near to us in times of grief and suffering, is to learn that this is not true. It’s not true that our daily events and circumstances can be read like a weather gauge that tell us if God is favorable to us or angry. We need God near to us to learn true theology, the theology of the cross. The theology of the cross teaches us that the true way to know God’s attitude toward us is not by sticking our finger in the winds of life and trying to deduce where the Spirit is blowing. Rather the sure and certain way of knowing God’s heart and attitude toward us is by looking to God’s revealed Word and to the cross of Jesus Christ. There at the cross we can find a sure and certain knowledge of how God loves us and has forgiven us our sins. Can you imagine what Jesus would’ve concluded if He lived by the “theology of glory”? He felt the greatest abandonment and loneliness and suffering imaginable on the cross. Yet even in death, He did not doubt or fear whether He was in God’s arms. He prayed in His dying breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” He prayed “Father!” He still trusted in God and knew His relationship to God—though it was completely hidden from His eyes.

It takes faith to hold the theology of the cross. To know that even sufferings may come upon us, and that this is not a sign of disfavor from God. Suffering can be a sign of testing and God’s discipline (Heb. 12), or it may have no understandable reason or purpose. But what it does not mean is that God doesn’t love us or hear us. The prophet Jeremiah, knew great grief when he saw the destruction of the beloved city of Jerusalem and the exile. He even wrote a book of grief, the book of Lamentations, where these comforting words are found: “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lam. 3:31-33). God does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. Despite what some think of God, He is not arbitrary or malicious, He doesn’t delight in death or suffering. It’s not His will to grieve or afflict us. But God presides over all things in a world that is utterly disordered and broken by sin. Sinful human beings and the hurt that we cause each other—the intentional evils. But also the unintentional affects of evil in the world—diseases and natural death.

In such a world there is and will be grief—yet God will have compassion. He brings peace when sadness seems unbearable. His love is overflowing. He could’ve chosen to never get involved at all in this disordered and broken world. He could’ve kept His hands “clean” by never getting down into the earthly life of mankind, mixing with sinners and lepers and mourners in a funeral procession. Nothing required God to be present or to involve Himself in our suffering. Yet in the person of Jesus Christ, as the very Son of God, God entered and lived among us. He took up our sorrows and sicknesses. He ate with sinners and He touched lepers and the dead.

Someone might cynically say that God raising the two sons of these widows may have comforted them, but what about us? What about our dead? The point is that even those resurrections were only temporary reversals in the natural order of death and decay. Those boys were raised to a natural life again, still in this disordered and broken world. But they would eventually still die a natural death again. The point is not that for God to comfort us, He must personally enter each life and situation and perform such temporary reversals. The point is that Jesus Christ had entered into the world as God, and that these miracles were signs of the greater and final reversal God was bringing into the chaos of a sin-filled world. Those miracles are proof that God has entered the world and begun the process of ordering and recovering this world from sin. His own resurrection from the dead to a truly glorified and eternal body was the first true and permanent resurrection.

This is the basis of our comfort in grief. This is how God draws near to us who are broken-hearted. For everyone who has faith in His Son who has conquered death for us, God has begun the internal reordering of our sinful souls and lives. God has entered into us and started the process of reversal. His new life is like the life of a seed germinating inside us—the physical body must eventually die and fall off, so that it may blossom into eternal life. The whole of this old and disordered creation must finally pass away before the full plan and completion of God’s restoration can take place. Death is the final enemy to be destroyed, Scripture says.

Our comfort in grief is to have God near to us—near to us because He lived, suffered, and died like us. Near to us because this suffering accomplishes a restoration for us. It’s the beginning of the ordering, the setting of everything right again. God is putting “Humpty-dumpty” together again, and all of us “cracked saints” are God’s treasures that He is piecing together again by His abundant love and forgiveness. By faith we already participate in the new life He is preparing for us. By faith we’re comforted in grief, knowing that even when hardship, difficulty, and death come upon us—even when grief steals our happiness and dampens our joy, that Jesus promises us a hope and a future together with Him. By faith we see that even when we as Christians bear our crosses in life, this doesn’t mean that God is punishing us or that we’ve lost favor with Him. But rather we see God’s favor as sure and certain toward us because of the cross of Jesus Christ—the clear and certain proclamation of God’s forgiving love for us. May this comfort of God strengthen you in all grief, in Jesus’ name. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. Read Psalm 34 especially verse 18. What is God’s relationship to those who are broken-hearted? Why does God hear them?

2. What is grief, and what are its effects? Psalm 6 and 31. Cf. Matt. 26:38; Luke 22:44. What kind of grief have you experienced? How did you deal with it? Who could you share it with?

3. What did the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 think was the reason her son had died? What kind of theology is this? What are some popular examples of this thinking today? What are some Biblical examples? Consider the friends of Job. What is wrong about this way of thinking (a theology of glory) about God?

4. What is the true and certain way of knowing God’s attitude toward us? Where can we look to and be sure of how God thinks of us? How is suffering and bearing our “crosses” a testing point for us to believe in God’s goodness and favor toward us?

5. How did Jesus show this faith, even in His greatest hour of difficulty?

6. What does the Bible teach us about difficulty? Heb. 12. Read Lamentations 3:31-33. Does God desire that we be grieved?

7. What does God do about the chaos and disorder of a sinful world? How do the two resurrection stories in the OT and Gospel reading show us a preview of the reordering and restoration that God is undertaking through Jesus? Explain how God is near to us in suffering.

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