[This message was delivered at the Blue Comfort and Hope worship service at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday afternoon of Advent, Dec. 13, 2020. The texts: Psalm 42 and 2 Corinthians 1:3-7.]
There is one kind of praying that too often is ignored. We need to know the prayer of lament. It is a biblical form of prayer; it belongs in our prayer vocabulary. Early in the pandemic, Time magazine asked a number of people from different areas of life to write brief thoughts on dealing with this plague. Among those selected was New Testament scholar and Church of England leader N. T. Wright. He named several ways of dealing with our trouble. First, he noted that there are the rationalists, even Christian rationalists, that want an explanation for everything. Second, he noted that there are romantics, even Christian romantics, that breathe a sigh of relief and see everything with rose-colored glasses. Finally, he concluded: “But perhaps what we need more than either [of those] is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer.”
When I read that there was an immediate click, a connection, in my spirit. Of the 150 psalms in the Bible’s prayer book, about forty are psalms of lament, about 30 of which are individual psalms of lament and the rest are communal. One book of the Bible is named Lamentations. It’s five long chapters of lament. One cannot read anywhere in the Bible for very long without finding lament.
Paul had a thorn in the flesh. We are not sure what it was, but it bothered and perhaps hindered him. He wanted it removed. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) He couldn’t have been happy about that response, but he accepted it.
When Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple an old man named Simeon took the baby and blessed it and then said: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Then he looked right at Mary and said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) Three decades later, Mary would feel the piercing force of that sword.
Even Jesus felt it, as he prayed in a garden, shortly before that sword would fall on him: “I am deeply grieved, even to death. . . he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:38-39) Even Jesus wanted a plan B.
Psalm 42 is one of those psalms of lament. Biblical laments tend to follow a simple pattern: acknowledge God, complain to God, hope in God, with the complaint section being the longest. Psalm 42 begins in a pleasant way: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
Then come the complaints. Listen to some of the cries of lament:
- My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
- My soul is downcast within me. . .
- . . . all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
- Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?
The final act of hope is tinged with the reality of the one praying: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
Our troubles do not have the last word. God does. Jesus, our Emmanuel—God with us—does. The Holy Spirit does. God hears our cries and our laments.
In our New Testament reading, brief as it is, there are nine occurrences of the word comfort or forms of it. Our English word comfort comes from two words in the Latin meaning fortify with or strengthen together. “Com” means with, as in communion and community. “Fort” is directly from fortify, to strengthen. To comfort is to fortify another, to strengthen and encourage another. But there is a word behind that word. In the original language of the New Testament this word translated comfort is one of the names for the Holy Spirit. That word literally means “called to come alongside.” God’s Spirit comes alongside us. In our losses and troubles, we are never alone. The Holy Spirit is walking with us, comforting us.
In “The Message,” this phrase of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 catches the meaning: “God comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.”
This Blue Advent worship is a service of comfort and hope for all: for those of us recently bereaved by the death of a loved one; for those of us that have lost jobs; for those of us facing health challenges, whether physical, mental, or emotional; for all of us who know our own brokenness and are willing to be honest with God, the God of all comfort and hope. God’s word invites us to be honest, whether in lament or in praise. Indeed, lament is a form of praise when it is directed to God. If we have not experienced these kinds of losses, we have relatives and friends that have. We are not alone. Jesus has come to be our Emmanuel, God with us. We put our hope in God, and we praise our Savior and our God, the God of all comfort.