07 October 2013

Homily at opening of LCMS Disaster Conference, 2013

Text: Lamentations 3:10–26

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jeremiah knew a thing or two about disaster. He'd been sent to prophesy it's immanent arrival, but when it struck it still hit him like a sucker punch in the gut. Walking about a city in smoldering ruins, houses burned, the population decimated, and unthinkably even the temple reduced to rubble and raided, emptied of all its holy things, cries of the survivors ringing in his ears, the old prophet does an odd thing.

He begins to sing. His song is a song of Lament, a song of sorrows: "How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!...Is is nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me, which The Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce wrath." He sings his song speaks from the perspective of the victims. And speaking from that perspective there is no wiggle room. He knows that the ultimate source of disaster is that it comes from the hand of The Lord. Neither he nor the people can pretend the luxury of theologizing in such a way as to keep The Lord's hands away from what has befallen them. The wrath is too near. They feel it in their bones. And they acknowledge that it is just: "The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and see my suffering!"

When disaster strikes, let us learn from Jeremiah to sing with the people what it actually feels like. Let us not ignore the elephant in the room. From today's reading: "He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding, he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate, he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrow of his quiver.... He filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel and made me cower in ashes. My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is."

It doesn't get more honest than that. God the bear, God the lion, God the archer and you his target, God grinding your face in the gravel. 

And so despair. That too. "so I say, My endurance has perished (as in, I can't take it anymore!), so has my hope from The Lord (as in, who can fight against Him when He fights you?)."

So the prophet sang. Sang with the people. Sang with their misery. It was his misery too. And he faced up to the omnipotence of God and its clear implications. He didn't even try to let God off the hook or distance him from the horror he lived in each day. He walked the streets of a ruined city singing the dirge of death, the death of hope, the fierce anger of The Lord.

Yet his song didn't stop there, did it? He sang all of that. And it was all true. He knew from Torah the terror of the words: "For a fire is kindled by my anger and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains. And I will heap disasters upon them and I will spend my arrows on them." (Deut. 32:22,23) But he knew that that song went on: "For The Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone." (Deut. 32:36). He knew that that song ended with promise: "See now that I, even I, am he; and there is no god besides me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal." (32:39)

The end of the song can't be lamentation, because if He kills, He yet also makes alive. If He wounds, He yet also heals. And so Jeremiah's loud lament reaches it climax as he sings to the mourners in Jerusalem: "This I call to mind and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of The Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness."

Everything else comes to an end. Everything. Disasters merely force us to see in a moment what slow time somewhat disguises: everything else comes to an end. You and me, the houses and homes we dwell in, the cities and nations we build, the plans we make, the dreams we dream, they all vanish away, dissolving like a morning mist. 

And yet seeing this and seeing it clearly, Jeremiah's heart swelled with hope and he sought to sing his hope into the hearts of the survivors: for in the face of disaster, of the end to which all else must come, Jeremiah beheld the shining light of mercy. He knew that there is one thing which has no end: the steadfast love of The Lord. It never fails. It never ceases. It may be hidden from our eyes for a time, like the sun by the stormy sky and clouds, but it never ceases to shine. 

And we know that that shining is greatest from Christ's cross. There, in the midst of the worst disaster imaginable, the creature killing the Creator, Death swallowing up Life, the death of God Himself in the flesh, we behold the triumph of the one thing that never fails: mercy. The cross forever witnesses that the terror of God's wrath against all our sin, which is so near us in the day of disaster: "Man of God, have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son?" as the Widow of Zarephath cried out - that it also has an end. We see the wrath of God against sin upon the cross. And yet it shines before us the hope that filled Jeremiah's heart: God is near us not to destroy us finally, but bestow upon us what has no end, what can never be shaken or torn down: His steadfast love. The cross achieves and manifests this. It swallows up wrath as Jesus drains that cup down to its bitter dregs. Behold, upon the Cross Him who is Steadfast love, Him who is faithfulness, Him who kept His every promise and who will keep them. Behold, Mercy as He triumphs over judgment. Behold, Him who was killed and yet made alive. Behold, Him who was wounded and yet was healed. He joins us in our sorrows to give us what lasts beyond all sorrow: mercy. He joins us in our sin to give us what lasts beyond all sin: forgiveness.

So Jeremiah sings his song and we with him: "The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of The Lord." Wait then and wait in hope, we sing in the midst of whatever the next disaster is. We give full voice to the lament of grief, the dirge of death, but we dare never stop there. We sing through them to the steadfast love that ceases not, we sing through them to Jesus, of His mercy, His life, His love that never ends. And so we bind up the wounds not just of body and mind, but above all of heart and soul, singing the truth of both Law and Gospel, of Wrath and Mercy, of Judgment and Grace, and proclaiming with boldness that among the things that has an end is the wrath of The Lord, but His mercies are new every morning. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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