Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sadness: Psalm 77

Do you know what I wish? I wish that when I was a senior in high school, I didn't strike out so much. I wish that I had studied harder in college. I wish that the Mets had won the World Series. I wish that my father was alive to enjoy his grandchildren. I wish that I was more loving.  What do you wish for? Perhaps our wishes are driven by the realization that life is not as it ought to be, a realization that brings with it, if we are thinking, a sense of sadness. A sadness that is reflected in the scriptures. Hear now the Word of God as we read Psalm 77, verses 1-15.

 1 I cried out to God for help;
   I cried out to God to hear me.
2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
   at night I stretched out untiring hands,
   and I would not be comforted.

 3 I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
   I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
4 You kept my eyes from closing;
   I was too troubled to speak.
5 I thought about the former days,
   the years of long ago;
6 I remembered my songs in the night.
   My heart meditated and my spirit asked:

 7 “Will the Lord reject forever?
   Will he never show his favor again?
8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
   Has his promise failed for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be merciful?
   Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

 10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
   the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
   yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
12 I will consider all your works
   and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

 13 Your ways, God, are holy.
   What god is as great as our God?
14 You are the God who performs miracles;
   you display your power among the peoples.
15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
   the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

How many of you remember the television show, "The Odd Couple"? I do not know why I remember this, but in one episode, Felix bounces around singing, "Happy and peppy and bursting with love." Sometimes we think that this is the message of the Christian faith: Happy and peppy and bursting with love. Is it? The story has been told of a woman who, on Thanksgiving Day, wondered if there was anything for which to give thanks. It was the 4th year in a row that she could not get out of bed to go to the table for the meal.  It had to be brought to her.  Ninety four Thanksgiving days, she thought to herself.  Eight in this wretched nursing home, four unable to walk to the table.  She reflected on days gone by. Her husband had died 35 years ago. All of her friends had died. Perhaps worst of all, last year she saw her own daughter, who was also a widow, die at the age of 73.  Why did she have to live so long to see her own child die? No one would care if I lived or died, she thought as tears rolled down her cheeks. Happy and peppy and bursting with love? Are you kidding me? There is much sadness in the world. It is not wrong nor is it sinful for the Christian, at times, to feel sad. It is not something to feel embarrassed about or guilty about, sadness is rather something that is to be expected as we live in a world in which things are not as they ought to be. Look at some of the words and phrases found in Psalm 77: I cried out to God for help, verse 1; I groaned, my spirit grew faint, verse 3, I was too troubled to speak, verse 4. Does this sound like happy and peppy and bursting with love? Sadness is normal and is characteristic of living in this world. What does this passage teach us about sadness?

Sadness affects us physically.  We will look at these things briefly, but see if these have not been true in your life. We grow weak, verse 3.  My spirit grew faint.  Your energy and motivation is gone. You feel as if you are about to collapse on the bed from exhaustion. Yet, sometimes, this sadness which saps our energy steals sleep, verse 4, "you kept my eyes from closing." We have all had the experience where we lie awake at night and sleep which would provide needed relief never comes. Third, sadness can make it difficult even to speak, verse 4.  I was too troubled to speak.  Sometimes the lump in my throat is too big, sometimes we cannot get a word out without breaking down, and the pain is just too great. Do these match some of your experiences?  Sadness affects us physically.

Sadness can be so intense that it refuses to be comforted, verse 2.  How do you initially react to that verse?  Does it rub you the wrong way? Does not God bring comfort to the brokenhearted; this refusal to be comforted then almost seems to be unscriptural.  Yet, I believe this verse reflects a truth we often miss for we live in a culture that does not deal with sadness very well. Thirteen days ago, a mere 13 days, Jean Carnahan lost her husband and her son. The depth of her sadness, sorrow and despair? One can only imagine. Yet it seems that there are those who are saying, "Yes, you lost your husband and your son, but that was last week, we have already had the funeral, it is time for you to do what we want you to do for our benefit." Sadness? That was last week, time to move on. Leave her and the family alone. For here politics is not only inappropriate, it is irrelevant.  For here there are no Democrats or Republicans, we are people who stand before the sad reality that in just a moment, life can be gone; what once was is now no longer and our lives are never the same. In Genesis 37 when Jacob thought his son Joseph was dead he refused to be comforted.  When Herod slaughtered the male children under the age two in an attempt to kill Christ, the mothers, the scriptures tell us were weeping and refused to be comforted for their children were no more. Sometimes when one is grieving we so desperately want to offer words of comfort, to say something and we choose pious platitudes that fall flat, it is sometimes best to say nothing. For how can you comfort one who has lost a husband, a wife, a child? Put a band aid on it?  Ten years ago my father died and this anniversary has made 2000 a very difficult year for my mom. She has been a widow ten years. The passage of time might take some of the sting away, but it never takes it away entirely. Sadness of life is deeper than we what to admit and there are times when we refuse to be comforted by the empty pious platitudes.

Sadness leads us to question God. Look at verse 3.  I remembered you, O God and I groaned.  It does not say, I thought of you O God and then it was happy and peppy and bursting with love.  I thought of you and I groaned. The thought of God did not bring relief or comfort, for the heart is full of questions, verses 7-9.  Will the Lord reject forever?  Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful?  Has he in anger withheld his compassion?  Here in these questions we see a grappling with God - I don't understand what you are doing. Such questions may make you uncomfortable. I know they make many in the church uncomfortable. Tragedy occurs and we seem compelled to respond, God is sovereign.  He is in control.  All things work out in accordance with his plan."  All very true, but how easily it can be used to hide the reality of our hearts which do truthfully wonder, "God I really wanted my marriage to work, you know I did, I prayed, I sought counsel and yet my spouse still walked out on me, why?  Why God if you love me would something like this happen?" Is it OK to ask such questions? Of course it is OK, God knows these questions are on your heart; your attempt at constructing a facade is not going to fool him. The questions are very real because the sadness is very real.

During the Men's Retreat last weekend, the speaker asked us to break into small groups and share the worst moments of our life. As our group shared I realized that there are many men who are carrying sadness, great sadness. November 1975. I was 13. Our church was having a Lay Witness Mission and on Saturday night, the gospel was no longer a story I heard for years in Sunday school, it became very real to me. I was excited and my mother was excited and said, "You need to go home and tell dad."  My dad was already in bed so I walked up stairs with mom. She said, "Al, Doug has something he would like to share with you." "Dad, I placed my faith in Jesus Christ tonight."  My dad said, "That's nice" and he rolled over, turned his back towards me and went to sleep.

Years later, the scene shifts to the hall way of Good Shepherd church.  I am talking to a group of people and my son comes up to me with a piece of artwork he had made in Sunday school, "here daddy look at what I made" with a big smile on his face, he was so proud. But because I was busy, I folded it up and put it in my jacket pocket without even looking at it. He turned away crushed. It was as if I had said, "that is nice and rolled over and went back to sleep."

Some of you have parents who are ill and dying. Some suffer from broken even hostile relationships in the family.  You grieve over the course the lives of your children have taken. Some have grown children who want nothing to do with you, except at Christmas. Some have had alcoholic parents or a spouse.  Some of you saw your father or mother walk out on the family never to return. Others are lonely and your hopes and dreams have not come to fruition. What sadness lies deep within you?

What then do we do?  Notice that one thing the Psalmist does not do:  he never ever says, "Well it could be worse."  How many times have you said that in an attempt to find comfort from your sadness? No doubt we have all said that at times and it is wrong to do so. For it seeks comfort, relief for our sadness, in the wrong place.  Jimmy Allen, a prominent pastor in the Southern Baptist convention, whose family was devastated by tragedy wrote: Somehow we have conceived of pain and suffering in quantitative terms. We tend to think, It could be worse.  Look at what is happening to that person.  People sometimes say to me, "Compared to the pain you and your family have experienced, my pain is nothing." They almost feel guilty for feeling discouraged or depressed. I gently explain that comparing pain is inappropriate and more importantly irrelevant."  Do you hear that?  You source of comfort in sadness is not in the statement, 'well it could be worse."  rather it is in Christ. In our sorrow, in our sadness we must go to Christ.

This is what the Psalmist does in verses 10-20.  He reminds himself of who God is, what he has done.  Verse 12.  I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.
We must go to Jesus and meditate on his works.  The night he was betrayed, Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and said to his disciples: My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Luke records that as he prayed he was in such anguish that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.  Isaiah 53 reminds us that Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Jesus knows sorrow; he knows what it is to be lonely, rejected, ridiculed; he knows what it is like to feel sad. What God is so great as our God that he would identify with us in our sadness?

Still further, he is the one who weeps with us. In John 11 we find the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  Even though Jesus knew what he was going to do, that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, as he saw Martha and Mary weeping over their brother's death, as he saw their sadness, he did not say to them, "Hey, what is this? Crying? There's no crying allowed here." Rather, the scripture records that Jesus wept. The eternal Son of God, the resurrection and the life, was deeply moved by their sorrow and he wept with them. He weeps with you.  

He knows sadness; he weeps with us in our sadness, but further he paves the way home.  This is the longing of every human heart, in our sadness to be safe at home. Baseball fanatics like myself can take the game far too seriously. One of the great things about baseball is to go on a journey around the bases and make it safe at home. Jesus paves the way so that we can be safe at home.  Look at verse 19, "you path led through the waters, that is through the Red Sea, though your foot prints were not seen." God led them through, so today, though we do not see his footprints, Jesus has traveled the path of sadness, of rejection and loneliness, he died on the cross, to pave the way home. Sadness is real, but one day, because of Jesus we will make it safe at home. Let us pray.

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