So, we’re starting this term with a couple of sermons looking at big issues that have come up over the last six months or so. This week we’re thinking about Covid-19, and next week we’re going to look at Black Lives Matter, and the challenges of racial inequality. I know that some of you feel that we’ve been a bit slow to react to these, and would have welcomed an opportunity to reflect on these together earlier, and I think that critique is fair – we could have been more responsive and flexible with our plans. However, we are where we are, and perhaps, making a virtue out of a necessity, the time that has elapsed might give us a slightly different perspective.
For instance, it seems to me that we are moving into a different phase of the whole C-19 thing. We are now beyond the initial crisis management, and into a new long term reality. For some of us, we’d kind of hoped that once the summer was out of the way, youngsters would be going back to school and college, and things would be getting back to normal. It’s clear that this isn’t going to happen. We are now more and more facing the reality of the long haul – that things are fundamentally different and many of them are not going to go back to the way they were for the foreseeable future.
So, as we face up to this fact, what resources do we find in God’s word to guide us and to sustain us? What is God showing us, what is God calling us to, how do we live as faithful disciples in this new way of life?
I don’t think that I’ve got all the answers, but I do have some suggestions of themes that occurred to me as I reflected on the Bible readings we’ve had today, which seem to me to weave in and out of each other through these readings, and indeed through the whole of Scripture. These are themes of grieving, of trusting, and of focus.
The book of Lamentations does exactly what it says on the tin. Almost all of it is made up of songs and poems of grief and lamenting. Written in the aftermath of the invasion of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the destruction of the temple, and the exile of the people of God, it expresses the grief and anger of the survivors with brutal honesty.
One of the most remarkable features of Lamentations is the way in which the writer unflinchingly ascribes responsibility for the suffering of the people to God, and calls God to account. At the beginning of this morning’s reading, we read “He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust.” If we look back to the beginning of the chapter we discover who “he” is. “I am the one who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.” The writer of Lamentations clearly sees the suffering he is living through as a result of God’s actions.
In the middle of our passage this morning, we read one of the few rays of light in the book, the reminder of the Lord’s great love. So, here we find the weaving together of the permission to grieve, and to be honest about our anger and confusion with God, with a call to remember that God is trustworthy, that God’s compassion and faithfulness do not fail, and that when our soul is downcast we can choose to focus on God’s unfailing nature, and to have hope.
Why did Jesus wait two days? His disciples didn’t understand why. It seems like they thought he has avoiding the people plotting to kill him in Jerusalem, but then he decides to go, and it’s clear that wasn’t the issue. Mary and Martha were just left hanging, they’d sent the message but there was no text or Whatsapp message back to tell them he’d be along in a while. They were just left to wait. Jesus makes a passing reference to this all working out for the glory of God, but even that is difficult to get our heads round.
It’s the first thing that Martha says to Jesus, “If you’d been here”. Do we hear echoes of Lamentations, of someone in the Bible saying to God, “you are responsible for this”? Jesus doesn’t rebuke Martha for her presumption, but calls her deeper into faith, into trust, into belief.
It seems to me that the background of uncertainty, of not knowing, of not understanding what’s going on is important here. It isn’t trust if we know what’s going on. If there is no area of uncertainty then it isn’t trust. It is at times when we can’t know that we choose to trust, or not.
As the story moves on we witness Jesus grieving with the family. He weeps with them. One of the things that many people have found difficult over the last six months is the fact that the kind of thing we read about here, families and communities coming to grieve and mourn together hasn’t been able to happen. Being robbed of the opportunity to have the funeral services we would have wanted, of the comforting presence of friends and family, has really hurt.
It may be some comfort to know that Jesus weeps with us, but it may not. This might be a loss that we need to lament, to have out with God, to lay at God’s feet.
Through it all, though, Jesus keeps calling Mary and Martha back to trust and focus, to trust him and not to get distracted by the noise or the people or the possibility of a bad smell, but to trust him and to focus on his promises, and as they do this, so they see resurrection and new life when that didn’t seem possible.
Grief, trust, and focus all woven together in this story of death and new life that foreshadows Jesus’ own crucifixion and resurrection, in which we see the deepest grief, find the truest trust, and which is the focus of all history.
Before we get to that, though, we hear from Luke’s biography of Jesus about a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples in the temple courts. This is the temple that was rebuilt in Jerusalem when the exiles returned from Babylon. It is proof in stone that God did not disappoint, but answered that glimmer of hope in Lamentations and brought the people home. To the disciples it is not just a beautiful building but a solid sign of God’s faithfulness and redemption, it is one of the foundation stones of their faith. And Jesus takes it down. It’s not going to last, he says. Not one stone will be left on another.
That building that has been such an important part of the expression of your faith and worship. It’s going. We’ve had a bit of a taste of that, but at least our building is still standing. Just imagine how you’d feel if I suddenly announced from the front that the time will come when there won’t be stone left on another of All Saints building. How would you feel? I expect you’d want some details. The disciples certainly did. They knew the kind of grief it would cause – Lamentations style grief.
But Jesus doesn’t give them details, he calls them to trust him and the Father, to not be distracted by the false teaching, wars, famine, pestilence, but to continue to focus on the main thing, the coming of the Kingdom of God.
In all three readings there is uncertainty. Uncertainty in the face of sickness and death. Uncertainty in the face of the future.
In the face of this uncertainty, the themes of grief, trust and focus are woven together in a way in which makes hope possible. In this time of uncertainty, of change, and of facing the long haul of Covid-19 it seems to me that it is important to be honest and open about what we’re grieving for, to bring that grief to God, and to experience God grieving with us. In the face of our lack of understanding and distress we are also invited to trust, to lean into the everlasting arms which will hold us. And finally, we are called to focus, not on the waves or the storm, but on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.