Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 63:16-64:12 Part 2
The preacher who chooses to focus on this selection from Isaiah models the courage and boldness of the author of Third Isaiah who also chose to speak about troubling things. Part of what is written here in Isaiah is a lament, a form of prayer that we today are unaccustomed to hearing.
The author of Third Isaiah, believing that Yahweh had withdrawn from Yahweh's people, and that this withdrawal had contributed to the ruin and sinfulness of the people of Israel, cries out to Yahweh in pain and anguish. We do not often hear such language or speak to God in such a bold and forthright way and may feel uncomfortable in hearing these words from Isaiah. We may also be uncomfortable and reluctant to deal with the theological themes that underlie Isaiah's words, such as the meaning of suffering, and thus wish to skip over this reading. Yet in doing so we would miss the opportunity to learn about prayer and healing and how through the form of prayer known as lament we can actually move closer to God. It is in choosing to stay with this difficult passage that we may come face to face with honesty in prayer, the type of honesty that is the criterion of genuine religion and genuine faith.
Most of us were raised believing in an all-good God who wanted to hear only all-good things from us. We were raised to believe that we do not have the right to complain or lament to our God, as if our words could offend God or destroy our relationship with God. Much can be said, however, for lament as a form of prayer which moves an individual or a church community closer toward God, rather than away from God.
To lament is not simply to complain. Lamenting is based on very firm theological and psychological convictions and understandings. When one uses lament as a form of prayer, one builds upon one's already-existing relationship with God. In other words, lamenting does not form the beginning of one's relationship with God, but is a natural extension of that foundational relationship. Theologically, it is based on a belief that God will hear and must hear because it is the business of God to hear; psychologically, it is based on a belief that suffering people will not get help if they keep quiet. In the passage from Isaiah, the continuing relationship with God is first acknowledged, then only is God challenged.
Lament stresses the importance of relationship of God with God's people, a relationship that is continuing, long-lasting, loving, and parental; it also stresses the importance of open, honest communication on both parts in that relationship. For us, this communication involves speaking what is on our minds and in our hearts, speaking what we think and feel, both positive and negative. To be able to do this involves a profound trust and faith, courage and love.
The most common pastoral situation in which I have found lament to be useful, even necessary, is in situations of grief. When faced with diagnosis of a terminal illness, the possibility of a divorce, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one, the most often asked question is, "Why did God do this to me?" Our pain emboldens us to challenge God, yet often does not bring us to the healing step of venting our feelings to God, sharing with God the anguish, pain, and anger that we are feeling, often toward God. When encouraged to express these feelings toward and with God, we will find that grieving, and thus healing can begin. How many times as pastoral leaders have we heard, "I never grieved the death of my mother or my father twenty years ago!" This often translates into, "I never allowed myself (or was never allowed) to express my feelings of sorrow, anger, relief, fear, and pain and to allow healing to occur." If part of our grief experience is feeling anger toward or blaming God, and we do not talk about this to God, this anger toward God may remain a thorn in our continuing relationship.
The question of "Why me?" or "Why does an all-good God allow suffering?" has been asked for centuries, and will probably continue to be debated. Another way of approaching the question of suffering, however, instead of focusing on the why of suffering, which may always remain a mystery, is to focus on the who or the what of suffering. Suffering is a part of the human condition, but we are not left alone in our suffering. Our God (the who) is a God who suffers with us, who is present with us (the what) in our suffering.
Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the concentration camps, relates a poignant story in his book Night, of an incident that occurred at one of the camps. Three men, one of which was a young boy, were being hanged, and the entire camp was being forced to watch. Because the boy was so light he took a long time to die. Somebody near Wiesel cried out, "Where is God?" Wiesel responded that God was on the gallows with the boy. It is God's presence that makes suffering tolerable.
If we do not speak out and speak up it is more likely that we will remain victims of our own feelings and of the powerlessness we feel in God's presence. Speaking out can transform us into survivors and can initiate a process of liberation from our afflictions. Freed from our burdens of guilt, and from our feelings of helplessness and hostility, our relationship with our Creator and Redeemer is strengthened and deepened.
Roslyn A. Karaban
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