Text: Psalm 6; Luke 24:13-32
Easter has come and gone; social distancing continues.
This was to be our 40th Anniversary as a church; postponed, and stay-at-home goes on.
Students are missing out on graduations, proms, SAT and AP and other end-of-year tests; they continue with online classes as best they can.
Grandparents, parents, and friends in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are unable to visit in-person with loved ones and must settle for the often confusing connection of a phone call or facetime (if there’s a friendly nurse to help).
While many are going stir-crazy at home, others in healthcare and essential services are working long, hard, extra hours to provide what we need to keep going.
Others are cut off from jobs and income and food and needed support.
What do you do with all this? What does it make you feel?
I decided to spend this next season of sermons on those questions. I want to look at things like grief, impatience, fear, struggle, and weariness – all things I think we are facing in different ways and to different degrees. And I want to look with you at what scripture has to say about these things. I have long believed that the Psalms were “Songs for Every Season” of life, including the most difficult. We read there of people struggling with death, loss, disappointment, grief, and the kinds of emotions we face, whether from the current situation or one of the many other myriad challenges of being human. So I invite you into that journey with me, in hopes that you will find encouragement, sustenance, support, and hope.
Today I want to talk about grief, specifically with the current context in mind. Though I believe it has been absolutely essential to follow these stay-home orders to address the rapid spread of COVID-19, we have had to give up many things. With that comes some sorrow and grief. But those feelings and experiences are not new to you or me. So let’s look at today’s scripture. One is a story about two people experiencing disappointment and grief; one is a Psalm or song about grief. In both cases we’ll see how God enters into the situation. And it is my hope that God will enter into yours as well.
Road from Jerusalem
On Easter I talked about the women who faithfully and bravely went to the tomb with spices. I talked about the disciples who were hiding out behind locked doors, though two did venture out to see what the women were talking about. One disciple, Thomas, missed Jesus when he did appear and demanded later to see and touch him for himself. But Luke tells us the story of two others who were acquainted with Jesus and were leaving with hopes dashed. We don’t know if they were regular followers or had come lately to believe his message, but they told a stranger on the road that they “were hoping that it was he who was going to redeem Israel.” In fact, they knew about the women going to the tomb, and the angelic message that Jesus was alive. But their knowledge and their experience leaves of at “some went and found the tomb empty, but him they did not see.”
We don’t really know where they are in terms of understanding or believing that Jesus was resurrected. That Jesus went on to explain things to them makes me think they did not get it. Indeed, if they were hopeful of seeing Jesus, why would they be leaving Jerusalem to go back to Emmaus? It seems more likely to me that they were moving on. And it seems likely to me that they were disappointed and perhaps even grieving what could have been, what they had hoped would have been.
We were hoping he would redeem Israel!
But he was arrested… he was executed…
he died… and now his body is gone.
Probably the Romans wanted to make sure he was
completely done away with.
There’s no need to stick around;
there’s only trouble here…
even his disciples are hiding out.
I think about how often things do not go the way I expected or hoped. And God can be as close as Jesus was to those two travelers that day and I just won’t see it. It’s hard to see beyond our preconceived ideas, even if they are hopes and dreams and visions; perhaps especially when it’s those, because it’s so easy to be all the more heart-broken when they don’t work out.
A Song for This Season
Psalm 6 has the tone – the heart – of someone who is hurting, who is grieving. We don’t know what has happened, but we read of adversaries and enemies and what sounds like a long, long wait for deliverance or relief from them. It is not a stretch to think of this virus as an adversary and enemy; it certainly does threaten our health and well-being, with even the potential of death.
So the Psalmist moves through several emotions, not holding back from expressing them directly to God in prayer. The Psalm opens with feelings of being punished by God. Whether that is the way it works (I don’t think it is), it certainly can feel like God is punishing us. So the Psalmist pleads for God to relent, to be gracious, to bring healing: “My BONES are dismayed; my SOUL is dismayed…. O Lord – how long?” (vv.2-3) We’ll return to that question and feeling of “How Long” in future weeks, but it is certainly part of our human experience of grief and suffering. Time slows down and it can feel like there will never be relief.
So the Psalmist goes on to ask the Lord to come back, to be present again: “Return, O Lord, rescue my (dismayed) soul; save me because of your lovingkindness.” (v.4) Now God tells us that He does not leave us or forsake us; but again, our experience is often different than God’s reality. And it’s okay to verbalize that to God. I think of when my children were young and we were trying to teach them something. Sometimes the accusations would fly: “You hate me; you don’t want me to have any fun.” While the reality was we DO love them and wanted the best for them, it didn’t invalidate their feelings and experience of that time-out or those hard words of truth. And God can handle it. In fact, I think it makes it all the more powerful that God remains faithful and present as we pour out our feelings, because when we do realize He was there all along, we are all the more grateful at the depth of His love.
The Psalmist continues in vv.6-8 with less blaming and more sharing with God what is going on. I don’t say that to say that the blaming is wrong – it’s human! But the shift is as if the Psalmist has realized and accepted God’s presence once again: “Oh, God, you ARE here… listen, I’m really struggling!”
6 I am weary with my sighing;
Every night I make my bed swim,
I dissolve my couch with my tears.
7 My eye has wasted away with grief;
It has become old…
It’s really a wonderful shift, because when that happens we REALIZE we are not alone. We are still struggling, but we know we aren’t alone. That’s huge.
And you can hear what it leads to… “The Lord has heard the voice of my weeping; the Lord has heard my supplication, the Lord receives my prayer.” (vv. 8b-9) And then a statement of trust that God will act: enemies turned back from hurting me. (v.10)
All of that Psalm, that song and prayer, happens without any externals changing. I won’t say it happens instantaneously, because that progression of feelings and perspective may take weeks or months or years to develop. But note that the thing causing the grief hasn’t changed; but the perspective of the Psalmist has moved significantly:
- blame and impatience (vv.1-3)
- a plea for help (vv.4-5)
- a recognition of God’s presence and a sharing of grief (vv.6-8a)
- faith that God has heard and will act (vv.8b-9)
In the face of COVID-19 and all the associated losses and griefs you may find yourself anywhere along that continuum. I would invite you to receive these observations as Good News and encouragement today:
- Each place on that continuum is a realistic human experience
- God IS faithful and present whether we realize it or not
- God welcomes you at each stage and invites you onward
Back to Jesus
I want to suggest that Jesus walked the two on the road to Emmaus through a similar progression. When he first encountered them, they did not know or understand what had happened and they were walking away from Jerusalem and the hopes they had in that place.
Jesus walked with them a while and listened to them and they opened up to him about what they were feeling and thinking. Then he opened up the scripture to them, revealing what WAS true (as opposed to what they perceived to be true). He showed them what God’s plan for the Messiah was according to the Law and Prophets. And finally he broke bread with them and the eyes of their faith were opened. And their feelings and emotions lined up, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he spoke with us on the road?”
Again, it is human to feel whatever you are feeling. But hear the Good News: God is here and God cares for you! May the Lord meet you on your particular road and receive all your prayers and griefs. And may you come to know the presence and blessing of God’s mercies in your life. Amen.