Psalm 63:1-8 & Isaiah 55:1-9 | a reflection by Dan Spragg

The season of Lent, these 40 days as we follow Jesus on the road towards Easter, and most certainly the recent shootings on March 15 don’t lead us towards talk of being satisfied with the joy of the Lord, they don’t naturally lead us towards abundance or praise! It is a wee curse of mine that I tend to take a while to figure out exactly what I am feeling. I need to sit with things for a day or so to really know where I am. And so all this week really I’ve been trying to figure it out – what was easy to work out however was that I wasn’t feeling joyful or satisfied! I think I have been a number of things. Angry and shocked yes, but overwhelmingly I have been sad. I have cried as I have read various stories both of the losses but also of some of the responses. I have avoided the news mostly, and I have stopped myself scrolling through Facebook, because it is just so sad, this is a time a great sadness. The season of Lent typically is one of sitting with the struggle and pain of Jesus’ journey as he makes his way towards that fateful day. It is a season for us of realising that the path of following Jesus isn’t always easy, and indeed it will most likely cost us something if we enter into the life of faith fully. We are often called in this time to reduce and peel back rather than step forward into abundance. We can keep in mind that the Lenten journey does have an ending, it ends not with Easter Friday, but with Easter Sunday, however we are called in this time to sit in the pain and the struggle knowing that it is only through this engagement that we will truly find our spiritual satisfaction. This is why people often fast, or give up things for Lent, they become symbolic actions – shaping practices that remind us that the way to true life, where we are completely satisfied, completely content, is the way of God’s steadfast love and mercy which is found present even as we sit in our struggle and pain. It is through our dependence on God, not on pursuing satisfaction in the other areas of life, where we come to know life in all its fullness. So with these things in mind, as I sit with my sadness, as you sit with your own feelings, a natural question for us is, is it right for us today to be reading of abundance and joy?

Both of these readings promise a sense of joy, mercy, satisfaction, and abundance. Both of these readings have a sense of restoration coming, a hope that what is at hand is the world restored and all being well by the grace of God. It is an overwhelming theme throughout all of the scriptures, that all will be well, there will be justice and peace for all people and all creation. The prophets constantly call us to this hope, Jesus promises that this reality is near, is at hand, and we are given a vision of a world at peace and flourishing right at the end of the book. If we were to believe the scriptures we would say that we can have hope that all will be well, for it is a promise of God. Not only this we would say that not only can we have hope, but we must have hope. This is what the Prophet Isaiah is saying today with an expansive imagination that includes all people. It is the theme of this section in Isaiah, chapters 40 – 55 declare the future of all humankind as justice and peace under the rule of Yahweh. There was never a doubt that Israel would be restored back to their homes out of exile. They certainly struggled to get there, but the promise was always there. They would be satisfied and their satisfaction would bear witness and draw in those around them – all indeed would be well.  The psalmist today finds themselves in a desert, figuratively and literally. They find themselves remembering a time when they experienced the powerful presence of God, they offer praise to God for what has been done, and it is in this where they find life. The psalmist is hungry, they are thirsty and they offer praise and prayer. Their open mouths are a symbol of openness to God. Through their mouths they take physical sustenance, and it is through their mouths they seek spiritual sustenance, and they are satisfied. This posture has a resonance with something Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God… and all these things will be given as well.” (Matthew 6:33).[1] Both of these readings today seem to be calling us to something. We are called to hope, because despite all that is, God’s steadfast love and promise of justice and peace is still true, and we are called to praise, and it is with these things in our hearts and on our lips where we will find abundance and joy; the kind of abundance and joy that runs deep and fills us from the very depths of our being. The question still remains though doesn’t it, is it right to be reading, or even reaching for abundance and joy at this time?

As I have been listening to a number of you this week, and as I have listened to the stories in the wider community, I wonder if a question of ‘how on earth do we deal with this?’ is present. Hasn’t it been amazing to witness the incredible kindness and generosity of people? The first way we have dealt with this has been in a massive outpouring of kindness, generosity, and solidarity. It has been amazing to be reminded that at the core, humankind is ruled and motivated by love. The second wave of processing has come in the form of many announcements and articles reminding us that indeed the reality of racism and phobias of all kinds are present in our society. If we are honest, which we need to be, we will all admit to being a part of this – whether we realise it or not. What I imagine we will see next, if we haven’t already, is the inevitable blame shifting from one group to the next as the various theories about how we ended up with a society where even in New Zealand this event has happened. As we have learnt first-hand after our previous disaster experiences, all the blame given and all the well intentioned statements on change made, eventually, unfortunately, these don’t seem to lead to too much lasting change. ‘How on earth do we deal with this?’ is a great question, and it is the right question, for if this event truly disgusts us, then we must deal with it deeply and with integrity. It is tricky to say how different groups need to process this, and we can’t really tell others what to do and how to do it – because then it is too easy to slip back into the blame game and ignoring our own important part in it – but we can ask this question of ourselves, ‘how do we as a Christian Community deal with this so that we minimise every possibility of this happening again?’ What do we reach to at this time that can be helpful for us?

The passages we have read and heard today tell us to reach to hope and praise because God is still God – the source of our hope and life is still present and as hard as it may feel to engage with hope and praise it is true that God is present, it is true that the vision of a world where all is well, that reality of God that pulls us forwards is still present. We can still have hope, and for that we can be grateful and offer our praise to the one who sustains it all and who is willing and able to hold all the tension we feel in the meantime. The season of Lent has some good language and some good postures to help us through as well. As we are called to engage with and sit in the struggle and pain, as we recognise our inability to carry this load by ourselves, as we sit with our sadness we are confronted with the need for lament, honesty, confession, and repentance. I’m not sure we’re as familiar with Lament as we should be. A friend of mine describes the helpful practice of lament as “…different than feeling sadness and sorrow. It is more than expressing sadness and sorrow. Biblical lament is crying out to God from a place of sadness and sorrow. It involves a different orientation – one of looking to God from within the suffering; rather than looking (only) at the pain and hurt that surrounds.” And he encouraged his community to “Bring your hurt, pain, confusion, uncertainty to God. Cry out to God amidst all you are feeling and experiencing.”[2] Of course there is massive biblical precedence for our engaging in Lament.[3] My Lament in the midst of my sadness is, ‘how could a world where true justice and peace exists under the loving rule of God, ever come to pass when things like this keep happening?’ What is your lament? Lament is helpful I believe because it is not simply just a position of sadness, or anger, or whatever it is that you’re feeling, for it is also a cry uttered in hope, in trust that things will change, things will become better. In our lament, we have faith that God will hear us. We must too along with this be honest with ourselves and with one another. Are there snippets of the evils of racism and phobia in our midst? In this we must not rush to be defensive but rather pause and be brutally honest remembering that we do not need to be defensive for we are loved and held in the grace of God no matter what. Without honesty, nothing will change. An engagement with honesty will uncover things we need to confess. Engaged with well in the context of God’s love confession is our naming and owning our part in getting in the way of God’s love for us and for others. Our honesty will mean nothing if we do not own up to what we have been guilty of. And hand in hand with confession is repentance. I wonder at times if this has become a little bit of a dirty word, as if we don’t need to repent, perhaps to save face, however let’s remember the understanding of repentance that Jesus held. Repentance is simply engaging with a change of heart, a turning away from evil towards the way of God. Again, I don’t believe anything will change if we do not engage with this. In reaching to Lament, honesty, confession, and repentance we will be helped to frame our living through this moment in something that is far bigger than ourselves, something that goes beyond trying to do it in our own strength.

As the opening of the liturgy of Holy Communion says, ‘It is right to give our thanks and praise,’ and I do believe that the best way to inform the way we are in our lives is gratitude towards the one who gives us life. As we intentionally turn to God in everlasting hope and praise, and as we engage honestly, and deeply in the acts of lament, confession, and repentance we will find satisfaction and sustenance. The final piece from Isaiah today is worth mentioning because it is an encouragement to us. “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord…” (Isaiah 55:8). In our gratitude to God, in our hope, in our praise. In our lament, in our honesty, in our confession, in our repentance. In all these we may not understand the mystery of how indeed all will be well, for it is hard to understand sometimes, but what we can know is what we have seen and experienced of God – the steadfast love of the lord that never ceases. We may not understand everything but we can know enough. We engage in all these things knowing that the compassion of God that lifted the people out of Egypt, that lifted them again out of exile; the compassion of God that gifted the world Jesus Christ, and the compassion of God that said that final ‘yes’ to life and ‘no’ to death on Easter Sunday, is indeed the love that we are called by and are called to live. We today, can join the psalmist in remembering who the God we serve really is. And so we trust, and we hope, that indeed all will be well.

[1] Thanks to Charles B. Cousar et al. for this idea, in, Texts for Preaching, a lectionary commentary based on the NRSV, year C, 1994, p211-12.

[2] Clint Ussher, Pastor at The Well, a Wesleyan Methodist church in Sydenham. See https://thewellnz.org/reflections-from-a-wesleyan-pastor-in-christchurch-nz/

[3] See the book of Lamentations! Or, try Psalms 10, 13, 37, 46, 57, 61, 77, and 86.