Faith and Anguish Will Meet

19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.

As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration.  Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans.  As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News.  Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people.  Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic.  It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation.  It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born.  While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.

Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people.  When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33).  He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah.  Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown.  It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols.  Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice.  The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect.  Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones.  Then he ran.

For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him.  Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains.  God asked him why he was in hiding.  Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God.  But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead.  I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.”  That is the voice of anguish.  God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain.  God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.

Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever.  They want God’s love and glory to return.  They imagine kindness and truth meeting.  When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet.  Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven.  Being holy people is difficult.

So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either.   Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party!  It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief.  But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food.  Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs.  Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.

Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake.  Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them.  They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt.  There it is again, “Do not be afraid.”  If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be.  As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.

What did we learn?

1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.

2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.

3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.

4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.

 

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Isaiah 50:4-7; Ps: 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Matthew26:14 – 27:66

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Shortly before Christ died, He uttered those famous words which have been preserved in Aramaic: “ Ele, Ele, Lama Sabachthane”, or in English, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words are the opening words of Psalm 22, but unfortunately not one of the verses we read today from that Psalm.  At the crucifixion, they are a quotation, not a question or a statement.  Why does Jesus quote the 22nd Psalm?

Now we are all familiar with the 23rd Psalm.  Both Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 are poetic songs, written about the Messiah, the Savior, who was to come.  In Jesus’ day, everyone who worshiped the God of Israel had learned the 22nd Psalm by heart.  So anyone listening to Jesus while he was on the cross knew exactly the verses that followed.  Let’s look at them.

Verse 6 of Ps 22: “To you they cried out and they escaped, in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” God has always hears our cries.

Verse 7: “But I am a worm, hardly human.” Think about the physical condition of Christ at this point.  Matthew 27: 26 “…after having Jesus scourged, Pilot delivered Him to be crucified.”  What does scourged mean?  The Romans used whips with pieces of sharp metal at the ends.  It cut and tore the flesh, leaving the body cut to the bone, bleeding profusely.  A person rarely survived this.  The soldiers who scourged him took no pity on him.  He would have looked hardly human after being scourged.  He would have been soaked in scarlet blood, and looked like the worms that were crushed to make scarlet dye for fabric.

Verse 8: “All who see me mock me… they curl their lips and jeer.” We read Matthew 27:29, “(The soldiers) mocked him…and they spat on him, and beat him on the head.”

Verse 9: “You relied on the Lord- let him deliver you.” In Matt 27:43: “(The chief priests say) He trusts in God, let him deliver him.”   Remember what Jesus told Peter in the Garden, Matt 26: 53 “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  (That would be 72,000 angles.)

Verse 12: “There is no one to help.” In Mark 14:50, in the Garden, when Jesus was arrested, Mark tells us that all the disciples left him and fled.

Verse 14: “Like water my life drains away; all my bones grow soft.” Jesus was dying from loss of blood, and he could no longer lift him self up to breathe, as if his bones were no longer hard.

Verse 15: “My strength has dried up…” Even as Jesus carried his cross to the crucifixion site, he lost his strength and Simon of Cyrene had to carry it. (Matt 27:32)

Verse 16: “They pierced my hands and my feet.” In Luke (24: 39), The Risen Christ shows his pierced hands and feet to the disciples.

Verse 17: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” The soldiers do this in John’s Gospel (19:24)

But then, we come to verse 20, the Psalmist says, “Lord, do not stay far off, come quickly to help me.” Gone is the idea of abandonment!  Instead there is a firm certainty in the faithfulness of God. This continues in verse 25: “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch; did not turn away, but heard me when I cried out.  Verse 27: “…those who seek the Lord will offer praise.  May your hearts enjoy life forever!”  Not only is God faithful, but eternally faithful.  And finally, the last verse, verse 32: “The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn  (us), his righteousness; ‘He (The Lord) has done it’.”  By the way, the Psalm’s Hebrew phrase “He has done it” is best translated into the Aramaic idiom of “It is finished.”

It makes no difference if you see this Psalm as the prophecy of King David and his description of the Messiah coming true down to the smallest detail, or if you see the Gospel writers, convinced without a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, telling the events of the Passion in the familiar words of the prophecy. Either way, the Gospels have accomplished their goal: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.

Well, we’re back to the first verse of the Psalm, then. Did Jesus mean that God had turned his back on him, abandoned him?  No.  Jesus was teaching the faithfulness of God from the Cross! Jesus was saying, “Look at me!  You know the Psalm.  Believe this promise of God’s faithfulness; God is near to you always.  God never turns his back on us, no matter what was done or how long the list of sin.  To say otherwise denies the love of God.”

St. Paul said it so well: “Who shall separate us from this love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers; not height nor depth, nor any created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8: 35-39)