Hope for the Grieving (Jeremiah 31:15-22)

Orthodox icon of Rachel weeping for the children

This is what the Lord says:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

This is what the Lord says:

“Restrain your voice from weeping
    and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the Lord.
    “They will return from the land of the enemy.
So there is hope for your descendants,”
declares the Lord.
    “Your children will return to their own land.

“I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning:
    ‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf,
    and I have been disciplined.
Restore me, and I will return,
    because you are the Lord my God.
After I strayed,
    I repented;
after I came to understand,
    I beat my breast.
I was ashamed and humiliated
    because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
Is not Ephraim my dear son,
    the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
    I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I have great compassion for him,”
declares the Lord.

“Set up road signs;
    put up guideposts.
Take note of the highway,
    the road that you take.
Return, Virgin Israel,
    return to your towns.
How long will you wander,
    unfaithful Daughter Israel?
The Lord will create a new thing on earth—
    the woman will return to the man.” (New International Version)

The bereavement of losing someone you care about is awful. A parent experiencing the death of a child is next level grief. There is no bereavement like it.

As a hospital chaplain, I occasionally attend to a grieving mother who just lost her baby. I have shown up for premature and stillborn deaths, full term births, then death, sudden infant death, and more. The grief is indescribable.

On some level, there is no comfort – and never will be. I know that, for me, providing grief support to mothers who are enduring the death of a baby or young child has profoundly changed me and forever impacted my soul. So, I can only imagine what it’s like for a mother.

Many Christians will recognize the verse of Rachel weeping for her children as part of the early story surrounding Jesus:

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”(Matthew 2:13-18, NIV)

It’s really hard to have hope when you’re in the throes of lamenting the death of children. We need hope. It’s necessary to life. We cannot survive, let alone thrive, without it.

It is possible to simultaneously experience hopelessness and hope. At the same time, we hold both despair and desire, anguish and anticipation, in our hearts. While we may never forget who we have lost, we make it through our days believing that another child can change the world for the better. We place our faith in the Christ child, in Jesus.

Wily old King Herod massacred innocent toddlers in order to ensure the destruction of Jesus. Behind his atrocity was the devil himself who knew that Jesus was the coming King who would one day bring salvation. But the old King’s sinister plan didn’t work. 

Reflecting on a vision of Christ’s birth, the Apostle John stated:

The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:4-5, NIV)

Satan wars against God’s Son and God’s people, whose roots go all the way back to the first prophecy of Christ:

And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

There has been bad blood, ever since the Fall of humanity, between the serpent and the seed of the woman. The Old Testament Israelites were continually being threatened with extermination; they were constantly tempted to conform to pagan ways for handling their suffering and grief. 

Herod was just another in a long line of demonically animated men trying to perpetuate the kingdom of darkness. The devil knows that his time is short; and he uses twisted persons like Herod for his insidious schemes.

Many people experience hell on earth because Satan is on a rampage; mothers and their children are often the collateral damage.

The holiday season is a hard time of year for many people, filled with depression instead of joy, grieving over lost loved ones for whom you will not spend another Christmas with. And yet, there is a reunion coming, the hope of a bodily resurrection in which we will be with Jesus and God’s people forever.

Satan’s most powerful weapon, death, has lost its sting because of Jesus. Death does not have the last word; resurrection does. And this hope for the future helps us in the present to keep going and not give up.

The prophet Jeremiah was dealing with children lost in war to the invading Babylonians. His words are a lament in the context of the hope that captivity and exile will not be forever. 

Matthew wants us to see that the exile is over for us; Jesus has arrived, and the tears that were shed will shortly dry up. There may be a time of suffering that we must endure, but there is glory ahead.

Jesus is the Great Deliverer who brings us out of the grip of death, grief, and lament and into the promises of God. Christ is our hope. Amen, and amen.

Messages of Hope (Zechariah 8:1-17)

A 14th century tapestry of the Apostle John’s vision of the New Jerusalem

The word of the Lord Almighty came to me.

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her.”

This is what the Lord says: “I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the Faithful City, and the mountain of the Lord Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’ This is also what the prophets said who were present when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty. Before that time there were no wages for people or hire for animals. No one could go about their business safely because of their enemies since I had turned everyone against their neighbor. But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty.

“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people. Just as you, Judah and Israel, have been a curse among the nations, so I will save you, and you will be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Just as I had determined to bring disaster on you and showed no pity when your ancestors angered me,” says the Lord Almighty, “so now I have determined to do good again to Jerusalem and Judah. Do not be afraid. These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the Lord. (New International Version)

The name “Zechariah” means “Yahweh remembers.” The Lord indeed remembers the divine covenant which was established. And God will fulfill all promises made.

The Lord is determined to do good – not really because people so much deserve it but because it is God’s character to be good, and thus, do good, even when there is little goodness on the earth to be found.

New Jerusalem by Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980)

God’s judgment is but for a moment; but the Lord’s promise, salvation, and peace shall endure forever. God’s wrath is quite real and certain, yet it is a brief extension of the Lord’s steadfast love. Rebellion and judgment are never the last words; forgiveness and grace are:

Many times he [Yahweh] delivered them [the Israelites],
    but they were rebellious in their purposes
    and were brought low through their iniquity.
Nevertheless, he regarded their distress
    when he heard their cry.
For their sake he remembered his covenant
    and showed compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
He caused them to be pitied
    by all who held them captive. (Psalm 106:43-46, NRSV)

All of the Old Testament prophets end their message of impending judgment with the final note of hope. That is, it won’t always be this way. There are better days ahead. The Lord’s coming is not all wrath; it’s mercy and hope. Notice the five brief messages of hope which Zechariah gives the people:

1. Yahweh burns with jealousy for Zion

Throughout the Bible, God likens the relationship to the Israelites much like a lover – as if the Lord were married to them. God’s covenant relationship with people is at the heart of understanding the whole of Scripture. Whenever they stray from divine promises, Yahweh is offended and hurt. 

God is an emotional Being, which is why we have emotions as people created in his image. Early humanity strayed so far from God that it hurt:

The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken. (Genesis 6:5-6, CEB)

Yet, God was gracious, sparing Noah and his family. The Lord took a group of Noah’s descendants, Abraham’s family, and set godly covenant affection on them. Through the Israelites, God hoped to lead the entire world to right relations. Yet, they, too, came to fail the gracious covenant made and set their affections on others.

Like a jilted lover, God longed for Israel to remain faithful, and, at the same time, was hurt and angry. Just as the prophet Hosea did not give up on his wife, even though she was brazenly unfaithful, so God looked at Israel as a spouse and could not bear to give her up.

2. Yahweh returns to Zion  

Jerusalem will be known as a faithful city and a holy mountain. The presence of God is what makes that happen. Because even though people can be fickle, inconsistent, complacent, and unfaithful, Yahweh remains true to the divine character of steadfast and immovable love for people.

You will never again be called ‘The People God Left.’
    Your land will never again be called ‘The Land God Destroyed.’
You will be called ‘The People God Loves.’
    Your land will be called ‘God’s Bride,’
because the Lord loves you,
    and your land will be his. (Isaiah 62:4, ERV)

3. The streets of Jerusalem will be full of children playing

The elderly will be sitting there watching the kids play, full of delight at the scene. Much too often we Westerners measure both the significance and success of our cities by its industry, businesses, buildings, wealth, and culture.

Methinks we may be misguided with such measurements. Instead, I suggest, along with the prophet, that we gage our cities by their effect on both the old and the young – because long life and children are signs of blessing from God.

4. Nothing is impossible with Yahweh

Is anything too hard for God? That, my friends, is a rhetorical question. If the Lord can cause old women to bear children (Genesis 18:10-14) and large armies to evaporate (Judges 7:1-25) then there is nothing more preposterous than to always view everything from our puny human perspective. Mary gained such a vantage and believed. We, too, have such an Advent hope within us.

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:31-38, NIV)

5. Yahweh renews and restores

Separation, diaspora, and disconnection will become a thing of the past. The Lord sets all things right again, brings people together, and heals, so that everything exists as it is meant to exist.

Deliverance from sin, death, and hell is the means of bringing renewal to the earth and its people. Salvation belongs to God. Righteousness and justice will characterize the future.

For the word of the Lord is upright,
    and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. (Psalm 33:4-5, NRSV)

Hope is fully realized when people put their trust in God and do their part by having strong hands and faithful hearts. We must be truthful and gracious whenever we speak. The Lord expects us to do the right thing by one another, both personally and publicly. We are to never cook up plans to take unfair advantage of others. Instead, we need to keep our lives simple and honest.

The promise of blessing is assured by God. However, the timing of that blessing is conditioned by our response. And there is no better time than the Christian season of Advent to recall what the Lord will do, as well as what God wants us to do.

May we be people of hope and let hope live in our hearts now and always, to the glory of God. Amen.

The Bethlehem Candle of Love (Luke 2:1-7)

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (New International Version)

The Christian season of Advent is a time of preparation and expectant waiting for the promised Savior. Each Sunday this month, we will focus on the theme of the Advent candle for that day. Today, we look at the Bethlehem candle, love. Next week, we consider joy, then peace, and on Christmas Day, light.

Advent Love

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and placed in a humble manger, a feeding trough, because of love. The Lord was quite literally conceived in love – a love which originated within the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, and mediated through a virgin, Mary, whose own love for God enabled her to raise the Messiah in love. The world revolves on the axis of love. Without love, we do not exist. With love, there is deliverance, there is a Savior. It’s all about love, my friends, and always has been from the beginning….

God’s Love

God’s loving plan for us started, not with the incarnation, but with the very first act of creation. Out of nothing, and out of sheer love, humanity was created in God’s own image. Since God is Love, we were made to receive love and give love. (Genesis 1:26-30)

However, the first humans, Adam and Eve, began to doubt the truth of God’s goodness and love for them. And so, they disobeyed their Creator, believing that God was withholding love from them.

Yet, despite humanity’s fall into sin, God’s loving mercy did not abandon them altogether. God did not destroy Eve and Adam. Even as they began to experience the serious consequences of their sin, God made a promise of future redemption: that Eve’s own offspring would one day crush the head of the serpent who tempted them. (Genesis 3:15)

God’s Loving Plan

The Lord had no intention of simply leaving people in their wretched state of separation and rebellion. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessed people who, in turn, would bless the world. (Genesis 12:2-3)

God foretold of the One, born of a virgin, who would free the captives, bear our transgressions, suffer in our place, redeem people, and usher in a peace unlike anything ever known.

Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10, NIV)

The Bible is a long, extended, and unfolding drama of redemption spanning several centuries. Even though the plan of redemption takes time, God lovingly walks with people through their suffering, temptation, loss, grief, and trials.

The Nativity by Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996)

When the Lord heard the cries of the ancient Israelites under their cruel yoke of slavery, God led them out of Egypt (Exodus 3:18). When the Jews were exiled from their land, God reminded them of the ongoing plan of redemption:

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in exchange for you. (Isaiah 43:1-3, NRSV)

For generations, God has remained faithful to people even when they doubt and have weak faith; and even though they question God’s motives and power and turned away from the Lord. The plan of God is simply an extension of the character of God:

They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their necks and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them. (Nehemiah 9:17, NRSV)

Love Is with Us

Revisiting the big picture of God’s love for people during Advent helps us understand the significance of the first advent, the coming of a Savior. The incarnation of Christ is the hinge of a larger story of God’s good love and redemption for us. Love, incarnated in the form of a vulnerable baby, came to fulfill a promise God made centuries before.

Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain
    equal with God.
Instead he gave up everything
    and became a slave,
when he became
    like one of us.

Christ was humble.
He obeyed God and even died
    on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, CEV)

The motivation for the first advent of Jesus, the incarnation of Christ, was because of love:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16, NKJV)

True love is God’s love for us, not our love for God. He sent his Son as the way to take away our sins. (1 John 4:10, ERV)

Advent Love Is Our Calling

In remembering that first advent, we know that a new era of God’s restoration has been ushered in. And we await a second advent when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Now, living in between these two advents, God’s people are called to love others as Christ has loved us and gave himself for us.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40, GNT)

This Advent season, let us ask how we can love God and love our neighbor more fully, so that we might fulfill the call of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray with the encouragement of Scripture (adapted from 1 John 4:7-12):

Loving God, help us to love each other since love comes from You. We understand that everyone who loves is born again and experiences a relationship with You. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about You, because You, God, are Love itself—no one can know You if they don’t know love.

Merciful God, we give you unending thanks that You showed Your love for us by sending Your only Son into the world so that we might live through him. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us; and that is the kind of love You are all about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that You loved us and sent the Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with You.

Gracious God, since You loved us like this, we pray that You will enable us to love each other. No one has seen You, ever. But if we love one another, You will dwell deeply within us, and love becomes complete in us. May it be so, to the glory of Jesus Christ in whose Name we pray. Amen.

Spiritual Renewal (Isaiah 30:19-26)

People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Then you will desecrate your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say to them, “Away with you!”

He will also send you rain for the seed you sow in the ground, and the food that comes from the land will be rich and plentiful. In that day your cattle will graze in broad meadows. The oxen and donkeys that work the soil will eat fodder and mash, spread out with fork and shovel. In the day of great slaughter, when the towers fall, streams of water will flow on every high mountain and every lofty hill. The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted. (New International Version)

Better days are ahead.

In this time of year, there are many people who simply don’t have to think twice about purchasing and giving gifts for Christmas. They have blessings, both material and spiritual. And they can always identify other persons who are in much more need than them. Some of them may even believe that those in need are in that position because of unwise individual choices. 

But we must maintain a focus on our own lives. We need to recognize the maladies of our hearts. The state of our lives is as important, and is just as real and needy, as someone else’s life who is in more humble circumstances. 

There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like all kinds of other people. 

Being a vital part of a local church does not automatically immune one from having serious needs. And having a good steady income doesn’t inoculate one from need or privation.

We must not suppress those realities and needs, but instead, name the conditions which are packed away in a closet of our heart deep inside us – such things as the love of possessions and money; broken relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; hatred; and much more. 

Outward smiles and small talk conversations may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide from a God for whom everything is laid bare.

The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs; the gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom.

Only then can we pass on the good news to the legion of social ills that make our world sick. There are people all around us who need spiritual, emotional, and material help. Yet, we will not have eyes to see them, or have hearts to help, if we are stuffing our own burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.

Far too many Christians, especially the church-going kind, have become expert emotional stuffers and deniers of need. 

We may believe “those other people” need ministries of justice and help. But the truth is: Many of us are one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, or one bad decision away from being one of “those people” – the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want next door to us.

We may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation; and so, we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty. 

What to do? Turn from the things that have caused us to be in poverty and be prisoners (not just secretly!) and hope in the Lord’s restorative grace. God takes all sorts of seemingly impossible situations of destruction and death, creating fresh new growth in the form of a little green sprout. 

God will rebuild our ruined souls; restore the places of our lives that have been devastated; and renew the places that have not seen renewal for generations. 

It begins with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us, not just others. 

If we want comfort, we need to mourn. If we desire joy, then there needs to be some lamenting of a dire situation. If we hope for an oak of righteousness, there must be a confession of despair. For there to be a resurrection, there has to be a death.

What is your real situation and the true realities of your life that need to be named? 

Where will you go to address those needs and truths? 

Will you keep stuffing them, or will you become able to voice your inner personal needs? 

How might you be vulnerable enough to allow others to minister grace to your needy soul?

Let us have a vision of Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty. 

Let us picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace our stinky clothes of grumbling. 

Let us allow our lives to display the grace of God in Christ because we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God. 

Let us herald the coming of the Christ child as the hope of us all.

Soli Deo Gloria