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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Loss and Anger (Psalm 137, Matthew 27.46)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 31, 2016
Text: Psalm 137; Matthew 27:46

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Mighty to Save (Reuben Morgan)
Hymn of Praise: How Long Will You Forget Me, Lord (MARTYRDOM)
The Word in Music: On the Willows (Schwartz, from Godspell)
Assurance of Grace and Praise: Amazing Love/I'm Forgiven (Foote)
Offering of Music: My Song in the Night, Rick Bean, piano (arr. Wilberg)
Song of Sending: How Deep the Father's Love for Us (Townend)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

Today we are going to look at what may seem like a strange combination: loss and anger. What I should say up front is that neither this sermon or text says all that could be said about either topic. Significant loss does not always lead to anger. And all anger does not stem from significant loss. But I do hope that what we look at and what scripture teaches can have wider bearing on what are two of the really significant points of struggle in the human experience.

I have delayed the special music today because I wanted to include it in the sermon itself. It is by Stephen Schwartz, who you may be more familiar with as the writer of the lyrics and music to the Broadway musical, Wicked. In this song, written in the 70s for the musical, Godspell, he has an almost word-for-word adaptation of our text for today, Psalm 137. In that Psalm, the people of God are in the Babylonian Exile, defeated and taken from their homes and land. And the scene in the Psalm depicts the Babylonians asking them to sing songs from home in order to mock them. Played on a modern ‘lyre,’ listen to this song as if it is being demanded by the singers’ enemies and captors. Listen as they wrestle, not only with the mocking demand to sing a “Song of Zion,” but also with all the loss of having Zion (Jerusalem) taken away from them.  [audio link]
On the willows there
We hung up our lyres
For our captors there
Required of us songs
And our tormentors mirth

Sing us one of the songs of Zion
But how can we sing,
Sing the Lord’s songs,
In a foreign land?

On the willows there
We hung up our lyres…
We have talked before about what the Exile meant to the people of Israel. They had been promised land and children and blessing since God’s original covenant with Abraham. It took generations, slavery in Egypt, delivery through the Red Sea, wandering in the wilderness, and battling through to the Promised Land to finally reach home. And then in a matter of generations, under the leadership of increasingly godless kings, it was all lost as foreign empires came in and crushed them. The many prophets in the Old Testament were writing to God’s people in Exile. Many Psalms, including this one were written in or about the Exile. And, to me, this one is one of the most heart-wrenching and poignant… not only describing the horrible loss and setting of exile in Babylon, but being asked to sing one of the “Songs of Zion” – likely one of the older Psalms that spoke of Zion (Jerusalem) as the evidence of God’s pleasure and blessing with His people. And it’s not just the immense sadness of singing, but the mocking demand of the captors to sing one of the songs about God’s goodness and blessing and land, when those things all were seemingly gone.

And yet, the weeping captives say in verses 4-6, “How can we not sing?” To forget Jerusalem and to forget God’s promise would be an even greater loss. They pronounce a kind of self-curse upon themselves… “If we can’t and won’t sing these songs, may we never sing anything again.” I am struck by the balance of grief and faith in that. It would be easy, upon losing so much, to “curse God and die.” But even in the depth of loss, sorrow, and grief beyond their control, they rightly recognize that to abandon hope in God (which is within their control). So they weep, they grieve, they cry out – all healthy expressions in the face of loss.

An alternative to the “curse God and die” response to loss is anger. And that is seemingly what happened next.


I will confess that I am very uncomfortable with verses 7-9. I’ve always avoided them – even dwelling on them, much less preaching them. But I think they are vitally important, especially if you struggle with or experience intense anger. As I said before, this Psalm and its context do not describe every situation. In this case, anger seems somewhat justified, even at the same time that the intensity and degree of anger is shocking to us. Biblical scholars believe that the contents of this prayer are not just an emotional outburst, but an expression of lex talionis, otherwise known as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The Israelite’s homes and city had been razed to the ground… it was in the practice of the nations of that day to kill the children of their enemies. What they are praying for here is as much for justice as for revenge.

But these are also the people of God, whose law commands:

“You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:17-18)

True enough, that law has to do with fellow Israelites, but God’s Law marked a distinct move away from the “eye for an eye” approach of the surrounding nations. Said another way, here’s what I see happening in these verses. People who have endured unimaginable loss, yet clung to faith, are now longing for justice. But rather than ACTING out vengeance, they are praying to God for justice: “God, here’s what I want; here’s what would be just.” But that anger… that vengeance… that longing for restoration… is left in God’s hands.

I can imagine the alternative, holding on to the hurt and nursing the grievance until an opportunity for vengeance arises. Or, it never does, and the anger eats us alive. Did you ever imagine or know that the Bible, the Psalms, had such language… for the most intense loss and anger in the human experience? And yet even then, this Psalm holds out to us two critical and healthy examples: 1) cling to faith; you may not have chosen the loss, but you have a choice to turn from God or not; 2) pour out your intense emotion – even anger – to God; or better, name it specifically, and release it to God.

There may not be a quick solution for you, but both actions are infinitely healthier and more healing than the alternative – death and vengeance.

One Who Knows Us and Is Us

Finally, I’d like to make a connection to this Psalm that may not seem at all apparent. And that is to Jesus. Most folks know the explanation of what happened on the cross, that Jesus took the sin of the world onto himself. But what does that mean? For one, it means that he represented us on the cross – in all our fallen, sinful, lost, and grieving state. His last recorded words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Interestingly, that’s the opening verse to Psalm 22 – you should go read THAT sometime, with Jesus in mind. He felt the full weight of what humanity had lost in their rebellion and alienation from God.  There is no loss you or I have or will experience that Jesus cannot meet us in, because he has carried it all.

Do not curse God and die; Jesus has already died with our loss on his shoulders and it is possible to cling to God in the midst of sorrow, grief, and loss.

Do not nurse anger and vengeance; trust that God’s justice and grace and power can do more with those prayers, redemptively so, than anything your anger can produce.

Most of all – don’t forget God – He doesn’t ask you to hide any part of life, high, low, rocky, or ragged. God meets us in those places through Jesus Christ, who has lived, suffered, died, and lived for our sake. Amen.

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