Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: The Battle of Tears

Preached on Sunday, July 22, 2012 

Scripture Readings: Psalm 6; Mark 14:32-42

I remember, about the age of twelve, learning to play a new game. There was no name for this game. You played by hitting another boy in the arm, and he hit you back in your arm. Then you hit him back, harder. Then he hit you back, harder; and the two of you went on like this until one of you quit. It wasn’t a very good game. It was only popular for about one week, and then it disappeared. Everyone went on to play other games.
Pictures at a Nature Preserve Near Long Beach CA

Sometimes a boy would get a tear in his eye right before he quit. I wasn’t one of those. But I did quit first.

That was a boy’s battle against tears. We belong to a culture that fights against tears. Jesus grew up in a different culture where men were not ashamed to weep openly. It is a well known fact that “Jesus wept”. (John 11:35)

Psalm 6 tells us about tears. The heading tells us that this is a “psalm of David” which means that it could have been written by David, who also wept. (2 Samuel 15:30 &18:33)

If it wasn’t written by David himself then it was written for him, or for his family, after him. It was a royal psalm. It would have been sung in the Temple, on behalf of the king, tears and all.

There is a tradition that has led this psalm of tears to be one of the standard daily prayers of the Jewish people. If you are an observant Jew, you probably begin each day, except for the Sabbath, with this psalm.

Think of what shape your life might take if you learned to begin each day with these words. “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long? Turn, O Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love…. I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood by bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” (Psalm 6:1-4, 6)

Whether or not it was one of the daily morning prayers, in ancient times, Jesus still grew up singing this song in worship. The Book of Psalms was the hymnbook from which all his neighbors sang.

These words were the words of God, in worship, that shaped the incarnate Son of God; the God who made himself human in Jesus. The battle of tears, in this psalm, defined, in some way, the identity of Jesus. They tell us about the identity of God.

In spite of all the talk, in this psalm, about anger, and wrath, and faintness, and agony, and anguish, and death, and enemies, this psalm is the first psalm that reveals a special pattern. It is a pattern that happens over and over again in the psalms, and in all the scriptures. It is a pattern that revolves around the point of one essential element in the lives of God’s people.

This psalm shows us the pattern of faith, the miracle of faith; and this faith revolves around the one essential element of faith: the unfailing love of God. “Turn, O Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.”

I couldn’t see this, at first, because, as I studied this psalm, I became obsessed and distracted by everything that obsessed and distracted the writer of the psalm: anger, and wrath, and faintness, and agony, and anguish, and death, and enemies. These things are very important. They are huge things, and we will come to other psalms that shed light upon them all.

What makes the pattern clear (the pattern of the miraculous power of the unfailing love of God), is that this is a prayer in which the dark and agonizing things don’t go away; at least, not all at once. But they drop out of the way, they drop out of importance.

Suddenly the unfailing love of God stands at the center. The person in the middle of this prayer suddenly changes from a desperate person to a confident person; from a person of fear to a person of peace and hope.

We don’t see how the change happens. The psalm doesn’t tell us. It doesn’t explain, how it happens. But this psalm is a prayer, and it is in the middle of the prayer (or at the end of the prayer) that this miracle, this change, appears.

It seems like an awfully short prayer for such a huge change, but it is only the summary of a long, long prayer. This prayer is just the tip of an iceberg of prayer. It is the liner notes of a continuing saga of prayer. “I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” (Psalm 6:6) “How long, O Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:3)

Here is someone who is almost sick of praying. He is worn out. He sees no answer. He weeps, and weeps, and weeps, and weeps, and he is still praying, and then it changes. He changes: “For the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.” (Psalm 6:8b-9)

We don’t really know where his need for mercy was the greatest. We don’t know, for certain, what the source of his tears was. He mentions foes and enemies, but maybe his enemies were his mistakes and his very real sins.

Maybe he was facing the consequences of bad and selfish decisions he had made. David had to do that.

David did terrible things that destroyed much of his family. He nearly destroyed his kingdom. Maybe his own actions were his enemies, and so he felt the anger of God focused upon him.

The psalm begins where we never think to begin. The person who is praying thinks he might be to blame for the crisis, or the conflict, he feels. Almost the first thing he does is ask for mercy.

Is it me, Lord? Am I the cause of my own grief?

When we are in that place, we cannot ask God to take away our consequences, but our battle of tears with God can be the beginning of a miracle. God may not remove the consequences, but God gives us a new heart to face those consequences, and the life that comes afterward.

In the case of our own guilt, our foes will fall “in disgrace” because we will survive them as transformed people. The old self in us does die under their attack, but there is a new person in our place, because we are new in God’s workmanship. We have peace with God because we have faced the worst in ourselves and we have surrendered to the unfailing love of God.

 The psalm is a prayer for healing. Was it a prayer for the healing of sin, and guilt, and shame? Or was it a prayer for the healing of illness? He tells about the agony in his bones. That is the core and foundation of the body. Everything hangs on the bones. Was he so ill that he ached all over?

At the end of the prayer, he does not tell us that he has been healed by that prayer. He tells us that his enemies (perhaps his illness) will be put to shame and dismayed.

If you are ill, or if you have a condition that you live with that goes on and on, what would it mean for you that, in your future, your illness will be the enemy that is ashamed and dismayed?

What if the source of tears was a real conflict with real enemies? Or maybe there can be conflicts that go on and on without there being people who set themselves up as enemies. They would never think of themselves as enemies, but they seem to always make good things stop happening; at least, so it seems.

Sometimes our frustrations and our conflicts are so big that they make us feel sick. We stop being ourselves. We may even go crazy. Or we worry till our bones ache.

What would it mean to live in such a struggle, or with such frustration, without anger, without fear, without agony and anguish? It would be a victory when you live in the strength of the unfailing love of God. It’s possible that nothing has changed but your own heart. And that can make all the difference in the world.

I would tell you this. This is what I have found. You can fight a battle with tears. You can go somewhere and pray your way through it. You pray through the darkness, and God makes his presence known in the darkness, and God gives you light.

Perhaps your own bed is a good place to go, as the psalm tells us; if you can go there and pray without keeping someone else awake. Go somewhere, and pray your fears, and angers, and doubts, and pains, and weariness to God.

Pray and weep. There is more courage and hope and endurance in doing this than you might think. David did this, and he was a warrior. He was a prayer warrior He was a real fighter with sword, and shield, and arrows and spears. His life of fighting taught him to pray, even with his tears.

The boys’ battles against tears will never work here. Sometimes you have to cross a forbidden line. You have to fight through your tears, and pray though your tears to peace.

Jesus sang this song all his life; this song about the battle of tears; this song of weeping your way to victory. Jesus was not a weeper by nature, or else little children would not have come to him. If Jesus was a weeper, he wouldn’t have been invited by sinners to so many of their parties. But Jesus was not afraid of the battle of tears.

Jesus used this psalm by example. When Jesus faced the cross (as if he were looking down the barrel of a gun) he prayed through his fears and his weeping into victory. He said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” (Mark 14:34) When he prayed through his sorrow he was ready to say, “Let’s go!”

There is a double link between Jesus and his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and with this psalm. Jesus prayed his way through the depths of his agony and sorrow to courage and strength. That was his battle of tears.

Jesus prayed because he was facing enemies. His enemies were the foreseeable pain of his arrest, and his beatings, and the nails in his hands and feet, and the thorns in his head. His enemies were the people who were going to do this to him and laugh at him while they did it.

The enemies of Jesus were our sins; the hurts we cause and the hurts that are done to us. His enemies were the world of pain, and sickness, and death, which we face. His enemies were all that separates us from our neighbors, and all that separates us from ourselves, and all that separates us from God.

Jesus battled his enemies (and ours) through his tears in the garden, as well as through his sacrifice on the cross. Then he rose from the dead.

All the evil in the world could kill him only if he let it; but it couldn’t defeat him. He could rise and say the words that he had sung all his life: “All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace.” (Psalm 6:10) Our own enemies, whatever they may be, also turn back in disgrace, because of Jesus who fought through tears and rose from the dead.

Jesus made the unfailing love of God become more than the words of a song. He made himself into that song of life for us; that song that takes us through tears to strength and hope. Jesus became the song that makes a miracle happen and we become new again through him.

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