Monday, September 3, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: God's Complaint Department

 Preached on Sunday, September 2, 2012 

Scripture readings: Psalm 13:1-6; Mark 9:14-29
When I ask someone, “How are things going?” there are some people who will always answer this way: “Can’t complain!” The classic long answer of this type is: “Can’t complain. It wouldn’t do me any good if I did.”

Butterfly in the Oregano
So, in the battle of wits (in which I am often caught unarmed), when someone gives me the short answer, “Can’t complain,” I ask them, “Do you mean; it wouldn’t do you any good if you did?” But I know someone who outwits me every time, and he always says, “No I just can’t complain.”

That’s a good answer. But it’s not true, I think, for most of us. And so the Lord has something to say to us about our complaints. This psalm (Psalm Thirteen) forms part of the Lord’s answer.

For all the complaining we do (whether do it out loud or in a suffering silence) something in our very nature warns us about it. At least we know this when we hear other people complain. We don’t like it.

Parents hate to hear their kids complain. Parents usually make a deliberate effort to teach their children not to complain, although some parents don’t use the best teaching methods. They don’t teach by their own example.

It’s like the five-year-old who was riding in the car while his mom was driving on errands in the city. The traffic was bad, and his mother was quietly doing her best to get through it. The little boy noticed this and he asked his mother, “Mom, why do the idiots only come out when Dad drives?”

The Bible gives us a lot of warnings against complaining. Sometimes the Scriptures call complaining “murmuring” and tells us that it is very dangerous. (1 Corinthians 10:10)

There is a beautiful warning that comes from Paul in his letter to the Philippians. (Philippians 2:14-16a) I love this warning because it is so loving and positive, and it tells us why it is so much better not to complain. “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life….” (Oh Paul writes such long, complicated sentences!)

How can complainers ever look like children of God?  How can they shine as lights in the world? How can complainers ever hold out to others the word of life?

On the other hand, Psalm Thirteen is a complaint. Technically, scholars call it a “psalm of lamentation”. It’s a fancy word but it adds up to the same thing. Nearly a third of the all psalms are psalms of lamentation; psalms of complaint.
Looking down the gravel road above Washtucna Cemetery

Four times David in a row pounds away at God with the same phrase, over and over again. “How long O Lord! How long? How long? How long?”

This isn’t a complaint, it’s a rant! Eugene Peterson paraphrases the opening line like this: “Long enough God – you’ve ignored me long enough.”

One third of the psalms are psalms of complaint. It is as if God wanted to teach us how to complain.

The truth is that this psalm is a complaint of faith. This complaint believes in the faithfulness of God: “But I trust in your unfailing love.” (Psalm 13:5) “Unfailing love” here is a translation of that single, special word in Hebrew for the covenant love (the promise love) of God. It is steadfast love; absolutely steady love: unceasing, unchanging.

In this psalm everything seems wrong. The writer, David, feels forgotten. “How long will you hide your face from me?” Peterson puts it this way: “I’ve looked at the back of your head long enough!” Has someone ever turned their back on you when you tried to talk to them, or refused to shake your hand when you held it out to them? I have; it makes you feel terrible. That is how David felt.

“How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and, every day, have sorrow in my heart?” This sorrow, this struggle closes in on people suffering from depression.

And then it made me think of another kind of depression. During the Great Depression, my grandparents, on both sides of my family, had a hard time. They worked hard when they could. When they weren’t working, they worked hard to find work. Sometimes they traveled across the country in search of work. My grandpa Evans took his family from New York to Washington in search of a job on the Grand Coulee Dam project, but the waiting line for jobs was too long; so they went back to New York. When my grandparents worked steady and hard their cupboards were still often empty before the next paycheck.

Washtucna Pioneer Memorial Cemeter
This went on for years; from 1929 until the 1940’s. They knew that they were better off than many other people, but they also knew they were living on the edge. They were thankful for what they had, but they always had the question of survival on their minds. To have thought about prosperity would have seemed like a luxury.

My grandparents had their lives to live and their families to feed, and they never knew if, tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year, their jobs would disappear. The whole country was like this. The whole world was like this.

There were good reasons to fear and worry. It was a problem that had no end in sight. They must have often asked the question, “How long?” And they yet got through it.

They had families to provide for. They had children to raise, feed, and clothe. If they ever complained wasn’t because they were complainers. It was because they didn’t want to fail.

There were needs hanging upon their shoulders that required caring, and caring can be hard work. There were needs that begged for their unfailing love. Sometimes our complaining can be a form of that caring and unfailing love. Sometimes complaining can be holy.

So it is not surprising that the Lord, himself, complains. Jesus grew up singing that song that cried “how long”. Jesus used the words of that song in his own life.

Only he addressed those words to us. He cried, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19) It was the complaint of caring; the complaint of the unfailing love of the Lord.

Jesus had taken part in what was literally a “mountain-top-experience”. Jesus had taken his favorite disciples, Peter, James, and John, up to the top of whatever they considered to be a mountain, and he was changed before their eyes so that they had a glimpse of his true glory.

Washtucna School:
Football field, with the Church peeking over the school roof
When this experience of glory passed Jesus insisted on getting through to them that this glory included his death on the cross and his rising from the dead. These favorite disciples didn’t complain, but they were confused and full of questions. They didn’t like what they heard.

Then they came down from the mountain top, and they found confusion among the other disciples. They found a crowd waiting for Jesus. They found a big argument going on, and a big complaint. The disciples had failed to heal a demon-possessed boy.

When Jesus asked the crowd, “What are you arguing about?” he was opening the door to the complaint of the boy’s father. Jesus asked for the complaint of someone who cared with an unfailing love.

When he heard the complaint, Jesus uncovered the father’s need for faith, and gave him that faith. When his own disciples complained of their embarrassing failure, Jesus uncovered their prayerless prayers, and answered their prayer.

When it seemed (though the failure of his own people) that he had failed, Jesus proved his unfailing love. The real answer of Jesus to the complaints was that he overlooked the weakness of peoples’ faith. He worked in spite of the prayerlessness of his own disciples. He kept on his road to the cross, where all the unfailing love of God’s works its power.

If Jesus can complain; so can we. The psalms teach us how to complain. Our problem is that our complaints are not holy. They are not pretty. They don’t come from faith and love. We can’t complain and shine. We can’t complain and hold out the word of life as people who have clearly been made alive by that word.

I am tempted to say that we are not good enough to complain; at least not good enough to complain well. Jesus’ complaints are the complaints of God in all his caring and unfailing love. His complaints are holy. Often, our complaints are not.

High School Football Practice in Washtucna
One third of the psalms are psalms of complaint. God has taken them up into his word. They are his word to us. Partly they are cautionary, it’s true. But they also teach us how to live in an honest relationship with God. They help us to journey from where we really are, to the place where God has called us and created us to live. The complaints of the psalm are like the prayer of the boy’s father in the gospel, “I believe; help my unbelief.” This is what all holy complaints are looking for.

In fact (you will have to trust me on this) the good that the Lord does for David, at the end of the psalm, tells us something about this. David prays: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.” (Psalm 13:6) This is a very odd thing to say, when he has been ranting at God: “How long O Lord; how long; how long; how long?”

But the good that God has given David is not the ordinary Hebrew word for good. It is good in the form of an answer (see the NEB); but David has been giving the Lord this long rant that doesn’t seem to deserve an answer.

What the Lord gives is like a process of goodness; a journey of goodness. It is like the ripening of fruit. It is like the weaning of a child from its mother’s milk to solid food. (“Analytical Hebrew and Chaldean Lexicon”, p. 138) It is a goodness that has taken David from a bad place to a better place; from a complaining faith to a trusting and loving faith. This is a goodness that is possible because David has been honest.

Christians often believe that God requires them to be dishonest and to live a lie; or at least to live up to a lie, or to live up to a pious fiction. The truth is that God knows us through and through and pretending to be happy does no good. God does not reward play-acting among his children. Play-acting only makes them likely to fool themselves, and to teach others to do the same.

Psalm Thirteen has complaint and faith going hand in hand. This is honest. Martin Luther was able to put these together. Luther said: “Hope itself despairs, and despair yet hopes; and only that unspeakable groaning is heard with which the Holy Sprit, who moves over the waters covered with darkness, intercedes for us [prays for us].”

It seems schizophrenic. Christians do have split personalities. We have our old self; the self we are without Christ, without God. We have our new self; where we are in Christ and Christ is in us, full of the hope of glory. That sounds both honest and crazy, but there it is. This is what it means to say, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Jesus told his disciples that they could not heal the boy because such a healing requires prayer. I see this as a joke. I mean that Jesus was joking with his disciples. Of course they prayed, especially when the boy was not instantly healed before their eyes.  They had done this before, and it had always worked. This is the kind of faith they had, to pray for the thing that had never gone wrong before.

I am sure they remembered to pray; but some prayers may not deserve to be called prayers. And, yet, what did Jesus do about this? He answered their prayerless prayers. He healed the boy.

This psalm rants its complaints; but it knows, in its heart, that none of its complaints are true. We are not forgotten. God has not turned his face away. We are full of worry but we know we are only being foolish because we also know that God will take care of us. It doesn’t matter if our enemies see us shaken and stumbling all over ourselves. It doesn’t matter who laughs at us, or how often.

There is another healing, in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John. (John 5:1-15) There was a man who needed a miracle and so he had gone to live in a place where there were periodic miracles. It was at a place called Bethesda, where there were springs and pools of healing.

It was like some places in the world, today, where people go on pilgrimage because they have a reputation as healing places. But the man lived in that healing place for thirty eight years without being able to get to the water at the healing time. He must have often prayed, “How long?” And then he must have stopped praying at all.

Jesus came to that place. He saw the man, and learned how long he had waited. Then Jesus walked up to him and asked him a strange and revealing question. “Do you want to be healed?”

The man did not ask for healing. All he could do was to tell Jesus his long, long, sad story. It was as if he were a broken recording repeating his unending complaint. Jesus healed him anyway, without his asking to be healed.

Afterwards, the man was pressured by the authorities to tell them who gave him this healing, and he didn’t know. He would have heard of Jesus; but Jesus had must have come to him anonymously, suddenly appearing before him out of the crowd. He didn’t know that his healer was Jesus.

So the man couldn’t report Jesus to the authorities. He went his way and the authorities let him go.

Then Jesus met him again, suddenly appearing to him out of the crowd, and gave him a mysterious warning. It was a warning not to sin unless he wanted something worse to happen.

Cross above Kahlotus WA
Now the man knew who had healed him, and so we can see what Jesus had warned him against. He responded to Jesus by becoming a tattle tale.

The authorities were expert complainers about the faults of others. They had many complaints about Jesus, and the man (knowing their power) played into their culture of complaint. He joined their club. He rejoined his place in the complainer’s club.

There is this danger; that even the apparent grace of God may not cure us from being complainers. There is a complaining nature that stops being honest.

Complaining becomes an addiction. It stops caring about answers. It stops caring about believing. It stops seeking, and finding, and sharing the unfailing love of God. It only wants to hear itself. That is the danger and curse of complaining, when it stops being honest and becomes unholy.

God save us from that! Psalm Thirteen teaches us to rant and then to stop and give it up; to trust and to love. Then we will sing to the Lord, because we know he has been good to us.

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