Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Devotional for the Twenty-Sixth Day of Lent, the Fourth Sunday of Lent

O hope of Israel,
 its savior in time of trouble,
 why should you be like a stranger in the land,
 like a traveler turning aside for the night? 
Why should you be like someone confused,
 like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
 Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
 and we are called by your name;
 do not forsake us!

You shall say to them this word:
 Let my eyes run down with tears night and day,
 and let them not cease,
 for the virgin daughter—my people—is struck down with a crushing blow,
 with a very grievous wound. 
If I go out into the field,
 look—those killed by the sword!
 And if I enter the city,
 look—those sick with famine!
 For both prophet and priest ply their trade throughout the land,
 and have no knowledge. (Jeremiah 14:8-9, 17-18)

May God be gracious to us and bless us
 and make his face to shine upon us,
 that your way may be known upon earth,
 your saving power among all nations. 
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
 let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
 for you judge the peoples with equity
 and guide the nations upon earth.
 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
 let all the peoples praise you. (Psalm 67:1-5)

I became a public school teacher right after college. My principal was a great guy, but he never really saw what I was up to in my classroom. My annual review consisted of him dropping in for 15 or 20 minutes during a lesson, and then telling me that I was doing fine. I appreciated that he trusted me to do my job, but I recognized that he wasn’t really present to my work, and he didn’t really know what was going on in my little world. Had I not known him better, I would have concluded that he didn’t really care.

Jeremiah offers a paradoxical lament: God seems to be unavailable to the self-inflicted troubles of Israel, yet he is present in the midst of his people. Jeremiah believed in God’s presence rather than in God’s detachment, but the devastating circumstances of Israel’s destruction and exile suggested that God had forgotten his people.

But Jeremiah hears a word from the Lord and passes it on: God is present to all the horror of Israel’s downfall. He weeps with grief at the death and disease that now characterizes what remains of Israel. While Israel’s destruction has come as a consequence of the nation’s own actions, God is still present, experiencing with the people—a people who have turned away from him!—all their pain and suffering.

We often talk about God as though he is “up there” while we are “down here.” While the Bible clearly shows God to be above and beyond all creaturely existence, he is also shown to be fully present to the world. Sometimes we look at natural disasters, disease, or war as something God inflicts from afar in order to punish wicked people. It rarely seems to occur to us that God is suffering along with those who suffer, much like Jeremiah’s description of God crying over the pain of his wayward people.

The prayer of the psalmist extends the sense of God’s presence and care to the entire world. He looks forward to a time when all nations will respond to God with joy. The people of God will be instrumental in making God’s glory known to the world, but that is a work that comes from the heart of God for the nations.

In our day-to-day grief and longing, God is fully present. Our own limited sight causes us to think he might have forgotten us, but the witness of Scripture gives us hope for his presence and for him to rescue us. Even in our brokenness and pain, God engages, waiting for us to turn and trust him anew.

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