My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
How many oceans could be filled with our tears. How many springs would we need to swallow down to have enough tears to really let out our sorrow. The truth of life is that for many people it is a brutal thing. There is no one who passes through this life unscathed by sadness. Even of our savior it had to be said, “Jesus wept.” We have talked for a long time about what it is to repent. We have talked for a long time about the burden of our sin. Now, we need to look to something else – the burden of our sorrows.
Jeremiah gives us more than we would ever need to understand the life of a person in crisis. The prophet saw his home destroyed, his leaders taken away in chains, and the land made fallow by the pillaging invaders. Those who did not die in battle were killed in famine, those who were not taken to famine were driven to despair, to suicide, even – we are told, to cannibalism. The world which Jeremiah inhabits is not bright, it has no hope to ever be bright again. It is darkness, it is destruction, it is the world turned upside down.
When disaster comes, we are left in a similar place. While we cannot imagine what widespread devastation like that that Jeremiah faced would be like, we know what it is to suffer. We have seen our good days fade away into dark ones, and we are left crawling in the dark, groping to find anything that might give us hope – a pulse of the life that once was. The fact is that when we are lost, we are lost entirely. We do not help ourselves by pretending otherwise. We become like Jeremiah. We wander the streets, we cry out to God, but above all – we look to be healed.
How wonderful if there were some magic words in scripture that made these moments cease to be. How magnificent if God could reach down and in a moment erase the pain from our lives. There is no such verse those. There is only the reality of grief – the fear that comes from loss.
We all have our own stories of loss. Family and friends who have left us too soon. Tragedy that has upended our life. Disasters that have left our world formless and void. The only hope that we have is for resurrection to be made real in our life, for God to take the dust of the ground, the ashes we have thrown ourselves down on, and breathe life into them again. We sit, we wait, we mourn, and we certainly cry.
The Church has had a problem with tears. We look at the scripture which asks us to, “In all things give thanks,” that has Paul reminding us, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” and we decide that God will accept anything but our tears. How could we ever be sad, God is so good. What reason have we to mourn? God is in his Heaven. Yet telling ourselves to be thankful is not enough, claiming that we are rejoicing is not real rejoicing. We have cut ourselves off from receiving much of God’s peace, because we refuse to own our unrest. We are sick people lying to the doctor about our symptoms.
Or perhaps we are honest, perhaps we pour our soul out to God constantly and we hear nothing. We are told the sun is shining and we see no light, in the same way God is near us but we do not feel it. The presence of God, constant, internal, profound – seems dull, far off, like a memory we have begun to forget. We know that there is relief from our troubles, somewhere far off and distant. We cry out like Jeremiah, “Is there no Balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” We know the answer – there is a balm to cure us and there is a physician to heal us, but he is there and not here. This is the house of mourning. These are the doors of suffering. It is the door we have shut up and said to everyone else, “Abandon all hope ye that enter here.”
But this cannot be the end. This cannot be the last chapter of our book. The darkness can only last for so long before light breaks out. The world tends toward chaos, entropy increases, but the light never goes out. As long as there is energy and movement and hope, there is something that keeps us going. As long as even one candle burns, the darkness does not overtake the world. There are no magic incantations to set the grieving heart right, but there is one overwhelming truth that things change – that someday the clouds break open and we see the horizon open up once again.
The testament of our entire faith is that even death is not absolute, that one day it will be crushed and be no more. The promise that tears will be wiped away, all sorrow abolished. No one will ever need to come home to an empty house that once was full, no illness prevent us from dancing, no tragedy will ever again shake the foundations of the world. One day, blessed day that it is, God will be among us. We will be with God. Peace will reign. Joy will finally be ours to hold on to. When heaven and earth meet, when Zion is rebuilt, when light shines perpetually upon us…
These promises are what we cling to. The hope that never goes out. The light that was attacked by the darkness, that we tried to put out, it still shines no matter what. It shines, distant at times, nearly imperceptible. But still it burns.
The early church had a tradition, at the tomb of the Holy Sepulcher, the burial place of Christ. They would go behind a curtain, into the cave where Jesus died. And every evening they would light a lamp in the tomb. That light would be taken out from the candle, and all people present would light their lamp from that flame. A hymn would then be sung, praising God, “Oh gladsome light… Son of God and Giver of Life.” The light emerged from death, from darkness, yet it could light up the whole world as the worshippers walked home.
That lamp is what our hope is like. We return to God to have it lit time and time again, we walk into the dark of the world with its light guiding us. It is small, and fragile, and the thing we need most in the day to day. It shines, not so bright that we can see the whole path ahead, but so that we can at least take our next step. As long as that lamp burns, as long as even one flame of hope is lit, the darkness can never overtake us.
The lamp still needs lit though. The light comes only when the time is right. When the sun fades and the evening comes. We try too hard to be well before our time. Like someone who is recovering from surgery, and runs a marathon before their stitches are out, we open old wounds and create new ones by not letting ourselves heal.
When we are honest that we hurt. When we do not rush toward recovery, when we give lament it’s fullest room to breathe. In those moments we see God in ways we never would have before. It is not easy. There is no point to suffering. We do not suffer to learn lessons, but we can learn despite that. We can grow despite that. In the dark, in our deepest despair, there we can find deep waters. Springs that do not give us tears to shed, but that bubble up full of life. Let us hold onto our hope, no matter how dim it seems to shine. – Amen