When heartbreak and tragedy strike our lives, the pages of Scripture come alive with fresh meaning and new power.
The Bible tells the story of God’s interaction with God’s people, and that story is rife with heartbreak and tragedy: Slavery in Egypt, wandering and grumbling in the wilderness, life under the jackboots of depraved and oppressive kings, scads of cruelty and injustice, even worse horrors of invasion and exile, persecution and imprisonment of apostles and disciples, and, of course, crucifixion and martyrdom of the very Son of God himself.
So, it should come as no surprise that Scripture feels most familiar when our circumstances feel most difficult.
When opposition comes, or plans fall apart, or relationships fracture, or peace collapses, or death befalls, the Word of God swells with the gracious sweetness of heaven’s strength.
The Lord gives us his Word not only to carry us through heartbreak and tragedy, but the Lord also allows heartbreak and tragedy to happen, I believe, to open our senses to the truth of his Word and the closeness of his presence.
This morning’s Scripture lesson, Psalm 94, was written by and for a suffering community beset with heartache and tragedy.
The wicked have God’s people under assault, and then, as if to rub salt in their wounds, their assailants are getting off scot free – sometimes even getting away with murder. In no way does it feel like God’s in charge, for the criminals apparently are flourishing, and crime seemingly does pay.
Listen, now, with the help of the Holy Spirit, as the Word of the Lord lifts up the lament of broken hearts and sagging spirits. But don’t be surprised when the Word of the Lord also changes our perspective and serves up a measure of hope amid overwhelming heartbreak and tragedy.
O LORD, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve! O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. They crush your people, O LORD, and afflict your heritage. They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan, and they say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
Understand, O dullest of the people; fools, when will you be wise? He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? He who disciplines the nations, he who teaches knowledge to humankind, does he not chastise? The LORD knows our thoughts, that they are but an empty breath.
Happy are those whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law, giving them respite from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked. For the LORD will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage; for justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow it.
Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers? If the LORD had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. When I thought, “My foot is slipping,” your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.
Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who contrive mischief by statute? They band together against the life of the righteous, and condemn the innocent to death. But the LORD has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge. He will repay them for their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the LORD our God will wipe them out. (Psalm 94:1-23)
Where do the weary and wounded stand when evil is running amok? We stand on the promises of God!
We stand on the promises of God that were strong enough to hold, protect, and sustain God’s people long before any of our own heartbreaks began and tragedies struck.
Psalm 94 names several of God’s promises, and two in particular feel just right for our moment.
First, even our worst heartbreaks, tragedies and trials are bursting with God’s love.
In the end, the wickedness of the wicked and the evilness of evil will serve to demonstrate God’s penchant for justice and righteousness, which are manifestations of God’s mercy and love for the wronged and oppressed. But for now, as strange as it sounds, the brokenness of the world helps us grow in understanding, mature in faith, and stand strong in belief – further evidence of God’s love through the work of the Spirit.
To one extent or another, we all are victims and survivors of all manner of heartache and tragedy, and we wait anxiously for God to pounce upon those people who hurt and wound us and to eradicate those forces that do us wrong and cause us harm. But God often defeats and humiliates our perpetrators in more profound ways. God uses even their worst and most wicked efforts to reveal God’s loving hopes for us.
Whatever pain we feel or tragedy we experience, God works together unto good in the midst of those evils, and God’s loving kindness points us toward peace that surpasses all human understanding and the restoration of joy and assurance.
“Happy are those whom you teach and instruct,” the psalmist declares. “You give them relief from troubled times until a pit is dug to capture the wicked.” (Psalm 94:12-13)
Even our worst heartbreaks, tragedies and trials are bursting with God’s love, and second, even when we want to give up, God will not.
When we’re under attack, when heartbreak and tragedy strike, it’s mighty tempting to give up and walk away. It will always be easier to opt out of conflict, out of painstaking reconciliation, out of dying for the sake of others – especially those who have hurt us. Face it: We all grow weary in relationships. But God never grows weary in loving us, and God never considers walking away. Never will God ditch or desert, and justice is one day coming.
“The Lord will not forsake his people,” rings the voice of the psalmist. “The Lord will not abandon his heritage; for justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow it/” (Psalm 94:14–15)
Our worst heartbreaks, tragedies and trials are bursting with God’s love, and God will never give up, even when that’s all we want to do.
Those two of God’s many promises feel particularly poignant right about now.
We gather this morning feeling as we’ve felt for most of last week – numb with shock, inundated by tears, overwhelmed with grief – as yet another suicide traumatizes our community. And this one hits really close to home – the horrific and untimely death of Patsy Kerndt’s grandson Ben, leaving us to wrestle with questions of “why” that seem to have no satisfying answers.
As for me, the only way I can understand and make sense of what has happened is to believe that Ben didn’t do what he did. That’s not to deny the reality that death has come crashing down on him, his family, and his friends, but rather it is to assign rightful responsibility for last Monday night, when everything that seemed right with the world was shattered. The responsibility and blame for last Monday night falls squarely on the wretched shoulders of evil.
That’s not to say that Ben was filled with evil.
Quite the contrary! I always experienced Ben as being filled with the goodness and kindness of a child of God. But one of the particularly nasty and vicious ways that evil works on us is when evil tries to rot the fruit of the Spirit and spoil the work that God gets done through us.
It is particularly nauseating and malicious when evil makes thicker our fog of despair and lights a false beacon that leads us toward rocky shores and away from the deep waters that give and sustain life.
When evil succeeds in fooling and tricking us into taking the wrong course, when evil knocks us to our weakened knees, when evil deals us a blow that puts us on the ground, we can look to the promises of God in the cross of Jesus Christ and know that the Lord has never let go of our hand. Even though we’ve been led astray, the Lord’s never-ever letting go. The strong hand of the Lord is there to pick us up, dust us off, and hold us ever-so-tight in his loving arms – today and forever, for we belong to God!
And nothing – nothing – even a deed committed by our own hand or the hand of another – is going to stand in the way of that belonging, for that, my friends, is part and parcel of God’s merciful, loving promises. It may appear that evil has notched a victory in battle, but thanks be to God, Jesus Christ has already won the war!
When our wounds are deep, God’s ever-available healing goes deeper.
When our troubles are broad, God’s ever-present help runs broader.
When our cares are great, God’s loving consolations are greater.
As the lyrics to an old hymn go, when the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet!
Ancient words, ever true!
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, July 18, 2021. It is the fifth in his series “Summer in the Psalms.” Scholarship, commentary and reflection by James Mays, J. Clinton McCann Jr. and Marshall Segal inform the message.