First Sunday in Advent
November 28 and 29, 2020
“A Lament or a Hymn?”
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Either life can be a lament or it can be a hymn. It can be a dirge or it can be a celebration. Which one is it for you? Is it a lament or a hymn?
Recently I have been playing the game that I’ve titled, “The way life once was.” With Thanksgiving and Christmas with us now I have begun to reminisce how those holidays once were. A number of years ago we went to the Nutcracker Ballet in downtown Denver. What an experience. I still have a hard time conceiving how they could put together the music, the costumes, the ballet dancers and the absolute magic of the evening. That is the way life once was.
Just within the last year or two we headed downtown for Handel’s Messiah. It was the most remarkable religious experience I think I’ve ever had. The orchestra and the chorus played and sang “Who shall abide the day of His coming?”, and “For unto us a child is born”, and “The Hallelujah Chorus” and all the others.
When I think, that at least for this year, that such events, such extravaganzas, aren’t happening as they were in previous years, I have a lament – a song of sorrow. You may have something else that grieves you. You may have something that makes your heart heavy during these days.
I find it helpful that the Bible has laments. In fact it has a whole book that contains one lament after another – it is given the name of Lamentations. You see, our God understands human grief and sorrow.
Our reading from Isaiah is a lament, one of quite a few in the book. This lament had started in the previous chapter and continued into our reading in Isaiah 64. When you are speaking a lament, or when your life is one big lament, you want to find out the reason that everything got so bad. This lament has these three elements in it. It begins with the questioning of God, it moves to an accusation against Him, and it concludes with the honesty of our responsibility and the confession of our failure.
First – the questioning of God. In Isaiah 63 the recounting of what God once did many years ago led to the question of his inactivity then. “Then his people recalled the days of old, the days of Moses and his people – where is he who brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock? Where is he who set his Holy Spirit among them, who sent his glorious arm of power to be at Moses’ right hand, who divided the waters before them, to gain for himself everlasting renown?” (Isaiah 63:11-12) The recounting of the great miracles of the Exodus and going through the Red Sea were spoken in anger. It was a cynical word. “Where is He?” God was good a long time ago but He got old and isn’t up to His game anymore. A lament moans that God can’t help anymore.
A lament blames God for our failure and sin. We demand that we are not responsible for how life is when it imploded – God is. It is like Adam in Genesis 3, after taking the step of rebellion, when God asked, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”, Adam put the blame where he wanted it to go. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate it.” (Genesis 3:11-12) In our Isaiah lament the same culprit is to blame, “Why, O Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?” (Isaiah 63:17)
A life of lament turns sour. It sees God as the one who just doesn’t do what He once was capable of doing. It sees God as the one who makes us take the wrong steps. But, interestingly, a lament will offer a confession of sins. There actually comes an honest acknowledgment of why life had become hard and God’s punishment had been experienced. Our reading says, “You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.” (Isaiah 64:5-7)
This would be a terrible lament if everything ended right there. And for some people it does end there. It would be a book that was titled, “The way life once was.” The past is gone and there is no hope for today. God can’t help or didn’t help and really is the root of the problem or we sit and sin and bemoan what we’ve done but there is no answer. That’s a dirge. That’s a lament that is hopeless.
Either life can be a lament or it can be a hymn. Which one is it for you? There can be no escaping that life, at times, sometimes for long periods, can be a lament. But I know a God who allows our laments to be transformed into hymns. And these hymns are the greatest ones that have ever been sung and lived. You may remember that in the middle of the book of sorrow, the book of Lamentations, this hymn of hope is recorded, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:19-23)
When this year is done there is going to be something greater for us to say than, “I survived the great toilet paper shortage of 2020.” In Psalm 40 David writes, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.” (Verses 1-3a)
A lament is seen in the questioning and the accusation of God; a hymn is seen in an appeal to God and the confession of faith. What a hymn we get to sing. We make an appeal of God and He answers in the greatest way. This is what we ask of God, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:1-4)
Come down!! That is the hymn of folks who need a Savior, who need Immanuel, God-with-us. And Jesus came and lived and ministered and paid for our sins and came to life after dying. We have a hymn of HIM!!
The hymn speaks of who created us and forms us. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8) A lament doesn’t have an intimate relationship of trust, but a hymn does. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.” We are His children. He will provide for us and care for us and have us as the very apple of His eye.
The hymn that we sing includes the image of a potter working with clay. “We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” You know the hymn, right? “Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way! Thou art the potter, I am the clay! Mold me and make me after Thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.”
The hymn that we get to sing is all about this Heavenly Father who is also the potter. Travis Scholl gives this account of how the potter works with broken pieces of pottery. “In Japan, there’s a centuries-old ceramic art called kintsugi (pronounced kin-SUE-gee, with a hard g). At its simplest, it’s the art of mending and remaking broken pottery. The technique is to take a lacquer or epoxy and mix it with the dust of a precious metal, usually gold, silver, or platinum. The mixture is then applied with extravagant care along the edges of the broken shards to glue the object back together. The resulting artwork is thus veined in elaborate webs of precious shine. The idea behind the technique is to work with and transform the brokenness of an object, rather than to try to hide its scars. The genius of the art is that it often makes the artwork more beautiful – and more valuable – than the object was originally.” (Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 31, Part 1, Pg.4) Sing a hymn to God thanking Him that he doesn’t hide our scars but transforms our brokenness into beauty. Forgiveness from Jesus and the working of God’s Holy Spirit is His kintsugi.
A lament or a hymn? What will your life be? God will give you an answer. Amen!!