Scripture: Isaiah 40:1–11
Lisa and Mike hurried through the crowd on Mass Street on a December Saturday. The checked their list twice and felt like they were about ready to find their car when they ran into Jason, with his hands full of packages. They hadn’t seen each other since Jason’s wife’s funeral, a couple of months earlier. They engaged in a bit of small talk, as you do in such circumstances. But then Mike felt like he needed to say something more:
“Lisa and I have been thinking a lot about you the last few weeks. We know it has to be hard this first Christmas without Jennifer. Let us know what we can do to help.”
Jason laughed a little nervous laugh, and told them, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about me! With everything else going on, and all of the Christmas stuff to get ready, I’ve been too busy to grieve!” And after a little more small talk, they all moved on to the next store.
“Too busy to grieve.” Have you ever heard a phrase like that? Have you ever said a phrase like that? Our Lunch and Learn crew has been studying Tish Harrison Warren’s book Prayer in the Night, and she makes an interesting statement about grief:
“Most Americans have an inherited tendency to resist grief. It’s in our national DNA; it’s the water we swim in. The United States tends toward optimism and forward progress, busyness and productivity. Getting on with it. We’re taught in subtle ways that ‘there is no time for grief.’”
There it is. Too busy to grieve. She writes about various “night moments” in our lives, in which we deal with loneliness or fear or grief, and suggests that we don’t tend to have a great track record of dealing with those moments well. These are anathema to the American Spirit. We don’t want to acknowledge what is perceived as weakness when we weep, or mourn, or grieve. Even in the church, seasons like Lent or Advent are tough for us, because we want to rush to Easter, rush to the manger at Christmas, instead of sitting in that nighttime emptiness for a season. Sitting in the grief of “not yet.”
The problem is that we cannot skip grief. Do you remember the old Stephen King story, Pet Sematary (“Cemetery” intentionally misspelled by Stephen King), where they buried the animals but then they came back to life and haunted the family? You can try and bury your grief in the backyard, but it will come back, and it will be uglier than before!
Harrison Warren makes this point, too. She argues that when folks fail to acknowledge and deal with losses in their lives, they will often shift to resentment mode, or anger mode, or blaming mode, toward those they feel took away what they valued. We see this in what is sometimes called “outrage culture.” Social media rage. Political vitriol and divisiveness. Even if we don’t know the phrase, we know what it is because we see it all the time. And she suggests that at the heart of that outrage is often the inability to grieve in a healthy way. Something has been lost, in our lives or our culture. But instead of acknowledging that loss, we hang onto it until it starts to eat away at us from the inside out. The grief doesn’t go away…it comes back, and a lot uglier!
I want to turn now to Isaiah, because I feel like the prophet has something to say about all of this.
For the last several weeks, we have been exploring what we’ve been calling Holy Dissenters, prophets who stand against the world around them. And let’s be honest: we have heard a lot of outrage. The prophet Jeremiah had plenty of outrage. The prophet Hosea. The prophet Huldah. The prophet Jesus. All of them were rightly outraged. The holy dissenters teach us to rage against a world where mishpat and tzadiquah, justice and righteousness, are ignored. There is a time and place for outrage! The prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us not to tell African Americans to not be outraged. They should be outraged, he said. There is plenty of reason for rage. Holy prophetic dissenters will often call us to rage against injustice.
In fact, the first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah has plenty of outrage. A few weeks ago, I read from the book of Isaiah, in the 5th and the 11th Chapters. And in that context, in that time and place in the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 750–700 years before the birth of Christ, there outrage was needed. God’s people had rejected justice and righteousness, mishpat and tzadiqah, and up through Chapter 39 of Isaiah is a message of urgency and clarity: “Assyria and Babylon are on the doorstep. Follow God now, before it is too late!”
And then we turn the page to chapter 40, and find…it’s too late. Way too late. Scholars see a time jump from the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, from 750–700 to now somewhere around 600–550 or 540, which was in the middle of the Babylonian Exile. So with the turn of a page, we jump somewhere between 200 and 100 years! The Exile has happened. Babylon has destroyed Jerusalem. They have been subjected to a forced migration across their border to a new land that they do not understand. The trauma is overwhelming. The loss is overwhelming. Everything that they once knew is gone, and their way of life is over.
For those of you wondering if some science fiction, cryosleep technology has taken place, probably not. Some scholars suggest that this is somehow the same Isaiah, maybe living an extraordinarily long life to see all of this change. Most that I have read suggest that this is actually a Second Isaiah, part of the same tradition and prophetic school as the first one. Just like Scripture packages together four different voices in the Gospels, they suggest that our book of Isaiah is actually a packaging together of two, or maybe even three, different Isaiah people and two or three different contexts. At some level, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that in this moment, in Chapter 40, God’s people are sitting in the midst of “too late.”
And that’s where Isaiah teaches the people how to grieve. Again, very often the prophetic tool is one of outrage. But there are other tools in the prophetic toolbox. With a turn of the page, the book of Isaiah moves from afflicting the comfortable…to comforting the afflicted.
“Comfort! O Comfort my people, says your God! Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” With these words, we see the arrival of a prophetic grief counselor. Here is someone who knows that for God’s people to survive this experience, it is time to set aside the outrage, and pick up something else. Look at the way that the chapter follows to parallel things happening at the same time: Glory and grief. The passage starts with glory…God will make a way where there has been no way. But look how we get to the glory: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers; the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers; the flower fades.” We don’t get to the glory, until we acknowledge the death. Until we lament the pain. Until we truly grieve the loss. The glory comes in the grieving.
Isaiah goes back and forth in that same vein for the rest of the passage. Get up on the mountain and sing out loud about the glory! Is it the glory of a military victory? Is it the glory of a resentful and angry violence? Is it the glory of my people beating your people? No, it is the glory of a shepherd, caring for his people like lambs, like mother sheep. That’s what God’s glory really is about! Isaiah the prophetic grief counselor points to God not as judge or angry justice warrior…but as a shepherd who will never leave us or forsake us. Isaiah acknowledges their pain, their vulnerability, but promises that death will not be the end of the story. He helps them move from the realm of helpless pain…to comfort. Isaiah teaches the people how to grieve. And that through grief alone, they will find God’s peace. Here the holy dissenter teaches his people—and us—to dissent from a culture that only knows how to outrage, inviting us to create a culture of lament.
Which is exactly what Tish Harrison Warren writes:
“There is, truly, plenty to be upset about, plenty of loss to mourn, plenty to lament. The church’s prophetic witness to an outrage culture is to be a people who know how to weep together at the pain and injustice in the world (both past and present) and at the reality of our own sin and brokenness. We must learn to listen to the fear and sadness underneath the anger that people spew through political vitriol and digital venom.”
She writes that as a people of faith we need to lead the change toward becoming “lament culture.” If outrage is the only thing we are capable of, we get stuck in an endless stream of resentment, blame, and unheard pain. But the Biblical antidote for this is prayerful lament. The church’s Antidote is communal lament. This is why we don’t skip over the cross to rush to the empty grave. And this is why we sing about Advent waiting, before we rush to the manger. We don’t have to wallow in grief. But if we don’t acknowledge our loss and pain and loneliness and emptiness, then why do we even need the baby to show up? That is a prophetic message. A counter-cultural message. When we learn to grieve, and teach an outraged world to grieve, it helps us know why we desperately need that baby in the manger. Why we need God to show up and give us the comfort that God alone can give.
So what might that look like? A few practical suggestions:
- “Set aside time for grief. This could be one hour or one day, but let yourself feel uncomfortable feelings and sorrow. Pray, journal, cry, sit in silence, and allow time for grief.” —THW
- Read the Biblical story of grief. Isaiah 40ff. Psalm 22. Psalm 44. Psalm 88.
- “Write a psalm of lament about your own life or about your work.”—THW
- Check in with someone else who might be grieving.
- Ask for help.
I went looking this week for a picture of comfort. I had designs to put it as the image that we show at the beginning of the service, and on social media, and email out to folks on the front of the bulletin. So I typed “comfort” into the search bar, and you probably won’t be surprised at what I found. A lot of picture of blankets. And slippers. And warm, steaming cups of tea. A few pictures of people snuggled up, reading books…a surprising number of pictures of people snuggled up, reading their phone. For a device that scientists tell us increase our anxiety, there seem to be a lot of people seeking comfort in their phones. But that is a sermon for another day. And, to be honest, all of these comforting things can be very helpful to a life of peace. Or, they could be a way to avoid the hard work of grief. Distractions. Tools to numb instead of tools of true comfort.
But then I found this picture:
That feels like God’s comfort to me. Here is a person, on the left, who understands that all flesh is grass. But it leads her to lean fully into the arms of love. No lecture is needed. No words to explain away the pain. Just a shepherd, holding onto her sheep.