Weeping, Pain, and Sadness

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 6, 2013
Psalm 137

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.

So begin the haunting words of Psalm 137. The year was 586 B.C. And the people of Israel were weeping. Their city, Jerusalem, had been destroyed by the Babylonian empire. The people had been dragged away from their city. Forced into exile, they marched eastward to Babylon. Behind them, smoke rising from their beloved city; the Temple, in which the Lord God dwelled, was in ruins; the cries of hungry children grating on their ears. After the long march to Babylon, they sit down and weep. The memories are too much to bear. The thoughts of their homes in flames, their families killed, their Temple desecrated. So there they weep. They hang up their harps, for their hands and their tongues can no longer make sounds of mirth. And with every passing day, and month, and year, and generation in Babylon, the bitterness and weeping only increase. Because their city, their land, Zion, is no more.

To make matters worse, the Babylonians, their captors, want to hear some of their songs. “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” they say. But Zion is no more. The pain is too much for the Israelites, the memories come flooding back in too quickly. They say, “how could we sing one of our songs in a foreign land?” So they weep. Because they abhor the memory of what was lost. Because they are filled with spite for their captors. Because their life has been destroyed. Psalm 137 says, in such chilling words,

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.

You were there. You were there with the Israelites when their city was pillaged. You were there when the Temple was brought down. You saw the vultures eating the dead, you smelled the smoke of the burning city. You were there on the long march to the foreign city. You sat down by the waters and wept. I know you did.

I do not know what it was for you that turned your world inside out and upside down. I do not know who the invader was that wrecked your life and took you away. I do not know where you sat down and wept. But we’ve all been there.

For me, it was a diagnosis of diabetes, exactly what I did not want to hear. My life was turned inside out and upside down. I wept. Because my life that had once been was lost forever. Torn out from me. So I sat down by the waters of Babylon, in this foreign land and wept.

What was it for you? Who were the Babylonians that came storming into your life? What did you lose? What holy temple in your life was desecrated?

Psalm 137 continues. It continues on with anger. The end of Psalm 137 has some of the most disturbing words in the whole of the scriptures. We hear the fullness of pain and anguish. “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock!”

Whoa. Take the Babylonians’ babies. And smash them against the rocks. That is the depth of anger, the breadth of sadness, the degree of their pain. And I know that you have been there too.

On the surface, it may not appear that we can learn much from Psalm 137. Our sense of shame shocks us, and we just want to move on quickly. But today I am forcing us to slow down and dwell on these words.

Strangely, these words speak to the magnificence of God. Not because God is going to take a bunch of babies and dash them against the rocks. Rather, because God is big enough to hear such evil things pass from our lips. God is big enough to hear the depth and breadth and degree of our depression and hatred. God is big enough. The people need to vent their frustration and aggravation. So rather than actually killing children, the people of Israel cry out in their prayers to vent their anger.

In other words, Psalm 137 teaches us one thing. Do not be timid in your prayers. Do not be shy in what you say to God. Show your true emotions to God. Don’t delude yourself and say, “oh, everything’s fine. I’m fine.” Because the thing is, the Lord God sees through that anyway. The Lord God knows when you are sitting and weeping by the waters of Babylon. The Lord God has seen you hang up your harp and give up on joy. The Lord God has heard you mutter vitriol and hatred. So why not actually say those things to God? It cuts out the middle man, which is just your sense of pride.

I know we have that picture of what prayer is. We envision us kneeling by our bedside quietly and calmly, and at peace before God. But that’s not prayer. That’s only hiding from what is really going on in our lives. Prayer, if anything, is our release valve to let God know what we are really going through.

Because God is big enough to hear anything, and God is loving enough to amend our wicked desires. And that’s the point this psalm is trying to get across. You’ll notice, the Israelites don’t actually then go out and dash babies against the rocks. Sure, they are eventually allowed to return to Jerusalem, but it’s not because they killed a bunch of Babylonians. If anything, it is cathartic for the Israelites simply to utter these horrendous words. Because they say them, and do not actually act upon them. In a way, by speaking those words lowers their hatred, and puts it all back into perspective. Perhaps just by saying something awful and evil, we will hear it, and see how ridiculous it is for us to say those words. And we will back off from acting upon those evil impulses.

These prayers, these gut level cries of agony are not only for the Israelites. They are not only for me and you. Even Jesus, as he is hanging on the cross mutters those unimaginable words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from Psalm 22. We imagine that Jesus would have it all together. But no, even Jesus, has to let fly and express the fullness of his emotion, his sense of abandonment. So if Jesus – perfect man – needs to express his emotion, then of course we do as well. Emotions that may come across as offensive, but emotions nonetheless. Because God is big enough to hear them.

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.

Your walk with the Lord Jesus will not be all happiness and cheer. A life of discipleship is a life of hard choices, of sacrifice, of doing the unthinkable. Along the way the Babylonians will bust in and burn the city down. Depression, addiction, disease, heartache. These are the building blocks of our lives. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is. Sitting down and weeping is often the only response.

This is a somber sermon at best. And I understand our desire for a happy ending. TV watchers will understand – everybody hated the ending to the Sopranos because it was ambiguous. We loved the ending to Breaking Bad because it tied up all the loose ends. But I am not going to indulge our desire for cheap happiness. This sermon must end where it began, by the waters of Babylon with tears in our eyes. Because moving on too quickly from our despair and grief is a disease in this culture. Rather than reflecting on our hurtful impulses, we act upon them. Newtown. Aurora. Columbine. Virginia Tech. What we need more than ever is Psalm 137, and the license to voice our deepest, most appalling emotions to God. God, who is a safe place; God, who can bear to hear those things. Precisely so we don’t bash their children against the rocks, but so that we can sit down by the waters of Babylon, and weep.

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