6th Sunday after Pentecost

July 1, 2018


The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases … never

We hear many accounts of God’s goodness to people throughout the Bible. We emphasise that God’s graciousness is at work – the unexpected happy endings to a tough situation. There is no hint of being deserving or of earning the good outcome. We see this in our gospel account today of the healing of the woman with the bleeding – just imagine what she went through – tough going in so many ways. Just imagine the trauma and terror Jairus and his wife and the family and relatives were going through.

It is irrelevant to think that if child mortality was so much higher back then (one estimate is 30%)* then the parents would be more used to such an occurrence. We have the Gospel account precisely because Jairus didn’t want his daughter to die. And we’ve heard it because Jesus did heal her. God’s graciousness is clear.

The Bible is also clear that God’s blessings towards his people are part of the relationship he has established with them. The foundation is again God’s grace but there is also a call to live in this relationship and so we have the Old Testament replete with calls to obedience for blessings and calls that disobedience leads to cursings. Misunderstood this produces the idea that good works get you to heaven and evil deeds take you down but there is simply a truth in relationships that if your behaviour harasses, hurts, harms the relationship and the people in it, the consequence is pain and misery for all involved, whereas if everyone in a relationship is working for the good of everyone and the relationship then, despite the problems that arise, this relationship is much better to be in.

The New Testament letters are written to God’s people often reminding them of their identity in Christ and pointing out what this means in practical behavioural terms. And again the foundation remains God’s grace and of course for New Testament people that means Jesus and his death and resurrection.

But what does Jesus’ death and resurrection mean? Is it a magic carpet ride over problems? Help when needed? A promise for the future? All of the above? None of the above? Is God good when our problems get solved, illness healed, death averted? Is God bad when these don’t happen or when our situation is chronic, dire, when death comes? At what point do terminally ill people stop seeking cures but concentrate on living well as they are dying? Has God now changed from good to bad? Have people changed from hopeful to resignation?

And surely such questions and situations are better understood if we are the cause of our problems but what happens if we are born in a time and place where the country is at war or suffering a tyrant or we are victims of something – say the 1918 flu pandemic estimated to have killed around 50 million people while infecting 10 times that number which was about ⅓ of the world’s population?! Is anyone suggesting that 50 million non Christians died?

It doesn’t take too much living to wonder where God is in the world and in our lives.

The words of our Gospel can cause us to smile – happy endings come to people – while the words of today’s Old Testament are comforting but maybe also foreboding. They come from the book called Lamentations – a name which should alert us to the truth that all is not well in this world.

But let’s hear what Jeremiah has to say …

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him;
let him put his mouth in the dust – there may yet be hope;
let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.
(Lamentations 3:22–33 ESV)

Who didn’t think nice sentiments? I suspect no one. This is a comforting message.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every
morning; great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is good to those who wait for him …
He will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love …
But there are also words that ruffle the brow, make us sigh, don’t offer easy quick solutions.
Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him;
let him put his mouth in the dust – there may yet be hope;
let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not cast off forever …though he cause grief …

Comforting? Unsettling?

Unsettling? Comforting?

Which do you hear? Why both messages? C’mon, God, life is tough enough, just help us!

I suspect that few of us have read Lamentations. It is what the name describes – lament after lament.
Jeremiah is describing the horrible situation of the destruction of Jerusalem, of foreign invaders, of
desecration, destruction, humiliation as nation and as individuals, of the horrors of war and of
occupation, of starvation, abuse of women, cannibalism and Jeremiah makes it clear that God’s people
have brought this upon themselves. The book describes laments and even today, when read, causes
laments and sadness. But then we have these verses. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases …!

And we might smile that God will bring an end to their misery. That’s what happened to the woman
with the bleeding and to Jairus and his family – happy endings. Sure the woman suffered for years and
Jairus maybe for weeks or days but the steadfast love of the Lord didn’t cease for them.

Back to Lamentations and these verses are like a mountain top above the clouds or the eye of a
cyclone when things are still. Lamentations is 5 chapters and this is in the middle of chapter 3.
Afterwards Jeremiah returns to lamenting, to describing the people complaining against God for their
suffering and misery and describing still more misery. Our verses today have no evidence in the book
itself of truth. The book ends with the people pleading with God to not be angry with them anymore,
to bring relief.

Poor Jeremiah! I feel for him. Not sure why; always have. God tells him to say words that people
don’t want to hear. He gets all sorts of flak and attacked for saying what God wants him to say. And it
doesn’t seem to do any good. If anything everything gets worse. And now when destruction and
horror has come and he laments God’s judgement he then pens in the middle of his laments our first
reading and can still talk about the steadfast love of the Lord never ceasing. I can imagine how that
went down with people in such a dire situation! Madness! Lunacy! Heartless! Cruel! Jeremiah’s
words are always challenging because we know the history – that the return from exile and the
rebuilding of Jerusalem is 70 years later – that there is not a happy ending in Jeremiah’s lifetime or for
the generation who suffered the destruction and exile.

Our text, Jeremiah, and our lives as Christians raise the issue of whether faith and hope have use-by
dates. Best before dates? Sometimes people seem to put time limits for God’s help, for answered
prayer and if things don’t happen in that timeframe, then they walk away from faith or abandon hope.
I read the other day a portion of Acts (12:1-11) where Herod killed James and arrested Peter and held
him in prison for days and then the night before his execution the angel comes and frees Peter. We
rejoice at Peter’s freedom. But why did God let Peter suffer prison until the last moment? Why did
James die? How did John, his brother, feel? What effect did this have on the Early Church who
already understood suffering as a mark of discipleship?

Faithfulness is about facing each day one day at a time and making choices about how we live that
day depending on the relationships important to us. That’s how friendships, marriages, loyalty work …
one day at time. And that is how faith also works where we live and respond to the circumstances of
the day in the relationship we have with God and not on the basis of whether God comes through with
‘the goods’. No one says this is easy! It isn’t which is why learning discipleship – following –
obedience – what it means to be in this faith relationship from a young age can hold us in good stead
through all our troubles – whether our sins cause us pain, others cause us harm, or we are born in a
time and place where suffering, destruction, and evil seem to hold sway.

We live one day at time and for that day we, as followers of Jesus, return daily to his cross and empty
tomb, to our baptism, and to Jesus’ words of promise to us that he is with us, that he has defeated
death’s power, that we will have trouble in the world but take heart, he has overcome the world. That
is the basis for us to say that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.

Around 160AD, the old man Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, thought to be possibly the last person to
have seen an apostle – for he was a disciple of the Apostle John – was arrested and sentenced to death.

Because of his age he was urged to recent and avoid the fire. His famous reply, “86 years have I have
served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
highlights, for me, at least that we do live one day at a time and on that day, Polycarp had a choice
and he remained aware that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases – even in the flames.

We so want God’s gifts – blessings, healings, help, support – but our human nature doesn’t want God
himself. That is why faith – ultimately we live by it and not by sight – can seem strange to the world
and even to us at times! To declare in faith that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases requires a
foundation and for the followers of Jesus that remains God’s grace and that will take us each day to
Jesus’ cross and empty tomb – to Jesus himself. And that is how we face each day whatever that day
holds with this truth – the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases in Jesus.

* https://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/articles/to_check/infant.html
! https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3291398/

Bible References

  • Lamentations 3:22 - 33