TRUSTING GOD IN TRAGEDY
In July I shared with you a message entitled “The Prayer of One in Pain,” from Psalm 102:1-17. Change is evident in life and change can result in pain. Basuki Tjahaya Purnama or Ahok, experienced the unexpected turn of events in his life as the governor of Jakarta. He lost in the re-election and ended up in jail for alleged blasphemy. He actually appealed against his sentencing, but subsequently withdrew his appeal. He came to terms with the court’s decision and also God’s will and purpose for his life. We have to imagine how he would have prayed as a politician and as a Christian, as he fell from his pedestal of honour and leadership.
The Psalmist showed us the pain of the Jewish people when their country, their holy city and holy temple were sacked and destroyed by Babylon. Their long-standing belief that they were invincible and invulnerable was utterly shattered. In pain the Jews cried out to God. They then realized that nothing is permanent except God the Almighty.
The Psalmist had personal pain. In sickness he groaned in pain as his body burned with fever. He lost his appetite for food and beverage and he was reduced to skin and bones. What pained him even more was rejection and desertion by friends. And how it hurt when he was taunted, belittled and his name disparaged. It was so demoralising. He felt like dying. Some of us can identify with the Psalmist in illness and soured relationship.
When the Psalmist turned to God for help his outlook changed. Everything changes in life except God. He found hope in his moment of despair when he realised that “God is still on the throne and he remembers his own.” It is true for Ahok and will be for all of us when we understand and accept that God is trustworthy in the worst of times.
Today’s message comes from the second portion of the same Psalm 102, from verses 18-28. It tells us to trust God in tragic situations. We have a record of God’s presence in the midst of our troubles and his deliverance. It could be oral history or a written one. Tragedy can be of global or national proportion. Tragedy can strike a person at the most unkind moment. Tragedy can be very personal.
1. National Tragedy (v18-22)
This will be written for the generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord (v18). What kind of history is to be handed down that a succeeding generation could be proud of and have reason to exalt the name of the Lord God Almighty?
A tragedy of a monumental proportion had taken place. Judah, Jerusalem and the temple had been invaded and destroyed. God’s people were shattered and scattered. The best of Judah’s men have been exiled as prisoners in Babylon, while the walls of Jerusalem and the temple have fallen and remained in ruins. Had God forsaken his chosen people, left them in defeat and despair? Is this the history to be remembered and celebrated?
No, 70 years after their exile a new generation that grew up in Babylon returned to Jerusalem! Was there a purpose that God should have innocent children born in a foreign land and go through hardship? Then have them return to their home land as strangers? They were like aliens in their country. Was this to be remembered?
The Psalmist said that God looked down from heaven, from his sanctuary (v19), and heard the groans of the prisoners and released those condemned to death (v20). God had not neglected his people. His eyes that surveyed the earth were sharp. He was like an eagle, hovering and looking down from heaven. God had been watching his people all the time: “His eye is on the sparrow.” That was to be written down for posterity to recall!
“God in his sanctuary” spoke of God as sovereign-king, in command of all affairs in his kingdom. As he felt and heard the groans of his suffering people imprisoned in Babylon he acted in a timely way to set them free. When the king of Babylon allowed the exiles to return to Judah, even those condemned to death were released from execution.
Before the Babylonian invasion and subsequent exile, the chosen people had turned from the living God to serve idols in their own country. They had broken the first commandment and their children suffered the consequences.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of their fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:1-4).” The descendants of the exiles enjoyed the grace and mercy of God as their forefathers did.
God kept his word whether it was a command or a promise. The Jews learned a painful lesson. So for three generations, parents and their children’s children witnessed that God was faithful and he would not deny himself. They were taken out of their homeland where they were not faithful to God. The separation took them away from their idolatrous practices. In a strange and foreign land subsequent generations had to reflect on their parents’ failure. They learned hard lessons and returned to worship the Lord their God.
There on the rivers of Babylon renewal and revival took place. They saw punishment and they saw the mercy and grace of God. God cared for them. The nations around Judah saw how God cared for the Jews! They witnessed their return and the rebuilding of the walls and city of Jerusalem. They witnessed Jehovah’s name declared and public worship held in Jerusalem again. All these were written that the succeeding generations would know what a faithful God they had and how he loved and cared for them despite their disobedience.
In our recent history we have global conflicts and major wars in so many regions. Calamities of massive scale like earthquakes, tsunamis; epidemics of diseases like Ebola, SARS and aerial accidents such as MH370 and MH17 brought tremendous trauma and pain to survivors and living members of families. Today we read again and again attacks on Christians in churches in Egypt and Iraq, terrorist’s attacks in Manchester, Sydney, Paris, slaughter of Christians in areas where ISIS/Daesh are in rampage. At a national level things are far from what is desired. How do Christians feel? Is God aware of our predicament?
So far there seemed to be no answer to disasters and calamites that claim lives. Racial and religious conflicts are far from coming to a peaceful end. Christians cry to governments and to God for protection. Safety and security seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. No one champions for Christians today. If at all there are, their voices are muted. It seems that there is no light at the end of the tunnel! Present history speaks hopelessly of every situation for the people of God.
In the darkest hour the Psalmist remained hopeful in God who is in his sanctuary in heaven. In that hour the groans of prisoners ceased and those condemned to die are set free. He said: “So the name of the Lord will be declared in Zion and his praise in Jerusalem when the peoples and the kingdoms assemble to worship the Lord (v21-22).”
He looked to a peaceful and happy future when God’s people would be praising and exalting the name of the Lord. On that future date all the peoples of the earth, of different nations and kingdoms would gather to worship. To us in the New Testament era, we believe it is the Day of the Lord, when Jesus Christ returns to reign as “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Do we share the hope of the Psalmist? God kept his promise on Judah, Jerusalem and the temple. Can we hope in God when we see tragedies all over the world, some very near to us?
Can we see ourselves waiting for the return of Jesus Christ? In waiting as a church, God graciously gives us time to repent and be revived and prepare to welcome Him! Be like the Jews on the rivers of Babylon, prepare for the day of the Lord! We learn the lesson that God is still on the throne. He will return to rule and reign in Jesus Christ. And we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hollowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!
2. Personal Plight and Plea in Tragedy (v23-28)
We are sometimes numb to global tragedies. The Babylonian occupation and the shaming of Israel and Judah are in historical time. They are distant in time and are only stories to tell, so to say. Global tragedies today are distant in geography. Calamities, disasters, epidemics, and wars are only news in print or sitting-room movies. Tragedies are history or stories until they hit us personally.
Was the Psalmist an exilic prisoner, one of those by the rivers of Babylon? As a second or third generation Jew, had he lost hope and thought that he would not see his homeland at all. He could be saying to himself: Why is this happening to me? How long am I going to be a prisoner in Babylon? I might not live long enough to see freedom!”
So the Psalmist said, “In the course of my life he broke my strength, he cut short my days (v23).” He was saying that God was not fair. God was going to make him die young. God was going to prolong his imprisonment. Ever felt like that before? Have you ever been down in the dumps?
Someone today could point his finger at God and say: “He cut short my days:” It could mean that on his journey he could not reach his destination. Someone or something could interrupt or disrupt his travelling plan: lost his passport, plane crashed, train derailed or trapped in a riot.
It could mean that he might not live long to that proverbial age of “three score and ten (70),” not to mention eighty years, should health and strength permit. He could be struck by trouble and sorrow, weaken by illness and die (Psalm 90:10). And this could be that he was not in the good favour of God. Consider with me two modern day examples and try to identify with them.
A middle aged lady had been sacrificially serving in the church until struck by illness. Then her foot had a sore and eventually her foot had to be sawn off to save her life. She was devastated. Her world turned upside down and ministry came to a halt. She no longer could stand on her own two feet. She had to move around on a wheel chair.. She cried out, “God, why are you doing this to me?”
An enterprising young man went into partnership with a friend to start a business. His friend took off with the money. The business venture failed and he lost every penny. His wife left him as she could not stand by him, a failure. He was left with a little boy to care. He had to move in with his aged parents. He could not manage and went into depression. He was caught for drunk driving and was jailed. “Lord, why has my life got to be like that. I did not set out to fail. You are supposed to help me succeed!”
In his plight the Psalmist made a plea to God, “Do not take me away, O my God, in the midst of my days; your years go on through all generations (24).” In his desperate moment he prayed. In the face of death he asked that he be spared. In the midst of an unfulfilled life he pleaded with God: “Don’t let me die, O Lord.” He said such a short and simple prayer. In pain and in urgency, a simple prayer gets us to the point quickly.
When brought to his knees because his life had been cut short, the Psalmist realised that God the Creator is ageless. We are mortal, God is eternal: “your years go on through all generations.” Even heaven and earth will pass away, only God remains. Every created thing will perish with change. We are the most obvious example. We are born, we grow old and we die. Things grow old like clothes and are destroyed. Changes take place like the wearing or changing of garments (see v26).
In the midst of an ever-changing world where decay and destruction prevail the eternal God is the only constant. Twice the Psalmist said to God: But you remain (26); But you remain the same (27). We agree with the psalmist and say: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb 13:8).”
We can only comprehend the constancy of God through Jesus Christ. He is constant, always the same, because he is steadfast and faithful. Our Lord Jesus Christ has these qualities of steadfastness and faithfulness. These are essential qualities of those who rise above tragedy. We are encouraged to respect leaders who are faithful to Jesus Christ and are obedient to the Word. But people may fail us. Jesus never fails! Faithfulness keeps us steady in the midst of tragedy, as Jesus turned tragedy into triumph. Remember the tragedy at Calvary on Friday, the mournful silence in the Garden on Saturday and the triumph of an empty tomb on Resurrection Sunday. Jesus is alive! He is risen from the dead, just as he said!
If we think we have not been treated kindly in life, I would like you consider the life of Joseph Scriven. He wrote the poem that became a favourite hymn over the centuries and over all the continents.
What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer.
We will appreciate this hymn when we know the author and his life’s experience. Joseph Scriven, born in 1819, graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, and tutored children. He was engaged to be married. He made an appointment with his fiancé by the banks of River Bann on the eve of their wedding. That morning he waited as she forded the river on a horse. Suddenly she fell off the horse. Joseph helplessly saw her drown. That was the first tragedy of his life.
At age 25 he migrated to Canada and lived at Port Hope on the shore of Lake Ontario. He continued his career as a tutor and soon fell in love with a pretty lady, Eliza. She fell ill and died of pneumonia before they could be married. That was his second tragedy.
Have we trials and temptations Is there trouble anywhere?
Are we weak and heavy laden Cumbered with a load of care?
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer.
In his arms he’ll take a shield thee Thou will find a solace.
When asked about this poem on his sick bed, he said it was meant for his dear mother he left behind in Ireland. It was to assure her that he was holding on to Jesus even though life had been rough. Let us learn to trust God before tragedy strikes. When tragedy strikes we should be prepared to trust God.
Rev. Richard Tok
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Kuala Lumpur
Sunday 8 October 2017