Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, “It will be happier.”
— Alfred Lord Tennyson
I think we all would like to believe Tennyson. I think we all hope that a new year will bring us greater happiness, greater success, and greater of everything. In that sense, if the New Year proves anything, it is that we are an optimistic people. Each year, as we stand at the doorstep of another year, we make our lists of resolutions, in spite of the fact that most years we don’t make it very many days before giving up on those resolutions. But we continue to hope, and continue to try, and that, I think, is a testament to our optimism and hope that a new year will be better than the concluding one.
As we continue with our theme of Building, this Sunday, on New Year’s Day, we will consider the topic of Building A Future. Some of you may be happy to close the door on 2016. Some of you have, perhaps, faced the greatest difficulties of your life, and you are hoping for a better year. If so, I certainly hope and pray that you have a blessed 2017.
The observation of the New Year is an interesting phenomenon, I think. There is, technically speaking, not New Year’s Day. Any day can be New Year’s Day. In fact, there are some groups that recognize days other than January 1st as their New Year’s Day. Though it takes 365 days for the earth to make its trip around the sun there is not particular point at which a “new year” begins. The New Year can be placed on any day. That being said, the observance of New Year’s Day, the turning of the page of the calendar into a new year, is a very important psychological milestone for us, because we need the promise of a new start. We need the practice of closing the door on one year – especially when it has been a bad one – and beginning a new one and embracing its promise of greater blessing.
Our Scripture text for the week comes from the life of David, the great king of Israel. David lived, I think it is safe to say, an epic life. He was, arguably, the greatest king in the history of the nation of Israel. He was a great warrior and, at times, a brilliant leader. He was also, at times, a leader who succumbed to weak moments that had grave consequences for his family and his nation.
The text comes from one of David’s lowest moments, and that is saying something, considering the fact that he had some very low moments. Absalom, one of David’s sons, had rebelled against his father and taken up arms to battle against him. The seeds of the rebellion were sown when Absalom’s sister Tamar, was raped by the oldest son of David, their half-brother Amnon. Absalom became very bitter because his father David did not seek justice for Tamar and he began to plot against his father. When the moment came, Absalom, after building support for himself and undermining his father, declared himself king. David, realizing he had lost the support of most of the people, had to flee from Jerusalem. In the ensuing battle, Absalom was left in a very vulnerable position, but David had declared that his son was not to be harmed. Ignoring those orders, one of David’s men killed Absalom, leaving David heartbroken. The anguish of David can be heard in his cry of heartbreak – O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!
For David, the heartbreak was compounded by the fact that his own actions – or lack of action – had brought about the circumstances leading to Absalom’s death. To David, it seemed like there was no hope for the future and no hope that life could ever again be joyous. But David did have a future, and the fact that he did have a future can serve as a reminder that we too can have a future, even when life seems very bleak.
Can there be any greater heartbreak than suffering the loss of a child? Listen to our Scripture text this morning, and hear, at the end, the heartbreak and anguish in David’s voice –
24 While David was sitting between the inner and outer gates, the watchman went up to the roof of the gateway by the wall. As he looked out, he saw a man running alone.
25 The watchman called out to the king and reported it. The king said, “If he is alone, he must have good news.” And the runner came closer and closer.
26 Then the watchman saw another runner, and he called down to the gatekeeper, “Look, another man running alone!” The king said, “He must be bringing good news, too.”
27 The watchman said, “It seems to me that the first one runs like Ahimaaz son of Zadok.” “He’s a good man,” the king said. “He comes with good news.”
28 Then Ahimaaz called out to the king, “All is well!” He bowed down before the king with his face to the ground and said, “Praise be to the Lord your God! He has delivered up those who lifted their hands against my lord the king.”
29 The king asked, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” Ahimaaz answered, “I saw great confusion just as Joab was about to send the king’s servant and me, your servant, but I don’t know what it was.”
30 The king said, “Stand aside and wait here.” So he stepped aside and stood there.
31 Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.”
32 The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”
33 The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”
1. Admit Your Hurt and Open Yourself To Help.
That sounds very much like something from a 12-step group, doesn’t it? The 12-step groups have learned something important about people, and that is that we need to open ourselves to help.
When Tanya and I were in London last year, while I was on sabbatical, everywhere we went were shirts, coffee mugs, and other items with what must be the British national motto of Keep Calm and Carry On printed on them. Keep a stiff upper lip, as the British would say. My grandparents were British, so maybe I have some of that in my genes, but it’s not necessarily healthy to keep pushing forward and failing to admit there are times when we need help.
As Americans, perhaps our unofficial motto would be "Keep Calm And Act As If Nothing Is Wrong." Too often, people associate asking for help with weakness. If it is a weakness, then I would say there is no weakness in weakness. It is not a sign of weakness to admit that we hurt, that we struggle, and that we need help. I think that, sometimes, we believe it is necessary to be either stoic, acting as though nothing has happened, or to deny our suffering. We want to be tough and resilient; we want to pick ourselves up and carry on.
Refusing to seek help can cause us to carry unresolved grief, and there are a lot of people who have unresolved grief in their lives. The danger of unresolved grief is that it turns into bitterness and anger, and bitterness and anger poisons the soul.
David, it is widely acknowledged, wrote many of the Psalms, some of which are tough to read. In Psalm 22:1, for instance, David cries out my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It is the verse Jesus quotes while on the cross. In that verse, and in many others, David lays bare his soul and the anguish that is caused by his struggles. David, in his honesty and openness about his struggles, opens himself to healing.
2. Allow Your Suffering to Carry You Into the Suffering of Others.
Suffering can do one of two things to us. Suffering can cause us to turn inward, into ourselves, or it can cause us to turn outward, toward others. There is a time, in the midst of suffering, when we need to look after ourselves, but we cannot stay there. At some point, it is important for us to step into the hurt and the suffering of others. After all, who better to talk with someone who has suffered loss than someone else who has suffered loss? Who better to talk with someone who is facing a medical challenge than someone who has faced a medical challenge? Who better to talk with someone who has lost their job than someone who has also lost a job?
When I am experiencing difficulty I don’t want to talk to someone for whom that difficulty is merely an academic exercise or someone who has only learned of a struggle in a classroom lesson; I want to talk to someone who has experienced the same situation and who has concrete advice – as well as compassion – to help me through my time of difficulty. I want to listen to someone who can speak of how they got through their time of difficulty and how they found deliverance and healing from their time of difficulty.
In Galatians 6:2 Paul writes that we are to bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ. Turn your suffering and pain into ministry. Reach out to others, using your own experiences as a way of helping others in their time of trial.
3. Know That You Are Never Alone.
In I Kings 19 there is the story of Elijah, the prophet, who goes into hiding because Jezebel sent him a message that she was going to kill him. When you get that kind of message from the queen, you’re not having a good day. Elijah flees for his life, and after a day’s journey he sits down to rest under a tree. While under the tree he prays for God to take his life. Do you see the irony? When you are running for your life, but you stop and ask God to take your life? I don’t really understand that logic, but Elijah is not in the best frame of mind because of his fear. His prayer is an expression of his despair.
Elijah traveled further, for forty days and nights, and came to a cave, where he hid. While in the cave he hears from God, who asks him why he is in the cave. Elijah explains to God about how faithful he has remained to God and that he is the only one left who has remained faithful. But God reminds Elijah that he has many others who have remained faithful, and basically tells Elijah to go back to work and to remember that he is not alone.
It’s easy to feel alone; we all do at some point. Entering a new school, moving to a new town, starting a new job, attending a new church. Last week I said that we cannot allow ourselves to fall for the idea that reality is what we think it is; that is, if we feel alone, it’s easy to think that we are alone, but we are not. God is with us and he places people in our lives to remind us we are not alone.
4. God Is Greater Than Our Sufferings.
David wrote a lot of the psalms, and when you read through them it is obvious that he experienced a lot of suffering in his life. In many of those psalms, however, we read that in spite of the suffering David is able to proclaim the power and the greatness of God, a power that allows us to triumph over our suffering.
In the 23rd psalm, arguably the greatest of all the psalms, David writes those immortal words, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil (verse 4). Now, to be honest, I’m not that courageous. I am frightened by many things, and when I am in the valley of the shadow of death I feel very, very unsettled. But in such times I hold to the words of David – even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. Why does he not fear? You know that words; say them with me. For thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Who is with us? God is with us. And when God is with us, we need not fear, because he is greater than our sufferings.
On Thursday, I officiated the funeral for a 10-year-old girl. That’s a heartbreaking, heartbreaking experience for the family. Nothing in life is worse than suffering the loss of a child. As I always do at funerals, I read the 23rd psalm. Though I don’t know for sure, I can imagine David writing the 23rd psalm in response to the loss of his son, Absalom. My hope was that the words of one who had lost a child would help to comfort and encourage another family who had lost a child. The words of the 23rd psalm remind us that even when life is at its most troubled – when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, there is a light that shines and dispels that shadow. It is the light of God’s love, care, and presence, and a reminder that whatever the troubles of the past – or present – God will carry us through, into a new and blessed future!