Toorak Uniting Church

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Darkness all around

Haggai 1:15b – 2:9
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
7 November 2004

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Life isn’t always easy, and at times it can even be very difficult. The world isn’t always a good place for everybody to live in and it can, at times be a downright horrible place to be in.

For all of us there are times, where life is dark and difficult. Where we have trouble to keep smiling, stay positive and of good heart, because sadness, grief or worry overwhelms us.
I don’t think there is anybody that gets through life without that happening at some time.
Well, not anybody I know anyway.

It wasn’t something that didn’t happen in Biblical times either. The psalms are full of prayers from the depth, from people who have completely lost confidence, trust, joy and purpose in life. From people expressing grief, anger and helpless frustration towards God about the state their life is in and the future perspectives they feel they (don’t) have.

We find in the psalms pillows drenched in tears, beds soaked in agony, bones dissolving with grief, bodies falling apart through unbearable suffering, hosts of evil ready to devour, people tossing and turning in bed at night, trapped in the depths of darkness, lost in the bowels of the earth.

If you’re feeling kind of sad and you are looking for imagery to express that sadness the psalms are definitely the place to go. Often you’ll find things there that will probably be much worse than what you were looking for.

There is no such thing as a stiff upper lip when the Bible talks about suffering and grief. There is no brave face to put on. There is no "oh, not too bad, thank you" to the question how we are today. There is the heartbreaking, soul rendering call to God from the depths, the spilling out before him of all the un-happiness, un-godliness, un-holiness of life in no uncertain terms.

God I feel rotten and I really don’t know what to do. I feel lost and lonely and insecure, I feel uncertain about the future, I am scared of the present, and you’re not much help at the moment either.

That however is never where it stops, it is always followed by the discovery and comfort of Gods presence and enduring support. That I started my sermon with it today, even though this cry from the depths is no part of our readings today as such however, is because I think that lament, the expression of grief, suffering, pain, guilt, anger and despair has a very important and legitimate place in what the Biblical heritage has to offer us. A place that precedes the promise, comfort and support we encounter in the prophecy of Haggai as well as in the poetry of Psalm 23. Lament, the crying out from the depth, the acknowledgement that life is sometimes really very very hard to cope with, and the surrender to that utter despair and hopelessness before God comes before any comfort or support can even start to take place.

"Not too bad thank you" may sound brave, but it may well prevent any loving care and comfort coming your way, or insight and understanding in the causes of your troubles to materialise. Before God, it could mean blocking the way to salvation completely because it does not acknowledge that help is needed and thus prevents us from really and honestly opening ourselves up to receive from God what is needed.
That goes for us as individuals as well as for us as a group.

Before exile, long before the prophet Haggai appears on the scene, the people of Israel were a bit like that. Ignoring what was wrong. They lived in a society with serious flaws, there was a lot of injustice, corruption, suffering, and strife. There was poverty, lack of care, neglect of the weak, abuse by the rich. But when asked, most people would have said that things weren’t too bad really, that things could have been a lot worse.

Except for a handful of annoying prophets who would not buy into the "oh things aren’t going too bad" routine and continued to bring out what was wrong, what was lacking, pointing out where people were suffering, where injustice was happening, people tended to ignore the facts. The beggars were put out of the city at night, the poor were housed in areas well away from the heartlands of power and wealth and most people felt that that was a very good solution to a lot of problems.

We’ve read some of Jeremiah’s laments in the past few weeks, wailing and raging against the injustice, against the suffering, against all the wrongdoing against God’s people by God’s people. Announcing that God would answer those who were calling out of the depths, out of deep suffering and not tolerate a system that favoured the rich and neglected the poor and the weak. that God would harshly awaken those who were ignoring the call to change them.

By the time Haggai is prophesying this has all happened and at least two generations back. Nobody has seen the glory days of Israel. They’re a small group who have just returned to the motherland and things aren’t looking good. The harvest are poor and the rebuilding program isn’t taking of in any significant way either.

And in the midst of all that comes suddenly the voice of the prophet: "Take courage, I am with you, In a little while I will shake the heavens and the earth and I will fill this house with splendour."

There will be an end to your suffering. There will be an end to God’s turning away, to feeling left and rejected. God does not forget his promise.

I can assure you that this would have been difficult to believe at that stage. It’s the voice of hope in a world that was completely devoid of it. Speaking a trust for which, at that stage, was no base, no realistic sign showing anywhere.

And yet.

"In a little while I will shake the heavens and the earth, says the Lord. "

A voice some of us may have heard when life was at his darkest. A glimmer of light, a small spark of hope suddenly lightening up the darkness. "I am with you, do not fear. "

God listens, God cares, God does not leave what is lost, but comes to find it.

There is a terrible summons in that for those who ignore the cry of the suffering, who choose to bury their head in the sand where pain is inflicted and injustice done. God will come and hear the prayers of those who are downtrodden. The poor, the weak, the victims of abuse and wrongdoing. As a community I think that is something we ought to take to heart. Where we ignore God’s call to justice, peace and loving care for all God’s people we do so at our peril. Even where those people are kept well out of our sight and can, at least for the moment, be easily pushed out of our minds.

For those of us who feel they are in the pits, going through hell, suffering distress however it is a promise: I am with you, do not fear, even when you walk through the valley of death, do not fear evil, I am there.

In the psalms it is often a surprise, a sudden and unexpected reversal that takes place.

In the depths, in the darkness of despair, suddenly and miraculously there is God. Although the situation has not changed, the outlook as bleak as it was before hope is found. Gods presence is found, solid and unwavering, holding life together against all that wants to destruct it with loving care and unconquerable power.

To that miracle of Gods saving grace do the psalms answer with statements of faith such as Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pastures. Haggai in his prophecy does the same thing. We repeat that movement from the pit to the affirmation of hope faith and trust when we read the prophecy and apply it to ourselves, or when we use the psalm, as we so often do, at funerals or when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances. Assuring ourselves, assuring each other that what not yet is will come about, that God will keep his promises, that God fill our lives with goodness and mercy even where we, for the moment, may have difficulty seeing that. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004

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