Holy Week Sorrow and Celebration

April 19, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Right now in my personal devotions, I am reading through the book of Lamentations, a sorrowful song written by the prophet Jeremiah, which describes Israel’s defeat and exile at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC.  Some of the language Jeremiah uses to describe Israel’s demise is grotesque and gut wrenching:

  • The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst. (Lamentations 4:4)
  • Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become dry as wood. (Lamentations 4:8)
  • The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people. (Lamentations 4:10)

Clearly, this is a tragic, despairing time.  Indeed, even for a professional prophet such as Jeremiah, who has seen much sin and tragedy, the despair of the exile seems overwhelming.  And Jeremiah places the blame for this despair squarely at the feet of God.

In chapter 3, Jeremiah laments his plight:

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; He has broken my bones; He has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; He has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; He has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, He shuts out my prayer; He has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; He has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; He turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; He has made me desolate; He bent His bow and set me as a target for His arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; He has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes. (Lamentations 3:1-16)

Notice the pronoun Jeremiah employs again and again to describe who is responsible for his misery: “He.”  “He” has brought Jeremiah misery, trouble, pain, and despair.  It’s “His” fault that Jeremiah’s plight is what it is.  Who is this “He”?  None other than God, of course.  God has afflicted Jeremiah in the most miserable of ways.

And yet, even in his misery, Jeremiah has not lost all hope: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23).  Jeremiah believes that finally, ultimately, God’s steadfast love will prevail.  Indeed, it’s interesting the way Jeremiah describes this steadfast love just verses later:  “Though He cause grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love; for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:32-33).  Though God does afflict and grieve people because of their sin, Jeremiah says, He does not willingly do so.  God’s will is not to pour out His hot wrath, but His steadfast love.  The Hebrew word for “willingly” is milibo, a word meaning, “from His heart.”  Thus, Jeremiah is saying that from God’s heart does not come affliction.  Rather, from God’s heart comes His steadfast love.  God’s will is wrapped in love.

Luther describes God’s wrath at sin and God’s will of love by making a distinction between the “alien” and the “proper” work of God:

We must know what is meant by the work of God. It is nothing else but to create righteousness, peace, mercy, truth, patience, kindness, joy, and health, inasmuch as the righteous, truthful, peaceful, kind, joyful, healthy, patient, merciful cannot do otherwise than act according to His nature. Therefore God creates righteous, peaceful, patient, merciful, truthful, kind, joyful, wise, healthy men…But He cannot come to this His proper work unless He undertakes a work that is alien and contrary to Himself…Therefore, since He can make just only those who are not just, He is compelled to perform an alien work in order to make them sinners, before He performs His proper work of justification. Thus He says, “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal.” (AE 51:18-19)

God must judge us before He can justify us, Luther says.  His alien and His proper work go hand in hand.  Thus, both God’s alien work of judgment and God’s proper work of love are needed in Jeremiah’s life.  And both God’s alien work of judgment and God’s proper work of love are needed in our lives too.  But lest we forget, through faith in Christ, God’s proper work prevails!

The alien and the proper work of God meet most clearly in the death and resurrection of Christ, which we remember during this Holy Week.  Luther explains:

God’s alien work is the suffering of Christ and sufferings in Christ, the crucifixion of the old man and the mortification of Adam. God’s proper work, however, is the resurrection of Christ, justification in the Spirit, and the vivification of the new man, as Romans 4:25 says: “Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification.” (AE 51:19)

God judges His Son on the cross, killing Him for the sins of the world.  This was not something He delighted in doing – it was alien to Him – but it was necessary.  For Christ’s crucifixion satisfied God’s righteous wrath at sinners…sinners like you and me (cf. Romans 3:25-26).  And with God’s wrath satisfied through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, God could now move to His proper work:  Giving to His children His steadfast love which never ceases.

This Holy Week, spend some time meditating on both the alien and the proper work of God.  For both are needed.  But finally, one prevails!  For God’s work does not end in an alien way.  Rather, it ends in its proper way.  It ends in our salvation through faith in Christ.  Praise be to God!

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