Rev. Christopher Raffa
The season of Lent is an oddity today. We don't know what to do with it. The American religious scene has essentially blocked it out--unable to incorporate it into its theology that is devoid of suffering and self-examination. Perhaps there are some who still recognize its key importance in the Christian life, yet even they are hard-pressed to admit it. The lamenting tongue is stuck to the roof of the self-righteous mouth. Maybe as we bury our alleluias, fold up our tents on the mount of transfiguration and head into the valley of Lent we can turn our eyes to the kingdom which is coming precisely in a glory we cringe to behold and a salvation that salivates from the seven-word Savior.
Our tongue and its world of unrighteousness is loosened by the Psalms of lamentation. Psalm 6, the first of seven penitential psalms, is profoundly terrifying yet profoundly comforting. It teaches us that in all trials and afflictions we must hurry to God. "O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath." We plead not for the abstaining of the Lord's discipline, but rather that it not be carried out with any sort of mercy. We know the Law must be spoken, yet we couldn't bear for that to be the last word. So, "be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled." The weight of the Law is a spiritual malady with physical repercussions. Everything about us--all that we have and are given--passes away before God because of our sin. Nothing is left. Naked and alone we stand, begging to be dressed by the gracious sacramental gift-words of our Lord. "Blessed are they who experience this in life, for every man must finally meet his end. When man thus declines and becomes as nothing in all his power, works, and being, until there is nothing but a lost, condemned and forsaken sinner, then divine help and strength appear, as in Job 11:11-17: "When you think you are devoured, then you shall shine forth as the morning star." [Luther, LW 14:141].
The Lord is kindly disposed toward those who claim nothingness, who cry and lament unto Him. The Canaanite woman who laments unto Jesus is instructive. The Lord hears the sighs of His broken creatures, but when it comes to the babblings of supposed self-made men, He plugs His ears. Weeping, that is, confession of sin, a repentant heart is always preferred to working, and suffering exceeds all doing. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession we read, "But God terrifies...in order to make room for consolation and vivification, because hearts that do not feel that wrath of God loath consolation in their smugness" [XII: Repentance]. Trials are the Lord's alien work, not intrinsic to His nature, but are intended to break down our self-righteousness flesh and bring us to our knees that we might finally turn to the Lord and hear the mercy He desperately wants to give to us. For this reason, Luther, regards the Lord's chastisement as "blessed comfort." Strangely, hidden under the Lord's wrath is His mercy; hidden under His chastisements is His goodness. The horror of human sin and the terror of the Lord's wrath are real and they must never be blunted or denied.
On the basis of His steadfast love, the Lord has heard our plea for mercy. "For the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer." Nothing is worse than having our Father turn His face from us, washing His hands of us. Yet nothing is greater than having our Father turn His face toward us, and engraving our sin-filled hands upon His pierced hands, washing us clean of all iniquity. With the Lord, His face doting upon us, His ears attentive to our pleas, lament turns to praise. Indeed, the praise of the Lord doesn't come naturally from the lips of the Old Adam. Rather it comes from the Lord who, by His promise-filled Word, creates a new and right Spirit within us--a New Adam to praise and give thanks for the unexpected joy that life has just begun--this in the day that we thought we would be ended by our sin and death. This movement from lament to praise is an act of the Lord's creation, which like the first creation occurs ex nihilo, out of nothing, through the spoken word. To be moved from pain to joy, lamentation to praise, is to see and hear the true nature of your Lord, that He is gracious and merciful, and His steadfast love endures forever. Bowed down in the dust, the Father's face shines upon you in His Son and by His Holy Spirit, raising you up to eternal and glorious life.
Rev. Christopher Raffa is the associate pastor of Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church in West Bend, Wisconsin. You can email him at email@example.com.
Created: February 24th, 2016