Big Idea: Longing and lament points us to our need for God to come.
I want to talk about something that I don’t think I’ve ever talked about before in a sermon. I want to talk about the hiddenness of God.
I don’t know if you’e thought about this either. Sometimes God seems distant and hidden, often when we need him the most.
For instance, consider Dr. Helen Roseveare, a famous English missionary to the Congo. As a young woman, Roseveare told God, “I’ll go anywhere God wants me to, whatever the cost.”
And she did. In 1953, she arrived in what we now call Zaire. She founded a training school for nurses, training women to serve as nurse-evangelists, who in turn would run clinics and dispensaries in different regions. She served faithfully for years.
But civil war broke out in 1964. She was placed under house arrest. And one horrible evening, she was beaten, and later, she was sexually assaulted.
She later recounted:
On that dreadful night, beaten and bruised, terrified and tormented, unutterably alone, I had felt at last God had failed me. Surely He could have stepped in earlier, surely things need not have gone that far. I had reached what seemed to be the ultimate depth of despairing nothingness.
Have you ever felt like that? Perhaps your circumstances have been different, but have you ever struggled with feeling forsaken or abandoned by God?
Where is God when we are going through a crisis, and he doesn’t intervene?
I’m asking this because today is the first Sunday of Advent. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up celebrating Advent, so a lot of this is new to me. But I’m grateful for Advent, because it teaches us to long. As Aaron Damiani writes:
Don’t you long for justice, for the world to be made right? Deep down, many of us long for this more than cozy experiences or cool gifts. Advent teases this out by focusing on the second coming of Christ, the final judgment. One of my fellow pastors likes to say, “We’re not pretending to wait for baby Jesus during Advent.” Baby Jesus already came the first time in great humility. He has promised to return in great glory as a King and Judge.
As he writes elsewhere, “Advent is a season of waiting expectantly for the coming of Jesus Christ, which will usher in his eternal reign of justice and peace.”
The place to begin, then, is with our longing for God to make himself known when he seems so hidden from us.
Longing and Lament
Today’s passage is going to help us. We’re in an Old Testament book called Isaiah. Isaiah has already written about God rescuing the nation of Israel from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 40-48). He’s already prophesied about a servant coming who fulfills God’s mission and rescues God’s people from their sin (Isaiah 49-55). But even though they’re back from exile and vindicated by the servant, they’re still feeling the absence of God. They’re longing for more.
Isaiah expresses two longings, and two laments. Let’s see if we can relate to them.
Here are the two longings that Isaiah expresses on behalf of the people. They are the same desires that I’m sure many of us have faced as well.
First, we long for God’s heart to be expressed to us. Read Isaiah 63:15:
Look down from heaven and see,
from your holy and beautiful habitation.
Where are your zeal and your might?
The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion
are held back from me.
Feel what he’s writing here. Read the Hebrew Scriptures and you see that God had been known for his love for his people. But now it seemed that God was holding back. God used to full of zeal for his people, Isaiah says. He was passionate in keeping his promises, and he had the power to do so. He was full of tenderness and compassion. But now it seemed that God was holding back. God seemed distant. Had God changed his feelings about his people?
Isaiah longed for God to express his love to his people, but they just weren’t feeling it. They needed a fresh sense of the love of God for his people. They wanted to sense God’s zealous, powerful compassion for his people again.
We also long for God to act on our behalf. Read Isaiah 64:1-3:
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome things that we did not look for,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
Isaiah not only wanted God’s heart to be expressed, he wanted God to act on their behalf. Isaiah looks at the past and realizes that God’s presence would have made all the difference. God would just have to show his power and everything would have changed. God had done this in the past, but now they felt the absence of his power. In desperate times, they needed the intervention of God to help them in their desperate need.
In 1735, God visited New England. Jonathan Edwards recorded what he witnessed:
The town seemed to be full of the presence of God. It never was so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought unto them; parents rejoicing over their children as newborn, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands … Our public assemblies were then beautiful … The assembly in general was, from time to time, in tears while the Word was preached, some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbors.
Some of us know what it’s like to live in an unusual season of spiritual renewal. But then we also know what it’s like to live with a sense of deadness, a sense that God isn’t as present as we’d like him to be. We long for more.
I want you to notice these longings. They’re in the Bible. We’re allowed to long for a sense of God’s love. We’re allowed to long for God to act on our behalf. We don’t always have the answer for why he doesn’t, but Isaiah gives us permission to come to God and say, “We’re longing for more. We want more of your love and more of your power to show up in our lives!”
And then Isaiah also has two laments. Here are the two laments that Isaiah teaches us to express.
First, lament that our hearts are cold. Read Isaiah 63:17 and 19:
O LORD, why do you make us wander from your ways
and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage…
We have become like those over whom you have never ruled,
like those who are not called by your name.
It almost seems that Isaiah is blaming God for their disobedience. Maybe he sees God’s discipline as being part of the reason why they feel this distance from God. Maybe he just realizes that they need God’s intervention to return to where they should be.
Then there’s one more lament:
Second, lament that we’re stuck in the same old sins. Read Isaiah 64 from the second part of verse 5 to verse 7:
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.
Do you ever feel discouraged by your sins? Do you ever feel stuck, like things aren’t getting better? Isaiah understands. We’re spiritually lethargic. We’re quick to fall into sins. Isaiah puts words to this frustration by expressing this lament to God.
So that’s this passage: longing and lament. What do you do with this? What does this mean for our lives?
I think there are three lessons for us in this passage today.
First: this is where we live right now.
In other words, there is nothing wrong with you if you feel a sense of longing and lament in your life.
Let me quote a man named Thaddeus Williams, who is writing a book on the hiddenness of God:
Over the years I have spoken with thousands of Christians who harbor a totally unnecessary amount of shame, doubt, and self-worry over one particular issue. They don’t feel God anymore. God seems distant and unthrilling. The honeymoon has ended. They no longer feel the life-giving embrace of God’s felt presence and worry that they’ve done Christianity wrong and God has hit the road. Many would gladly give up a limb if only to feel God’s love again. Many overanalyze themselves silly trying to pinpoint where things went wrong, how the magic was lost. If only I read more, pray harder, do more, then I can conjure up my old spiritual euphoria. But nothing works. What am I, some kind of spiritual freak?
To make matters worse, they may attend a church service with happy-clappy major-chord worship anthems, surrounded by fellow believers who all seem so joyously swept up in divine romance. Everyone seems to be blissfully basking in the warmth of his goodness, while troubled believers shiver in the cold. They now not only feel disconnected from God but disconnected from brothers and sisters who are apparently far more connected to God. Christianity seems to work for everyone but me. It can be dreadfully lonesome. I know from experience.
Here is where the spiritual and social expectations of today’s church can generate a idyllic, spit-shined version of what it means to know God that, frankly, does not match what we see in the muddiness and complexity of scripture. Perhaps those whom churchy culture makes to feel most freakish are actually those who would be most at home sipping beverages with the often brooding authors of scripture. Isaiah 45:15 says, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” That is a Holy Spirit-inspired author of scripture speaking.
So that’s a first point to stop and absorb into your bones. If you feel like God is hiding from you and that you no longer feel the buzz of his presence then that has been a normal experience of people seeking to know God from time immemorial. You are hardly alone. There is nothing freakish about feeling like you are forsaken or abandoned by God. There has been what I believe to be a helpful trend in culture over the last several years, the effort to take the stigma out of mental illness. We must advance a Christian version of this phenomenon…
Sometimes life feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, just more dark tunnel. [The Bible] grants us permission to acknowledge that feeling.
All that to say, it does no good pretending to yourself or others that you are a spiritual superstar who exists in a perpetual state of spiritual bliss. Even Jesus said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
This is where we live right now, and it’s okay to feel longing in your life. There’s nothing wrong with you if you do.
Second, learn to lament.
A book called Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy says:
Lament is how we bring our sorrow to God. Without lament we won’t know how to process pain. Silence, bitterness, and even anger can dominate our spiritual lives instead. Without lament we won’t know how to help people walking through sorrow. Instead, we’ll offer trite solutions, unhelpful comments, or impatient responses. What’s more, without this sacred song of sorrow, we’ll miss the lessons historic laments are intended to teach us.
Lament is how Christians grieve. It is how to help hurting people. Lament is how we learn important truths about God and our world. My personal and pastoral experience has convinced me that biblical lament is not only a gift but also a neglected dimension of the Christian life for many twenty-first-century Christians.
You can express your grief to God. He invites you to do so. He even gives you words you can use to express your pain. Nearly half of the psalms are psalms of lament for the very reason that we need to learn to lament.
But there’s one more thing.
There’s an answer to our longing and lament.
Read the first part of Isaiah 64:1 again: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down…”
We need a visitation from God. That’s exactly what Jesus did for us at Christmas. Jesus answered our longings and came down. We needed God with us. We needed God to come and heal diseases, drive out demons, to touch sinners, and to die for our sins.
But we long for more. We long for Jesus to come back again and set this world right. We long for the day that he will no longer be hidden, his love will be fully expressed, and the day of our lament will be over.
Are you longing and lamenting today? If you are, that’s completely normal. Long for Jesus to come again. Longing and lament points us to our need for God to come, and that is exactly what he will do.