Originally preached at Trinity Lutheran Church, Ithaca, New York.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
It’s been a while since I last lived in Ithaca, but something I remember from my time attending Cornell University is that many of the roads around and through campus were under constant construction, as were many buildings. You all remember, of course, especially those of you who are faculty members, how interminable the work on Klarman Hall seemed to be, as well as the seemingly perpetual closing-off of East Avenue. I think the only time I ever actually was able to drive my car down East Avenue happened the day I moved into my apartment on Hasbrouck, and I never got to drive down East Avenue again. Nearly three years later, it looks like I still can’t drive all the way down East Avenue due to road work. I guess I will have to wait a while longer yet. And now the architecture school is being renovated!
Waiting. We do a lot of it. Waiting in line. Waiting in traffic. Waiting for phone calls. Waiting for an important email. Waiting in the doctor’s office to be told the same thing your doctor tells you every time you go in for a physical (“You need to lose weight!”). Waiting for the car to be done in the shop. Waiting for that final student’s paper to be submitted so you can get on with grading. Waiting for a table. Waiting for that Amazon Prime package that had two-day shipping, except it’s been three days since you ordered it. Waiting in the rain for the dog to stop sniffing everything and “go.” Waiting is an integral part of our everyday lives. We probably “hurry up and wait” more than we actually “get a move on” most days.
But then there is another kind of waiting. The interminable waiting that is full of pain and fear. Waiting for critical medical or other test results. Waiting for an end to physical pain that seems interminable. Waiting for peace in a war torn land. Waiting for neighbors to be civil to one another again. Waiting for death and a peaceful release. Waiting to be reunited with those who have died and left a hole in your heart the size of a doorway. And this waiting can be heavy, seemingly endless. It can be maddening and saddening. It can leave one feeling spread pretty thin, down, and defeated.
It is this kind of waiting–this long waiting–that the author of Lamentations–likely, according to Jewish and church tradition, the prophet Jeremiah–had to endure. Jeremiah, living in Judah (modern day Israel), had seen the once-mighty Assyrian Empire of northern Iraq, which had in previous decades defeated and carried off the population of the kingdom of Israel to the north and had treated Judah as something of a subject state since at least the 660s BC, begin to crumble under the pressure put on it by the rapidly ascending Babylonian Empire to the south and east. For a few years in Jeremiah’s young manhood, Judah stood independent, but as the seventh century came to a close, Egypt and Babylon vied for control over Judah as a client state. Jeremiah would have seen pro-Egyptian and pro-Babylonian factions in Jerusalem vie for power and influence while the armies of Egypt and Babylon fought in and around Judah. Jerusalem itself became a target when pro-Egyptian agents convinced King Jehoiakim to declare his independence from Babylonian vassalship in 601/600 BC. Babylon responded in force. After three years of razing the countryside, sieges, and fomenting unrest in Jerusalem (even, perhaps, bringing about Jehoiakim’s assassination), the city surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and the new king, Jehoiakim’s brother Jehoiakin, his mother the Queen, the court, and the city’s artisans, were hauled off to Babylon in 597. Another king, Zedekiah, was placed on Jerusalem’s throne, but his rule was not fully accepted by the remaining people of Judah. By the end of his reign in 589, unrest in Jerusalem resulted in another military action against Judah, ending in the sacking and burning of Jerusalem in 587 and the slaughter and enslavement of its citizens. Jeremiah watched this all happen, as he had been held captive by the Babylonians, but he and a group of others escaped and sought asylum in Egypt, where they settled, exiled from a home that no longer existed. Jeremiah had watched his nation vanish like a puff of smoke, and he longed to go back. But he was forced to wait for that day in the future when his people might be able to return. But that was all he could do as a refugee in a foreign land. The first two chapters of Lamentations record the pain of losing his homeland and the desire to return, someday.
We see this waiting, too, in Mark’s account of the woman with the unhealable hemorrhage. Mark tells us that this woman had been suffering from this endless bleeding for twelve years, despite the countless interventions of doctors and surgeons. We often think of the ancient world as being less advanced medically than we are, but surgically, the understanding of physicians working in the 1st Century Mediterranean was quite advanced, perhaps sometimes almost as good as our own thanks to a temporary lifting of the ban on human dissections by Queen Berenike II of Alexandria in the third century BC. (We often think that the medieval church disapproved of dissecting human corpses, but this was not the case–it was the pagans who disapproved of the practice.) The anatomical manuals by the physicians Hierophilus and Erasistratus that resulted from this lifting of ban–now sadly lost to time–were considered so accurate that they stood as the main anatomy texts used by physicians for several hundred years. While the surgical breakthroughs of Galen were still about 90 years away, the surgeons and gynaecologists that this woman might have seen could have been competent enough to deal with many complicated diagnoses and procedures thanks to these manuals. But this bleeding defied their expertise, and regardless of the number of regimens she tried, regardless of the number of times she went under the knife, this woman found no cure and no relief. For twelve years she waited for a cure, spent all her savings, and had all but given up hope for an end to her suffering.
Waiting. Waiting for an end of pain and an end of heartache. And why be subject to this pain? Why were Jeremiah and this woman, though separated by hundreds of years, experiencing the pain of prolonged and seemingly endless suffering? What is the root of this longing, this waiting we all face, whether it be from war or disease or displacement? We laugh because we know what the good Lutheran answer often is to this question, but it’s true. It’s sin. Jeremiah’s long waiting and suffering in exile, and the hemorrhaging woman’s waiting in pain, were the result of sin in the world. When our first parents ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and opened creation to sin and its influence, the world became fundamentally distorted, and all manner of evils befell God’s creatures–war, sickness, famine, and pain in their myriad forms afflicted them. And this sin, now in the world, was passed down through all their descendants so that Jeremiah and the woman felt its effects. And sin, being a fundamental disordering of creation, at its core a rebellion against God and His order, has but one consequence–death. Thus Jeremiah saw Israel and Judah fall to the effects of sin; unrighteous kings and an unrighteous people were subject to God’s righteous judgment administered by a foreign king, though as Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:33, it grieved God to do this, for these were His beloved people. Likewise, the woman with the hemorrhage felt the effects of sin, that sin of Adam which poisons and works in all his children, in her inability to find healing.
Sin continues to afflict us in these ways. It affects us in body and soul, harming our bodies so that we are subject to injuries and cancers and immune system disorders, or so that we are born with limbs that don’t work correctly or with damaged senses–for example, I was born without a working sense of smell. It affects our souls by inclining us toward activities which are contrary to God’s will and tempts us to do things that harm ourselves and other people. If you’ve ever told a little white lie, that’s sin. If you’ve ever said something that put someone else in a bad light, that’s sin. If you’ve ever felt hatred in your heart for another person, that’s sin. If you’ve ever let your gaze linger a little longer than is appropriate on someone who isn’t your spouse, and thought about them in a way that isn’t proper, that too, is sin. We have all done these things, and these are what we think of as “benign” sins that result from Adam’s fall! But they nonetheless have the same consequences for us that those seemingly “worse” sins–murder, theft, philandering, etc.–do. And so we, too, live with seemingly no escape from the effects of sin. We, too, witness the violence and injustice that stalk the world. We, too, will see our bodies fail and will ultimately die. If this is the consequence of the failure of our first parents, what hope is there for us? What point is there in enduring? What are we waiting for? Why not, like Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, tired with waiting for something, resolve to end it all, since there is no end to the suffering of the world in sight?
There is a reason why, in spite of the pain of watching his homeland be wiped from the map and his people slain and scattered, Jeremiah waited and endured. We heard it this morning in Lamentations 3. Jeremiah says:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD. (Lamentations 3:22-26)
“The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.” In spite of the fact that all of mankind deserves, on account of their sinfulness, the severest of punishments, indeed, total destruction, not unlike what befell the kingdoms of Israel and Judah–a punishment, bear in mind, that God does not want for us in His heart–, Jeremiah knew that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,” and that He has promised His salvation to all who trust in Him. There is still hope, even though the sin-filled world hurls its accusations and its attacks upon those who trust in the Lord’s promise. Suffering is not God’s will for those who trust Him; He will have compassion for those who trust in Him, for He loves them (and indeed, all people). For the Lord is faithful to His people, even when they are not always faithful to Him. Therefore, Jeremiah says, in his soul, “The Lord is my portion…therefore I will hope in Him.”
And perhaps this is what was running through the mind of the woman with the hemorrhage as she struggled with the pain and the numerous doctor’s visits and surgeries. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases…the Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him…for the Lord will not cast off forever.” And then she saw Jesus, about whom she had heard, and she believed that He would be able to heal her, if only perhaps, from her merely touching him. When she did, and when He spoke to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” she received a glimpse, a foretaste, of the promised salvation that Jeremiah knew. She saw the healing power of God, His power over sin and death, demonstrated in His Son. She herself knew it personally–the righting of the wrong of sin had begun, and she had been made a recipient of the Lord’s grace. The promise Jeremiah trusted in and hoped for, she had seen realized when Christ began the work of taking back His creation from the hold of Satan and Death. Jairus, his wife, and daughter saw this promise realized, too, when Jesus raised their daughter from the dead. And so have we.
We, too, have seen the realized promise of the Lord’s salvation because Christ died and rose for us, to defeat the power of sin, death, and hell over us. While the world might still accuse us, while we might put our mouths in the dust in sorrow or be struck on our cheeks by a world that wishes to do us harm, sinners that we are, these powers, sin death, and the Devil, have no power over us because Christ has bought us, and we have received the promise of His Salvation. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again! And we know that we have received the benefits of this promise because we have been washed clean of the ancestral stain of our first parents by His blood in the waters of baptism, and we continue to receive Him in His body and blood here at the altar, where we receive afresh His guarantee, where we receive His mercies which never end.
Therefore, when the world bears down on you, when the waiting seems endless and you feel unable to endure the slings and arrows (to borrow a phrase) that the world and the Devil hurl your way, take heart. The Lord has not forgotten you, His steadfast love for you never ceases. It is so deep and boundless that His only Son died for you so that you might be able to be reunited with Him forever. Trust Him! Wait for Him, for His salvation–because you have already received it!
And now, may the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.