By Paul Koch –
This is a picture that most of us have seen before. It is a photograph of a gravestone statue that has been duplicated countless times and found in cemeteries around the world. This image has been used as a powerful setting in movies and TV shows to highlight the sobering reality of the grave. The angel pictured there is broken in anguish, weeping over the tomb of a child of God. The statue in fact is called The Angel of Grief and the original is found in a cemetery in Rome. The artist who sculpted this powerful image was an American named William Story. He created this masterpiece as a tombstone for the grave of his wife, Emelyn. After his wife’s death, Story withdrew to his studio and crafted this image. He said of his wife, she is “my life, my joy, my stay and help in all things.” When he finished this work he closed his studio doors and never sculpted again. In fact, within the year he was laid to rest beside his departed bride.
I find this image to be incredibly powerful. The idea of an angel of the Most High God, broken in grief, is striking. We might be used to the idea of the angel of God as the strong and unshakable messenger who knows more than we do, who is the vigilant watcher over our chaotic lives. But here, the heavenly messenger joins us in our laments. And why not? For the angel expresses here what we all know. We feel it daily, watch it on TV, hear about it on the radio, experience it in the lives of those we know and love and we see it in the faces of the strangers that move throughout our lives; this is a broken and hurting world.
And we wait for it to end. We long for the tears to be over, we cry out for the Lord to deliver us from it all. Sure, sometimes our lamenting may just be a quiet whimper from the privacy of our own home, but other times it is a passionate cry of desperation that is shouted from the rooftop.
But to wait for the Lord is no simple thing. Waiting is hard. If you doubt that, I would like to invite you over to my home to observe my children when they’ve been promised desert but have to wait until after the dishes are done and the table is cleared. In fact, if they have to wait until after Cindy and I have a cup of coffee, you would think that we exercising some sort of draconian torture methods on them. When something has been promised, waiting for it to come to fruition is not an easy thing to do. In fact while we are waiting, if we are forced to wait for too long, we begin to have doubts if it will ever come true. Add to this the troubling reality that our culture expects things instantly, delayed gratification is shunned, and the virtue of having to wait is never emphasized. Remember the old Heinz 57 commercials? The tag line was “Good things come to those who wait” and they would set up the old glass bottles to slowly drip. They are a 20 year old memory; today we have plastic bottles that are designed to sit upside down so our ketchup is squeezed out instantly, without having to wait. We don’t wait for ketchup, we won’t wait for much of anything, and we are weary of waiting for the Lord.
When I first became a pastor I didn’t have a cellphone. In fact, the first cell phone I had was one that my congregation purchased for me. They thought that it would probably be a good idea for them to be able to get a hold of me in an emergency. I slowly got used to carrying it with me, but I never took it when I was out on my motorcycle. One evening I was heading out to meet some friends, and for some reason I thought it might be a good idea to take it along. Shortly after putting the kickstand down and ordering a beer, it rang. A member of our congregation had suffered a severe stroke. I hopped on my bike and sped home, changed into more suitable clothing, popped in a piece of gum, and headed off to the hospital. I walked into the ER and his wife broke down crying as I held her. There was no coming back from this; her husband was going to die. Far worse was when I looked into the eyes of their 16 year old daughter; what was I supposed to say to her? What could I say? Where was the Lord in such grief?
Or I could think of the young sister in Christ who walked silently into my office one day with tears welling up in her eyes. I got up from my desk and closed the door separating my office from my secretary’s so she could feel safe and comfortable to say what she needed to. I had sat with her a week earlier after she left the hospital following a miscarriage. We were in a Navy town and her husband, like so many other husbands, was off at sea. When he had left they were rejoicing in the hope of a child to come. They were excited and joyful. But that joy turned to bitter sorrow for her, and she didn’t have her husband by her side. Oh, she knew people at church were trying to be supportive, to do and say the right things to bring her comfort at such a time. But as the tears began to run down her cheeks that day, she looked me in the eyes and demanded to know why she was the only one who knew that someone had died. Where were those mourning alongside her? Where was the common grief to be shared? Why did she have to do this alone?
Our world is broken; we know it only too well. I could pile on more and more stories and you could drown them out with stories of your own: stories of the ramifications of sin in our world, of suffering and disappointment, of pain and hardship. There are far too many times in our lives where the waiting seems impossible.
God’s ancient people suffered as we do from the results of sin. Their disobedience and rebellion brings not only financial hardship and physical distress but foreign armies fall upon them and destroy their city and temple. Like us, they had a promise of God, a promise of deliverance, a promise that He would not forsake them in their grief. Like us, the waiting seemed impossible. The language of the old laments teaches us about crying out in our anger and fear, about calling for God to hold true to His promises to do what He said. A lament is the proper language for a people who dwell upon a broken world.
And so we hear today, “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.’” (Lamentations 3:22-23) The steadfast love of our God, His mercies and grace, are sure. They are not bound by time or space. Embraced in His mercy is an end to the brokenness, a healing to our wounds, and an eternal glory to this passing shadow.
The death of our fathers will not endure, the loss of our unborn children will not last, the hurt of our lives, the grief of our souls, and the darkness of our doubts will not remain forever. “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though He caused 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 3:31-33)
Our God speaks to you this day His forgiveness. He declares you to be His own dear children. You are those He has died for, those He has cleansed, those He embraces as His own. And in His forgiveness, in the gifts given to you, the promises of God echo yet again. You will live beyond the grave. You will endure through the valley of the shadow of death. You will reign victoriously in Christ alone. So our laments will not go on for eternity. Our waiting will come to an end. The angels will not always grieve.