Balm for Bitterness

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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 7:1-6

Sermon prepared by: Rev. Anthonie Vanden Ende, Strathroy, Ont Liturgy

Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ:

I remember once, as a child walking past a cemetery with my dad, and seeing the words "memento mori." I asked what they meant, and my dad said, "Remember to die" or, "One day we must all die." The expression did not register at the time, but as I grew older it certainly began to sink in.

There were times, during the Depression, when my parents, faithful and loving as they were, sometimes had words and misunderstandings. As an eight-year-old, I did not know what mourning was, but at school, I cried often about the sadness of the situation and the loss of harmony. When the teacher asked, "What is the matter?" I could not say.

But on Sundays in church I learned early to listen to and sing the Psalms of comfort: "I love the Lord, for he has heard my voice" (Ps. 116). "O my soul why are you grieving, why disquieted in me? Put your hope in God, believing he will still your refuge be"(Ps. 42). I heard my parents sing with hope and trust in the Lord’s salvation, and I know now that they experienced God’s balm throughout the years as a curative for the bitterness in their lives.

Growing up as a teenager, I had to live through the bitter experience of occupation by the Nazi forces of Hitler. I learned to mourn the loss of freedom and lack of daily bread. As many, old and young, and especially the Jews, were deported to perish in the concentration camps, I found it extremely hard to believe that God could have anything good in mind when our circumstances were so bitter. I could only experience that goodness in retrospect, after we had come through the trials and difficulties.

Of course, the knowledge that God provides a balm for our bitter experiences and losses is a vision of faith and trust given by the Holy Spirit. In Ecclesiastes, that seemingly pessimistic (but in fact rather realistic) book, much of God’s wisdom is given. No doubt, we can agree with many of its words of wisdom: * Better to eat vegetable soup with one you love than T-bone steak with someone you hate,

  • Better to live in a corner of the attic than with a crabby woman, or an ill- tempered man in a lovely home,
  • Better an honest rebuke than hidden love,
  • Better to have wisdom than weapons of war, etc.

But then we read in Ecclesiastes 7: "Better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, or, It is better to go to a funeral than to a festival." How can we agree with that? Isn’t the loss of good health, the loss of a loving partner, the demise of a loving marriage, the loss of security, a most bitter experience? But remember: death is the destiny of everyone. Don’t live as though there were no end to life; only fools live that way! We, the living, need to take this to heart. 

The preacher of experience and wisdom is trying to cover the whole of life, and so he says that, in general, "sorrow is better than laughter." I think he means we must keep in mind that we live in a broken world. When he mentions "a sad face being good for the heart" he may mean that bitter grief can help us to become better children of God, trusting that, as Jeremiah says in the midst of utter grief, "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). Entering the house of mourning every day are people who have to go to the hospital, people who move from their homes to nursing homes, people whose marriages break up, people who enter prison or death row. . . . And we cannot help being reminded of the house of mourning when we read the newspapers and watch television: we have to come to terms with threats of war, suicide bombings, famine, epidemics, and natural disasters. Yet we are challenged to believe that this world in which we live, for all its bitterness, is our Father’s world.

The Bible gives strong illustrations of that fact. Joseph, as we read in Genesis, was led into the house of mourning when he was hated by his brothers, terribly mistreated, and sold as a slave to Egypt. There he got in deeper when, as Potiphar’s servant, he was falsely accused of sexual assault. He was imprisoned for many years. His life changed dramatically when he became governor of Egypt, and all bitterness seemed forgotten, until his brothers, driven by famine, showed up. He was able to identify with their need and their anxiety about losing their brother Benjamin, and eventually, though with tears, he was able to reconcile with them. "You intended to harm me," he said, "but God intended it for good, to save many lives!" He experienced the balm of God’s love and care had; it healed his bitterness. Another illustration that this is our Father’s world comes from the book of Ruth. Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, driven by hunger, went to live in the land of Moab. All went quite well for about ten years, and the two sons were married. But then Elimelech died, and shortly thereafter also his two sons. The three women, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, entered the house of mourning. How bitter was their lot! When Naomi eventually returned to Bethlehem with Ruth her daughter-in-law, the people asked "Is that Naomi?" She said, "Don’t call me Naomi – lovely – call me Mara – bitter – because the Almighty has afflicted me and made my life bitter!" However, we read on to learn of the healing balm of God’s providence and mercy. It turns out that Ruth married Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer; their son, Obed, became one of the ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And so, congregation, we are encouraged throughout the Bible to hang on in faith, even in the deepest darkness of our experience, since God in his love and mercy is in control. Indeed, he makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him.

Joni Eareckson-Tada learned to believe this truth too, and was able to move out of her house of mourning. You remember that as a healthy, beautiful young woman she was paralyzed for life when she dove into a swimming pool and broke her neck. By and by, with the help of faithful friends, she became a tremendous witness to God’s grace and healing, even though she remained in a wheelchair. Today she still witnesses that God can and will cure our bitterness through the work of Jesus, our faithful friend and life-giver.

Dear people of God, you and I can overcome our personal bitter experiences, too, by remembering how Jesus wept about human loss and suffering, and yet trusted in God’s way of healing the world. He is truly our Redeemer, calling himself the Resurrection and the Life.

Yet when he calls us to take up our cross to follow him, our response is often to say, "O, not me! That cross is too bitter to bear." Peter did this when Jesus told him about the path of suffering and death on the cross that God had appointed for him. Peter said, in effect, "Lord, we are well on our way to the house of feasting and victory. This must never happen to you!" Jesus’ response was clear: "Get behind me Satan. You don’t see it yet, but this is God’s better way – follow me, Peter!" Jesus spoke to Paul in the same vein: "Follow me, Paul. Oh yes, that thorn in the flesh. Yes, that is bitter, I know. But my grace is sufficient for you." James Stewart once testified: "the Christian reaction to suffering and sorrow is not an attitude of self-pity, fatalism, or resentment; it is the Spirit which takes life’s difficulties as a God-given opportunity, and regards its troubles as a sacred trust, and wears the thorns as a crown. . . ."

Still, we don’t mind when the Good Shepherd leads us into green pastures and beside still waters, but when he finds it better to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death, we cry, "Oh, no" and we cringe. But has God not shown that especially in troubled times his mercy and goodness follow us; that he restores our souls, and leads us in paths of righteousness?

Isn’t it also true that even though we are daily faced with misery, we are still allowed to go to the house of feasting in many ways? Indeed, God gives and approves of celebration. The preacher of Ecclesiastes says, "A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work for this is a gift from the hand of God; for who can eat or drink apart from him (Eccl. 2:24)? Our Lord Jesus, too, took the time to eat and drink with sinners, and the writer of Psalm 30 protests against the house of mourning: "To you O Lord I make my supplication. Lord, what profit is there in my death? If I go down to the Pit, will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? O Lord, be my helper." By the end of the Psalm, the writer acknowledges, "You changed my mourning into dancing."

And so we go on, another step another day, and no matter how enjoyable and good life can be, there is always the uncertainty factor: what will be next? Well, in God’s light, what will be next is always life under God’s protection, for underneath us are the everlasting Arms!

Yes, a house may burn, a marriage may fail, a beloved child may die, a church family may split up over an issue – all bitter things – but we must remember that God our Father in Jesus is in control. He watches over his church, and over you and me all the time – forever! The lives of God’s children may sometimes be bitter and unfulfilled, but as Hebrews 11 tells us, God has something better in mind!

Still we keep saying, "NO," but God keeps saying, "YES. I uphold you, I help you, I sustain you. The waters will not overwhelm you, the fires will not consume you, because I, your good shepherd, am with you." And Jesus says, "I know all about bitterness; I am acquainted with grief and mourning. Come to me! When I was in Gethsemane I, too, said ‘O, NO.’ But I also said, ‘Not my will, but yours be done.’ When I told my disciples that I was going away, they protested and mourned, but I said, ‘It is better this way, because I will send you the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Helper, who will remain with you forever.’ " What is so encouraging for us is that our Lord leads us through the house of mourning because he himself went through death and conquered it. Therefore, we may live in hope. So, in all that you and I still have to go through, let us fix our eyes of faith on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith who, for the joy that lay ahead, endured the bitter cross, and now sits at God’s right hand for our good.

Hence all fear and sadness, for the Lord of gladness, Jesus, enters in. Those who love the Father, though the storms may gather, still have peace within.

Therefore, since our Lord Jesus lives and is the same yesterday, today, and forever: Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor, your tears, your pain and trials and bitter experiences are not in vain in the Lord.

 

Suggested order of worship:

Opening Scripture: Psalm 118:1, 8, 9
Silent personal prayer followed by #63 vs 1, 2, 3
God’s greeting: Grace, mercy and peace be multiplied unto you from God, the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
Singing of Psalm 116
God’s will for our lives: page 1016 of hymnal
Proclamation of God’s pardon: Isaiah 1:18
Song of gratitude: #194 vs 1, 3
Congregational prayers
Offerings
Scripture readings: Eccl. 7:1-6
Matt. 18: 7-9
Heb. 11: 35-40
I Peter 3:17
Text: Eccl.7: 2, 3
Sermon: Balm for Bitterness
Applicatory Hymn: #451
Prayer of thanksgiving
Closing Hymn: #572

Benediction: May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him. Through Jesus Christ, to him be glory forever and ever. AMEN

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