John 3:1-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesusby night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Two things before we begin. As we journey through Lent, to the cross and resurrection stories, it is important that we hear scripture that leads us to those events. I will not, however, be preaching on those words we heard this morning. Rather I have chosen scripture from the Hebrew texts from the prophet Samuel. So this is Hannah’s story that we hear this morning. She is grieving over having no children.
Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. (1Samuel 1:8-18)
I chose this text because I am aware that you and I will be parting ways sometime soon and that, like many changes in life, grief is involved. It is good for us to have a good and healthy parting because there is so much to celebrate as you meet Bethany and begin your new chapter with her.
So, this week’s sermon will focus on the different types of losses we face in our lives and the importance of experiencing good grief, and that is the title for today’s sermon which, of course, comes straight out of the Charlie Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip where one of the kids usually says in frustration: “Good grief, Charlie Brown.” The title Good Grief has always appealed to me as I believe there are many good ways to grieve.
This story depicts a person grieving over the loss of something in her life, yet not over the death of a particular person. Hannah is faced with the possibility of never being able to have children. I was also struck with Hannah’s deep grief which is capture so well by the author of this book. Grief is universally known and it has been known in the same way throughout time. Hannah weeps and does not eat and feels the sadness of her heart. This is perhaps something with which we can all identify. I also chose this passage because Hannah is able to talk to Eli, the priest, about her troubles and her grief eventually becomes resolved. If you read the entire story, you will learn that Hannah does go on to conceive Samuel and actually has a total of six children.
Grief is spoken more commonly in the Hebrew culture as sorrow or trouble and is experienced as the opposite of shalom which means more than peace. It means a wholeness and harmony and a ripeness that this word conveys in its actual meaning. This greeting is found on the lips of Jesus when he says “Go in peace.” All peace – true shalom – is of God and the condition of peace is the presence of God.
When we use the word grief what come to our minds most immediately is that someone has experienced the loss of a person they love. This is usually someone who was an important individual in that person’s life. We understand grief in this example as being something normal, something expected.
But, unfortunately, in our society where death itself is still pretty much a taboo subject, we often become panicky when we experience the feelings of grief and loss and may not even realize that what we are experiencing is grief and that these varied emotions including sadness and anger are normal. Death and grieving go hand-in-hand – yet it is difficult for us to comprehend that we need to grieve as well over other losses in our lives – even seemingly minor situations. For example, what about the person who hopes to be chosen for a job and learns that someone else got it? Minor situation perhaps, but not to the person experiencing it. Or what about the middle aged couple who are glad that their youngest is now in college. Yet after the first few weeks a sense of emptiness seems to permeate their lives? Or what about the lifestyle changes of giving up sugar when you discover you’re a diabetic? As you can see, grief can be a part of every aspect of our lives. A positive role of these minor types of grief is that they can help us when we face some of life’s more difficult moments that will come. And they will.
However, in our culture, more difficult moments are still played down. What about the couple who have been married for some time and they come to realize, like Hannah, that they are unable to conceive. They too have to grieve over this loss, because when they married they had expectations that they would raise a family and those expectations went unfulfilled. These examples are the gray areas that are too often brushed aside and not talked about in our lives.
And because of the silence, those experiencing these losses are unable to do good grief. They feel panicky and depressed and sad, but don’t really recognize that they are grieving and these feelings are normal. Grief does play an important role even in minor situations.
The same is true for the couple who have conceived, only to lose a child in miscarriage. Too often in these situations we hear platitudes such as “Oh, it doesn’t matter, you’re young and you can keep trying.” Or “God must have something else in mind for you.” PLEASE! Do not use platitudes to cover your discomfort. Just be present. One of the simple things we don’t realize, however, is that no matter how many children one may have, none of them can replace the loss of that one. There will always be a sorrow. These are events that we don’t forget or get over especially if we feel we’re not allowed to grieve.
In 1970 when my son was two years old, my husband and I decided that we would like to have another child. We were elated when we learned that I was pregnant. However, something was not quite medically right. I experienced a hydidiform mole that causes cells to grow and divide. Even though there is not fetus, pregnancy tests are positive and the body responds as if pregnant. A was a very hard and difficult and sad time. Did I get help from anyone when I experienced this loss? No. And later when I spoke to the doctor about my feeling of depression, he gave me a prescription for valium rather than take a few minutes to talk with me and tell me that what I was experiencing was a normal feeling after such a loss.
Years later – 15 years later – I would find myself crying at diaper commercials on TV. It took me a long, long time to realize that what I was experiencing was called unresolved grief. Fifteen years after that event I finally decided to seek help with a minister because I just felt so burdened but unable to put my finger on the cause. Fifteen years later I finally sought someone out who could help me to do grief work on this loss. It took fifteen years for me to realize that what I had initially experienced was indeed grief over this loss and that this grief was a normal experience of life.
Finally, I resolved this issue by praying over it, talking with someone who could grasp the struggle and turmoil I felt, and perhaps, most helpful of all was that I set aside a time and place for a ritual that would ultimately put the situation to rest for me. Rituals are real gifts and can be as simple as lighting a candles. Rituals are helpful to lift burdens from heart?
Other gray areas of grieving between minor losses and major losses include loss of a body part due to an accident where a person has lost a limb or even the tip of a finger. Or the loss of a body part due to cancer, such as a breast. All illnesses cause grieving because they cause us to curtail our activities and we are unable to function as we have or as we want. Or what about the grief we feel over the loss of the much loved family next door who are moving to another state. Perhaps the loss of a pet is one loss with which we can all identify. And, of course, it’s normal to grieve over the loss of an animal one has loved because they truly become family members.
Another aspect of grief which has gotten very little press is that of anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is when we experience grief before the actual loss, be that a job, or our home or a loved one. Some of that may be what I’m experiencing these days as I think of saying goodbye to you. And these feelings of sadness are normal too. The divorce process is also closely related to the grief process because we are experiencing the loss of a relationship that once was alive and vital to our lives. It is normal to experience grief during these times, even if the divorce is something everyone agrees need to take place, even if the parting is for a good reason.
The role of grieving is not that we forget the loss, or get over it. A friend’s mother recently died and she was feeling the pressure that within three days of this life-altering experience she was expected to “return to normal”. Time plays an important role in grieving as does adjusting to the loss. It is not something we get over, but the acute pain does lessen in time.
Too often in our culture I believe we hear the beginning words of first Thessalonians and not the whole verse. In first Thessalonians 4:13 we hear these words: “Grieve not.” To experience a loss and to “grieve not” is stoicism. Sure, there might be occasional events in our lives where being stoic plays a healthy role, but it has no place in the grief process. Buck up and have a stiff upper lip do not have a place here. The entire sentence of first Thessalonians reads this way: “Grieve not as those who have no hope.” This is the message: “Grieve not as those who have no hope.”
At the tomb of Lazarus, “Jesus wept.” (John 13:35). These words make up the shortest verse in the bible and perhaps words with the most impact. “Jesus wept.” He wanted and needed to express the feelings within. He wept in front of others. Jesus did not keep the emotion in, nor did he hide his feelings.
When we are unable to express our grief and our sadness over a loss we are also unable to fully reinvest in life. When we experience unresolved grief we carry with us a prolonged grief and feel guilty that we feel so angry most of the time, and we, we don’t even know why.
Reinvesting in life means that we have come to reconcile ourselves over the loss – whatever it is – and that we do indeed carry hope in our hearts. Hope, the theme of Christianity. Without hope, life is dark, dismal, and without meaning. Reinvesting in life means trying to have more children, or reaching out to strangers who are our neighbors, or going on another job interview, or starting dating again, or living life to our fullest potential. Emil Brunner talks about hope in this way: “What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of life.” Without hope there is really no fullness of life. Without hope there is no meaning to the moment. Without hope, we just exist.
May God shower God’s shalom upon each and everyone one of us as we walk in hope into that good, good future. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2020