The Lord Is Near to the Brokenhearted

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Sun, 11/12/2017 - 8:00pm

Psalm 34:18, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, November 12, 2017 

            Many pastors felt the need to say something in response to the shootings at this time last Sunday in a sister church, in which 26 were killed and as many injured. The one Bible verse that I saw quoted more than any other—in on-camera statements, posts, and tweets—was Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” This is who we are: the brokenhearted and crushed in spirit. And this is the truth, whether we are aware of it or not: The Lord is near us.

            That is not the way we always think. When is God closest to us? We tend to imagine that it is in times of ecstasy. People go to churches where they can “rock out,” raising their hands and jumping up and down, hoping through movements and mantras to get themselves into an altered state of joy. I don’t fault them for that; we all need joy, wherever we can find it.

            Some would say that God is closest to us when we are in awe of the beauty of creation—standing on a mountaintop, looking into the Grand Canyon, watching the crashing waves, seeing the sunset from Block Island. Others might say God is closest to them in family moments—in the faces of grandchildren, in the grasp of a newborn’s fingers, in the comfortable embrace of your life partner. Some find God closest when a miracle happens—when someone is healed after we pray for them, when money shows up unexpectedly, when a car crash doesn’t happen somehow.

            But this psalm offers us something different: God is near us when we are brokenhearted. It doesn’t always feel like that, does it? Sometimes we think God is absent, playing hooky, as if God had turned his back on us. C. S. Lewis said after his wife died that he could hear the door closing and the lock being double-bolted. There are plenty of other psalms where the poet cries out, “Where are you God? Do not be so far from me. How long will you hold back from helping me?”

            The Bible is honest that this is sometimes our human experience: We feel that God is far away. But Psalm 34:18 counters this with a description of where God really is: God is near to the brokenhearted.

            Is it true? I think it is. Ask yourself: When have you felt God’s nearness most clearly? I you are honest with yourself, I bet the times you were touched most fiercely by God’s nearness were not times of ecstasy or beauty or family joy. I bet the times you felt God’s presence with you most clearly were times when you were broken, times when there was no one else, times when your world was falling apart. That’s when God showed up right in the middle of your broken heart: “I’m here. I love you. I will never leave you.”

            Most of us have suffered terrible losses: the loss of a spouse or parent or sibling or a best friend. The pain is intense, but somehow in the midst of that there comes this sense that pain cannot cut us off from God. It was hard when my mother died, but it was long anticipated and we did a lot of pre-grieving. It was a lot harder when I learned, out of the blue, that my dad was dying. I was here at Harbor Church and many of you got to meet my dad. I was at the American Baptist Churches Biennial in Kansas City when I got the call that they had found inoperable cancer. I cried on my hotel bed, then went out and found Tom Wiles and Marie Carpenter, ABCORI staff, and told them what had happened. There had been no warning, even though he was 93, but I thought he would at least live to 100. Was God far away? Far from it. Maybe it was because intense pain woke up my spirit, but I felt God so near me and I knew he was near my father. When I got to Nashville the next day and stood at his bedside it was clear that my dad had complete confidence in God. When we kids gathered around the hospital bed and heard him voice his faith, God made himself known in that room in the space between our broken hearts and crushed spirits. He died five weeks later, and the experience of his funeral—which I had to preside over—was one of receiving the love of God through many people and feeling the comfort of the promises I had declared so many times to others. God was near us brokenhearted ones.

            Your story is different, but I would be surprised if there were not times when in great pain you sensed that God was near. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they shall be comforted.” It’s true. Psalm 147:3 says, “He heals the brokenhearted, and bind up their wounds.” Psalm 51, the most honest confession of personal sin in the Bible, ends with these words to God: “You will not despise this broken and crushed heart.”

            Where is God? Isaiah 57:15 has a wonderful answer:

I live on high, in holiness,
and also with the crushed and lowly,
reviving the spirit of the lowly,
reviving the heart of those who have been crushed (CEB).

Is God up there being worshiped by the heavenly host? Yes. Is God here among the lowly and those crushed by life? Yes.

            When tragedy strikes a community, to whom do they turn? To the Lord. They head to the churches and hold vigils and pray together—even people who never go to church. Do you remember 9/11? Of course you do. I don’t know what it was like on Block Island, but I was living in New Jersey where a third of the breadwinners in my church worked on Wall Street. We spent the day in real anxiety over whether any of them had been killed. They all escaped unharmed. But that night it was only natural that most of our church members gathered in the sanctuary to pray—to pray comfort for those who had lost loved ones, to give thanks for escape, to pray for safety from potential attacks and war. Do you think those people found God closer to them that night or on the Sunday before? Of course, it was when their hearts were broken.

            If we needed a demonstration that God is near the brokenhearted, Jesus was that demonstration. God came into our existence and entered into our brokenheartedness. He became “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” When he began his ministry, he quoted from Isaiah 61 as his mission statement. Part of it was “The Lord has sent me…to bind up the brokenhearted.” You all know the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept,” because Jesus experienced genuine sorrow at the death of his friend Lazarus. There’s a story in Luke 7 about Jesus passing through a town when a funeral procession came by. A widow—a stranger to Jesus—was burying her only son. Luke says, “When Jesus saw her, his heart broke. he said to her, ‘Don’t cry.’ Then he went and touched the coffin” (The Message). In this story, Jesus was not only near but was able to raise the boy back to life. But he did that by the power of his compassion, knowing the woman’s grief. Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before his own death? He said, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death” (NLT).

            So much for the God who is not able to suffer. Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Yale philosopher who lost his own son, wrote about the God of suffering love, beginning with his version of John 3:16:

God so suffered for the world that he gave up his only Son to suffer. The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love. God is suffering love. Suffering is down at the center of things, down where the meaning is.

God is with the brokenhearted, and God can be brokenhearted at our rejection of him. There is nothing we experience that God has not endured in God’s human life as Jesus. The message of Psalm 34 and of much of the Bible is that God and real life are to be found in the midst of suffering. The French philosopher Simone Weil (vay) said,

The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.

It is in the very times that our hearts are broken that we experience God and experience our greatest growth.

            In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul early on refers to God as “the God of all comfort” and “God who comforts the downcast.” Only near the end of the letter does he tell about his own ailment which he begged Jesus to remove. But Jesus said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in (your) weakness.” I am enough for you, Paul. I am with you when you are brokenhearted.

            Christian faith is not faith that God will rescue us from suffering, but rather faith that God will be with us in suffering—and use that experience in our lives in a redemptive way. In the middle of all the mess of our lives we continue to find God present and give him praise. Leonard Cohen’s song says,

Even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

A broken Hallelujah, perhaps, from a broken heart, but it is an acknowledgement that God is still there.

            One of the most painful times in my life was not grief over a person’s death but over the end of a ministry. It came in 2001 when I realized I could not lead my Southern Baptist church in New Jersey out of that denomination to take a stand for the rights of women, and I would have to leave myself—or be asked to leave. After some nasty church meetings and nastier emails, I went ahead and resigned, given 6 months to find another ministry. I’d been there over 13 years, so it was disorienting and soul-crushing. I got a lot of personal support, but it still felt like rejection. Some of you have been through brokenhearted times like that, being laid off or forcibly retired or just fired outright. Some of you had to change careers. Some of you had to move. Some of you are in that spot right now.

            I spent a lot of time walking trails with my little beagle during those days, and I want to tell you that God was near. What I needed from God was not an explanation, or even a new job—not just yet. What I needed was to sense that God was not forsaking me, that even though my heart was crushed God was still there. I wrote a poem while walking those trails which included one line that said, “As a guest memorizes the layout of a room before turning out the light, I am learning to find you in the dark.” It was a dark time, but even though I could not see God he was there. I had to learn again to trust not in my abilities or my resume but to trust in God.

            That poem ended this way:

Like a long-married couple, we travel sometimes without speech.
I no longer ask at every junction if you know the way.
The history of our journeying means
more than what the headlights show.
Speak to me, Lord,
or do not speak.
Show me the path you choose,
or simply take me there.
Only let me trust in you.