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The Great Sadness

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., July 1, 2012.

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

II Samuel 1:1, 17-27       

With over 10 million in sales it was no wonder that for nearly three years, The Shack as it was #1 on the New York Times best sellers list.[1] At the heart of the book is a pain so deep, so disturbing, Mack, the book’s main character, nearly goes mad in his grief. He refers to his pain as “the great sadness.” William Paul Young, the author says the title is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain.” Young went to say The Shack “is a metaphor for the places you get stuck, (the places where you) get hurt (and) get damaged …where shame or hurt is centered.”

I suppose the book is important, not so much from what it has to teach us about God, but for the fact that it forces us to dig deep into what we already think and believe and to test our own personal theology against the backdrop of intense pain.

In that regard, Young’s book is a lamentation of loss that’s ultimately swallowed up by the great love of God. Grief is a great teacher and some have a shack they’ve built and obsessively continue to refresh and remodel unless they’ve conquered their pain and the shack is abandoned as a deserted, dilapidated thing.

I

The 3,000 year old story of David is a biblical saga, a grand story spread across the years following the arc of a hero’s life. There is a meteoric rise in young David’s life that takes him from the shepherd’s fields near Bethlehem where he is the youngest, “least likely,” son of Jesse to the royal court of Saul. The prophet Samuel has already anointed him to be the heir apparent and he has shown considerable restraint from taking Saul’s life in order to assume the throne even though Saul has chased David across the wilderness in jealousy seeking to kill him. David has loyally refrained from killing Saul despite the fact the Jewish people would have welcomed him to do so. He was young and talented and skilled in battle demonstrating an amazing skill as a leader and military leader. He was popular and handsome and clearly the favored one among the people.

Yet David did nothing to take over the crown other than to wait patiently for his time to emerge. And it happened on the field of battle where the Israelites were overrun by the Philistines in the highlands overlooking what are now the modern-day ruins at Beit She’an, an early Canaanite village just south of the Sea of Galilee. When an Amalekite messenger sought out David with the news that King Saul and his son Jonathan were both killed fighting the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, David did not rejoice with the news. Rather, from somewhere deep within him a howl boiled up so articulate and anguished that hearing its poetry so many years later, we still shudder under its power and pain.

David understood tragedy. He understood what it was to ache with loss. David articulated a universal pain all of us feel. Almost everyone recognizes in the experience borne in his or her bones the searing pain of loss through death. Hear the words of the psalmist howling in his pain:  Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, (are you listening?) hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! (Psalm 130:1, NRSV).

II

In describing the experience of a mother of a small child who had just died in the hospital, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross observed that she looked numb, blank and expressionless. So she said to her, “You look like you’re in such pain that you might scream.”

And the woman blurted out, “Do you have a screaming room in the hospital?” She was serious.

Kübler-Ross shot back to her, “No, but we do have a chapel,” which was a silly answer because the mother immediately replied “I need just the opposite. I need to scream and rage and curse. I’ve just been sitting in the parking lot and cursing and screaming at God. ‘God, why did you let this happen to my child? Why did you let this happen to me?’”

And Kübler-Ross answered, “Do it here. It’s better to do it with somebody than out in a parking lot all alone.”[2]

You see it’s entirely appropriate that David’s great cry of grief has the power to interrupt our well-ordered worship. These words from II Samuel are a scream of pain, and David will not be quieted; he will not be comforted and he will not be ignored. David commanded all the people to learn to sing a song of lament. I suppose many objected, saying, “Oh now, the past is best forgotten and put behind us. Let’s just quiet our voices and calm down. We can’t live in the past, after all.”

Certainly David did not make his home in the past because he represented Israel’s future. But David in his wisdom recognized one could not move into the future without first dealing with the grief of the present moment. The future of Israel did not go around Mt. Gilboa, but rather, the future of Israel hiked up to the top of the mountain where their first king had been killed in battle.

On the fields of battle, David summoned us to see it all and not to turn our faces aside. “How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle!” David howled his anguish aloud on the heights of Gilboa. He screamed his loss and pain to whoever could hear him.

III

Over the years, we have come to embrace the Vietnam Memorial in Washington as a symbol of our national pain over soldiers who served in that terrible war in the 60’s and 70’s but also as a continuing reminder of the devastation and loss a nation feels over any losses of war.

Parents of soldiers, having grown elderly, come. Surviving children, now grown and older than the age of those carved names on the memorial, come as if drawn by a mysterious, unknown power. Wives and sweethearts come. Veterans wearing camouflage jackets of uniforms long outworn visit the monument, some in wheelchairs, some on crutches.

Maya Lin, an architect student at Yale and the architect of the Wall, said that she wanted those who looked upon the Memorial and think they were “looking at a wound in the earth.”

The way to healing begins by refusing to be silent. It begins by embracing a pain we refuse to ignore. David’s song is a lament lifted to the heart of God. Thus, to God David sings his lonely song of pain, and despite its soulful sorrow, it comprises some of the most beautiful poetry in the whole Bible. By articulating our pain, we muster the hope that the bitter present may somehow be transformed by God’s future. By speaking of our wounds, we hope for healing.

It’s interesting to read how Jesus handled his own grief at the grave of Lazarus. Fully present in his own feelings, Jesus wept. He felt the darkness of his soul’s pain and expressed exactly what he felt. He didn’t try to stifle his tears by damming them up inside. Instead, he openly wept. Then he resolutely called Lazarus from the tomb and Lazarus stepped out wrapped in dead man’s linens. Jesus said something that most of us miss because we’re distracted by the appearance of a dead man from the stench of death. Jesus looked up into the wideness of heaven and confessed quietly, “Father, I thank you that you heard me.”

Simple isn’t it? David commanded the people of Israel to stop in their joy that they could finally lift up a new king and commanded them to see this as a moment to remember. We’re invited, no we’re commanded, to launch our grief and our deepest pain into the depths of God’s love knowing God hears our cries and attends to our sorrows.

[1] William Paul Young, The Shack, Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, Newbury Park, CA, Windblown Media, 2007

[2] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross,from L.D. Johnson, The Morning After Death, reprinted by Smyth and Helwys, 1995, pg. 92