Linway United Presbyterian Church
"The Roads of Zion are in Mourning"
As I was attending chapel at Seminary last week we began to sing a hymn that I had sung hundreds of times before. It was one of those hymns that as soon as the organist begins to play it you can feel your soul being lifted up and you may even step up a little onto the balls of your feet. You know what I am talking about. You know that feeling. It is a hymn that I have heard so many times that I can almost sing it without the help of the words on the page, I really need only to follow the musical notes and listen to the organ. We began with the first verse, I’ll save you the pain of listening to me sing and just read it to you, see if you recognize the hymn: “O worship the King, all glorious above, O gratefully sing His power and His love; Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days, Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.” And as we finished the first verse and the Organist began to begin again my voice raised just a little bit more as my singing became filled with gusto, when all of a sudden I fell silent as I noticed that what I had just sung was just a little bit different than what had been belted out by those next to me. It was not that I had forgotten the verse or that a large section of the hymn had been changed but I looked down and noticed that one single solitary verb had been altered to a noun. But this single solitary noun distorted greatly the whole meaning of the hymn. It is hard for us to imagine how a single word could change the meaning behind an entire hymn but lets look at both verses; now pay attention and listen to the difference. Listen as I read the original second verse of the hymn and the verse after it was changed and see if you can notice the discrepancy: Here is the version I knew: O tell of His might, O sing of His grace, whose robe is the light, whose canopy space, His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form, And dark is His path on the wings of the storm. Got it? Now here is the changed second verse: “O tell of His might, O sing of His grace, whose robe is the light, whose canopy space, the chariots of heaven the deep thunderclouds form, And light is God’s path on the wings of the storm.” Did you notice the difference? Did you notice the word that was changed? Now you may be asking yourself what difference does it make that the revisionist of this great hymn changed the phrase, “chariots of wrath”, that Robert Grant had originally included in his hymn, to “chariots of heaven”? Well before I answer that question let us look at the Scripture lesson [the liturgist] read for us this morning.
The Prophet Jeremiah in the first 6 verses of the Book of Lamentations, which we read this morning, described Jeremiah’s anguish and torment for all that had befallen God’s people after the destruction of the Holy City and the desecration of God’s Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. After the many years of God’s prophets warning the Jews that they had better start to follow God’s laws and commandments, that they had better change their ways here we read that Judah had once again disregarded the calls for Holiness and Righteousness deciding to head down their own path rather than listen to the counsel of the Almighty God. Jeremiah was so taken aback by the destruction that he could hardly contain his grief. He could only express his sorrow, John Calvin says, by expressing his astonishment. In our minds eye we can see Jeremiah down on his knees with his hands raised crying out to the Lord our God, “Why dear God have you forsaken your people!” “Why has Jerusalem deserved this punishment?” Listen to the imagery Jeremiah gives us in verse one and as you do try to place yourself in the shoes of Jeremiah and feel the pain of his words, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people. She has become like a widow who was once great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a forced laborer!” and in verse 2, “She weeps bitterly in the night and her tears are upon her cheeks. She has none to comfort her among all her lovers, all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her adversaries.” Jerusalem has gone from being honored by God, separated and glorified from among the pagan and heathen cultures that surrounded her to a grand lump of broken stone that is but dust and desolation. The city that once had boasted the glory of Solomon’s kingdom, which had bragged about its own glorification to the nations, now, is but a pile of rubble and emptiness. Jeremiah continues in verse 4, “The roads of Zion are in mourning, because no one comes to her appointed feasts. All her gates are desolate; her priests are groaning. Her virgins are afflicted and she herself is bitter.” Not only has the physical city of Jerusalem been destroyed but even the worship of the Lord our God has been stopped. The priests wail because they no longer can offer sacrifice to the Lord. The feasts and traditions of the Jewish people have been ended. Even the roads of Zion feel the emptiness of the exile. Jeremiah presents to us this image of the roads grieving in which the highways of Judah that were once filled with people who are moving with joy and excitement approaching the Holy City to offer their worship has gone silent………. However what is the most disturbing for the Prophet Jeremiah and for us is to come in verse 5. “Her adversaries have become her masters, Her enemies prosper; For the Lord has caused her grief. Because of the multitude of her transgressions; Her little ones have gone away, as captives before the adversary.” If we read too quickly through verse five we may miss a phrase that none of us like to take notice of, certainly not the editors of the new Presbyterian hymnbook like to hear, but is a truth we cannot overlook. Jeremiah cries out, “Her adversaries have become her masters, Her enemies prosper; FOR THE LORD HAS CAUSED HER GRIEF…” We have a natural human tendency to skip over the hard sayings like this in Scripture. We do not like to hear about the wrath of God anymore than we like to hear Christ and Paul telling us that we have to pay our taxes. Jeremiah has recognized that the sorrow that he is now feeling, the emptiness of the plains of Abraham, is not the result of the natural expansion of the Babylonian Empire or because of the arbitrary whim of an uncaring God but is the consequence of a people who have broken their covenant with our God. Jeremiah shows that the destruction of Jerusalem in all its turbulence and confusion was neither accidental nor random but was the work of an almighty God acting in his role as a Righteous judge. Jeremiah understands that God is grieved by Jerusalem’s iniquity. He understands that God our Father does not act rashly in his judgment or out of pleasure like the Gods of Greece and Rome or Babylon and Egypt but acts only because of his righteousness demands that his creation be perfect so that it might glorify him.
Of course this vision of God having the least bit of a hand in the workings of destruction is nearly a completely foreign concept in many of our minds. We have somehow over time created in our brain not a God who demands righteousness and allegiance to his will but a God who acts more like a kind Grandfather, patting us on our head, seeing us as generally good grandkids that just happen to “miss the mark” on occasion. We will have a hard time placing ourselves in the shoes of Jeremiah, understanding his pain and anguish if we have this muted understanding of God the Father. Even more dangerous is that if we fail to comprehend the Righteousness of the Father and the reality of his zeal for righteousness we can scarcely understand the cross upon which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was crucified.
Turn with me now if you will to the 27th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. We are brought forward in the New Testament to a similar time and place as we read about in Jeremiah’s lamentations. The enemies of God have brought his son to Golgotha, the place of the skull, to crucify him. We see the followers of Christ dejected and full of sorrow. Peter has already denied Christ three times and gone out and weeped bitterly just as Jeremiah had done for Jerusalem. The Lord our God has been beaten. It looks as if all that Christ had promised and spoken of was about in the matter of hours to be done away with. Forget that you know the rest of the story for right now. Place yourself at the foot of the cross next to Mary and James and John. Kneel with them; look up as your brother is being physically and emotionally tormented. Feel their pain. Read with me starting at verse 45. Matthew says, “Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, " ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?" that is, "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?" And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, "This man is calling for Elijah." Immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. But the rest of them said, "Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him." And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.” In Matthew’s telling of the crucifixion we are given these descriptions of the grief of God, that the earth trembled and was broken as his son was ruptured for our sins. All of creation moaned in unison with Jeremiah. As God had in his wrath destroyed the temple of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem for their disobedience in the time of Jeremiah here in the Gospels the Son of God has been broken for our transgressions. Just as Jerusalem had paid the penalty for the multitude of its transgressions in its destruction by the Babylonians, Christ has paid the ultimate price for our iniquity in his crucifixion by the Romans. Just as the roads of Zion had gone silent after the destruction of Jerusalem the Christ our Lord was dead.
As I spoke of in the beginning about the neutering of the great hymn by Robert Grant, let us not be like those who denigrate the power of God to work his will in the world by trying to soften or, in the case of the revisionist hymn writer get rid of God’s wrath. But let us be transformed by the understanding that even though we each deserve the same fate as Jerusalem, Christ our Lord and savior has stood up for us directing the wrath of God for our iniquity upon his own body away from us. And in God’s greatest act of mercy has raised his son from the dead, who died to make men holy, securing for the elect eternal life with him.
So as we sit here this morning readying to partake together in the broken body of Christ our Savior and drink of his blood with literally hundreds of millions of other Christians joined as one by our common bond in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ let us not do so casually or without forethought. For what we are doing in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, as Paul explains in the 11th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church, is not to be taken lightly. For our Lord’s body has been broken for us. His blood has been spilled. He has died so that we may be seen as holy and righteous before our God. Not so that we could come and have bread and juice as simply an act of remembrance but so that the elements of communion may be set apart from their common uses and that those who receive them with faith and repentance may be spiritually filled with the Grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To the Honor and the Glory alone be to Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.