Trembling at The Door

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One of the common stereotypes of preaching is that a sermon must have “Three points, a poem and a prayer.” Another is that a sermon should always begin with a joke—I guess that is to disarm people and make them think the dreaded message may not be so bad after all.

My sermons rarely include jokes or poems. Once in a while, however, there’s a poem that is, itself, a sermon. George Herbert’s poem, Love (III), is such a poem. When I heard it presented as an anthem by our wonderful choir recently, I felt compelled to spend time reflecting on it.

Herbert (1593-1633) served as a tutor at Cambridge University and as a parish minister in the Church of England at Bremerton St. Andrew, near Salisbury. He died from tuberculosis at age 39. The poem Love (III) is part of his anthology The Temple. While I’d love to share more about this fascinating pastor-poet and his superb compilation of devotional poetry (highly acclaimed by the likes of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden), let’s move right into this poem.

Just a few preparatory comments, then I’ll let the poem speak for itself. It helps me to picture the human narrator (listen also for the Lord speaking) as one overwhelmed by unworthiness. The unworthiness of having failed in faith and faithfulness. Shame in simply being all-too-human is mixed with regret and fear and the (un)belief that the Lord could or would never really want anything to do with her or him.

Love (III)
By George Herbert

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
     If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
     Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
     My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
     So I did sit and eat.

It’s sound corny, but there is a sweetness here, a gracious kindness, that melts all resistance. This is a portrait of love expressed not because of the worthiness of the person, but because of the greatness of the Lover.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32 NIV).

Read this poem a few times.  Soak in it. Marinate. See it “play out” at the front door of a glorious mansion: You’ve just walked a very long, stately, tree-shaded driveway through magnificent grounds. The drive ends with a mansion that cannot be seen in its entirety without turning your head from side to side (Louis XIV’s Versailles palace comes to mind). With great hesitation you approach the door—and it opens while you are still debating whether or not to knock. It’s the Owner of the mansion (not the butler) who greets you. You stare in awe and then look down on your filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Every fiber of your being wants to run back down the long driveway…

Then the Owner grips you with a word. Welcome. As you are. Welcome. For Love’s greatest joy is showing love.

When All You Can do is Weep

When we feel powerless in the face of tragedy and wickedness, there is still one thing we can do.

“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it” (Ezekiel 9:4).

The fall of 2017 has been a cascade of catastrophe. Hurricanes have devastated significant areas of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, other Caribbean islands, and most recently, Mexico and the Gulf Coast of the US. An earthquake in Mexico City claimed 200+ lives. In Southeast Asia over 1,200 lost their lives and over 41 million people have been affected by monsoon rains that have brought flooding and landslides. Even more troubling than natural disasters are those tragedies that have resulted from human aggression. Terrorist attacks and random acts of violence continue, seeming to escalate in scale. For a list that will take your breath away, look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_2017 for a compilation of day-by-day attacks around the world. Then there was Las Vega massacre of October 1 when Stephen Paddock killed at least 58 people and wounded over 500 in the worst mass shooting in United States history.

Some would interpret all these events as signs of the End Times. While, indeed, Jesus could return at any moment, I see these as signs that our world needs Jesus’ followers to pray and serve as we never have before. God’s people have often been at the forefront in giving their time, money and caring compassion to help in times of crisis. That is good, and it must increase. It may be, however, that in certain circumstances, all we can do is weep, grieving over the heartache and suffering the world inflicts on humanity, crying out to God over the brokenness and profound alienation that wreak havoc on human hearts, minds and bodies.

I’m not one given to passivity or inactivity. I want to “fix” situations. My dad always, “Don’t create problems. Solve them.” There are many situations, however, where I don’t have the power, the authority, the resources, the intelligence, or the influence to do anything. And who can “fix” the human heart bent on evil? Who is able to see into the deeply, deeply troubled minds behind these random acts to bring healing and wholeness? We cannot create enough “security arrangements” to prevent all those who truly want to do harm from perpetrating their wicked schemes. What now?

The situation described in The Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament shows the power of continuing to care in the face of a heartless, cruel, and often godless (or worshiping-the-wrong-gods) world. Around 597 B. C. the prophet Ezekiel was taken into exile in Babylon (over 900 miles from Jerusalem) at the time when God was finally bringing judgement against his idolatrous people. Their persistent disobedience and continual refusal to repent was resulting in the logical and natural consequences God had warned would come. What gives me hope as I read this passage, however, is that God would have mercy on those who continued to honor and love him and who continued to show compassion, yearning for repentance and new life for their loved ones, neighbors and friends. We read this in Ezekiel 91-4:

Then I heard [The LORD] call out in a loud voice, “Bring near those who are appointed to execute judgment on the city, each with a weapon in his hand.” And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. With them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar. Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side 4 and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  (NIV)

The man in linen was to mark those weep. What has always moved me most deeply about this passage is that the Lord notices our tears. There are many verses that have this same message.

“Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll; are they not in your record?” (Psalm 56:8 New International Version NIV). The King James Version says, “…put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?”

“For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17 NIV).

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4 NIV).

In Ezekiel 9 we read that in the midst of judgment, the Lord instructed his executioners “…touch no one on whom is the mark” (Ezekiel 9:6). This echoes the Passover account in Exodus 12 when the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites who had offered the sacrifice of the lamb and put the blood on their door frames. In Ezekiel, God’s mercy extended to those who grieved over the godlessness, idolatry and disobedience of the people around them. Those who grieved did not retaliate in anger against those in sin. They brought their broken hearts to the Lord.

We cannot control the world that has rejected God and gone its own way. We cannot control other people who’ve done the same. We can, however, continue to keep our hearts soft.  Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, said, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” That is a powerful prayer. It may, as in Bob’s case, move us to action. At the very least, it moves us to bearing the burden of the Lord’s heart in our hearts in this fallen world.

Many of us respond more quickly with anger than with an anguished heart.

Or we fall into despair instead of turning to God in “desperate devotion.”

Or we want to take action against people in public instead of bringing our righteous indignation in humility before the Lord in prayer.

Sometimes all you can do is weep, letting your tears fall in prayer. Sometimes all you can do is weep—and that is doing something.