Saturday’s Meditation Waiting
Lamentations 1:1-22; John 19:28-42
I was struck in a new way this week while reading the book in the Bible often referred to as the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Lamentations is what you’d get if you walked up and down the streets of Omaha and allowed yourself to be totally open to, totally aware of, the violence and tragedy all around. And the church from quite early on has seen the Lamentations of Jeremiah as a kind of long-range advance prophetic poem about the sheer desolation and sorrow of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…” (Lamentations 1:12). It is the sheer awful pointlessness, the hopelessness of it all, that should overwhelm us at this time, like the prophet looking around Jerusalem, which had been full of people going about normal life, a thriving town in all directions, and seeing instead devastation, ruin, families torn apart, utter hopelessness.
Jeremiah expresses all this with an unmatched sense of sorrow and despair. But, as he does so, he does two other things as well with this sorrow that stand out quite strikingly. First, and most noticeable, he insists that God is in this too. You have done this, he says. You have brought us to this point. You have allowed this to come upon us. Now you might think that this was a pretty dark view of God, and in a sense it is. But the point is that only by clinging on to the sovereignty of God is there still hope. If you say that God has no idea what’s going on either, and is just as helpless as we feel, then things are bleak indeed.
But of course to say that God is in all this somewhere, when everything seems hopeless, is to say quite simply that we don’t know what God is up to. It is to commit ourselves to waiting; waiting without any sense of being able to see how it’s all going to work out, or even if it will work out at all. It is to learn, at a deep level, the lesson our generation is particularly bad at learning, the lesson of patience. And out of this relentless insistence on God’s presence in the middle of the darkness Jeremiah does indeed get to hope in the end; but it’s a hard-won hope, a new-born hope, a different kind of hope from what he would have had before.
The second thing Jeremiah does, less noticeable for us but still very powerful, is the way he writes the book. You know how as children we learn things by the alphabet – A is for Apple, B is for Bear, C is for Cat, and so on? Well, like some other Hebrew poets Jeremiah wrote out his lamentations , his weeping and wailing for the chaos that had come over Jerusalem, with each verse of the poem beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. He goes through the alphabet four times in the first four chapters of the book, and then Chapter 5 is a prayer that brings closure to the whole thing. Do you see the point? Do you see what he’s doing?
He isn’t just playing word games, showing how clever he is. The alphabet is the ancient way of saying that the various sounds we make when we speak are not random and chaotic. There is a pattern, a form, underneath it all. So at the very moment when Jeremiah is saying in his poem, “This doesn’t make sense! There’s no meaning to all this! Why should this be happening?” He is expressing that outburst of desperate grief in a form that says, “And yet I believe it isn’t random; I believe there is meaning and purpose, even though I can’t see it at all right now.” He can see nothing but chaos and ruin all around, but he has expressed that in a pattern that says, “And yet I trust that somewhere, somehow, there is order.” The challenge of the Old Testament, again and again, is to go on believing in God’s order even when everything seems utterly meaningless, with hope gone and chaos in its place.
Lamentations is of course a segment of what, this week, I’ve been calling the bass part, the bottom line of music, for understanding the tune of Jesus’ path to the cross and now the awful sense of desolation after Jesus has died and been buried. The book of Job merely confirms that sense of desolation: “cut down a tree, and it may sprout up again, but once a man dies, that’s it” (Job 14:7-12). And though some other Old Testament writers inch towards a belief in resurrection, Job is right – in terms of the present creation and the way it works. If there is anything else to come, any real hope, it will need a whole new creation.
And with Good Friday there is still no sign of such a thing. And all we can do on Holy Saturday is therefore to say, with Lamentations, “Yes, this is awful; this is beyond belief; it is chaos; but we will sit quietly and wait. All we can believe is that, though we can see nothing, no signs of hope, God is still the God of order and not chaos, and he will do what he will do.” This day, the quiet, sad day between Good Friday and Easter, finds us in the position of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who said, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” – with the sense of, “But he can’t have been, because they killed him.” That sense of puzzlement – a puzzlement that we all know only too well in many aspects of our personal lives, and of our community, with all its echoes of Jeremiah’s Lamentations – is the classic Holy Saturday place to be. We have expressed our sorrow and anger, and we have brought it to the cross and will leave it there. Now we must wait quietly to see what God will do.
Jesus’ disciples knew what they had been hoping for, and it was all gone. They had hoped for a thoroughly earthly kingdom, with Jesus as king and themselves in the top jobs. Forget it: wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing. All their ambitions for their people, their land, their towns, their homes: forget it. Wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing. Some of them, on that first Holy Saturday, must have been thinking frantically: How can we make sense of it all? What on earth has gone so badly wrong? Why should this have happened? Forget it: Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought. Holy Saturday is the moment when everything stops and waits.
And waits for a different kind of answer. If we want God’s hope instead of ours; if we want God’s love instead of ours; if we want God’s thoughts instead of ours – then we will need to go through a time of silence, of resting and ignorance. And if we want to find God’s way forward for our community, for ourselves, for our church, then we must learn to wait, to be quiet, to affirm God’s order in our chaos but not yet to understand it. Only when, in days and years and decades to come, people look back and see the new things that God will have done, things we can’t at the moment imagine or plan for, we will say, “Yes: we needed to let go of that anger and grief, to leave it on the cross of Jesus, to see it buried in his tomb; because God’s new creation is God’s new creation, always a surprise, always a shock.”
Holy Saturday is therefore the Sabbath rest after the completion of the work of redemption. Remember how, at the end of the creation account in Genesis, we are told that when God finished all his work on the sixth day he rested on the seventh day. Now John has brought Jesus’ redeeming work to its completion, with that great word “It is finished” as Jesus dies. Hold in your mind all that it means for the Jesus of John’s gospel to die: the Word of God, falling silent; the living water, no longer flowing; the bread of heaven, scattered in the long grass; the light of the world, snuffed out; the good shepherd, snatched away from the flock; the grain of wheat, falling into the earth and dying; the Messiah coming to his own people and his own rejecting him. Put them all together, and see them folded in this deep and dark Sabbath rest, this seventh day, waiting as we must wait for whatever God will do and bring.
On the seventh day God rested in the darkness of the tomb,
Having finished on the sixth day all his work of joy and doom;
Now the Word had fallen silent, and the water had run dry,
The bread had all been broken, and the light had left the sky;
The flock had lost its shepherd, and the seed was sadly sown,
The courtiers had betrayed their king, and nailed him to his throne.
O Sabbath rest by Calvary, O calm of tomb below,
Where the grave-clothes and the spices cradle him we did not know!
Rest you well, beloved Jesus: Caesar’s Lord and Israel’s King,
In the brooding of the Spirit, in the darkness of the spring.