No Time to Despair
Solomon tells us that there is a time to live and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to build and a time to tear down; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to search and a time to give up as lost; a time to love a time to hate; a time for peace a time for war. But Solomon, wisest of all men, has no time to despair? Why then do we spend so much time doing it? Because of the time we live in. This time before our Lord returns is a time ripe for despair.
Despair is our chief problem, our chief temptation, our chief sin. We probably think our problem is this or that sin. Sexual sins loom large in people's minds; so do sins against the 5th Commandment like grudges and strife, or sins against the 8th like gossip and lying. But these are all sins against people and while wrong and damnable; they are not as serious as the sin of despair, the chief sin against God. I say it's the chief sin, because when we despair we are not fearing, loving, or trusting God above all things as the First Commandment commands us. Luther said under the First Commandment belongs "every kind of despair." 900 years before that Gregory the Great classified despair as one of the seven deadly sins. Our Lutheran Confessions when they list the more serious faults of our fallen nature don't list one sin of the flesh but do list "despairing of God's grace."
Despairing of God's grace is a serious sin, but it's easy to fall into. We see this from our text. Couldn't you hear yourself saying some of the things in the first paragraph? It does feel futile to serve God. You go to Church every Sunday and are no better off than those who don't. The arrogant do seem blessed. The bold always seem also to be the beautiful in this life. And Malachi is right when he records, "Certainly the evildoers prosper." Politicians lie, break promises, and yet are reelected. Mobsters live in the luxury of casinos. Street thugs make more in a day than you do in a week. Even the in-your-face challengers of God escape. Gazillionare, Ted Turner regularly spouts off against Christ our Lord, yet whatever he touches turns to more gold for him.
Look at this; how can despair not bite deep into your heart. What's the use? What's the point? Why bother? Where's the justice the Lord promised His people? Where's the righting of the wrongs? Where's the casting down of the arrogant and the lifting up of the humble? No wonder stewards of the Lord despair saying, "My Lord delays in coming," and then "begin to beat the servants, to eat and drink and get drunk." "Hope deferred makes the heart sick," said Solomon. Hopes dashed make the heart despair.
Despair is common to the saints. Luther says in his Genesis lectures, "Nearly all people are tempted by despair and the godlier they are, the more frequently they are attacked with this weapon of Satan." He says in a sermon that the devil's glory is to give men a heart "that is filled with timidity and despair." Luther didn't exempt himself from this either. He says in his Galatians lectures, "Again and again Satan attacks me so boldly and overwhelms me with such sorrowful thoughts that he completely obscures Christ for me and almost takes Him away." Our Formula of Concord says Christians despair because when they look inside "they feel no strong, ardent faith and heartfelt obedience, but weakness, worry, and wretchedness."
As I said at the beginning, this time right before Christ returns is ripe for despairing. It is truly darkest before the dawn as any of you who've been up all night with sickness or on guard duty know. In the deep darkness before dawn, everything looks scary. Trees, bushes and shrubs take on terrifying shapes. Noises sound sinister and startling. In a deep night of sadness, of sorrow, of dying, of disease, it seems it will never be light again!
How then do we combat this time of despair? Some try the power of positive emotion: You know put away that frown and cheer up; put on a happy face. Get that body swaying, the feet stomping, the hands clapping and chase away those blues. In that despair is an emotions, it can be dealt with by being flooded with positive emotion. But in that despair is a flaming dart of the devil, as the Large Catechism says it is, you aren't going to quench it by happy thoughts, not even by happy Jesus thoughts. A flaming dart won't be quenched no matter how many sparks of God's love might be passed to you. Darkness isn't done away with by the flashlight of good feelings, even good religious feelings or by flicking the Bic of Christian campfire songs.
Others deal with the despair that creeps into the fallen human condition by being busy. They are so busy they have no time to despair. They are so busy they don't see the wicked and arrogant prospering and the evildoers challenging God and escaping. There is a certain amount of Ben Franklin type wisdom in this, but there is no Christ, no faith, no real answer here. As long as person can busy themselves with eating and drinking, he or she can be merry and so push despair away. But there is not much eating or drinking in some of life's times, and then it is hard to be merry. For example, after September 11, there was a steep decline in people going out to eat and drink, prescriptions for antidepressants and tranquilizers went up dramatically.
You really can't combat the darkness that comes from despairing of God's mercy, God's grace, or God's justice, by positive emotions or busyness. Darkness is done away with only by light, and not the light of flickering emotions or the rapidly flashing lights of busyness. The only light that can vanquish darkness is the light that Malachi refers to 2 verses after our text. The light that comes from the rising of the Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ.
How different things look once the sun has risen. That tree which cast such wicked shadows is really a beautiful oak. That shrub which looked so menacing is no more than a red tip photina. That bush that looked like a many tentacled octopus climbing your house is really a flowering rose. The darkness of despair is combated in no other way than by the light of Christ. Read Psalm 13, a psalm of despair if ever there was one. David moans, "How long, O Lord wilt Thou forget me forever? How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me?" The answer? "Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death!" Unless the Lord give us light, we can't escape the darkness.
We combat the darkness of despair by going to where it is always light. By going to Church. True worship, according to our Lutheran Confessions is not going to Church to do something for God, but is "the exercise of faith struggling against despair." In another place we confess, "Christ supplies it [the Church] with the gifts He has promised- the forgiveness of sins, answer to prayer, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Creed offers us these consolations that we may not despair but may know all of this."
This is the answer Malachi gives too. He says when those who feared the Lord were bombarded by despair they gathered together and talked with each other. When we say the Creed, we are talking to each other not to God. God already knows what's in our hearts. I don't know what is in yours or you mine unless we tell each other. When we say the Creed, we are telling each other that we still believe Jesus came for us and our salvation; that He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried in our place. We are telling each other that there really is forgiveness of sins, the dead really do rise and that there is a life everlasting.
All through the liturgy we are saying to each other what God first said to us. I remind you, "Our help is in the name of the Lord." And you remind me that He "made heaven and earth." I remind you that, "The Lord is with you," and you tell me that as a pastor, "the Lord is with my spirit." I tell you that as redeemed, forgiven, restored sinners you can, "Lift up your hearts." You assure me that you do "lift them up unto the Lord." Despite how bad things look in this world I tell you, "Let us give thanks unto the Lord, our God." And you assure me that I'm not crazy for thanking God rather than despairing by saying in return, "It is meet and right so to do." Finally in the midst of a world where God's goodness seems to be so much in doubt, I assert, "O, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good." And you assure me that not only is God good but that "His mercy endureth forever."
And not only do we talk to each other here like they did in Malachi, we talk to the Lord and wonders of wonders, He listens to us just as He did to them. Our prayers are not lost in the darkness of space. They go right to the ear of God for the sake of Jesus who gave His ears, mouth, and body up for our sins. And our prayers don't have a long way to travel. Our God is present here in Water, Words, Bread and Wine, and in His presence we write a scroll of remembrance as they did in Malachi. Not just the ones whom we pray for are enrolled, but everyone we Baptize, everyone we absolve, everyone we commune. Lord don't forget them in this deep darkness. Though they may feel like despairing assure them that You don't. Though they may feel forgotten remind them that You can't forget. Though the darkness is great, dark and light are both alike to You for You are light itself.
As important and comforting as the talking to each other and the talking to God that we do here is, it is far more important that God talk to us. And the Lord tell us here what He told His people in Malachi. When He looks out upon the world and picks out His favorites, His treasured possessions, He doesn't pick the biggest, the brightest, the richest, or the most successful. He picks you. We despair because it seems the Lord must be picking only the healthiest people, the wealthiest people, the most famous people in this life. It sure looks that way out there in the darkness, but in here in the light. He tells you: No, I'm picking you.
God almighty has picked you. He picked you rather than the best, the brightest, the biggest of the world. In fact, He picked you over His own Son. Even though you are a sinner, even though you have many faults and failings, He has decided to spare you. Indeed, He did not spare His only Son, but gave Him up to the judgement, the suffering the dying you deserve. That means you will not be judged, nor suffer, nor die like you really do deserve. No, He will spare you just as you would spare your own beloved son or daughter. Out there where it is dark it doesn't look like you are being spared, but in here where the light of Christ shines, you can again see that God certainly does make a distinction between those who are holy through the forgiveness of Christ and those who insist on standing outside of Him.
Should those picked by God, should those spared by God, should people who are treasured possessions of God despair? Sure in the darkness when their Baptism is hidden from them, in the darkness when their forgiveness is muffled, in the darkness when the Body and Blood of Christ is cloaked from them they will be tempted to despair. But in here where the light of Christ exposes all of these so brilliantly, there never is, there never will be a time to despair. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Last Sunday of the Church Year (11-25-01) Malachi 3:14-18