Grief and Loss and Knowing God                  

2 Samuel 12:1-25
Matthew 1:5-7

This morning, I’m thankful to be back in the pulpit after some time away. I had a week in February off for grief leave, but I’ve been doing a lot of work the past three weeks—though I haven’t been preaching. Now, I have an opportunity to continue our sermon series, “How Long?” and wonder with you about grief and loss—and how we might know God within it. This is not a sermon about my grief. Instead, I want to recognize in this season that many of us carry many griefs—we mourn the death of loved ones. We face unrelenting diagnoses. We feel God is far off and our prayers hit the ceiling. We wonder about our personal value and purpose. Grief is sometimes acute and sometime simply underlying dull pain. But as we begin this morning, we should wonder, why is the world this way? 

Why Does Grief Exist? 

A secular person may answer this question different than a Christian. They may say, “life has no meaning—everything comes to an end.” Then they might despair into nihilism (“nothing is real, nothing matters”) or rather decide to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” (YOLO). Beyond natural death and natural phenomenon, secular people and even Christians are quick to blame others! Grief and loss exist because there are good people and bad people—try to be good and avoid pain and grief. Otherwise you’ll end up like bad people.

Christians answer the question very differently. Whether we begin with the New City Catechism and say, “my only comfort is that I belong to God” or if we simply look at the creation story, we say that grief and loss exist not only because of an individual sin or act, but also because our world is fallen from a state of original goodness. Grief exists because every person and every thing in our world is touched by sin and brokenness. In short, “things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be!”

Put another way, sin and sinfulness touch everything in our world—personal sin, the brokenness of our world, and Satan and demonic forces work together against God’s good creation and perfect plans. But grief is our very personal response to some aspect of the brokenness of this world. We grieve different things because we are different people! We are each and all unique with different gifts and passions, different hopes and purposes for our lives. So we make different choices and different things hurt us. Sometimes—even often—we hurt each other!

Now What?

Why grief exists is an important introductory question, but as we get into the meat of this sermon, I want to ask (and answer) “Now What?” Given that grief and loss are a reality in our world, what can we do? The amazing and wonderful thing about people is that, because we are made in God’s image, we always have choices! We always have options and we always have the freedom to choose!

  • Choose to Hide or Flee

As children, many of us have imaginary friends. We interact with the world in creative and wonder-filled ways. But I read somewhere that, as we grow up in the West, we are generally taught to be less, artistic, to be less creative, and to be less imaginative. This is apparently required for dealing with the harsh realities of grief and pain and loss in our broken world. We may even be pressured and encouraged by loved ones to pursue jobs in science, technology, and business: make money. Be successful. Gain influence and power in society. 

There is, of course, a lot of good that you can do with money, with success, and with power. But too often in our society, we imagine that these things can buffer or protect us from grief and pain and loss. Having more money does not always gain you more freedom—it requires more time and energy to manage more money! Having success means that you are often approached by others, asked to share or talk or lead. Having success means more responsibility and even sometimes more burdens. Likewise, gaining more power means that more people depend on you, have expectations for you, and look up to you. You can’t just go out and enjoy yourself—someone will always watch, check, and judge.

I say all this because so much has changed in our world since the story of King David—we live about 3000 years after King David and Bathsheba. We live in a dramatically different culture with different technologies and different values… but in some ways, people are always people!

King David is the most powerful man in the land. He has everything—he sees a beautiful woman across the rooftops. And because everything belongs to him, he takes her too! He takes her into his bed and she becomes pregnant. Only later, he finds out that this woman, Bathsheba, has a husband. So David tries to trick the man and dishonor him. It doesn’t work! So David puts the husband in harm’s way, where he “accidentally” dies. Now David’s way is clear. No one knows what he has done! At least, no one knows who will do anything or who will be hurt…right?

[READ 2 Samuel 12:1-25]

Normally we don’t read the Bible story this way, but I put the text here in order to show you how David’s choice was to hide or flee further and further. When we read the Bible stories, we sometimes forget that they are not just morals or fables, but real people acting on and affecting other real people. David could have made other choices! Who knows what God would have done or how the story would have continued if David had engaged more fully with the reality of his sin. Instead, he shows that his “sackcloth and ashes” regrets are really only about serving himself. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he gets up and moves on. David is the perfect example in this instance of withdrawing from grief and loss. He can’t or won’t face it, so he continues to live within it’s pain.

  • Choose to Engage

If we are not going to withdraw from grief and loss, then we can choose to engage it. Engaging it is what Nathan does in the story. Nathan uses a fake story to say something real about David and the world. Nathan tells the story of what happens. He names the hurt and the sin. He grants forgiveness. And he gives David a chance to choose whether to renew his relationship with God. I talk about engaging in terms of forgiveness because I’ve been convinced by Bishop Desmond Tutu that the only way to fully engage with grief and loss is to walk the forgiveness cycle.

How Long?

How long will we have to wait for the pain of grief or loss to pass? In our story, the Bible tells us that David comforted Bathsheba and that part of that comfort was the birth of Solomon. Solomon’s name comes from a Hebrew word that means “to replace or restore”. So Solomon was God’s replacement for the child who died.  But those of you who are mothers can tell me better than I can tell you whether one child could restore their grief. I know families who are overjoyed with the birth of a child after many miscarriages or after a stillborn child! They do not forget their other children, but their grief is restored. Yet in other cases, people may never fully recover from grief or loss. 

Christians accept that, because there is sin in the world, there is also death. We grieve, even more deeply than others, because we know from the creation and from the end of the Bible how the world is supposed to be—and we know better than others how dramatically different the world is, how much worse it is! But as Paul reminds Christians in 1 Corinthians 15: “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” 

But many things happen to us in life and we will always have the choice whether to let those things define us. You may have experienced grief and loss. You may know trauma. You may be falsely accused or judged or mistreated. Will you be defined by what has been taken from you? Will you be defined by others’ perceptions of you? Christians are not immune from these questions. We are human, like everyone else. We face struggle and sin, temptation, and the sin and evil in our world affect our own lives too!

In the pain and loss and grief of our lives, God always challenges us to refocus our hearts on what is most important. This is what David did not do; but we are all invited to do it! And this is what the Bible is for—the Bible is the story of God’s relationship with his people and the purpose of the story is to help us know and focus on what is most important in our lives.

[READ Matthew 1:5-7]

What meaning is there to find while I wait?

It would be saying too much to say that Solomon was a replacement or restoration for David and Bathsheba’s grief. The truth is, we don’t hear about these two, as a couple, again, until 2000 years later, when Matthew includes Bathsheba in his genealogy of Jesus. Perhaps the Bible is trying to remind us—even in something as simple as a genealogy—that the justice and deliverance and hope that she fully needed came only in Jesus. Perhaps even the that justice and meaning that we long for comes only in Jesus.

When I ask “what meaning is there to find while I wait?” and then immediately say, “Jesus,” there is a real danger that you will leave thinking that your pastor (or even both your pastors) aren’t really acquainted with grief and suffering, if they offer such a simple response. So allow me to elaborate a little bit.

  • Finding Meaning in Grief is not about situation, it is about relation. 

In grief, we find that we are not as “in control” of our lives as we thought. But you can put this another way too: grief reminds us that we are never in control of our own lives. The beginning of grief is denial and bargaining. Both denial and bargaining seek to change our situation. But then we move to and through anger, depression, and acceptance—all of which actually face the reality of our situation and wonder about our identity and place within it. But grief is not about changing our situation! We may begin saying, “I wish she was still here!” but we would not pick a beautiful vacation alone instead of a week in the everyday realities of life with a loved one.

This is also to say that we can find healing and hope and meaning even in the darkest and most horrific situations. Victor Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning which continues to be a best seller year over year. Frankl tells of his experience as a Jew in Nazi concentration camps and how we found beauty, hope, and peace. Meanwhile, many celebrities who live like kings today find themselves in cycles of addiction, frustration, and relationship problems.

  • More sin, more suffering magnifies grief. 

Last year I watched an interview with an African American woman crying for justice after her son was killed in a mass shooting. The person who committed the crime was sentenced to several lifetimes in prison—but the mother still has to face life without her child. 

The largest ancient civilization near to the Israelites were guided by the “Code of Hammurabi,” which includes instructions about justice that amount to “an eye for an eye”. This is still the practice followed in our courts today—if someone sins, they are punished in a commensurate way. If they steal, they may be fined. If they murder, they may have to surrender many years of their life in prison. But this is not the justice nor the meaning that the Bible has for us. Real justice happens when what was taken is returned, when what was lost is found, when what was removed is restored. But our world cannot do this! David asks, “now that [my son] is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Sam 12:23). David’s cynicism is typical of us today too. We imagine that justice is impossible; that finding meaning again is impossible—so we walk away or we multiply our grief.  

Faith recognizes and faces the scenario where there is no immediate answer, no miraculous escape, no apology, and no last-minute cheque in the mail. When there is no answer to our questions or no quick end to our struggle, does that mean that it is meaningless?

I will strongly say no!

Real loss happens when a space opens in our hearts.
Real meaning happens when that space is filled once again.

Sometimes God delivers us from pain; sometimes God disciples us through pain. But always he is with us.

This is a wonder that is worth any and every struggle that this broken world has to offer. This is a wonder that reaches beyond our understandable but basic questions about grief and loss and the problem of evil. This is what I mean when I say that Christians have for a reason and anyone to grieve, brokenness, dysfunction, pain, and loss of our world. But also that Christians have more reasons than anyone not only to hope for a better world, not only to proclaim the reality of a better world, but also to devote every minute of our lives to the celebration and implementation of God‘s coming kingdom, we can spend our lives, trying to preserve what is, fighting to hold each moment as if in amber, so that it might never be lost. 

But when we do so, we remove the life and breath of God from our own bodies And try to create a life for ourselves. This is why David gave up—he was only focused on what he could do or could not do. David did not fully listen to the voice of God, nor fully give his heart back to God. If he had, his suffering would have been less. He would have found meaning sooner. How can I say this? Because God’s son died too. Because he knows David’s grief and he knows your grief. 

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Today I’ve talked mostly to people who are grieving. But before we close, I want to say one more thing to people who love and care for those who are grieving. As a pastor, I walk alongside many people who grieve for many different reasons. Especially when grief is acute, the greatest complaint and anger and hurt from those who are grieving is this. Listen up: they say, “somebody told me, ‘everything happens for a reason,’ or, ‘it’s all going to be okay! You just need time.’” If you are caring for someone who is grieving, DO NOT say these things! When we grieve, we long not to hear that everything will be okay, but to experience it. Your kind and well-intentioned words, when a loved one grieves, will only draw more attention to the gap between how the world is supposed to be and how your loved one is experiencing it. It will make their pain even more acute, and, what’s more, it will make your friend feel like you are not with them in the grief or loss—you are far away, living in a world where everything’s the way it’s supposed to be. Allow me to give you one final example as we close.

When Kaylee and my dear friend died in Spain last month, I went to see his body and to find closure for myself, but also to sit with his wife and family and friends. This is a universal human experience. When we grieve, others come to sit with us. Jews sit Shiva (seven). They grieve for seven days. Irish people have a wake, where the community gathers together. Every culture has it’s own variation and its own way, but always in grief we gather together and we sit together. As I traveled last month I did a lot of sitting. I sat on planes for hours. I sat in Andrew and Gerda’s living room and cried and laughed. I sat in the funeral home. I sat at a church service. And all the while, I wondered, why do we people do this? Why do we come from even great distances, just to sit together? 

And then I realized: we do it because we learned it from God. Whether it is consciously a choice we make, or simply an inviolable part of being an image-bearer of God, we go great distances in grief and loss to sit with those who are hurting because this is what God did with us. While we were dead in our sins, Christ came and lived with us. And Paul tells us that we always carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies, so that the life of Christ might also be revealed in our bodies. We go and sit with others in grief so that God, who is in us, might also sit with them. We do not then need to feel pressure to say something or to comfort or to solve. God himself will give the right words in supernatural ways when the time is right. When we love others who are grieving, we need only to go and sit with them—to testify in our bodies: I look forward to the day when I will finally see the friend who has been walking alongside me and sitting with me every day of my life. I will not meet him then, but I will know him then. I will go to him and know him; and he will return to me.

Let’s pray.

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