The Blessing of Tears

Though this is a season of joy, the reality is that it can also be a time of lament and grief. Tears are not incompatible with faith.*

*From Advent in Plain Sight, a daily devotional by Jill Duffield

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Psalm 126, Revelation 7:13-17

What do you think of when you think of Advent?

In the Advent devotional book that our Sunday school class and small group are reading, last Thursday’s devotional talked about a priest at a Christian college asking this question of a group of students.  They said – preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

The priest listened but then said in an exasperated voice, “No one ever thinks of the Second Coming.”[1]

But that is exactly what our Advent readings for last week and this week are all about. Preparing for the second coming of Jesus is an important part of Advent.

We don’t want to be surprised when he does come – like the priest who came running into the Pope’s office one day and said, “Jesus is coming! What do we do?”  The pope said, “Look busy.”

Our readings for today are remembering what God has already done, sent us Jesus, and looking forward to what God will do in the future.  Psalm 126 is remembering their tears, and Revelation 7 tells us that we can look forward to a future when God will wipe away our tears.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

    the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,

    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 7:16-17)

Sometimes I think we get the impression that the wiping away of tears, the end of all sorrow, happens now, and that as Christians we’re supposed to be happy all the time.  At Christmas, this gets amplified. One of the most pervasive Christmas songs seems to be “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” …With the kids jingle belling / And everyone telling you be of good cheer…[2]

But not everyone feels so cheery. Why not? Maybe we’re missing loved ones who have died, or we’re unable to spend the holidays with people who are far away.  Dealing with depression makes even being with loved ones for holiday celebrations hard. Or if you or someone you take care of has health issues, the holiday can be just another day of making it through the day.

Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” Psalm 126 remembers how God brought people through a hard time.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” (Ps. 126:1)

This alludes to two of the big stories in the Bible about how God restored God’s people:

  • In Exodus, God freed the people from slavery in Egypt and brought them through the desert and into the promised land. When they were thirsty, God provided water.  When they were hungry, God provided manna and quail.
  • In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we see that God released the people from exile and captivity in Babylon and brought them back to Israel, and helped them restore the city of Jerusalem and the temple.

When God restored our fortunes, it was like a dream. And they said, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.” (Ps. 126:3)

Can you think of a time when has God turned things around for you and you were so happy that you cried tears of joy?  It seems like sometimes the harder and longer the struggle, the greater the joy.

Maybe there ought to be some sort of mathematical equation:

Length of time waiting x depth of despair = total joy when things change for the better + tears

The musical Annie was on TV this week. You might know the story.  Annie is an orphan who lives in a girls’ home where the housemother, Mrs. Hannigan, is a tyrant who makes the girls work all day at scrubbing floors and doing laundry.  The girls all dream of getting out of the orphanage and getting into a forever home with loving parents. 

The musical is set during the depression of the 1920’s, when many people were out of work and living on the street or in shanty towns, scrounging for food and clothing, struggling to survive.  People dreamed of things changing for the better, so when Mr. Warbucks takes Annie out of the orphanage and to his luxurious mansion with plenty of food and clothing and servants, Annie is living the dream.  She sings, “I think I’m gonna like it here.”

Tears are a blessing when they are tears of joy and we can say, “The Lord has done great things for us.”

But then Psalm 126 says, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.” (Ps. 126:4) The psalmist is asking God to do again what God has done before – turn things around; turn us around.  Bring restoration like providing water in the desert.

Rain is a welcome change in a dry season.  But ideally God will send rain more than once, so we will pray for rain many times, maybe saying, “Thank you God for sending the rain before. Please do it again.”

Our anguish over a dry season might be one way that we do like the psalmist says and “sow with tears.”  (Ps. 126:5) Planting seeds is an act of faith and trust that God will send the rain and make things grow.

What hard things have we endured that brought us to tears even as we kept on trusting God?

I must confess I have a hard time with tears. I noticed when I worked at a corporate job that women who were less inclined to be emotional were more likely to get promoted.  Our culture encourages us to be strong and NOT cry. We’re uncomfortable with tears, and we often make people, even children, feel ashamed for crying, maybe without even realizing we’re doing it.

But tears are a normal part of life.  On the TV series Star Trek Next Generation, there’s an episode in which the crew of the starship Enterprise meets an alien lifeforce that calls humans, “Ugly giant bags of mostly water.”  It sounds harsh, but the android crewmember named Data points out that the aliens are correct. “Humans are 90% water surrounded by a flexible container.”[3]

We’re made of water and we leak in all sorts of ways, including through the tear ducts in our eyes.  And when God touches our hearts, it’s like poking a bag full of water, and we leak. We cry.  Sometimes tears of joy, and sometimes tears of sadness.

God cares about our joy and our sorrow.  Psalm 56 says, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle.” (Ps. 56:8)

I went a lot of years without crying. I bragged about being tough.  I was the one who could go to an emotional movie and get through it without crying.  Consequently, at work, I was the one who got sent to fire people, because I could do it without any emotion.  It wasn’t because my life was painless. It was because I refused to acknowledge the pain.  There are problems with that approach, though.  Stress builds up when there’s no release.  Our bodies break down when we don’t find ways to relieve the stress.  And the walls that I had put up to keep from dealing with the pain and sorrow were also keeping God out. I was only engaging with God on an intellectual level, keeping God at a distance.  I was missing out on the heart of God, God’s love. And I was missing out on God’s peace.

All that changed one day at worship conference. As you might imagine, it seemed like every sermon and every song was about letting God in, turning to God, letting go of burdens and letting Jesus help us carry them.  I hadn’t known how badly I needed to do this, and by the second or third day, I couldn’t keep the walls up around my emotions any longer.  I let God in and I cried.  It was ugly.  I’d been holding it in for a long time.  It was a big saying-yes-to-Jesus moment in which God turned my heart of stone into a heart of flesh.  I had tears for days and days and days.  I was so softhearted that I cried about everything.  It was wonderful to be so open to the Holy Spirit working in me, but people started getting annoyed and saying things like, “Are you going to cry about everything now?”  I had held in the tears for so long that I think I had a lot of crying to do to make up for lost time.

In the scripture we read from Revelation 7, we see a vision of heaven, full of people from every tribe and nation, gathered around the throne of God, worshipping and praising God, dressed in white robes.  The elder explains, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:14)

Washing robes in blood would make them red, or reddish brown, actually, not white.  But Revelation is a dream, a vision full of symbolism and imagery that was written to help people who were living in a time when Roman emperors were known for torturing and killing people, and for especially going after Christians.  There was a high level of paranoia, and so people who said out loud how horrible it was would likely be killed for that.

In the book We Make the Road By Walking, writer and Pastor Brian McLaren, explains, “As literature of the oppressed, the Book of Revelation provided early disciples with a clever way of giving voice to the truth.” They couldn’t say, “The Emperor is a violent fraud,” which would get them arrested, so Revelation tells stories about monsters.[4]

In Revelation 7, Jesus is both the Lamb and the Shepherd who atoned for our sins on the cross. Washing with his blood is a symbolic way of saying that Jesus’ death makes us clean, as if we’d never sinned.  The people in white robes are the ones who didn’t give up on trusting God or believing in Jesus, even when it was hard, even when they might have gotten killed for it. This is a picture of restoration.

Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy.

There are another kind of tears that we can’t forget, tears of compassion.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can’t do that without compassion.  We think of compassion as being kind and helpful, but it goes deeper than that.  Passion means to suffer, and com means with, so compassion literally means “to suffer with.”[5]

Romans 12:15 says we are to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

It’s why we have made a commitment as a church to work on fighting systemic racism and structural poverty. Part of that includes acknowledging the ways in which we have contributed to maintaining those systems, even when we didn’t realize it, and being sorrowful about that.  This is one of the ways we join with the writer of Psalm 126 in saying, “Restore as again, God.” Help us to know how to change our ways and make amends with those who have been hurt by us.

Being willing to shed tears of sorrow, joy, and compassion is part of being followers of Jesus who trust more in God’s love and grace than in the worldly values of power and greed, and who work together to spread God’s love.  This is not the easy way, and in fact it’s often quite a struggle, sometimes even as difficult as the struggle we see Harry Potter having in the fifth movie based on the book by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  In the midst of a duel between the evil Lord Voldemort and Professor Dumbledore, Voldemort takes over Harry Potter’s mind and tries to turn him from good to evil.  Lord Voldemort taunts Harry for being weak because he cares about people, but Harry fights back and says something really profound to Voldemort, “You’re the weak one. And you’ll never know love. Or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.[6]

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” (Rev 7:12)

Through Jesus Christ, we do know love and friendship that goes on into eternity. No matter how much we wander away from that love, no matter how many times we find ourselves calling out to God, “Restore us again,” we can know peace with God and with one another, and in death we will join the great crowd in heaven praising God forever and ever.

But we’re not there yet. We still have work to do.  Jesus is coming again.

What do we need to do to be ready?

[1] Jill Duffield, Advent in Plain Sight: A Devotion Through Ten Objects, Westminster John Knox Press, 2021, pg. 17-18.

[2] Eddie Pola / George Wyle, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” lyrics © Demi Music Corp. D/B/A Lichelle Music Company. Accessed on Google via Lyricsfind December 3, 2021.

[3] Star Trek Next Generation: Home Soil, Season 1, Episode 18  Watch the scene here:

[4] McLaren, Brian D. We Make the Road by Walking (pp. 255-256). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.



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