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Look for a Lachrymose Lent

February 24, 2002

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17


Tony Grant



Human beings break down and cry for a million reasons. Some of us have our tear ducts so close to our eyes, that we can, as they say, "cry at the drop of a hat." But not CBS anchorman, Dan Rather. This tough journalist is widely known for his aloofness and apparent imperturbability in times of crisis. That is why the country was amazed to watch Rather cry when appearing on the Letterman Show in September, 2001, following the terrorist attack. Dan Rather does not cry. But He does. President Bush likewise teared up in an informal news conference, confessing, "I'm a lovin' kind of guy." For many, it humanized both men.

Crying is not so hard for a lot of us. [box of Tissue] Here is a box of tissue. Have a good cry. Our kids cry when their feelings are injured, when Mommy leaves them with the sitter, or when the teacher scolds them for being disruptive in class. We cry during arguments, at the loss of a loved one, when watching a movie, listening to a song, when a passing thought runs across our minds, when our children do us proud, when the daughter gets married or because the daughter is not married. We cry tears of revenge, seduction, escape and empathy; tears of pleasure and pain. The biblical history of tears shows us David crying at the death of Absalom, Abraham over the death of Sarah. Joseph cried when meeting Benjamin. Even Jesus, according to that famously short verse in John's gospel, wept.

Some have the ability to get moist in public on cue. Jimmy Swaggart wept profusely in an attempt to keep his ministry afloat. Sally Struthers gets moist on TV as she pleads for your support for Save the Children. George Bush can tear up during moving invocations of patriotism. The mother of all weepers, Tammy Faye, is prone to weeping adventures that assure Estee Lauder a bright economic future.

Tears are always a goad to action, observes Tom Lutz in Crying, a ground-breaking book that details the history of tears from the 14th century B.C. to the present day. The tears of public figures can spur people to pity or empathy, and then to action. Although tears were once seen as a sign of emotional instability in men, they are now considered to be proof that a particular man has feelings, and that he is strong enough to show deep emotion.

We are today observing the second Sabbath in Lent - the season of the church year that might appropriately be called "lachrymose." I admit that lachrymose is not a word I would ordinarily use, but I was caught in a fit of alliteration and was looking for an "L" word to go with Lent. Lachrymose means tearful or sorrowful.

Ancient Greek and Roman tombs contain narrow-necked vessels called lachrymatories, which are thought by some to have contained the tears of mourners. Nor is this strange tradition dead. Glass blowers will craft a lachrymatory for your own use. You can, for example, mingle your tears with a friend's and store the resulting fluid in your new lachrymatory.

Prisoner of Sin

That seems like a rather strange custom to me, but sometimes the Bible calls upon us to cry. The prophet Joel issues a call for tears of repentance.

We cry because we are sinners. Sometimes we may be unaware of how great a grip sin has in our lives. We think we have everything under control until we try a little self-discipline or self-denial. The moment we say "no," we discover there is another voice within us saying "yes."

We're like the soldier who cried out to his commanding officer, "I have taken a prisoner!"

The officer shouted back, "Great! Bring him on in."

"He won't come," complained the soldier.

"Well, then, come on in yourself," the irritated officer commanded.

"I can't. He won't let me." The soldier replied.

Aren't we that way with sin. We think we have sin a prisoner, until we actually try to do something about our sinful habits, and find that we cannot.

We need to hear the words that God says through the prophet in 2:12, "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning" (2:12).

Day of the Lord

Joel begins his prophecy with the standard biblical expression for getting people's attention: "Blow the trumpet in Zion" (v. 1). Sounding the trumpet was used both for summoning the people to action (especially military action), and for announcing important news (e.g., 1 Samuel 13:3, where Saul used a trumpetblast to announce Jonathan's defeat of the Philistines at Geba. 1 Kings 1:34 mentions that trumpets were used in announcing the coronation of king Solomon).

In Joel 2, sounding the trumpet was used to raise an alarm. This is one of the most common uses of the trumpet in prophetic literature. Joel raises the alarm not for the usual reasons, such as preparation for battle, but to announce the impending arrival of the "Day of the LORD," an important concept found only in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. The "Day of the Lord" forms one of the central themes in Joel, occurring five times in three chapters. Only the prophet Zephaniah, probably writing decades or even centuries after Joel, uses the image more frequently than Joel (six times).

The prophetic traditions concerning the day of the LORD are consistent: Whatever the people may have expected on that appointed hour, judgment is an essential element of it, often directed against Israel and its leaders. The day of the LORD may originally have designated the Sabbath, as its use in Revelation (1:10) suggests, but it quickly acquired the specialized meaning of the Lord's battle day (Jeremiah 6:10). It was this meaning that was apparently taken up in popular Israelite religion to salve a national consciousness frequently bruised by powerful neighbors.

However, the day of the LORD was far from a consoling image. The prophets insist that the notion that God would punish only other people and not Israel is a basic misunderstanding of the nature of God. Israel, no less than Israel's neighbors, is the object of the Lord's wrath on the day of justice. It is to this alarming news - "a day of darkness and gloom" (v. 2) - that Joel directs his hearers' attention in today's lesson.

But the prophet's message is of more than disaster; it is also hope. Joel understands the dual nature of God--executing punishment against evildoers on the one hand, but "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" (v. 13) on the other. Thus Joel says that Israel may yet avert the impending disaster through turning to the Lord "with all your heart" (v. 12). This was a basic belief in ancient Israel. It is embedded in Israel's most basic theological declaration, the Shema: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Israel's problem was Israel's divided affection--which was a more menacing threat to Israel's existence than any external enemy. Israel was quite willing to worship God, as long as they could also worship other gods and other things. But that was and is and unaccepted attitude to God. When Joel returns to the words "Blow the trumpet in Zion" in verse 15, it is to summon the people not to battle stations, but to the Lord's temple. There, "Between the vestibule and the altar" (v. 17), the priests (described as "the ministers of the LORD") intercede on behalf of a stricken Israel, devastated now not by political foes, but by an awareness of sin that manifests itself in a return to God "with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning" (v. 12).

Crocodile Tears

Joel emphasizes that this weeping and mourning must be genuine. His God is not interested in crocodile tears, or in any weeping that is designed to manipulate others. I have wondered where the myth that crocodiles produce tears of insincere remorse comes from. It is difficult to trace the origin of this particular story, but it is easy to see why it has become so popular. For an apparently remorseless creature such as a crocodile to actually weep over its victims is a memorable irony that has inspired considerable prose and created a phrase which is still popular today--crocodile tears.

In 13th century France, A Franciscan monk, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, wrote in his encyclopedia of natural sciences: "If the crocodile findeth a man by the brim of the water, or by the cliff, he slayeth him there if he may, and then weepeth upon him and swalloweth him at last."

The sixteenth-century slaver, John Hawkins, and his crew observed crocodiles in the Caribbean and reported that they would "cry and sobbe like a Christian body." In doing this, it was claimed, they would lure sympathetic victims into range before surprising them and devouring them. The imagery behind the story is so powerful that belief in it continued well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Even today, the phrase continues to be used in literature and the media.

The Lord is not looking for crocodile tears. The prophet Joel calls for a particular kind of weeping: That which is genuine, and which leads to repentance. To repent is to turn your life around and begin to walk in a new direction; it means to turn away from sin and idolatry, and turn toward God's will and God's way. "Return to the LORD, your God," implores the prophet, "for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" (v. 13).

Here's where the crying gets complex: It is not only a sign of sorrow over sin, but can be an expression of joy over God's goodness.

A poem says:

Tears of repentance have something of God.

Something of love, compassion, tenderness.

Coming from heaven, sacramental food.

If only I am willing to take, eat.

Sacrament of tears, closest communion.

As the red grapes are crushed to make the wine,

As the brown grain is crushed to make the bread,

So even am I crushed by my own sin.

But turning to God with tears of penance,

Weep also tears of forgiveness and joy.

We are invited to turn toward a gracious and forgiving God, not toward a vengeful and punishing Lord. God is "gracious," full of goodwill; "merciful," showing the love of a mother for her child; "slow to anger," waiting patiently for repentance; and full of "steadfast love," love which is grounded in God's promises to his people.

Parable of the Prodigal

Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal goes to a distant country, squanders his fortune in dissolute living, and then he "repents" - that is, he decides to turn himself around and return to his father. But Lloyd Ogilvie, the chaplain of the United States Senate, points out that although this story has become famous as the parable of the Prodigal Son, it really ought to be called "the parable of the Prodigal God!" After all, the father is God, and God is the real prodigal. God is the one who is extravagant, lavish, unrestrained and copious - in other words, "prodigal"--in his love. God's forgiveness knows no boundaries. His joy knows no restraint. He runs to meet us, according to the parable, puts his arms around us, kisses us, welcomes us home.

Real Repentance

The key thing to remember is that our crying - whether happy or sad - should result in changed behavior, changed attitudes, changed minds. The prophet Joel says, "Rend your hearts and not your clothing" (v. 13); change your insides and not just your outsides; make sure your fasting and weeping and mourning are part of a new walk, not just a new talk.

What Joel really hates is hypocrisy: People who say they are repenting but then fail to turn their lives around.

Barbara Brown Taylor argues that repentance is not complete until confession and pardon lead to actions that allow community to be restored. She suggests, "imagine going to your pastor and confessing your rampant materialism, your devotion to things instead of people, and your isolation from the poor whom Jesus loved."

"Then imagine being forgiven and given your penance: To select five of your favorite things - including perhaps your stereo system and your new diamond ear rings--and to match them up with five people who you know would love to have them. Then on Saturday, put your lawn mower in your trunk, drive down to public housing and offer to mow lawns for free until dark." Notice that none of this is standard punishment. None of it is designed to inflict pain on yourself. Instead, it is penance, which is for the purpose of showing that your life is turned around and that you are devoted to repairing relationships.

Crying and New Life

If you find yourself crying over your lost stereo, just remember: When you weep in the process of true repentance, you are crying the tears of new life.

This is no joke. Tears have long been thought to bring the dead to life. Long before scandal-prone politicians and religious leaders turned on the tears in a desperate attempt to save their careers, people made strong associations between crying and renewal of life. In the Egyptian story of the death of the god Osiris, the goddess Isis finds her brother Osiris dead and weeps over him. Her tears bring the dead god back to life. Similar stories are told of the Mesopotamian gods Marduk and Tammuz and of Ishtar and Gilgamesh.

But most important for us are the words of our Bible that make a link between tears and new life: "May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy," says Psalm 126. "Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy" (vv. 6). And the assurance of Jesus in Luke, "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh" (6:21). At the Last Supper, Jesus says, "Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy" (John 16:20).

Tears and new life - they are inextricably linked in the promises of our faith. Perhaps that is the way it must be. St. Anthony, the father of monasticism in the early fourth century, wrote to his disciples that they should weep in the sight of God In the Rule of the Master, the monks are told that crying should always accompany penitence. In the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, the monks are told that crying should accompany heartfelt prayer. Not only were tears one means of prayer, according to Benedict, they were the only pure form: "We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words."

In this Lachrymose Lent, we can assured that if we return to our gracious God with all our heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning, then we will discover a fullness of life that we have never known before. If we turn our lives around and work hard for the restoration of our relationships and our community, we will know a joy that we never thought possible.

Our tears will lead to resurrection life. That is something to cry about--to cry tears of joy. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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