I don’t think I’ve ever preached from this book of poems called Lamentations that sits between Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke for God during the time of exile, offering both words of judgment and hope. Although tradition suggests that Jeremiah is the author of these poems, that’s rather unlikely, but it’s clear that they were written during the exile. They speak of that day when the people of Judah watched the Babylonians destroy the city of Jerusalem and its Temple, and then carry off its king and the leading members of society into exile. These were trying times and so a book of Lamentations seems appropriate.
Although we may not use words like “lamentations” or “lament” very often in our daily speech, because they have a variety of meanings they can be useful words.
Lament can mean “I’m sorry.” I’ve done my share of this kind of lamenting.
It can also refer to mourning or grieving, which we do on occasion. Just this past week we have grieved our loss of a beloved member of this congregation.
It also refers to the act of complaining, which most of us have been known to do on occasion.
Although we find all three versions of this word in these poems, we also find a word of hope. That word of hope can be found in this morning’s reading. But before we get to that word, it would be wise to hear the word of lament so we can get a sense of what the people who sang these songs of lament were feeling as they endured exile. The first poem begins:
1 Oh, no! She sits alone, the city that was once full of people.
Once great among nations, she has become like a widow.
Once a queen over provinces, she has become a slave.
2 She weeps bitterly in the night, her tears on her cheek.
None of her lovers comfort her. All her friends lied to her;
they have become her enemies. (Lam. 1:1-2 CEB).
Do you hear the grief and contrition present in these words? Things have gone horribly wrong. They used to be part of a great nation, but now they sit alone and abandoned. Their enemies have lied to them and there’s no one left to console them.
Now the residents of the city face homelessness, even as the city “remembers all her treasures from days long past. When her people fell by the enemy’s hand, there was no one to help her. Enemies saw her, laughed at her defeat” (Lam. 1:7 CEB). They suffer the bitterness of nostalgia of what was, along with the derision from their enemies. Now they are nothing more than the laughingstock of the neighborhood.
Not only did their enemies laugh at them, but it seems that God may be responsible for their plight. It is YHWH who commanded their enemies to surround them and cause them to suffer. Do you hear an echo of Job’s complaint in these words? Why has God done this to them? The poet answers this question on behalf of the nation “I have sinned.” We have brought this act of judgment on ourselves, because we have put our trust in ourselves rather than in God.
So how do you feel about this idea that God might stand in judgment? How do you square this idea with our confession that God is love?
When we read the words of the prophets, such as Jeremiah or Ezekiel, we hear words of judgment. They make it clear that God will not abide our arrogance or injustice. If you’re like me, the prophetic word can make us uncomfortable.
The prophets were never very popular in their own day. Many of them died rather horrible deaths. Walter Brueggemann has suggested that the prophets spoke of two narratives – one narrative is God’s narrative that focuses on justice and compassion, especially for the poor and the outsider. The other narrative, which he calls the “Dominant Narrative,” can be defined as “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism” [Brueggemann The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, p. 4]. This narrative speaks of self-sufficiency. It’s the narrative of selfishness where we declare our independence from God and from our neighbor. It’s a rather attractive narrative because it leads us to believe that we can control our own destiny, but as the poet reminds us, such thinking is rather short-sighted.
Do you find this to be a rather ironic word for the Sunday before we celebrate Independence Day? On Wednesday we’ll celebrate our freedom as a nation with parades and fireworks, but what is the nature of our freedom? Are we really free to do whatever we please with no thought of God or neighbor?
Of course we hear these words at a time when many people living in our country are experiencing distress. All the polls suggest that a majority of Americans don’t think that the nation is going in the right direction. There’s a lot of fear and frustration. Indeed, there’s a lot of lamenting going on, but is it complaining or is it a word of contrition? Do we see ourselves as part of the problem or is it the other person?
One the questions that the Listening Team, which gathered the other evening to give an interim report on our Listening Campaign, is asking is – what community concerns do you have? We’re hearing concerns about health care, the economy, and the state of the church – not just this church, but the church in general. Although we’re not living in exile, we seem perplexed about the way things are.
When it comes to figuring out who is responsible for all this bad news, who do you think is responsible? Are you responsible or is it someone else?
Yes, there’s a lot of lamenting going on in our midst, and we might be among the lamenters. But, even as we hear this word of lamentation, we also hear a word of hope. I know you’ve been waiting for this word to come. But it doesn’t come until the middle of the book, after the word of judgment and lamentation is heard. But then, seemingly out of nowhere we hear this word about God’s faithfulness and love. The poet declares:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22-23 NRSV).
Just when you thought God had abandoned you, we hear that God is indeed faithful. And this word has inspired one of the great hymns of the faith, which we’ve already sung this morning.
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
there Is no shadow of turning with thee;
Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not;
as thou has been thou forever wilt be.
Yes, God is faithful and loving.
The question is – are you ready to embrace this faithful God? Are you ready to trust your lives to God? To whom do you give your allegiance?
Judah had suffered destruction and exile because it put its trust in its military rather than in God, and they suffered the consequences when the Babylonians marched into the city. Will this be our story?
Or will you entrust your lives to the God who is faithful? Can you sing:
Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning, new mercies I see;
all I have needed thy hand hath provided --
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
The poet invites us to sit and wait in silence for God’s deliverance, because even though things might look bad, surely God “won’t reject forever.”
God may cause us grief, but God will also show us compassion, because God doesn’t enjoy inflicting suffering on us. If that was true, this God of ours would be a rather sadistic god, who wouldn’t warrant our worship and service. Instead, the God who is just is also the God whose steadfast love never ceases. Is this not the answer to our lamentations?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2012