A sermon delivered by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on October 3, 2010.
The older I get, the more amazed I am by our Bible!
Take that little-read, little Old Testament book of Lamentations, for example. It is so dismal and dark in outlook that you would think it has no business in holy scripture. Lamentations is a collection of five poems in five chapters, and is the supreme illustration the “lament” in scripture. A lament is a deep, dark expression of suffering and sorrow. And it is more common in scripture than you might think. One-third of the 150 Psalms are either individual or communal laments. Every prophetic book of the Old Testament except Haggai contains at least one lament, and the book of Jeremiah contains six. The book of Job is considered a lament of sorts. And then there is Lamentations, the only book of the Old Testament that contains nothing but laments.
It’s interesting to me that we Protestants make so little use of Lamentations. We can go for years without ever hearing or talking about it. Maybe we’re so enamored with the power of positive thinking that’s we’ve forgotten the power of brutally honest confession.
Meanwhile, our orthodox Jewish friends read the book of Lamentations in worship once a year on the anniversary of the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. And once a week on Friday afternoons, you will find Jews reading the book of Lamentations before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Our Roman Catholic friends usually read from Lamentations in worship once a year during the last three days of Holy Week.
All the while, Protestant preachers typically avoid the dreariness of Lamentations for dear life. But on this Day of Worldwide Communion, when the Common Lectionary recommended Lamentations for our Old Testament reading, I decided to bite the bullet and dive into Lamentations, a book I am embarrassed to say I have only preached from one other time in 30 years of ministry.
Lamentations is dark precisely because it reflects on a dark period of Jewish history—the fall of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah in 587 B.C. Jerusalem, which had been inhabited since 3000 B.C. had swelled in population over time with thousands of Jewish citizens, and the City of David was unquestionably the Crown Jewel of Israel.
But after its devastating defeat by the Babylonian empire in 587, Jerusalem was a shell of its former self. Only 4000 Israelites survived the Babylonian exile. Gone were the political and religious leaders of Israel. Gone were the Temple and the worshiping community of Israel. Those Jews who were left lived a miserable existence. They were so poor they lived in the streets, so hungry they ate their own offspring, so desperate they gave up on God. Almost.
And so the author of Lamentations 3 (perhaps Jeremiah, but we are not certain), a survivor of this national nightmare, writes,
He (The enemy? God?) has broken my teeth with gravel;
He has trampled me in the dust.
I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is
And so I say, “My splendor has gone
And all that I hoped for from the Lord” (Lamentations 3:16-18).
Just when it seems the darkness of Lamentations will suffocate us to death, a glimmer of light appears, and a faint breeze of hope blows across our tearful faces. In the middle of his meltdown, the author of Lamentations practices some spiritual disciplines that lift him to a new place.
For example, he remembers his past honestly and grieves his pain openly.
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
The bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
And my soul is downcast within me.
It is so tempting for us to run from our pain, to gloss over our suffering. Maybe our problem is a theology that says good Christians will never fall into despair. Maybe our problem is our pride that will not allow us to share openly our deepest grief.
For whatever reason, we refuse to tell others and even ourselves the unvarnished truth about our lives. We deny our hurts and hide our heartaches, and do our best to forget the pain of our past.
Ironically, this refusal to remember honestly and grieve openly prevents our healing. The author of Lamentations knows this, and he lets it all hang out, because he knows in doing so his remembering will lift him to a new place of hope.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed.
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Old Testament scholar James Bruckner notes that the author of Lamentations displays a “ferocious” hope, a hope that will not give up despite the grim evidence that God is absent and hope is dead. What helps him hope is the sudden flicker of memory in his frazzled brain of a God whose love is so great and whose faithfulness so steadfast that hope is still possible despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This man only has enough hope for today. When he awakes in the morning he looks for every scrap of grace, every morsel of mercy he can find to carry him through the day. It’s a one-day-at-a-time way to live. And it works.
In the meantime, he’s waiting patiently and expectantly for what the Lord will do. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion: therefore I will wait for him…it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
It was a long wait, but it would be worth it. Almost 600 years later, Jesus, the Son of God would come. Once again, God would be forced to punish his disobedient people. But this time, something was different, very different. This time, God absorbed his own punishment through the crucifixion of his only begotten Son. Make no mistake – the punishment was brutal, so brutal Jesus expressed his own desperate lament on the cross when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Today, I would guess that some of us are asking the same question. We are full of despair, but wouldn’t think of admitting it to anybody, not even ourselves. Today let me recommend another way. Don’t hide and avoid—remember honestly and grieve openly. Don’t give up and give in. Hope ferociously and wait patiently for what God will do.
In the meantime, receive these symbols of God’s great faithfulness on the table. Let’s break the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of the One who demonstrated for all time and all people God’s great love for us.