Cheery this lection is not. The New Testament sermon commentary based on Luke 17 for this week is a bit of a challenging passage and so as I noted in that article, some preachers might be tempted to swap out this week’s Old Testament reading for the Gospel one but if so, then turning to this downbeat passage might make one keep hunting among this week’s Psalm and Epistle selections!
Lamentations 1 is just not a very happy text. But then, it is what one would expect from a book with a name like “Lamentations.” It would be startling to turn to such a book and find joyful ditties or sweet-sounding sentiments such as you might find inside the average Hallmark card. No, the dirge of sorrow that one reads in these six verses fits the bill for a book such as this.
It’s not our favorite thing in the Bible to read, however. And if the preacher were to focus on only these verses, one might worry about how such a sermon would turn out. If preachers are called to proclaim some version or another of the Good News of the Gospel in every sermon—if we want to point to Christ and to his kingdom in some way no matter what the text—then a passage like this one presents a mighty challenge.
But maybe contemporary discomfiture with a text like this runs deeper and is undergirded by other things we ought to ponder. After all, much of worship these days (at least in some churches today, including some of the largest and fastest growing congregations) does not give a lot of quarter to lament. As my friend Paul Ryan once noted, many churches now have what they dub as “Praise Teams” but few would ever dare to commission a “Lament Team.” Praise Teams stand in front of the congregation in part to help people sing better but many such teams that I have witnessed seem also to be standing up in front of everyone to send the signals as to how everyone should also be feeling on a given Sunday morning. Flashing smiles and beaming forth beatific facial expressions, some Praise Team members seem to say, “This is what you are supposed to look like when you come before God!”
But what if you don’t feel like that on a given week? Where is the person standing up in front of church who can send the signal that there is room in worship and in the congregation of God’s people to look and feel otherwise? Where is there room for what Walter Brueggemann has called “the Friday voice of faith”?
We are not very good at lamenting. What Christians in North America do seem pretty good at, however, is anger. We are able to give voice to our indignation over political figures, policies, and other features to the cultural landscape that tick us off. Some Christians are, therefore, pretty adept at making big, angry, accusatory placards to carry with them to rallies or to picket in front of the Supreme Court or something.
Anger and rebuke we’ve got. Lament and dirge . . . not so much.
I wonder what that says about us as a church? When we see things that are broken in our world—yes, even when the precise way in which they are broken is a cause of moral offense to us—should we react in anger or lament? What’s the source of each?
Anger seems to be a response borne of indignation, as though we had something better coming to us and someone let us down. Anger is sometimes called “love offended.” If we offer love to someone and act consistently loving toward them but get only hurt and abuse in return, we’re angry about that. We didn’t deserve it given what we had proffered in the first place. Or possibly anger can be the way holiness reacts to what is unholy. In the Bible God is never fundamentally an angry Deity—anger (as Abraham Heschel so well pointed out many years ago) is never a constitutive attribute of Yahweh in the manner it may be of certain Greek gods and such. But God is supremely holy, and thus many of the times when something of the wrath of God flares up in the Bible, it is because that holiness encountered something untoward and tawdry.
Of course, we Christians are called to holiness but we none of us as yet have holiness all sewn up. And we are called to be loving but we none of us as yet have love down pat, either. And it’s an open question just how much love the average Christian believer or entire congregation has consistently offered to the people around us in society who so often make us angry. When we get angry at society, we could say that maybe it stems from our holiness or our love but it’s an open question if we can really sell that idea (or if we really believe it ourselves). It seems more likely that we’re angry for more selfish reasons on a trajectory of the petulant child who pouts whenever she doesn’t get her way. Our anger, in other words, stems less from our holiness or love being offended and more from our sense of moral superiority and an inflated sense of our own piety. But those are not laudable sources from which to be angry.
In any event, as someone once wrote: the face of anger is never lovely, and it’s also, therefore, an unlikely emotion by which to promote the gospel.
But where would lament come from, yes, even lament over our society and its brokenness? Might this not be a more spiritually informed reaction to the sin and sorrow we see around us? Might not lament stem from a heartfelt wish that everyone could see things God’s way and live into God’s shalom. Lament may be our reaction when we sense how much better things could be if only God’s ways were followed and yet we must witness how far so many people are from that ideal. Lament may be what comes when we see people being hurt by their ignorance and their blindness to the ways of God—we weep not because so-and-so is such a bad person but because he or she is such an uninformed person. It’s sad.
Make no mistake: lament is a very different reaction than anger. And it may be the more spiritual reaction even as the face of lament—unlike the unlovely visage of anger—is the face that best brings forth and witnesses to the Gospel. Since we are not God and so cannot claim perfect holiness or perfect love directed at the world, our reaction to the world’s sin and brokenness should not be first of all anger—as though we have offered the world our best and it was rejected or as though we are ourselves so holy as to be offended by all who are less holy—but rather we should react with lament, with sheer heartbreak over what could be but is not. Even if the situations we survey are the result of sin—as was the case for Judah’s situation as it is described in Lamentations 1—even so we can lament as the author of Lamentations does.
A sermon on Lamentations 1 would not, on the face of the passage at least, seem to be one that would contain good news or grace. But perhaps if we help people to focus on the nature of lament and what it is that causes genuine lament, we will find a way to get back to grace after all. Perhaps it really is Christian lament over sin and brokenness that can provide us with the best opportunity to move people toward what’s good and lovely and gracious about the Christian life and the Gospel itself. And that may be a good news emerging out of lament after all!
It is not weak faith but strong faith that has the ability to lament. It takes courage to lament, especially if the lament is—like many laments in the Bible are—essentially a complaint to God for God’s own dereliction of duty. “You promised us thus-and-so, O God, and we got the opposite. You owe us! How long will you ignore the cries of our pleading??”
That’s plucky faith.
Elie Wiesel once wrote that for a Jewish person, you can be with God, for God, disappointed with God, or even angry with God but the one thing a true Jew can never be is to be without God. So long as God is in the picture, lament can happen, and so can praise and thanksgiving and lots of other things but the point is that it is not the person without God who laments but the person who is with God in some way and who knows better than anyone what the Lord God desires for our lives and for this cosmos generally.
The story is told that in one of the Nazi concentration camps where Jews were housed (and many eventually murdered) some of the rabbis and other Jewish leaders present decided one day to put God on trial for unfaithfulness. The entire trial essentially amounted to a lament for the broken condition of God’s world and now of God’s people. Arguments were made, witnesses were called, Scripture’s promises were read and put into the dock. Finally a verdict was pronounced: God was guilty as charged of letting go of his promises. They were about to begin pondering what kind of a sentence to pass when they had to break off for the day.
It was time, you see, for evening prayers.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 2, 2016
Lamentations 1:1-6 Commentary