In the entire 3 year Lectionary reading cycle this is the only time we dip into Lamentations. Most preachers and readers will say that’s a good thing. I certainly said that when I first encountered this text. I mean, what do you do with 6 short verses of pure lament?
That how I felt until I thought of my friend and former parishioner, Susan (not her real name). Can you imagine what it is like to lose everything? That’s what happened to Susan. At the age of 58 she had to retire from her beloved job as a teacher, due to a childhood brain injury that rendered her increasingly unable to function in the classroom. So she lost her income. Her physical health followed that downhill plunge, along with increasing emotional distress. Then she lost her ability to drive. Now she sits in her tiny condo far from friends, with no family, and no way to get around, utterly isolated and overwhelmed by life. So she cries and cries, begging for help, thrashing about in her agony, trying to trust her God, but crushed by her problems.
Numerous people try to help, but it’s never enough. Nothing is ever enough. Her friends get frustrated by her unsolvable difficulties and by her constant complaint. Recently, she was perseverating over the event that resulted in the loss of her driving privileges. It has become the center of her pain. And, I, compassionate counselor that I am, told her that it was one event and it was done and she needed to get over it. “Don’t let one event ruin the rest of your life,” I said in my best prophetic voice. (Don’t bombard me with well-deserved insults, just keep reading.)
That’s when my study of Lamentations 1 pierced my heart like a two edged sword. Lamentations 1 says, in effect, “It’s OK to cry. Cry your heart out, for now at least. Don’t stem the flow; let your tears roll down like a river.” Unlike the Psalms of lament, most of Lamentations doesn’t address God, asking for relief from the causes of the tears. It simply weeps at the mind numbing horror that has overwhelmed the people of God. Lamentations is pure lament, and I need to hear it. So does Susan. And so does your church. So preach it, sister and brother!
To do that you’ll need to help folks understand the historical setting. This is a post-apocalyptic reflection after Judah has been conquered by Babylon and, more to the point, Jerusalem has been utterly destroyed. What our last reading in Jeremiah 32 predicted has happened with incomprehensible devastation. Here the focus is on Jerusalem, the deserted city. Our reading describes the destruction by comparing the now lonely city to what it had been.
That description is very carefully crafted. In fact, this outpouring of raw grief is a meticulously constructed poem. Each of the five laments in this book has 22 verses, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. (Except the middle lament in chapter 3, which has 66 verses, 3 x 22.) Indeed, each verse begins with the successive letters of that alphabet. Further, this alphabetic acrostic poem is filled with what one scholar called “eerily unsettling images.” In other words, someone (tradition says it was Jeremiah, modern scholars aren’t so sure) has expended a great deal of creative energy to make this raw lament just right. Such sorrow deserves the best. We might call it “a grief observed (a marvelous book by C.S. Lewis).”
Further, to preach this faithfully, you’ll need to be aware of the deep theology rumbling just below the surface and erupting occasionally into full view (cf. verse 5). First, the writer assumes that these cursed Babylonians who have ruined our lives are actually agents of divine retribution. Though they were the hands and feet that did the work of destruction, it was God himself who destroyed the city and the temple. Why would God do such an unthinkable thing? Because of Israel’s blatant God-defying sin and covenant breaking rebellion. That was the root cause of Israel’s woes.
And though lament and cries for redress of the enemy are understandable, Lamentations says that the proper response in the wake of judgment should be sincere repentance. Thus, this book that begins with lament ends with repentance.
In between the lament and the repentance are some of the loveliest passages in Scripture about God’s continuing love and merciful use of punishment: “his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (3:22-23).”
Here are some of the details of this lament that should give color and texture to your sermon. Note how the writer shows us the desolation of Jerusalem by contrasting the present with the past. The once thriving city is now deserted. Jerusalem is like a woman: once a wife, now a widow; once a queen, now a slave; once a mother, now childless as all her children have “gone into exile….”
That brings us to the depth of her sorrow; “there is none to comfort her.” Does it get any sadder than that? You’ve lost it all and there is no one to comfort you. (At least Susan has me, poor comforter that I am.) All your “lovers” (in Israel’s case the false gods after which she had run with idolatrous lust) and all your “friends” (in Israel’s case the surrounding nations to whom she had appealed for help against the Babylonians)—all of them gone or now enemies.
Now, from the image of Jerusalem as a forlorn widow, the text moves to the nation of Judah “gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place.” Those last haunting words come directly from God’s warning to Israel as they took possession of the Promised Land, their land of rest, in Deuteronomy 28:65. For centuries, Israel knew that if they forsook Yahweh they would lose their resting place. And now they have.
As a result, the rhythms and rituals of life have been completely disrupted. The roads to Jerusalem are deserted as “no one comes to her appointed feasts,” leaving the priests to groan and the maidens to grieve. Those who opposed God’s people all those years have now become their masters. The princes of Judah have become as feeble as a starving deer pursued by hunters. In one image after another, the reversal of fortune of God’s chosen people is depicted in heartbreaking detail.
Then, erupting to the surface comes the deep theology of divine retribution in the disturbing sentence in verse 5. “The Lord, Yahweh, our covenant God whose lovingkindness endures forever, has brought her grief because of her many sins.” By the rivers of Babylon Israel asked again and again, how did this happen? Why did it happen? The prophet speaks God’s truth into Israel’s grief. It’s your fault. Hard as that was to hear, Israel needed to hear that or they would never have repented.
But that prophetic explanation didn’t make the pain any less. In fact, it increased it. So the ancient people of God lamented. As you preach this text, it is important to linger on their lament as a way of eliciting and validating the lament of God’s people today. While we must be careful not to imply that all suffering is caused by our sin, we must also allow the suffering to weep. Sometimes all you can do is mourn. That is perfectly legitimate, even if your grief is tied to your sin.
In fact, if you don’t lament, if your repress your sorrow, it can go underground and cause any number of deep problems. In a culture that practices denial and amnesia, Lamentations encourages truth telling. Speak the truth about how you feel and let the tears flow. Your tears aren’t isolated tears; they are part of the river of tears that flows through the story of God’s people throughout the ages.
And that means that the church must learn to value lament. As The New Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “What seems to be required from the churches… in the face of suffering, therefore, is not, initially at least, answers, dogmas, or solutions. Instead, what is needed is a profoundly expanded capacity to hear the pain of the afflicted.”
But there is a place for answers, dogmas, solutions, that is, the Gospel. Which is to say that we cannot stop with lament. We should not discourage it, as I did with my friend Susan. But encouraging lament cannot be our last word. The last word in Lamentations is a call to return to the God whose ways are often inscrutable. And that means we must call people to the ultimate act of our mysterious God—the Word becoming flesh. At the heart of the Story is the incarnation of God, who became the Man of Sorrows.
These sad words from Jeremiah actually help us flesh out that familiar title from Isaiah 53. There is a sense in which the church is Jerusalem, the lonely widow whose children have been taken by the enemy. Often it seems as though there is no one to comfort us in this sad world. But even as Jeremiah identified with sinful Israel in its lament, giving voice to the sorrow of the very people he prophesied against, so Jesus identifies with the sorrow of his sinful church. Jeremiah is a type of Christ. This is why some parts of the worldwide church use Lamentations during the last 3 days of Holy Week to give voice to our sorrow and Christ’s.
But the Christ did more than sympathize and empathize with the suffering of his people. He actually took upon himself the sins that ultimately cause all suffering. He even went into exile in his death (“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), so that we can have “a resting place.” As one scholar put it, “the verses in our passage, which speak of desolation, judgment, humiliation, and mourning… become not a piece of descriptive history or emotional outpouring, but a prophecy fulfilled in the person of Christ himself, the one who ‘suffers’ for the ‘multitude of the nations’ transgressions (verse 5), much like Isaiah’s suffering servant.” Further, when the Incarnate Word went back to the Father, he gave us another Comforter to be with us forever.
Thus, the bottomless lament of our text leads us finally to the bottomless care of the very God who not only hates our sin, but also loves us so much that he sent the Man of Sorrows to make our joy complete. So, preach the importance of lament, but above all preach Christ who came to restore “the splendor [of] the daughter of Zion.”
I am writing this piece on September 11, the 19th anniversary of the terrorists’ attacks in America, an event that left a nation in mourning. Since then we have other reasons to mourn as a people. We have discovered the sad truth about such events as enunciated by Frank Yamada. “National tragedies threaten to render communities speechless. The collective grief can be overwhelming.” Thank God we have biblical passages like Lamentations 1 to help us give voice to our sorrow. But thank God even more that we have a Savior who has come to bear our griefs and sorrows with us and for us.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 6, 2019
Lamentations 1:1-6 Commentary