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Sorrow Is Better Than Laughter

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2008-07-06 (am) Lamentations 1 Sorrow Is Better Than Laughter

          How!  In this one word, you can hear Jeremiah’s shock.  In seeing the shattered Jerusalem, he is astonished.  The inconceivable has happened.  The city that was so great, so beautiful, so honoured is destroyed.

          Looking around, Jeremiah can hardly believe he is seeing the same city.  The people are gone, exiled.  Only a few remain.  Those who remain are scared, they are scarred, they are barely alive.  The city that once flourished is withered and destroyed.

          We are familiar with the fleeting nature of earth.  Nations crumble and fall.  The claims of greatness do not remain for long.

          But Jerusalem was supposed to be different.  It wasn’t protected by mere mortals, mere human strength.  God was her protector, her defender.  The city was founded by God.  Look at Psalm 132:13-14 “For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling: “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned.”

          But now, the city lies in ruin.  The foundations are laid bare.  Noting is as it was.  The temple, Solomon’s beautiful temple, which took seven years to build, plundered of all her treasure, and then burnt to the ground.  The king was driven into exile, forced to watch as the commanding conqueror killed his children, the people were scattered all over.  Nothing remotely close to what it was before.

          It is no wonder then, that the prophet exclaims, How!  The city that once influenced the world, the hustle and bustle of commerce, power and leadership, was empty.  She is like a widow.  The destruction, the devastation, the pain and the suffering sharpened Jeremiah’s grief.  And though we all know that grief can lead to despair and to cursing of God, Jeremiah did not allow himself to be overwhelmed. 

          And yet, Jeremiah forces himself to look, to witness the destruction with his eyes.  He writes it all down.  He looks plainly at the pain and suffering.  He confronts it.  He allows it to affect him.  He understands it; he begins to bear its burdens.  When we minister to those who are suffering, we need to show the same care and concern.  We need to sympathise and express sorrow as well.  That’s what Jeremiah is doing.  He’s giving voice to the city’s lament.  He is lamenting as well.

          And though it is natural, normal to go and comfort those in grief, Jeremiah tells us that there was no such relief, no such comfort for Jerusalem.

          The treaties that Jerusalem had made with foreign nations, those places where she had sold herself a like a prostitute, they have abandoned her.  She turned away from God, and turned to other nations for her protection.  But now, those friends are gone.  They offer her no comfort.

          There is no comfort, for even the sanctuary is destroyed.  The formal worship of God has ended.  The feasts, the worship services, the sacrifices, the celebrations were no more.  Now, it is clear from examples like Daniel that worship continued, and that worship is more than those acts that took place in the temple.  But the temple activities symbolised God’s grace and protection.  It was as though God was there with them, during those times.  But now they are no more.

          Jeremiah places supreme weight on this fact.  The temple and the worship there meant so much.  The people truly believed they were invincible as long as the temple stood.  They thought of it in the same way they did with the Ark of the Covenant.  When they carried it into battle, they won. 

          Though the slaughter of innocent men and women is bad, though there is great sorrow in the looting of homes, burning of fields, the confusion, the loss of everything was nothing compared to losing the temple.

          All of this has happened, Jeremiah says, not because they were a weaker army.  Not because the Babylonians were superior in military strength and tactics, all of this happened because God afflicted his people.  This is the account of His affliction. 

          Jeremiah directs the people’s attention to God.  The evils that have descended upon them proceeded from God, it is his judgement upon them.  This wasn’t a fluke.  It wasn’t simply a result of bad treaty making, and poor government.  This is from God.  And, Jeremiah says, God also is their source of consolation and comfort, as we will see.

          All this destruction took place because of Jerusalem’s many sins.

          When judgement happens, how do people react?

          Now, even non-believers will sometimes admit that they might have to face God, but whenever they think of God, they consider him unjust and cruel.

          This is true, I was commenting online with regard to Mergenthaler’s Order of Canada reward, and an atheist entered his comments concerning the capricious, unjust and cruel actions of “the God of the Old Testament.”

          And certainly, he seems right doesn’t he?  I mean the destruction of Jerusalem seems cruel and harsh, doesn’t it? 

          But the prophet Jeremiah is teaching his people, that the destruction was merited because of the serious nature of their sin.  They had not only sinned, but they had added to their sins.  They had piled up their sins.

          We have to understand this.  They were not people who merely sinned, then repented, then struggled against temptation, only then to fall into sin again.  No, they were people, generations of people who sinned, who were preached at concerning their sins, but who turned away from the true preachers and who surrounded themselves with false preachers.  They changed the law.  They said that their sin wasn’t really sin.  They said that God is loving and patient and kind and slow to anger.  So they kept on sinning, failing to identify sin as sin, and worshipping other gods, disobeying God their Father, and in this way, they heaped sin upon sin, upon sin, upon sin.  And they were punished.  Yes, they were punished harshly, but only in measure of their sin, as we shall see.

          Jerusalem felt God’s just judgement.  She groaned in agony.  She reflected, just as everyone does, on the good old days.  She remembered her splendour and honour.  But it was no more.  When we suffer, we remember the better times.  We wish for them, we long for them.  So too did Jerusalem, and since she once was so great, that made the suffering even more bitter.

          It is worse than that, though.  Jeremiah wants us to know that Jerusalem had been like a drunkard. She had been drunk on her own glory.  She could not see her sins.  But when she came under God’s affliction, she realised what her state was like.  She realised that she was in a mess.  She realised how far she’d fallen from God’s grace.

          Now, we must pay attention.  For what Jeremiah describes of Jerusalem is true in almost all humanity.  We must be aware, or we might fall into the same plight.  We must not become like Jerusalem.  God has blessed us, the church, the universal church with far more than He ever blessed Jerusalem.  We are God’s children.

          John Calvin gives us this warning, “Let us now, then, take heed lest we become stupid while God deals liberally with us; but on the contrary, let us learn to appreciate the blessings of God, and consider the end for which they have been given us, otherwise what is said here of Jerusalem will happen to us; for being too late awakened, we shall know that we were happy when God showed himself a father to us.”[1]

          Honestly, was the fall of Jerusalem any different than the fall of humanity at the beginning?  It was no different with Adam.  He had every good and excellent gift, yet he was not content with them, he exalted himself beyond limit.  But after his fall, he realised what he’d had, how much he’d lost.

          So let us be warned, as Christians, as a church.  Let us not abuse the gifts that God has given to us.  Let us use Jerusalem as an example.  Let us not grow weak in our faith.  Let us not grow weary in our service to God.  Let us not grow complacent with our discipline.  For God is extremely generous.  God is extremely patient and gracious.  It wasn’t as though it was one generation that sinned and met with judgement.  It was several generations, many, many generations that turned away from God.  But who nonetheless believed that they were still within God’s favour!

          We must be so careful!  Consider Jerusalem before she fell.  By outward sign, she looked like she had all God’s blessings.  God was with her, God was making her grow.  She was doing everything right.  But that was not the case!  God blessed her because of his faithfulness to David, and because of David’s faithfulness to God.  We must be so careful when we look at ourselves, at our church and at other churches.  Success today is not necessarily a result of present faithfulness.  Success today, blessing from God today could still be the blessing God bestows on account of the faithfulness shown from years ago.

          Therefore we must make every effort to attune our hearts to God, to be in His word and to come before him in all humility.

          Now, that is not the only lesson we’re able to learn from Jerusalem.  There is a lesson to learn about responding to God’s judgement.

          Unbelievers, as we’ve already briefly seen, turn against God and do not humble themselves.  They rage and argue with God, if they acknowledge God at all, and harden themselves against God.

          But believers do not.  They pause and reflect.  They look inward.  They pray, as king David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

          Like David, we not only open our hearts to God, we readily accept his righteous judgement.  We accept the punishments he gives out.  For we know our sins.

          The destruction of Jerusalem reminds us that God truly does not treat us as our sins deserve.  In Jerusalem, God showed incredible patience.  He could have destroyed her much earlier.  Instead, he waited.  God does not punish lightly.  God is not capricious.  He will not destroy your family because you lied. 

          Jerusalem’s destruction was the consequence of years and years of stubborn sin.  The nation of Israel had refused to confess, they refused to repent, they refused to turn from their wicked ways so that they piled sin after sin upon them.

          One final thought before we conclude.  We must treat God’s punishment carefully.  We may not jump to conclusions.  We may not look at others and believe we know what the cause of their or our suffering is.  The suffering may be like that of Job, who was righteous and not a sinner.  The suffering may be like the man born blind.  His blindness was not as a result of sin, but so that God’s power and glory would be displayed.  The punishment may come upon the righteous (was not Jeremiah punished along with the wicked?) for the sins of others.

          We also must be very careful in responding to our suffering.  Satan would like nothing else than to lead us into despair.  His goal is to lead us to doubt our confidence in God.

          So, Jeremiah, in encouraging those who were the common people of Israel, who perhaps had fallen into such despair that they’d even turned against God, Jeremiah encourages prayer. 

          Jeremiah encourages them to turn to God and say, “Look, O Lord, on my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed” (Lam. 1:10).

          So, in the midst of our suffering—For, when one of us suffers, we all suffer.  And not just us in this body, this church.  When one member of Christ’s body suffers, the whole body suffers, those believers who are in Edson, Canada, North America, and around the world.  So we suffer with our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world—we call on the Lord, saying, “Look, O Lord, on my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed.”  And God does look on them, and he gives them hope.

          So, whatever situation you are in, whether you are afflicted or know someone who’s afflicted, be strengthened through this hope.  For when evil seems to have the upper hand, when our enemies seem to be winning, they love to brag and exalt themselves.  And God brings them down.  We know and have this hope, God is our redeemer.

          God is mighty to save.  God will not let his anger burn forever.  For in fact, he has burned all his anger on his Son, His Son has consumed all his wrath.  Therefore we stand on the Son, and we have all our hope in Him.  Amen.

Prayer[2]: From John Calvin page 324:

          Grant, Almighty God, that as at this day we see thy Church miserably afflicted, we may direct our eyes so as to see our own sins, and so humble ourselves before thy throne, that we may yet cease not to entertain hope, and in the midst of death wait for life; and may this confidence open our mouth, that we may courageously persevere in calling on thy name, through Christ our Lord.—Amen.


[1] Calvin, John: Commentary on the Lamentations, p. 315 2003 Baker Books

[2] Ibid. p. 324

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