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Being an Easter People in a Season of Lament

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An Eastertide sermon in the midst of a pandemic

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My friends, this morning we enter into a strange Scripture for the Easter season. We expect to hear a message of the joy of the Gospel, but we encounter a message that strikes us to the heart. And we all know that our world is currently embroiled in the turmoil and suffering of the present pandemic which has spread its grip into every aspect and moment of our lives, and the lives of people across the entire globe. So, the question then arises: why turn to more heaviness, when we long to hear a message of hope and joy?!
But, I would offer to all of us – myself included! – the reminder that Easter joy only takes place because of the light cast by the shadow of the cross! The mystery of the connection of cross and resurrection cannot and must not be separated, lest we forget upon what our joy is founded – which is the fact that our Lord became one of us, and suffered death so as to conquer it by not being held by the grip of death, triumphing over its power in his resurrection.
Looking out upon all of you today, I see a number of you who I know have read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And I am sure that there are many others here who have also read those amazing books, or at least watched the movies. I have done both… and am honestly quite the Tolkien nerd. But, the reason I bring the Tolkien’s story up today, is because I am reminded of a moment in the second chapter of the first book where Frodo has just learned the news that evil is set to break upon Middle Earth – “the Shadow” has taken another shape and grows again. And in response to this he says to Gandalf: ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time.’[1]
This is a response which I think all of us have felt regarding the current pandemic. Whether we have articulated it or not, the longing has arisen in our hearts – we wish this need not have happened in our time. But the fact is, that this has happened in our time. The question is, what do we do now. And I find that Gandalf’s response to Frodo is worth repeating here. He says: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[2]
Let us hear that question in our own context. “What is it that we decide to do in the moment given to us?”
I would suggest that we take guidance from our Scriptural text today. And there are three things in this text that I think God is offering to us for consideration. These are as follows. First, we find the Holy Spirit guiding us into lament. Second, we learn that even while we lament there is not despair, but hope. And finally, because we can hope in the midst of lament, we also find ourselves able to continue in the mission God has given to us.
But before we can get to that final point, we need to begin where today’s Scripture begins – namely, lament. And lament is the tone we find pervading so much of our reading from the prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations today.
We should also, begin by considering the context out which the author, Jeremiah, writes. So, imagine this, it is 587 B.C. and Jerusalem is captured by the Babylonians. This is not the first time that the Jewish people had experienced defeat, but it is one of the most devastating defeats they had experienced. As one biblical scholar puts it: “no previous enemy had wrought such total destruction on the city;” a destruction that included “the razing of Solomon’s temple” to the ground, the killing of a huge number of the Jewish people, and the survivor’s either fleeing to Egypt, or being enslaved and carried off to Babylon, or exiled from their land. [3] It was a deeply traumatic moment for the Jewish people, and even to this day the book of Lamentations is read by them each year on Tisha B’av, a day of mourning and fasting which commemorates this event.
Now, I do not want it to seem like I am saying that what we are suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic is quite the same thing that the Jewish people suffered then. But, I do want us to take note of the fact that even in spite of the fact that this is God’s covenant people, they suffered deeply. So we too, being God’s people here and now, must remember that even though we are chose by God to be his people, we are not exempt from suffering. Nowhere in Scripture is that a theme. What we do find in the Bible is that there is a difference in how God’s people engage suffering.
And that is what we experience here in Lamentations. We find the prophet Jeremiah meditating deeply upon the significance of suffering. Jeremiah, as a prophet intimately knew God. Just think of the intimacy of the language God uses when speaking to him at the beginning of the book of Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). Jeremiah heard God speak to him, and he knows that God (who he has heard by means of revelation to be a loving Father, spurned Lover, and wrathful Lord) has intimately chosen him uniquely from out of his chosen people for a particular mission, and yet he still laments.
And so, he cries to God, as both an individual and on behalf of the people, begging God to remember “his affliction” (vv. 1, 19). All is utter darkness to him – which he describes as “darkness without any light” (v. 2). It is a darkness which he experiences as having “walled me about so that I cannot escape” (v.7). And to drive the point home, he notes that this is not merely any external darkness, but such a darkness that it can even be felt in the flesh which he says in verse 4 wastes away; a word which in the Hebrew language means to be consumed as by a disease. Moreover, he describes himself feeling as if torn to pieces by a lion or bear (v. 10-11), or shot through his kidneys by arrows (v. 13).
The language used here, is shockingly vivid! It is meant to capture our attention! And I hope that it does! I hope that it reaches into the depths of your heart and my heart, and presses us to pray boldly before God.
One of my convictions regarding the various prayers found in Scripture is that God inspired the authors of the Scripture to write prayers and songs is to teach us how to pray (whether those be prayers of praise, hope, longing, lament, or even anger)! So here too, we are learning not only how to lament, but also that it is okay to lament! As one commentator notes: “Part of the troubled person’s therapy is to bring feelings into verbal expression, to name the pain.”[4] So we find Scripture not only teaching us, but also leading us into healing and becoming whole again as we stand before God in all our humanity, all of our lostness, and all of our anguish.
And here is one of the reasons that we as an Easter people can lament. Jesus came to make us whole by his life, death, and resurrection. Which points to a process of healing, and not simply a magic wand waved over all of our problems. And furthermore, he sends the Holy Spirit upon his people as the Sanctifier to continue his work within us. So, we should consider what that work of sanctification looks like. And I am conviced that part of this work is the softening of our hearts unto tears, such that we become more human. I mean by this that God grows us towards emotional health, among other things, in our growth towards holiness. Lament ends up being part of this!
And this leads us into the second point of this consideration. Which is, that even while we lament, we discover that the lament does not lead to despair, but rather into hope. To some people, perhaps even to some of us here today, this may seem like a strange claim. But I invite you to follow along with me for a moment as we consider the Scripture.
Thus far we have considered the prophet’s crying out to God and the violence of his cry. We have seen that his language vividly depicts a heart in turmoil, and standing on the brink of destruction in the midst of so much suffering. But in a sudden and beautiful movement, the Holy Spirit draws the prophets mind to a point of light.
So, the prophet writes, beginning at v. 20: “My soul continually remembers [this suffering] and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness [O Lord]!”
We discover that even while we had just begun to lament there is a point of hope that arises. And it is this, no matter how terrible things get, we know that the love of the Lord never ceases. This point is offered here in the Old Testament, yet we must admit that it is still covered by a shadow of mystery. However, we do not only have the Old Testament! We find our hope in God’s unceasing love brought to its fullest possible expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of God’s love for us. And because he suffered with and for us, we discover a God who, as the book of Hebrews reminds us, is entirely able to sympathize with us in our weakness, because he entered into our suffering (cf. Heb. 4:15, 9:26). But he not only entered into suffering, he also, as Easter reminds us, triumphed over all suffering. In other words, we discover in Jesus that our God is God for us – as the theologian, Karl Barth has beautifully expressed.[5]
Having arrived at this point of our considerations, we can now move onto the third and final part – which is, to reflect upon the fact that because we are able to hope in the midst of lament, we also find ourselves able to continue forward in the mission God has entrusted us.
While this may not seem immediately obvious in the portion of Lamentations we have read today, we can see hints of the text moving in this direction in its note of hope. Thus, Jeremiah writes in verses 31-32 that “the Lord will not cast off forever… he will have compassion.” And by the end of the book, Jeremiah notes in the final verses that while Jerusalem “lies desolate” the Lord “reigns forever” and his “throne endures to all generations” (Lam.5:19, 21). In other words, God’s people are invited to consider the fact that perhaps, just, perhaps, God’s kingdom was never meant to be found in only one place, but rather, it is meant to be spread throughout the world. The throne of David in Jerusalem was only the throne of a man, which could find its authority grounded in God and His promises alone.
And here too we must remember that the Old Testament offers shadows which only find their fulfillment in Jesus. For Jesus is the only human upon whom a permanent kingdom can be fully established because he alone is, as Luke puts it both, “the son of David” and “the son of God” (cf. Lk. 3:31, 38). Jesus is a man and yet he can claim the authority of his throne to rest in his own person precisely because he is no mere man, but the God-man. And the kingdom over which Jesus reigns is one which he sends his people out on a mission to spread to all nations, as we find at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 28:19-20).
So, we see that Jeremiah lamented over Jerusalem. And we too find ourselves lamenting, though in a different context, over how COVID-19 has disrupted our lives, taken people who we cherished from us, broken up our communities by forcing us all into quarantine. But because we know that we are members of a kingdom that transcends the boundaries of any physical space (be it a country, a city, a church building) we are able to rediscover the hope and rest of being citizens of God’s ever enduring reign. And perhaps we can in this moment of crisis and disruption rediscover that we are called out from what we have known, and are invited into the unknown to herald the Good News.
So, in the moment where it seems that all hope is lost, we find Jeremiah offering a hope – which, as one commentator has noted, is the acknowledgement of God’s “absolute sovereignty over all of history” and the prayer “that he begins a gracious work of revival.”[6] And this confidence is what I would hold out to all of us as what God is using among his people to bring about a revival of creative missional activity in our city. We can see so much sorrow and loneliness all around us right now. The invitation is, will you go forth to bring the hope of Christ into people’s lives in this moment.
So, this is where we discover the answer to our initial question: “why turn to more heaviness, when we long to hear a message of hope and joy?!” The answer lies in the fact that we turn to this text of Scripture precisely because we are an Easter people. We can look at the heaviness and darkness of the present moment, precisely because we live in the hope and joy of Easter, and so, know that, as John’s Gospel puts it, the darkness has not (and cannot) overcome the light of Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:5).
Before closing this sermon, I would like to share with all of you a prayer that the theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote, titled “We wait for you to ache,” in which I find the themes expressed in this sermon poetically expressed. It goes as such:
With the energy we have,
we begin the day,
waiting and watching and hoping.
We wait,
not clear about our waiting.
But filled with a restlessness,
daring to imagine
that you are not finished yet—
so we wait,
patiently, impatiently,
restlessly, confidently,
quaking and fearful,
boldly and daring.
Your sovereign decree stands clear
and we do not doubt.
We wait for you to dissolve in tender tears.
Your impervious rule takes no prisoners,
we wait for you to ache and hurt and care over us
and with us
and beyond us.
Cry with us the brutality
grieve with us the misery
tremble with us the poverty and hurt.
Attend to us—by attending in power and in mercy,
remake this alien world into our proper home.
We pray in the name of the utterly homeless one,
even Jesus.
So, yes, we turn to Jeremiah’s Lamentations precisely because we live in the light, and do not fear the darkness, no matter how dark it may seem. We turn to lament because we learn that it is okay to lament, and that we grow into wholeness by entering into lament in prayer. But we also find in that moment of lament hope in Christ Jesus, and a rediscovery of his mission for us to bear his Name to those who have not yet discovered the one who’s light destroys all darkness and despair! May God bless you all, and bring about a renewal of hope and missional awareness, even now in this moment when our hearts cry to God in lament!
[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1991), 50.
[2] Ibid.
[3] F. B. Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The New American Commentary, vol. 16 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 445–446.
[4] Larry L. Walker, Elmer A. Martens, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, & Lamentations, vol. 8 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 578.
[5] cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1, G. W. Bromiley, trans. and ed. (Edingburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1961), 443.
[6] Jr. Ferris Paul W., “Lamentations,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Jeremiah–Ezekiel (Revised Edition), vol. 7, Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 640.
[7] Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, ed. Edwin Searcy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 7.
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