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Lamentations 2: God, the Enemy

Good morning, church. Please go with me to Lamentations, chapter 2.

This is the second sermon in a six-week series through the book of Lamentations. Lamentations, as the name might imply, is a book largely about grief, and learning how to deal with terrible things. And even though this book is heavy and causes us to look at difficult things, I’m so grateful for this little book of grief, because it shows us we aren’t alone in our grief, that God knows what to do with our grief and our anger, even if we’re mad at God, and even if our hell is one of our own making. There’s a way forward. Eventually, he will turn our mourning into joy, but between now and the time he returns, we live in a world with tragedy and grief. I’m so glad the Bible isn’t silent on these things.

The particular event Lamentations is grieving is the siege and fall of the city of Jerusalem to the Babylonian empire. We know from this chapter we’re about to read and other historical records that what the Babylonians did to Jerusalem was horrific. The siege was months long, nothing in and no one out. Jerusalem is founded on a spring of water, but after weeks, the city ran out of food, and still Babylon waited. People in Jerusalem grew desperate, started fighting over what little was left. Eventually, even that was gone, and I don’t want to speak here of the things people do in the delirium of starvation, though the author of lamentations speaks with equal horror of the latter days of the siege and the actual sacking of the city, when Babylon finally got through the gates, tore down the walls, killed all but the few they thought they might use, desecrated the temple, and burned the city to the ground.

But, shockingly, in chapter 2, the author of Lamentations asserts, Babylon may have ransacked the city, but it was God’s doing. We see God in a position we don’t often find him in: he is, in our passage, God, the enemy. We know God our help, God our fortress, God the Father, and so we can hardly bear to think of God, the enemy, but there is much to learn and praise God for here. Go with me, Lamentations, chapter 2, starting in v.1, and I’m going to read through v.7. [Lamentations 2:1-7]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Lord God, I pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.

My first point for today from our text is this: We take God’s presence and patience for granted. We take God’s presence and patience for granted. We take his presence here on earth—in our communities, churches, in our lives—for granted.

This week, my son walked into the room while I was working on some tax documents, so I found myself trying to explain taxes to a five-year-old. And rather than the Ron Swanson method of eating half of his lunch and telling him that’s what the government wants to due to his wages, I went with the Socratic method. I asked him what he would want to have happen if, God forbid, our house were to be on fire. He answered that he would want the firefighters to come and help, since they would probably know the best thing to do. So I asked, why would they come and help? And he said he thought firefighters were just friendly people who wanted to help whenever there was a fire.

So I said, yes, firefighters are probably very friendly, and if one ever tries to help you out of a fire, you shouldn’t run away. But then I asked who was going to buy the big trucks they use and all of their equipment, and he answered that if they needed money they could just go to the bank.

And again, the other day he made an egg for breakfast all by himself, and we made a big deal about how capable he was becoming, and joking, I asked him, “Buddy, if you can cook for yourself, what do need us for?” He took it as a serious question, and rolled his eyes at me. And said, “Dad, of course I still need you and momma. I can’t read. Who would read me books at night?”

And my point is this: we, as human beings, tend to take for granted the things that are always there, to the point that we don’t even seem to see them, and we can even go so far as to assume those supports are barely necessary. Just like AJ thinking his parents are barely necessary for his life at five—he lacks the imagination to know the terrors of the world we shield him from. We, as God’s people oftentimes lack the imagination to understand the significance and necessity of God’s presence with us.

Back in the Ancient Near East, which is what we call the time and place, the setting of the Old Testament, in the ancient near east, atheism would have been relatively scarce. In fact, basically every people group had a god they worshipped, and they were constantly arguing about which gods were better or stronger, and what set them apart from every other god. Most people imagined their gods to reign on high, usually on a mountain, and they would carve large staircases into the sides of mountains, called ziggurats, so people could climb the mountain so their God might hear them, to ask him or her for something.

But as Richard Bauchum writes, our God, in a major moment in the Old Testament, gave one of his people, Jacob, a vision of a giant staircase leading to heaven, like the staircases people would carve in that time and place to get closer to their gods, to gain their attention, and instead of asking Jacob to climb it in order to be closer to God, our God comes down and stands right beside Jacob, tells him, Jacob, I’m with you. Wherever you go, I’ll go.

And ever since then, one of the most remarkable things about our God, what sets him apart from all the other gods you’ll find in the world, is that he doesn’t expect us to climb up to him. He’s with us. He came down to dwell in our lives and in our world among his people. With Jacob and his family, with his people in the pillar of fire and cloud, as they wandered in the tabernacle, and when they built houses and settled, in the temple. One of the defining traits of the people of God has always been that we are the people with whom God dwells.

This chapter of Lamentations describes in detail the destruction of the temple. It keeps repeating the word ground, over and over again, the temple and the walls are torn to the ground, until in that last verse we read, even the young daughters of Jerusalem, even the people, are brought to the ground. And again, in Hebrew, the name of this book is not Lamentations, but how? Because both poems begin with the word how, the implied question in the chapter is how could this have happened? God is the Lord of hosts, how could an army defeat him? Merely entering the holy of holies in a profane way resulted in death, how can they profane the temple?

Lamentation’s answer is not that the glory of God has diminished, but terrifyingly, God has removed his presence from his people. And at the same time, almost in contradiction, we see in our text, God is still present, but he’s angry, even like an enemy of his own people. You can see, in v.1, the glory of God which is always pictured as a cloud over the temple here is pictured as a storm cloud. The poem ends with this devastating picture of the temple, gone, the temple, the symbol of God’s presence among his people, is just gone.

And even though the idea of God leaving and his being among his people in anger is a contradiction, I’ve seen this over and over in ministry. This is how people almost always respond to deep loss or tragedy. This chapter isn’t contradictory; it’s just honest about the experience of deep loss. When we face loss and pain, we assume that God isn’t in our lives anymore. Maybe he never was. Maybe we don’t even believe in him anymore. And then, at the same time we’re denying God’s presence, or even his existence, we’re mad at him and hurt by what we see as punishment. We ask, why would God do this to me? This is why we need the book of lamentations: to answer those questions. Because, as you might expect, the reality is…complicated.

God is an enemy to sin, and we are sinners. Sometimes he does discipline us, and usually his discipline looks like mournfully leaving, or rather he mournfully allows us to go. He lets us go for a little while out of his manifest presence, to face either our sin or our anger at him. In short, he allows our will to be free. And we talk about God punishing us, but really, we punish ourselves, like the prodigal son, in some faraway land while he waits and watches each day for our return. He is God the enemy, but he’s not our enemy. We’re his children. Our own sin, and the sins of those who would hurt us are his enemy. Anyone who has ever loved will understand anger at someone destroying themselves, those moments when you tell your children to leave and then angrily ask where they think they’re going.

For so long, the people of Jerusalem took for granted the presence and patience of the Lord. We can sin, they thought, and the Lord will forgive us. We can worship other idols. What do we need God for? I mean, I guess to read us books at night. If you read the histories, you’ll see priest after priest in the court of the king saying that no army could ever conquer Israel, God wouldn’t allow it, he dwells with us. And in v. 14, the author writes, if those prophets had cared about the city, they would have called them to confession and repentance rather than excusing the sin of the people. Because sin, when it’s fully grown, wreaks havoc. In lamentations, we see the the havoc of God’s presence removed.

A lot of people read these passages related to the judgement of God and they think, ah, I know this part, the angry God who smites people who displease him. But it’s not that. If you’re understanding the poem, the image given to us here in Lamentations is of a husband who welcomed his wife in again and again, and she cheats on him again and again, every time promising change, which is what we do with God. It would have been the right of the husband under levitical law in Jerusalem at the time to stone her, but instead he offers her forgiveness and restoration over and over again, for hundreds of years, past any reasonable breaking point, but though God is slow to anger his justice will not allow sin forever. Finally, in Lamentations, the husband allows the wife to go, and the woman returns to each of her lovers in turn, but they all turn her away, no one takes her in. Slowly, realizing what she lost, the woman sinks into devastation.

And again, like any relationship, it’s complicated. God allows his people to leave him, and his anger may turn us away, but even here, with the destruction of Jerusalem, God was already at work to dwell among his people again, preserving a remnant through the desolation. The destruction of the temple here is not really God leaving his people, it’s God declaring that, since his people are in exile, removed from their homes, he will no longer dwell in a home. He’s exiling himself as well. He’s going with his people into Babylon.

In our lives, too, it’s complicated. God can be angry at us, let us leave for a while and finally give us our wish of being apart from him. But that’s never how he leaves it with us. Or at least, for his part, that’s never how he leaves it. As Lewis states, the doors of hell are locked on the inside. He’s always seeking after us, always watching up the road to see if we’ve returned. And for those of us who have convinced ourselves that God is dead or missing, his response is to come with us into our self-imposed exile. If we will not dwell with him, he will not rest until he’s able to bring us home.

Two, my second point from the text today is this: praise God that he is an enemy to sin. Praise God that he is an enemy to sin. We have to learn to praise the Lord for his justice, even when his justice causes us to experience loss.

Basically, I want to take what we were just talking about on an individual level and broaden out to look at God’s work to bring justice among the nations, because that’s a large part of what we’re seeing in this passage. The author, the narrator in this, is fascinating—many people believe it to be Jeremiah, but a righteous man who—while recognizing his own sin and complicity—praises God for destroying a city and nation that he obviously loves. He viscerally describes his grief over what’s happened. But he praises God for his justice in destroying Israel for their refusal to repent of sin.

I’m thinking about these things this week of the inauguration as pastors across the nation preach from their pulpits that America has fallen, and others that it almost fell, and almost all of them are convinced God is wrathful at the sin of our nation. What’s the truth in this, and what is our response as Christians?

I don’t think we can fully know the mind of God or the future. His role in directing the world is so large it’s hard to see, like the curvature of the earth. But I do know this: he is an enemy to sin and injustice, and he will win. We need to praise God that he is an enemy of sin, even if some of the sin is our own, and therefore we will be judged.

We don’t think about enemies very much in our time and place. I think of the BBC show Sherlock, when Sherlock tells Watson that Mycroft is his archenemy, and Watson replies, “people don’t have those….In real life, people don’t have archenemies.” But to the people of Jerusalem, Babylon would have been an enemy, just like to people of my grandparent’s generation, the Nazis would have been enemies.

I once told my otherwise dear grandmother I was considering taking German as my language in high school. She strongly encouraged a different path. In our text, Babylon violently conquered that region—what they did to Jerusalem, the siege, the starvation, rape and murder, they did to everyone. The author of Lamentations putting God in the place of the Babylonian soldiers would have made everyone extremely uncomfortable. And writing this, it made me uncomfortable. These are not easy teachings, but then, they’re not meant to be. They are meant to be teachings to help those who have been through unimaginable grief and trauma.

As a people, we Christians in America need to learn to praise God, the enemy of sin, to praise him for bringing about justice against evil, even if we are in the midst of the conflict, even if we suffer from his wrath.

In our passage, Babylon isn’t even alluded to until v.16. For 15 stanzas of this poem, the one tearing down the temple and laying siege to Jerusalem is the Lord. The sins of the people of God in the nation of Judah caused God to want to abolish the city altogether. The kingdom of God turned against the kingdom of Judah. What’s more, we can see in these poems throughout lamentations, the author is an eyewitness. He was there, so he went through the siege, and starvation, and captivity. He experienced God as an enemy of his nation. God’s just anger against Jerusalem caused the author of this book to endure suffering, and he praises God still for his righteous anger, even though that anger is turned against his own people.

He addresses, in v. 14, whether or not he is a traitor for this, against his nation, and he’s not. He laments, he mourns the downfall even though he sees it as just. He says the real traitors of the nation are the prophets and teachers who never warned Israel about the righteous anger of God.

I think of the Reichkirk in Germany before and during WWII, creating doctrines dehumanizing people, even Christians, of Jewish decent. I think of the vast majority of white churches during the civil rights movement supporting and even championing legal segregation, promoting lynching from the pulpit, and those of us today who idealize and imitate those times. I think of the sin of state religion today, with pastors using ecclesial authority and tithed money to support political candidates and movements, repeating political rhetoric in sermons, even making prophecies and preaching sermons with politicians or parties playing the role of the savior of our nation. Those are false prophecies, because only Christ can save us and restore the world to rights, and God is an enemy to such things. In Croatia, just a few decades ago, the combination of religious fervor with political motives resulted in genocide. These are grievous sins. There but for the grace of God go we.

We need to recognize our own sin, and the sins of our nation, to the point that we are able to think separately about the course of the nation of America and the course of the kingdom of God. What is good for America is not always good for the kingdom of God, and what is bad for America is not always bad for the kingdom of God. If the United States were to fall, I would lament and grieve. I love our nation. I want it to be righteous, because “righteousness exalts a nation.” But if we were to fall, I would trust, still, in the sovereignty and righteousness of God.

God is opposed to sin of all kinds, and we, as a people, have done things which would justify the wrath of God. Sometimes we refuse to repent of our sins, like Jerusalem, we ignore the warnings, we listen to the news and the preachers we like best, who tell us things we like to hear.

We need God to be the enemy of sin, even if we’re wrapped up in the downfall. We need the Lord to be true, even if every person is a liar. We need him in our nations, and in our churches, to come against us when we go wrong. Even in the worst situations, when our sin has done incredible damage to ourselves and to the world around us, we can trust that the Lord is able to take the dark, catastrophic story humankind has written for the earth, and write such an end that somehow peace and joy reign for eternity on a renewed earth.

I want to end with this point, not from our text, but important to apply our text to our lives today: God still longs to dwell with us. God still longs to dwell with us.

Yes, we still wander away from him, take him for granted, tempt his forgiveness. Yes, God can today still seem like an enemy. He will do things we mourn and lament. He will allow things to happen in our lives that feel unimaginable, and we can feel like he’s abandoned us or hates us or both, somehow, at the same time. We can suffer for the sake of someone else’s sin near us and become wrapped up in their downfall.

But the truth is…complicated. God still hates sin. But he also still loves you, and he longs to be with you, even if you have been his enemy.

I mentioned the Reichkirk earlier, and how they backed the Nazi party in spite of their sin. True enemies of ours, and enemies of God. I attended a lecture a few years ago by a man named Jürgen Moltmann, who was a Nazi soldier. He surrendered to the British, and was interned at a British POW camp. The British soldiers would come from time to time and post pictures and news updates about the German concentration camps in the barracks of their German prisoners, and Moltmann began to mourn his part in the war. He would weep at the photos of what he had taken part in, wittingly or no. But a chaplain once came to visit them and gave him a small New Testament. He read it and believed in Jesus. Today he is one of the most influential Christian thinkers alive. I heard him speak. God is with him. One of his first, and still most influential books is called, Theology of Hope.

God still longs to dwell with you. In Christ, enemies of God are able to become his very children. In Christ, guilt is able to turn into hope, hope either for grace or for justice, the grace and justice of God, together creating a world in which humanity’s sins are undone.

When Christ was born, he said Jesus would be called Immanuel, God with us, and after Jesus rose from the dead he promised, he would never leave or forsake us. Even though wars continue, even though nations rage, God will never leave or forsake us. That was part of what Jesus accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. God, himself, bore the wrath of God so we would receive mercy. God, himself, suffered exile so we could be a part of a people, the people of God. God himself suffered shame so we would receive honor.

Christ is the new and better temple of God, come to live with us. And God again destroyed the temple to go with us into death, but three days later it was restored. Now the real presence of Christ is among his people. Peter likens us to stones being built into a dwelling for God, piece by piece throughout the centuries of the church universal, centuries of God dwelling among his people. Even if we are so scattered that only two people can gather, there God will be.

If you find yourself besieged, suffering from your own sin or from the things that have been done to you, and you feel as though God has turned against you, know that in Jesus changes everything. In Christ, you are forgiven, you are welcome, you are loved.