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Lamentations 1: Learning to Lament

Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Lamentations, which is a little book in the Old Testament just after the book of Jeremiah, and we’re going to start in chapter 1 v.6.

This is the first sermon in a six-week series through the book of Lamentations, that will take us all the way to the season of lent. I realized as I was putting together this first sermon, that in my now 32 years of being in church every time the door was open, I don’t remember a single sermon, lesson, or small group centered around the book of lamentation.

Now, when I said that to my wife she reminded me that I often don’t remember a week later the things she tells me or asks me to do, so take it for what it is, but this is the first time in my memory that I’ve ever gone deeply into this book, and I think that’s telling.

Lamentations, as the name might suggest, is a book of lament, what Leslie Allen calls a “liturgy of grief,” a book dealing with grief, anger, and guilt. The key character across the five poems in the book is a woman who confesses her own wrongdoing, she knows she’s not perfect, but she is also throughout the book angry at God himself for the tragedy in her life.

In fact, in Hebrew, they don’t call this book Lamentations, they simply call it “How?” because throughout the book the author and the woman ask, how? How could God allow this to happen? How could he do this to me? How could the Lord allow this kind of pain and this much injustice? How?

These are all topics we prefer to avoid, but I would argue we avoid thinking and talking about these things at our own risk, and to our own destruction as a faith community. How many people do you personally know who have left the church or even Christianity as a whole because they did not find in our churches or in their understanding of our faith a place where it seemed appropriate or welcome to grieve and express anger, even anger towards God, himself? Or how many people do you personally know who have left the church because they found no help here, no paradigm, no recognition of grief, guilt, and anger?

Go with me to Lamentations, chapter 1, starting in v. 6. [Lamentations 1:6-16] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me. Lord, God, I pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.

The book of Lamentations was written after the fall of the city of Jerusalem, when Judah was conquered by the Babylonian empire and the people of God were brought into exile. This was all about 600 years before Jesus was born, so it’s concurrent with the book of Isaiah, which we’ll be spending the majority of our year this year walking through. And throughout the New Testament, the biblical authors make it very clear, the history of the people of Israel, the people of God in the Old Testament, it’s not some disconnected, interesting story—it’s our story, too, as God’s new covenant people. Because God doesn’t change, and neither yet has the fallenness of humanity. We make the same mistakes they did, so we need to learn to grieve and lament as they did. The history of the people of Israel is our history; their joys, our joys; their griefs our griefs; and the sins of the people of Israel are our sins.

Also throughout the New Testament, we find parallels between the fall of the city of Jerusalem with the coming Day of the Lord, the last day of this age, when Christ will return to judge and restore the earth back to peace. So the book of Lamentations is a reminder to us that each of us will one day bear the judgement of God. This is something we need to know and remember. It’s the beginning of wisdom to fear the Lord, to remember that you are living your life before the Lord, that he knows your sin, and always judges justly, but that he also loves you and would die rather than see you suffer in sin. He is a just judge and a loving father who died on the cross for you.

In what we’ve just read, the main character of Lamentations, who appears throughout the five poems of the book, the woman, represents the entirety of the people of Israel, so since she represents God’s Old Testament people, she represents each of us who follow God today, which is uncomfortable, because we find her in our text in utter desolation and despair. This is not positive and encouraging, and it’s definitely not her best life now. This is the people of God facing shame, guilt, death, and destruction, from the hand of God, because of their sin, and because of the sin of the people and nations around them.

The image is of a woman who has committed adultery again and again, and so her husband left her. She went to her lovers, and none of them would take her in, so she slept the streets. Her clothes are dirty in v.8, she’s attacked and no one defends her, v.12 people just stare at her as they pass by, or they mock her. In v.8 she admits she doesn’t even want to look at herself. In vs.13-15 she says God is the one who has made her this way. Lamentations asks us to picture ourselves this way.

And when I said this morning, after we read this text, “thanks be to God,” I meant it deeply. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Lord—thank God, that he does not leave us to deal with sin and darkness on our own. Thank God that the Bible speaks to those moments when we are low, when we are ashamed and embarrassed and there’s no hope to regain what we’ve lost.

My first point from the text today is this: in order to deal with our own anger and grief, we’re going to need to do it as a community. In order to deal with our own anger and grief, we’re going to need to do it as a community.

I remember the day I found out one of my best friends had died, I was at work, so I went to the bathroom and wept as quietly as I could, dried my eyes, and went back to work.

In the West, in modern society, as Allen writes, our culture “provides little space for grief….and takes no account of the somber realities of life,” because we’re averse to it. We treat sadness as though it’s shameful—even, and maybe especially, in Christian culture. When people die, we’re expected to stay positive and celebrate their life. People feel the need to remind the grieving person of the joy Christ brings, and we expect those who are uncontrollably grieving to separate themselves from the community, stay home and mourn privately. There is no such thing in most workplaces as bereavement leave, so often we lose a loved one, or finalize a divorce, or face a national tragedy like the 9-11 attacks or like the events of last week, and go to work the next day.

I know we’ve advanced scientifically a great deal since ancient times, but sometimes I wonder how much about humanity we’ve forgotten that we once knew. The ancients knew better than we do how to lament, and we need to learn from them before our inability to deal with somber things makes a shipwreck of our faith, as it has for so many. Throughout the Psalms there are many songs that act as prayers for the grieving, and several of them are even known as songs of complaint to God because they accuse the Lord of injustice. They cry out to God that he should not have allowed some terrible thing to happen, they accuse him of cruelty. The Lord is obviously not bothered by it, rather since the Holy Spirit inspired those words of scripture, we have to understand that the Lord is beside us in our grief rather than pushing back against it. Theologically we can know that the Holy Spirit prays those prayers through us.

I think of Jesus, himself, whom we see weep in grief for Lazarus, a poignant reminder that God is beside us in our suffering. He expects us to cry out to God to spare us from our pain, because Christ himself said the same prayer when facing his own death because of our sin.

The ancient people had two main forms of public grief. One was called a dirge, which would begin by shouting or wailing before opening into a song of grief. That’s why, oftentimes the scene of tragedy in scripture is characterized by loud wailing. The other is what we see in our text this morning: a lament, which is more prayerful. Lament describes the problem, protests or complains to God, pleas to God for help, reminds him that he is supposed to care for us, and offers the Lord something in return for help. They are both invitations to the community to share, to enter into, the grief and anger of the mourner.

So as a church, I want us to be ok with admitting when things are not ok—in our own lives, in the world around us—and acknowledge that sometimes we weep and shake our fists at God before we remember to hope in him. As Christians, we need to allow anger at God and complaint against him (because the scriptures and therefore the Spirit allow it). We need to be understanding when people hold God responsible for suffering in their lives, and to encourage, as strange as it sounds, people to forgive God for the things he has done.

We need to commiserate with prayers like one I heard a few months ago at shower Friday: “God, I hate your guts, because you haven’t healed me of this disease of alcoholism.” Because we don’t worship a fragile, frail God, who is easily offended or angered. Instead, “our God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” He is strong enough to bear our anger, and loving enough to hear our complaint, even if we are suffering from our own sin, because he cares about our grief. So we, too, as a community, need to bear anger, hear complaint, and learn to lament as a community.

In order to deal with our own anger and grief, we need to learn to lament as a community, and also, secondly, in order to deal with our own anger and grief, we’re going to need to be honest with God about it. In order to deal with our own anger and grief, we’re going to need to be honest with God about it.

Part of my ordination was deciding on a set of rules of when I would agree to officiate a wedding, and when I would refuse. One of my rules is this: I will never marry a couple who has not first had a serious conflict between the two of them. If you want me to marry you, you gotta have a fight: not that I think couples fighting is a good thing, but I know it’s a sinful human thing, and before I take part in oaths that promise to love someone for better or worse, I want them to understand at least a little bit of the worst. To see each other’s sin on display. Because if a couple’s understanding of each other’s sin and brokenness is shallow, the forgiveness between them is shallow. And for a marriage to succeed, forgiveness needs to run deep. I decided in the same moment, and for the same reason, never to appoint anyone to leadership in any church I serve if they’ve never doubted God or been angry with him.

I’ve angrily shouted prayers at God before. And his response was, far from rebuke: in the weeks following he called me into ministry. I’m praying, shouting at the Lord, lamenting something he had done, a relationship he had ended because I couldn’t see that it was unhealthy, accusing God of not loving me or caring about me, and even in those moments, he was calling me further into his service.

I decided to preach through Lamentations this year because we need to know that God is strong enough even to hear our anger, doubt, and accusation. This past year was dark. Ten people connected to our church died. We had people in our church march in protests and others condemn them. The whole world was disrupted, every aspect of our church services were changed or disrupted. We closed the church twice. People lost their jobs, people suffered through life-threatening sickness. Others remained at home for months isolated and alone. Our government was violently destabilized.

How are we supposed to respond as Christians? All of last year, in 1 Peter, we saw one side of the Christian response—confident hope, founded in the resurrection of Jesus, that yet a little while and Christ returns as king bringing justice for the oppressed, judgement for those who have been sinned against, peace on earth, and unquenchable joy. The other side of the Christian response is what we see here in Lamentations. Between loss and hope, we lament. And these two responses are not opposed; in fact as one author pointed out this week, our hope in Christianity begins with lament, because lament is a recognition that things now are not the way they should be. Through lament we learn to long for the restored earth.

So please allow me, as a pastor, to grant you permission to admit if perhaps since last March you’ve been afraid, if your first thought when New Orleans locked down was not: God is in control. Or if you were a little angry, even angry at God, when you lost your job. This world is not as it should be, so we lament. And through that lament, we learn to hope in Christ. But you have to be honest with God. It’s ok. He can handle it.

So we need to lament in community, we need to be honest with God, and lastly for today, Lamentations teaches us, in order to deal with our own anger and grief, we’re going to have to admit our own fault and guilt. In order to deal with our own anger and grief, we’re going to have to admit our own fault and guilt.

One of my coworkers asked me this week, speaking of the deep divisions in our denomination where many people see a possibility of our denomination splitting this year, then relating that to the intense political divisiveness we’ve seen through the year, she asked me what, if anything, I thought would be able to heal the divides in our denomination and country. And I told her, confession. Confession, repentance, and assurance of pardon through unmerited grace in Christ is able to heal us. It’s the only thing that ever has healed deep relational divides. All it takes for a relationship or a society, to completely tear apart is for one or both sides of a conflict to refuse to admit any fault or any contribution to that which is lamentable.

In our passage, this woman who represents us all, we who have been unfaithful to our God by following after things in this world, she tells of all that the Lord has done or allowed Babylon to do, and then she admits in v.14 her sin is a part of it. Yes, her lovers were cruel to her, the city uncaring, the attachers violent, but she admits her own sin, and admits her role, her part in everything that’s gone wrong in her life and in the world around her.

Church, you can be mad at God, and he is strong enough to change your lament into hope, but if you can’t admit that some of the sin in the world is your own, you’re lost. If you can’t admit any fault in whatever conflict is hurting your family or your friendship, the relationship is lost. And if you can’t look across denominational, political, or racial lines and admit that you might at some point have contributed to the hurt, to the divisions in our society, our society is lost.

Confession. Confession is necessary for unity. If you are divided from God, if your relationship with him is broken, confess your sin, your part of that brokenness, and the relationship will heal. If there is anything in your life that you are lamenting, anything you hold against God, anything that grieves you, begin with confession, recognizing your part, even if the only part you played is by contributing to the overall brokenness of the world. Confess, and repent, and your lament will slowly grow into hope for a different world where there is no loss or grief.

No matter how deep your sin, God’s grace is more. Confess, and I assure you there is grace enough to pardon you. Lament, honesty, and confession is what we need in these times. In these ways, we find hope in Christ. Pray with me.