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Lamentations 4: Wrath, Truth, and Forgiveness

Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Lamentations, chapter 4.

Dear friends, this week has been a lot. This year has been a lot. I’m struggling. Lots of bad things have happened: Brad and Angelina broke up again. Taylor Swift dropped two new albums, but they weren’t that good. Girl Scout cookies are immoral now. It’s been a rough year.

So what do we do in difficult times as Christians? What’s our response to bad news, and even to tragedy in our own lives or on a national or global scale?

These questions are so rich, and the Bible gives us so many meaningful practices for our own sake, and for the sake of our communities, practices and beliefs we can invite others into.

We spent the better part of last year looking at the unbreaking, unfading hope we have in Jesus, a hope we’re able to cling to in difficult times and know that the tragedies of this life are brief and momentary, yielding to everlasting life together with Christ, creation restored and all sad things made untrue.

But there is space in Christianity to lament everything we’ve lost, all the hardship of the year, the people we’ve lost, the experiences for ourselves and for our children that we’ve missed. Because Jesus has not yet returned, because we still make mistakes and the world around us is broken, we have to learn to lament.

This is the fourth sermon in a five-week series through the book of Lamentations. Yes, I did say five-week. I’ve been saying six weeks, but it’s only ever been a five-week series. Five chapters, five weeks, that was the original idea. Next week will be the last week in the series. Someone please help me with my calendar. I just imagine Kallee sitting in her chair the past three weeks quietly glancing down at her calendar, smiling at me, and thinking, “He’ll figure it out.”

Lamentations is what Leslie Allen calls a “liturgy of grief.” And I’ve said this through this whole series—I know this has been heavy, and it makes us look at and think about difficult things, but I’m so grateful that God knows what to do with our grief and our anger, that we’re not alone, and even if we’re mad at God for what he allowed to happen in our world, our faith helps us deal and find a way forward. And until we find the way forward, there is a God who is compassionate enough to sit with us in our grief. He’s God with us, even in hard times.

We started by looking inward, dealing with our own grief, even our own anger at God or at ourselves. We have to be open and honest with God and with our community about deep-set hurt and anger, even if the conversation is unpleasant, and even if it makes things awkward. Most of all, we have to learn to confess, admit our own fault in things, even if our fault is just our own limited ability to make things right.

Then we looked to God and his part in terrible things, and we talked about how it’s complicated. God sometimes seems like an enemy, and if we’re honest, he sometimes does turn against us, only because we’re not perfect, and God has to make our mistakes right. It can feel like God is punishing you, and then, somehow at the same time, it can feel like God has left or abandoned you, to the point where we doubt he was ever with us at all. The truth is, God would leave his own throne and home, forfeit his life, to be with us. He’s still with us today, even when we are exiled, and even when we’re angry or grieving and think he’s an enemy or has abandoned us. He goes with us in our anger and grief.

Last week and this week, we began to shift, talking about how God’s faithfulness provides hope and a way out of grief. Even if God’s the only thing we have left, he’s enough to hope for a better future. There is a kind of self-indulgence that wants to hold onto grief, to get stuck there so we don’t have to think about or deal with tragedy, but God in his faithfulness helps us to heal and move forward.

Go with me, Lamentations, chapter 4, starting in v.19, to the end. [Lamentations 4:19-22]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God, we praise you because you don’t allow injustice to go overlooked and unanswered. Christ, it’s only because you bore the wrath of the father that we have any hope of salvation from our sin. Holy Spirit, be with us today in comfort. Amen.

The first thing I want to focus on in our text this morning is this: we have to tell the truth in order to heal. We have to tell the truth in order to heal.

The book of Lamentations is such a good book. And I know it sounds silly to say—it’s the Bible, I’m a pastor, my expectations should probably have been pretty high—but I’ve been blown away by it as I’ve had this opportunity to do a deep dive into it. And the thing that’s blown me away most is how true it is, how honest, both to the events described and true to our experience of grief, even the uncomfortable parts.

In short, I’m glad the author tells the truth, because truth is a necessary part of healing from difficulty. I don’t know if you’ve been reading through the book as we’ve gone—I’ve avoided reading aloud in church a lot of the parts of the book that I thought may deeply disturb people, for a variety of reasons but I would encourage you to go read them—he doesn’t spin it or try to stay positive—he just tells the truth of his own sin, his own powerlessness, and the fall of his city.

The author of lamentations writes these five poems, beautiful poems, and we have to remember writing at that time was extraordinarily expensive. He isn’t writing as he’s in prison, taken from his home. He had nothing then, much less a scroll and writing utensils. No, he’s writing probably years later, going back in his mind, and using this rigid structure of poetry to remember and process his grief. To speak all truths and in doing so begin again to heal.

You have to tell the truth in order to heal. We know this. You can see it in our rituals, in the ways we move past conflict and grief. I took a class once in seminary entirely based around forgiveness and reconciliation. It was at an inter-religious school, but taught by an episcopal priest—interesting. He started the class with this story:

He told us he had two children, and they were playing together in their room, and every parent knows this situation, one child comes out crying and immediately the trial begins. He started it, and she did that, and on and on. The children want you to know their side, and pretty quickly as the adult, you begin to form a picture of what actually happened. Children are bad liars, which is why I think they form such strong connections so quickly—the truth is always in the open.

But to the story: knowing the truth is good, but it’s not the whole of your job as a parent. You can’t just know the truth, you have to get the children to tell the truth, and if they won’t tell you the truth you tell it to them. You say, “I’ll tell you exactly what happened.” Isn’t that interesting we always do that? They know the truth already, but someone has to speak it. And then, after the truth is out and the parent repeats the truth to get rid of all the slanted tellings and misplaced blame, once everyone’s clear on what they’ve done wrong, you turn the children toward each other and—what, parents, what do we do? Say sorry. We tell them to apologize to each other for what they’ve done. And if they say sorry sarcastically, what do we do? We tell them, say it for real. We make them repeat it until it sounds like they mean it.

And this professor asked, do we think the child’s sincerity really changes in that moment between blowing it off and having to repeat it? Do we think their heart has changed? Or are we teaching them the method, the ritual of forgiveness? The ritual necessary for moving on from some sort of grief or grievance without retaliation?

We have to tell the truth in order to heal. It’s not enough to know that a terrible thing happened to us or by our hand, we have to speak it before we can really go even vaguely forward. I told Robyn this the other day: a large part of my motivation for going through the book of Lamentations is all of the people I know who have gotten stuck. Stuck in some sort of grief, stuck in anger at God or at someone else, just stuck, waiting.

What can we do for them? How can we minister to them? I don’t know the whole of that answer, but I do know, somehow, some way, we have to find a way to tell the truth with them. You’re grieving because the church or the pastor has sinned against you and never apologized. You’re angry because God allowed your loved one to die, and we aren’t to the resurrection yet. It’s not ok yet. Stop drinking, you need to mourn instead; stop mourning, you need to hope instead. Whatever the truth is, find a way to tell the truth. This is part of why therapy can be so helpful when we are grieving, this is part of why I always try to tell people, if you need to talk to someone, as your pastor, I’ll listen and ask questions as I need to. I’m not too busy for you. If I don’t have time the day you call, we can set a time. I’m sure most people in the church would say the same.

Sometimes we think we’ve dealt with grief, and it comes back to us. Sometimes we realize through little things here and there that we may have dealt with some of our grief, but other parts linger, and so we need to speak them again until the truth is all told.

We have to tell the truth in order to heal, and the second thing I want to focus on in the text is this: God always tells the truth in the end. God always tells the truth in the end.

All through lamentations we’ve heard of the false prophets who made promises that Jerusalem could never fall, and in the text for today we see the king of Jerusalem saying similar things. Preachers, leaders, rulers, who are willing to say whatever they can get away with to advance. In this chapter, the game is up. The Lord speaks the truth, and no one is able to contradict or excuse him.

In our lives, too, we should know the Lord will tell all truths in the end, and that thought for me is a little scary—because there are things about my life I prefer to keep secret—but knowing God always tells the truth in the end is also a comfort. Our father will eventually tell us the truth of every grievance, every grief, every argument.

God is a good father. He always tells the truth in the end, even if it’s been years since anyone has believed you or taken the time to sit and listen, God knows the truth of the matter. He won’t let the matter lie until all is told.

I spoke a few weeks ago about praising God for his judgement of sin, and Meg spoke last week about praising God for his authority. Maybe it’s a bit uncomfortable knowing that all of your actions will be known in the end, all of your mistakes, but recognize: we need God to tell the truth, or else so many wrongs will never be righted—so many suffering cries will have gone unheard.

In that same class on forgiveness, we studied the South African truth and reconciliation commission. I know I’ve brought them up before, some of y’all may be familiar already, but they were an attempt to move forward from the horrendous racism and violence South Africa experienced during apartheid. This is how they worked: anyone who had committed a politically motivated human rights violation during the time of apartheid was able to request amnesty from the commission, but first they had to tell the whole truth of what they had done. A Christian archbishop proposed this process. He believed confession leads to forgiveness, and forgiveness is what’s required for healing, reconciliation, and in the end, peace.

There is no road that leads from grief to peace which does not first pass through truth. Truth is necessary for individuals to heal, and telling the truth is necessary for societies to heal. So in the end, in the Day of the Lord that we see depicted here in Lamentations, when God brings about the restoration of humanity, he will do it by telling the truth. Everything hidden, everything will be made known.

Our father will hear our case, turn us toward each other and say, “tell the truth, child, and say you’re sorry.” It’s better for the child when the child admits it. But that conversation is going to end with the truth whether she admits it or not. Either the child will admit she’s lied and hurt her brother, or the parent, in the end, will speak the truth. Confession leads to forgiveness. But in the absence of confession, there is still judgement able to make the situation right.

I don’t know if you caught v.21 or not, the warning to Edom, saying laugh now, but soon you’ll be stripped bare. It’s a reminder that our God will not allow sin to remain hidden.

Maybe you’re here this morning and the grief you’ve been thinking of throughout this book of Lamentations is the grief of someone sinning against you. Maybe she never saw any consequence for her actions. Maybe he managed to manipulate the situation so well that everyone ended up ignoring you and ignoring the truth. It can be a comfort to know that all truths will out in the end. Eventually everyone has voice, and all is known.

The last thing I want to bring out of our text today, my last focus is the one verse, the one word of comfort we have in all of chapter 4. It comes in the very last verse, “the punishment of your iniquity, O Daughter of Zion, is accomplished. He will keep you in exile no longer.” My point is this: the wrath of God is satisfied. The wrath of God is satisfied.

In v.17 here, the author writes, “our eyes failed watching for a nation to save us.” He’s talking about Egypt. Egypt, at the time, was a much more powerful nation than the nation of Judah, and they were allies. So when Babylon came to destroy Judah, they looked for Egypt to come and save them, but ultimately, as we read here, their eyes failed watching that Southern horizon. No one came, and the city fell.

But this one line at the end reminds us that Judah will still be saved, but not by Egypt or any of Egypt’s warlike gods. Israel will be saved by the Lord, the God of Israel, the only one who was ever able to save them. They looked to the wrong place. To the South of Jerusalem, there are mountains, and I imagine the watchers on the city walls spending their whole day watching the mountains for any sign of this powerful ally, with the temple at their backs, and I think of the Psalmist: “I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the maker of the heavens.” God is, in our most desperate moments, already working to restore us back to rights.

This book of Lamentations details the lowest point in Israel’s history, enslaved again in a foreign nation because of the wrath of God, and crying out for deliverance, a deliverance God was working even in the midst of the exile.

One scholar points out the central verb in that last verse saying the wrath of God is accomplished, is the Hebrew equivalent of Jesus’s statement on the cross of “It is finished.” Because of Christ’s death on the cross, the wrath of God is satisfied. Jesus went through the suffering and mourning described in this book, he bore this wrath of God so that even when we are dead and wandering in our sin, he could still be with us, and even in the midst of our darkest hour reconcile us back to God.

So my invitation to you today is to confess. Speak the truth, confess that you’ve sinned, and believe in Jesus who descended into death to give us life. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth even now—all truths will be told in the end. And no matter what the hurt, he’s able to work forgiveness from the pain. In Jesus the wrath of God is satisfied, and he will keep you in exile no longer.