Faith of Lamentations (17th Pentecost, Proper 22C)

“The Faith of Lamentations”

17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22C)

 

 

 

Lamentations 1:1-6 (NRSV)

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.

 

Canticle: A Song of Waiting (Lamentations 3:19-26)

The thought of my trouble and my homelessness *

is as bitter as wormwood and gall.

My mind dwells on it continually; *

my soul is weighed down within me.

When I remember this, I have hope: *

by God’s kindness, we are not destroyed;

for God’s mercies are never-ending *

and are new every morning.

How great is your faithfulness, O God! *

“You are my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I hope in you.”

You are good to those who wait with patience, *

to every soul that seeks you.

It is good to wait, even in silence, *

for the salvation of the Lord.

 

 

Today’s readings from Lamentations are challenging and sad. We don't often hear from the book of Lamentations on Sunday mornings (it only pops up 2 other times in the whole three-year lectionary). So I want to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from this incredibly important little book of poetry. Why do we remember these sad words as the "word of the Lord"? What can they teach us about who God is and who we are in relation to God? We need to set the stage a little bit in order to understand Lamentations, so let's talk about the history behind it.

 

The traditional author of Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah. Whether or not he wrote thie book, it takes place during his lifetime in the final years of the Davidic monarchy, the fall of the kingdom of Judah. During this time, Judah was a little fish in a big pond. It was a small, poor nation increasingly surrounded by superpowers looking to expand and conquer everything it saw. 

 

Generations earlier, under King Hezekiah, Assyria depleted Jerusalem’s treasure stores with taxes.

Later, during Jeremiah's ministry, the Egyptian Pharaoh killed Judah's great King Josiah. He was the religious reformer king who restored the people to the obedience of God’s commandments. But he was betrayed by Pharaoh and died before his 40th birthday.

 

Then Babylon captured and killed Josiah’s sons and brothers. The final kings of Judah were little more than vassals — political puppets to the Emperor of Babylon. They were colonies, forced to pay exorbitant taxes and obey every whim of Babylon’s rulers. 

 

And during these last years of David’s monarchy, King Jehoiachin was attacked by Babylon. The city was Jerusalem was besieged by the fierce Babylonian army. King Jehoiachin and the royal family surrendered after only 3 months. They became prisoners of war and were brought back to Babylon in chains. The Babylonians also stole all the gold and precious metal from the Temple, and exiled all the nobles and warriors from Jerusalem and the land of Judah. 2 Kings 24:14 says, “Then Nebuchadnezzar exiled all of Jerusalem: all the officials, all the military leaders—ten thousand exiles—as well as all the skilled workers and metalworkers. No one was left behind except the poorest of the land’s people.”

 

Jerusalem was stripped of its royals, its leaders, its Temple furnishings, its priests, its warriors, and even the blacksmiths who could build more weapons. The city and the country were decimated and left powerless in the face of the great and mighty Babylonian Empire.

 

King Nebuchadnezzar, the warrior-King/Emperor of Babylon, captured King Jehoiachin and replaced him with his uncle, Zedekiah. Zedekiah was nothing more than Babylon’s puppet for most of his reign. But when he finally tried to rebel and escape the bitter yoke of Babylon’s oppression, they again brought the full force of their military might upon little Jerusalem. Less than 10 years after Babylon’s first attack on Jerusalem and their first wave of exiles, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem again.

 

For 18 months, Babylon’s army surrounded Jerusalem, cutting off its food and water supplies. They starved out the people until they began to die of hunger, thirst, and disease. They slowly tortured Jerusalem until they were past the point of being too weak to fight. These parts of the scriptures talk about the enormous suffering of the people while they were besieged. Parts of Lamentations mourn that the people were reduced to cannibalism and even infanticide to survive (Lam 2:20). It really can’t get much worse. 

 

Then Zedekiah and the remaining royals tried to escape and the Babylonians hunted them down. They captured them, killed all Zedekiah’s sons, and gouged out his eyes (2 Kgs 25:5-7). Then they broke through the walls of Jerusalem, raided the palace and temple again and burned them both to the ground. The surviving people were either slaughtered or captured as prisoners of war and also exiled to Babylon. They were forced to walk a Trail of Tears, leaving their homeland in chains for a foreign land of oppression.

 

This is the context for the book of Lamentations. This short book of sacred poetry emerges from the deep pain that the people of Judah experienced when they were brutalized and exiled by the Babylonian armies. Judah lost its kingdom, its autonomy, its freedom, and its homeland. And Lamentations openly wonders, Have we lost our God too?

 

Speaking about Jerusalem, our first lesson reads: How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.

 

We too have experienced histories of oppression and unspeakable horrors. We have groaned under the weight of the world’s sin — the bitter yoke of slavery, the burden of American apartheid, the indignities of racism, and the threat to life and limb that continue to afflict black and brown peoples alike. Judah knew suffering, but we have known it too. These prayers of mourning and lamentation are not just Judah’s prayers. They’re ours. 

 

We know what it’s like to feel so frustrated and angry at the injustice of the world that all we can do is “weep bitterly in the night.” We know what it’s like when our “friends have dealt treacherously with” us. We know “troubles” and displacement and longing for a homeland we can’t even remember anymore. 

 

After all of that, have we lost our God too? Despite the hopelessness of Judah’s situation and the grief the poet expresses, the answer to this question is somehow, No. No, God has not abandoned us. We may be suffering the consequences of our sins. God may have allowed great tragedies to happen because of the evil desires of human beings. The power-hungry politics of empires and Judah’s strategic failures led to devastation for the people of God. Their hubris got the best of them. But God is not dead. God was not defeated. God did not let us go. 

 

Later in Lamentations, the writer declares: The thought of my trouble and my homelessness is as bitter as wormwood and gall. My mind dwells on it continually; my soul is weighed down within me. When I remember this, I have hope: by God’s kindness, we are not destroyed; for God’s mercies are never-ending and are new every morning. How great is your faithfulness, O God! “You are my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I hope in you.” You are good to those who wait with patience, to every soul that seeks you. It is good to wait, even in silence, for the salvation of the Lord.

 

Lamentations turns around and says it is “by God’s kindness we are not destroyed”. Despite the bitterness of their affliction, “God’s mercies are never-ending and are new every morning.”Even though Judah has suffered, they do not lose hope. They trust that God will restore them to their land, as God accomplished some 70 years later. They trust that God will restore a son of David to Israel which God accomplished through Jesus, some 600 years later. And they trust that God’s Messiah will be the King of Kings and Righteous Judge of the World, which Jesus will accomplish on the Day of the Lord.

 

The Book of Lamentations shows us what it is like to pray honestly about the pain and suffering we endure without giving up our faith or our hope in God. Lamentations shows us a mature faith that has grown beyond thinking that God can only be good if I feel good. Lamentations provides a vision for wholeness and peace in the midst of the chaos of this world. Lamentations teaches us how to mourn our losses, express our rage, and long for justice from a God we still believe will set things right in the end.

 

So I pray that we learn to imitate the faith of Lamentations. I pray that we grow to trust God even when the hard times come. And I pray that we will know God’s mercies to be never-ending, for “great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto” us. Amen.

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