Wail

Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 137

Well! In all of my years as a Christian in church I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on Lamentations. That’s not to say it’s never happened; more likely the message as it was didn’t connect with me or appeal to me, so I didn’t take much notice. I hope that today is not like that for you. On the other hand I have heard sermons on Psalm 137:1 with its famous disco riff By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion, popularised by Boney-M; less so on the notoriously misquoted Psalm 137:9 where God commands all Christians to bash out the brains of infants and rip the wings off newborn puppies. Yeah, that got your attention didn’t it!

And, like I did with Philemon last month, when I began my reading for this sermon I wondered why we need Lamentations in the Bible at all. I mean, isn’t there enough moaning and sighing going on in Psalms and all of the prophets, why Israel needs a specific book just to lament I don’t know. Well, I do know now, but I was wondering then. Like Philemon which in one way is about the specific message of reconciliation wherein it would be safe for Onesimus to return home, the big theme of the Jewish Bible is homecoming. You have messed up and you have been kicked out, but God is ready to welcome you home: be you Adam and Eve kicked out from Eden, or Saul kicked out from the kingship, or the entire nation of Judah kicked out from their land and into exile in Babylon. Exodus is about the journey home and Joshua and Judges is about how home is then made homely. Ezra-Nehemiah is a similar story. The stories of Kings explain why the exile happened, the messing up leading to the kicking out, and many prophets take up that story with the words of warning included. This is where Lamentations comes in, it is the sorrowful tale of the sorrowful people sorrowing: it is the explanation of why the people of Psalm 137 wept, and why God’s chosen nation had to remember Zion as a decimated past home rather than living in its glorious present. Sometimes it’s good to remember what was lost so that we appreciate it if we get it back: and even if we don’t get it back we are able to see with hindsight how faithful God has been to us, and we are prompted to worship.

In Lamentations 1:1 we read how the daughter of Zion mourns like a widow, how the much cherished princess is now a servant-girl. Her husband is not dead, rather he has left her and now he is threatening her with divorce, that’s why she’s a widow. All comfort is gone, everyone has betrayed her and abandoned her; the daughter of Zion is alone in her grief, except for her enemies who are abusing her we read in Lamentations 1:3. What a tale of woe for the one whom God has caused to suffer: by taking away all her strength and every means of rebuilding that strength the daughter of Zion has been utterly destroyed by God. The sobbing goes on for a bit, and we take it up again in Lamentations 3:19 where Zion is now characterised as a man, and he is speaking for himself rather than being described by a narrator as the daughter of Zion was. Zion speaks like Job here, bitterness is in his mouth and he is utterly desolate, but even in that there comes a spark of joy. Here, again, is the thought that even if God will not restore what we have lost that it was God who gave all the good things first, and God is faithful to God’s own character. God is worthy of worship, and beginning at Lamentations 3:22 that is what we hear and see. The song of Zion is returning to the mournfully abandoned man and he no longer feels betrayed.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases sings the son of Zion, perhaps with clenched fists and gritted teeth. “I will hope, I will hope,” he says, grasping at that small flicker of light, blowing on that one last bit of red in the coals and ashes of his incinerated life. Like Job he says “I am not cut off”: everyone and everything may be gone, every “thing” and every “one”, but not God. God is here because God is faithful, and not only faithful but steadfast, and not only steadfast but steadfast in love. I have hope, says the son of Zion, I have hope because God always brings the dawn and with the dawn God always brings my portion. Maybe the point has come in time where the son of Zion has confronted his exile, he’s taking account of his sins and recognises why he is in Babylon now and not in Zion. Not every disaster that befalls a believer in God is divine punishment, neither is distress always the plain consequences of sinful behaviour; however in this case it is the truth. God is faithful, and I am faithless: and because I am faithless I am here, in exile, and not in Jerusalem; and because God is faithful I am here, in exile, and not in Hell or otherwise dead. Where there is life there is hope; and even here, by the rivers of Babylon, I am living and I am alive, and God is present. Thanks be to God.

As someone who loves God fiercely, and who knows that he is loved by God with even greater ferocity, I like that the language of the Bible is bold. And as a man who has lived with illness and disability for all of his adult life, and much of that psychological and emotional, I like that the language is not only bold but dead-set blunt. Lamentations is honest in its grief, as is much of Job, and many of the psalms including Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion; and it’s no wonder when you consider what we have just heard. They didn’t just weep, they lamented like the darling daughter who is shut out in the cold not only by daddy but by her fiance. They grieved like the king who has lost everything and everyone, and all he has is cold ashes and boiling memories. That’s what’s going on for them, so when the Babylonians say “hey, gissa song then, how about one of those songs where you boast about how awesome your God is and how Zion is impregnable, bahahaha”, they are not laughing. No, they are seething. First they whinge, and rightly so, about how it’s all a taunt and that even if it wasn’t there is no mood for joy and celebration when you’re living in exile. Then they grieve when they think of the songs themselves, songs about the land God gave them and the land they filled with crops and children, a land that is now desolate and abandoned. No-one wants to be reminded of what was once glorious but is now a ruin, yet these are hymns of praise to God and isn’t God worthy of praise even if the people have sinned and the land has been wrecked? Yes, God is worthy, and in signing God’s praises the memory of what has been lost comes to the forefront. Look at Psalm 137:4 and Psalm 137:7 where the poet refuses to forget God but the memory of God is also the memory of defeat. God’s beautiful city was destroyed by bogan pagans, and as a royal priest and a holy citizen that triggers rage in the poet, which is why he wants everyone and everything associated with the Babylonians dead. Again this is raw, honest, blunt language: but because it is these things it is also worship. To pray like this is to trust God completely, to trust God with your emotions and your vulnerability, to have the greatest respect for God, the God who laid you low in Exile but who hears your righteous rage at what has become of Israel.

The commentaries that I read all said about Psalm 137:9 that it’s good to vent. God doesn’t really want you caving in the skulls of toddlers and God is not going to be doing that sort of thing on your behalf: no children were harmed in the making of this story. If you’re that upset then have a good yell and a good spit and get it out there; however there’s more to it than that, and the commentators say more. The point is not only that it’s good to be raw and honest with God, although it is, but that God is not violent like that. Remember that God is steadfast in love; love doesn’t kill children, even the children of enemies, even the children of the Babylonians who had killed Judahite children. Even exile and slavery are not good reasons to kill people, says God.

To kill children is to kill hope. We see this in the church today where we wonder about the next generation; we wonder whether there will even be a next generation. God who is steadfast in love and alongside us in presence is the source of hope, and the promise to Abram back in the day was not only the land of Canaan but also the millions of descendants who would occupy it. What if God engineered the return of Israel and Judah from exile, just as God had caused the exodus from Egypt in the first place, but the nations had no children and so the nations died out in the land. “That’s not who I am,” says God, God is not the sort of personality to cut off hope from anyone, even from Babylon: neither is God the sort who repays an eye for an eye. As Christians we know that God is faithful to all who place their hope and trust in God, you don’t have to have had a Jewish mother for God to love you as one of the chosen: it seems this love and invitation extends even to the Babylonians. Hope must not be killed, babies must be allowed to live, God is to be glorified even in the depressing place of mockery and isolation.

Our hope lives because our God lives: this is the message of Lamentations and of Psalm 137. That we live in a hole of human construction is not God’s fault, but it is God’s concern. God is concerned because God’s people are suffering, and God’s remedy is coming just as sure as it did last time, in Egypt.

Even in a time of lamentation, of anger and bitterness and shame, we can rejoice in the steadfast love of God.

Amen.

Sunday 6th October 2019

Serviceton Church of Christ

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The Resilience of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva-Serviceton for Sunday 28th October 2018, the twenty-third Sunday in Pentecost in Year B.  This was my first sermon to the people of Kaniva Shared Ministry and the second to the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-9

Good morning Church!

Last week at Serviceton we read together the story of God’s interruption of Job in his grumbling and also the false comfort of his three friends; today we hear Job’s response to what God said.  (Hopefully here in Kaniva you know about Job because I don’t want to preach last week’s message again and then give you this week’s as well.  Suffice to say that Job has had a rough time of it in his life and has said some pretty challenging things about God.  Recently God has pulled Job up on those things, asking Job who he thinks he is to speak about Almighty God in such a way.)  Job has had an intense experience of God in that someone he had heard about he has now met in person (Job 42:5-6).  What Job has now seen and heard from God when God spoke to Job personally has somewhat reset Job’s perspective of God and who Job is in comparison to God (Job 42:6).  Last week at Serviceton I made a comment, which a couple of people followed me up on after church, that I sometimes think that studying Theology at University has actually made me know less than more; well today I find myself in that situation.  One of the subjects I studied, and this subject was part of my studies towards my Masters degree rather than my Bachelors degree so it was pretty high level, was “Old Testament Wisdom”.  During that course I studied Job alongside a few other books, so today I’m caught between wanting to bring God’s wisdom to you for this day and place, and teaching you what I was taught about this particular passage, and I wonder how helpful that might be.  So, let’s leave Job’s conversations for a bit and come back after the other reading.

In today’s Psalm, 34:1-9, we read how David responded to God’s deliverance of him from a tricky situation.  Something that is an original part of what was written in the Bible but has not been included in the verses is a note which describes what was going on in David’s life at the time that he wrote this psalm: basically he’s been on the wrong end of a coup and he’s in hiding from a mutinous son who has seized his throne.  David had been captured by his son’s army, but through faking illness he has been able to make his escape and now he is hiding and can praise God who delivered him.  Unlike Job, who in his story is still in trouble and doesn’t know what God is going to do to or for him, David has been saved and he is up to the part of his story where he can say thank you.  And just look at what he says as we read Psalm 34:1-5.  God is magnificent, faithful and true, strong and mighty, compassionate and protective, and to be embraced with all the senses.  David is obviously having a better time of it than Job is right now, but if you look at this Psalm you will notice that it’s actually not addressed to God.  This Psalm is about God, so it’s a testimony or a declaration, rather than a prayer or an act of worship toward God.  Job is talking to God, but David is talking about God.

I wonder, are the stories of David and Job familiar to you?  I don’t mean have you read them in the Bible, but does their story relate to yours?  Can you think of a time when you have been where Job is, where the whole thing went pear-shaped for you and then it got worse?  Can you think of a time where you have been where David is, when everyone and everything turned against you but God did the impossible and got you out, and you were ready to tell everyone how amazing God is?  Can you?  I can.

During much of the first decade of this century I lived in England, specifically the first nine months of 2001 and then from October 2002 until January 2009 with two trips back to Australia in the middle.  That first nine months was great, and I don’t have much to say about it.  The first year of that second visit, so November 2002 until December 2003, was one of the worst seasons of my life.  “Character building” doesn’t come close, “terrifying” and “soul destroying” are closer to the truth, with small doses of “horrific” thrown in.  You will hear a lot about my time in England if you stay on at church in the next few years, but I promise not every story will come from this year of my living dangerously.  But today’s stories do.

So, I had a bit of a Job year.  Funny thing about the pronunciation of his name, and Carla brought this to our attention last week; my year of being Job involved me not having a job.  Also, somewhat unlike Job, my turmoil was kind of deserved, or at least it was my own fault because of reasons I’d rather not go into right now.  It’s not that I’m embarrassed, it’s just that I’m actually still working through what the actual sort of hell was going on and I’m not sure what to say.  But I do admit to being foolish, and I acknowledge that my foolishness lead me to a situation where my life was a mess.  My family was far away, I was in England but my parents were in Darwin and then Pt Lincoln and my siblings were in Hobart.  God was very close, but very, very inactive, at least in the ways I wanted God to act, and I let God know all about it on several occasions.

Let’s look at Job 42:1-3.  Open your Bible if you have one.  (And if you don’t then please be sure to bring one next week; I like to preach from the Bible most weeks, so it’s good if you can read along.)  In the Bible that I use when writing sermons this passage has an added heading, not part of the Bible but part of the editing of the modern book, and this heading says “Job is humbled and satisfied”.  Let’s see shall we as we read Job 42:1-6.

In this passage Job declares straight off the bat that God is sovereign and that nothing any human does or is capable of doing can thwart what God wants to do.  Then Job acknowledges that God’s questions cannot be answered with anything other than humility: Job does not know what God knows and therefore Job is better off not speaking.  When God is speaking, (indeed when anyone who actually knows what he or she is talking about is speaking), it’s a good idea to listen to what is being said so that you can learn.  When Job decides to listen to God rather than yell at God, Job learns about God.  We can see in hindsight that Job learns that he was actually correct about God’s character, that God is just and fair and does not punish the undeserving, but we also see that the way God does this is beyond human understanding and things are neither as simple nor as straightforward as we would like them to be or as Job thought them to be.  But in learning that God is so much bigger, so much more complex, so much far beyond his understanding than he ever imagined, Job actually gets to understand God more.  One way of reading Job 42:6 is for Job to say “I never knew how much about you LORD that I didn’t know, but now that I know how much I didn’t know I actually know you more”.  Does that make sense?  In a way Job is heading toward where David is in Psalm 34, he now has a better idea of just how majestic and awe-inspiring God is.  Job now has a better idea of how God cannot be fit into a box, or plugged into an equation where faith plus obedience equals blessing.  Job’s recent experience was that faith plus obedience equals disaster, but what Job has learned is not that God is false or unreliable, but that the equation was too simple.  It’s the maths that’s broken, not God.  It’s the theology that’s faulty, the way we talk about God and the way that Bildad and Zophar and Eliphaz talked about God that is at fault, not God.  Job doesn’t know what the new equation is, but he does know that the old formula is broken.  So in Job 42:6 he’s decided to stop talking rot and to pull his head in around God.  So, is Job “humbled and satisfied”? Is he?

Meh-yeah, I’m not sure.  One thing I have learned from reading Job, and not just at university, is that with God you are allowed to be not sure: indeed much of my life experience as a Christian, and my devotional and academic work, has pointed me toward understanding that we are allowed to be not sure far more often and about far more stuff than we think.  So I don’t think Job actually is satisfied at all, I think he’s just agreed to disagree, and I think this because of two things.

So, thing one is that God never actually answers Job’s complaint: Job actually doesn’t get from God what Job wants from God.  You see, Job never actually asked God “what did I do to deserve this?” because he knew all along and with absolute certainty that he didn’t deserve the calamity of his life.  Self-righteous Zophar, Eliphaz and Bildad were happy to ask Job what he did to deserve this, and they pressed him to find an answer, but Job kept telling them the same story.  And Job didn’t tell them “I don’t know, I can’t remember how I sinned”, no, Job said “there is nothing, this is all completely undeserved”.  Job’s question is not “what did I do to deserve this,” which God does answer, telling the friends that Job did nothing to deserve this, Job’s question is…anyone??…Job’s question is “why did this happen at all?” and God never answers that question.  God doesn’t even acknowledge that question: what God says is “who are you to question me?”  So Job is humbled, God has got right into Job’s face and shown how awe-inspiring God is, but Job is not actually satisfied.

Thing two is that Job never actually apologises.  Read closely; throughout the big story of Job and not just in the last two weeks of readings Job says “why all this?” right?  Last week God said “who are you to ask me questions?” and this week Job said “God you are too big to argue with, so please let me learn from you instead.”  What Job never says anywhere in the big story is “sorry Adonai, forgive me for my presumption”, and what God never says anywhere in the big story is “I forgive Job”.  God does call the three friends to repentance, and to ask Job to intercede for them, but Job is never pronounced guilty and Job never repents.

Which makes Job 42:6 interesting, doesn’t it?  We are Christians reading a Jewish text, but even so we can assume, I believe, that God would not leave Job unforgiven if he’d asked for forgiveness, right?  So since we never read of God forgiving Job, this verse cannot mean an apology.  But we don’t want to know what this verse doesn’t mean; we want to know what it does mean, don’t we.  Don’t we?  (Yes Damien, tell us.)  Well you already know what I’m going to say: I don’t know.  Well I don’t know enough to build a doctrine out of it at least, but here’s what life in Hertfordshire in 2003 and some book-learnin’ in Adelaide in 2016 learned me.  I’m not sure what the original Hebrew, or the Greek of Jesus’ day would have said, and my Church-History-specific Latin lets me down here so I’m gonna have to tell you in English, what Job 42:6 means is “there’s no point sooking about it.” Job acknowledges that God is not going to answer his question, God is not going to give an explanation, and that even if God would explain Godself to me (which God won’t) I’d probably not understand it anyway.  So it’s time to get up off the dirt, have a bath, put on some fresh clothes and the kettle, and get on with what comes next.  In other words perhaps a bit more in line with how the Bible puts it, “after taking a good long look at myself I see that I’m a bit of a dill, so I’ll go forward in humility but without further humiliation.”

And that’s where I got to in December 2003.  I’m not sure that my theology was that well developed then, but my Christian faith got to the stage of saying, literally, “thank God that’s over with now, now let’s move on with the new thing now that I’m safe”.  So, basically where David was in the cave where he wrote Psalm 34.

So, what does this mean for you?  Well what this means for you is up to you, I can’t tell you how you are supposed to respond.  What I hope you’ve heard is that God is bigger and wiser than you could ever imagine, and that all of that is good.  I’m not going to give you the gooey message that all that God is, in all of that exceeding abundance, is focussed entirely upon you or even upon creation, because I think that God is not limited in attention to just us.  But I do think that God is attending to us, in all of our life’s turmoils and celebrations, and that God is good.

So if you are in the mood to celebrate God, celebrate God with all that you have for all that God is.  If your mood for celebration comes out of a recent story of deliverance then all the better – go hard!  And if your mood is lament and confusion, then chase God with all that you have for all that God is.  If you are still in the midst of trial, if your future is pregnant with possibilities but it’s only the second trimester, drill in to God and be held.  Ask God whatever you want to ask, and trust whatever answer God gives you.  Even if what God gives you is silence.

Amen.