Monday, July 02, 2012

Sermon on Lamentations 3:22-33, 5th Sunday after Pentecost, "Waiting on God"

Sermon Outline
1.      Only reading from Lamentations in our calendar of readings. The highlight or crown jewel of comfort in an otherwise dark and gloomy book. Context helps set the contrast, and fuller appreciation of the hope Jeremiah expresses. Not spoken in a vacuum, or out of a bright, rosy, easy life. Much sounds despairing. But there was legitimate reason for the gloom!
2.      Jerusalem was under siege for two years, as the Babylonian army surrounded them and cut off all food supplies. When the food finally ran out, and they were weak from starvation, the Babylonians broke through the city wall and began destroying the city, setting fire to all the buildings. Worst and most devastating, they looted and burned down the Temple of the Lord. Everyone who was not killed by the Babylonian army was taken prisoner and made a slave for life in Babylon. Only a few of the very poor inhabitants of Jerusalem were left to farm the land. Jeremiah had prophesied from the Lord that this would happen. Worst of all, this tragedy was preventable. The Kingdom of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem had repeatedly been called to repentance for their wickedness and idolatry, but they stubbornly refused, and would not believe that such a tragedy would occur. Rather than putting their own wickedness to death through repentance, they tried to put Jeremiah to death for what he foretold. Jeremiah sorrowfully watched as all of these things unfolded just as he warned.
3.      Out of this great bitterness when Jerusalem fell, Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. A tragedy on a national, spiritual, and personal level. Laments are poems that express grief and sorrow. We all know afflictions in our lives, and although they may not be as dramatic as the Fall of Jerusalem, they are no less painful or bitter when we experience them. Certainly you remember times of great loss, prolonged sickness, or trouble in your closest relationships, when you were in despair or your soul was heavily burdened with sorrow.
4.      Sorrows, suffering, evil and trouble all come to us quite unwelcome, uninvited, and unwanted. Sometimes we’re directly responsible through our own sinful actions, but quite often the causes of suffering are complicated and unknown. More often than not we do not know the reasons, and are left with the painful and unanswered question, “Why?!?” Though we know suffering, pain and evil ultimately owe their origin to human sin, but we very rarely can say why our specific sufferings came about.
5.      How do we respond? It would be great if patience and faith were something that could be learned through a quick sermon or Bible study, or by reading a pamphlet. That you could simply “add that gift to your inventory” and have that skill nailed down and learned, like a short lesson in balancing your checkbook, then mastered. But instead God teaches us patience through trials and difficulties, in stretching us to grow beyond our perceived limits. It’s repeatedly tested and tried, and never completely mastered. We are constantly in the “school of the Holy Spirit” where He trains us and helps us to grow through life.
6.      In the time of suffering or trial, we may lose everything, depending on the severity of our affliction. And yet with Jeremiah, we can say that “the Lord is my portion” or “the Lord is all I’ve got!” “He’s the one thing I won’t let go of!” When God takes away from us, when He prunes us, and brings suffering for reasons that we don’t or can’t know, it ought to turn us to become even more dependent on Him. God is our portion, our inheritance, everything we’ve got, and marvelously, He is the most valuable thing we could ever have! Being deprived of all else, and having God alone, doesn’t leave us impoverished, but wealthy beyond all measure! Faith sees this. And so it would be truly tragic if in the time of suffering or affliction, we would also surrender God as our portion. That we would lose hope, or stop seeking God—this would be true poverty.
7.      If earthly things are taken away from us, health, wealth, or happiness—would that in any logical way move us to surrender that of far greater value—God Himself? And yet we do. In foolishness, or in despair, in unbelief or in hopelessness, we walk away from God just when we need Him the most. Jeremiah and the Psalmists and Job, all who were intimately familiar with great tragedy, grief, and loss, instead poured out their souls to God. They passionately lamented, they spoke out loud of their sadness, their loss, their anger and frustration. They waited and waited. They “dumped” it all on God—at His invitation to cry out to Him in their distress! Psalm 50:15, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” Psalm 34:17-18, “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” 1 Pet. 5:7 “Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares for you.” You aren’t helped by hiding in your heart and keeping silent about what God knows you are thinking about and feeling! God wants you to pour out your soul to Him in prayer!
8.      The “lamenters” in the OT brought it all out into the open, not so that they or someone else can deal with it, but so that God can. So often we turn to ways of burying, denying, silencing, or removing our grief, instead of pouring it out before God. For those Old Testament saints, many did not get an answer to their laments. Not that they weren’t heard, or that God did not refresh and renew them—for He did. But it still was not clear how God was going to deal with suffering and evil. Not until the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
9.      There God gives His definitive answer to suffering and lament. There, Jesus’ cries a lament, taken from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He expresses the cry of the righteous, wondering where God is in their distress. Jesus went even through the agony of death, and into the silence of the grave—with no answer to His question. No voice from heaven would answer the “why.” In this life we will never find an intellectually satisfying answer for pain, but rather we can only taste God’s rich and merciful love.  (Schulz, The Problem of Suffering, p. 11). It’s not as though a logical explanation would take away the pain or the hurt of what we go through. But we can taste and know God’s love. We can taste and see that He is good.
10.  And on that first Easter morn, when Jesus rose from the grave, we had our answer that God delivers even from the hand of death! The answer to Jesus’ lament, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken men?” was His rising from the dead. As our passage from Lamentations ends, “The Lord will not cast off forever, but though He cause grief, He will have compassion.” Though there be mourning, God’s mercies will again be renewed like the rising of the sun, morning by morning. Though we feel abandoned by God, He will again return to us. Though God brings us through grief, He will again have compassion. The answer to suffering is not an answer that explains all the how’s and the why’s, but an answer where God meets us in our human suffering, joins Himself to it, and suffers it for our sake. Not merely as a side-by-side sufferer that we can look to for sympathy, not in a misery loves company way—but One who suffered as a substitute, so that He can bring us salvation. That His life counted on behalf of ours. Jesus suffered so that we might have forgiveness and life. So that the grave would not be the end of us. So that the promise of life and hope would live beyond death, not only as long as we can stretch our earthly life. As Hosea 6:1-2 says, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”
11.  As we see in verses like this, our Christian patience and hope lives on in the knowledge that He will restore and lift us up again. That God brings us low through suffering and repentance of sins, so that He might lift us up, bind our wounds and bring us healing. Like the wounds of a surgery, that are painful and sore, so also we go through healing, but through it God brings us always closer in His grace. This side of heaven we will never fully know or understand suffering or pain, but we can abundantly taste of His love and mercy, all of which is a foretaste of the feast to come. What we taste in small measure now, will be never-ending in heaven. With this hope and confidence in God’s steadfast love—with the constant reminders of God’s faithfulness to His people throughout history, we can patiently wait on the Lord and seek His salvation.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. The Hebrew word hesed is a rich Biblical word, that is hard to express simply in English. It is frequently used to describe God’s loving-kindness, His steadfast and unfailing love. It is said that God abounds in hesed, His steadfast love is not in short supply. See how it is used in Exodus 34:6-7; Neh. 9:16-17; Joel 2:13.
  2. This great passage of hope (Lam. 3:22-33) cannot fully be appreciated outside the context of the great gloom and suffering that Jeremiah laments throughout the book. Read the surrounding chapter at least to gain a greater appreciation of the contrast between his despair and hope. How does hope (more accurately: “Christian confidence”) shine all the brighter in the midst of real suffering and tragedy?
  3. When are the times in your life where you have lamented, or are? Did you actually voice your sadness, or mourn out loud, or could you not find words? Compare/contrast some examples of laments in the Bible: 2 Sam. 1:19-27; Ps. 79; 83; 89:38-51; Lamentations. How is this Biblical approach different from the way we are told or expected to deal with grief today? What could we learn from the practice of “lamenting?” How do all the laments of the faithful finally find their answer in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
  4. In what way is patience both a learned part of the experience of suffering, and also a necessary part of our response to suffering itself? What is our patience “waiting for?” What does it hope to receive? Lam. 3:22-26, 31-32. Psalm 130:5; Isaiah 40:31; Jeremiah 29:11.
  5. How does God’s “record” of salvation in the past give the believer confidence in the deliverance and future to come? Re-read Lam. 3:28-32 in the light of Jesus’ suffering and unanswered cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” How is our cry together answered in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? How does it again show God’s hesed

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