Lamentations, Part 1: What is Lament?
October 11, 2020 Series: Lamentations (Seven Weeks of Lament)
Passage: Lamentations 1
LEARNING TO LAMENT
Seven Weeks of Lament at Immanuel Church
Chapter 1: How?
An entire city decimated. Two years of living behind the battered walls of a city, the Babylonians continually bombarding. Food is scarce, many are dying of hunger and thirst, having no access to farms outside of the city. Diseases have increased, conditions of life have rapidly decreased. Everyone is losing a loved one, and the very city in which God promised to dwell in forever is on fire.
And it finally happens. The walls come down. After two years of siege, the Babylonians ravage Jerusalem, destroying the Temple of God, stripping its jewels and gold, leaving it in a crumbling heap of stone. The palaces are torn down, the people are slaughtered, and those who are left are exiled out of their land to Babylon.
When the scene is done, God’s story concerning Israel and Jerusalem is largely disrupted. We can call this “Narrative Disruption.” Their story of their past, present and promised future hope were turned upside down. How do they respond?
A member of Israel, presumably Jeremiah, carefully pens one of the highest examples of carefully crafted poetry in our scripture, in an effort to shepherd Israel to the spiritual practice of lament.
What is lament? And why have I chosen to do a seven-week sermon series on it? After diving deep into the spiritual practice of lament, I am convinced that there is not a more important topic for Immanuel to look at, and not just Immanuel, but for the whole of the American Church, and also for our nation.
We need to define our terms, however. Lament is the honest and truthful exposing of our pain before God. Lament is not despair, for despair has no hope. Without meaning, suffering falls into a nihilistic void of emptiness, and the only choices of response are addictions, denial, anger, forms of violence and the like. Lament, however, is a purely Christian act, for the very nature of lament admits that the tension of pain in our lives and in our stories remains because we worship a good God who has promised much to us – and a good God who is sovereign, but still often allows extraordinary pain and suffering to enter.
Lamentations gives us the freedom to give voice to our pain and suffering, and to do so without shame or embarrassment or guilt. Lament is always undergirded with hope, acting as the long ladder we must climb before our wounds can be whole before God. It is a slow process of grieving, allowing yourself to feel the pain you need to, to expose it before God and others in all its true colors, and to allow the exposing to do the work of healing for all involved as you come to understand the heights and depths and love of Jesus Christ.
Kathleen O’Connor, in her commentary on Lamentations – has this to say about this small, five chapter book in our bibles:
“When people learn I am studying Lamentations, they often wonder if I do not find the book ‘depressing.’ I answer with an emphatic ‘No!’ To me, Lamentations is not depressing; it cannot cause sorrow, hostility or despair; it cannot evoke emotions readers do not already know. Rather than creating pain, it reveals pain. It is a disturbing book, nonetheless, because it can lure into the open experiences, memories, and feelings many people prefer to deny. It can draw poison from wounds and expose realities entire societies and individuals dismiss from consciousness because seeing them might undermine their worlds.”
I was never taught how to lament. I was raised attending church my whole life, and in 33 years, I’ve never heard a single sermon on the topic of lament. I’ve had pain like anyone else has had, and all of our pain we’ve experienced in life is in different degrees. But I was never equipped to know what to do with it.
I was indirectly trained to a Christianized sidestepping of pain, trained to think that Sunday morning church gatherings were always to be for encouraging and celebration, leading me to deny pain, and to jump as quickly as possible to words of hope, strung together with bible verses, like “you know, God works all things out for good for those we loves.”.
I saw this in action once. A close childhood friend of mine passed away from a drug overdose of heroin. At his funeral, many Christians who used to attend the church we did growing up walked up to his father, saying words like “you know that God works all things for good” and “I’m praying for you, God has a reason for this.” The words were efforts to bypass the ladder of lament and grasp on to resolution immediately, abandoning the needed process of lament. In dramatic fashion he snapped, and loudly said for all to hear in that funeral parlor “if you will not allow me suffer right now, then leave.”
Such bible verses that they quoted are true, but they can be Christianized mechanisms of denial if they are used to avoid lament. Others exist as well in our Americana culture, including things like consumerism, endless forms of escapism, cheap alcohol, drugs, sex and the like.
In all these mechanisms, we try to avoid suffering, because our entire society is designed to be one of comfort and ease. There is little place for hard things and difficult things in the American psyche.
Lament gives voice to human suffering, and often times, it is spoken into the absence of God’s voice. Many voices speak throughout this book of Lamentations, but one voice is missing at large – the voice of God himself. He never speaks, he never responds to the author. God is silent.
I think it is poetically fitting that God is silent during these five chapters of lament for Jerusalem’s destruction. Lament needs time to breathe, time to be spoken aloud, and it needs the healing power of truth and honesty to be aired in prayer and cry. Giving a voice to those in suffering is one of the most important and crucial pieces to the process of healing, but it requires that the audience be willing to listen to their voices, even as uncomfortable as their words might be, even as difficult as it may be. They need to be heard, and they need you to be quiet – like the listening but silent God is in Lamentations.
The missing piece of lament is but one reason why we have seen the racial tension reach new heights in 2020. When the black community’s voice is raised, many have a habit of dismissing what they hear, and simply do not listen without the need for cheap commentary. The black community has tried time and time again to lament real history that never was publicly lamented in our nation of denial – and one crucial step we could do in this is when the black community tries to lament – to learn to listen before there is a response.
But why this sermon series for Immanuel Church? Because like many individuals, families, people groups and nations, we have our own story to lament – a lamentation that I am not quite sure has been done in full here. I’m afraid that after the suicide of the previous pastors wife, steps were taken for grieving but not communally – not corporately, or together as a whole family. Immanuel, we are a family here. We’re together in this. And if we are to move forward as a church – this is the first step - Ensuring that we have rightly lamented together.
There is also a high likelihood that many of you have pain elsewhere – pain in your family’s story, pain and depression from Covid and the restrictions placed on our life, and due to our lack of knowing how to lament, have been stuffed down deep in your life – and if you have none now, you will. And now is a better time than ever to learn how to lament.
One out of every three psalms are lament psalms. Lamentation was in fact the most common form of worship in the ancient hymnbook. Yet it is an amazing thing to see that the Christian Church of modern times has largely avoided it. Like America, we too do not know how to allow for it in our worship space.
Lament is going to provide us at Immanuel Church two things, and possibly three: 1) For those here who were a part of the church when this traumatic event in 2018, and for the church as a whole, public recognition of this event, and space to mourn and lament together corporately can help Immanuel to expose its own pain – the crucial idea behind lament, and as O’Connor so aptly said – “to remove any POISON from the wounds of this church that may remain. If you have healing left to do Immanuel, this is our time.
2) We are all going to enter as a church family training ground for lamentation, because suffering will come again and again, and we cannot avoid it. We do not and should not live in lamentation – but by learning to lament, we will be able to aptly face these times when God allows them to approach us. It will create in us spiritual roots that will be able to withstand the storm of difficulty and trauma, rather than running away from the winds, or pretending that it is sunny outside, when the rains and downpour of life is soaking and wounding your soul.
After all, lamentation is what enabled Jesus to withstand the torment of sufferings on the cross, as even he himself cried out to God, “Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?” As he stood before Lazarus’ tomb, knowing he was about to raise him – he still allowed himself to be within the family of Lazarus, and to hear their mourning and their grief. It was said that even our Lord wept – He lamented death. (DEATH)
If there was room for lamentation in the life of our Lord Jesus, if he was willing to expose the pain and confusion in his own life and give voice to his own suffering – if we are to find depth and spiritual maturity as a church, we must learn this very Christian practice of lament.
After what took place here at Immanuel, things were difficult, and it caused many families to leave this church. Our membership has decreased, and has even gotten smaller after Covid, as every church has been flipped upside down by this pandemic.
Here we are now. Has God forsaken us? Why would he allow the event that took place to occur within this church family? Did we sin against God, was he angry with this church? Why would God be so heavy handed in allowing what took place here to occur? Couldn’t he have stopped it? And why didn’t he?
It probably feels awkward to talk this way from the pulpit, and I will admit that it is not easy to stand here before you all to do so. Denise Ackerman, in her essay on faith and truth telling in lament, has this to say about the need to be blunt in our pain: “Accountability requires awareness, and the truth of the past must be spoken of… in doing so, lamenting enables individuals and communities to break with the past without forgetting it.”
I want Immanuel to be able to break with our past – it is absolutely crucial that we do - but we cannot forget it. We cannot avoid this process. I want us to be able to break with what pain is in Immanuel, without forgetting or avoiding it. Israel needed to lament the amazing amount of loss they experienced, and in due time, they began the process of rebuilding. Friends, Immanuel will be rebuilt. If God wills, this church will indeed be rebuilt, just as Jerusalem was. The Bible, God’s inspired word, guides us to this process of lament. In obedience, Immanuel, let’s walk through this for the next seven weeks.
Many of you were not here when this took place, and this sermon series will also be for you too. Lament is a practice we all must learn, and I consider your presence this morning as no mistake, as Jesus wants you to learn what it means to lament, and I pray that you will join us on this path for a spiritually stronger Immanuel as you join our church family in this.
Here is a bit of a road map of this series:
We will spend five weeks, one week per chapter, in the book of Lamentations.
Week six, we are going to have a family meeting of sorts where we enable us as a family, here on Sunday morning to lament together, and also share vision together, as we will also share commitments we will make to ensure that we can grow and strengthen in the ways we need to. We will also take communion together. More to come on what this will look like.
Week seven is going to be the easter service we never had. It will be six weeks of humbling ourselves before the Lord to be concluded by looking at the empty tomb. Jesus was humbled to his death, but God brought him to newness of life. We will sing and we will dance before the Lord as we sing resurrection songs, as we preach about the empty tomb – Immanuel, week seven is going to be a high point for us, an intense celebration that you will not want to miss – and then we will jump right into Advent the week after, prayerfully with a burden more lifted from the shoulders of our church – and we can then press forward with full hearts of anticipation for what God still has left to do here at Immanuel.
So, Immanuel, with what time we have left this morning, let’s look at the first chapter of Lamentations:
CHAPTER 1 – How? Lord?
“How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who has great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.” Verses 1-3
The original title of this book in the Hebrew Bible was simply, “How?” The first word of the book is a statement, as well as a question. “How, Lord?”
The poetic assignment to Judah and Jerusalem is that of a lady in mourning – lady Zion, a woman who due to all that occurred against Jerusalem has been left with no husband, no family, and no friends. There is no one to comfort her. This was Jerusalem as it burned to the ground.
Verse 4 speaks of the arriving days of feasts and celebration, but the roads are empty of celebration and only full of mourning. In verse seven, we find a time of remembrance. As the fire burns of the city, the pagan enemies of Babylon still bringing destruction, lady Zion remembers. She looks upon to city and considers better times, lovely times of flourishing as a nation before God.
“Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and wandering all the precious things that were hers from days of old.”
And once again in verse 1,
How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become..”
Perhaps this is the first step of lament. It’s not a sin to look back and how things were, or look forward to how things could have been – and to mourn what took place that disrupted both. The Scriptures actually guide us to this as we see in Lamentations. As a church we must do this, as individuals and families, if you need to do this – please do. If you have not yet needed to lament like this – may this be training ground for you when that day comes, because more than likely, it will.
A second step in learning to lament is visiting three very important spheres of relationships in our life – the first being between us and God, the second being between us and others, and the third being between us and ourselves. Most of the sermons in this series will be revisiting these three spheres in and out continually.
Lamentations guides us to deal with all three of these spheres. To begin with, the author of Lamentations constantly seems to place God on trial. Verse 11-12 in chapter one reads, “Look, O Lord and see, for I (Lady Zion, Jerusalem) am despised. Is it nothing to you? And all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.”
Difficult words, spoken to God. These are not very gracious words, but they are honest words. And once again we think of our Lord Jesus, as he hung on the cross, naked and ashamed, crying out, “Lord, Lord, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, which was obviously on his mind as he hung. That psalm continues, saying:
Psalm 22:1–2,  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (ESV)
Sometimes we think we have God all figured out – until our stories are radically disrupted. Michael Card, the singer/songwriter who also wrote a modern day classic book on Lament, describes how cultural Christianity doesn’t have space for Jesus to allow bad things to happen, because suddenly it makes him ‘look bad.’ Churches, says Card, “are embarrassed, almost panicky, that there are situations to which they have no answer. We want to present Jesus as the answer man, and we don’t want Jesus to look bad. And if that’s your theology, Jesus can look very bad at funerals.”
The second sphere of relationships is between us and others. Yes, sometimes we are sinned against, and other’s sin against us brings much grief and trauma to our lives. As we will see, Lady Zion, that is, Jerusalem, knows that her own sin contributed to this disaster. Yet God chose to use people who were much more sinful than herself to bring judgment. Their sacking of Jerusalem was harsh, their actions of pillaging and rape and murder and starvation was evil – and they were indeed sinned against. “Let all their evildoing come before you, and deal with them as you have dealt with me!” 1:22 reads. Many a psalm, fancily called the “imprecatory” psalms, are calls for justice from God against those who have sinned against us and caused us much trouble. Suffering of loss can be included in this – suffering that is not due to your fault. This is especially hard to face, as suffering in innocence is perhaps the most confusing aspect of suffering.
The last relationship, in which we will close with today, is between us and ourselves. Lament is the missing piece for wholeness in our lives – to actually become more human, truly alive before God. Israel’s hard heart against God was finally crushed before him when they saw their precious city on fire. It humbles us to say, “did I contribute in any part to my suffering? Is there something I wish I could have done, and have I confessed it to the Lord? Is there any part of this that is my fault?”
As we close, if I could be direct once again – we’re not used to this. Sermons that feel this heavy is something we are not accustomed to. I’m not either. It’s not going to be common place in our church – but I humbly ask for a commitment from you all to walk through this for a season. As your new pastor, I need to ask for your trust when I say that this is going to dig our roots deep into Jesus – it’s going to bury stones deep in the road of our future to tread on. What happened here is not going to be the last of challenges for our church. Therefore, this sermon series is not purely a focus on our past, but healing for the present and training grounds for our future. As we leave today, can I pray that all of what we heard today will not have fallen on resistant ears, but rather soft hearts? I want to call the worship team up as we close in prayer. Would you bow your heads with me:
“Lord, help us to not resist lament. Preserve us from feeling unnecessarily crushed, and keep us from pushing it away. Teach us this ancient biblical practice, and in your grace may this season strengthen us as a church – grow us together – breach any shallowness in our community, and allow this season of lament to remove any poison from our wounds. Give us grace to remain strong in this season, and may we more clearly see the heights and the depths of your love for us, as shown in Christ Jesus our Lord, who took on the burdens of this world on his own shoulders – and have given us the promises of a new heavens and a new earth, when he will indeed make all things new. In the name of him, our King, Jesus Christ, by the help of the Holy Spirit we pray, Amen.”