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Lamentations, Part 2: God's Relationship to Good and Evil

October 18, 2020 Series: Lamentations (Seven Weeks of Lament)

Passage: Lamentations 2:1–2:22

      Welcome to chapter 2 and week 2 of Lamentations entitled “God on Trial.”  We are going to be talking about one of the greatest challenges and questions of Scripture – that is, God’s relationship to suffering and evil, and his allowance of it.  This chapter seems to almost place God on trial.  Let’s read some of the verses:

 

1: How the Lord in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud!  He has cast down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger. 

 

2:  The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of Judah…

 

4:  He has bent his bow like an enemy, with his right hand set like a foe; and he has killed all who were delightful in our eyes in the tent of the daughter of Zion; he has poured out his fury like fire.”

 

5:  The Lord has become like an enemy, he has swallowed up Israel; he has swallowed up all its palaces, he has laid in ruins its strongholds, and he has multiplied the daughter of Judah mourning and lamentations.

 

7:  The Lord scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary, he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces; they raised a clamor in the house of the LORD as on day of festival.

 

8:  The Lord was determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion; he stretched out the measuring line; he did not restrain his hand from destroying; he caused rampart and wall to lament, they languish together.”

 

11:  My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns, my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the street of the city.  They cry out to their mothers, where is bread and wine?  As they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mother’s bosom.” 

Verse 13, then reads in the message translation:

 

How can I understand your plight, dear Jerusalem?
    What can I say to give you comfort, dear Zion?
    Who can put you together again? This bust-up is past understanding.

 

          The author has accused God of becoming like an enemy, scorning his own altar, and one who was determined to lay in ruins its strongest buildings.  He is said to have cast down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel.  Without mercy he swallowed up houses and homes, he has become like an enemy bending their bow, and his judgment is so extensive that even children suffer and faint of hunger, infants expiring on their mother as they nurse – and it is all past understanding.

          Yes, this is our Good and Loving God we are talking about.  And how do we reconcile this?  I’ll never forget standing with my wife, looking at the ultrasound in the third month of her pregnancy.  The baby was no longer moving; no heartbeat was found.  Worse, the embryo had tried to divide, but the other division had become a tumor, and that tumor was responsible for the death of the baby as it consumed all of its food and nutrients.  The majority of women who received this rare condition would wind up with a cancerous womb (thankfully, God spared Alexandra from this, but we wouldn’t know this for sure for another six months).

          After receiving the news that day, we climbed into our car in stunned silence.  What do we do now?  How do we go home and tell the kids?  How do we respond to this? 

          This was my question that I wrestled with during those trying times: if we had some supernatural ability over my neighbor to make or break the success of their pregnancy inside the womb – who would ever allow something like this to happen?

          One of the verses we just read, verse 8 in chapter 2, says that God determined to lay in ruins Zion.  This was thought out, thought through by God.  This was not a whim of anger, an outburst of wrath against his people.  No – this was calculated by God.  And even the children and infants of Jerusalem suffered beneath his determination.

          If we are to learn to lament, we must face this difficult and seemingly impossible question head on:  what do you do with this?  You might read this in Lamentations and think, “hmm, somehow I’ve missed this part of my Bible.”  The Bible is written by humans like you and I, humans, writing beneath the inspiration of the Spirit, but nevertheless, writing as a person.  These are raw, yet carefully expressed emotions, and God determined for you and I to have them 2,500 years later for a reason.  We need to get ready this morning to wrestle with God.

         

LAMENTING IN MYSTERY

        This sermon was especially unique and challenging in preparation, because I found myself in a continual pattern of trying to bring resolution to this question of God’s relationship to suffering and evil, rather than allowing myself to explore this topic as deeply as Jeremiah does here in chapter 2.

          As we are trying to learn in this series, the nature of lament does not require a solution, nor does it ask for one.  The only resolution, as we will see next week – is hope, woven and threaded with faith.

The nature of Lament is not exploration of the rationale behind suffering, but maybe much more, simply giving room to ask questions, and learning to cling to faith within them.  I want to learn to ask these questions today, and learn to find the seeds of hope in the midst of them.  I have no quick and easy answers for you this morning – only the laying of a biblical road for you to travel on this journey of lament, with God’s Word leading us as lamps on our feet.

 

Any sort of simplistic understanding of God is challenged here.  God becomes like an enemy against his own people so much so that even their infants are expiring on their mother's breasts.  If that doesn’t make you scratch your head in confusion, what will? 

There is tension here, because God is easily grasped and understood – and He is also at times seemingly impossible to grasp and to understand.  When we read our Bibles and attempt to create an understanding of who He is, we are only trying to be responsible in our relationship with Him.  I always want to get to know my wife more, and my kids.  It’s natural when you attach yourself to someone you love that you want to get to know them inside and out.

          But no matter how deep and wide you go into the Scriptures, some parts of God you simply will not be able to grasp. 

Lamentations 2:17 [17] The LORD has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago; he has thrown down without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes. (ESV)

Psalm 72:13 – He will have compassion on the poor and needy, and the lives of the needy he will save. 

          I love letting the Bible create tension.  Isn’t it great?  Let’s just sit here in this awkward tension for a moment, as all of you stare at me hoping I can ease the tension with some grand answer.  I want to resist this, and try to live within Lamentations during this time.  If we are to have the result of our faith deeply strengthened during this time, we actually must resist the temptation to tie a nice red bow-tie around the question with a cheap answer that will satisfy the tension, so we can further stuff it down and not deal with it.  I want to argue that allowing these tensions to exist – even allowing the Bible to appear (emphasizing the word, ‘appear’) to contradict itself when it describes the character of God, which it appears to do at times – ensures that you and I embrace the reminder that we are the creation, and not the Creator.  And we need to be at peace with this distinction.

          Let me give you just another scenario from Scripture that will further challenge you to God’s relationship to suffering and evil - just to show that I am not making up this tension.  In 2 Samuel 24 we find David sinning against Israel, and this was due to the Lord’s anger towards David – saying that God “incited him” against his people (2 Samuel 24:1).  The same story is repeated in 1 Chronicles 21, and it says that “Satan stood against Israel and incited David” against them.  If you think I’m making that up – go and investigate for yourself.

          Talk about fascinating, huh?  In one version, it was due to God’s anger.  In the other, it was Satan’s anger.  If you are ever at my house early in the morning, this is when you would hear me mumbling and talking to my Bible, saying to myself “what in the world do I do with this one?” 

          Could it be in difficult and challenging times that there are aspects of God that are above and beyond our ability to grasp?  The Bible actually confesses to this in Deuteronomy 29:29 saying: “The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things revealed belong to his children.”

           Yes, there’s more to God than even revealed in the Bible.  The Bible is of course sufficient for salvation and godliness – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 claims the inspired nature of Scripture that is useful for teaching, rebuking and correction in righteousness, equipping us for every good work.  2 Peter 1:3 says that His divine power through the prophecy of the Scriptures have given us everything we need for a godly life through knowledge of Him.  But I challenge someone to find a verse that says “all of God is revealed to us in the Scriptures.”  He is not, and in fact could not be, or the Bible would contain millions of pages that still would remain unfinished to this day.

 

So as we wrestle with God this morning concerning his relationship to suffering and evil, I’m not here to present anything new to you.  No new revelations of who God is.  No new deep insights.  But what we are here to do now as a church is lament.

          It is OK to suffer and be mad at God.  It is OK to feel frustration at Him for your plight.  Yes, He is sovereign, and in one breath we blame Him for everything, and in the next we weep on our knees confessing that He is our only hope.  One day we shake our fists at Him, and the next we are reaching out in a bed of tears, trying to grasp Him with all of our might. 

 

This happens in Lamentations 2:18–19, [18] Their heart cried to the Lord. O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!  [19] “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street.” (ESV)

 

It is in these times that we learn the nature of faith, the true nature of hope.  The Psalms teach us this continually, over and over.  Too many instances exist to recall, but we can briefly look at Psalm 13:

Psalm 13: “How long, O LORD?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and how sorry in my heart all the day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death”

     I’ll say this boldly:  one of the best things that can happen to us is to be humbled beneath the confusing and seemingly harsh events of life that for God’s often mysterious purposes He allows to happen.  In doing so, we learn to not trust our own reason and our own self above God, and we learn even beyond ourselves to say “God, I truly don’t understand, but if I cannot hope in you, I indeed have no hope at all.”  This is black and white faith being filled with the color of hope, for faith without hope is a cheap faith that will not survive the storms of suffering.  Hope drives us to cling to our Lord, all the while the Spirit carrying us along in this – and it leads us to obedience, just like it did with Jesus. 

Do you know that it says Jesus himself learned obedience through what he suffered?  The author of Hebrews had this to say:

Hebrews 5:8–9

[8] Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. [9] And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, (ESV)

         

          One of my professors in college had this to say to our class: “I have never met a man or a woman who have given themselves over completely to Jesus who have not received their share of scars in the journey.”  After all, we worship a guy who lived as a poor carpenter, an itinerant preacher, a man who was rejected by almost all his friends and family while he hung naked on a cross in the utmost form of shame and suffering that exists.  It is that man who says, “follow me.”  And we would have the nerve to think that God will now allow hard and very, very difficult times to come to us?  In fact, it might be said that we should expect them, since Jesus himself is the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and we are that man’s disciples called to live in his image.   

          Are you OK with this?  Quit trying to reconcile these truths, and allow God to be God, and allow yourself to be human.  And yes, this is where reason fails us, and that is OK!  Richard Dawkins, the foremost atheist of our age, had this to say in his book, “The God Delusion:”

 

“More generally… one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” 

 

          My question for Mr. Dawkins would be this: is it then a virtue to claim to understand everything?  For which I’m sure he’d respond in saying that he does not understand everything and that would be arrogant.  And I would say, “exactly.  Christianity provides us the reason why you do not understand everything.  We are the Creation, and there is a Creator.  This may appear to be unreasonable, but it actually is very reasonable.

          Let’s get out of the clouds for a moment.  I know Immanuel has been through the ringer.  I know its been a long and arduous season.   Maybe personally you’ve been in the spiral of suffering as well.  And at times, you’d wish that God would appear right now and provide answers for what He has allowed to happen.  Lament says, “voice this!  Don’t hold back, work it out, confess to God how angry you’ve been at Him, confess your confusion to Him – you can indeed be angry and not be in sin."

          God did indeed come down, however, to give answer to this question.  In the book of Job, the only book in our Bible entirely written to tackle this question – it explores the question of God’s allowing of suffering in Job’s life, his loss of essentially everything, God’s interactions with the Sa-tan, Satan, the Accuser, and allowing what happened to occur by his hand – after 38 long chapters of going back and forth, trying to figure out exactly why God would allow what he did to happen – he does appear in a whirlwind.  He comes down from heaven!  And you may think: ahhh, great.  Answers!  And in a deeply poetic ending, God looks at Job and says “where were you when I created this earth?”  My paraphrase: do you recall that I created you, and you are not the creation?  You my friend are trying to understand God-things.  Can you trust me with the God-things, and can you cling to me in hope, even in the midst of not being able to understand it?”

          You see, the faith I am calling you to have this morning is a faith that requires you to deny yourself.  It is faith that, even after our wrestling with this question, you find yourself saying, “God I don’t understand!  But I need you!  I can’t find answers anywhere else, I can’t find hope anywhere else!  There are not answers to the pain inside of me, I have nowhere else to turn!”  As we empty ourselves out of all our pride and arrogance in our humanity, God I believe starts nodding His head saying, “Yes!  Yes!  You get it!  This is why it has always been by faith!  Habakkuk 2:4 says

Habakkuk 2:4 [4] “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. (ESV)

          Faith is the ultimate reminder of our humanness before God, the ultimate path of purging our arrogance that brought us down in the first place, it is the ultimate reminder that you and I simply do NOT have all the answers in life, and it is the reminder that God did INDEED come down, the Word indeed became flesh and tabernacled among us, he lived the human life we could never live, and he himself paid by his own blood for all of our arrogance and pride, and after his resurrection has provided us now with even in the darkest, deepest moments of despair, when we feel as if God himself has become the enemy and we find the courage to breathe those words aloud – that we are undergirded with this Good News, and we say “But Lord, even without my understanding, I cast all, all of myself unto you in hope.”

 

          How do we end such a sermon today?  With a story from a book written for kids, of course. 

 

      The famous 19th century novelist George MacDonald, wrote one of the most creative and interesting fairy tales you will ever hear called “At the Back of the North Wind.”  If you have not read it, if you’re young or old – go and get a copy.  It’s free online. 

      The story is about a little boy named Diamond, and his interactions with the North Wind.  Personified as a she, the North Wind first tried to stuff herself into Diamond’s room through a hole, and after attempts to plug the hole and keep her out, he eventually lets her into his life.  Carrying him along beneath her arm in her cloud of breeze, she teaches him all about life, suffering, love, joy, and how she is behind it all, with the goal of bringing more people to the “country at the back of the north wind.”  Throughout the story, you realize that MacDonald has in mind the North Wind as if this is representative of God and his Spirit.  It’s a beautiful story, and it actually gives voice and word to this difficult conversation.  I find it fitting to end with an excerpt from this book, as the North Wind tells the young boy Diamond, as she gently carries this little boy in her arms, carrying for him and loving him – that she must go and sink a ship abroad with her wind in the ocean.   

 

 I have got to sink a ship to-night.”

“Sink a ship! What! with men in it?”

“Yes, and women too.”

“How dreadful! I wish you wouldn't talk so.”

“It is rather dreadful. But it is my work. I must do it.”

 

“Oh, dear North Wind! how can you talk so?”

“My dear boy, I never talk; I always mean what I say.”

“Then you do mean to sink the ship with the other hand?”

“Yes.”

“It's not like you.”

“How do you know that?”

“Quite easily. Here you are taking care of a poor little boy with one arm, and there you are sinking a ship with the other. It can't be like you.”

“Ah! but which is me? I can't be two mes, you know.”

“No. Nobody can be two mes.”

“Well, which me is me?”

“Now I must think. There looks to be two.”

“Yes…. “Which me do you know?”

“The kindest, goodest, best me in the world,” answered Diamond, clinging to North Wind.

… “Well… listen to me, Diamond. You know the one me, you say, and that is good.”

“Yes.”

“Do you know the other me as well?”

“No. I can't. I shouldn't like to.”

“There it is. You don't know the other me. You are sure of one of them?”

“Yes.”

“And you are sure there can't be two mes?”

“Yes.”

“Then the me you don't know must be the same as the me you do know,—else there would be two mes?”

“Yes.”

“Then the other me you don't know must be as kind as the me you do know?”

“Yes.”

“Besides, I tell you that it is so, only it doesn't look like it. That I confess freely. Have you anything more to object?”

“No, no, dear North Wind; I am quite satisfied.”

“Then I will tell you something you might object. You might say that the me you know is like the other me, and that I am cruel all through.”

… Diamond clung to her tighter than ever, crying—

“No, no, dear North Wind; I can't believe that. I don't believe it. I won't believe it. That would kill me. I love you, and you must love me, else how did I come to love you? How could you know how to put on such a beautiful face if you did not love me and the rest? No. You may sink as many ships as you like, and I won't say another word. I can't say I shall like to see it, you know.”

“That's quite another thing,” said North Wind;”

 

          No, to say it like MacDonald did, we don’t like when God sinks those ships in our lives.  But perspective is what we lack – for times and seasons of suffering and the questioning of why God allows it to happen – this important part of Lament – has at its center a peculiar result – a continual battle to accept that God is indeed Good all the way through, as John says, “in Him there is no darkness at all.”  This we know and cling to, even without understanding. 

And far from a cliché’ Christianized ending, we’ve come a long ways in this sermon, but the verses fall into our lap – the verses of hope, the ultimate result of our faith – that the resurrection serves for us as a promise.  A promise… “that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV) Romans 8:28

And finally, as John saw the final revelation of all that is come, the promise of the Resurrection is applied to ALL of creation, and we find these cherished words:

Revelation 21:3–5 [3] And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. [4] He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. [5] And He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

+(ESV)

Let us pray. 

More in Lamentations (Seven Weeks of Lament)

November 8, 2020

Lamentations, Part 5: Remember

November 1, 2020

Lamentations, Part 4: Idolatry

October 25, 2020

Lamentations, Part 3: Hope in God's Faithfulness