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Why is life so hard? - Lamentations 4:1-22

This is a sermon by Tim Benstead from the Riverside Church service on 31st May 2015.

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Why is life so hard?

 

It was nearly four years ago when after a short family visit to my parents that Michael, my son, his wife Michelle, our new-born grandson Alex and Anna, my daughter, all climbed into Michael’s car and set of on their return journey to Manchester.

I light-heartedly noted to my wife Annette that our whole family were travelling in that car. Some thirty or so minutes later we received a mobile phone call from Michael stating they had been in an accident. After assuring him that we were on our way we were then perplexed to get another phone call from Anna asking for Michael’s address – after all Michael was there with them. The confusion grew as it became clear that the one who had the most apparent injuries – Michelle – was not the one who was the most damaged! Michelle was airlifted to York and Michael, Alex and Anna all travelled to York via ambulance – his car being a write-off.

Annette and I travelled to York and it became clear that whilst there was barely a mark on Alex and just some bruising on Anna, Michelle was sore and being monitored and Michael was in a pit of despair. He wailed in a manner which I never want to hear again as he believed that he had been responsible for killing his wife, son and sister – his mind having been temporarily overthrown. The despair Annette and I witnessed that night is something we will never forget.

Interestingly, however, Michael still cannot remember that time. Three days have been blanked from his memory and it is the rest of us that occasionally recall that day and night.

What if, however, that I wanted to tell the tale after mature reflection. I might meditate on all the events of the day, weighed up my feelings, emotions and thoughts? Might I not recall the accident as described by those involved in it? Might I not meditate on his despair and then rejoice over the fact the family were not dead? Would I not then consider who was to blame for the accident – the man who was driving too fast and drove into the back of him taking him off the road?

That accident, horrible as it is, is as nothing compared to what has occurred in Lamentations. The author has lost everything, and it has been lost in such an appalling fashion that he reflects on all the events, the causes and who is to blame.

Jeremiah, the likely author of at least part of Lamentations, was an eye-witness of a terrible tragedy and we read the horror of the eye witness of events so dreadful that our ears can barely comprehend what they hear. As a more recent reminder of how poetry might be used to describe the horror of the thing without losing its accuracy we might read Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen (roughly translated as, ‘it is a sweet thing to die for your country’).

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

God’s judgement – a city in distress vv1-11
4 How the gold has lost its lustre, the fine gold become dull! The sacred gems are scattered at every street corner.
2 How the precious children of Zion, once worth their weight in gold, are now considered as pots of clay, the work of a potter’s hands!
3 Even jackals offer their breasts to nurse their young, but my people have become heartless like ostriches in the desert.
4 Because of thirst the infant’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth; the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them.
5 Those who once ate delicacies are destitute in the streets. Those brought up in royal purple now lie on ash heaps.
6 The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment without a hand turned to help her.
7 Their princes were brighter than snow and whiter than milk, their bodies more ruddy than rubies, their appearance like lapis lazuli.
8 But now they are blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets. Their skin has shrivelled on their bones; it has become as dry as a stick.
9 Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field.
10 With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed.
11 The LORD has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations.

The language is considered and the chapter like all those that precede it are structured but let us not lose sight of the fact that this is raw in the mind of the author. What he describes is almost too much to bear: he looks around and sees even as he writes:
• The dead lie at every street corner – sacred gems are scattered at every street corner verse 1.
• Society has collapsed – the gold has lost its lustre, the children of Zion are now worthless in the eyes of their conquerors – verses 1 and 2.
• Mothers no longer treat their own children or any others with care, indeed they have in their extremity of need cannibalised their own. No longer do they give their milk to their little ones and the children who are still alive are not given any spare food – verses 3, 4, 9 and 10.
• All are in the same pitiable condition. The rich who used to wear royal purple and who ate the best of foods, are now as destitute as all the rest, indeed they now scrub for food on rubbish dumps – verse 5.
• The royalty and nobility are no better. Once they were brighter than snow and whiter than milk and now they are blacker than soot and are not even recognised in the streets, those streets where they once were seen and acknowledged as the important ones – skin and bone is all they are now verses 7 and 8.

What has happened? Why have God’s people been so destroyed? Has God abandoned them, is there no God?

Verse 6 gives us that start of a reason for the events that have taken place:
6 The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment without a hand turned to help her.

In Leviticus 26: 14-46 and again in Deuteronomy 28: 15-68 we read of the curses for disobedience that God promises should God’s people choose not to obey. Some of the curses detailed are terrible to even consider. If we read vv 47 to 57 and we will see that what the author of Lamentation writes is little different from the culmination of the curses listed in Deuteronomy. And Jeremiah concludes in the anguish of his own heart and of his living experience that which we read in verse 11:
11 The LORD has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations.

We all like to think what God is like don’t we? God is love and then we move on to say that this means that as long as we too love – any love – then that is something God would approve of. We also say what we think God is not like. He is not unkind, he is not judgemental. The God of the Old Testament is different from the one we read of in the New Testament.

Sin is serious and God’s judgement on sin is equally serious. So what has gone wrong?

Leadership matters – vv 12-16
12 The kings of the earth did not believe, nor did any of the peoples of the world, that enemies and foes could enter the gates of Jerusalem.
13 But it happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous.
14 Now they grope through the streets as if they were blind. They are so defiled with blood that no one dares to touch their garments.
15 “Go away! You are unclean!” people cry to them. “Away! Away! Don’t touch us!” When they flee and wander about, people among the nations say, “They can stay here no longer.”
16 The LORD himself has scattered them; he no longer watches over them. The priests are shown no honour, the elders no favour.

We are dealing with God’s chosen people. This is, if you like, the church. What has happened to God’s church? Even the pagan’s found it hard to believe:
12 The kings of the earth did not believe, nor did any of the peoples of the world, that enemies and foes could enter the gates of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah is clear about those who are responsible in his lament.
13 But it happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous.

You know that politicians and pundits like to look at all the reasons why events occur, and they may be wise men and women and have real insight into the events that are taking place around them. But here, Jeremiah clearly takes aim at the religious establishment.

Let’s consider Jeremiah 20: 1-6. What about Jeremiah 23: 1-2 and 15-17? Also consider Jeremiah 28.
We see in all these passages that the people have chosen to listen to what it is that they wanted to listen to. After all, who in their right minds wants to hear about judgement for their sins? None of us – right! Now, we know that Jeremiah was not written to us, rather it was written for us: and this means that we recognise the lessons that it teaches us without believing that they apply in exactly the same way as it did for the people in Jeremiah’s day.

We live in a culture and a society that is determined to go its own way. In Ireland they have recently voted to have gay marriage as being equally valid as the marriage that exists between a man and a woman. We see an ever greater push for the ‘right’ to commit suicide in such a way that those helping to take a life are not prosecuted for murder. We are being culturally conditioned to accept that all those who oppose such things are ‘reactionary’ and need to get up to speed with society; they should join with those who are ‘progressive’.

As a fairly typical example, a street preacher is arrested and held in a cell for eleven hours when a woman complains about him claiming he was homophobic and offensive. It did not matter that he had recorded all he had said and had made no comments about homosexuality – the police did not want to hear truth, they would rather believe the lie.

In any society determined to turn its back on God we will see, as a natural by-product of that rejection, a judgement from God which is a confirmation of the sin that we bury ourselves in – all we have to do is read Romans 1 and recognise that God has given our society over to the fruits of its choices.

Judgement is serious and those who proclaim to be God’s servants – the prophets and priests – are judged responsible and not the political leaders. It is the response of the church to sin, whether it continues to hold to truth, that will define our national response to sin. It is a sad day when politicians speak of morality and the church speaks overmuch about politics. Worse still, it is an indictment on the church when the gospel is no longer proclaimed because it offends.

And what happened to those religious leaders when the city fell?
14 Now they grope through the streets as if they were blind. They are so defiled with blood that no one dares to touch their garments.
15 “Go away! You are unclean!” people cry to them. “Away! Away! Don’t touch us!” When they flee and wander about, people among the nations say, “They can stay here no longer.”

Notice the echoes of the curse of Cain – they are doomed to wander and find no rest. Or perhaps we see the same cry from the lepers – unclean, unclean! Utter rejection from the people around them. All these preachers of lies. All those who preached what the people wanted to hear are now rejected themselves by those same people. They have led the people to both their spiritual destruction and now their physical destruction.

Pray for our leaders. Pray that they will remain faithful even in a world that is against them, and a church that is going away from what the Bible teaches. Jeremiah preached to a whole people and never won a convert – but he was found to be the faithful one, the one of whom God will say well done good and faithful servant.

Pray for ourselves, that we are never satisfied with a message that tickles our ears or fails to offend the world’s values. Let us pray that that same word would richly indwell us so that we remain, even under pressure, a people who are after God’s own heart.

Despair – the natural response to judgement vv 17-20
17 Moreover, our eyes failed, looking in vain for help; from our towers we watched for a nation that could not save us.
18 People stalked us at every step, so we could not walk in our streets. Our end was near, our days were numbered, for our end had come.
19 Our pursuers were swifter than eagles in the sky; they chased us over the mountains and lay in wait for us in the desert.
20 The LORD’s anointed, our very life breath, was caught in their traps. We thought that under his shadow we would live among the nations.

The lament goes on to describe some of the politics that surrounds their destruction. In verse 17 we see that there was an attempt to get other nations to help Judah avoid their destruction. Indeed, Zedekiah tried to get Egypt to help out, and this after Nebuchadnezzar had earlier destroyed that nation’s army at the great battle of Charchemish, where a combined Egyptian and Assyrian army were utterly destroyed.

In verse 18 we read of the situation after the Babylonians get in – hunting the people down and there was no escape – verse 19. There is no escape from this terrible set of events – the judgement of God is inexorable and all-encompassing.

And eventually the king, Zedekiah, was captured after trying to flee the city. He is the Lord’s anointed (Messiah), the embodiment of the people – he is their life’s breath and here he is defeated and broken, a man who was soon to have his sons slaughtered before his eyes just before his own eyes were gouged out, and then taken in chains as a slave to Babylon along with the remains of most of the people.

We can see why despair is the natural response. There is no good news here. Judgement is as serious as the sin that makes such judgement inevitable.

I will now give us our Latin lesson today - Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis sit peccatum, said Anselm in his dialogue [‘you have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is’].

When we read of what Jeremiah has seen and recognized what has caused God to bring down such a calamity on the people and their leaders, can we not see how serious sin is? This is both corporate sin and personal sin.

The faithless were in despair; not so we who proclaim the salvation to be found in Christ, and not in Jeremiah. Last week, no doubt, you met the wonderful verses at the very centre of Lamentations:
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” 

Even in the midst of despair there is hope for the Lord has not consumed completely – there is a remnant, a seed left that can grow again. God does not leave himself without a witness.

Even today we are not called to despair. We can see that God’s word is ridiculed, yet because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. Even in judgement we have a loving Father.

 

The enemy will be destroyed – vv 21-22
21 Rejoice and be glad, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz. But to you also the cup will be passed; you will be drunk and stripped naked.
22 Your punishment will end, Daughter Zion; he will not prolong your exile. But he will punish your sin, Daughter Edom, and expose your wickedness.

Edom, although a relative of Judah, has been one of its most persistent enemies and they are gloating. They have looked on the utter devastation wrought on the people of Judah and have shown no pity and no compassion, they have jeered from the sidelines. They are contemptible and Jeremiah reminds the people of Judah that there will be a time when punishment comes to an end, yet for Edom their punishment has not even started.

A lament is intended to be evocative, to get us to feel the pain as well as learn from the words that are spoken. God must judge sin, and we must always recognize sin as our greatest enemy and keep on at it until we are finally free, when we see Jesus as He is. But He will always be faithful to His people for so He has promised and in this we continue to place our hope.

 

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