A Sermon delivered to Free Union Original Free Will Baptist Church in Pinetown, NC. Date: December 29, 2019.
Scripture Text: Lamentations 3:1-33
Has life ever caused you to forget what happiness is? Life is full of frequent and tumultuous trials, many of these painful and distressing. Such times are undeniably strong, which inflict a toil that wrecks us both physically and emotionally. And the effects of this pain and suffering can linger long in our existence, creating a situation of distress within us that never seems to end. Suddenly, what’s situational becomes very much our new normal and the hope we once carried so courageously begins to fade away. We lose our grasp on joy, and bit by bit it’s slowing replaced with deafening pain and a blinding worry that seems all too common in contemporary life. Finally, the relief we saw, the one just over the horizon, fades further and further away until it is but a distant and haunting memory. A distant dream perhaps, one that we’re constantly waking up from with a longing that leaves us in tears as we desperately try to remember what we’ve lost, until suddenly it’s gone, and we remember it no more. We wonder about what our lives were like before the pain, the worry, the sadness? There’s something about difficult times that has a way of impeding our vision. Suffering can block our vision, making us blind to the world around us and to any possibility of current or future happiness. But even worse is the blindness that causes us to forget what happiness is altogether. That is indeed a tragedy of the very worst kind. One that seems to erase from our mind and spirit any happiness we might have once had. And like the prophet, we can only state in quiet resignation, “I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.’”
One of the things I appreciate about scripture is the honesty the biblical writers convey about emotion, particularly in the face of hardship and distress. Scripture contains within it a remarkable range of emotional expressions. I daresay that the Bible often does a better job with emotional conveyance than we do, particularly in emotions expressing sadness, disappointment, and even anger. For many of us, it takes a great deal of work to let out the many emotions that we typically bottle within us. We often hesitate to share how we truly feel, to let out and express the disappointment and grief buried within us. Not so with Jeremiah, also known as the “weeping prophet,” who we traditionally ascribe as the author of Lamentations. And given the suffering and agony he witnessed first-hand, it’s hard to believe one could witness such events without weeping in both sadness and anger. Lamentations is a collection of poetic reflections following the destruction of Jerusalem. It’s a rather bleak book, full of lamenting over Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians in the year 586 BC. Notably, God is silent in this book, a stark reminder of the apparent separation and distance present between God and God’s people. The prophet’s anger, frustration, and sadness are well apparent. Jeremiah holds little back, stating, “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 streets of the city” (2:11). And elsewhere he exclaims, “my eyes flow with rivers of tears because of the destruction of the daughter of my people” (3:48). Thus, Lamentations carries a range of complicated emotional expressions including grief and lament, anger and confusion, and even acceptance at what has transpired. Anyone familiar with Kublar-Ross’s five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) could probably identify these stages throughout Lamentations. The prophet is witnessing and experiencing unimaginable physical and psychological pain. He too shares in this pain and suffering. The prophet bears the nation’s anguish and despair. This pain is one that laments both the loss of God’s holy city and the loss of his own personal expectation of God’s justice. How can a prophet speak for a God that is silent? How does a prophet speak of God’s love when children are hungry, and men and women lie dead in the streets? How does a prophet speak of God’s protection when the city walls have been destroyed and are no more? How does a prophet speak for a God who has no temple, when holy things are carried off by those who care nothing for Yahweh?
Given all that Jeremiah had seen and experienced, perhaps we can better understand how he could’ve forgotten what happiness is. But what I find most remarkable is that within the same book, is this amazing expression of hope and assurance that seemingly comes unexpectedly and almost impossibly from the midst of incredible grief. After lamenting the loss of peace and happiness, and his own afflictions, the prophet states, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:21-23). Great is your faithfulness? It almost sounds like madness. Only earlier the prophet complained that God had shut out his prayer, blocked his ways with stones, and made crooked his paths (3:8-9). And yet, here he is now exclaiming God’s faithfulness and goodness. Has the prophet lost his mind? Surely, he can’t be serious. It seems whimsically flippant, almost comical, this moment of maddening hope within a sea of drowning despair. Surely, we’re not supposed to take him seriously. It certainly would be understandable to attribute the prophet’s sudden change in attitude to some sort of temporary insanity or denial, a failure to recognize and adequately deal with the circumstances he finds himself in. I don’t know many who could look at starvation, death, and ruin and remark how good, faithful, and compassionate God is. If we’re honest, we’d all probably look at Jeremiah with a degree of skepticism, if not anger. I’ll admit that’s typically been my reaction. I’m usually taken aback by this passage, shocked at the prophet’s declaration that God “will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (3:32) and to “lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (3:41). I can’t help but ask if the dead were expected to lift up their hands to God? And where was God’s compassion and steadfast love when children starved? But I don’t ask these questions only historically, in the past tense. I also ask them now, within the context of our own lives. How are we expected to proclaim God’s faithfulness, compassion, and love when others suffer, when we suffer?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within one of the Bible’s most depressing books is a passage of immense confidence, happiness, and hope. In our minds, a passage like this doesn’t seem fitting in a time of lament. When we are sad, our hearts only have room for sadness. Likewise, when we’re happy, our lives seem to only have room for happiness. We have a hard time identifying and empathizing with those who are sad when our own lives are full of joy. In the same way, we often find it difficult to recognize and remember what it means to be happy when our own lives are full of sadness. When we suffer, we see everything through the lenses of suffering—even other’s experiences of happiness. We live lives that often have room for only one or the other, but not both. This of course isn’t a sin or some great flaw, it’s just hard to be able to hold together within us the tensions between happiness and grief, depression and joy, suffering and peace. We may run from one to the other, but not usually at the same time. Thus, we lead lives that often are diametrically opposed. We’re unable to identify with, or even understand, someone who is suffering. As do those that suffer might be unable to identify with or understand how someone could be happy.
Therefore, I think this is why this passage seems so frustrating, even maddening, to us. It’s out-of-placeness makes it stand out like a sore thumb. Likely, this passage wouldn’t have had nearly the kind of impact it does surrounded by, let’s say, more positive sounding ones. How can the prophet speak so confidently of God’s faithfulness when earlier he spoke of affliction, distress, and immense suffering? Where the prophet goes, we’re not ready for yet. But sometimes this is exactly where we need to go. Sadness can lead us to a kind of shattering hope that interrupts our lives and moves us beyond the bounds of what we even considered to be possible.
For us this is difficult to accept. In our world, joy does not come from despair. Happiness isn’t discovered in sadness. Peace isn’t the result of suffering. To find happiness means to run away from suffering, to separate it as a part of our lives. Even more, it might mean we try to separate ourselves from those that suffer. We respond by running away from that which makes us uncomfortable, including the emotions, experiences, and people that induce our uncomfortableness. We run away from what might shatter our fragile expectations of what happiness or sadness is.
And thus, by running away, we also run away from what I’m calling a “shattering hope” to break into our lives and move and stir and shake us toward an experience of the impossible presence of God in our lives. For Lamentations isn’t a running away from, but rather a dealing with the immense pain and suffering that came from what seemingly felt like the abandonment and rejection from God. Jeremiah’s lament is also one that simultaneously makes room for hope. In his despair he is also making room for, opening himself to, a shattering hope that we can’t plan for or coerce. By running to his affliction, working through his anger, confusion, and sadness, the prophet opens himself and steps into a place of extreme vulnerability. In this place of vulnerability Jeremiah states, “Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope” (3:28-29). Jeremiah the prophet is shattered, broken, and remade into Jeremiah the comforter. Jeremiah the prophet is no more. God no longer needs him to speak for God in that way. That aspect of him was undone by this madness of shattering hope found in despair. Jeremiah will help the people step toward the pain, not away from it.
Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest, theologian, and writer on spirituality wrote in his book, Life of the Beloved, that:
The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it. The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity. It is not hard to say to one another: “All that is good and beautiful leads us to the glory of the children of God.” But it is very hard to say: “But didn’t you know that we all have to suffer and thus enter into our glory?” Nonetheless, real care means the willingness to help each other in making our brokenness into the gateway to joy. (Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 95-96).
It’s in this context that I see this declaration of “Great is your faithfulness” as making the most sense. Such declarations are easy when suffering is far from us, seemingly impossible when suffering is near to us. But within such moments we can be assured that God’s presence dwells with us still, even in the midst of our own personal lamentations. And rather than run from, we must run toward that shattering hope that has the possibility to enter our lives and turn our own lamenting into an opportunity whereby we might also say, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22-24).
But in closing I also want to share this. Each of us carry our own lament, but we don’t do so alone. We don’t seek suffering, either personally or in others, as something good in itself. Rather, to seek, to run toward suffering is to recognize it in ourselves and within one another. It is the recognition we need the support of others, and to recognize when another needs our support. For each of us carry the potential of that shattering hope, the comforting presence of God, to all who lament. Thus, when we learn that suffering shouldn’t be an obstacle to joy, we open ourselves up to the unlimited possibilities and ways that God might work through us and through others. In this way, we might also discover the way God calls upon us to deliver a word of hope to all who lament, whereby “joy and sorrow are no longer each other’s opposites, but have become the two sides of the same desire to grow to the fullness of the Beloved” (Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 99).