I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew this week. I hope not, but I fear I may have. I want to look at the whole of the book of lamentations. Not necessarily in details so don’t worry we’re not going to be here all day. But rather because I think the way this book is woven together helps us as we wrestle with the question of evil and suffering, it helps us deal with the question “where is God when it hurts?” Lamentations is helpful because it does not try and tie it all together and give us a solution, beautifully packaged with all the “I” dotted and the “T” crossed. It does not provide a definitive answer. It actually honours the fact that like Philip Yancy says this is the question that will not go away. It honours the fact that just maybe our well thought out theological arguments defending God’s Goodness and sovereignty shake and quake and fall short, and can even seem obscene, when we are confronted with the ongoing reality of suffering.
Lamentations is a series of five acrostic poems; that’s poems based on the Jewish alphabet, gathered together into one. It’s as if this very structure is an expression of the limits of our language, of the struggle language has to express and make sense of tragedy and suffering. These poems are laments and funeral dirges expressing the sorrow and pain at the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. Old Testament scholar Miriam Bier and I remember Miriam as a teenager who attended St John’s in Rotorua, calls the book Polyphonic. That it hold together different voices, some offering a defence for what has happened and ultimately of God’s actions and others that because of their suffering see no justification for the tragedy that has befallen them, and can see no defence for both God’s sovereignty and goodness. These voices are involved in a dialogue and you can see as you read through the book how they modify as they listen to each other. It’s not often that the voice of those that suffer is given that power. But ultimately we are left without one position holding sway. It’s left open. That’s really summed up in the last two verses which was part of our reading this morning: A plea for God to restore Jerusalem, tempered by the possibility that God just may have abandoned his people all together, full stop.
Such a dialogue is helpful for us.
It’s helpful that it gives voice to how we deal with sorrow and tragedy and faith.
One of the ways that Lamentations has been seen is that it is very much written to express the grief process. A process where we can swing from despair to hope, anger to resignation, denial to acceptance, darkness to the dawn of new possibilities, swing from wanting answers to the big questions and knowing that none of the answers are that satisfying. Feeling God’s presence and feeling abandoned. I had another visit from my Pilipino friend this week that perhaps summed this up well. She is an amazing woman who cares deeply for others and has a vibrant faith. She was telling me of the good things that God had done, and at the same time would stop and remember what had transpired this week in her home country with the super typhoon. The hands that had been praising God would move heavenward in supplication, why God did you let this happen? Why are my people suffering? It’s helpful and healthy to have this process we work through in scripture. Not with any ‘there, there’ everything’s going to be alright, but left simply as a seemingly unanswered cry to God. It gives it voice, validity, and value. Lamentations was believed to be read out to mark the anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem, and we know today that it is read out and prayed weekly at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, what remains of the temple, giving voice to the grief at the loss of the temple and hope that God may someday restore his people.
Another way that Lamentations has been described is as a storm. These different voices wrestling with suffering, struggling to make some sense of it, despair and hope swirling round and round, and in the middle of it is a calm point the eye of the storm, the passage we read out from lamentations 3 where a person who is talking of their experience of suffering and also of God, comes to a point of stillness, this I remember and hope, that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases his mercy never comes to an end. This quite trust and waiting founded on what we know of God’s character revealed to us, is where many laments finish. Remember from the other week it’s what Brueggemann calls a position of reorientation, it what gives people hope. But here and in real life it is the eye of the storm and it does not stop lamentations or us from having to wrestles with and experience the questions the consequences, emotions and anguish. It is a refuge where we can find strength to continue in the face of the storm. One of the things that sometimes happens when I pray for people is that we experience this amazing sense of God’s presence and peace. Boom, it’s like God actually turns up in a palpable, no doubting who’s here kind of way. It may not stop the problem, or provide the instant answer that we just hope for, it’s not the cure all, it doesn’t even let God off the hook, but it lets us know that God is there with us, and that allows hope to seep into the situation. Maybe beyond the storm there is order and sunshine and calm.
Lamentations also helps us in that it opens up dialogue between our theology and suffering. Some of the voices that have been identified in this book are the lamenter, who speaks in the third person and who voices some of the prevailing wisdom of their day. The other voice that is heard is Zion, herself, who protests that there is no justification for the suffering that she is enduring. One of the big questions for God’s people in light of the exile, is why did God allow it? One of the threads that people have identified in the Old Testament is what is called the Deuteronomic history. That is that Israel’s history is presented in terms of her keeping and not keeping her covenant relationship with God. In the book of Kings, for example, there is the epitaph of each king that they did wrong in the sight of the LORD, even with those who were seem to be reformers and call Israel back to fidelity with God there is usually an epitaph that they did not totally do away with idolatry. God had warned Israel again and again, God had been patient, and that God was right to punish first the northern kingdom and the Judah, for breaking their covenant relationship. This is some of the background to Lamentations; the lamenter hints that this is why Jerusalem has fallen. Its part of the answer to the question of evil that we live in a broken and fallen world. We even see this with the typhoon Haiyan as being seen as a result of the effect of humans on the planets climate. But this does not stand up when confronted with the voice of Zion herself. The one who is suffering.
Can I say before I go on that this is rather hard stuff to talk about, because Lamentations deals with imagery of rape. That is how Zion is represented a women who has been abused and raped and thrown out for all to see. The argument that the lamenter seems to point to, is that ’The bitch had it coming’. Jerusalem had been promiscuous; flirting with other God’s, now had reaped what had been sown. Zion’s response is well yes they had done wrong but she didn’t deserve what happened to her. No women deserves that… it adds to her victimization to even say it. To the lamenters credit he agrees with her and his theology no longer fits. In fact she looks beyond her own suffering and says that even worse… it is the children that suffer, the lamenter has to agree with her that this is indefendable. Later, She points to the fact that she has been let down by her leaders and prophets who did not warn her enough, or who falsely said everything was alright. The question why have the Babylonians not been brought to justice for what they did is raised as an accusations and hope. It is what makes evil so…evil… and unjust… that the innocent and weak suffer the most for what others have done.
In New Zealand over the last few weeks we’ve had to confront many of the same questions with the vile ‘roast busters’ episode. A group of sexual predators who gang raped drunk under-aged girls, and then boasted about it on social media. Yes what were these children doing out drinking, but, they are the victims. They did nothing to deserve this. What we are wrestling with now is that they have been let down by society, that should be there to protect them. There is a cry that in speaking up the rape victim is victimized again. There is a cry for justice, can I say as a man my gut reaction is its nothing that two bricks wouldn’t fix. But I know that’s not the case there is also the cry that goes beyond that to ask how our society could see boys grow up to think such behaviour was alright.
Lamentations also helps us grapple with holding our faith and our protest together. The problem of evil, suffering can turn people against God; it can be a stumbling block to faith. In the Ancient Near East, if me and my army come and destroy your city then it is a sign that my god is greater. But the writers of lamentations cannot do that, it just maybe the ultimate despair, what makes their suffering and struggle harder is that maintain the sovereignty of God, you reign forever, they hope in a just God, remember us Lord restore us to yourself. To wrestle with this question of evil, to doubt and to even shout at heaven, or even in the face of suffering to wonder if it is empty is not wrong, we stand with God’s people who have wrestled with that. But also to still trust and hope in God means we also stand with people of faith down through the years. There is an amazing play called ‘God on Trial’ made into a TV movie by the BBC, set in Auschwitz, where Jews awaiting death in the gas chamber put God on trial for breaking his covenant with them. I wonder if there isn’t this kind of thing happening in lamentations. I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you haven’t seen the play, it’s on YouTube, but it ends in the gas chamber, where after having found God guilty of breaking his covenant, the men die praying. It finishes in the gas chamber, as group of Jews had come to Auschwitz, to remember and as they leave, one of them asks if God answered the prayers of the dying men, to which an older man, the narrator, says ‘We are still here’. The story does not finish at the end of lamentations. In the fire and stench of death in Jerusalem, the history of God’s people goes on; the remnant comes back to Jerusalem.
Finally in lamentations there is one voice that is missing. It’s God’s voice. The voice we long to hear. Yes our theology tries to make sense of this and we can see God’s answer in this case in the fact that he did not abandon his people. But it’s the question that will not go away, that gets asked again and again, where is God when it hurts? Being a minister of the gospel I want to say that God’s answer is found in Jesus Christ. In Jesus who entered into our world our darkness our suffering, whose birth is accompanied by the echoes of women crying for their dead children. That it is answered in the cross. AS we are going to look at next week in Jesus identifying with us in our pain and suffering, taking it and our sin upon himself, quoting psalm 22 “my God, my God why have you forsaken me’. That it is answered in Paul’s affirmation in Romans 8 that amidst a list of brutality and suffering that nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus. That new creation has broken into a fallen world that the Kingdom of God has dawned for those who live in darkness. Having said all that I find myself having to sit with these poets of long ago and people of faith down through the ages and put my trust in what I know of God, and lament ‘How Long!’ ‘How Long!’ Maybe part of the gift of lamentations is that it gives permission for that polyphonic voice we find ourselves with in the face of suffering and evil.