OCTOBER 2, 2016

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer

(Play Audio)



            This morning I want us to look at the first six verses of what may be the most depressing book of the bible. It’s not a book one would choose to read if he or she were looking for a biblical pick-me-up. As one person said about the Book of Lamentations, “It’s a genuine downer, a big time ode to disquieting despair.”

            So why are we looking at this book of the bible? I’m glad you asked. It has to do with something called the Lectionary. All the time I was with you I usually preached a sermon series on a topic or a book of the bible. When I am only with you for a week or two at a time, however, I no longer can do that, so I have turned to the church lectionary. The lectionary is a list that contains a collection of scripture readings appointed for worship each Sunday. It generally contains an Old Testament reading, in this case Lamentations 1:1-6, a Psalm, a reading from the Gospels and a reading from somewhere else in the New Testament. Last Sunday I chose the Psalm selection, Psalm 91, this week since I have never preached a sermon from Lamentations in my entire life, I thought I would give this selection a try. So my apologies in advance if this message leaves you “singing the blues.”

            Before we read the opening lines of the book, let me put these words into their historical context. The year is 587 B.C and after a lengthy siege, Nebuchadnezzar's armies have broken into Jerusalem, slaughtering anyone opposing them, raping the women, seizing the power brokers—priests, king and court, scribes, accountants—and herding them west to Babylon. The vast majority of the city dwellers were left behind  to fend for themselves. The economy quickly collapsed, food sources disappeared, water sources were fouled, and the daily rhythms of life ceased. People wandered the streets dazed, confused, desperate for a bit of bread, a cup of water. The city became unsafe, as any semblance of order was replaced by chaos. Think modern-day Syria and particularly the city of Aleppo. The author of the book begins by lamenting the condition of Jerusalem.


            How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.


            Some believe the prophet Jeremiah wrote these words. It certainly could have been written by him, that dark prophet of Israel who witnessed first hand the destruction of the temple and the palace of the king as well as the exile of the final Davidic king, Zedekiah. But, there is no actual evidence that Jeremiah wrote the book. Perhaps one of his own disciples was the author. We will never know. But the lament's piercing words resound in our ears as a loud witness to the terrors of destruction that Jerusalem and its inhabitants faced when the Babylonians smashed the city into piles of rubble and carted the leaders off into ignominious exile to the world's greatest city at the time, the fabled Babylon.

            Whoever wrote it, however, did so quite creatively. We don’t see this in the English, but the book is actually a series of five acrostic poems, where the first stanza begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the second stanza begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet and so on and so forth. This may have made the lament easier to remember, or it may have been intended as a showcase for the poet’s writing skill.

            With all that in mind about the historical context and the author and his writing style, let’s get back to the first six verses of the book. These opening words highlight two great needs in our lives. Let’s look at them.

            The first, is the ability to lament. The word “lament” refers to a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. Note the word “passionate.” Synonyms include weeping, wailing, moaning, sobbing.

            I’m not sure how good we are here in America when it comes to lamenting. I think other cultures do a better job of it than we do. We can be pretty buttoned-up when it comes to the passionate expression of grief. It seems that we have borrowed a little of that stiff upper lip from the original founders of our nation. Watch news clips from around the world, particularly of a funeral, and we see people moaning and wailing and throwing themselves on the casket and we think, “What primitive, barbaric behavior!” We think they are a little crazy, but maybe we are the crazy ones. We may be crazy because it turns out that it’s quite healthy to get the pain and grief out. So what that others see the depth of our pain and loss? When we leave the grief in and repress it and say, “God is in control. All things work together for good,” we may be doing ourselves more harm than good by jamming everything down, to work away on our insides.

            Granted this is an extreme example, but when pastor Rob Bell’s father was eight, his father died and no one told him until they were driving to the funeral home. On the way he asked, “Where are we going?” and his cousin in the back seat said, “Don’t you know your dad died?” But it gets worse. When they got to the funeral home his mother said, “We will shed no tears and there will be no tears because your father is in heaven and we will celebrate today.”

            Again that is an extreme example and one only wonders how much therapy that young eight year old boy would undergo in the years ahead, but it is my experience that in our culture we have not been encouraged to lament, to passionately express our grief and sorrow over loss, be it the loss of a loved one or a job or missed opportunity. We don’t want to think about death. We don’t want to think about loss, so we certainly hesitate to spend much time with the Book of Lamentations.

            The second great need is the ability to repent. The author of this book certainly knows why they have lost their great city. Verse five …


            Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper.

            because the Lord has made her suffer the multitude of her transgressions.


            The author knows that Jerusalem has fallen because God is punishing them for their transgressions, but the author leaves us with a big question. Are the people going to do anything about their behavior?

            You see repentance means “to change” or “to turn.” Repentance is not just feeling sorry, remorseful, or conscience-stricken, but being so troubled in one's heart that a person changes his or her behavior. Feeling sorry without changing one's life is not repentance!

            But feeling sorry is the first step toward repentance. A lot of folk have difficulty, however, of even getting to that step. They have a great ability to blame others for their mistakes, to shift responsibility to someone else, to refuse to be accountable for the sins they commit. It's not my fault it broke. They just don't make things like the once did. Or like the motorist who filled out an insurance claim stating that he was driving along, minding his own business, when a parked car got in his way. Or the little girl who was seen hitting her younger brother. When confronted with her behavior, the girl justified her action by claiming, "He made me do it. He wouldn't give me my doll.”

            The author of Lamentations expressed sorrow over the transgressions, at least sorrow over the consequences of the transgressions. He had taken the first step, but what about step two, changing behavior and not repeating those transgressions? We need that today. We need people who own their wrongdoing and change their behavior. We have always needed it, and we Christians rejoice when we see it happen.

            Consider the experience of a business executive on the verge of implementing a shrewd business plan. The scheme involved temporarily dropping prices below the level of profitability in order to drive a smaller competitor out of the market. Then, with the market to himself, prices and profits could rise. The fact that the competitor was a small family-owned business, not really a major factor in the market, but the sole livelihood of a family with three small children, was known to the executive. The plan was technically legal since business, after all, is business.

            Just as the arrangements to implement his business plan were nearly in place, the executive was called back to his hometown for the funeral of a cousin. During the graveside service, as the man sat under the funeral tent which was stretched over the family plot, his eye fell on the gravestone of his grandmother, who had died when he was only a boy. Inscribed on her stone were words from the Book of Proverbs: "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue."

            "The teaching of kindness ..." The words seemed to be written in fire as they burned in his heart. He had read them many times before on nostalgic visits to the cemetery, but now they leapt from the past into his life. He did not merely recall his grandmother; he was confronted by her memory, judged by the commitments he knew she held, but had not considered to have any claim on his life. It was a strange and disturbing experience, and he returned to his city with no will to destroy, but to seek somehow to know and live "the teaching of kindness.” He abandoned his business plan.

            My wife really marks up her bible. Trudy come here and bring your bible with you.            This is a surprise to her. I didn’t ask her permission to do this, so we may have a lot to talk about on the way home. As she makes her way up here, let me tell you that she takes notes in her bible when I preach. She underlines verses in the bible she comes across in Sunday school class and during her devotional time. Well, I forgot my bible at church last Sunday. I put it on top of the coat rack in fellowship hall, so I used Trudy’s bible as I prepared this message. I used it because it was the other NRSV bible in our home, and she had a few verses underlined in the third chapter of Lamentations. In fact, they were the only verses underlined in the Book of Lamentations. I want her to turn to those verses and read them. As we think about changing our behavior let us remember these words.


            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.

            “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”


            Let’s lament our transgressions. Then let’s repent. May we never forget that “his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” Let us stand and sing and prepare to come to the Lord’s table. Amen.