First Mennonite Church
July 31, 2022
The God of Mercy and All Consolation
Text: Lamentations 3:1-27
As I said last Sunday, part of the goal in preaching is to help the congregation gain biblical literacy, besides exploring contemporary ways to apply God’s Word. Today, besides the usual goal of preaching, which is to build and to call us to the ways of the Lord, will also help us to understand how parts of scripture were written and why.
Our passage for today does not come from Jeremiah, proper, but from another book, commonly attributed to Jeremiah’s hand, the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a book of intense and pointed expressions of unspeakable pain and suffering, in the form of poetry. The genre of poetry allows the author to freely use images and metaphors to express the depth and rawness of suffering.
The book of Lamentations is the poetic response to the national tragedy following the Babylonian military attack on Judah in 597, 587, and 582 BC. Lamentations is not a book we preachers preach from often. The contents of this book are difficult to read and understand, and the mood therein is not always appealing nor uplifting, except for the well-known verse in chapter three. Maybe our cultural inclination toward happiness with its emphasis on positivity are some of the reasons for the avoidance of this book. Showing signs of grief or sadness can be interpreted as anti the “Christian spirit.” We are drawn to the upbeat, the good-feel religion, and the Easter hope. We avoid anything that can weigh us down or depress us, which even Lamentations acknowledges. “My soul . . . is bowed down within me,” admits Jeremiah.
Another interesting feature in the book is, if you notice, that four of the five chapters have 22 verses each. That is because the Hebrew alphabet has 22 characters and each of the five chapters is written as an acrostic. Although chapter three has 66 verses, that is because each letter of the alphabet was used three times consecutively throughout the chapter. So, moving from aleph to tav, from A to z, if you will, the author itemized his lament.
By itemizing the lament, every aspect of grief is cataloged; every emotion is given its proper space and even if they look like contradictory ideas, they are placed together. This might seem chaotic, but anyone who has witnessed a grieving person knows that expressions of grief can look irrational, illogic, and even bewildering. While grieving, that is okay. There is something very important to notice about the use of the alphabetic acrostic in lament. There is a starting point, but there is also an ending point. This indicates that lament should never be unending. Lament should not have the last word. And we will see that in our passage this morning. God’s mercy and steadfast love will once again come to meet us.
It might be troubling for us to find that in voicing his lament, Jeremiah tells God he has “become like an enemy”(2:4—5). That God has imprisoned him within walls and in chains (3:7). That God acts like a predatory bear and a lion that has torn him to pieces (3:10). And that God has shot his arrows into Jeremiah’s vitals (3:12). That God has made Jeremiah’s teeth to grind on gravel (3:16).
It is very clear that Jeremiah does not doubt God is responsible and utterly
justified in inflicting this terrible carnage and suffering on Judah. However, he also believes that the human agents through whom God afflicted his people will also be judged. So, he implores God to “destroy them” (3:59-66).
Chapter 3 begins with Jeremiah embodying God’s judgment executed over the Judean people. Verse one begins with, “I am the man, geber who has seen affliction.” Geber can be translated “strong man” or “a man who defends the weak.” Yet, despite being a strong man, God has unleashed his rage on Judah, which Jeremiah describes with images and metaphors of torture, imprisonment, and extreme abuse. And he alleges, that all these have come from God’s very hands. In the hands of the mighty God, Jeremiah feels absolutely defenseless, completely cut off, and helpless. And what is worse, is that even when he cries and pleads for mercy, God rejects his prayers (8).
However, while in the midst of that bitter lament, suddenly the strong man remembers something else that completely changes his outlook on what has happened. He remembers Yahweh’s steadfast love and mercies. And in fact, these—Yahweh’s steadfast love and mercies, are new every morning! Hope wipes away hopelessness. Steadfast love and mercy bring healing and relief from pain, suffering, and sadness. So, Jeremiah exclaims:
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
Jeremiah remembers and celebrates the goodness of Yahweh. Therefore, he sets his trust in the Lord. Jeremiah realizes that waiting before the Lord does not disappoint.
We know it is difficult to wait patiently, to wait quietly when the storm is raging around us or has just passed. We might want relief from pain immediately. We would like answers to our questions right away. We would like to know what is just beyond the horizon. Waiting patiently and quietly might be necessary at times when we walk in the dark moments of life.
Lamentations reflects the collective or national grief of the Judean people after the Babylonian conquest. Lamentations openly acknowledges a reality where hope and despair co-inhabit, where confidence and doubt, hope and despair, and where accusation and submission dwell together. Lamentation can only happen when a tragedy has been interpreted satisfactorily. Lamentation is the cry of the heart for the pain and suffering, either our or others’ yet we feel incapable of doing something to ease or avoid it. Lamentation before God only happens after we have deliberately analyzed the cause of the pain and even our possible involvement in it in the light of God’s will for human life. But achieving a satisfactory interpretation of tragedy is the most difficult process for true healing and confidence to happen in our society. Lack of patience and silent waiting prevents deep analysis of tragedy.
You have been witnesses to what happens every time there is a tragedy in this country. In the face of tragedy, such as the September 11th, the school massacres, killings in churches, police brutality, slow response during natural disasters, or the recent pandemic, even Christians found themselves unable to come up with a satisfactory interpretation of such tragedies. In our society, the usual response when tragedy strikes is either that “we will not let it break us,” that “we are strong,” or that “swift and harsh punishment will be meted out” to those responsible. When the tragedy is due to gun violence, most often the only people left to lament are those affected by it directly. The rest go back to their usual arguments on the issue. The result of failing to make a thorough and satisfactory analysis of the problem and of the suffering it causes, only increases social discontentment, fear, cynicism, and further violence.
Even when national tragedies do not necessarily affect every single citizen directly, there is however, something psychologist Frank Ochberg says we all suffer in such incidents: “moral injury.” Dr. Ochberg writes, “Moral injury” is a specific kind of trauma inflicted, which involves damage not only to one’s self but also to one’s sense of “what is right” or “what is just.”
That means every tragedy that happens injures our sense of morality about what is right and just, even when we might not be directly or physically hurt by what had happened. And our moral injury only deepens after repeated tragedies. When these moral injuries go untreated, they can lead to numbness or total indifference to the suffering of others. I am afraid we are reaching there as a society.
At the personal and individual level, lamentation should not be avoided either. It is an integral aspect of the grieving and healing process. When we lose a loved one, when life is no longer what it used to be, lamentation should be part of that reflective process that leads us to consolation and the assurance of God’s steadfast love and mercy.
Any attempt or effort to prematurely cut a grieving process will result in further pain and suffering. Silencing the heart from expressing grief or lament only deepens the pain and prolongs the suffering. But as I said earlier, neither should grief be bottomless. There is a stopping place. A, B, C, and end with Z. As we go itemizing our sorrow in lament, God’s hesed and mercy will rise to meet us.
Life, however long or brief, is a gift from God. Pain and joy inhabit together. Laughter and grief are always just around the corner. Despair and hope dwell in the same room and the same heart at times. But something that never, ever fails is the Lord’s steadfast love and mercy.
Let us remember that in society, we are the people who not only confess to knowing God’s mercies and steadfast love, but we have also experienced them ourselves. God has shown to us his love; he has given us consolation in Christ. Therefore, says Paul, “We should be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God (2Cor. 1:4). We are called to be agents of God’s consolation to those around us, with the consolation God has given us.
So, where do we start? Let us hear it also from Lamentations three, verses 40 and 41:
40 Let us test and examine our ways
and return to the Lord.
41 Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands
to God in heaven.
. . . And as we sang earlier today, Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands
to God in heaven and bless the Lord!
Or in the words of the apostle Paul: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation.”
 Frank Ochberg (private conversation, February 22, 2014) Quoted by Roberts, Raymond R: Between Text & Sermon. Interpretation 2013.