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Sunday, January 3, 2016

When Hope is Dead (Lamentations 3.1-18, Ezekiel 37.11-14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 3, 2016
Text: Lamentations 3:1-18; Ezekiel 37:11-14

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Hymn of Praise: My Soul Longs for the Lord (Gettys/Kendrick)
Hymn of Response: Spirit of the Living God
Offering of Music: Mercies Anew - Karla Katibah, vocalist (Altrogge, Kauflin)
Song of Sending: In Christ Alone (Getty/Townend)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

I wrote in the church newsletter that went out this past week that I am equal parts excited and intimidated over where the Lord is leading me to preach over the next six weeks. I have become increasingly aware of folks real struggles: emotionally, spiritually, and otherwise. And if this Jesus stuff is real at all (and I believe it is!), then it’s real in struggle… perhaps there most of all. I’ve entitled the series: “Dark Season of the Soul: Where is God?” and hope you will join me in turning to the scripture to acknowledge and call out to the Lord our real struggles, but also WAIT in faith for God’s faithfulness to show. Over the next six weeks we will talk about fear and anxiety, discouragement and despair, waiting and silence of God, loss and anger, and finally desperation and hope. I think it will be a challenging, but meaningful season in our worship and study together and I hope the Lord will speak to each of us through it.

I want to book-end the series with passages from Lamentations 3 that starts today with “my strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord” (vv. 1-18). Six weeks from now we will return to Lamentations 3 to “the Lord’s mercies are new every morning… great is [God’s] faithfulness” (vv. 19-26); but we won’t rush there too quickly and miss the opportunity for God to speak into the struggle.

No Strength; No Hope

I’m going to start at the end at the place of stuckness, because that’s where so many of us get stuck so much of the time.

v.18 – “My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the Lord.”

I’ve lost all hope and I don’t have any strength left to keep trying. Platitudes won’t help; telling me to pick myself up won’t help; telling me to try harder won’t help. Do you even know what I’ve been through?

My life… my family… my friends… and I AM THE ONE who bears it all. God must have it out for me because not only has God not stopped any of it, it seems like God has caused it. So not only do I not have anything left to give, there is no one who can give me anything.

What Happened?

For the writer in Lamentations, everything had been lost. It was the 6th century B.C. and the Babylonian empire had rolled over Israel, crushing everything – destroying the Temple, houses, people. Many or most had been killed or taken captive. The WHOLE nation – or at least most of it – like everything but Florida… utterly defeated. And as catastrophic as all the loss and defeat were, it was even worse because faith and God were so wrapped up in it all. Israel was God’s chosen people, blessed on the earth. And those blessings were specific, including the land. How could it be taken away if God was still on their side? And maybe God wasn’t still on their side… so there was a faith crisis on top of what would have already been a faith crisis.

Ezekiel lived through the same events. He was a prophet or a preacher where the writer of Lamentations was a poet or musician. Ezekiel saw visions about what was going on. Lamentations is a series of five poems trying to process all the tragedy. In fact, the poems in Lamentations are acrostic or A-Z poems, as if the writer was trying to instill some kind of order on the chaos all around. Each of the five poems begins with “How much” – as in, “How much can we take….” “How bad it is…” “How can words describe it…”  Eugene Peterson simply translates the first line of each poem, “Oh, oh, oh…!”  Except the middle poem – the third of five – the one here in chapter 3. It gets personal and begins instead with, “I am the man.” In other words, “Let me tell you my story.” And that story proceeds to tell all the ways God has cursed him: A to Z, a long list of sufferings, perhaps even grievances against God.

It is God’s anger (v. 1), God’s beatings (vv. 3-5), God’s captivity (vv. 5-7), God disregarding him (v. 8), God’s obstacles (v. 9), God’s prey (v. 10), God’s target (v. 12), God’s ridicule (v. 14), and so on and so on. Even in grief, the poet does not lack for words to describe all his complaints or disappointments with God.

We find a similar description in Ezekiel 37, though now cast in one dramatic image rather than the many poetic images of Lamentations. Ezekiel has a vision of Israel as a valley full of bones – dead, dried human remains. This reflects Israel’s own words, “Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished; we are completely cut off [from God].” (v. 11)

Though this is one particular story of loss, anger, hopelessness, and disappointment, it is not hard to relate. I imagine each of us have experienced something that gives us a point of connection here. And one of the things I want you to hear in this series is that it is okay to name the experience. It is believed that the poems of Lamentations were not just written about these events, but used in worship repeatedly. Now there is more to Lamentations and this poem in chapter 3 than the portion we read; the rehearsing of loss and blame is not all there is. But I didn’t want to move so quickly past it that we didn’t see its place and purpose, even in the worship and life of God’s people.

Not WHY? but WHO?

The place we often get hung up and confused is with the question, “Why?” It is especially confusing because there is no one simple question to why we experience suffering, loss, disappointment, or hopelessness. It is especially confusing when reading the Bible because a given passage (like this one) may have a reason why, but it may not be our reason why. And that can lead us off track.

Is this the result of sin?
Is this God teaching us something?
Is this God’s judgment?
Is this evil winning the day?
Is this simply the world we live in – like rain falling on the just and the unjust?

There are more examples and any of them may be part of the reason ‘why.’

In the case of Israel in this time period, they had broken the covenant with God and God explicitly was rendering judgment on them. Yet, we will see that the key question is not WHY but WHO. And I will submit that at the end of the day – and more importantly, at the end of our hope – it is not getting an answer to ‘why’ that will help us, but turning to a ‘who’ that will save us.

But that is not the simple Sunday school answer it sounds like, because again, it is not an answer (why) but a person who is hope. Consider then…

It was God’s faithfulness to keep the covenant even in the face of their unfaithfulness that provided a way out for them. That’s where Lamentations 3 eventually goes. Israel and the poet in Lamentations got why – that for them, they had been unfaithful and this was God’s righteous judgment. They understood why, but had not yet come to grips with WHO God was.

In other cases, suffering and loss is unjust or the result of evil or other people’s choices. Understanding that may do something for you, but it cannot in itself save you or give you hope. If anything, it may make it harder to hope because of a sense of helplessness.

We will be unpacking these things for the weeks to come, and invite you to allow yourself time to sit here and not rush to quick answers. I’d encourage you to read through all of Lamentations. It is only five chapters long – one for each poem. We’ll be mainly in the Psalms the next four weeks until we return to Lamentations after that.

Denial and Despair

But let me end with Ezekiel and his vision, because it reveals two shortcuts we most often take out of our reality. Eugene Peterson names these two shortcuts as DENIAL and DESPAIR. And chances are, most of us (perhaps all of us) fall into one or the other in some way.

DENIERS say, “It’s not that bad: I’ve lost some things, but I am still making a good life for myself.” Denial is especially easy to put onto others: “Oh, that is bad, but you’ll recover; time heals all wounds; you’ll move on.”

DESPAIRERS say, “All hope is lost and hope is dead.” It’s Lamentations 3, with verse 18 as the end: “My strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord.”

This may shock you, but in many cases I believe that despairers are closer to help than deniers are! In Ezekiel’s vision – a metaphor for describing Ezekiel’s friends and family and self, the people are not just dead bodies, but dried up and broken apart skeletons – dead, dead. It’s not going to get better. They cannot heal themselves. Time will not knit their bones back together. Their losses are not less grievous than imagined, but MORE so. If Ezekiel had anything to say to the poet of Lamentations, it would be that his A-Z list of grievances did not go far enough. Denial will not get one to the truth.

And yet, Ezekiel’s vision was not simply of grim, dusty death. It was not a vision of despair, but one that looked up from human resources, human faithfulness, human goodness – because those had failed. His vision looked to a God – a WHO – who could knit bones together, put muscle and tendon and skin on, and grant new life and new hope.

Denial doesn’t face reality. Despair is more realistic, but does not look far enough… which is okay, because God does not demand that we find Him; God finds us. Sometimes – perhaps more times than not – we have to reach the end of ourselves for that to happen.

Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, my people; and I will bring you into the land. Then you will know that I am the Lord… I will put my Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it. (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

Thus says the Lord.

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