Monday, February 8, 2016

Desperation and Hope (Lamentations 3.19-26)

 Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 7, 2016
Text: Lamentations 3:19-26; Hebrews 10:23-25

:: 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 ::
Song of Praise: No Longer Slaves (Helser)
Hymn of Praise: Mercies Anew (Altrogge, Kauflin)
Offering of Music: God's Mercy is Wide (Choplin)
Communion Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Song of Sending: Great is Thy Faithfulness (FAITHFULNESS)
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.

Five weeks ago we began this series called “Dark Season of the Soul” in order to ask the question, “Where is God” when life is at its most challenging and difficult. We started in Lamentations 3, which I said would book-end this series, which has covered anxiety, discouragement, God’s silence, loss, and anger. I’ll remind you that Lamentations was written in poetic form to try to express and process the tragedy of God’s people losing their land, homes, livelihood, place of worship, and way of life.

Along the way there have been several recurring themes when it comes to God and personal struggle. One is the importance of asking WHO over WHY. We want to know why and we may use up what little strength and energy remains chasing answers to that question. But in doing we may fail to ask the WHO question: Who is God? What is God like? What is God’s relationship to me and mine to Him?

We’ve also seen the importance of REMEMBERING, which is really another way of getting at the WHO question. In remembering God’s faithfulness and our experience of God in the past, we have opportunity to rediscover God’s presence and power in the struggle we face now. We will see that for the poet, the songwriter of Lamentations, who reached a real point of desperation, there was more. And that “more” came about through REMEMBERING, particularly through remembering God.

Desperation

Let me remind you of the situation, of the desperation. The songwriter in Lamentations does a more thorough job than most at chronicling the loss and the sorrow and the grief. With repetition, alliteration, vivid imagery, and no hesitation to blame God, the poet describes the source of desperation over and over in the first 17 verses, ending with the declaration in v. 18, “My strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord.”

Desperation is rightly understood as the opposite of hope, so is a good description of where things are in v. 18 and probably a place you’ve been before. To be technically correct, however, it means “away from hope” – hope is not truly dead or gone, it’s just that we’ve lost sight of it, turned away from it by circumstance or choice. It is only dead to us; but it’s still there. I think that’s an important distinction, and one that is shown to be true as the rest of this chapter unfolds.

Starting with a quick prayer to God, “Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness,” the hopeless poet does something very important that we have talked about. He talks to God! It’s not fancy and it’s not cleaned up. It’s honest and to the point. After composing all his words about his suffering and bitterness, there is a turn from self-reflection to (short) prayer. After 18 verses of “things are so bad” there is a one verse prayer: “God, remember me!”

And perhaps it is as simple as using the word ‘remember,’ but the next thing that happens is what we’ve seen happen every week in every text we’ve looked at. The one suffering starts to remember.

Remembering

“This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.” (v. 21) Remembering God enough to talk to Him seems to open up the suffering one to remembering more about God, which leads to hope. We’ll come back to hope in a moment, but let’s look at what the poet remembers.

Ever the poet, we get the same idea explored in four ways in vv. 22-23: 

The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease.
His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning.
Great is Your faithfulness. 

God’s character is merciful, loving, compassionate, faithful, and good. The main term for this in Hebrew is behind “lovingkindnesses” – it is hesed. Then, like a good poet, the writer gives us lots of synonyms. God’s hesed is also unceasing, unfailing, and new every morning. What a wealth of words and images to draw upon as we remember God. And this isn’t just thinking up the things we need most – it wouldn’t be remembering then; it would be fantasizing or imagining. It’s remembering because God has shown Himself to be this way over and over again since the beginning. THAT is why remembering is so healthy and good. God is faithful and merciful – if you have no experience or memory of that in your life, then ask others or look to scripture; God is consistently faithful throughout.

Take a moment, though, and see what you do remember. When have you felt God close in your life – as a child? as a teenager? as a young adult, in midlife, in old age? In crisis, at high points, at low points? Has God ever answered prayer in a way where you felt your faith and prayers confirmed?

I know I’ve mentioned this a number of times, but I wonder how many people take time to do this, to make time and space to remember. But let me challenge you to do this and keep it in your Bible or some other special place. Come up with a short list – maybe your “top 3” times that God was near, or tangible, or real. You were confident in your faith and connected to God or Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. If something already comes to mind, take a moment and jot it in your bulletin or text yourself on your phone – go ahead; you can use your phone! At some point this afternoon, before kickoff, transfer it to someplace you can find it later.

I tell you; when we need that list most is the time our memory seems to go blank; at least that’s true for me. I feel like God is far away and absent and doubt my faith and convictions as if I’ve never known any different. The ancient Hebrews had a standard practice of marking God-events and God-moments; they did it with rocks. Find those things for yourself and mark them somehow. That REMEMBERING is so vital and important; these last five weeks have been a sure reminder of that!

Also, I’ve invited this before, but if you have stories – short or long – of those times in your life, I’d like to hear them. I’d like to share them in the newsletter or on a video or in church. We’ll find a way that works for you. It can be so encouraging to others. While you are on your phone or marking your bulletin, shoot me a note that says “I’ll do it” or “I’ve got something” and I’ll follow up with you. I can think of nothing more encouraging and helpful to the collective faith and struggles of our church community.

Hope

From that remembrance and reflection on God’s loving compassion, we see a shift toward hope: “’The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’” (v. 24) The idea of ‘portion’ there is, “I may have nothing else, but I have the Lord… He is my portion, what I need, daily bread.”

And interestingly, without having to wait for a preacher to make the application, the writer draws some self-conclusions from that hope: “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the Lord.” (vv. 25-26)

We talked about waiting a few weeks ago. God is not a genie that we approach with the right combination of words or gestures to summon an outcome we desire. Rather, God is the good and wise King and Father, who hears and sees His children in need. And God is proven faithful and compassionate. Our hope is not ill-founded or wasted.

That leads me to a final observation about hope. Hope is not ultimately located in us. It’s not something you get or have or hold on to or lose. If it were, we might have real cause to despair. Said another way, God is not the OBJECT of our hope – a place to locate our hopes and dreams, an alternative to money or success or health or luck. Rather, God is the SUBJECT (and the only true subject) of hope because hope is located in God’s faithfulness and God’s goodness. That’s why we can depend on it, because it will not fail. We may turn away from God and become desperate (“turned from hope”), but the hope is still there because God is still there. The scriptures and this broken, wordy lamenter from the 6th century B.C. remind us that God is still there and that God is worthy of hope. So wait and seek; it is good to do so.

Let me end with a word from the New Testament, from the book of Hebrews. Written to Christians who were struggling and suffering in a very different time period, it also speaks of hope:

23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.  (Hebrews 10:23-25)

Amen.



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