But If Not…

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On April 10, we read the final chapter of that book (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

As we bring our Lenten series of meditations on the book of Lamentations to a close this evening, I’d like to make a few comments on the nature of the book as a whole before we dive into chapter five.

As we’ve discussed previously, Lamentations is a collection of five very tightly and carefully constructed poems, originally written in Hebrew.  Each of the first four poems is written as an acrostic – there is a stanza, or in the case of chapter 3, three stanzas, that begins with the first letter of the alphabet; then a thought beginning with the second letter, and so on.  Each of the poems has 22 verses, with the exception of chapter 3, which has 66 verses.  It is plain to see that each poem is a reaction to, in some way, the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Each poem offers a glimpse at the horrors that befell the city of God, and some interpretation as to how or why that event came about.

In fact, the Hebrew title for this book is Eichah– a word that means “How?”  Three of the four poems we’ve already considered begin with this word, which presents a summary of the book’s theme: how could this have happened?  How could God have allowed this to happen?

As we turn our attention to chapter 5, we should note that this is the only poem in Lamentations that is notan acrostic.  The tone is shifting as we come to the end of the work, and that would not have been surprising to the ancient readers of this poem.  The form of Lamentations was not uncommon in the ancient Near East.  There are several examples of “City Laments” that survive from around this time period, and many of these laments end with a prayer to the god of that particular city.  In fact, most of the “typical” city laments end on a victorious note, with a prayer to the god of that city and then an account of what that god did (or soon will do) to restore that city to its former glory.  So someone hearing a poem in this fashion might sense the change in tone and say, “OK, we saw this coming.  This is the big finish, right?”

Not only is the tone different because of the lack of an acrostic structure, it is by far the most communal of the poems we’ve seen thus far.  The Hebrew forms that relate to the first person plural – words like we, us, or our – occur 34 times in these few verses.  The poet is screaming: pay attention!  Something is happening here!

Our opening stanza is an appeal for God to once more notice what is going on in the city:

Lord, consider what has become of us; take notice of our disgrace. Look at it!

In fact, in some of your bibles this chapter is subtitled “The People’s Complaint”.  What follows is a summary of the difficulties that God’s people have had to endure.  Listen to the body of this poem in verses 2 – 18:

Our property has been turned over to strangers;
our houses belong to foreigners.
We have become orphans, having no father;
our mothers are like widows.
We drink our own water—but for a price;
we gather our own wood—but pay for it.
Our hunters have been at our necks;
we are worn out, but have no rest.
We held out a hand to Egypt
and to Assyria, to get sufficient food.
Our fathers have sinned and are gone,
but we are burdened with their iniquities.
Slaves rule over us;
there is no one to rescue us from their power.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives
because of the desert heat.
Our skin is as hot as an oven
because of the burning heat of famine.
Women have been raped in Zion,
young women in Judah’s cities.
Officials have been hung up by their hands;
elders have been shown no respect.
Young men have carried grinding stones;
boys have stumbled under loads of wood.
Elders have left the city gate;
young people stop their music.
Joy has left our heart;
our dancing has changed into lamentation.
The crown has fallen off our head.
We are doomed because we have sinned.
Because of all this our heart is sick;
because of these things our glance is dark.
Mount Zion, now deserted—
only jackals walk on it now!

This is, in fact, the people’s complaint.  It is a litany of awfulness.  In some respects, the bulk of this poem sounds like a lawyer’s closing argument. We are called to remember that no one has been spared from the horrors of this tragedy: the women, the girls, the boys, the men – everyone has suffered unspeakably.  From outright attack and violation to shame and humiliation, the whole range of degradation and defeat is laid out here.

In fact, not only have God’s people suffered, but the land itself is bearing the curse of God.  Water and firewood have become scarce commodities, and the sun has scorched not only the people but the earth itself.  All of this is summarized in verse 18, which depicts the supreme irony that the place that was once characterized as a land flowing with milk and honey and the space within that land that was regarded as the holiest and most life-giving, life-affirming, God-honoring place on earth was now a site of desolation populated only by scavengers and filled with death.  The complaint made before God is pathetically blunt: we have no joy, there is no real life; we can’t see well, and there is no hope to be found in us.

Now, in a typical city lament poem, this is where we would expect to hear the tone change yet again – this is where readers would anticipate hearing the statement of final victory in the face of disintegration and death – their god, and the god of that city, will show up and show up in a big way.  It’s not uncommon in poetry of this type to have statements that are triumphal and even arrogant: yes, this is where we are, but just you wait!  You’ll see!  This amazing thing will happen and we will be on top once more!

Here is how the book of Lamentations ends:

But you, Lord, will rule forever;
your throne lasts from one generation to the next.
Why do you forget us continually;
why do you abandon us for such a long time?
Return us, Lord, to yourself. Please let us return!
Give us new days, like those long ago—
unless you have completely rejected us,
or have become too angry with us.

Wow!  Did you hear that?  There is no “happily ever after” for God’s people who survived to write the book of Lamentations.  Instead of triumphalism, we hear a tentative plea that if it doesn’t presume the silence of God, it at least allows for the silence of God.  The writer acknowledges that it’s possible that God is finished with God’s people.

And yet… And yet… Remember the name of this book in Hebrew?  Eichah? “How?”

Here’s something that you might not know about Hebrew.  When writing Hebrew, the only letters that are used are consonants.  The vowel sounds appear as small symbols that are written beneath or within the consonants.

For instance, you might read words like this:

See the words reading “cap”, “cup”, “cop”, and “hat”, “hit”, “hot”, “hate”. Note that with the consonants enlarged the words appear more similar than usual.

So when you see a word, you have to look closely to see the vowel sounds below; a number of words will remind you of other words.

The consonants in the word Eichah look like this:  אֵיכָה

That is to say, here in this amazing book of poetry that describes how horribly broken things are, the people of God are looking for God and saying, Eichah? How could this be? Where were you when this happened to us, God?

If you were to turn all the way back to the beginning of the story – back in Genesis, we find that the roles are reversed.  Do you remember that there’s another poem – a poem about a Garden and a Tree and a Man and a Woman and a Snake?  And the humans make choices that break things horribly, and God wanders through the Garden calling out to humanity, “Where are you?”  Do you remember that part of Genesis?

The Hebrew word that God says in Genesis 3:9 is Ayekah, and the consonants in that word look like this:  אַיֶּֽכָּה׃

אֵיכָה

אַיֶּֽכָּה׃

Can you look at those words and see how similar they appear to be?

The first poem in the Hebrew Bible includes a God who is wandering through creation, calling in the midst of brokenness, Ayekah?  Where are you?  And here in the book of Lamentations, a people who by their own acknowledgement have chosen to do things that break God’s heart are now calling out almost the same word.

I’m suggesting that the parallelism here is intentional.  The poem, and the book, concludes, not on a note of triumphalism or with a declaration of certainty as to how the story ends, but rather with an appeal to God’s character. This is not, as some of the other ancient poems were, an assertion of the vindication that would come to people who deserved it.  Instead, it is a proclamation of who God is even in the midst of trial.  The authors of the book of Lamentations wanted to remind their readers that the God to whom this lament is addressed is a God who goes out looking for those who have experienced brokenness – and is willing to even look for those who have causedbrokenness.  “God, you sit on the throne.  You are God for ever and ever.  No matter what happens here, you are still God.”

Actual leaflet dropped by the Luftwaffe onto Allied troops near Dunkirk.

Listen: in the Spring of 1940 the British and French armies were on the run from Hitler’s troops.  They were being driven back relentlessly by the mechanized divisions as well as by air assault, and in May of 1940 the Luftwaffedropped leaflets on the troops indicating that they were totally surrounded, and there was no hope for escape.  The British Navy was unable to get into the shallow and rough harbor at Dunkirk, and the 400,000 soldiers under Allied command were low on food, water, and ammunition.  To make things worse, the Germans had been able to crack all the codes, so there was no possibility of a secret plan.

The British commander sent a three word telegraph to his superiors in London.  It read simply, “But if not…”  That telegraph was a direct allusion to the words of the three Hebrew children in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace in the Book of Daniel.  The pagan king had ordered them to be burnt alive, and before they went in to the blaze, they said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”(Daniel 3:16-18)

“But if not…” that simple 3 word message indicated that “maybe we will be saved, maybe we won’t be saved, but in either case that doesn’t say anything about the rightness of Hitler’s cause.”  It was a testament to the truth that experience is not the only arbiter of truth.  And, if you’ve seen the recent movie about the experience of the soldiers at Dunkirk, you’ll recall that the simple message galvanized an unlikely fleet of 800 fishing vessels that were able to safely evacuate nearly 340,000 allied troops.

This is the cornerstone to the entire book of Lamentation, and to our own work as those who lament today: God is God.  We may, or we may not actually survive this disaster that has befallen us today. But even if we do not survive, that does not say anything about who God is.

Listen to that theme here in Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him…” (Job 13:15)

Or again from II Timothy 3:15: “if we are faithless,God remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”

Lamentations 5 ends by raising the possibility that God is and will be silent. It points us, this Lenten season, to the agony of Jesus’ questions in the Garden.  It is a reminder that we are creatures of time and space who are seeking, always, to relate to a creator who is constrained by neither time nor space. How can we even share a vocabulary with a God such as this?

In the days following the fall of Jerusalem, God’s people cried out against hunger and death and violence and humiliation.  They threw those words to God and trusted in a God they could not always see or hear.

In the opening years of the 21stcentury God’s people cry out against famine and flood and racism and abuse and addiction and gun violence and broken families. We throw out words to a God who seems inexplicably and maddeningly silent sometimes.

And at the end of the day, our affirmation is the same as was theirs: we do not always know where God is, and we may not always know what God is doing, but we can and do know who God is.  That is the promise, beloved, and you can trust it.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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