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Lamentations 5: Now What?

Good morning, church. Happy Valentines day, everyone, and in honor of my experiences dating, please go with me to the book of Lamentations, chapter 5.

Friends, it’s good to have you with us. In fact, it’s good to even be here myself—we started this sermon series through the book of lamentations in the middle of a second lockdown. One year of pastoring the Vieux in the books—it’s been quite the year. I don’t know what y’all have been praying for me or for our church, but if you were praying for me to learn humility and become familiar with my own limitations physically and emotionally—thank you. You can stop now.

I know I wrote this in a letter sent to many of you, but I’m going to remember many things this year for as long as the Lord gives me memory, but among them this: that the Lord provided faithfully over and over again for our church through this difficult year through partners like you.

Through this entire year, even though the world ground to a halt, God has not lost control, he has not stopped, he has not even slowed down in the things he is working to accomplish: saving people from sin, restoring the world back to rights, reconciling creation back to himself, and making all sad things come untrue. For most of the year, we’ve been talking about how to respond, as Christians, to difficult times, times of division and tragedy, in our own lives, in the lives of the people around us.

We spent the better part of last year looking at the unbreaking, unfading hope we have in Jesus, a hope we’re able to cling to in difficult times and know that the tragedies of this life are brief and momentary, yielding to everlasting life together with Christ.

But there is space in Christianity, too, to lament everything we’ve lost, all the hardship of the year, the people we’ve lost—our little church lost ten people connected to us this year—the experiences for ourselves and for our children that we’ve missed. Because we live in the already not yet, we have to learn to lament.

This is the last sermon in a five-week series through the book of Lamentations, a book Leslie Allen calls a “liturgy of grief.” And I’ve said this through this whole series—I know this has been heavy, and it makes us look at and think about difficult things, but I’m so grateful that God knows what to do with our grief and our anger, that we’re not alone, and even if we’re mad at God for what he allowed to happen in our world, our faith helps us heal and find a way forward. And until we find the way forward, we worship a God who is compassionate enough to sit with us in our grief. He’s God with us, even in hard times.

We started by looking inward, dealing with our own grief, even our own anger at God or at ourselves. We see shouted prayers throughout Lamentations. We have to be open and honest with God and with our community about deep-set hurt and anger. Most of all, we have to learn to confess, admit our own fault in things, even if our fault is just our own limited ability to make things right.

Then we looked to God and his part in terrible things. Sometimes God seems like an enemy, and if we’re honest, he sometimes does turn against us, only because we’re not perfect, and God has to make our mistakes right. It can feel like God is punishing you, and then, somehow at the same time, it can feel like God has left or abandoned you, to the point where we doubt he was ever with us at all. The truth is, he hasn’t abandoned you. God would leave his own throne and home, forfeit his life, to be with us. He won’t abandon us, even when we are exiled, separated from each other, and even when we’re angry or grieving and think he has abandoned us. He goes with us in our anger and grief.

The past few weeks, we began to shift, talking about how God’s faithfulness provides hope and a way out of grief: reconciliation through truth. Even if God’s the only thing we have left, he’s enough to hope for a better future. Healing begins by telling the truth and looking to Christ for restoration. And here at the end of this book, the author is asking, now what? So we need to ask the same question: now what? How do we move forward from lament?

Go with me, Lamentations, chapter 5, I’m going to read v.1, and then read v.15 to the end. [Lamentations 5:1;15-22]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God, we praise you because you do remember us. Christ, you have become the joy of our hearts. Holy Spirit, reveal to us the truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.

One author talks about chapter five of lamentations, not as an ending to the grief expressed throughout the book, and not even the beginning of the end, but maybe the end of the beginning. The other four poems in the book are highly structured acrostics—chapter five is less organized. The other four chapters remember the fall of Jerusalem and going into exile—chapter 5 is written from the perspective of someone who has been in exile for some time and is asking God how long until things are made right. He’s asking, now what?

And here at Vieux Carré, in your churches, like I said, it’s been quite a year. We weren’t conquered, but we were closed. We weren’t exiled, but we were separated from each other and unable to gather. And we’re not yet at any kind of end to the trouble. Mardi Gras may shut New Orleans down again. But even though it’s not the end to trouble, maybe not even the beginning of the end, I’m willing to believe this is the end of the beginning, so I’ve been asking myself, now what?

And I can’t imagine in each of your lives what this past year has been. We’ve lost loved ones, many of us have been sick and scared, and even if we’ve avoided the worst, life has been disrupted—we’ve missed major life experiences, dinners with friends, graduations, anniversaries spent at home. Now what?

I remember whenever I’ve lost someone close to me, or lost relationships, waking up and thinking, what do I do now, just live my life like it never happened? For some of us, the tragedies in our lives have been years, or even lifetimes long, and I’ve been telling you there’s hope in Christ, but where? Some of us, we’ve lost houses, lost families, lost decades. Now what?

Our text today won’t give you an end to asking that question, maybe not even the beginning to the end of your mourning, but perhaps an end to the beginning. My first point from the text today is this: don’t look to yourself and what you can do. In dealing with grief and hardship, don’t look to yourself and what you can do.

If you go back and read this whole chapter, you’ll notice over and over again, parts of the human body are mentioned through the whole poem—hands, eyes, neck, backs, and every time a piece of the body is mentioned, it’s seen as failing—the eyes grow dim, the crown falls from their head, their hands are held out begging for bread. There’s a sense of powerlessness in and of themselves. There’s nothing the exiles can do themselves to change their situation.

I mentioned this at the beginning of this series, but all through lamentations I’ve been remembering one of my best friends whom I lost about seven years ago now. He died of cystic fibrosis, and when I think of powerlessness in a situation in my own life, I think of his situation. I met him when he was about 23 years old, which is old for someone with CF. I remember sitting with him in the hospital several times, feeling powerless. He was going to die; there’s no cure for the disease—there’s barely treatment options. We prayed for him every week in small group, but he just continued to get worse. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious that there’s nothing you can do to help yourself. We were in the hospital asking, now what? And we knew the answer to that question wasn’t going to include us or anything we were able to accomplish.

Sometimes it’s less obvious when you can’t do anything to help yourself. Take our church for instance: we’re in the process of asking ourselves now what? What do we do next after this year? We want to see people saved from their sin, set free from addiction, healed from mental illness, sanctified, made holy, restored, made whole, discipled. We have to realize we aren’t able to accomplish a single one of those goals.

We can’t save anyone from sin; only Jesus is able to forgive us our sins. We aren’t able to set anyone free, the truth of Christ does that. We aren’t able to heal, restore, or sanctify anyone—those are all works of the Holy Spirit. We play a role in these things, but that role is participation in what God is accomplishing, like when my five-year-old son “helped” me cook breakfast for my wife the other day, and he brought it to her and said, “Momma, I made you breakfast.” We need to realize our role in these things is more for our sake than for the sake of God accomplishing his work in the world. Our Father is letting us take part in what he is doing so we might learn what it means to be family.

And for each of you, after this year, or in times when you face trouble, whenever you ask, “now what?” I hope your answer to that question does not depend upon yourself and things you are able to accomplish in the world. Whatever your trouble is, whether addiction, pain, a broken relationship, sin, struggle, or loss—you’re not going to be your own way forward. If you leave God out of your recovery, if you refuse to do it his way, you’re going to fail. You can get a new job, a new wife, earn money, find new places to live, new people to love, but your trouble won’t end by your own effort. You aren’t going to be able to get through this alone. You need the help of your Father and his ways, which begin with confession, truth, trouble, lament, and end with grace and forgiveness.

Don’t look to yourself and what you can do. My second point from the text today is this: Don’t look to the mountains. When you’re asking how to move forward, don’t look to the mountains.

If you were here last week, you may remember in chapter 4, there was a mention of eyes failing looking toward the mountains. And just like chapter 4, in this last chapter, we see people waiting and watching the mountains, and their eyes grow dim with waiting. In chapter 4, they were watching the mountains to the South of Jerusalem. The poet imagines watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem watching all day for signs of their ally, Egypt, to come over the mountains and save them from the siege, with their backs to the temple, where they should have placed their hope.

In chapter 5, again, the people of God are watching and waiting. This time, they are in exile in Babylon, and they are finally looking toward the temple, only the temple’s no longer there. They want God to come take them out of exile and restore Israel, and he will—but not the way, and not the time in which they want him to do it. God destroyed his home as the homes of his people were destroyed, and he’s gone with them into exile. The prophet Jeremiah told them: build houses in Babylon. Plant gardens. The exile will be longer than you think. God’s not going to do what you’re hoping he would do.

Then in v.19, in our passage, the poet writes, “You, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures for all generations.” The temple is gone, the throne, the mercy seat, of God on earth, but the poet reminds us, the temple never contained God. God’s too big for that. His throne is in the heavens. He’s encouraging his people to believe in the sovereignty and goodness of God, even when he doesn’t do what we want him to do, when we’re tempted to think he’s lost control or his plan is bad. Don’t look to the mountains for help. Our help doesn’t come from the mountains.

I remember, again, sitting with my friend in the hospital as he’s telling me about the things his doctors had done to deal with this and that infection from the cystic fibrosis. Doctors are able to do incredible things, and I praise God for the healers he gives us. He told me about some of his friends having raised money for research, and that’s good. Like I said, we would pray for him every week at small group to be healed, but if you talked to him about it, he would tell you that he had already been healed—for a day. A church group prayed for him one day when he was in high school, and he was able to breathe for the first time without any kind of pain or labor. He ran around the park they were in twelve times.

He went to bed that night, and woke up again with labored breathing, and he would tell me, he understood. It’s not that God wasn’t able to heal him miraculously of the disease—obviously he was, because he did—that just wasn’t God’s plan. Still we prayed for him, but he was right, he died the day he was supposed to graduate seminary.

God doesn’t always do what we would have done, and praise God for that, because if God did the same things that we humans do, the world would be lost. We are sinful and broken. He is good. Sometimes we don’t understand why he doesn’t heal us, why he doesn’t agree with us, why politics went this way or that, why he didn’t allow us more time with our loved ones, why my godly friend is not pastoring with me, or instead of me, now. Why an evil person wins and we lose, why he hasn’t freed us from a sin we struggle with. All of these questions are like the pharisee’s question to Jesus of who sinned that this man was born blind, and Jesus has always responded that he was blind to show the glory of God.

Don’t look to the mountains. Your allies can’t help you the way God is able to help you, and even if God is not doing everything you would want him to do; he’s still good. Praise God that his ways are not our ways.

Don’t look to yourself; don’t look to the mountains, and lastly this; look to God. Look to God; he will remember us. The reason I read verse one of our passage is because I wanted you to realize this last chapter is a prayer. After yelling at God, after accusing him of being an enemy and abandoning his people, after all is said, the book of Lamentations ends with a prayer. “Remember, O Lord,…look and see.”

And we know from the rest of Scripture, God never forgot his people. Even when they were in exile, even when they were weeping and screaming prayers at him, he was even then working salvation for the remnant of his children. Years later, the temple would be rebuilt, the walls of Jerusalem lifted up again, and years after that God himself would leave his throne and come down, exiling himself again, destroying his own temple again, only to rise three days later to bring life, and joy, and hope to his people. He never forgot them.

His plan to save his people was not what we would have done. Even the people closest to Jesus didn’t understand at first why his road led to a cross. We still have trouble today understanding and following that narrow road. Our eyes still grow dim looking toward destroyed temples, and God is still going with us into our exiles, sitting with us through our troubles, and telling us whenever we’re able to hear it, that he hasn’t forgotten us.

God has not forgotten his people, and he hasn’t forgotten you, even when you are lost and broken, exiled and powerless. He remembers you, and desires to bring you home to himself. You may think that you’ve been wandering too long for him to remember you, if he were going to save you or help you he would have done it by now—but the people of God were in exile for generations. Still he remembered them. When my friend died, I was angry at God, and told him so. And he sat with me in my grief and my anger, and eventually, when I could bear to hear it, he told me, “I’ve answered your prayer. He is now, at this moment, healed and whole.

I would invite you today, whatever trouble you may be in, come talk and pray with me: don’t look to yourself, don’t look to the mountains. Our help comes from the maker of the heavens. When we ask what’s next in the face of all of the trouble in our lives and in the world, he may not end our trouble, or even begin to end them; he asks us to trust him, that he will bring about such an end as we could never imagine. Praise God that his ways are higher than ours. Pray with me.

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