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Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Let me learn by paradox
Lamentations 3: The Lord is My Portion
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Lamentations, chapter 3. Lamentations is hard to find, it’s a little book in the latter parts of the Old Testament, between Ezekiel and Isaiah.
This is the third sermon in a six-week series through the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a book learning how to deal with terrible things. Leslie Allen calls it a “liturgy of grief.” And even though this book is heavy, and it makes us look at difficult things, I’m so grateful for this little book of grief, because it shows us we aren’t alone in our grief, that God knows what to do with our grief and our anger, even if we’re mad at God for what he allowed to happen to us, even if we played a part in everything that’s wrong in our lives. We struggle to forgive ourselves, or to forgive God. There’s a way forward, and until we find the way forward, there is a God who is compassionate enough to sit with us in our grief.
We, as a culture, tend to avoid talking about grief, and we don’t make a lot of space for it. If you’re grieving, you’re expected to do so in private, and if you’re struggling, you’re expected to deal with it on your own. That’s not how the Bible handles suffering. That’s not how God handles suffering. He’s God with us, even in hard times.
Two weeks ago, we looked inward and talked about dealing with our own grief, even our own anger at God or at ourselves at causing or allowing terrible things to happen. We have to be open and honest with God and with our community about deep-set hurt and anger, even if the conversation is unpleasant, and even if it makes things awkward. 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.
Last week, we looked to God and his part in terrible things, and we talked about how it’s complicated. God sometimes seems like an enemy, and if we’re honest, he sometimes does turn against us, only because we are not always working toward the kingdom. We make mistakes, and God only ever does what is right, and so sometimes the kingdom of heaven comes against us. 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, God destroyed his temple in Jerusalem, not because he was abandoning his people, but because he was going with his people into exile. Their homes were destroyed, so he destroyed his own home, exiled himself, in order to remain God with us. He’s still with us today, even when we are exiled, and even when we’re angry or grieving and think he’s an enemy or has abandoned us. He goes with us in our anger and grief.
This week, in the midst of pain, we see a stubborn, unbowed, almost contradictory hope in the faithfulness of God.
Go with me, Lamentations, chapter 3, starting in v.1, and I’m going to read through v.33. [Lamentations 3:1-33]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God, how vast are your thoughts? They are high, and we cannot attain them. Christ, we praise you because you are with us. Holy Spirit, come in our lives; show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
If you recognized any part of lamentations, you recognize what we just read. It’s a famous passage, and famous for a reason. It’s beautiful, and deeply meaningful. Throughout Lamentations, every poem we’ve read thus far has been a highly structured acrostic, like Psalm 119, each stanza of the poems we’ve been reading, in Hebrew, starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. When you get to chapter 3, it’s not just each stanza beginning with the next letter of the alphabet, but each verse of each stanza begins with the acrostic letter.
And that may seem like trivia, but I don’t think so. I think we seek structure in times of grief and uncertainty, like when the pandemic began everyone started baking and doing puzzles. We need, in times of pain, to follow exacting recipes, or find just the right piece—anything to feel like something is in order. So the structure of the poems in this book are a sign of pain. Pain and uncertainty. And in chapter 3, when the structure intensifies, that’s a sign for us that the pain and uncertainty of the author has intensified. This is the author of Lamentations at his most hopeless. This is him giving up, and in that valley, finding hope in God. Then, worth noting, even before the end of the poem, he plunges back into grief. Some sadnesses don’t just go away when you’re saved or when you are able to recognize the truth.
I want you to see the shift from the first two chapters to chapter 3. Up until now, the author, or the narrator, has allowed others to speak for him: the daughter of Jerusalem, and other characters. But now, starting in v.1, he’s speaking for himself: “I am the man.” We’re reminded again that the author of this text is not some disinterested observer trying to help the poor people through their grief, he’s one of them. He went through the siege, he starved, he was taken from his home.
I grew up in church singing v.23, seeing it on posters and banners. “God’s mercies are new every morning.” I would stand on the pew in between my parents and sing “great is thy faithfulness, O God, my father, morning by morning new mercies I see.” But these verses are almost out of place in those bright, happy memories. These verses of hope need to stand next to the verses of pain. This kind of hope is a nevertheless kind of hope, defiant of grief and pain.
As Christopher Wright puts it, “We should not allow either [hope or pain in the text] to diminish, still less dismiss the other….We trivialize pain if we set it all to one side and dig out the hope at the center.” Hope in the book of Lamentations, hope in Christianity in general, is not something that comes from being spared pain and grief. We don’t hope in God because our lives have gone well. And hope in Christianity is not something that covers over pain and grief. Hope is not even something that causes pain and grief to diminish in the least. Hope—real hope, when is rests on God—is simply unbreakable and not able to be taken away for long, like life from Christ himself. No matter how much pain and shame Jesus endured, he was always going to rise again. He is the source of life. Taking hope and life from Christ is like casting a shadow on the Sun.
So I don’t want to gloss over the first part of this text, because the language here is devastating, and we need to feel that. We need to join the author’s grief for a while, just as God joins with us in times of grief and anger.
The first two chapters of Lamentations graphically describe the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire, and here, in chapter 3, we see an equally gut-wrenching description of exile. Only now is what’s happened really sinking in. He’s carried away from the places he knows as a captive, beaten to the point of broken bones, underfed even after already enduring the starvation of the siege, v.7 he’s imprisoned, and he’s shouting prayers at God, but even shouting he feels like God can’t hear him. V.9, he doesn’t think he has a future, or if he does have a future its only to endure more pain. V.14, his captors mock him, they mock Israel in general, there’s nothing he can do to help the others around him who are also mistreated. And v.17 is when he breaks. This is not a triumphant story of a man enduring suffering. V.17, he says he has lost all hope and peace in his soul. He says, I’ve forgotten what good is like.
So I’ll ask you, what can you do when you’re beyond breaking? When you lost hope a long time ago? Is there anything left?
There’s a contrast here between two types of memory. In v.20, the author says he continually remembers everything he’s seen. He’s having flashbacks, memories are popping up of the terrible things he’s been through, and you know if you’ve ever been through terrible things, that those memories are relentless. Unbidden, un-asked for, they come to you and they can come to dominate your mind, where horrors are the only things you think about.
So again, what can you do when you’re beyond breaking? When you lost hope a long time ago? Is there anything to be done?
There is another kind of memory, the author writes, v.21, one that does not come easily. My bible translates the verse, “this I call to mind,” but the language there is language of struggle. I choose, I make myself remember. In Wright’s words, “It is the deliberate, determined, teeth-gritting decision to call something to mind.” “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore, I will hope in him.’” His soul is the one speaking these things because his mouth cannot.
And through all of that, my only point for this morning is this: when only God remains, he’s enough. When only God remains, he’s enough.
Hope in this passage is a contradiction—the author says both that he has no hope and that he will have hope in God. Hope is often a contradiction in us. We reach rock bottom before we learn to desire something else than the life we’ve lived. We fall to the very sin we most wanted to avoid, in front of the people we most wanted to impress, only there to realize the meaning of the word grace. We lose someone we care about, and God sits with us in the pain, waits until the pain is at it’s worst, until disillusionment and denial have passed, and we’re left with the raw truth of loss, past our breaking point, and then he tells us that there is hope in Christ. We usually don’t believe him. How could we? Hope in the midst of hopelessness is a contradiction of sorts.
The world is full of these kinds of contradictions, reminders of almost impossible truths, where down is the way up, and the lowest points in life are often what really enable us to live. It’s the hopeless moments that enable us to dispense with our childish notions of hope and grasp onto the real thing.
It reminds me of camping, and the realization, looking out onto a beautiful overlook, wanting to stay for days and realizing—you can’t. All the water is in the valleys.
And it reminds me of this summer, when we visited my brother. They have a community pool in an outdoor space, and it was large enough that we could distance. It was the first thing we had done in a public space for five months, so we went every day of our visit to swim. By the end of the week, my son had gotten to the point where he was venturing out into deeper waters swimming, but he couldn’t push his face up out of the water to breathe, so I taught him to do the very thing he was terrified of doing, I taught him to sink down beneath the water whenever he needed to take a breath, because if he sank all the way to the bottom, then he could push off the bottom with his feet and launch up to take a breath. At first he didn’t believe me. It was too counterintuitive, too contradictory to his experience that sinking down might be a way to come up for air, but eventually he tried it, and then he mastered it, and he did that for the rest of the day.
You see, he wasn’t strong enough to keep himself above the water. Both gravity and humanity’s fall dictate, the only direction we’re really able to go is down; he needed the ground to push up against him.
We see in our passage today that the Lord is the ground, that solid thing beneath the many things in life which overwhelm us.
I don’t know if you noticed this in the text, but it takes him until v.18 to admit the existence of God. This is common when we face grief, we want to keep God out of it. His presence in the midst of so much brokenness is too much for us to handle at first, but as soon as the author admits the name of the Lord into the poem, the text changes. It speaks, not of his sorrow, but of the hope he has in God. Over and over again, he says the name of the Lord, and praises God for his faithfulness.
I would invite you today, if you will, to admit that you are not strong enough to lift your face up for air. You can try, but eventually, depending on yourself, you’ll drown. You’re going to have to let yourself sink. It’s everything you were trying not to do, I know, but it’s the only thing that’s going to let you breathe again. In those places where you’re clinging onto feeble hopes to avoid drowning in grief, you’re going to have to let them go. We hope in our health, but eventually that will fail. In our strength, but the world is too heavy, in our ability to stay alive, but everyone dies. In the end, we’ll have to face lamentation. All other hopes fade. Only God remains, but he is enough.
I think of the New Testament story where Jesus teaches something everyone found offensive, and the crowds left him, everyone except for his friends, and he asks them whether they were going to leave as well, and in the text, they’re offended, too, Peter tells him, almost angrily, “To whom shall we go? Only you have the words of life.” I’ve prayed ever since to be a disciple of that sort, who seeks after Jesus, not because I agree with him, or approve of what he’s done, or because he might feed me and make some good things happen in my life. I want to be one who seeks him through adversity, because I have nothing besides him.
One of the most meaningful statements of our passage today is his reference to Numbers 8, a phrase repeated often in the scriptures: he writes, “the Lord is my portion.” And I won’t be able to do it justice, but I’ll try.
Lamentations is set at the end of the kingdom of Israel, the downfall. Numbers is set at the beginning of the kingdom, when they were determining the portions of the inheritance of the land for each family, land they would pass to their children for generations, land which would be their livelihood. Land, which, in Lamentations had just been taken from them. It would be like remembering, at the funeral of a friend, the first day you met.
And in this allotment of land, every tribe is given a piece, every tribe but one. The Levites, the priests, were told, the Lord is your portion and your inheritance. He will be your sufficiency. He will be what you pass on to your children. He will be how you survive, and he will be your hope for the future. Here, when all the land has been lost, this poet says of God, he is my portion. He’s telling the Lord, in the midst of calamity, you’re all I have. You’re all I have to live on, you’re all I have to hope in, you’re all I have anymore to pass to my children. You are my portion, and you are enough.
I wanted to end today just by reading a prayer I know I’ve read to many of you before, but it bears repeating. It’s adapted from a Puritan prayer called “The Valley of Vision.” The author writes:
Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see you in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I see your glory.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is a place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from the deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells, the brighter your stars shine;
Let me find your light in my darkness,
you life in my death,
your joy in my sorrow,
your grace in my sin,
your riches in my poverty,
your glory in my valley.