For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 4 – Lamentations 3:22-33 (Related)
In this podcast at the start of this year I introduced a two-parter on Lament, and I made the point that this is something of a forgotten art in the church today: ‘We don’t lament, we just whinge!’ Today our lectionary invites us to revisit lament, but, needless to say, in a nice way, where we focus on the few positive verses in this otherwise unremittingly miserable book. This passage, the inspiration for the hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ comes at the midpoint of the lament, and while it offers another view and some hopeful faith in God, it isn’t the book’s last word.
Verse 21 introduces this change of mood with the word ‘I’: ‘This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope’. But who is ‘I’, exactly? If we explore that question, we will discover something important about lament and about ourselves. We need to go back to 3:1, although it isn’t easy to explore the identity of ‘I’ in that verse, since in the TNIV the word is hardly there: ‘I am one who has seen …’ the Hebrew word translated ‘one’ is geber, which is usually translated not just as ‘one’ but actually as a mighty warrior, a man who is supposed to protect and defend others. But rather than managing to do that, ‘I’ have been afflicted, driven out and sickened.
Behind this little word come the feelings of every goalkeeper who has let in a penalty, every parent who has seen a child suffer and felt that somehow they ought to have done something to prevent it, every soldier wounded and defeated in battle, and perhaps every priest who has seen their church age and decline and simply could do nothing about it. If the traditional attribution of this book to Jeremiah is correct, it is easy to see how he might have seen himself as the geber, the prophet, the mighty man of God, whose calling was to warn the nation about disaster in order that it might be averted. Geber isa word full of shame and guilt. It was up to me to sort this, to protect others, to make it all go away, and I failed. Completely. I had one job …
No wonder there is an attempt to blame God for this failure. Even his prayers went unanswered: God was out to get him, and there was nothing he could do to fight back. But then comes the nice bit, and in the passage set for us there is hope in spite of the previous chapters, and interestingly, in spite of the two remaining chapters, which return to lament as potent as that in the first two. So are our verses a defiant expression of trust in God, even though they are wrapped up and almost overwhelmed by hopelessness? Or are they a shoulder-shrugging resignation: if I don’t somehow cling on to God, I’ve got literally nowhere else to go. Or are they a triumph of the true over the real: nothing in me experiences these verses as how things really are, but my faith is mature enough to know that they are true, whatever I may be feeling at this moment. We don’t know, and in a sense they’re not the point of the book, nor of lament in general, otherwise they would have formed the climax to the book, not just a slightly less painful interlude at tis centre.
This is a word, I believe, for all of us who feel that we have been failures. It is an invitation to acknowledge that sense of having blown it, to sit in silence and feel the pain, to bury our faces in the dust. It is not really a passage of certainty: like Joel 2:14 there is that motif of ‘Who knows? God might just do something if we lament enough’. V.29 brings the uncertain feeling that there may yet be hope, but it isn’t guaranteed.
Our culture, and our Church, is not good at this. We try to blame failure on anyone or anything but ourselves. Church is declining because of Sunday Trading, or mini-rugby, or anything but us. You can’t expect anything different nowadays … you’ve heard all the excuses. This passage invites us to the paradoxical freedom of admitting our failure, of having become broken when we ought to have been the strong defender, of sitting in the dust without moving on too quickly to the happy ending. And it’s a reminder that it is God, not us, who are ultimately the faithful ones.
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