This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on October 2nd, 2016.
Lamentations opens with the personification of Jerusalem as a woman widowed, abandoned in death by her husband. Who is her husband? Her husband is YHWH who, though not dead, has given over his people to suffering. The lament announces abandonment, the deep grief of one alone in anguish. This book of poems was likely written soon after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, a time when the wounds of sorrow were still raw with hurt. Such an abandonment by God to a foreign power not only weighed the Israelites down with grief over the death of her people; it also called into question God’s place in the pantheon of godly powers. Grief is thus expressed over the physical desolation of the city and the diminishing of YHWH’s covenant faithfulness. Once the symbols of God’s covenant faithfulness: land, temple, and king were now the symbols of all that was lost. Israel’s life with God is now broken, as is their place among the nations. The people of God, the lament asks? Are they the bride of YHWH, a queen among the nations? No, they are now a widow and a slave.
To explicate this point clearly, the Hebrew text uses the word translated “queen” in verse one. This is the same word used for Abraham’s wife, Sara. Jerusalem is no longer the bride of the promise, wed to the fulfillment of God’s covenant to make them a people within the land. Instead, that covenant appears abandoned, as they are abandoned to the grief of exile.
Verse two presents the corporate response of the city, the grieving widow. What is the response of the people in their abandonment? Their response is deep grief. Jerusalem looks in verse two for comfort and love. The nation searches for friends, but none exist. There is only the mocking presence of friends turned to enemies. In whom can Jerusalem put their trust? There is no one present for them.
Verse three describes the torment over Jerusalem’s untethering. Israel’s identity, previously experienced as anchored in the land of promise, is now ripped from under their feet. They are untethered from the land, set adrift in exile and in relation to YHWH. The people of God dwell now among the nations, a people of no place, a people of no Sabbath, no rest within the world.
Thus, verse three describes movement away from the holy city, away from the Promised Land. Transitioning to verse four, the author laments the absence of movement toward the city and land. The roads leading to Zion now grieve in their abandonment. No people traverse their trails toward the festivals that celebrate YHWH’s presence and power. The gateways no longer call the people home. Instead, they bemoan the city’s emptiness. As the people are absent from the corporate worship of the festivals, so the priests groan with the abandonment of their role to lead the people to YHWH.
Verse five communicates the tragic reversal that exile embodies. Once the Israelites were not a people, enslaved to another in Egypt. Now they move again into the tragedy of identity loss. Once, the bride of the covenant freely followed YHWH toward the Promised Land. Now they are dragged away from that promise upon the tether of enslavement. Enemies are now their masters. They are captives once more.
Verse six concludes this section of the lament with a summation of all Israel has lost. Now, even their princes find no place. They flee before their pursuers rather than follow faithfully where YHWH leads. The promise of a king is now lost. The promise of land is now forgotten. The promise of temple worship is now abandoned.
The application of this sermon, in the context of this entire sermon series beginning in Lamentations and ending in Joel 2:23-32, allows one the opportunity to trace the arc of redemption as told through Israel’s story with God. This is the foundation of Christ’s coming, through which this story finds its fruition and fulfillment. Such a sermon series allows a congregation to re-engage the movement of their own life with God through this story, starting in Lamentations with disorientation over their own sin and its consequences. Such a confrontation with sin is necessary if a congregation is to engage in the faithful application of hope toward Joel’s vision of life and land indwelled with the presence of the Spirit.
What direction might this sermon take as the first step in retracing the redemption narrative? One might apply this text through a doctrinal sermon. Such a sermon could focus on the God’s faithfulness to covenant promise in the midst of a broken world. Such a sermon might reinforce the already and not yet nature of God’s Kingdom through the lens of the Biblical narrative of enslavement and exodus. Inherent to such a sermon is the deeply personal application of God’s promises for people in all times and places. One might answer this application question, “does God keep his promises to me?” The answer to such a question must start from within the large story of redemption, focusing down on communal and individual circumstances. Lamentations gives a framework for such an application.
Alternatively, this text can function to teach a congregation to engage the language of lament. This text can give guidance to the church to relate to God communally and personally when in the midst of grief and brokenness. This is frank language of disorientation, learning to relate to God from within a reality that is not as it should be. This passage may help a congregation find their own voice of lament.
Matt Walton, D.Min.
Associate Pastor of Missions & Spiritual Formation
Southland Baptist Church, San Angelo, TX
Tags: lament, covenant, suffering, grief, exile, redemption, israel