I want this morning to focus on Lamentations, in part because it is a gem of a book and in part because it has become unfamiliar: a lost treasure. The Lamentations are a collection of five poems written in response to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian empire in 587 BC. The Babylonians had besieged Jerusalem, on and off, for twenty years; culminating in a lengthy siege that prevented food from entering the city, until people were dying in the streets, pressed so hard that cannibalism was on the table at least as a serious option. After the fall, the ruling class were carried off into exile in Babylon to the east, while many others fled to Egypt to the south. It was the very undoing of the Great Story that began with the Call of Abraham (way out east) and pivoted on the Exodus out of the land of Egypt. It was a disaster we cannot imagine, not because there is nothing comparable going on in the world today, but because we have hardened our hearts to the images on our tv screens.
This took place almost 400 years after king David, who was known as a writer of psalms. And among his most famous psalms, then as now, was the one we know as the twenty-third. Here, David, who had looked after his father’s sheep as a young boy, took up the rhythms of the flock as a metaphor for human life. Just as the sheep were under the care of their shepherd, so were God’s people under God’s care. The shepherd sought out pasture for the sheep, leading them along the right paths in search of grass. When the low winter pasture wore thin, the high summer meadow beckoned, the flat table-top hills covered with wild flowers like a banquet table spread with the finest of fare.
The journey was steep, up narrow paths along the edge of the wadi or channel cut by flash floods in the spring rains. Moreover, hungry predators hid in the rocks — lions and bears. The sheep couldn’t see them; but could smell them. And yet they followed the shepherd on the path because he carried a crook, to press against their flank and steer them away from the drop; and a club for driving back predators.
At the end of the trail, the shepherd would run his hand over the sheep, parting the wool in search of cuts and sores picked up on the way, pouring on healing oil where needed, before sending the sheep out into the meadow. By day, the shepherd would keep a look-out for predators; and by night he would bring the sheep into the safety of the pen, sleeping in the entrance as a human gate in order to protect them.
That is the story of the twenty-third psalm. And, of course, it isn’t about sheep but about a people, and their long history of being led by God. How God had taken a people down to Egypt when there was famine in Canaan; had provided for them under Joseph (of technicolour dream coat fame); how the provision there had eventually worn thin under a new Pharaoh; and how the Lord had led them out and through the wilderness, watched over by the shepherd Moses; and brought them into a land flowing with milk and honey. How that land had been contested many times, and how God had raised up judges and later kings to lead the people through adversity into freedom when they cried out for a deliverer.
But the kings that came after David were bad shepherds, almost to a man. And eventually, God had had enough.
I tell you this because the third poem, the one at the very heart of Lamentations, contains a breath-taking inversion of the twenty-third psalm. The writer says of God, ‘I expected protection, but you have beaten me with your club. I expected to be brought through the dark valley, but you have taken me there to ambush me. I expected your healing hand over me, but you have broken my bones and made my flesh waste away. You have blocked my ways and made my paths crooked. Far from delivering me from the lion and the bear, you, o God, have become the bear and the lion, carrying me away and tearing me to pieces. Instead of a banquet table honouring me in front of my disgraced enemies, you have filled me with bitterness and made me the laughing stock of my enemies. Where I expected that you would restore my soul, my soul is bereft of peace; and where I proclaimed that I shall be in want of no good thing, all I had hoped for from you, Lord, is gone. In place of still waters, tears flowing without ceasing. In place of the sheep pen, the pit of death.’
The twenty-third psalm is in the Bible; but so is Lamentations chapter 3.
The twenty-third psalm speaks truthfully about our experience of life; as does Lamentations chapter 3. This is how it feels at times, and that needs expression.
And it is in this context that we hear the words that were read out this morning. It is in this context that the writer calls to mind the character of Yahweh, the Lord:
a God of never-ceasing, abundant steadfast love (verses 22, 32); of mercy (22); of faithfulness (23); of goodness (25); of compassion (32).
You see, there is a difference between our perception of God — however seriously we need to take that — and what God has revealed to us in word and action.
Life is very complex, and, at times, incredibly messy. And there are easy answers that fall short of that complexity, that sound wise but are in fact simplistic. This is equally true of the clichés of religious faith and the clichés of those who reject God. And then, on the other hand, there is the hard-won response of true simplicity, that lies on the far side of the complexity and mess. Simple does not mean easy: it takes effort to keep returning to the self-disclosure God has shared with us:
‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.’ (Exodus 34:6, 7)
The unfaithfulness of the people had consequences not only for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. We recognise that in the complexity of our own society, and of the world we live in today. But the Lord does not abandon us for ever (indeed, the power of God’s love exceeds that of our folly as a thousand exceeds three and four). There is hope: that, if we consent, God will walk alongside us, will train us in the ways of righteousness as an experienced ox trains the young ox it is yoked with. Another agricultural image from this poem, from the part we heard read out.
Of course, we also heard two other passages read out today. How do they relate together? Might I suggest they do so in this way:
Jesus points us to the Lord in the miracles we saw in our Gospel reading, in the face of a complex world in which some people live with chronic illness and children die;
and Paul points us to the Lord in seeking to raise support for a community hit by famine.
For some, these contexts are reasons to turn our back and walk away. But as a community of faith we are called to look to God in the real world. And if we are going to do that, Lamentations is a resource within our faith tradition that will greatly help us, a treasure in our possession we might need to rediscover that we even have. You’ll find it more-or-less at the very middle of the Bible, and I commend it to you. And if my recommendation is not enough, might I add that of Jesus? When the Romans were threatening to destroy Jerusalem all over again (they finally did this in AD 70) Jesus turned to this very passage from Lamentations 3 and the image of bearing the yoke to proclaim that, yes, indeed, God has not forgotten us (see Matthew 11:25-30). And in a world that falls apart around us on a fairly regular basis, that might just be good news.