To be the People of the Bible, as Christians are rightly known, two things are necessary. The first is to know the biblical story, the second is to recognize that story as our own. Today’s readings include a vital part of the Bible’s story that is rarely noted by the modern mind even though it constitutes a significant part of modern life. The Book of Lamentations is a tiny part of the Hebrew Scriptures but is still the hinge on which the whole Biblical story swings in a new direction. Its story can also represent the same sort of hinge in our personal, family, community, church and national life as well. Although the book is short it took a long time to write it. Listen to the story of writing Lamentations and see how it is our story as well.
The book began to be written in the dim and misty time of Abraham some two thousand years before the birth of Jesus. When God called Abraham into service he gave the patriarch two things: a purpose that was to be a source of blessing to the world and a hope which was for a special life giving relationship with God. With those promises Abraham set off on the spiritual journey we continue today. He went into Canaan and his descendants continued into Egypt where they eventually became slaves. God gave those poor souls the great experience of escape and new life, what we call the Exodus. It was an experience of hope writ large and realized. God also gave them the Law, which affirmed their purpose of being a source of blessing to others. The escaped slaves became a nation and, as is often the case, got hope and purpose mixed up. They became more aware of what they wanted from life than what they were expected to put into it. The symbolic moment of this confusion was their desire for a king, someone to fight their battles for them, someone to let them be like other nations. Of course, a people who are to be a source of blessing to the world are unique and cannot be like other nations, but they got their king anyway. In those days rulers were anointed rather than crowned and held the title “Anointed One.” The Hebrew word for that is masach.
The kings and people believed in what we would probably call ‘Judean Exceptionalism.’ They were sure that God would take care of them because of the special relationship promised to Abraham and his descendants. While their hopes were clear, their purpose became murky. God sent them warnings in the form of prophets who had various expressions but only one message: “You are getting it backwards.” Purpose precedes hope because what we hope for is only found by fulfilling our purpose. Our special relationship with God is realized when we act as a source of blessing for others. The people and their kings did not listen – but they did continue to hope that God would take care of them no matter what they did or did not do. The focal point of that expectation was Jerusalem. Surely God would not let anything happen to the Holy City! But in 587 something did happen. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the Book of Lamentations that had been taking shape since the call for a king was finally put on paper.
Lamentations is the biblical equivalent of rock bottom, the realization that things have gone terribly wrong. What should they do in their sorrow, they asked. The answer is found in today’s lesson, “wait for the Lord.” As if the Lord had not been present all along giving them the experience of hope realized, giving them the law to keep their purpose before them, providing prophets to call them back to the purpose on which their hope was founded. They determined to wait for God’s Anointed One, God’s masach, to guide them. Over the years the harsh Hebrew word was softened by the influence of the Greek language so that masach became our word ‘messiah’ and the rest, as they say is history. It takes a long time to get to rock bottom. It takes a long time to write the book of Lamentations.
The Bible’s story is our story as well. Every birth and every marriage, the establishment of every community, church and nation are attended by promises of both purpose and hope as was the call of Abraham. And we, like our spiritual ancestors, find it hard to keep those two gifts in proper sequence. We, like the Hebrews, tend to let hope precede purpose; what we want out of life to take precedence over what we are expected to put into it. God sends us prophets that we find difficult to hear.
Individuals who have dealt with addiction or those who should be are surrounded by signs indicating that the path they are on does not go where they want to be. Headaches, car wrecks, clothes that don’t fit, salaries that no longer stretch, excuses that become lies are all prophetic signs. We all know about the process of aging, we know the road and where it will end but some wrap themselves in a defiant hope that aging is not happening in spite of what our prophetic bodies and minds are telling us.
Families and other deep relationships are founded on valuable and vulnerable conversations. The busyness that supplants those conversations or the trivia that infect them are whispering prophets calling us back to our original reasons for being together.
Our communities are polarized into like-minded gatherings where agreement is the coin of the realm. We forget that it is wisely said that if two people agree on everything, one of them is not necessary. No slice of life, no matter how gratifying, can contain the whole of truth. Our differences are life giving and we have no hope of finding harmony and peace without dealing with our differences. Constant affirmation is a prophetic caution.
Churches are the current champions of exceptionalism, believing to our core that God will certainly take care of God’s own – namely us. We feel as sacred as Jerusalem, forgetting what a poor prospect that analogy provides. The fact is that God does not need churches or cathedrals. But churches and cathedrals need God. We miss that point to our peril. Pious confidence is itself a warning even as it gives us comfort.
Our nation is in an election year when we might listen carefully to hear how hope and purpose are being treated. Is the emphasis in election rhetoric on what we can get from our national life or what we have to contribute to it? Political promises speak volumes about our sense of purpose.
What do you see, hear, sense and feel? Are we getting it right or backwards? Have we allowed hope to take precedence over purpose or are we as individuals, families, communities, churches and a nation fulfilling our purposes in such a way that our hopes are being realized? Are we writing our own Book of Lamentations and if so how far along are we?
It takes a long time to write a Book of Lamentations. But it is important to remember that by God’s grace it does not have to be written at all.