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The following sermon, preached on October 2nd, 2016, speaks into the eternal consequences of our actions. Is it OK to question God? Does God shine through in our darkest moments? Please click the play button on the audio widget below to listen to the sermon. (The audio can also be downloaded below, as a podcast.)
(Note concerning the audio: we apologize for poor audio quality! Thank you for your understanding.)
The text follows below.
(Note concerning the sermon text: the sermon text reflects the actual manuscript and was written to be spoken colloquially, not academically. It may contain grammatical errors such as run-on sentences, or special notation, etc. Thank you for your understanding.)
Lamentations 3:19–24 says,
“19 I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. 20 I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. 21Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. 23They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The Book of Lamentations. I said that Lamentations is a special book in the Bible; that’s because it is the only book in Scripture that consists solely of laments, or poems, that express grief or sorrow, often towards God. Right here in the middle of the Book of Laments, is where we find our passage this morning. And, because we’re in the middle of Lamentations, the book, or of the whole lament, you could say, we find Scripture at one of its darkest moments. But, At the darkest point imaginable, Scripture begins to focus here on the one thing that all of us too can cling to when things get very, very ugly, in our lives, and we ourselves are in the middle of lamenting. Right at the very darkest moment, Lamentations turns its attention to none other than the very goodness of God, and the Lord’s compassions—the only thing that remains good when everything else is crashing in=and then, God, God Himself, reveals His glorious goodness to us. So that will be the focus of what we are talking about this morning—the same focus as the passage itself—how God reveals Himself to us at the darkest moments.
OK, to start us off here, in verses 19 and 20—well, why are we reading sad things here? “My soul is downcast,” v. 20. Well we know it’s a lament, but in the context, we are actually reading the despair of when the city of Jerusalem lost, quote “all the treasures that were hers in days of old. When her people fell into enemy hands, [and] there was no one to help her. Her enemies looked at her and [even] laughed at her destruction”—Lamentations 1:7. So talking about the context— this passage is the destruction of Jerusalem, and its temple, and the resultant exile of God’s people, into the enemy country, Babylon. So this lamenter is a person who is really, rightfully lamenting—and, it is OK to lament or question to God—the Bible is full of it. Often times we think it is wrong to question God, but in fact the Bible actually encourages it, because all truth comes from God, and if we seek God with all our heart, we will find God, because of God (Jer 29:13)—why? Because God’s compassions never fail.
OK. So that is a bit about the context. Lamentations is sad because the people of God lost everything that there is to lose on this Earth.
So, now what I want to do is to share a story, because with this story, my hope is to communicate what we’ve been talking about— How God breaks through for us in these times of great tragedy, and really reveals the Gospel, His goodness, to us.
It’s a story about a man who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for, essentially, his Christian writings, which influenced and touched many many people. As we will see, these writings were the result of his lament, and questioning God, and when God revealed Himself in deep ways to this man. The man’s name was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: a difficult, but, fun name, for all of us to remember this morning. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist, and like I said, became Christian—but he became a Christian in the Soviet Union, at a time when his country was strictly opposed to Christianity. And so this is what Solzhenitsyn ends up writing copiously about—The Soviet Union hating Christianity.
As a young man, Solzhenitsyn witnessed terrible war crimes in the fight against Nazi Germany—he was a captain in the Soviet army fighting with the Allies against Germany. And what he saw there, and what he could not stop—the war crimes—forever darkened him. These were crimes committed against innocent German people, and they were crimes committed by his own comrades, and not by the Nazi enemy. The crimes are so disgusting that I cannot speak them from this pulpit. And so, because of this, God began to wake Solzhenitsyn up to the evil of the world, and Solzhenitsyn began to criticize the Soviets, for their anti-Christian policies. So in 1945, after the war, Solzhenitsyn paid the price: He was unfairly imprisoned in a forced-labor camp where he was (obviously) forced to work, as a miner and a bricklayer, for over eight years. And, even after this, he was subsequently exiled with a lifelong sentence, close to the border of Russia, all because of his protesting on Christian-moral issues. Solzhenitsyn’s life was crashing down.
So, here he was, in exile, almost like God’s people of old, in our Book of Lamentations, and this is where he too lamented: his soul became deeply and utterly transformed, by God, in lament, because he sought God, and God enabled Him to do so, and he found, because of God. This is what Solzhenitsyn would say about everything in his life, and the revolution in his country Russia, after he would go on to change the lives of countless others and win the Nobel Peace Prize, because of the Gospel: Quote “…While I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen…: [The old folks would often say:] “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our [Russian] revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, [repeat: 60 million killed, by anti-Christian Soviet Union], I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; [and] that’s why all this has happened.” End quote.
When people forget God, and the world crashes down, what if we all did what Solzhenitsyn does, and what the Lamenter does in our passage this morning? What if we sincerely and directly lamented to God? What if we questioned God, seeking God in our despair, and what if God breaks through, and reveals His goodness to us, and changes us forever, like Aleksandr?
Well this is exactly what happens in Verse 21 of our passage, where we read:“ Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: 22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. 23They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” In a world where God seems forgotten because everything is wrong, the author of Lamentations, looks to the Lord, remembers the LORD—and God reveals His goodness: the fact that God’s compassions never fail. This is extremely powerful—it is the most powerful moment in the Book of Lamentations—and I’ll say it now: this will also be the most powerful moment in your own life. When you put God, when we put God, first, despite of, or because of, terrible, terrible tragedies or situations in our lives, and God breaks through—this will be the most powerful moment of our lives.
And often times the question is: “How can God exist, if evil, or if disgusting behavior, happens in our world? How can God exist if human beings are allowed to do truly terrible things? God must be evil if God lets all this happen.” Right? Have any of you heard this? These are the kind of things we appropriately should be asking, like Solzhenitsyn, like the Book of Lamentations, shows us that we should be. We should all be questioning God—meaning seeking God during times of despair in our lives—because God’s compassions never fail. Jesus, the Son of God himself, does this—My God my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)—yet not my will—Jesus prays in Gethsemane—but yours be done (Lk 22:42). The point of the lament is to grow closer to God in our questioning, because God reveals more of Himself to us: when we seek out God as even He enables us do—and He does enable us—so will God, and the Gospel, begin to break forth, like we see in our passage, because His compassions never fail.
So, why does evil exist—and is it the case that God allows evil to happen—big question mark? In other words, why is there a lament in which God can reveal Himself deeply? God’s Word is quick to answer us on the question of evil. The answer is that God is holy and God is love: God cannot sin, or cause sin, or evil. Some theologians, by the way, are mistaken; they’re wrong, when they make God the sort of sovereign cause of all sin. Why are they wrong?—well because God cannot be a sinner, or one who causes sin—because God cannot be sinful. What people have done to other people in this world—what bad things people have done to you in your own life, and in my life—these are things done to people, by other people, and not things done by God. This is why we grow closer to God in lament for what people, or death in the world because of sin, have done. All people have sinned, says the Bible, Romans 3:23, and death came through sin, Romans 5:12, so death and sin are not from God, but from people, human beings: which is, by the way, why Jesus, the Word, had to become flesh, in order to condemn sin in the human being, and more on that in a moment.
Now what about God allowing evil to happen? This is a certainly something we should question in our lament, so that God will work deeply on our hearts. I can tell you about it but you won’t really know until God works on your heart, you see. Well, God does not just let evil happen. God does not just let bad accidents happen, either, by the way. Every single second, nanosecond by nanosecond, God is doing everything to prevent evil from happening. How do we know? Well it’s in God’s word. First let’s look in Lamentations, our own context this morning, chapter 3, verse 33: God quote “does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” End quote [x2]. And there’s way more. In the next book after Lamentations, in Ezekiel 33:11, God says “As surely as I live … I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” End quote. The point is that God takes no pleasure at any death, not even the wicked! 2 Peter 3:9 similarly says, God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” All throughout Scripture, there is just way too much, for us to not know that God is doing everything to stop evil, nanosecond by nanosecond.
Then why does evil still happen? And again, these are lament questions that I can answer, but only God can reveal Himself deeply to you so that you understand everything more deeply. Answer: well let’s look at our passage. Our passage says, “great is your faithfulness,” in verse 23. Many of us know that “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is a hymn that we often sing here. It is a Hymn based on this very verse here in Lamentations. Thomas Chisholm, from Baldwin Kansas—believe it or not, nearby here—wrote “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” as a testament to God in 1923. He was a sickly man his whole life, which prevented him from doing anything, really. And though he had every reason to be bitter over a lifetime with a crippling disease, morning by morning, he was still overwhelmed by God’s love and graciousness to him, which inspired him to write the song we know today, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” from Lamentations.
So the question is, is it the case that God allowed these bad things to happen to the writer of the hymn, Thomas Chisholm, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or the author of Lamentations? Well the answer is, again, something I can try to explain from God’s word, but really something that God must work in your own heart as you seek Him deeply. Answer: we live in a complex world, where we cannot possibly understand everything. There is an interplay between God, good and evil, sin and salvation, heaven and Earth, the Spirit living in me, the Son of God made flesh raising from dead—all these things are way too complex for us human beings to ever understand. This is essentially the answer God gives Job, at the end of the book of Job, Job chapter 38: We live in a complex reality, where there is a God, whose ways are far above our ways, and thoughts far above our thoughts. But when we feel completely forsaken by God, and everything evil and terrible has happened to us, listen to the same words of Jesus himself—My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? And yet, the Gospel, Great is Thy faithfulness, Jesus is raised from the dead—Jesus answers this question, and says, death does not have the last sting anymore.
Jesus is the answer to the question, because terrible things happened to him, God Himself in the flesh, and yet, by the power of God, He was raised from the dead, to end the cycle of death, to defeat this death, and to pay and guarantee, with the Holy Spirit, for you and I, that yes, we will do the very same thing, through Him, and not just only at death, but right now, because the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, is living inside of us, says Romans 8:11. It’s the Spirit of the Risen Lamb, the Risen Christ. And, the Spirit and power of God raising Jesus from the dead, this is, the message, and Gospel, of Lamentations, and sermon this morning. The ultimate realization of when, in the middle of the greatest lament and tragedy in the history of humanity, when it appears that Satan, sin and death have defeated God himself on the cross, God breaks through, and Christ is risen, He is risen indeed! Amen, hallelujah, thank you Jesus.
And I want to end this morning on this note. This is the message of our passage. God drives out the darkness in our lives. God stops it—God puts an end to it. God’s love drives out fear, depression, sinfulness, death, you name it, and God makes beautiful, His love, in the middle, right in the very middle, of the lament. And whatever you’re in the middle of in your own life, right now, this morning, saved or not saved, God can break forth, because his compassions never fail, and He wants more and more of you. If you are questioning God…good. Don’t give up. The enemy wants to keep you from God, but God defeated the enemy, way back at the cross, so don’t give up.