Big Idea: Christian Lament always move from Despair towards Hope
Intro: Morning friends and visitors. My name is Matt Johnson and this January we are looking at some of the Psalms of lament in the Bible. 42 of the 150 Psalms are lament or expressions of sadness before God. So lets pray…
Prayer: Well as we begin today – I want to show you a few words from James 4. (Slide 2: Jam.4:8-10). Well, this is the New Testament telling us there is A TIME for Christians to lament. But WHEN is that time to lament? Because if your laughing and full of joy, you’re not naturally lamenting. So when, should this passage apply and when should Christians choose to lament?
On the 16th January (each year; ie tomorrow) the United States stops to remember – Martin Luther King (Slide 2). He was a Baptist pastor who fought for the civil rights of black African people in the United States. The night before he was killed – he preached in MEMPHIS TENNESSEE. He was preparing African American Christians for difficulty and growing opposition in the days ahead. He was urging them to take a stand for Gods Word (because all people are made in the image of God). HE BEGGED THEM to be courageous, and attend the protests the following day despite huge, growing opposition. He said to the crowds; (Slide 2).
The first half of Martin Luther King’s sermon is largely A LAMENT about the hypocrisy of America in the 1960’s. But I think his words could be said today in Town Hall Sydney. I’m saddened to say this, but I think our nation is seriously sick. I think trouble is all around us and confusion everywhere. We can no longer distinguish man from woman. This is sick. But if we fail to see the problems, we will not lament. And if we do not lament (what God laments) we will stop being in step with God, and I suspect we will not act, when we need to act
In the second half of the sermon Martin Luther King talks about being stabbed in the chest at a recent book launch. He explains that the blade came so close to his heart, that if he had so much as sneezed – he would have died. He talks about 1) being thrown in Police Paddy Wagons, 2) being locked in jail in Birmingham and 3) having police dogs set on them in the streets, simply because he asked for African American’s to have equal rights in the States. THIS IS ALL VERY SAD. IT IS A LAMENT. Yet, despite the danger and growing opposition – King tells the crowds some things are worth protesting for. Some things are worth dying for.
Luther finishes the sermon saying (Slide 3 & 4). THE NEXT DAY Luther was shot dead at 39 years of age. But Luther’s lament, did not end in lament. Shortly thereafter, African Americans won the equality they longed for – and their hope began to be realised. Lament and sadness that DRIVES US to repent of sin, repent of apathy, trust God and take courageous steps of faith – is actually filled with hope, because everything is possible with God.
But before anything happens – there usually needs to be A GENUINE SADNESS over the things that make God sad. MLK was genuinely sad for African American sanitation workers who were still basically slaves. But if we don’t think things are that bad (with abortion, or the breakdown of the family; with little boys being raised as little girls, or old and mentally sick people being euthanised) – we’ll never do much in faith. But if we truly lament (and choose to lament) what God laments – we may in our sadness be convicted by God to do something courageous in faith. And then as God gives grace to those who humble themselves – we may discover that we can do more in Gods strength to share gospel truth – than we ever imagined.
Point 1: Biblical Lament arises from Recognizing a Lack in Ourselves
Show: Ps.42:1-5 (READ)
Explain: Well Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 – are intentionally put together. They both contain the SAME REFRAIN “Why my soul are you so downcast?” And together the two Psalms move in a normal biblical lament PATTERN from 1) despair, towards 2) some understanding and 3) then hope in God’s goodness. This is the normal shape of biblical lament – from despair to understanding (and faith), and then hope. BIBLICAL LAMENT – looks to comprehend sadness through our understanding of God, His promises and our choices, whether right or wrong.
So in this Psalm – the SONS OF KORAH (who started to lead temple worship in the days of King David) now write a song of lament – that is to be used in corporate worship. It is written in the first-person “I” and “my”. But you need to imagine the whole temple singing this song together. The song begins with all the worshippers acknowledging they find themselves thirsty for more of God.” They write in verse 1 – “my soul pants for you, O God, my soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” The song begins with Gods people acknowledging that they are experiencing AN ABSENCE of God’s goodness in their life. That is why they thirst. THEY LAMENT because there is some sort of lack of God in their human experience. They are not satisfied.
Now as we read on in Psalm 42, verse 2 – the people say when can I go and meet with God. Middle of verse 4, they talk about “how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God.” THE WORDS, “how I used to go” tell us the lamenting congregation is no longer going up to Jerusalem for the three main Jewish festivals. Now the only real explanation for the Jews not attending these three festivals – are that they are in exile.
So many scholars think this Psalm has its roots in Babylonian exile. Like Psalm 84 and Psalm 137 – the people are lamenting because they have reaped the judgment of God, through persistent disobedience.
Now we know the southern tribes of Israel were carried off as slaves to Babylon in 597BC because of sinful rebellion. Israel was warned by Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah that if they did not REPENT of their sins – they would be disciplined by God. Sadly, they did not repent and just before they were conquered; Jeremiah said to them (Slide 9: Jer.2:13; 19).
Notice, God accuses them of abandoning Him, the living water. Little wonder they now thirst. But will they recognize that their sinful choices are now disciplining them. Will they recognise their own apostasies are now reprimanding them. There is now a whole lot of lack in their life. 1) They thirst. 2) They can no longer worship God in the temple with joy and thanksgiving. 3) They are mocked by the Babylonians and 4) there is deep sadness and unease in their soul.
So they find themselves asking lots of why questions. Why, why, why, why has this happened? 10 times they ask the why question in just 2 Psalms, plus a few when’s and a few how’s. Now as Jeremiah 2:13 says the reasons they are suffering is simple. Its because they rejected God the spring of living water, that they now spiritually thirst. But the people are still trying to grasp this truth. In the lead up to Babylon conquering them – all sorts of false teachers have been tickling their ears saying peace, peace when there is no peace (Jer.8.11). The false teachers have been telling them – all the problems in their life just have natural and mechanistic explanations. Lamenting and repenting is not the answer. So Jeremiah has been completely drowned out.
So the Israelites now sit in Babylon – asking; 1) “Why are you so downcast O my soul? 2) Why must we be oppressed by our enemy? 3)Why has God forgotten us? 4) Why has God rejected us?” There is a finally a bit of SELF-REFLECTION and SELF-EXAMINATION taking place. Why did the bubble burst? AT ONE POINT, the people were full of God’s BLESSING and the next they seem to lack God’s blessing. So the natural reflexive question is why?
Illustration: It’s often said that people in this world all have a God shaped hole in their lives. That is – humans were made to have a relationship with God and experience the blessing of God. But in the absence of a relationship with God – we start to feel empty and we thirst for more in life. We often try to fill this hole in our life – with money, or with power or career or with alcohol. But at the end of the day, it’s a God shaped hole and so, only God can fill it and bring us peace.
Apply: Now of course, (GOSPEL) if you know there is a God-shaped hole in your life (and their is deep unease in your soul) the first thing to do is to accept Jesus as your Saviour and Lord. When Jesus died on the cross, he accepted the penalty for all our sins and wrongdoing, so that we could come back into a relationship with God – without fear of punishment. We don’t have to fear God’s wrath – because Jesus took the penalty for our sin. So the minute we put our trust in Jesus, say sorry to God and begin to repent – THE HOLY SPIRIT comes flooding into our life and begins to fill the God shaped hole. The Spirit begins to give us peace and joy and meaning. Now have you done that? A) Have you put your trust in Jesus, repented of your sins and received the Holy Spirit? B) Are you continuing to do that trusting in Jesus, repenting of your sin and being filled with the good things of God’s Spirit.
As I understand the Bible (that God-shaped hole – and that thirst) can re-emerge even in Christians if we take our eyes off Jesus and stop trusting him. If we neglect our relationship with Jesus, backslide in sin or become friends with the world – of course an unease comes back into our soul. God’s blessings come with obedience. Discipline comes with disobedience. And this is what Israel complains about in Psalm 42.
They lack God’s blessing in their life. But why?
Point 2: Biblical Lament knows there is no Lack in God’s ability to Give
Show: Ps.42:6-8 (READ)
Explain: Well, there is a great irony between the first and second stanzas of Psalm 42. In the first stanza – the people thirst and pant for water. In the second stanza – God has enough water to drown the world. The people think about ALL THE WATER running down from the snowy mountain heights from MOUNT HERMON and MT MIZAR. They think about THE JORDAN RIVER and OVERFLOWING WATERFALLS, even the WAVES and BREAKERS of the sea of Galilee. As they reflect on their sadness (and thirst) there is a recognition that there is no lack of water on God’s side to give. He has more than enough water, What’s more, God is a God of love and He wants them to praise Him. So why do they thirst?
One of the commentary’s I was reading said; (Slide 14). This is the POIGNANT QUESTION of the Psalm 42-43. Of course, the book of Job teaches us that sometimes the righteous just suffer. There is no answer to why? But that is NOT always the answer.
If it is true that adverse conditions are the ideal context for godly reflection – did we learn anything from the recent bushfires, the floods or the coronavirus pandemic? And if not, why not? What’s more, can you answer VanGeneren’s question? I mean (apart from the Job answer – woe is me I’m an innocent sufferer) – what are the biblical reasons that God’s people sometimes experience alienation from God in such a dramatic way? In verse 9 (the people ask) why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning oppressed by my enemy? Then we get the big one – end of verse 10 – WHERE IS YOUR GOD? I
t’s the taunt of the unbeliever. I actually heard some people ask this question in the midst of coronavirus? WHERE IS YOUR GOD. If God is real and God is good – where is He and why is this happening? That may be the most important question in the world, right now?
Apply: But the problem we now face is that we believe everything in the world has a NATURAL and MECHANISTIC explanation. Nothing is supernatural. Everything is just natural, mechanistic process – so there is no real point asking why? It’s just a spot of bad luck. Or its just climate change. The fact that I’m a miserable, discontent Christian – has nothing to do with the fact that 1) I am neglecting my quiet times, 2) letting go of a Christian worldview and 3) hiding unconfessed sin in my life. No. Its just anxiety. Everybody has it these days.
And yet, just before God led Israel into the Promised Land – He told them in Deuteronomy 28-29 that 1) OBEDIENCE would reap blessings and 2) DISOBEDIENCE would bring curses. If Israel followed God’s laws and principles they would reap all sorts of blessings that I think the western world has enjoyed for many years. But God also told them that disobedience would bring untold calamities. The first listed in Deuteronomy 28 is PLAGUE OR VIRUS. Then God talks about DROUGHT and a shortage of FOOD. Then God warns of WAR. He says there will be a LOSS OF COMPASSION and a BREAKDOWN of the family unit. God also says that if we reject His Word – there will be a sharp rise in MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES. I kid you not. Deuteronomy 28 says people will develop an ANXIOUS MIND and a DESPAIRING HEART. This is the penalty for disobedience. But God also promises in Deuteronomy 30 – that if the people lament, repent and turn back, He will restore them and bless them.
Now do you think Deuteronomy 28-29 is purely an Old Testament truth? You know the Jews get in trouble for disobedience, but not Christians? Remember the Jews were saved entirely by Gods GRACE from Egypt. But then in response to Gods grace the Jews were called to trust God and be obedient – with promise of blessing or threat of discipline. Now does that truth still apply to Christians? Remember the James passage said; “draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” What does drawing near to God look like – when you are already a Christian, like the people in the book of James?
Point 3: Biblical Lament draws us back to God and His Truth
Show: Ps.43:1-3 (READ)
Explain: Well the word vindicate in verse 1, is literally a word that has to do with God’s government. God judges the wicked and vindicates the righteous. Interestingly, all the old bible translations translate Psalm 43:1 – “judge me, O God” in terms of complete or finish your judgment on me. But all the modern Bible translations now translate it “Vindicate me, O God”, which carries the idea that I am a righteous sufferer like Job who needs to be vindicated because I have done nothing wrong.
So what conclusion has the congregation in Babylon reached. Why are they suffering? Are they suffering in Babylon because A) they are righteous, innocent sufferers like Job (living in a fallen world), OR B) are they wayward children who have reaped God’s discipline? Well they do seem to identify a cause behind their problems.
In verse 3 – they say “Send forth your light and your faithful care, let them guide me. Let them bring me back to your holy mountain.” This word “LIGHT” is always linked to the truth of God’s Word. Gods word is a light unto our path and a lamp unto our feet. Also, the words “FAITHFUL CARE” are always linked to the truth of Gods covenant. So what the people are acknowledging is that THE REASON they thirst, and their souls are downcast and they are in exile – has to do with a loss of God’s truth and Gods Word. So they ask God to send forth his light again – acknowledging this will guide them – back to God’s holy mountain and back into God’s blessing – where they will have JOY, DELIGHT and PRAISE God with the harp. Look at verse 4. (Slide 17).
Apply: Friends, it is true that as Christians we are saved entirely by God’s grace. Salvation is not something we earn by being good. Salvation and forgiveness is Gods gift when we accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Then God says trust me and obey me – and I will bless you in the journey to heaven.
But disobey me on the journey to heaven and there’s going to be some tough love and discipline to keep you on the narrow path. Now inevitably as sinners there are going to be times when 1) Christians make bad choices, 2) we backslide in the faith or 3) we start to let go of a Christian worldview. There will also be times when whole nations do it – like Australia and America are doing right now. The western world is rejecting God’s Word. Now we may not be able to do much about our nation rejecting God’s Word except lament. But I think we should perhaps now lament. The very worst thing our country could do is reject God’s Word. That’s DIRE. Seriously! God tells us in the Bible to choose life or death. And Australia is now choosing death. If you have a biblical worldview – that’s what’s happening. So it really is now a time to lament (as James tells us). ITS TIME to turn our laughter into sadness, REFLECT on our sorrows – and God may actually show us some things we need to sort out ourselves in the church. I think our country is so rapidly departing from God’s Word right now – to think the church and Christians are not compromised in any way – is probably a mistake. LET ME REMIND YOU of James words to the Christian church yet again – as we finish.
Show: James 4:4-8 (READ)
Apply: Friends, its natural that we want to remain friends with the world. The church has had this privilege for many years in the west. But right now, there is a lot of DANCING going on as we try to remain friends with an increasingly wayward world. That concerns me. As your pastor and friend – I urge not to join in that dance. Keep your head. Given the decisions our world is now making, (given the decisions some of our friends and family are making) – it is going to become harder and harder to remain friends with the world – without implicitly rejecting God and His Word. I think that’s going to hurt. I think its going to require courage and conviction and sacrifice.
And I LAMENT, that I don’t have better answers to this, except to say we may need to lament. But the promise of God – is that if we humble ourselves in confusing times and lament 1) the blood on our hands and 2) the hypocrisy in our double-mindedness – God will give us the grace we need to guide us home and to lift us up. THAT’S GOD PROMISE. I don’t really know what is happening right now. I have more questions, than answers? But whatever, happens in the world – I know that if we humble ourselves and sincerely DRAW NEAR TO GOD A) through faith in Jesus and B) the ordinary means of grace – of Bible, prayer, church and repentance from sin – God will draw near to us. To those who choose the path of humility God promises to give us the grace to bring us home and to lift us up. Is it time for us to lament?