Lamentations; Revelation 21:1-7

Revd Dr Mark Bratton
Sunday 03rd August, 2014

I wonder what the word ‘lament’ means to you. Rather like the word ‘naughty’, which, a few centuries ago, meant ‘wicked’ or ‘really wicked’, the word ‘lament’ has lost something of its linguistic force. Nowadays, it tends to conjure up with a rather anodyne ‘what a pity’, or a Dan Maskell-like ‘oh dear’. We tend to use it to mean an expression of regret or disappointment about something, or a complaint. However, lament, in the biblical sense, which underpins its primary meaning I think, means a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.

Psalm 137 is perhaps the most famous biblical lament. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion”. However, as the new Bishop of Leeds pointed out last Thursday on Thought for the Day, Boney M massacred these words of terrible lament with a catchy tune and boppy little disco number. Even worse, the Barron Knights then transmuted them into the medical context: “There’s a dentist in Birmingham; he fixed my crown; and while I slept, he filled my mouth with iron.” Actually, the words of psalm reflect the shocking predicament of a community which has lost everything: its home, its land, its law, its many of its offspring, dislocated by a mighty conqueror into a foreign land. In fact, the context of Psalm 137 is the same one framing our OT reading from the Book of Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah.

Whoever wrote it, there is general agreement that this collection of poetic laments for the destruction of Jerusalem, reflects the immediate aftermath of its demolition in 586 BC at the behest of the mighty Babylonian emperor, Nebuchadnezzar. These poems emerge out of an experience of desolation. At one level, they are an elegy for the loss of a city. At another, they constitute a funeral dirge for the death of God. Immediately before the devastation, it had been widely assumed that Jerusalem was impregnable, and that its tribal God Yahweh was invincible. After Jerusalem fell, leaving the Israelites without land, city, or dwelling place for God, it meant that God was either indifferent to Israel’s plight, or impotent, or non-existent, at least according to one logic. Nevertheless, this is not the logic embedded in the laments of Lamentations or the Psalms. There are a number of basic assumptions about God which underpin the lament and which point to a better future.

Firstly, the lament acknowledges the reality of the disaster. It admits that things are truly awful. “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is”. No truer word could be said of the children of Syria in Lyse Doucet’s recent moving documentary, the abandon of childhood dragged from under them, like a magician’s tablecloth, leaving them with a bleak, featureless future. They have forgotten what happiness is. They are, of course, the innocent victims, of forces beyond their control.

Secondly, a lament concedes that God is ‘in the facts’, that God has judged, and may even have abandoned, the community: “Gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.” It is open to the possibility that God may simply have had enough, that God’s patience has finally run out.

Thirdly, biblical lament is searingly honest. It brings to God the full force and impact of human suffering and distress. “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.” It frankly admits the horror and helplessness of our predicament. Perhaps it’s because our culture has lost the biblical art of lament, that for many a gap between faith and life has opened up. In spite of our stringently psycho-therapeutic culture, we are strangely mute in the face of disaster. Unlike our forebears, steeped in the language of the King James Bible and Prayer Book, we have become emotionally inarticulate in the face of calamites that challenge our fundamental assumptions about the meaning of life. Someone has noted that our liturgies strangely make very little space for lament given the contents of the Old and New Testaments. Why has lamentation dropped from prayer and worship? Perhaps it’s because the Church of England has become less Christian in this respect, aligning ourselves with an ethic of Stoicism, rather than emotional honesty before God. The Church needs to bear some of the blame for this and form part of the solution.

Fourthly, and finally, lament leads to petition and expressions of hope, confidence and trust:

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. For the Lord will not reject for ever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone.”

The lament gives no explanation why humans can cry in distress to God, or why God should be concerned with this distress. Yet in most of the biblical laments, the cry of distress leads to an experience of trust. In children, the cry of distress contains the petition inherent in it: “Feed me. Change me. Comfort me”. In adults, it is different. The cry of distress leads to petition: “Good Lord, deliver me.” It would be very interesting to know whether the other religions of the Near East contemporary with Israel had a similar language of lament. Did the other religionists assume as Israel did that they could appeal to God and assume that their god or gods were concerned with their distress? And if they could, what was the basis for this conviction?

I suggest that for Israel, the assumption that there is a caring God who will respond to the cry of distress is rooted in Israel’s experience. It is rooted in the memory that God had in Israel’s past responded to the cry of distress (read the opening of the Book of Exodus) and provided a way out of the appalling predicament. And this memory was soon to be reinforced in Israel’s memory, when God once again led the Israelites out and back to their homeland after their exile. A lament, as well as being an act of emotional honesty, is also an act of faith, rooted in the conviction that the God who has acted in the past, will act again, to preserve his people as an identifiable force in the world.

There is much to lament in the world at the moment. Our commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War, “the war to end all war”, as HG Wells disparagingly put it, invites a lamentation of the dead, for futures lost, promise unfulfilled, the flower of a generation despoiled. The cycle of violence continues, the cycle of tit-for-tat endures. Our solidarity with the suffering of the living, whether in Gaza, or Ukraine, or Syria and Iraq, calls for the lament of affliction, reaching out for life, while imploring God for relief from affliction.

We need to recover the art of lament, especially in these distressing times, because to lament is a fundamentally an act of faith. To lament is to affirm, in the crucible of distress, in oppression, anxiety, pain and peril, that love has the final word, that the God who has acted in the past to redeem, will do so once again, and again, until he acts finally, to transfigure the world, where he will dwell with us, be with us, wiping every tear from our eyes, where death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more.

AMEN.

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